jeudi 14 décembre 2006

The business of bookshops


an author to understand the
workings of the high street bookshops in order
to have a realistic sense of what publishers have
to do to sell books and how you can help them
to develop the products they need.
Buying decisions
Bookshop staff need to make commercial
decisions regarding which new and old books
they want to stock in their shops. Some will meet
regularly with representatives of publishing
companies and wholesalers to be shown
information about forthcoming books; others
will buy from catalogues, customer requests or
the Internet. Choosing which books to keep in
stock is a tricky art. The bookseller needs to be
aware of the social class and ethnicity of its
customer base, who the ‘hot’ authors of the day
happen to be, and whether there are local reasons
why particular titles need to be stocked such as
those related to courses at local colleges. The track
record of an author, publisher, or series of books
is also taken into account together with the
limitations of a monthly purchasing budget.
I spent many years ‘repping’ new books
into bookshops, and it was often a struggle.
It could never be guaranteed that every
book I published would be stocked by
every bookshop. Frequently as many as
half the shops I visited would say ‘no
thanks’ to a forthcoming book. Some shops
would be sufficiently excited to order
enough copies to create a pile on a table
or a ‘pocket’ on the shelf (where the books
are face-out instead of spine-on), but
others would reluctantly take a single copy.
Buying decisions appeared arbitrary, so
each book’s coverage of the country would
be patchy at best. In some towns it would
be impossible to find our books. In others
we’d find everyone was buying them.
Some of the problems I had in persuading buyers
to stock the book in their shops were related to
personal opinions or prejudice. Understandably,
we all tend to make purchasing decisions based
on what we like, and booksellers are no different.
It’s their job to be objective and to select books
for their customers, not themselves, but
inevitably personal preferences get in the way.
Many bookshop workers I encountered were
poorly paid and not sufficiently motivated to care
too much about being objective. But this is
understandable because profit margins for
bookshops are very tight and, like publishing, it’s
a risky, investment-heavy business.
When a publisher attempts to sell their new
titles to a bookshop they face a similar challenge
to that of an author trying to sell their book
concept to a publisher. The publisher, like the
bookseller, should be objective and neutral in
their commissioning decisions. But that isn’t the
way the world works. Publishers have
preferences and prejudices too and they will reject
books they simply don’t like or don’t approve of,
even though other readers might like them. But
in the same way that a publisher simply visits
another bookshop after failing to make a sale, an
author must try another publisher as soon as the
book proposal is rejected.
Shelf space
Go into any bookshop and the chances are that
every shelf and table is full of books. It makes
sense: the shops are trying to offer the widest
range of books possible in order to attract the
most customers, so all the space in the shop is
used to its fullest extent.
Many authors and customers assume that what
you see on the shelves is just the tip of the iceberg
of a shop’s available stock, and that for every copy
at the front of the store there will be ten or twenty
hidden away in their stockroom out the back.
Bookshops do have stock rooms, but they are for
processing incoming
parcels and outgoing
unsold books. Only
exceptionally fast-selling
books will have spare stock
kept out of sight of the
So if the shelves are full,
how can they order new
customers buy books each day. That creates just
enough slack in the system to be able to slot in
the new stock. It’s a difficult balancing act,
frequently requiring older books to be returned
to the publishers in order to make way for the
new ones. And that is why a newly published
author is often shocked and disappointed to
discover that their book is not in stock in all
bookshops and where it is stocked there is only a
single copy available.
Subject areas
Bookshops have to divide and label their shelf
space according to standard subject areas. This
enables the customer to find the right kind of
book easily. History is on one shelf, cookery is
on another. Easy.
Complications arise when a book is published
that is about the history of cooking. Which
section should it go in? The bookseller may make
a random decision between the available options,
which means a customer who reads a review and
comes in looking for that book only has a 50%
chance of finding it unless they visit both shelves
(which might be on different floors of the
building). For this reason it is vital to write a book
that will fit into a pre-existing genre. Don’t try
to invent a new genre: there won’t be a shelf for
it and it won’t sell.
Time given for a book to sell
Bookshops have agreements with the publishers
whose books they stock allowing them to return
unsold books after a certain minimum amount
of time. Books fail to sell for a number of reasons.
It could be that the shop arranges a particular
subject alphabetically by the author’s name,
resulting in books by a writer whose surname
begins with a Y being placed on the bottom shelf
where no one can see it without getting down
on their knees. It could be that the book is wrong
for the kind of population in the bookshop’s
catchment area. Maybe it received bad reviews
or didn’t get any publicity at all. Thin books
