Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Word’s Out That We’re Evil (Again)

I agree with some points and disagree with others in this post by Holly Lisle called “How to Kill a Career in Three Easy Books.”

Thoughts?

(Chain bashing ones won’t hurt my feelings).

26 comments:

Kendall said...

It seems like there's no good answer. Holly's "go indie" seems disingenuous. It sounds like people should, if anything, buy more from chains. ;-) Okay, I'm exaggerating, but if the only people selling her books were indies, she'd have no career with a major publisher any more, no? So, it seems like the answer isn't to blow off the chains.

Again, no good answer, but buying from chains has seemed -- from what I've read here, there, and elsewhere -- to be more important than previously, because of the consolidated buying. The whole "90% sell, so they only order 90% as many copies" (GAK!) may be unavoidable, but if some of that shifts to indies and the chain sells 70%, then the career will either die quickly, or at least, more surely, than if those sales stayed where they were, right? Because chains order large quantities to distribute through the nation, so a lot less books of hers would be out there at all, and fewer copies would sell?

I'm sure I'm missing many things here (how indies buy books, how sales are tracked, and probbaly a basic economics class). And maybe there's no way to reach a "steady state" between indie & chain buying. ;-) Sigh.

Nonny said...

As much as several authors (Holly isn't the only one) profess that "chain bookstores are doom to authors," I'm not sure how much of that I buy.

I can think of several midlist authors offhand that I can find in my local Borders or B&N. Very often, I can't find their entire collection, but I can at least find the new book and usually the prior two. This has been the case at several different stores in three different states. (Washington, Texas, and Massachusetts.)

If a book has a 90% sell-through rate, I have very strong doubts that the publisher is going to completely cut the author because of the diminished returns of the bookstores. Granted, this may vary by genre. Romance seems to have a faster "rotation" than SFF, but romance writers also seem to have an eight-month release schedule as opposed to a year or more. (Depending on author, but this is what I've seen to be common.)

Is it a cause for concern? Yes, and a good reason why an author should be promoting herself in the ways that are most comfortable to her. (I say this because some new authors go completely nuts trying to do everything and burn out.) But I don't think it's the end of the world, and I've seen a lot of people over the years act like it is.

jmc said...

I think (having only skimmed Lisle's piece) that lumping indies into a single, homogenous block is as big a mistake as complaining about all chains. The three local indies I patronize (two near my work, one near my home) have pathetic or nonexistent romance sections, and their fiction sections tend to be heavy on litfic and classics. Also, their booksellers all cringe when I ask them to order any romance. My local Borders has an excellent general fiction and romance section and is willing to order anything. The service tends to be good there, too, except at the holidays when the seasonal booksellers tend to be less informed about the stock, and harried generally because of the holiday rush.

Anonymous said...

The quote I like best from Holly's piece is "the knowledgable bookseller will get the news out to the store’s clients, and will order extra books, and will handsell the series to new customers." It's like she thinks that the people working in chains don't read, like books, or know anything about what's good or might appeal to a given type of reader. I spend a lot of time in a chain bookstore (usually waiting for BSC to go to lunch or be done for the day) and I watch her and her coworkers handsell book after book after book. I also see the repeat customers who come in and say "I loved the book you recommended, what should I read next?" While this may be my chain store of choice, I go to others and I see a fair amount of that even in the larger chain stores. Aside from one shining example (yay Grassroots in Corvallis!), the independents I've been in have been largely dissapointing both in my current home town and the three previous ones. In general, I love independent stores of all varieties (pharmacies, clothing stores, bookstores, restaurants, etc.), but I am going to go where I get good service, resonable prices, and can find what I'm looking for.
~The Druggie

Mindy Klasky said...

Alas, all indies are not alike, and any analysis of the industry that assumes all indies are the same isn't a complete analysis.

The indies I know best (the Olssons chain in Washington DC) are not supportive of speculative fiction, particularly the paranormals I'm currently writing. Most indies I've patronized skew very, very heavily toward "literature", with a handful dedicated to specific genres (e.g. mystery or SF.)

