Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On the nutso book world, Vol I

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.

My job (as marketing and publicity director for Wordsmiths Books) puts me into a strange sort of working-contact with publishing industry celebrities. I say “a strange sort of working contact” because it’s hard to feel super-cool and ultra-spectacular when you’re straddling a plastic picnic table covered by a sheer white cloth, holding a $35 hardback flapped open and pressed against the table with one hand while simultaneously attempting to ready another book to the same position with the other hand, all so that Mr. or Ms. JonesBoughtTheBookAtBordersAndBroughtItIn can get his or her five or ten seconds to tell CelebriAuthor how much their book/movie/tv show/guest spot on Grey’s Anatomy/theory behind the meaning of the polar bears on LOST means to them.

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.

Don’t get me wrong:book-flapping, tripping over your own fingers trying to get the book’s dust jacket to allow the tome to be turned immediately to the author’s chosen page on which to grace the paper with a sharpie-scribble of his/her signature, is a necessary evil. There are other minor humiliations that serve as way more of a sneak-attack on one’s ego, particularly when, like me (ok, fine…this whole thing is about me…which I masked totally well, didn’t I?), you’re the fresh-faced, over-idea’d youngster of the book world. So young and fresh-faced, in fact, that when you, yes you, successfully wrangle an author appearance from a beloved television actor, most well known for his emotional and compelling acting on a situation series set in a war-torn Korea, the hosting venue will put together a snooty a-list wine-and-dine reception for the author and “important guests’ and kindly leave you out. But that’s another gripe list.

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.

This is a topic that’s been in the book-world news (which, as we all know, is further removed from the real, meaningful world than Hogwarts is) for quite some time now, given a feverish heated push as a result of some bigwig publishing moneymaker deciding to open up what appears to me, without digging too far into it, to be a vanity press, based around the (ohmygod) cost-cutting measure of completely nuking the ability for bookstores to return unsold goods for publisher credit.

Now, again, this idea, eliminating the “bookstore return policy”, has been kicking around the book industry water-cooler (read as: the Starbucks across from the Ed Sullivan Theater between West 53rd and West 54th) about as long as that Borders/Barns & Noble merger-so forever, really. A brief tour through Google yields a billiontyseven (certified count!) results, most, if not all (I’ll admit: I didn’t read them) written by folks on the non-bookstore side, decrying the toll on the economy and the environment the ability for bookstores to return unsold goods takes on an hourly basis. Because, really, bookstores are a plight on the world of publishing, right?


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.

As it is, being the marketing director of a large independent bookstore, located smack-dab in the middle of indie-town Decatur, I shouldn’t even *mention* Starbucks, even in a metaphorical sense (ahhh, the metaphorical Starbucks). To invoke the name of the Chain With The Well Of Funding Which Never Runs Dry is to sell short the myriad of better, locally owned and operated coffeeshops that routinely and repeatedly get kicked in the head by the million-dollar marketing budget Tha Buxxx has.

Speaking of silencing/giving voice to indie stores (watch how this all connects back)-my whole hope with this is to bring a perspective that’s not oft granted to this “bookstore returns” thing-one of a bookstore. Given the way that industry standards like, for instance, Publisher’s Weekly, often word, view and weigh in on industry questions and decisions as though the non-capital B box bookstores are simple children in need of a head patting and some direction, this might come as a dissenting view, but it’s not meant as such: really an inquisitive one.

The very first thing that, in my mind, gets screwed when it comes to eliminating bookstore returns is also one of the most important (at least in terms of my actual job duties): author events. It was a cold-water-to-the-face sort of realization when it finally hit me that many, many authors, especially those with large publishers, have absolutely no idea how the author tour assignment plays out. I’ve oft threatened to fully write down the futile insanity of the entire process, but instead, for brevity (too late)’s sake here, I’ll just oversimplify it. Basically, authors become commodities and we, the bookstores, get viewed as some cross-section of inept monkeys and prophetic rainmakers, and are asked to, essentially, bid for the priveledge of hosting each individual author via prophesizing what the audience turnout and number of books sold would be should said bookstore be granted the right to host said author.

Hopefully you see some lunacy in these variables. Rain, sleet and snow may not stop the US Postal Service (disclaimer: they do), but any precipitation, a school holiday, a bank holiday, a playing of Madonna’s hit song “Holiday”, the unveiling of new aquatic life at the aquarium-any of these things can drastically and suddenly change the desire of the book-event-going public (only about 10% of the general populace, really) against attending your event, regardless of who you are. Mr./Ms. Author, face it: you are no match against…drizzle.

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?

Truth be told, though, no matter who you are and how you sign your name, unless it’s a holiday, massive quantities of signed books just aren’t going to move-which means that there’s a large amount of money that could be used on other inventory just sitting, autographed. One of the arguments against allowing bookstores to return unsold inventory is that such a change of plan would “force bookstores to monitor inventory and ordering more closely”-kinda a moot point when the overordering is publishing-industry mandated.

