Picture this: An irate local author can’t find his latest title on the neighborhood bookstore shelf. So he slips into the storeroom, grabs his books from the back stock and heads straight for the store’s most exclusive patch of real estate – the front table – where he elbows aside the bestsellers and drops his own books down in their place.
That anecdote comes from veteran bookseller Andy Ross, who for 30 years owned the venerable Cody’s Books in Berkeley (when bookstores still carried back stock.)
Bookstores account for 60% of sales
Make no mistake: Book placement matters. Brick and mortar bookstores account for more than 60 percent of all book sales, so we publishers agonize over where our books are placed, and struggle to get higher visibility, title-by-title, for the books we love. Who does not love a bookstore which has a serene atmosphere, the perfect books in stock, and maybe a commercial HVAC system to provide the perfect reading ambience?
However, the appeal for physical books and bookstores seems to be on the decline of late. Nowadays, people read books in a variety of ways, with quite a lot now being made available online and through some of the best torrenting sites 2022 for those who want exclusively read online, however, bookstores are still an important part of the fabric of society and they are a place for people to go to for their physical copies.
And where a book sits can incite bitter shelf wars among authors, publishers, sales reps, and retailers, leading to frequent incidents of guerrilla merchandising, with the interested parties surreptitiously rearranging the stock for their own benefit.
Can the right book placement produce a bestseller? Probably not, but sales can jump if a book is displayed face-out near the cash register – considered the absolute best spot in the store. Sales can also surge if a title has an enthusiastic hand-written staff recommendation tacked to the shelf.
Pile ‘em high and watch ‘em fly
That’s bookseller lingo for building those towering monoliths of stacked bestsellers you see near the entrances of the biggest bookstores. Other coveted placements to increase visibility and sales include the end caps of bookshelves and book posts with all the titles facing out.
Face-out or spine-out?
What author wouldn’t rather have their book turned face-out, with the cover visible to bookstore browsers? That placement decision, it turns out, is up to the store staffer who shelves the books. It’s usually a factor of how many copies are on the shelf; if there are more than a few, there’s a better chance the stack will be turned face-out. An eye-catching book jacket helps too.
The kiss of death
Sales will suffer, on the other hand, if – horrors – a book is shelved away in Sociology – a catchall section for ambiguous titles, and the kiss of death for book sales. Even worse and most frustrating of all, is if a store clerk misshelves the book to begin with. Then the book is doomed. It’s impossible to locate, even if a customer requests the book and the store shows it’s in inventory.
Here’s more from my conversation with Andy Ross, who is now, incidentally, a literary agent whose authors benefit from his unique perspective and expertise as a former bookseller.
What determines the category where a title is shelved? What if, for example, a particular book could be interpreted as either a memoir or self-help?
The publisher assigns every book a section code. That code determines where a book is shelved in the store. It can be an important strategic decision. One of my authors, for example, is writing a book that could be positioned either as a travel narrative or political history. Travel narrative is hot now, so we’ll emphasize that to the publisher.
Who decides if a book is placed on a front table or other prominent spot?
The publisher has the biggest influence because they pay the store a placement allowance.
What’s a placement allowance?
It’s a percentage of the prior year’s total sales. The big bookstore chains get millions to spread around, while independent booksellers get a fraction of that for all of the publisher’s new titles. So basically the publisher is pumping money into the accounts to purchase the best space in the store — front tables, end caps and window space, in the same way General Mills and Proctor and Gamble buy space for their breakfast cereals and dish detergents in the supermarkets.
Do publishers allocate dollars for specific titles?
They pay fees for store placement. I suspect that money is also paid under the table for special side deals in the chains for a few blockbuster dreams. Of course nothing is ever in writing. There’s no way anyone can monitor this stuff.
What about those staff recommendations on the shelves and covers?
Those can definitely make a difference, especially if they’re personal and hand-written.
But a lot of those “staff recommendations” at the chain bookstores are phony, and written by someone at the central office. The American Booksellers Association also used to crank out fake recommendations for stickies, that you were supposed to slap on the big books.
Can a bookseller create a bestseller?