I am hundreds of times more likely to find my books in chain stores than in indies. I'd be biting the hands that feed me if I spoke out against all chains in favor of all indies. At the same time, I support any indy that supports genre (especially my genres) - I'll try to arrange readings/signings at them, I'll send them promotional materials (if they can use them), I'll include them on my chocolate gift list for book launches, I'll mention them and their staff on my blog....

I'd love to live in a book world where there were omnipresent genre-friendly indies. I'd love to live in a world where there were omniscient chain store employees. Living in *this* world, though, I balance the best I can - support the stores that support me, and educate, educate, educate...

Mindy

lady t said...

Holly's contention seems to be that only indies can truly promote and keep a midlist writer's books for the reading public. One big probelm with her theory is in assuming that indie booksellers don't consider cost,only quality. If a one midlist title is selling better than another,that's going to be a key factor in whether or not it gets re-ordered.

The budgets are tight for the indies and while many folks will keep certain authors around based on their own likes and dislikes,even those favored children will be whittled down if need be. Also,as other posters have pointed out,the indie store may not carry certain genres or very few of them due to the book buyer's taste.

I really don't see why this has to be something either-or thing;it benefits both the writer and the reader to have their works in chain and indie stores.

Jane said...

I don't agree. Booksellers who love romance are RARELY indie booksellers. There are about three indie booksellers in my city and the romance section is anemic. I wouldn't be able to find anything but a Nora Roberts book or any other bestseller there.

The best place to find a midlist? My local Waldens. Waldens has a romance reader feature published bi monthly. There are coupons and sales programs devoted to getting readers to buy more romances (the buy 4 get 1 free has made me pick up more than one midlist author).

It would be great if all bookstores had a person who was knowledgeable about at least one genre and that could handsell midlist authors but that is a utopian viewpoint not achievable with indie booksellers or chain booksellers.

Anonymous said...

BSC, I thought of you the minute I read Holly Lisle's post. Her argument is one I have heard before (though usually the moral is, "And that's why authors need to promote themselves," not "And that is why you should all support Indies."). I'd love to hear your take on it.

Eileen said...

well now I'm just depressed.

how to furnish a room said...

I've worked in a Canadian independent for years and I'm the first to admit my shop fits the "litfic" description. I don't know zip about romance fiction,
indeed, I don't know many indies who do justice to the genre. In that sense, chains are probably the better bet, especially if booksellers "cringe" when asked to order books.
I'm only too happy to order any romance novel in or out of print because I own a house and it pays my mortgage.
Any indie shop that cringed at a reasonable request from me would never see me again.
I don't care for chains either, but it seems pretty clear who caters better to the genre here.
My chain bias doesnt' extend to BSC at all. Love the blog.

new_eyes said...

20 years ago a company in Ann Arbor, Books Inventory Systems, supplied books for Davis-Kidd, a large independent bookstore in Tennessee, with about 40 full time "career booksellers". (B.I.S. was founded by the first Borders Books, if I remember right.) Anyway, we were encouraged to over-ride any automatic "call back" on a title, and any bookseller could refuse to return a rare and worthy title. (I once found a slim volume of Jane Austins's thoughts on Economics on our returns list, haha! Of course I didn't return it.) Also we maintained a weekly "rush list", no manager ever questioned.

I was a bookseller for ten years and eventually found myself at both Borders and Barnes and Noble. Our managers were not usually serious readers, but our booksellers were, and that's how we got hired.

"Chains" were a boon to bookselling at the time. They encouraged customers to make the bookstore a place to meet, with their coffee corners and even small cafes. This was new in the mid 1980's. They will of course survive with Amazon for the same reasons they over took the small, cramped neighborhood bookstore, (which was often manned by an unhelpful crank.)

Holly said...

Through most of my career, my sellthrough on first books out has been around 90%. On several novels, it has been 97%. My reviews trend good to very good from both readers and professional reviewres, I get a lot of "Our Top Pick" notices from reviewers. Indies carry my stuff and keep it in stock. And yet, out of thirty novels published, I can walk into my local chains and find one spined out copy of book three of one older series, and a couple of copies of TALYN.

