The Business Rusch: The Book Trade
The Business Rusch: The Book Trade
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
It’s amazing how hindsight makes things clearer. Actually, the changes in publishing have brought a lot of things into focus for me. Then I think about those things, and remember conversations or moments when I felt simply astounded at something, but let it pass, not realizing its significance.
Let me explain.
On January 13, the chief executive at Faber, Stephen Page, had an essay in The Guardian. I noted in a blog a few weeks ago that Page’s clearheadedness startled me, particularly when so many in traditional publishing have done everything they can to obfuscate the changes in the publishing world—and their own culpability (and obligations) in that change.
In his essay, Faber listed several things he believes traditional publisher must do to stay in business. Among those things was this:
“[Publishers must have] a focus on the consumer, rather than the book trade. Expertise in consumer marketing that contends for attention in all digital spaces, alongside strength in working with both bricks and mortar and online booksellers, will be vital.”
I’ll analyze the whole paragraph in a minute. But it was his first sentence that made everything coalesce for me. Publishers must focus on the consumer (reader) rather than the book trade (bookstores, distributors, etc).
Sounds like a well, duh, right? Especially if you read my post from last week on the ways that both traditional publishers and indie writers are ignoring their readers.
But it stopped being a well, duh in traditional publishing about twenty years ago. Honestly, I don’t know the timing to all of these changes, but I have a gut sense. Indulge me for a minute here.
When I was a kid in the late 1960s, early 1970s, I never went in bookstores, yet I spent all of my allowance on books (all right—and candy too. I was a kid, okay?). I got five dollars per week, then my dad took one dollar back and put it in my savings account in an attempt to teach me good habits. The remaining four dollars and I traveled a few blocks to a nearby drugstore. It sold a little bit of everything, from cigarettes to comic books. Except for the obligatory Butterfinger candy bar that I got on the way out, I never looked at anything except the books.
Rows and rows and rows of books. In my memory, hundreds of thousands of books. In reality, probably four shelves worth. Every week, I bought three to four novels with my four dollars. (Most of the books were Gothic romances, and most of them were 75 cents.) Mostly, I didn’t even look at the author’s name. I looked for that cover with some poor woman in her nightgown, running away from the creepy house on the hill, and I was sold.
The first time I remember going into a bookstore, I was thirteen. I was a member of the speech team that qualified for state tournaments in big ole Madison, Wisconsin. My friends and I walked down State Street, and discovered Paul’s Book Store, which was (and is) mostly collectibles and antiquarian books. No Gothics that I could find. I thought the store musty, expensive, and of no interest at all. (I appreciate it more now.)
I do not remember the first time I went into a bookstore of the more modern type, filled with all new books. It had to be college. And yet my parents’ house, my friends’ houses, my grandmother’s house, and every other house I went into were filled with books.
Where did the books come from?
The drugstore. The five-and-dime. The department store, with its lovely book section. The grocery store (where I first bought a paperback edition of Carrie with the silver cover—over my mother’s protests). My dad got the latest bestsellers from the Book of the Month club, and my aunt got her Harlequins direct from Harlequin itself.
Books were everywhere, and we didn’t have to go to a special store to find them.
Fast forward a decade. I got a job working for William C. Brown Textbook Publishing Company as a lowly assistant. The guys in the sales force were not much older than me (twenty-something), and all of them were hotshots with cajones big as the moon. They all wanted this account or that account, and they were full of stories about browbeating some poor store owner in Nowheresville to take some of the non-text-booky nonfiction to put in the racks near the comic books.
Wim-C’s sales staff (yes, pronounced Whimsy) had a huge competition going with John Wiley’s sales staff, to see who could steal accounts from each other, sell more books to more unusual places, and who could make the most money in a month through sales.
Fast forward another decade. I met the sales rep for Roc Books—not for Penguin/Putnam, but for the imprint Roc. Back then (1990), each imprint shared a sales staff with only a handful of other imprints. This woman was interesting, but scared. She had just come to Eugene, Oregon, from Coer d’Alene, Idaho. At the time, Coer d’Alene was home to a number of white separatist groups, and this woman was of obvious mixed race. She had been chased out of several stores because of her skin color. (See why this sticks in my memory?) She was going to ask for a new territory, since that part of Idaho scared her so badly.
She and the other sales reps didn’t just go to bookstores. They went to each area’s book distributor. They also went into truck stops and other places that might carry books, and did a bit of hand-selling. These reps not only made more money if they made more sales, they got promoted as well. It was another way into the book business.
Five years later, the sales reps were gone. They stopped visiting long before the chain stores wiped out many independent booksellers, long before the entire distribution system collapsed in 1997 or so. At this point, book editors stopped going to thrice-annual sales meetings, and instead sent a video presentation. Then the publishing companies stopped having off-site sales meetings altogether.
Budget cutbacks, I was told. Consolidation and shortsightedness, I suppose. I didn’t work for the big publishers in-house. I worked for a publishing company Dean and I started, and then for a mom-and-pop organization, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. We still contacted our distributors and bookstores directly.
By the mid-1990s I was able to save my entire novel writing career with one letter. One of my publishers was going to publish a novel “dead” (under the radar, without even putting it in the catalog; she was trying to kill an editor’s career and to do that, she had to destroy every book he touched). I wrote to a friend of mine who just happened to be the sf buyer for Barnes & Noble. I enclosed the novel, explained the situation, and asked him to order a few copies of the book if he liked it after he read it. He not only did that, but he ordered my backlist as well. And then he ordered a lot of other books that editor edited, saving other careers.
