I’m nearing a birthday. If you’re keeping score, that inevitably means that I’m nearing another year of having the book industry pay my wages. Every year, said industry makes less and less sense. As such, I was going to burn my blog exposure this time around musing about what it feels like to get another year older and still be a baby of the book world, but instead I think I’m going to muse for a minute and try to work some stuff out in my head. Maybe we’ll come to an answer together, or maybe I’ll just ask a lot of annoying questions.
Seriously, if you authors out there, and that’s pretty much all of you, ever want to extract some sort of humbling revenge on someone, have them flap books for you at your next large, book festival-sized signing.
Before I get off-track, the point of this was to scene-set. I was recently engaged in the aforementioned loveliness that is book-flapping for a major journalistic media figure, who, as a result of her recently-published autobiography, is receiving even more attention than usual.
(I’m not one to flap-and-tell, but if you can’t suss out that this person’s last name rhymes with Gibralters, there’s really no helping you. )
Anyway, whilst flapping books to be on the receiving end of grace in the form of said media personality’s signature (and we still have a *bunch* left, if you’re interested-more on that later), she and her publicist were having a discussion that, at some point, veered into what an amazing idea eliminating a bookstore’s ability to return unsold product to the publisher for credit is.
Before you (read as: anyone) begin to either vibe with or rally against the slippery slopes and straw men I’ve concocted here, I guess I should make one thing clear as crystal (pepsi…mmm, crystal pepsi. That stuff was awesome):I am not, in any way shape or form, speaking for anyone other than myself, nor am I attempting to construct an airtight argument for or against anything…other than Crystal Pepsi. If this entire post was on a Starbucks cup, it’d be prefaced with “The Way I See It” and an ellipses, and on the other side have the milk as N with a shot of choco-mint syrup. Yummy.
All of this is a long way of getting to the point of book ordering for author events. I seriously hope there’s no author out there who assumes that this is an easy or in any way shape or form perfect science. It’s more like an expensive showcase of interpretive dance: at times awesome, usually utterly baffling and has been known to leave people screaming and crying.
A quantity of 25 copies of a midlist-author’s newly-released hardback book is generally plenty for a bookstore appearance (with a few variables thrown in, in terms of location, friend attendance, etc). That’s a very, very broad, quick rule of thumb
However, often, in the “jockeying for an author” game that is being a bookstore and hosting author events, the publishing house, the author, or other outside forces (the author’s grandmother) will begin pushing for a massive quantity of books to be ordered. Depending upon the author, that massive quantity could be 50, or it could be 500. Either way, it’s treated as entirely the bookstore’s financial responsibility to make those books appear, and to deal with what’s left over. The expectation is that the store will have the author sign the entirety of remaining stock, and stick it all on the shelf. This is why you so, so often see independent bookstores having blow-out sales on autographed copies-really, is there anyone who wants a signed edition of To Dance With The White Dog that hasn’t gotten it yet?
I don’t think we’d be having this discussion at all, at least in terms of bringing up author event ordering as a reason bookstore returns should remain, if it wasn’t for the industry’s most talked about, disdained, massive fear: selling out of books at an author signing. If you’ve ever worked on any side of an author event, you know what I mean. Whether it’s the aforementioned 50 or 500 copies, if the author walks out the door at the end of an event and there aren’t copies of that book left on the table, the bookstore is treated as though a massive, kitten-killing faux pas has been committed. The simple fact of the matter is, many, many wise men and women have gathered on mountains, under bridges and in convention centers in Los Angeles and New York City to discuss the exact formula needed to ensure there’s always just enough books at every author event, every time, always…and have failed miserably. When a percentage of sales has to be assigned to an author event to determine whether or not it was a “success”, everyone loses (I’ve worked at a bookstore where that was the case-fortunately not Wordsmiths-and it made everyone consistently feel like a lousy underachiever). However, if you refer back to that “author bidding” you, as a bookstore events rep, did for a book you hadn’t seen 8 months before said book even hit galley form, the publisher expected you to know how many people would show and, as such, how many books you’d sell. So you’d better not only have a formula, but be psychic.
Puh-lease. Books, at events, are going to sell out. It happens. It sucks for everyone involved-
1)the author can’t get books into the hands of readers (authors: always keep your author copies on you, and be prepared to consign them to the bookseller with a handshake and a trust of faith)
2) the readers can’t buy the book there,
And 3) the bookseller not only loses out on sales but will also hear it from parties 1 and 2, and also parties 4-10, namely the publisher, the next day. Now, none of these parties will generally offer suggestions for improvement, just “bring more books next time”. Which, as we all know, is a perfect science. I was at an author event once where the seating capacity was 300 people. Around 100 showed up, and I had about 35 books. Note that this was an author who had done two lectures in the same city that same week, and this particular lecture received no more or less publicity than the other two. Book sales were sparse before the event, but an unannounced appearance by a beloved former President Of The United States (see, those darned variables) gave the author’s book the “bump” it needed to sell madly after the talk. Most folks were happy to just buy the author’s previous book in paperback, but, of course, the first woman who I spoke with after all the books had sold was less than amicable. “Sold out!?!?”, she sputtered. “How many people does that theater hold?” I told her the number, 300. “Then you shoulda had 300 books!” she spit at me, waiting for a reply. I gave her the only response I knew to do at the time: I started to cry.
In my defense, it had been one hell of a long week, and those tears were probably only .1 percent prompted by her complete disregard for my humanity, but it was the most effective response to an irate customer I’ve ever found. I plan on utilizing it more often in the future.
Russ Marshalek is the marketing and publicity director for Wordsmiths Books, located on the Decatur Square in downtown Decatur. His birthday is May 28, and the store's birthday is June 15. Both will deserve cake.