placed spine-on can get lost amongst larger
books. The bookseller may have placed the book
on the correct shelf only for a browsing customer
to pick it up and place it on a different shelf so
that no one finds it again.
These and dozens of other reasons explain why
at least a fifth of all books sold into bookshops
by publishers are returned some months later.
This can have interesting effects on royalty
statements, because the author is paid when a
bookshop makes a purchase but if the books ‘sold’
are subsequently returned and there are more
returns than sales in a subsequent royalty period
then there could be negative royalty due. This
will be carried forward to the next statement –
the author won’t normally have to hand the
money back.
If a bookshop was not able to return unsold stock
they would gradually clog up with books, forcing
them to cut back on purchases of new books until
their business ground to a halt.
Prime space
Certain areas of bookshops are regarded as prime
selling space: the till points, the entrance, the
windows and the tables on the ground floor.
Prime space represents less than 1% of the
available space for books. Most new authors
imagine that their book will automatically be
positioned in prime selling space and feel let
down by their publishers when this doesn’t happen.
Prime space in the large bookshop chains is
often allocated for in-store promotions, such as
‘3 for 2’ (buy two books, get one free). Publishers
are asked to pay a share of the cost of the
promotion and to give extra discount to
compensate the bookseller who is effectively
giving away some of their stock for free. But
however keen a publisher may be to promote a
particular title in this way, the bookshop’s head
office will make the final decision as to which
titles to include. That’s one reason why your book
may not appear in the promotion. Another reason
is that the costs to the publisher of including it
are simply uneconomical and the publisher
refuses to take part.
Bookselling is a seasonal business. More books
are bought as gifts for others than are bought by
people who actually want to read them
themselves. So gift books and humour books sell
particularly well as Christmas stocking-fillers.
Little romantic books sell in early February just
before St Valentine’s Day. Travel guides sell in
huge numbers in early summer as people prepare
to go on holiday. Exam guides sell prior to any
exam dates.
To make the most of this seasonal effect,
booksellers sometimes have to clear out books
in order to make space for the big seasonal titles.
As an author, this means you might see your book
disappear from the shelves only to return a few
months later.
Very few books sell evenly
throughout the year, and
this is primarily due to the
huge market distortion
caused by Christmas.
The difficulties of being a bookseller
A typical bookshop stocks 70,000 titles (out of
almost a couple of million currently in print).
Many of them are steady backlist sellers that any
customer would expect to find, such as
Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen novels and
Wordsworth poems. In order to stock new titles
a bookseller has to drop old ones. Making
decisions like that whilst dealing with customer
questions and operating till points and unpacking
stock parcels is not easy. How many new titles
should the shop take on when there are over
100,000 new books published each year?
In order to be able to keep in stock the range
of backlist titles that customers expect the choice
of new titles is limited to as little as 5,000. So
95% of new books will not be stocked and the
bookseller has to reject new titles presented to
them every day.
However, it’s not quite the case that 95% of
new books are turned down: many books are not
intended for sale in high street shops in the first
place and the bookshops are never told about
them. Specialist text books, for instance, are sold
to libraries and through other channels. Some
publishers don’t have reps to show the books to
the shops. Some of the ‘new’ books are, in fact,
new editions of older books and don’t need to
be re-sold into the trade.
A wholesaler stocks books from all publishers,
thus providing a useful service for any shops that
want to lower their administration costs by only
dealing with one supplier instead of hundreds of
publishers. The publisher sells books to the
wholesaler, and the wholesaler then sell the books
to the shops.
The Internet
Currently the dominant player in Internet
bookselling is Amazon, which has sites catering
for several countries. Its drawbacks include the
inability to hold a book and flick through its pages
before buying and the delay between purchasing
the book and its arrival by post. But the
advantages of this business model are
considerable. Firstly, every book in print (and
even those not in print) is listed on the website.
Armchair shopping is an obvious bonus, and the
listing of reviews by readers of each book adds a
dimension that high street shops could not
Amazon buys some of its stock from wholesalers,
but many of its titles are kept in its warehouses
‘on consignment’. This means that publishers
deliver stock to them without an invoice: Amazon
only pays the publisher once the books have been
sold. This can create a distortion in royalty
accounts if the author knows the initial print run
and the current stock levels because significant
amounts of stock can disappear from the
publisher’s warehouse without the author
apparently receiving royalties from it. The royalties
from Amazon sales will appear in later statements
once Amazon has provided its own statements to
the publisher for books sold.

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