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How Do Books Get on the Bookstore Shelves?

By Dee Power



The year 2004 saw a record of 195,000 new books released in the United States, up 20,000 from the previous year. But not all of these books are meant for readers who shop in bookstores and online. The types of books not suitable for bookstore placement are about 50% of the new titles and include: medical resources, textbooks, and corporate publications. But that still leaves 97,500 hopeful titles and their authors waiting for bookstore placement.

How difficult is it to get a book published by a commercial publisher? 

Well, the odds are better gambling in Las Vegas. It has been estimated that 25 million people in the United States consider themselves writers and only 5% have been published anywhere.


Most major publishing houses, and many small presses, will not accept submissions that aren't represented by a literary agent. During the research of The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories From Authors and the Editors, Agents and Booksellers Behind Them, we asked literary agents how many unsolicited query letters/proposals/sample chapters they receive. For the typical agency it is close to 5,000 per year. On average these agents accepted only 11 new clients; that's about one out of every 500 submissions.


Of course writers submit to more than one agency in the hopes of obtaining representation which makes the odds a little better, but not much.


It has been estimated that the five large publishing companies, Random House, Inc., Penguin USA, Simon & Schuster, Time Warner, and HarperCollins, account for nearly eighty percent of all book sales in the US. This occurs for the same reasons any other industry goes through consolidation: by combining certain administrative or staff functions, costs can be reduced and profits increased. Publishing, relative to many other industries, has not enjoyed a high return on investment (ROI) for investors. Now publishers are much more focused on having every single book they publish be profitable. This means a more risk averse philosophy, with a preference for publishing authors with successful track records-- a sound business strategy.


Marketing Comes First


After the book has been written and acquired by a publisher, the marketing and public relations departments work together on developing a promotional plan for each title. That plan can be as simple as sending out review copies and a couple of press releases or as complicated as arranging a book tour, media appearances, radio and TV interviews, and advertising.


In any case every title has one thing in common with all the others. It appears in the publisher's catalog. That catalog is developed five to six months prior to the season; sometimes the title is included in the catalog and the book hasn't even been finished by the author yet. The title description includes a blurb about the content, the author's bio, and any special promotions, such as a six-city author tour, or significant first printing. The catalog is mailed to the book buyers, or in the case of the major publishers, taken to the stores' buyers by the sales representatives.


If you've ever wondered where the term "front list" came from, it refers to the title's position in the publisher's catalog. Titles in the front of the catalog receive most of the publisher's promotional dollars. Front list came to mean the publisher's lead books for the season.


Midlist are those titles in the middle of the catalog. These are books that should do okay but are not expected to have phenomenal sales. Or books that are a little different or quirky.


Unfortunately the midlist section at some publishers is shrinking a bit, meaning less opportunity for first-time authors. Back list are titles that were published in previous years and are still available and still selling. A number of books have strong sales, even though they're back list.   


How Bookstores Select Titles


After the agents, editors, and the marketing departments at publishing houses have all made their decisions about what will be published, in what quantities, and how the finished product will look, there is one final decision maker who ultimately decides what books will be presented for sale to consumers: the buyer for the bookstores.


The decision maker for the independent bookstores is often the owner, or the owner and several employees. The chains have corporate buyers who specialize in different areas. The buyer looks at the prior sales history of the author, or if it is the author's first book, the buyer will look at similar titles or topics. Of course the sales rep lets the buyer know of the marketing push the title will receive.


If advanced reading copies or galleys (the uncorrected page proofs of a book) are available, these are sent to the chains and major independents three to four months prior to the title's publication date.


Booksellers usually buy their first order of a new title from the publisher through their sales reps. Subsequent orders can be placed directly with the publisher or through a wholesale distributor, which allows the bookstore to batch their orders to several different publishers and receive one invoice and make only one payment. It also allows the bookstore to return books from different publishers to one place-- the wholesaler.


The decisions book buyers make about what titles to stock are a blend of taking into account the sales pitches from publishers' reps, historical sales data they have collected about an author or a topic, knowledge of their customer base-- and to a large extent simply what their gut instinct tells them will be popular.


What are industry standard terms? And why are they important?


Booksellers have to make money; if they don't the store will close. Books that are not offered with industry standard terms often won't be stocked, because the opportunity to make money decreases.


What are those terms? 


Discount: The discount off the retail price has to be close to 40%. For example: If a book has a retail price of $20.00, the bookstore has to be able to buy it from the publisher, or the wholesaler, for no more than $12.00. That allows the store to make an $8.00 gross profit.


Payment terms: The bookstore has at least 90 days to pay for the books after they're shipped.


Returnability: The bookstore can return unsold books to the publisher or the wholesaler if they don't sell. These books aren't necessarily wasted or destroyed but can be sold to a different store.


Competitive pricing: Bookstore customers are reluctant to pay more than a certain price for paperback and hardcover books. Those that have a price above that resistant level-- $7 to $8 for mass market paperback, $15 to $20 for trade paperback, and no more than $28 for hardcover-- are more difficult for bookstores to sell.   


What the booksellers say


We asked Michael Powell of Powell Books, Portland, Oregon: 

How does a bookstore strike a balance between carrying the most popular authors and providing customers with a wide variety of choices and categories?   


"I can't answer for bookstores, only for what Powell's does. We approach it from both ways, breadth and depth. Powell's has the largest independent bookstore in the country with 70,000 square feet and four floors of books that allow us to carry quite a few titles. We try to give our customers special interest books and literary titles, as well as the best-sellers. Our smallest store has 16,000 square feet.


"We talk to the sales reps, go through the catalogs, and look at what previously sold. If we already have twelve books on cats stocked, we certainly don't need a thirteenth."


Getting your self-published, vanity/subsidy, or publish on demand book in bookstores


It's a challenge, there is no doubt. As a rule the chain bookstores don't stock publish on demand or self-published books and neither do many independent stores. The reason is that the terms offered by the publish on demand publishers are not industry standard. The discount is less than 40%, the book is non-returnable, and has to be paid for when it's ordered. The prices for publish on demand books are higher as well. Additionally most publish on demand publishers will accept just about anything, which means there is a lack of quality control. Book buyers trust that a major publisher will provide a book of at least acceptable quality both in production and writing. There is no such assurance with a publish on demand book.


Authors with publish on demand books can sometimes convince a bookstore to stock their book by offering it on consignment. The author provides copies of their book and gives it to the bookstore to place on their shelves. The bookstore doesn't pay the author for the book until it sells. If it doesn't sell the book is returned to the author. This can work with an author who has a strong local following.  


Dee Power (Ms.) is co-author with Brian Hill of the novel Over Time (ISBN 0974075418), The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories from Authors and the Editors, Agents, and Booksellers Behind Them (Dearborn Trade, March 2005; ISBN 0793193087), and three other nonfiction books. http://www.BrianHillAndDeePower.com



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