It was great for me, and for those writers. But it wouldn’t have been possible just five years before. Five years before, no single buyer had that much power, no matter where he was.
When I started out, Romance Writers of America were starting out too, and one of their recommendations to the first-time romance writer was to bring coffee and donuts to the truckers who delivered books for the local regions. It worked: the truckers would go to grocery stores, drugstores, and all those mom-and-pop places, delivering books and placing them on the shelves. If the truckers liked a friendly romance writer, they’d put her book in a prominent position.
There were good things and bad things in this system, but it was dynamic. Excellent book editors who kept track of things could tell you where their authors sold best—the Midwest, the South, the Southwest. They made sure those authors went to those locations during book signings.
With the big distribution collapse of the late 1990s, all of that vanished. Instead of hundreds of regional book distributors who sold books to the drugstores and department stores, the number of book distributors went down to ten. (There are even fewer now. If you want to find out what happened, check out this blog post.)
Independent bookstores were strangled by the chain bookstores opening in their neighborhood (and often providing more choice and cheaper prices). Suddenly the number of places for a publisher to sell books declined.
Publishers had already given up large parts of their sales staff, so they had no idea how to react to this change. They decided to focus on bestselling books at the expense of everything else. Yes, there was still a midlist, but it was small and the chances of building a series or building an author name became harder than ever.
Publishers tried to find a way to hedge their bets. They knew that John Grisham and Nora Roberts sold, so they pushed legal thrillers and romantic suspense novels that were “just like” Grisham and Roberts. Publishers started doing a lot of advance reading copies and fancy promotions targeting the remaining bookstores. Publishers also wined and dined the handful of remaining book buyers, trying to get them interested in the newest, latest, hottest book by an unknown.
The choices for the reader narrowed and narrowed some more. I don’t know about you guys, but I remember wandering bookstore aisles looking for something that wasn’t the latest Dan Brown clone or the latest fantasy set in a boarding school. Then the western section all but vanished, followed by any historical romance not set in England in the early 19th century, and so on.
It became important for a publisher to convince five or ten or fifteen people that the book was brilliant. The publisher—in effect—sold to the book trade only. If bookstore people didn’t like it, hell, if the book buyer at Borders or Barnes & Noble didn’t like it, well then, the sales force wouldn’t sign off on the book or the book (already purchased by the publishing company) tanked.
This became an insidious loop. In recent years, a friend of mine took two different projects to traditional publishers—one that had guaranteed sales to museums all over the country, and another that had guaranteed sales at rock concerts in sold-out arenas filled with tens of thousands of fans per venue. The publishers refused to take the books, because the publishers didn’t believe those books could sell to the bookstores.
Several similar things happened to other friends. Dean got hired to ghostwrite a book for a very famous person—a person whose name you’d all recognize—who not only had a wide following on television and in music, but also toured every year and owned two gigantic theaters (named after him) where he performed. These books would have sold hundreds of thousands of copies outside of bookstores—at each tour stop and every day in the theaters.
Bookstores, the sales forces, and New York book people believed this person uncool. One asked the agent handling the deal “if anyone even knows who [famous person] is any more.” At that point, this famous person was on television every night, as well as performing live in Vegas.
The promised book deal had guaranteed numbers from the famous person’s theaters, guaranteed sales in the hundreds of thousands (if not millions), but no traditional publishing company would touch the project—thinking it “impossible to market”—and so the project died.
I suppose, if Dean and I were interested, we could start it up again. We’re not; we have too many other things to do.
The point here, though, is that these three projects—Dean’s with the famous person, and our friend’s two projects—had guaranteed sales built in, but those sales weren’t at bookstores. In both cases, the projects were turned down by traditional publishers as unmarketable.
Does your head hurt yet?
I couldn’t figure out why any of that happened until I read The Guardian piece. And then it all coalesced for me: For the past twenty years, publishers—and the people running the sales departments of publishing companies—have had no experience with actual sales at all.
Sales to them meant running to their standard accounts, asking the accounts what they thought of the project, and then if the accounts didn’t like it, turning the project down. If you want to know why traditional publishing has seemed stale for the most part, this is why. It formed an echo chamber—professional book people talking to professional book people—and not understanding that truck drivers, waitresses, construction workers, music fans, and other non-book people buy books.
And here’s the delicious irony: If you look at Stephen Page’s Guardian piece, at the very quote I highlighted, you’ll see that he doesn’t get it either. He writes:
“Expertise in consumer marketing that contends for attention in all digital spaces, alongside strength in working with both bricks and mortar and online booksellers, will be vital.”
What this means is simple: He thinks publishers should sell books directly off their websites in addition to selling in brick-and-mortar bookstores and in online bookstores. That’s all. And weirdly, that’s considered radical these days.
Fully 80% of readers still read paper books. I suspect it’s higher than that, since studies that just came out in January show that readers who have reading devices still read paper books as well. So how about this for a radical concept:
Traditional publishers, hire a sales force. A real sales force. The kind of folks who get in their cars, stop at a gas station/mini mart and hand-sell them a book. Sell books in casino and hotel shops. Sell regional titles in tourist shops.
In my little town, our wonderful local bakery, Captain Dan’s Pirate Pastry Shop, has books along one wall—all by local writers, all indie or published by regional presses.
Traditional publishers: send your staff to these places. Use the old-fashioned way of doing this. Have the staff get a small salary and pay the rest on commission. Bring back the young competitive hotshots with cajones of steel. Have them hand-sell books.
When did sales become about the book trade only? Traditional publishers have made their box so narrow that thinking inside it is squeezing their brains.
