Indeed, welcome to the bookstore, where I will be your humble bookselling guide to all things books, publishing, and the world of the book business. As a bookseller and manager of nearly 10 years, I can safely say that no, we don’t sell trumpets, Charles Dickens doesn’t have any new releases because he’s dead, and if you know what an ISBN is, booksellers already love you. Every month I’ll address a different issue regarding the bookstore world — or simply regale you with tales of customer weirdness (yes, that trumpet question was real). Bookstores are interesting places, so let me guide you, enlighten you, and I recommend grabbing a cup of coffee, because we are just getting started.
What’s In Stock?
When you sell books for a living, you tend to get a lot of questions about a multitude of things. Bizarre questions aside (that’s a subject for another day), you get a fair number of folks who are simply baffled as to why The Secret Lives of Cows in Montana isn’t available in the store. They all have their shocked statements that are often thinly veiled reasons as to why we should have the book:
“But they’re a local author!”
“So many people are reading it, I’m surprised you don’t have it.”
“A lot of people are going to want this book, you know.”
The blunt answers to these are:
No one cares.
No, they’re not.
No, they’re not.
When working 40 hours a week working with customers, looking at trends, and so forth, I’m pretty sure we booksellers are far more in the know about what sells and what people are asking for than Average Joe who comes in maybe once every six months for said obscure book. However, there are actual reasons as to why some books get stocked and some don’t, so perhaps this will provide a bit of insight as to why we only carry 1 copy of 1 title of your favorite author’s series, none of that local guy, and dozens of a new author you’ve never even heard of whose book has just been released.
Big Publishers, Money, and Marketing
The big time publishers — Harper Collins, Random House, St. Martin’s Press, etc. — have more money to spend on marketing. Granted, a lot of that still falls on the author, but when it comes to getting books into the store, the publishers are the entities with the clout to do it. They work with buyers to purchase promotional space — and this space matters. From tables to endcaps (those displays on the end of an aisle), these put books front and center of the customer’s eyeballs. And this is where a lot of people will pick up books. Browsing the aisles can be a little overwhelming — so many titles spined out. How many times do you find yourself pulling out a book, reading the cover, putting it back, pulling out another? Likewise, the bulk of books in section are purchased more often and thus have no need for promotional placement.
Publisher size is also important because they know the buyers out there. They’re well-established and have a solid track record. A smaller publisher can find getting their books into a store a bit more challenging for a variety of reasons, including not having what the big guys have, as well as the following points. For a self-published author, the chances are much, much slimmer.
Is It Returnable?
This is one of the biggest factors in the bookstore world when it comes to carrying a book in a store. Consider your personal bookshelf. Let’s say it’s full, but you bought another book. You need a place for it, right?
Bookstores are not infinite places that can hold every book in existence. Hundreds of books are published every year — and that’s not remotely counting self-published stuff. Popular books will have more copies in the store. Less popular books that still have solid sales may just have one copy. There are some that every bookstore will make a point of carrying, such as classics by authors like Mark Twain or Jane Austen. Even so, the books on those shelves are returnable. This means that if the book isn’t selling, if there are too many in stock, or even if it’s damaged or defective, the book has somewhere to go. It can be shipped back to warehouses or publishers, who in turn can figure out what to do with the books from there, whether it’s to ship them to another location where they are selling, or mark them down and sell them at a discounted price.
A book that isn’t returnable doesn’t have a good chance at making it into the store. Unless an author’s sales are through the roof (and I’m talking hundreds here, not a few dozen — and that’s just one store. Want more than one? You’d better be selling thousands of copies), the store isn’t going to be too keen on having it hang around. It doesn’t matter if you’re with a publisher or not, because when it doesn’t sell, guess what? The store is stuck with it forever and it takes up space, or until they mark it down to the point that they don’t make any money on it. And that doesn’t make them very happy.
Local Authors, Local Bookstores
But what if you’re local? Shouldn’t the store carry your book then?
Uh, sorry to sound rude, but….why?
Just because you live in Hunkachunk, USA, and you’ve written a book does not entitle the bookstore to carry it. You say you’ll sell it? Booksellers envision nothing more than a handful of your friends and family coming in to buy it and that’s it. If you’re self-published, chances are the book is POD — Print On Demand — which 99% of the time means it’s non-returnable. Refer to previous section.
Are you with a publisher? Great — tell your publisher to get off their ass and push to get your book into stores. But keep in mind — the book’s genre and other factors will come into play. If you’ve written a paranormal romance set in London, the book has broad appeal. Your publisher could work with buyers and it might end up in several stores rather than just your local one. Write a book about the historical significance of the Hunkachunk graveyard and it will likely never make it out of the area. New York doesn’t care about Hunkachunk’s local graveyard. Ya dig?
Authors and customers alike would have less heartache if they knew more of how publishing and book buying function. Perhaps it would come as less of a shock as to why something isn’t sitting on the shelves, and perhaps it would encourage authors to do more research before assuming a book written equals a book in store.
You want a book in the store? Help make it popular. Fight for it. Tell everyone you can about it. If it’s POD, buy it anyway instead of shrugging it off and letting it go. Help non-returnable stuff get picked up by those that can make it returnable. If you’re an author make sure to market, research, and understand. Sales are key.
At the end of the day, a bookstore is a business. We’ll get the supply – but we need the demand first.