By: Jeff Herman
You Know Can Find the Book Anywhere.
This can be the most painful failure. After all, what was the point of writing the book and going through the whole megillah of getting it published if it’s virtually invisible?
Trade book distribution is a mysterious process, even for people in the business. Most bookstore sales are dominated by the large national and regional chains, such as Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Barnes & Noble, and Borders. No shopping mall is complete without at least one of these stores. Publishers always have the chain stores in mind when they determine what to publish. Thankfully, there are also a few thousand independently owned shops throughout the country.
Thousands of new titles are published each year, and these books are added to the seemingly infinite number that are already in print. Considering the limitations of the existing retail channels, it should be no surprise that only a small fraction of all these books achieves a significant and enduring bookstore presence.
Each bookstore will dedicate most of its visual space to displaying healthy quantities of the titles it feels are safe sells: books by celebrities and well-established authors,
or books that are being given extra-large printings and marketing budgets by their publishers, thereby promising to create demand.
The rest of the store will generally provide a liberal mix of titles, organized by subject or category. This is where the backlist titles reside and the lower-profile newer releases try to stake their claims. For instance, the business section will probably offer two dozen or so sales books. Most of the displayed titles will be by the biggest names in the genre, and their month-to-month sales probably remain strong, even if the book was first published several years ago.
In other words, probably hundreds of other sales books were written in recent years that, as far as retail distribution is concerned, barely made it out of the womb. You see, the stores aren’t out there to do you any favors. They are going to stock whatever titles they feel they can sell the most of. There are too many titles chasing too little space.
It’s the job of the publisher’s sales representative to lobby the chain and store buyers individually about the merits of her publisher’s respective list. But here, too, the numbers can be numbing. The large houses publish many books each season, and it’s not possible for the rep to do justice to each of them. Priority will be given to the relatively few titles that get the exceptional advances.
Because most advances are modest, and since the average book costs about $20,000 to produce, some publishers can afford to simply sow a large field of books and observe passively as some of them sprout. The many that don’t bloom are soon forgotten, as a new harvest dominates the bureaucracy’s energy. Every season, many very fine books are terminated by the publishing reaper. The wisdom and magic these books may have offered are thus sealed away, disclosed only to the few.
I have just covered a complicated process in a brief fashion. Nonetheless, the overall consequences for your book are in essence the same. Here, now, are a few things you may attempt in order to override such a stacked situation. However, these methods will not appeal to the shy or passive:
• Make direct contact with the publisher’s sales representatives. Do to them what they do to the store buyers—sell ’em! Get them to like you and your book. Take the reps near you to lunch and ballgames. If you travel, do the same for local reps wherever you go.
• Make direct contact with the buyers at the national chains. If you’re good enough to actually get this kind of access, you don’t need to be told what to do next.
• Organize a national marketing program aimed at local bookstores throughout the country.
There’s no law that says only your publisher has the right to market your book to the stores. (Of course, except in special cases, all orders must go through your publisher.) For the usual reasons, your publisher’s first reaction may be “What the hell are you doing?” But that’s okay; make the publisher happy by showing her that your efforts work. It would be wise, however, to let the publisher in on your scheme up front.
If your publisher objects—which she may—you might choose to interpret those remarks simply as the admonitions they are, and then proceed to make money for all. This last observation leads to ways you can address the next question.
To Be Continued.......
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