Remember the first rule of sales: Make the product available. No one can buy a book if it’s not for sale.
It’s that simple.
And that hard.
This blog is a prime example of using digital services to go directly to the consumer—um, I mean, interacting directly with the readers. Something like this really couldn’t exist anywhere except online.
So thank you for making it possible. I couldn’t do it without the comments, links, and e-mails, and I couldn’t afford the time to do it without the donations. Thank you! I wouldn’t be able to do this at all without reader participation.
“The Business Rusch: The Book Trade” copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Re Sourcebooks: I completely agree. I’m in a couple of LinkedIn groups with Dominique, and although I don’t see her on there as often as she once was (a shame, but she is REALLY busy these days) her company is doing some good things out there.
Re B&N: I disagree. 😉 http://www.barnesandnobleinc.com/for_investors/annual_reports/2011_bn_annual_report.pdf
They posted losses in FY11 of almost $74 million, which is down about $110 million from FY10. That is despite $900 million in additional sales (over FY10 sales) from their college stores, which now represent about a quarter of their total revenue.
Now, I hope I’m wrong. But I am watching print sales tumble rapidly on a national scale. I’m also watching the majority of remaining print sales now being made online. B&N is holding the line by filling their stores with piles of other things – games, toys, lamps, picture frames, all sorts of stuff.
But the bottom line is that consumers can access enormously more books online. And the brick & mortar stores were always low margin businesses to begin with. There’s simply a limit to how much loss to online book sales they can suffer before they are unsupportable.
Stockholders aren’t always right – but there’s a reason that B&N stock has been in the dumps as long as it has.
So it looks like I am going to need that big, massive The Copyright Handbook after all. Did you know there is a newer version that’s not in your store?
Thanks as always for your thoughts on the book industry!
Having run a small business myself I know the first thing that usually gets cut is marketing. It is very expensive to have boots on the ground working sales and building relationships with the brick and mortar retailers. Employee costs in any business are where the costs are the highest for the business. It’s not just salary; it’s benefits, payroll taxes, office space and maintenance, employee support systems etc.
The publishers expect the wholesalers to do this as their costs rise (i.e. paper is getting more expensive to produce and union truckers want more money every year).
Yes, marketing is a good thing but from the publishers perspective you have to look at the potential costs versus profits. I expect from the publishers perspective mid-list writers will not generate enough dollars to pay for the boots on the ground.
Of course it is also true that if no one knows the product exists then this becomes self fulfilling prophecy. This is a chicken and egg problem with risks I’m not sure the publishers are willing to take. They seem very risk adverse these days.
Another great post, Kris. Thanks for the memories as well. Books used to be such fun and such a cheap form of entertainment. (well, maybe us indie publishers are turning the clock back, nes pa?)
“Alice, you’re exactly right about gatekeepers and taste. Now we can find books to our taste.”
This is what I love about the rise of e-books. Last time I went to a physical book store the horror shelves were full of sparkly vampires, ‘The Great Gatsby and Zombies’ and ‘George W. Bush, Vampire Hunter’ novels. So instead I went home and bought a few e-books which weren’t just trying to follow the latest craze.
Obviously there are plenty of e-books which are trying to follow that craze, but there’s far more diversity than I’ve seen from trade publishers over the last few years. Their policy seems to have become ‘we want to see something original, so long as it’s just like all the other books that are selling well today.’
I’ve also found a bunch of interesting memoirs as e-books which would never have found a large enough market for a trade publisher to pick up, but which were interesting enough for me to buy for $2.99.
It’s fun, isn’t it, Edward. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.
That’s a really interesting perspective, Sarah Wynde, thanks for sharing it! It reminded me of when I used to work in the gaming industry. (Apparently everything reminds me of something this week…if only it would remind me to proof before I post.) The company I used to work for distributed games, but it also distributed game-related books. You would think a lot of the independant game stores we sold to would be a great market for novels–I can’t count how many books I bought from Pegasus Games over the years–but though we had hundreds and hundreds of stores as clients, we only ever sold a handful of any new title. I mean, maybe five total in the first week for a really hot novel, and after that nothing. For whatever reason, people stopped buying books through those markets, and the stores could fit an entire display box of Magic the Gathering or Fluxx or the latest Munchkin expansion in the space of one faced novel instead, and make a lot more money.
We didn’t have a bookstore in the town I grew up in, either. I got most of my books from the library, either borrowed or from the yearly used book sale. Every once in awhile we got to go into Madison and shop at the Walden Books or the B Daltons, which was so awesome! (Both have since closed.) More often I bought books at Shopko or similar department stores, ’cause I had time to browse while Mom shopped. I remember the first time I saw the new Borders when they were building it; I thought I might faint from the idea of SO MANY BOOKS all in one store.
I do still see books at Walgreens, although the book section of Shopko seemed greatly reduced the last time I looked. The last time I looked at books in Wal Mart they didn’t have a single title I was interested in reading that I didn’t already own.
Kris, thanks for taking me back to my childhood and the bookstores I haunted in Montana. Two small independent ones and the college bookstore I hung out at when I was in high school and could get free remaindered Shakespeare plays. I miss them so much. One was disorganized and owned by a woman who was in her 70’s. It was like a treasure hunt – you never knew what you would find, but it was always thrilling. But yeah, I remember the drug stores and grocery stores, the art museum gift shop and everywhere else I could buy books – including the catalogs from school.
Even when things were breaking down and the books became the same, I could still find stuff to read, but I’d moved to Seattle by then.
