Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Marketing 101: Getting Into the Right Shelf Category

This occasional series of posts will continue when I have something to write about -- as always, suggestions are welcome, either in comments or e-mailed to me directly. Today, some thoughts sparked by various references online to books that "bookshops were unsure where to shelve."

Chain stores are never unsure where to shelve a product -- it comes in already planned to go in a very particular place, whether that product is a book or the thirty-seventh new flavor of Coke. And what that means is that the decision on shelving -- both whether the chain will carry that product at all, and where it will be placed -- is made long before the product arrives in stores, and is made at the corporate level.

To talk about books specifically, since that's what I know, every section in a bookstore has a buyer responsible for it. The bigger the chain, the more likely that buyer will have only a small number of sections, and that the buyer will be an expert in those areas. For a small chain, though, a single buyer may handle all fiction categories, plus narrative nonfiction and cookbooks, and will not be deeply familiar with all of the subcategories she has to buy for. [1]

And so, in a way that can seem counter-intuitive to people who aren't in the business, the biggest chains are the best at buying in a broad range of categories, because they're big enough to employ lots of experts to cover those categories. [2] But even when they're smart and knowledgeable, a buyer is still a person, with individual tastes and preferences -- for or against subgenres, or types of books, or entire areas. And publishers have people dedicated to selling to those buyers, and to maintaining relationships with those buyers.

The thing about relationships, of course, is that they're complicated. Buyers and account managers aren't adversaries, since they work together to maximize sales. But they're not colleagues, either, since they work for different companies with different goals and plans. And some relationships are better than others. Some buyers and account managers trust each other deeply, based on a shared history, and others are wary of each other, for various reasons.

Another point to consider is that a publishing company (or division, or group -- whatever the account manager is attached to; whichever list she's selling) inevitably has a stronger track record in one section than another, and better contacts in those stronger sections. (Sure, the powerhouse publisher of romance can get the buyer for mysteries on the phone, but the mystery buyer will be more skeptical, without a good track record in her section, and a buy from her for the exact same book may well be smaller than the romance buyer's buy would have been.)

So this is yet another way that publishers position books, one more set of considerations to take into account when bringing a product to market. If there's a great upcoming book that could be either travel or memoir, it matters where that house has a stronger relationship. And it matters which section is hotter at the moment, and what section the author's history has been in, and, sometimes, even, how senior and influential that section's buyer is. Publishing is a gut business a whole lot of the time, driven by instinct and hunches as much as data.

It's also a business with millions of new products every single year, most of which aren't as successful as someone thought they should be. So there's always room for finger-pointing afterward, for those in the mood for finding blame. But, given how many books sink without a trace all of the time, in all categories, it's difficult to ever prove anything would have been different if X had been done instead of Y.

(And, yes, if a store was going to buy five copies of something per store, it could put one or two in each of travel, memoir, and new nonfiction -- but then those are single copies, and less visible, when otherwise, all together in one section, you'd have a face-out.)

This all applies to shelf-space, not to on-line stores, of course -- on-line, you're dealing with search algorithms and trying to SEO the title of your book. (Don't laugh: we've been doing that in nonfiction for ages now, and a lot of category fiction has titles that look suspiciously keyword-driven now, too.) It's outside the scope of today's post, but I'll just say this one last thing -- sure, online a book can be in three categories, or ten, or fifty. But if it's not showing up in the first page of search results for that category -- and it probably isn't, if every book is in three or ten or fifty categories -- it's effectively invisible, even more so than it was on just one shelf in a bookstore. And ebooks will always, inevitably, be driven by search and SEO considerations, since they don't exist in any physical form.

[1] And, then, independent bookstores will generally have a buyer -- singular -- who plans every category of new books in the store. This partially explains why independents are generally good in a few categories -- and, typically, the same few categories for the vast majority of independent stores -- and ignore or neglect others.

[2] I may be speaking somewhat historically at this point; the ranks of buyers have thinned substantially over the past couple of years, driven by the rise of ebooks. (You don't need category experts to manage inventory when there's vastly less inventory to manage, but that thinning means you also lose those category experts and can end up in a similar situation to those small stores.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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