Saturday, September 10, 2005

Bookspace

Tess Gerritsen has an interesting post up about purchased bookspace over at her weblog. Publishers do pay for space on the front tables at most major chain booksellers, and yet often those books never make it to their premium spaces.

Why? Going by my experience as a bookseller, the individual managers and/or floor workers likely:

1) ignored the weekly sales sheet sent down telling them to put TG's book up front and instead stacked what they wanted there.

2) didn't change out the front table because they were too busy (generally, understaffed and chained to the register, which means stocking after store hours.)*

3) had no room for the book because last week's books didn't move and decided to shelve the new arrivals.*

One of my managers completely ignored the weekly sales sheet unless there was a regional scheduled to drop in that week. She knew her customers were mostly romance readers, and devoted half her front space to romance novels instead of the usual bestsellers and major pushes. One time we stayed until 2 am and practically had to tear apart and reshelve half the store to get it according to sales plan because our manager got wind of a surprise visit by upper management the next morning (which is why our manager never got written up for not having the store according to plan. She had excellent spies.)

If a purchased-space book shipment is late? Those books never touch a tabletop. If the book is overshipped, a manager might get creative with stacking, but generally they shove the excess copies back in the store room. Jackie Collins does not want to know how many times a hundred copies of her novel sat showing their pretty leopard-skin patterned book jackets to nothing more than the employee coffee maker and concrete walls.

Also, chain store employees who work the floor and are not into reading view books the same way a grocery store bag boy views sacks of potatoes. One of the youngsters who stocked with me complained about having to unpack, move and stack hardcovers because of their weight. When I switched her to paperbacks, she bitched because there were too many authors' names to put in order. Of course, she found reciting the alphabet properly kind of a challenge, too.

This is not to say all booksellers are ignorant apes who toss our books wherever they like. On the contrary; most book store managers I've met are remarkable readers and genuinely interested in the business of bookselling. Some of their best employees are the same, and can hand sell books at the rate of ten to twenty an hour. I loved working the floor myself; talking with customers and hunting down a good read for them was a lot more fun than stacking the front table.

Yeah, well, maybe make that reason #4....

*Note on #2 and #3: from a bookseller's perspective, shelving is always easier than displaying or tabling. You can shove books on the store shelves aside to make room for new arrivals. This opposed to removing last week's books from the front table, carting them, and reshelving or store-rooming them before you can haul out and table the new books. Purchased-space books are double the work.

10 comments:

  1. My experience in country Australia - two mainstream bookstores - has been: at no stage have the booksellers heard of the authors I want. These include your own books under various names, David Weber, Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Gardner, Elizabeth Moon, Laurell K. Hamilton, amazingly enough, J.D. Robb, and a list of others.

    They have to go and look them up on the computer. Authors like Rowling, King, Grisham and Brown are always prominent.

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  2. Well, it just goes to show there isn't an area in publishing where the potential for the author to get screwed isn't present. Boy, do I need a happy pill.

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  3. I find a mysterious shelving system in the BAMM and BN. It also seems my local libraries have this same system. If I can't find a book in the "area" to which it is assigned (romance, mystery, fiction, ect., I then must go on a hunt. Sometimes I have the bookseller or librian go on the second hunt with me.

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  4. Having worked the trenches for a couple years at a major chain I witnessed any number of problems that didn't fall on the stores or booksellers themselves. Easily 60% of the time the books slated for tabling arrived after the display was scheduled to come down, as you noted, and if you don't keep to the schedule the backlog of display books can become daunting. Ms. Collins was lucky to have her spines seen; sometime we just left the books in boxes shoved under a table in the back room until they were due for return.

    Then there was the problem of the chain promising publishers more display space than a store actually contains. This hapopens more than you would imagine. I would say about 10% of endcaps and displays in our store never made it up because decisions had to be made in terms of availability of title -- and it never made sense to set up a display with half a dozen books and leave none in the section where people would go looking for them.
    As a bookseller (or a bookmonkey, as we called the booksellers who did not read and treated the books as just another product) it's hard to get excited about displays when time and again you see what a massive waste of resources it turns out to be on all fronts. Once we had to set up a table AND an endcap AND prominantly floorstack one author's sure-to-be bestseller (all 200 copies per store) and leave them displayed for five weeks. In the sixth week we were able to do store-initiated returns based on sales. We sold exactly zero of the title. And when we had any number of books that we wanted to champion, any number of titles that could have benefitted from any of that space, we were prohibited by the agreement between publisher and the corporate offices in New York.

    And that was just one instance of overkill that I think dilutes the interests of book shoppers. If, time and again, you see table upon table of dead trees that are clearly being shoved in your face you learn to ignore the displays and go search out the hidden gems you know are in there, somewhere. At one point during the last Harry Potter campaign we had five tables of mandatory displays for the book, and that was before the holiday merchandise arrived. Honestly, did that book need ANY purchased space to sell?