So having great sell-through and excellent reviews has NO effect.

The variable is the chains, and has been noted as such from the one publisher with whom I worked closely, as well as from my various editors, who have ground their teeth at the chains' buying policies.

As for the chains having some real booksellers, yes. I know they do. I was married to one for a while, and he was a voracious reader who knew his stuff and knew his custormers. He was an exception, which I suspect you realize. The few real booksellers lost amid the gum-chewing "I just work here's" can only hand-sell a few books, and generally are dissuaded by management from spending time on the floor talking to customers, because they're supposed to be stocking the shelves, doing inventory, or running the register.

At one of our two bookstores (both chains) I have never been greeted by a single employee, have never had one who knew if specific new releases were in stock, have never had one recognize the names of any authors less well-known than Danielle Steele or Stephen King.

The manager of the other one apparently gets lists of books to push---if I enter that store more than once a month, he tries to push the same damned books (in which I have no interest) down my throat. Every single time.

Your mileage may vary, but my experience with chains runs from bad to worse.

Holly said...

And for the folks who point out that authors need both chains and indies, of course we do. To those who point out that not all indies are equally good ... really? You needed to say that? Of course they're not.

But if you're not living on your writing income, watching your royalty statements and your sellthroughs and your numbers of subsequent books in series ordered, you are not in a position to feel the full effect of the chains ordering-to-the-net policies. It's easy to talk about the books you've handsold. What about all the ones, equally worthy or perhaps even moreso, that you haven't?

Yes, writers have to self-promote. But when we walk into chain bookstores, introduce ourselves, show photo ID, and offer to sign stock, and are told, "The manager isn't in today, can you come back some other time?" do not expect us to leave feeling good about the quality of the employees in chains.

lady t said...

I've known people who have worked for both chains and indies and they were just as competant working for a small bookstore as they were in a big one. You can find inefficent employees anywhere and I really don't think judging the "quality" of employees in one or two particuler stores based on them not letting you sign stock without checking with the manager first(ever consider that they were just following company policy?) is a fair way to do it.

I Buy Books said...

I worked in a chain bookstore for 2 years (granted, it was 10 years ago). I was a champion shelver in my day and I faced out what I wanted to face out. There were no rules from the main office about what got faced out and what got spined out. If there was a book I liked or I thought customers were like, I'd face it out. If our stock was low on a particular shelf, many books would get faced out to make the shelf appear less empty.

Also, we placed orders with a local supplier at least once a week based solely on what was selling in our store. If we got something from corporate that sold out quickly, we could order more stock almost right away.

Ours was a small store in a strip mall, but nearly everyone who worked there loved books and we frequently talked to our customers. And we were always happy to order titles we didn't have on hand.

I know chains are giant monoliths pretty much in the business of making money. But chain stores often employ people who really do love books and want to share them.

Shanna Swendson said...

My experience has been just the opposite. In fact, I have to give Borders a lot of credit for my career because they've been incredibly supportive. B&N has done well for me, too. I've heard from local store CRMs and other employees who've found my books, loved them, and handsold them.

On a recent trip to New York, I spent a day going around Manhattan to bookstores. Even six months after release (for one book) and a year and a half after release (on the previous one), I found copies in almost all of the chain stores I visited -- in some cases, multiple copies. Because this was out of town, there was no local author factor or personal contact at work, just standard chain store stocking, and I'm a bottom of the midlist writer. Of all the indies I visited, only two had copies at all. At one, one of the employees is a fan I've met with before. The other had one copy of the latest book. Every other indie had nothing even resembling the kind of commercial fiction I write.

Genre specialty stores may do better, but my experiences with independent bookstores as a reader and writer of commercial genre fiction have generally been pretty negative. Too many times I've seen the cringe when I've bought books the booksellers apparently didn't approve of (but that were big enough sellers that they felt obligated to stock, I guess), and I've even been asked, "You read that?" in a horrified tone of voice. Admittedly, I have occasionally run into that with the kind of bookseller who's only slaving away at B&N while he works on the Great American Novel that will leave everything the store currently carries in the dust, but for the most part, the chain booksellers I've talked to are fun people who love books and who aren't shy about making recommendations.