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.

Now, truth be told, I had no reason to feel bad at that event-35 hardback books, plus about 20 paperback backlist, had sold. As an independent bookstore, those are the kind of numbers that have a massive impact on the day-to-day bottom line, and keep the lights on. Those are the sorts of “sell-out” events that are needed, as an indie, to keep providing free author programming of any sort of quality.

I’m not suggesting that bookstores should under-order for author events. Nor am I suggesting that signed stock is entirely undesirable and never sells. Rather, I’m saying that, were bookstore returns entirely disallowed, author events would be viewed much more conservatively in terms of ordering. There’d be a lot more crying and a lot more irate customers, if only because the entire thing is always such a toss of the coin.

I’ve rambled far too much, and far too incoherently, within this blog to have made any impact. I’m sure I’ll revisit the topic again, but for now I just wanted to get a little idea out there. And of course, I’m no authority or expert, and as such this is less any sort of treatise than it is a starting point for a discussion. Here, I’ll give you a topic: publishers, authors and bookstores have to work together to make this crazy boat float. Discuss.

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.


Kristy Kiernan said...

Okay, a) this was just freaking brilliant...like, that sort of brilliant that makes you sort of scared and that makes you study the writer's face in the pic so you can make sure you'll recognize him if you're ever out in public? (Which we writers don't like to do anyway.)

And b) I am always so grateful to my bookflapper. They keep me from making a TOTAL and COMPLETE idiot of myself by trying to grab, open, sign, and answer "Where do you get your ideas?" at the same time. The bookflapper is a great and appreciated asset. Thank you bookflapper, thank you.

Becky said...

Wow- I had no idea. It seems to me that when an author goes on tour, that part of the tour should include a bunch of books for signing... Then the stores don't have to deal with all the inventory issues. It should be part of the logistics of the tour - that would be lots easier, right? Probaly this is a terrible idea....

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

We get a bookflapper??? Too cool!
I mean...I HOPE I get a bookflapper. My novel, Courage in Patience, debuts on Sept. 1. Thank you for an awesome post that illuminates what is a murky world to newbie novelists like me.

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Chapter 1 is online!

Anonymous said...

What an apt post. LOved it!


The Pulpwood Queen said...

Your blog rang so incredibly true that I cherished every word. Being an author and YES!, a bookstore owner too, I have been on both sides of the table. Frankly, it's a lot of pressure both ways and you slammed the nail on the head.
So why oh why do we continue to fight the battle, only because we love books so much, that's why. The pressure and the pain involved with book selling is incredible. All I have to say is have a terrific birthday oh book soldier, onward to fight the battle to selling words. Keep flipping the flaps and keep telling yourself your place in heaven is secure and it's a gigantic library where all we get to do is read, read, read! That's what I keep telling myself as I do back flips trying to sell the over ordered books that I had the authors sign. It's getting harder and harder to sell even signed books and that includes even my own, ha ha ha! As Clinton would say, "I feel your pain."
Tiara wearing and Book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs, owner of Beauty and the Book, and author of "The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life"

Jayne Jaudon Ferrer said...

Thanks for a view from the other side, Russ. Your points are well made and, though given the nature of this industry, actual CHANGE will probably not result, at least you plopped some tantalizing food for thought on the table. And please note: I never, EVER take my bookflappers, water-bringers, chair-sitters, mic-setter-uppers, or attending clerks for granted. Not even when their attitudes are just this side of rude. Being an author is a privilege. Granted, it's a privilege I've EARNED, but I'm still grateful for anyone who helps me along the way.

Tony Burton said...

What an interesting ramble! I'm tempted to ask questions, but this was such a lighthearted treatment of the issue I don't know if my real-life questions would be apropos.

Oh, well, here they are anyway:

1) What's wrong with having a different return policy for "author events?"

2) Why not set a limitation on how many of the books ordered for general sale can be returned, say no more than fifty percent, and those have to be resellable (i.e., unmarked and undamaged)?

There must be a way to compromise between "ABSOLUTELY no returns" and "ALL books are returnable no matter what."

(It might be of general interest to know that I was pointed to this blog entry by a person who makes his living by selling tens of thousands of remaindered books each year... and of course, were returns abolished or even reduced considerably, that person's livelihood would be threatened. It doesn't surprise me that he pointed me this way. It's like an executive from Standard Oil pointing me to a post that praises the practicality of, and need for, sport utility vehicles.)

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I enjoyed this post, even coming at it a little late. As a publisher, I am okay with stores ordering less copies for an author event. When the author sells out, it is an invigorating experience, and it also encourages the store (hopefully) to have that author back for another event, at which they could sign and sell out of another stack. This builds great relationships because if the author sells out, the bookstore doesn't have to fork out more cash to return books, which they do, whether signed or not.

Thanks for the post and the smile!