    It's a tough world capturing eyeballs in a superstore with upwards of a quarter million titles on display, but in my experience the titles that benefitted from display space were the ones chosen by booksellers and store managers that knew their customers and communities tastes, and rarely did a "bought" title benefit from being featured with slick ad campaigns.

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  5. Jaye, do you think the problem with your chains over there is the same as here -- employees who aren't into reading and don't care? Just curious.

    I want some of the pills if you find them, Jo.

    Mandy, thanks for taking the time to hunt -- we need more people with your determination.

    David, thank you for the comments -- you've filled in a lot more of the picture than I could.

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  6. Idiot employees are definitely a problem in the chain stores here. I don't get it why a university town can't pay a few literature students to do the job, they could at least spell the names of Goethe and Fontane correctly.

    I'm buying more and more via Amazon nowadays, even German books, and only check into the stores when I want to read a bit before I buy a certain book - which only works in case the book is not too exotic to make it on the shelves.

    There is one small, privately owned store here that has capable employees, but they specialise in paperback only. Still, it's a better hangout than the big one, despite the fact the big one offers coffee. ;)

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  7. Then there's the chain that went bankrupt because they didn't want to listen to their customers or to the (few) employees who actually read books. I used to get so frustrated with the management. They deserved to go out of business because they only had one plan--sell everything at a discount. That worked when they started because no one was discounting anything. But then the bigger chains started selling at the same or bigger discounts. The bigger chains got the books in stock closer to the actual publication date. In our store, only the huge sellers came in early. I remember one mystery that came in 2 weeks after the B&N across the street had it. Ours sat on the shelf because customers had already bought it there. B&N members got the same discount we gave them and nonmembers paid full price because they didn't think it was worth the wait to save about 60 cents.

    The other big problem was that they had a rectangular shaped product. A bunch of them look pretty much the same from a distance, especially if they have similar cover colors. When an enterprising employee made an interesting-looking end display, I had to make him take it down and do it over because corporate wanted the books in rows. They'd made me redo a display my manager had suggested I do in a more interesting way. Both eye-catching displays were turned into 3x3 sections of the same book, displayed next to another 3x3 section of another book, making rectangles of rectangles. When you walked by the front window, nothing caught your attention, totally defeating the purpose of displaying books in windows and on endcaps.

    There was an attitude that corporate rules trump selling product. The second book in G.R.R. Martin's big selling series, had just come out in hardcover. I wanted to shelve a couple copies of the first book with it to encourage those who hadn't read the original book to pick up both. I reasoned that if a busy customer had to go searching elsewhere for the first book, they'd probably walk out with neither. My manager said I couldn't do that kind of display because corporate doesn't allow mass market books to be displayed with hardcovers. If I'd been the store manager instead of a lowly assistant manager, I'd have done it anyway. I know I could have increased sales and increasing sales was the only thing that would have saved the company. It was in Chapter 11 when I started working there and completely went out of business shortly after I left. All-in-all, during my time working there I got great lessons in how to run a large bookseller into the ground.

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  8. PBW said:

    Jaye, do you think the problem with your chains over there is the same as here -- employees who aren't into reading and don't care? Just curious.


    The 'circular' reasoning I was given was that they only stocked books they knew would sell, ie, popular authors. But this is a small town with barely 20,000 people, and I live 40 kms away. They didn't even know that J.D. Robb was Nora Roberts *sigh*. Every time I go in and ask about an author they don't know about, I give them a genre and a comparison name, ie Scottoline, Reichs I found to be better than Grisham, and so on. Most of the staff here just aren't interested, couldn't suggest alternative reading for me, even for a sale.

    The city stores are, of course, different.

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  9. Jaye said:
    The city stores are, of course, different.

    I wish. It's very difficult to buy a wide range of romance in Australia. Generally you have to buy on line. Booksellers haven't worked out it's such a huge market (god knows why). Authors like Loretta Chase, Julia Quinn, Jude Deveraux and most of the paranormals can only be purchased at two major bookstores in the city closest to me (Sydney). This is absurd for a city of 4 million people.

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  10. It seems to me that there's something of a "cargo cult" mentality in the publishing business -- that is, "we do things that way because we've done them that way before, or because someone else does it", whether or not it really makes sense to do them. Does buying floor space in bookstores really help the books sell? I'd venture a guess that it doesn't help very often. Does the chain-store habit of ordering to the net actually make sense? An awful lot of chains seems to have fallen prey to that master of circular reasoning.

    And in the end, how many publishers -- at least, the big guys -- actually do the intelligent thing and ask readers how to help them find the books they'd like to buy? How many ship the books to stores -- who are, after all, in the business of knowing how to sell them -- and let the retailers do their job? How many even know what readers want, as opposed to just making guesses and hoping for the best?

    I hope someday the mystery I'm working on, or another one I write after it, will be published. I aspire to be in that world. But that doesn't mean I understand it.

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