Joe said...

Can we lay to rest the stereotype of the dedicated indie booksellar versus the mouth-breathing corporate chain drone? I've worked with plenty of both at either venue and, like Shanna, my experience with my new book has been heavily weighted toward the chains.

Holly said...

First, offense here was taken where none was given. I noted that good booksellers are hard to find at chains. This is based on my fifteen years of experience as a professional writer visiting, signing at, and being a customer at uncounted stores from San Fransisco all the way to South Florida, and everywhere in between.

I NEVER suggested that all chain booksellers were mouth-breathing drones, or anything of the sort. I never suggested that all chain booksellers were incompentent, or whatever else has been suggested here that I said or implied.

Booksellers and the chains they work for are separate entities (unless you folks know something I don't), and I have always been grateful for the good booksellers anywhere who have kept my stuff in stock, hand-sold it, and recommended me. This includes those who work in chains.

There just aren't very many IN chains anymore, percentage-wise, and taken from a very large sampling.

Chris said...

I was one of those chain booksellers that handsold books. I'm not anymore. I'm not because I was told, by a district manager at Barnes & Noble, that "we aren't looking to hire and retain booksellers. Everyone here who's *just* (his word) a bookseller either has some other source of income, is retired, or is married to someone who's the primary earner for their household."

He basically informed me that they weren't interested in keeping you there unless you were promotable into management, and were interested in *being* promoted into management. If you were a bookseller because you loved books, and had no interest in promoting into management, then they definitely didn't want to keep you around long enough for you to become a drain on the bottom line through increases in salary or benefits.

Perhaps in another district, or another region, that's not the case, but that's what I, as a dissatisfied department manager that wanted to step back down to the bookseller position where I'd been happy, was told by a district manager for the nation's largest "bookseller". Frankly, after my experience there, I find their use of the term in their name insulting.

quiche said...

To be blunt I live in a rather non-literary city where books are hard sell items. Chain stores were all we had for a couple of years. I remember when a Waldens and a B.Dalton both opened in my local mall 20 yrs. ago and it was my version of heaven. There are a couple of indie stores now but they tend to specialize in areas like local interest because they can devote their time, space and energy in this way. I've found experienced booksellers in chain stores and indies but chain stores can offer more services and titles which means my money usually goes to the chain store, in particular the store where I work.

Chris said...

It would be nice if some of the more heated responses here had read what was *written*, instead of making a gut-level emotional reaction to the mere thought that the chains could be doing something that's bad for writers.

The original post spoke of the chain-wide *corporate* practice of buying to the net, never addressing at any level (despite what was posted here) the competence of chain *booksellers*. The *only* place Holly spoke to the competence of *individual* chain booksellers was here. Even then, the only chain booksellers she spoke negatively of were the ones she'd encountered at her local branches of the national chains. No big, sweeping statements about the evil of chain booksellers anywhere.

The fact of the matter is, while *some* individual booksellers, at *some* chain bookstores can and do handsell, and possibly even make a small difference to a particular authors work, in the long run there aren't enough book people in the chains to save the soon-to-be-demolished career of *every* deserving writer. Unless you're claiming you read *everything* that comes into your section, and even then, if your store's annual volume is under $5 million or so, there's a lot you won't see, unless your store's unusually strong in that particular author's genre.

Holly's actually better off than most, as she's stuck it out long enough that anything still in-print (and even some stuff that's out of print, not that it'll ever come back into the stores) is a core title at most of the chains, with minimum stocking levels (albeit generally low ones) at any stores with a high enough overall sales volume (or particularly strong sales in the specific genres she writes in). Doesn't help one whit with the stuff that's out of print or going out of print, though. Her old publishers are faced with having to decide if it's worth reprinting titles in an otherwise-dead series, just to fill the occasional restock orders at those Borders and B&N stores that have minimum stocking levels on her titles.

