Even though book chains seem almost as embattled as independent stores these days, especially now that we’re pretty much down to just Barnes & Noble, the influence of chain stores on both publishers and readers is still important for any would-be author to understand. Here are three things about books and chain stores every author needs to know.
How Books End Up on Display Tables
Chain stores offer what we call “co-op” to publishers. This means out of every publisher’s catalog for a particular season, Chain X chooses which books they are willing to “push.” The publisher shares the cost of this, which includes setting up display tables, “end” displays (those featured on the aisle end of bookshelf rows), cardboard stands, and even decorating store windows. Many publishers earmark a certain amount of marketing dollars for co-op each year and will make offers to bookstores to entice them into participating.
But don’t let all this distract you from what co-op really is—paid advertising. The only difference is a publisher can’t just choose what they want to advertise before plunking down cash. Chain X first must agree to or offer the co-op and they have a lot of control over which titles they’re interested in, though special programs can often help the two parties find an amenable middle ground. How they choose which books to offer co-op on is a combination of what they think is trendy and will sell and what they think is cutting edge and will sell. There is a dash of each chain’s buyer’s personal taste in there as well.
Independent bookstores sometimes work with co-op as well. And by the way, publishers, not stores, usually design and create the cardboard display elements.
How Bookstores Decide Which Titles to Stock
Bookstores alone choose what to stock and what not to stock, though of course publishers’ sales reps do their best to influence this process. These days, with so many titles coming out every season from a wealth of publishers big and small, even the biggest chains must be pickier. Most stick with front-list titles, which is why customers are sometimes frustrated that they can find an author’s latest book but not their earlier works, even if they’re still in print.
In publishing, everyone thinks “front-list,” “mid-list,” and “back-list.” Front-list titles are the big bestsellers, books from established authors, timely nonfiction offerings, or any book the publisher wants to put a lot of muscle behind. The mid-list is comprised of follow-up titles for authors who may have previously been front-list but did not perform as expected, “smaller” books (not in physical size, but in expected audience), and sometimes even front-list titles that fail to generate enough pre-pub interest from the chains and so are moved down a rung last minute. Back-list titles are older books still in print but no longer actively worked on, like classics or previous works for currently publishing authors.
If the front-list is the publisher’s big gamble on satisfying public appetite with something new and exciting, mid-lists and back-lists are the meat and potatoes of the industry. Back-list titles, despite their age, stay in print when they continue to sell all by themselves without any attention (or because the author is still generating momentum through new releases). Aside from classics and bestselling authors, chain bookstores have steadily cut down on the amount of shelf space devoted to back-list and mid-list titles as compared to independent bookstores, just one reason why it’s such a shame the latter keep disappearing. Readers are less likely to discover your older books while browsing in a chain store. And forget about the big-box stores or other chains with book sections if you’re not a household name or publishing’s latest darling—these outfits rarely carry anything but the latest front-list titles.
Why Chains Don’t Often Sell Self-Published Books
Authors have very little control over whether or not a bookstore, or any other kind of chain, will carry their books. As described previously, the chains have all the power in deciding what they will stock and how many copies of each—if you’re with a publisher, this process is facilitated by sales reps who pitch each season’s catalog to the book buyers (buyers for the chains, that is, not consumers).
If you’re a self-published author or with a very small publisher, your fight for shelf space is more like a war. First, there’s the stigma against self-publishing, which is evolving but still exists, and frankly for good reason. An overwhelming majority of independent titles today lack professional book editing, design, and marketing; if a store doesn’t think a product will sell, it isn’t going to stock that product, plain and simple. But, even given a willingness to stock indie books, stores often don’t, which brings me to my second point.
As described previously, retail establishments mainly find out about products in two ways: catalogs and direct marketing. With books, stores receive catalogs from publishers each season highlighting upcoming titles. Bigger publishers also employ teams of sales representatives who travel the country, often meeting one-on-one with regional buyers for the chains and wholesale distributors. Small publishers and independent authors don’t have the budgets or substantial-enough lists for this. And if a store doesn’t know about a book, it can’t stock it.
Third and finally, you won’t often find self-published books in chain stores because they’d rather devote limited shelf space to better bets. It’s basic economics, really. Most focus on front-list titles because historically they’ve generated the greatest sales. Remember, bookstores are most attracted to books that will be getting a healthy share of their publishers’ and authors’ marketing budgets. Stores fill in the gaps with strong mid-list and back-list books—primarily classics and previous titles from bestselling career authors, since each time an author’s latest book comes out the stores have a chance to squeeze more dollars out of his or her back-list. Regional buyers will also fill shelving gaps with subjects relevant to local demographics and based on category sales histories (for example, bookstores in aging communities will stock more books on subjects like financing retirement and managing advanced health issues).
With all of that going on, it’s easy to see why a tiny publisher’s new list or a self-publisher’s first book can’t get a toehold. Indie authors have marginally better luck with independent bookstores, but the basic economics still apply: Stores are businesses, and they need sales to say in business.
Next time we’ll talk about a few ways you can increase your book’s chances of finding a home on store shelves or tables, and also discuss why you might not care. In the meantime, if you’ve had an experience, positive or negative, with chain or independent bookstores, I’d love to hear from you! Please comment below.
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