Saturday, September 26, 2009

Linking, Demands, and Bookselling

A minor kerfuffle arose yesterday over the news that Barnes & Noble has been asking -- or demanding, or threatening, or cajoling, or whatever, depending on how many levels of gossip the story had run through, and who was telling the story -- authors to link to as well as other online booksellers, on pain of B&N possibly not carrying that author's books in their stores.

The story broke originally on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books -- which has many good points, but is sadly very prone to hysterical over-reaction and groupthink, as if they're determined to prove all of the cliches about romance readers true -- with a typically high-dudgeon outraged rant. (Don't get me wrong; I enjoy outraged rants, and have perpetrated many of them myself. But I thought this one was severely beside the point, and could be actively harmful to authors who follow that line of thinking.)

I posted some quick comments on the story -- on Twitter, on the GalleyCat story, and replying to some comments on Facebook -- but didn't have a chance to sit down and run through it more carefully until now.

I do appreciate that authors are upset; B&N is a huge chunk of the retail book business in North America, and the possibility of loss of access to that is a frightening prospect. It's also important to note that the story is coming out at fourth-hand: B&N talked to publishers, who talked to authors, some of whom who complained to third parties, some of whom then publicized the story. So there has been plenty of room for nuance and detail to be lost along the way.

I need to tread lightly on this subject; I am a marketing manager for books for a major publishing house, and my colleagues and I have been hearing similar messages from several major accounts for some time now. I'm not going to discuss anything proprietary or specific to my company, just the general outlines of the situation.

But I really don't think this is a big deal. Booksellers are all trying to maximize their reach, and they're continually looking at what they're putting their resources behind and re-justifying those resources. They think like businesspeople, because they are businesspeople. Authors, on the other hand, usually don't think that way, and don't like to consider themselves in business.

But they are. Each author is the proprietor of a small business -- some are larger than others, of course -- and small businesses need to keep an eye on their major customers. For most authors in North America, those major customers are, in vague order of importance: B&N, Amazon, Borders/Walden, Books-A-Million, Indigo/Chapters. (The precise order varies by genre and specific author, but those are the players in their rough sequence.) And if B&N is your most important customer -- and, for a huge number of authors, it is -- you need to pay attention to what that customer wants.

As all small businesspeople know, customers aren't always rational, and their demands/requests not always reasonable. But this request/demand -- that, if an author is linking to booksellers on her website, that she include this bookseller as well -- strikes me as being in everyone's best interest. The author links more widely, and possibly gets more sales. The booksellers are treated equally, and each get a piece of the online sales.

Now, I may be more sanguine about this situation than most; I've been pushing books (through a great group of reps) to various booksellers for two years now, and I think I've had precisely one book that even managed to get to an all-stores level at both B&N and Borders. So I've internalized a lesson that a lot of editors, authors, agents, and other publishing folks don't like to think about: there's no guarantee that any account will take any book. The accounts make the decisions on whether to carry a book or not; we don't. We can pitch, we can sell, we can bounce up and down with enthusiasm, but, in the end, it's their decision. I do a lot of books that go to "top stores" at major accounts, and some that don't even manage that. That does make those books tougher to sell...but not impossible. But if an account tells you that they really want X -- and X is something that's pretty simple for you to do -- you'd have to be a fool, or a martyr, not to do X.

So, authors: if you have web presences, you need to decide about your links. You can link to a wide variety of booksellers, or to none. But linking to one or two is just going to get the others mad at you -- and you want those booksellers to like you, and to want to sell your books. Ask your particular publishers what the concerns are in your case -- all buyers and all accounts are not equal, and some are tougher on this subject than others -- and make a smart decision accordingly. And, most of all, remember that the point is to get more copies of your books into more hands, so more connections and sales outlets is better.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I was really surprised at how upset people got at this. I don't have a book out yet so only do minor reviews, but I link to more than one place with those reviews. It's not just the sellers you have to think about, but the buyers. I know some people who refuse to shop Amazon, so only having an Amazon link just isn't helpful. As an author, I would think it would be even more important to give your visitors a choice of where to buy.

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