Now, I live in the sticks again, where there’s one small used bookstore in town. And lots of chain stores – Target, Costco, etc. So, I’ve gone to the library and I’ve gone online. As an adult I want to read what I want and when I want. I have so very little reading time (and I read slowly) since I’m writing and publishing so much. It’s so nice to have the choice of reading the newest (favorite writer book) vs. what’s available locally.
I’m not holding out a lot of hope that the major publishers will get their act together and provide variety for us again. I think they’re still sliding the other direction.
Thanks again for your insight.
Linda J., I think traditional publishers will continue to slide in that direction, with a few small exceptions. So again, if writers think that traditional publishers will take care of the marketing on their new book, guess again. 🙁 And you’re welcome for the jaunt down memory lane. 🙂
Hmm, you’ve given me a bunch to think about with this one.
Like everyone else, I don’t have the answer, but I do have an example, and a fear.
The example: when Random House published my “The Presidential Book of Lists”, I provided them with the list of presidential museums and libraries — pretty much THE perfect places to stock my book, where it would sell forever. Three times, and the publisher couldn’t be bothered to contact them (I provided names, addresses, and phone numbers). I admit my major mistake in that one: failing to contact the museums myself. I’ve been in the field long enough to know the publicity was my responsibility, but I foolishly figured a big house like Random would make the contacts as a matter of course. Live and learn.
The fear: running Fantastic Books, I’ve tried to expand my horizons. I haven’t yet approached non-traditional outlets about stocking my books (because I’m using modern print-on-demand technology to keep the initial costs down and keep the company alive and growing), but I have tried hand-selling the books directly in non-traditional venues. I took tables at a couple of non-book conventions, such as local arts and craft shows (flashback to my youth, when my parents did them for a living). Hand-selling the books to people not specifically looking for books is gratifying, but it’s an up-a-very-steep-hill struggle to make it worthwhile.
In the days when you were getting your books at the drug store (for some reason, I always remember patronizing “regular” bookstores — maybe I was living in more urbanized areas), those books were competing with far fewer other things trying to take your time and money for their leisure activities. I fear we’re losing the audience who view reading books as a desirable leisure-time activity.
I was with you, Ian, until your last line. The growth in ebooks out here in the sticks is precisely because people can’t get regular books here. For years, we had writer lunch at a local restaurant filled with folks who were marginally getting by, waitresses, bus boys, fry cooks. They all loved to read. We donated books to them almost every week, because — get this–most of them could afford to buy a book or two a month, but they couldn’t afford the gas to get to a place that sold books. Think that through: readers who want books and can’t get them, can’t afford to travel to a bookstore. Most of these folks couldn’t afford an internet connection either, so they didn’t buy books off Amazon. What a huge untapped market.
How do you do it with an indie press? Well, you’re going to need a dedicated sales person, and that’s not you. You’ll have to figure out the trade-off. Can you afford an employee yet? If not, don’t do it. But you might have some titles that will work regionally–they’re set in Upstate NY for example or they’re nonfiction about a particular industry. Just try selling one or two of them to regional non-bookstores, not 10 or 15. You’ll be surprised how many will sell.
Oh, and your comment about Random House. Every single smart-in-business writer I know has made the same comment about their traditional publisher. Really, the comment is wtf? Because someone has been hired to do that job, and has no clue how to do it.
You really put me there with this piece. “An insidious loop.” Loved that.
Kris — thank you for this post. I had that same reaction you did when I read the originating article. It made *so much sense* and pinpointed for me why the trad pubs were in trouble, why they were remaining in trouble, why they may not be able to make themselves relevant in today’s market. Your blog brought the history together for me, some of the perspective that I was missing. Thank you so much.
You’re welcome, B. and Leah. Leah, you’re right about the entire Guardian piece. And the fact is, Stephen Page is realistic: most traditional publishers are not. That should scare you even more.
I would go one or two levels farther than Our Gracious Hostess in describing the s&m dorks in publishing, and indeed throughout the entertainment industry:
Not only do they focus only on the next link in the chain to the consumer, rather than the consumer — think of it as “outsourcing consumer marketing” — they are not interested in obtaining, let alone analyzing, data that will help either effort.
One concrete example from publishing is Justine Larbalestier’s problem with covers, which I later traced (to my own satisfaction, anyway) to an offhand remark by an insider being treated as fact. Another, more-subtle, example is the “metallic foil inks sell more books!” meme, which has never had any discernable evidence in its favor… and certainly does not in modern bookstores with their fluorescent lights or online, let alone for e-books. There also continue to be myths about covers and cover design that are holdovers from 1960s printing technology and chemistry (e.g., the disdain for green covers, which comes from the poor UV stability of 1960s-era green inks and from poor contrast with the prevailing consumer-goods color palettes of the time — remember avocado-green refrigerators?), but have no current support.
One cause of this problem is the disdain for academia. Academics would love to study this sort of thing, but they can’t get cooperation from the entertainment industry (not just books, but periodicals, recorded music, etc.) to do so. Further, the people who rise to positions of authority in the entertainment industry almost uniformly worship accountancy… and that, to say the least, is not evidence or fact. (Too often, it’s not even based on fact; just ask someone in the know to explain how “goodwill” gets treated on a tax return…) Academic accountants distinguish between method/theory and practice/evidence; practicing ones… don’t.
