DISPATCHES FROM THE FRONT LINES

I have the best readers in the world! They were willing to be my scouts, to venture into bookstores all over the country and check out where copies of VANISH were located. And they reported back. Boy, did they report back. I’ve gotten emails from Florida to California, from the Caribbean to Hawaii to British Columbia. I can’t tell everyone enough how much I appreciated hearing from you all.

I learned that the books are well-displayed in Books a Million and Target and Krogers. But I’ve also heard that my depressing experience in Barnes & Noble in Honolulu was not all that unusual. In about 30-40% of B&N stores, VANISH, in its first week of sale, was shelved in the back of the store. Which is very disturbing, and here’s why.

My publisher paid for co-op.

For those of you who aren’t in the pub business, you may not realize that the front octagonal table in B&N is actually PAID display space. (Otherwise known as paying for “co-op”.) Publishers pay for that bit of real estate so that their new titles can be seen. I don’t know how much it costs them. (If anyone happens to know the answer to that, I’d love to hear from you privately!) Ballantine paid for, and expected, VANISH to be displayed on B&N’s front tables for its first week of sale, yet in up to 40% of B&N stores, my readers found that the books were shelved at the back of the stores, with no discount stickers.

I’ve since heard that this isn’t unusual, that in fact B&N co-op compliance overall is only about 65% in New York City stores.

Now, imagine paying a contractor to build your house, and he only builds 65% of it. Wouldn’t you have SOME recourse?

Apparently in publishing, there’s none. A bookstore chain can take a publisher’s money, simply ignore the co-op agreement, and not suffer for it. But really, what’s a publisher to do in response? Refuse to do business with the largest bookstore chain in the country? A chain like B&N is too powerful to mess around with. If you’re not displayed in front, readers won’t find you. If you don’t do well at B&N, you don’t make the bestseller lists. Publishers, and authors, are at its mercy.

(note: Borders doesn’t seem to be a problem. At least, I haven’t heard any similar reports from Borders so far.)

I’m fortunate enough to get weekly sales reports. As I may have mentioned, I love numbers, and I’m finding some little tidbits that other publishing nerds may find interesting. Even though my B&N store sales have suffered for this title, my B&N.COM sales (their online sales) have increased by almost 300% over my last title. Could it be that readers are going online to buy VANISH because they can’t find it in the brick and mortar stores?

Speaking of online sales, here are some numbers that may interest other authors. There’s a lot of speculation about just what the “sales index number” means for Amazon.com and B&N.com. Here’s what I’ve found. During a week when my B&N.com index ranged between 10 and 30, my sales were about 36 per day. Over at Amazon.com, during a week when my index ranged between 50 and 80, my sales were about 85 copies per day. So you can see we’re not talking huge numbers here. And it appears that my Amazon sales were two and a half times my B&N.com sales.

I wonder if that ratio holds true for all their online titles.

The irony, of course, is that despite B&N’s touted ability to “make” a bestseller, they seem to be losing market share to other, less traditional outlets such as wholesale clubs and grocery stores. At least, that’s what I’m seeing in my own sales pattern.

Bookselling is clearly in transition.

I’ve gotten one comment from a bookseller about my frustrating experience doing drop-in signings. “Why didn’t you just call ahead and talk to the manager?” I was asked. “Don’t mess with some clerk.”

The truth is, in every store I visited, I DID talk to the manager. And as for calling ahead — try calling a major chain bookstore and doing your “I’m an author in town” spiel. Count how many minutes it takes to get hold of someone who’ll give you an answer. (Which I have a feeling would have been: “Oh, we can’t have you sign books. We can’t return them.”) Part of the reason for drop-in signings is just to say hello, greet the booksellers, and in my case, offer to leave some glossy bookmarks. Being cut off at the pass, over the phone, would have meant never even stepping foot in many of those Honolulu stores.

So to all you authors with books on sale, or about to go on sale: gird yourselves. The bookselling world is not for the faint of heart!

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