Adam Pennenberg has written an informative piece at Fast Company, the business news website, that reveals a business practice agents and publishers have bemoaned for years: bookstores have to be paid to promote the books they stock. I won’t recap the issues in the article, just go read it here. In brief: placement on the front table in a major chain bookstore costs the publisher up-front, about $30,000. Yes, after the publisher has paid the author’s advance, the costs of publishing and manufacturing the books, they also have to pay the booksellers to try to sell the book.
What Adam omitted from his article is that the chains only guarantee a 65% to 75% compliance with the “promotion.” This is why, even if your publisher paid a co-op fee, you can’t find your book in some stores at all.
Ever since executives fleeing the collapsing retail grocery business joined booksellers a decade ago, they’ve made two changes that damage their own adopted industry.
First, they switched the book retailing model from selling books, to charging for shelf space for displaying books. This works in the grocery business where beer and canned soup turn over every day and the consistency of content is key to retailing. Everyone wants every can of Campbell’s tomato soup or Pepsi to be exactly the same. Books are different. An obscure novel by Mark Twain might sit in the store for two years before selling. Bookstore space devoted to shrinking backlist choice is a casualty of mentally valuing space over variety of titles. The practice of pricing space hurts books and opens the door for Amazon to stock titles that can’t be economically carried in every bookstore. Amazon wants to be paid for promotions too, but that’s just the spread of a bad practice. As Adam explains in his story, only a small part of a bookstore’s space is pre-paid, compared to a retail grocer, but just enough to hurt new authors and publishers. Inescapable point: every can of beans is substitutable; every book is unique.
The second error of the grocers in the book business was to abandon all marketing technique except discounting. Discounting and couponing work in the grocery because money saved by the consumer on the weekly, or coupon, special can be recovered by impulse purchases of high profit items. Unfortunately in bookstores, discounting new or unique works, makes them less profitable to publish and channels the impulse money into candy and trivial works that can be jammed up near the register. Since everyone goes in the grocery at least once a week for milk, bread and whatnot, creating the image that everything is discounted at your grocery chain, can draw business. Discounting is an effective draw for pure commodity retailing; milk is mostly milk. Books are different. Except for uniform series novelists, every book is different, and even in series like Harry Potter, the substance of the novel changes from book to book. By continuously broadcasting the message to consumers that low price is the decision criteria for buying books, booksellers have poisoned the concept that content matters. If low price is the qualifier for all books, why do I need to buy any particular book today?
I believe that book chains don’t really want to be in the book business. They just want money because they control the access to readers. This allows them to dodge the question of responsibility for doing their job (selling books) and instead to collect an entitlement (basically a tax) for being in control of a step in the process. Unfortunately, they never draw new book buyers into their stores. The message is always: if you buy books we got a bunch of cheap stuff here, but they don’t even try to get new people to buy books. That would require a different type of marketing.
Last year, one chain did try something new. Picking up a CEO from the department store industry (and you know how well that business is faring) he explained that “we sold more dresses displayed full front, than sleeve out in racks, so we are now going to feature more copies of fewer titles racked face out.” I don’t know how this is going but I await the new bestseller in petit, small, medium, and full figure in a choice of pink, teal, and cocoa.