Now throw in a thirty-year-old change that the publishing subindustries refuse to acknowledge: That under the Copyright Act of 1976, the author-publisher relationship (except for true, proper WFH) arises from a licensing transaction, not a sale. The legal (and accounting, and economic) rules/principles are different, folks. The Bankruptcy Code (also 1978) only reinforces those differences (example: for sales, shares of future income streams are not always executory contracts; for licenses, shares of future income streams are always executory contracts, and that means they must be individually disclosed and resolved). It’s only been three decades, so maybe it’s too soon to expect the Received Wisdom of the Ages (which was only a century old anyway) to be altered…
In the end, I don’t think the problem is just poor world-view. It’s unwillingness to look at the evidence before forming a world-view in the first place.
Great post, C.E. You’re exactly right. Thank you. (And thanks for the cool links.)
This morning, while waiting for a prescription at the grocery store, I found myself staring at the books. For a moment, just a slight moment, I felt a bit of doubt, can I really do this? From childhood I wanted to see my books on a bookshelf. Then I took a hard look at the selection and grimaced. nothing I wanted to read, except a book I already own. But the doubt kinda hung on.
Then I saw your post. It never fails, doubt hits I come over here to your blog and see all the reasons I decided to go indi in the first place.
Thanks. I needed this.
You’re welcome, Necia.
You might find this interesting from a publicity point of view… at every television station we would constantly receive review copies of books, but rarely get a follow-up call from a marketing person. The books would inevitably stack up in the break room as freebies for people to take home. News departments are always looking for interesting live interviews for morning, noon and 5pm newscasts, yet it seemed as though the marketing people would just stick the books in the mail and hope we’d call them.
I remember one local author who had written a book on baseball who made his own calls. His book sounded interesting so I handed him off to a producer and we booked him on a weekend newscast. All it took was a polite phone call. (Authors, take note.)
I remember that from my radio days, Randy. We got piles of press releases and books, but the folks who contacted the office, the folks we met, the folks who went the extra mile were the ones we worked with. I used to call the press releases “slush.” 🙂 Thanks for the comment–although other TV/radio/media people might not be thanking you right now. 🙂
This explains a lot! I’ve always wondered why books weren’t being picked up because “our marketing department doesn’t know how to sell this.” Isn’t it the marketing team’s job to figure out how? That’s kinda the definition of “marketing.”
In a more mainstream industry, when they come up with a new product, the marketing team doesn’t get to nix it because it’s new. They figure out a marketing campaign. Yes, they should have input, like figuring out if there’s a market at all – and there are products that flopped because there wasn’t one – but “it’s new and we’ve never seen anything like it before” isn’t a valid excuse.
(I won’t even get started on the dangers of so few people determining what books are available to read.)
Laurie, you’re exactly right about other industries. In a more mainstream industry, when they come up with a new product, the marketing team doesn’t get to nix it because it’s new. They figure out a marketing campaign. Exactly.
“I traveled a few blocks to a nearby drugstore.”
Oh, man. Your story about buying books in dime stores and mom-and-pop stores really brings back memories. When I was growing up in Texas, I used to visit my great-uncle’s pharmacy in the tiny town of Holliday, Texas. Along with pills and cosmetics, he sold books. Best of all, he kept a box of books in the back room with no covers. I now know those books were remaindered — the covers torn off and sent back to the distributor for a refund. My great-uncle threw the books out, usually. But if I got there first, he let me have my pick. It was like being given free rein in a candy store (actually, he DID give me free rein in his candy section. Almost as good.) Thanks to his coverless books, I read Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane and Agatha Christie and Lester Del Rey and learned to love their work long before I ever knew what the book covers looked like! I probably bought books in book stores or supermarkets now and then, but what I remember was that magical box of remainders in Uncle Bill’s back room. I actually still have a couple of them.
I think maybe I owe Bantam and Dell a few dollars…
I wonder if those hot, competitive book salesmen are still around. Maybe we indie authors should get together and hire them to sell our books…
I’m sure writers could set up an indie sales team, Sarah S. Might be worth talking to someone about.
The concern has always been “selling” books in to the distributors. Except they weren’t selling, they were consigning. A fatal flaw in the system.
Even indie authors are a little lost on this, in that they don’t direct sell to readers but rely on Amazon, PubIt, etc. I automated my web site last year to accept credit cards and instantly ship eBooks. Sales aren’t great, but they are more than enough to pay for the site. Most readers prefer their McDonalds– using the Kindle of B&N buy button.
I’m getting to the point where I’m wondering why I do blog posts giving suggestions to agents and publishers on how they could improve their business. They never really seemed concerned the other way.
Bob M., you’re right about indie writers. I started to address that in my piece, realized I was muddying the waters, and quit. I’ll do a post on that in the future. Maybe when I do what I say and set up my own buy page. (Actually, I’ll be hiring someone to do it this spring. No time or I lose writing time) As I said below, however, this post isn’t for the traditional publishers so much as all those writers who insist that “only” traditional publishing can market their books properly. If you hear that from someone, send them here so they can see how traditional publishing really markets. It should appall them.
I read an agent’s blog once that basically said – don’t tell me you started writing because you couldn’t find any good books to read. But that was exactly why I started. It was before the internet when the relentless gatekeepers – agents, editors, publishers, book buyers, librarians…had winnowed my choices to tastes other than mine. Now I know why. And now I have so many lists of authors I follow I can’t keep track of them.
Great comments, everyone! I’ll answer in depth later today. I was out of town yesterday (away from computers) and am literally drowning in work and e-mail. So I’ll get to this, just not right away.
I realized after I posted this that it was a sideways blog to the folks who want to go into traditional publishing because they market the books better than we can as indie writers. I think that used to be true. It isn’t true any longer. At all. Weirdly enough.