Not really. But a bookseller can certainly give a book a big kick-start. Here’s an example: Fred Cody (the founder of Cody’s Books) had sold a surprising 200 copies of Tom Robbins‘ first novel Another Roadside Attraction. That impressed him a lot. So when Houghton Mifflin came around with Tom’s second book Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Fred ordered 1,000 copies. That really got the publisher’s attention. They leveraged that information and told all their other accounts that the legendary astute book buyer Fred Cody had taken a very strong position and they should too. Eventually the book was a big hit, still selling today.
I did the same thing later on with Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, and Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. We moved out more than ten percent of all their total sales, and these were in my opinion some of the great works of modern literature.
What can self-published authors do to get shelf placement?
Self-published authors can make a deal with a local bookstore to have a reading or even a workshop, if they can guarantee that enough people will turn out. Then stores can special-order copies and put them in the window or front tables to promote the event. Now that there are oceans of self-published books, there are more of these events.
Writers, have you had bookstore placement and visibility problems? Were you able to resolve them? Have any questions? I’ll watch for them in your comments.
Andy Ross is a literary agent whose book The Dog Who Never Stopped Loving by best-selling author Jeffrey Masson is a lead title from Harper Collins this coming fall of 2010.
An Internet bookshop can have more space. What advice can you give for placement of a book on a website?
Amanda Sablan says
Thanks for the insight.
I remember reading an article/blog post on an author’s web site a couple months ago about what readers could do to support their favorite authors. Obvious suggestions were word of mouth, buying hard covers, etc. One of the things suggested that I’ve adopted is that if an author’s book is spine out or hidden on a less visible shelf, to move the book(s). Sure, the book store employees will probably come back and turn it around at some point, but until they do, that author is more visible, and it is more likely that book will sell.
I regretted doing this only once, when I went back the next day after deciding I wanted to purchase the last copy of a book I had turned face out, only to find it was now out of stock.
Aline deWinter says
This is all great advice. Thanks!
What is better than a faceout?
A spineout NEXT to the faceout doubles the
chances of the book being seen. The spine is
a cover too. A face out can be too far back on
the shelf for visibility.
What is better than special endcap or table
Placement of the book in it’s regular section
as well. Regular customers know the sections
they seek, where their favorite authors are usually
filed, and will walk deirectly there.
What promo placement really does is expose
a book to someone who wasn’t looking for in
the first place, and actually HIDES a title in an
arbitrary place. It aids accidental discovery, but
obscures in other ways.
Name those boxes or cans in the supermarket
pyramidded you walked past last time you were
Promo placement can move titles, but it is not
the endall be-all, nor necessaril the best route
to success. It does represent a barter economy
that becomes more important between publisher
and bookseller as less REAL cashflow is available.
Much of what you are taught in marketing 101
Stuart Clark says
Thanks for your comments. Andrew, I’ll reply to you in due course off the blog and better explain my situation to you. Then if we discover something that might be of greater good to the people reading this post, I’ll post it up here.
Andrew Wheeler says
Stuart Clark: I’m a distant colleague of Alan’s, working in marketing for book publishing, and he asked me to take a look at your comment and reply from my point of view.
I can’t be sure, but I suspect a lot of what you’re getting are excuses — the store doesn’t want to bother to carry your book (either because they don’t like small press books to begin with or some other reason) and is telling you about a problem that sounds faintly plausible, but which they could overcome if they wanted to. But, as you might in any sales call, you’re getting a “no” there, and it’s time to move on to the next one.
I don’t know the details of your book or publisher — or where the book actually is for sale — which could help explain things. Perhaps your publisher has non-standard selling terms, which makes the book less attractive. It is true that Borders has centralized buying, and that they’ve tightened up greatly over the past few years — a lot of big-publisher books are getting skipped by Borders, and their shelves have been notably emptier recently than they used to be. (Every book shipped to a Borders store does have to go through their warehouse first, to get a sticker and a “BINC” number.) B&N is generally more amenable to bringing stock in on the store level, but, still, you have to convince that store-level manager that a book is worth his time and shelf space — and it sounds like the managers you’ve been talking to aren’t convinced.
