“Why isn’t my book in the bookstore?”
Editors ’round the country hear this on a daily basis from their frustrated authors. Believe me, the editors are even more frustrated. Since there’s so much angst dancing on the air currents, I thought I’d explain part of an editor’s head bangy life of selling to the bookstores.
Ever since the Great Publishing Implosion of 2008, booksellers have smaller budgets every season, so they’re very cheap chincy leery about buying books. Seems contradictory, doesn’t it? But what they’re looking for is the Sure Thing…books that will guar-an-damn-tee that they won’t sit on the shelves for long. In a word, books that have Demand.
And here lies the problem – especially for the debut author
Debut authors are an unknown quantity, so booksellers want to know what they’re doing to promote the book. Yes, even those with mahvelous platforms. So we make sure to provide a comprehensive promo plan so booksellers know what steps are being taken to make buyers aware of the book’s existence.
But these promo plans aren’t good enough because booksellers have too big a fear factor going on. They shy away from making the big orders…preferring to lean toward the tepid, limp orders.
So right off the bat, the book is under-stocked in the stores, and when the promotion creates a gynormous demand, the bookstores are caught with their Vickie Secrets down around their ankles. Then they begin screaming all at once for books. This can create a logjam as books are whooshed out to warehouse distributors, chain warehouses, and indie stores.
What invariably happens is the warehouse distributors run out of stock with the huge demand for books, and the book is listed as Back Ordered or Not Available – depending on who’s doing the keypunching. So let’s say you, Joe or Jane Reader waltz into your local B&N or indie and see the book isn’t on the shelf, you ask about ordering it. “Ah, so sorry, Charlie,” the bookstore clerk says, “the book is back ordered. Can’t get it.”
You walk out frustrated, and the store lost a sale. All because of the Fear Factor. Now they could have easily put in an order for the book and let you know when it comes in, but they’re happier to just lose the sale.
Yes, I realize that publishers have told stores their new book is a fer shur thang, and they need to order 50k units – only to have those stores eat those 50k units. Sure, they can send those books back to the publisher, but they’ve already eaten up part of their budget on those books. If a publisher does this too many times, they lose all credibility and booksellers will refuse to order their books. So instead of running the risk of eating into their budget, the stores wait to see how many people really want the book. It’s a game of playing catch up, and it drives us batshit crazy.
Back in the day – when a few things made more sense – publishers gauged their print runs off of the pre-orders (orders taken before the book comes out). But nowadays the pre-orders are weency and not a true reflection of the true sales potential.
So now we gotta guess at our print runs. Which sucks stale Twinkie cream.
And this isn’t just me. I asked my cohorts in crime at a writer’s con, and all of them – large presses and small – are experiencing the same frustrations. We are getting little to no feedback from the booksellers as to whether they’ll support a title or not. It’s all based on demand.
I had an author who was quite upset with me wondering why his book wasn’t stocked in a biggie indie bookstore that he’d wandered into. The manager looked it up and saw that the book was listed as Unavailable – which was bullpucky…it was On Backorder because the book had exploded far faster than booksellers had thought and everyone was scampering for books. It’s a happy problem to have, but frustrating nonetheless.
The Art of Deflection
What the store manager managed to deftly avoid was answering the question as to WHY he hadn’t ordered my author’s book in the first place. So my author vents his spleen at me. I had to tell him the hard truth: this hoo ha bookstore hadn’t ordered his book because there was no demand for it, which confused him because the book has been selling like ice on a hot day. But not every single store in the US will have that demand, which is something he doesn’t understand. Few do.
And deflect is what bookstores do. It’s very hard for a bookseller to explain the facts of life to an author who’s standing in front of them with their arms crossed and streams of fire shooting out their nose. It’s a lot easier to blame the publisher.
“It says here that your book can’t be ordered.”
“So sorry, it’s unavailable.”
“Must be your publisher’s fault.”
And this puts us in a precarious position with our authors because anything we say makes us sound defensive.
The Argh Moment
So it’s a world gone nutsy. Bookstores exist to sell books. But that venture is becoming increasingly difficult. Yet those very bookstores decry the likes of Amazon and B&N.com. Well, you can’t have it both ways. You either sell books or you don’t.
Again, I more than understand the pickle that bookstores are in. But crikey, we’ve given them a completely insane idea of accepting returns, thereby putting all the risk on the publisher. We already discount our products with an ever-increasing percentage. What more do they want?
I don’t know how to fix bookstores. All I know is that having big selling books don’t appear to be enough to get them stocked in sufficient quantities. And this is a problem that all of us are encountering – not just small fry publishers.
And you know what really flattens my tires? The new Justin Bieber “memoir” will be front and center in every damn store from here to NY and all points in between while us editors are fighting to get quality books that have great substance and demand on those same shelves. Talk about an empty vessel…
My other pet peeve – and this is a huge one – is when bookstores tell a customer that they “can’t order the book.” So what does the customer do? They either order from Amazon, or they call the publisher. To. Order. One. Book.
I hate this. I really, really hate this. This means I have to have an invoice generated and sent out, wait for the payment, then remember to send the damn book. One. Freaking. Book. All because some fecal brain at the bookstore was too lazy to do his job – which is sell books. And what’s worse, is it becomes a reflection on the publisher. With friends like this, who needs enemies, yanno?