Alice, you’re exactly right about gatekeepers and taste. Now we can find books to our taste. I must say, I’m enjoying reading a lot more these days as well–and I’m a former (recovering?) gatekeeper. 🙂
Kris, to a newbie like me, this article was fascinating. Thank you so much! I also remember the same thing growing up. We didn’t have any big bookstores in the small town where I grew up. There was a B.Dalton about 30 minutes away. We got them from the grocery store and the minimart. I bought a LOT through book orders at school, but I never went to any of the big bookstores until I went to college.
Still, everyone read! My parents both read, and my dad drives a lot so he’s an avid audiobook consumer. Where did he buy them? Truck stops and minimarts for the most part. I think there’s a certain segment of the population (the book trade) that thinks many people don’t read because they don’t read literary fiction. That’s not the case.
I think the “explosion” of reading that people note when they talk about how much more they read when they get a Kindle or Nook is really telling. People love to read, and they like to read a huge variety of stories, but they don’t want to pay $8+ for a new book, and they don’t want to have to drive 30 minutes or more to find a new one. E-readers eliminate this problem and, what do you know? People are reading again. And they’re reading a lot.
But will the big publishers get the hint? I kind of doubt it.
Elizabeth H., I just saw a comment in a business post from a major publisher in a traditional house. He said their biggest challenge is to get people reading again. Guess he didn’t get the memo. 🙂 They really are clueless. But as I mentioned in comments last week, most people working in traditional publishing these days are trained in how to edit and design books, not how to sell them. I found an accredited publishing course last week from a major university (one that ships interns to NYC on a regular basis), and there wasn’t a business class in the syllabus. I think that’s very telling.
I’ve actually been saying this for a while now. It’s quite obvious, IF you’re looking at things from an outside view, instead of the view of someone working in the industry over the last two decades.
Physical bookstores are dying. Borders is gone. B&N is on the ropes and teetering toward bankruptcy.
Publishers don’t need to sell to online bookstores. They take all books; just upload the work and it’s there.
Therefore, almost all the expertise in selling books publishers have is wasted on today and tomorrow’s book market. They’ve spent two decades learning how to sell to chain bookstores, and they’ve gotten VERY good at it. But that sort of selling is losing validity daily.
And most publishers are frankly clueless about how to sell to readers. Which makes sense; they haven’t had to do so in a long time.
Already, writers can hire staff to handle formatting, covers, and editing to the same professional level as any trade publisher. In the very near future, writers will probably be able to insert their work to 80-90% of the same market as any major publisher, as well (once the last chain bookstores vanish). At that point, what’s left for publishers?
But only if they can get good at it fairly rapidly.
My feeling is that publishers like Ridan which are able to consistently sell tons of their writers’ books will continue to excel in the new industry. Publishers who cannot market effectively to readers will be out of business (in trade book sales, anyway).
Kevin M., you’re right about what publishers say they’re good at–marketing–and most of them are not. Full disclosure here: one of the reasons I went with Sourcebooks for my romances is because of their aggressive marketing. They’re doing some innovative things. But most traditional publishers are not. One of my other publishers “forgot” to contact the indie stores on this go-round. Another traditional publisher banned the indies from putting my book on the shelf until the end of the month, but had it available on Amazon & B&N 75 days ahead of that. Great way to make loyal customers. 🙁
But you’re wrong about B&N teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Read the company reports and outside analysis. They’re getting healthier by the day. (And their earnings aren’t that different from Amazon’s…)
Excellent post! Your description of Wim-C sort of reminded me of Mad Men. It also made me think of the days when authors like Mark Twain took their books door-to-door–and that was the norm!
From what I hear, that is still the norm in places like Brazil, with a huge reading population but little book distribution infrastruction. Maybe New York should fly in some of the book sellers from Brazil to get their sales departments into shape.
And a Madison shout-out! Woot! 🙂 Always makes me happy to see us mentioned, LOL. (Fly-over states don’t get a lot of love.)
Mercy, a wave back to Mad-City. I miss that town, but not its weather. 🙂 And I’m not old enough for Mad Men…but you did get the culture right; those were the guys. They were ballsy, tough, and competitive. Wonder what industry they’re working in now?
Sales to them meant running to their standard accounts, asking the accounts what they thought of the project, and then if the accounts didn’t like it, turning the project down. If you want to know why traditional publishing has seemed stale for the most part, this is why.
So this is why when something got hot (urban fantasy or whatever), a ton of the same sort of genre/subgenre would be published in droves.
The sameness killed it for me with one of my fave fantasy writers. Loved two of her series, but not the urban fantasy one.
He thinks publishers should sell books directly off their websites in addition to selling in brick-and-mortar bookstores and in online bookstores.
That’s considered radical? Oy. A lot of indies are already doing that, and a lot of non-fiction writers have been doing that for years.
I really shouldn’t be amazed by this stuff, but I am.
I know, Nancy B. I’m amazed by it too. (sigh)
Thank you so much for writing this! I was mulling this over yesterday. Another blogger was bemoaning how B&N weren’t going to shelve a book, and how this was a serious hit to the author. The comments were filled with the need for independent bookstores.
…and I just kept recalling the 70’s when books were EVERYWHERE. Spinner racks full of books at the convenience store. The shelves at the five and dime where a fave of mine. At 14 I walked into my first specialty bookshop, an independent and I came away with the same impression, overpriced and little I was interested in reading.
When I got a job in a bookstore in the early 90’s, I was horrified to find out the buyer for the chain had the attitude that people in the South don’t read. It was said with a sniff and no telling them that if we got more of a book we would sell it. After all if they really wanted it they would special order and wait the week. I got my degree right when the district manager was bringing the stop watch to time us on shelving. We didn’t need to know the product. They effectively dumbed down some of the best salespeople in the trenches to just “would you like to sign up for our card, with that” drones.