I generally urge authors I deal with to concentrate their personal outreach/marketing efforts online, unless they have a book that’s of specific, obvious local interest. For most books, the potential audience is fairly large but very diffuse — so social media, and other kinds of Internet communities (forums, blogs, dedicated websites, etc.) are the best ways to reach people interested in that kind of material. In practice, that tends to mean maximizing your opportunities at Amazon — signing up as an affiliate, claiming your author page and filling it with content, inserting a link to your book in your standard e-mail signature (and Facebook wall, etc.), and so on.
It’s definitely possible to find success with a small-press book — it won’t generally be a massive, bestseller level of success, but you can have a book that sells well and finds an audience that sustains it, particularly if you can define that audience clearly and then reach out to them.
Bah. That’s no surprise about Manhattan Borders. The one by Penn Station is one of the worst chain bookstores I’ve ever been in. It appears to mostly sell chocolates and gifts at this point. No one who shops there is going to buy something from a small press anyway–it’s all Twilight and more Twilight. McNally Jackson is a better bet.
Good post. What I would like to know, as someone who is (crossing my fingers) trying to get published is: what is the BEST way for an author to promote sales on their end? I know different strategies, but is there really a sure-fire way to promote their book effectively?
Very interesting post. I was thrilled to get my book shortlisted for an award and our local bookstore has set up a table displaying the nominated books – my book’s not there – out of stock, but on order! – for a month now. Soon the display will be over and I’ll have lost my chance.
andy ross says
I know it can be frustrating for authors when they can’t get a book into the store. This is a big problem with chains where store managers have very little flexibility. But it can happen anywhere.
The part about the distributor not having enough copies doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Particularly not knowing which distributor we’re talking about. Most bookstores (chains and independents) do special orders. But truthfully, the special order business has pretty much been taken over by internet booksellers.
Stuart Clark says
As an author with a small press, I find trying to get my book into stores well-nigh impossible. Being in Manhattan, I thought things would be easy, I’d just go into stores and ask them to stock a few copies and hey, being in Manhattan, with that concentration of consumers – they’d be bound to sell – right?
I found out that Borders in Manhattan won’t carry anything unless it’s pre-approved from head office in Ann Arbour, Michigan – and that goes for every store in the city. I had a little more luck with Barnes & Noble but that really depended on who you spoke to on any given day at the information desk. Some people were happy to order a few copies. Others weren’t interested at all.
Here’s the most frustrating part. Many managers at Barnes & Noble wouldn’t order copies of my book because the distributor was only showing a low number (<10) of copies in stock. The argument was, if they ordered copies for the store, there would be less stock for the other stores to order from should an order come in. Now I know for a fact that my publisher has hundreds of copies sitting in a warehouse but the distributor only orders copies and holds them when they actually get orders from the store. Once that small number of copies is sold, the distributor then shows the title as “Out of stock.” Any subsequent customers looking for the title then get told that the book is out of stock, when in fact, there’s hundreds available. Even orders put through from stores sometimes come back unfulfilled because the distributor is “Out of Stock”. I know I’ve lost sales because of this absurd state of affairs. There seems to be no flag or trigger that tells the distributor when a title is out of stock to order some more to have on hand. It’s crazy and a constant source of frustration that the orders don’t translate all the way back up the supply chain.
Gerri George says
Terrific interview, useful information. Also demonstrates the power independent bookstores have which writers and publishers should take advantage of.
Kirsten Lesko says
I feel so cheated about those staff picks! I always go to those first. LOL.
This is the way the world works. It’s not terribly insightful, but rather requires a person to make a simple observation to realize the facts. It’s unfortunate that we need articles like this, but that said, it is needed, because people are so oblivious to their surroundings.
Morgan Ives says
I’m feeling particularly naive right now. I didn’t know that General Mills bought product placement for Cheerios, let alone publishers doing it for books. Good to know.
Ian@ Book Marketing Trends says
I really liked this article. In the big chains books tend to float around the stop for days. A customer will pick up a title in “Sociology” ;) and then change their minds and leave the book in the canoeing section of the sports department. So if you cover stands out it will have a better chance of being brought back home.
Tracy Lucas says
Interesting tips, and several things we should definitely think about.
I’ve been a publisher for several years, and never knew that endcap space could be purchased, officially or otherwise.
Thanks for sharing!