And now the chickens are roosting in the hen house of their own making, and they weren’t paying attention to that upstart down the road.
Vanth, you’re exactly right about what happened with the chains. Indies are starting to revive, but are struggling because of the discounting problems I mentioned below. It’s tough out there for bookstores. But a lot of them are finding a way, more of them than two years ago.
Great post! As I child, I didn’t have access to a bookstore either–or even a drugstore that sold books. I used to order books out of the backs of other books using those little paper forms publishers had in there.
But I do remember the thrill of walking into a real bookstore on our twice yearly trips to St. Louis.
That feeling is what books are about. 🙂
Lori D., I agree. I love that feeling. I went into two nearby “major” cities on Wednesday (“major” in quotes because I live in Oregon and even our biggest city, Portland, really doesn’t count as major), and didn’t stop at a bookstore. No bookstore to stop at. How sad is that?
I think this is most idealistic piece you’ve ever written. It was nice, but I admit, made me a little sad. Nostalgia, I guess. See, I worked as an acquisition editor for a division (non-fiction) of Pearson for quite a few years, so I was there through the decline you describe. I can remember sitting across a table talking to a sales rep who was visiting every music store and every camera store in the entire Pacific Northwest. She was determined. She spent months on it. I believe she found two takers and they carried the books for six months or so before they gave up on it. Why? Because books take space, have crappy profit margins, and slow turnover. They are not desirable retail goods. In the same place as a row of books, a camera store could keep a row of camera accessories and make far more money. Compare the profits on a $6 book to the profits on a $30 battery and any small business person can figure out which product to carry, which product is a better risk.
And big companies have a tough time just paying people on commission: I don’t know enough about the legal issues, but we had to do a ton of paperwork to hire freelancers in order to ensure the company wasn’t just skimping on health insurance and other benefits and I know that was for legal reasons. (When I first started, we didn’t have to worry about that but somewhere in my time, there was a court case and a message came down from legal giving strict guidelines for who we could hire, how, and what we could tell them to do.)
So what you’re talking about here, to me, is looking at a tree without looking at the roots. The industry changed for a reason, and the reason wasn’t (just) a couple short-sighted people deciding that oh, they wouldn’t bother to do the work of selling anymore. A lot of good people were working incredibly hard and making less and less money at it every year. When I first started going to sales conferences, it was a big party, loads of reps making their numbers, getting their bonuses, having their celebration. Then, it was fewer reps making their numbers and a lot of reps drowning their sorrows. Then it was a very few reps making their numbers and some reps trying to be happy about making their reduced goals. And then it was fewer reps. But that was the order it went in–not that they stopped selling because they didn’t care, but they stopped because the markets didn’t want the books anymore.
I wrote a guest post a while back for stellar four where I talked about why I believe ereaders will save publishing (http://www.stellarfour.com/2011/12/how-nook-haters-learned-to-stop.html#more) and in many ways it boils down to the same answer: for books to sell, they have to be available. But in my opinion, it’s technology that will make them available, not a return to the sales approaches of the past.
Sarah W., it’s not nostalgia. Or idealism. (Most of my posts are cynical or idealistic. Haven’t you noticed? One side or the other. VBG) Your post actually proves my point. Because you’ve worked in the industry, you’ve swallowed quite a few myths. So one rep failed? Well, then in the old days, she would have been fired. Did she have the right product? Did her company support her? Most of the small businesses I know won’t order books from traditional publishers because 1) there are too many hoops to qualify for credit that other suppliers give more easily; and 2) traditional publishers usually have a minimum order that a small store can’t handle. So say my pastry shop wants five fiction books set on the Oregon coast. They must also order 15 other books that aren’t related at all except that they’re frontlist and they’re fiction. Nope. Not a way to work with a potential client.
I love the fact that you said “big companies have a tough time just paying people on commission.” Yeah, it doesn’t work for pharmaceutical companies or insurance companies or medical equipment companies. Big companies can pay on commission–and bigger industries than ours do all the time. Financial services. Hell, most of Wall Street. If that was the excuse some publisher gave you, well then, it really shows that the publisher knows nothing about other businesses or how to run his own.
And you’re right about sales conference–it was a party. But it wasn’t that markets didn’t want the books. It was that publishers put so many restrictions on the way companies had to order that they couldn’t afford to order small. A friend of mine closed his indie bookstore in that period of time. Not because of B&N moving into the neighborhood, but because he could no longer get discounts on titles because he was “too small.” So he had to order at a 15% discount off cover when B&N got 60% off cover. No wonder the indies got swallowed by the chains.
Two years ago, a few traditional publishers got a clue and tried to work with indies on better discounting. They did panels, etc, at book fairs. But another indie bookstore friend tells me that the discounting never came through. The publishers talked a good game, but never delivered. (sigh)
The fact of it is, Sarah W, traditional publishers screwed up here. And when they now tell writers that traditional publishing knows marketing, they’re wrong.
E-readers will save publishing. Traditional publishers are already making boatloads of profit on it, if you read their quarterly earnings. (MacMillan’s just came out–they talked about the “highly profitable digital arena”) Most of those profits come on the backs of the writers, who signed bad contracts and continue to do so, but some of those profits come on the fact that these books sell with no returns.
But e-books aren’t the only answer. Fully 80% or more of readers want paper. Most people do not live in cities or within 30 minutes of a bookstore. So they order from Amazon. When publishers complain that Amazon is getting too big, it’s the publisher’s own damn fault by not having a sales force and selling to other clients like drugstores–like they used to.
Thanks for this post. I have small indie press through which I’m putting out my books both solo titles and those I’ve written with co-authors. In fact, the latter titles are the reason I was able to step into indie publishing in the first place. They nonfiction books with local appeal. (One is about a star athlete at my high school who was tragically struck by lightning on the baseball field. The other is about a coach who led our high school girls basketball team to the Class A State Championship title and had other accomplishments early in his career.)
Your overview of the way things were made me think more about those local books. I now have them both in a local restaurant that graciously supplied us with a bit of countertop space. I’m realizing now that I need to do more of the same locally to get it out there to people who would be interested in the story. I still have much to learn about sales. Not a natural salesman but I know I need to learn more since I’ve put on the publisher’s hat.
Meanwhile I’m launching a fiction career too. I’ve been working on short stories and publishing per the methods that Dean outline in “Think Like A Publisher.” I have an epic fantasy that I’m finally going to publish (once the cover art is complete). More books and stories lie in my future.
I also want to thank you for the comment you gave me about short stories lately. I enjoy working on them more than I thought I would. I plan on sending them out to markets too. Congrats again about the new book and new pen name. I hope it goes well for you.
There are a lot of places that will take books with local appeal, Shaun. You might think state-wide instead of just your community. And a lot of indie bookstores also buy directly from authors. Dean has an entire piece on this in his “Think Like A Publisher” section. (www.deanwesleysmith.com) On the other matter, glad to hear you’re enjoying short stories. They’re fun, aren’t they?
It’s a lost cause. They don’t get it. They’ll never get it.The new system can deliver a lot more product to the readers, at a much better price for the readers, and return more money per sale to the authors. It’s better for everyone involved – except trad pub. It’s fine, they won’t go away. They’ll just become niche players selling bestsellers to WalMart, and grow increasingly more irrelevant to the people who want to read and write books.
From what I can tell, the number of talented people who have indie published new sci-fi and fantasy and horror the last two years already dwarfs what trad pub handled in the last decade. I am *stunned* by how easy it is to find good new stuff. It’s insane. There’s dreck, too, but just an amazing amount of really well-written books.
Trad pub could never keep up with my insatiable reading habits. The new system can. And it can support a hell of a lot more full-time don’t-need-a-day-job writers, all happily cranking out new stuff for me to devour. Everybody wins. Well, almost everybody…
I know it’s a lost cause, TJ, but this post wasn’t for traditional publishers (except the one or two whom I know are trying to change things). This is for all those writers out there who think that if they go to traditional publishers, their book will be marketed properly. They’re working on old information. Traditional publishers only market to one audience: the book trade. They don’t market to anyone else at all. They’ve abandoned 50% or more of their market, so going to them isn’t always better than doing it yourself. You have to evaluate before you even go to a traditional publisher: is this an unusual book? Would it benefit from indie treatment? Or would it benefit from going to the book trade only?
This is a wonderful post. Good arguments and insight, along with a little nostalgia. (I can tell you’re slightly older than me; when I was buying paperbacks as a kid, the prices were $0.99 to $1.25.)
My wife and I talk about this all the time. It’s as if the sales reps today make two or three phone calls and if the books don’t sell, the book must must not be worth the trouble.
Two insane examples: Our (Big 6) publisher was all set to release one of our books, but then someone showed it to the Borders rep, who thought the title and cover should change. And lo and behold, we were revising sections of the book overnight to conform to the new title. All for Borders, which is where today, I ask you?
Another title we did was perfect for historic museum gift shops. I can’t tell you how many letters I wrote and mailed to every single historical society, museum, and historic house I could find in our genre. A beautiful thing happened: they started carrying the book, and it sold. Then came a humorous moment when the publisher’s sales VP got us on the phone to ask, “What are you doing in your promotion efforts? Your book’s numbers are actually increasing, not decreasing.” I am easily cowed so I did not have the heart to speak the truth: What are we doing? Your jobs, sir!
There’s one logical disconnect I am still struggling with. Your post suggests that they are straying away from the small shops, from where America shops. Not long ago I spoke with a friend who was a VP at B&N, recently laid off. I said, hey, if Borders is out of the picture, doesn’t this mean publishers will finally focus their efforts on getting into more indie bookstores? He said, “They don’t have to. They still have Costcos, Targets, Sam’s Clubs, the Walmarts, and so on. If people want a book, they go into one those places. They don’t need a fancy indie bookstore.”
Do you think his comment is valid? In my own day-to-day, yes, I see that a lot of the small shops that used to carry books no longer do. (Card shops, newsstands, drugstores, etc.) But there are tons of big chains that still do, like the ones I just mentioned. It makes me think that the sales reps are still making their three or four phone calls and stopping.
Either way, the publishers have done it to themselves. They have trained a whole generation of publicists, sales reps, and marketers to think that their job begins and ends at their desk, with their phones and their email accounts. I don’t picture them bringing doughnuts to truckers.
In the meantime, you know who’s been forced to take up the slack?
Joe D., to answer your question: your friend is right. The reps can still make their handful of phone calls. Plus some big indies. And remember, they will call Amazon now too. You’re also right about the generational thing. They’ve been trained to do the job one way, and that way is making the industry narrower, and narrower. Thanks for the comment.
I would think that having a kickass sales and marketing team would be something that would lure “indie” writers back to traditional publishers. After all, isn’t that what the Amazon imprint is promising the writers they’ve made deals with? It’s certainly not for the epublishing alone…