Individual booksellers can and do handsell and manually reorder books by the authors that they, and their customers, love. But it's never ultimately going to be enough to offset the damage done at the top of the food chain by folks who are more interested in their own six-figure and up salaries and earning enough dividends to keep the company's stockholders happy than they are in supporting the easily-replacable writers who grind out the "product" they're pushing.

It's all about the bottom line, and from the perspective of Evil Corporate Books, Inc., there will always be enough new writers who want to be, but aren't yet, the next Goodkind or Jordan (or Nora Roberts or Stephen King or *whoever*) to supply their stores with plenty of books good enough to sell 30 or 40,000 copies, but not quite break out. And if a few who *might've* been the next bestseller end up going back to their day jobs instead, well, there's always more where they came from.

--- Chris

Lisa Hunter said...

Hmm. I guess this is why publishers are so obsessed with platform. Maybe we should all get cooking shows on the Food Network.

new_eyes said...

Chris was told ""we aren't looking to hire and retain booksellers." It reminds me, in 1988 at Davis Kidd (independent, a client of B.I.S. as I wrote above) new hires were told to consider ourselves "career booksellers". And indeed our 40 or employees there were content with the low wage in exchange for a very entertaining job (entertainment sharing one another's company for one). Ten years later, after I'd worked at B&N and Borders, I know Chris' district manager was telling it like it is. That doesn't rule out the ideal type of bookstore employee though. Part-timers, semi-retired professors, homemakers, mixing in with the usual graduate students...Sounds good to me.

The tragedy for all literary fiction authors now is that we have the WWW and live in interesting times, (I say). I haven't been able to escape this snare for eight years so far. Need help, it's like an old fantasy of making my home in an impossibly large museum library after-hours. And now Youtube is turning into the Museum of Broadcasting History, oh no...

Michael Z. Williamson said...

When my first novel came out, a fan of my nonfic attempted to order it at a BN in MD. He was told, "You are aware this is a PAPERBACK, right?"

After all, nothing good is ever mass market...

But if it's not mass market, it's not a good seller...right?

The chain 2 miles from my house knows who I am and doesn't stock my books--only religion, self-help, the latest schlock and political screeds. Yet they DO stock Locus Magazine.

OTOH, Waldens in the mall not only stocks lots of my stuff and keeps it on hand, they have me in for signings every new title.

Biblio Brat said...

Being a 'chain bookseller', a Lead Bookseller for that matter, I took offense with some aspects of Holly's article. A quick explanation on replenishment (at least for my company) - A title that is modeled (new books are usually not, older titles usually are) will replenish once the amount in the store goes to half the original model (does not include books modeled at 1). Books which are not modeled, will sell out and sometimes not be replenished.

However. Lead booksellers regularly shortlist titles from displays and sections which sell down weekly. It is part of our job to do so. Managers also do the same thing, by looking at all of the titles we have sold in sections and reordering. Holly also states that "Frequently, chains will only get one or two copies which will be spined out, dooming them to invisibility." Unfortunately, since chain bookstores are also constricted when it comes to space, not every single title which comes into our stores can find a face-out, whether it be on a display or in section. As is practice in our store, any brand new title which arrives in quantity less than 4, is then shortlisted to beef up the amount so it gets at least three months on a new table/bay/etc.

Holly mentions along these lines "These algorithms run unchecked for the vast majority of books in any chain store, though booksellers are able to override them for special cases." Special cases? What, is this making an exception? This is company practice and policy, due to the job of a bookseller to keep all new titles in stock. Despite what we all wish would be the case, even chain bookstores don't have unlimited space. Holly mentions that she found her book, Talyn in a certain spot on a certain shelf. Unfortunately also, many sections are alphabetized or arranged in a manner dictated by a corporate office. We as booksellers are able to move these things around pertaining to sales or to personal preference, but corporate offices use alphabetical and arrangement systems for customers to easier find a book, not to purposely ruin an authors career. We do fufill every request of a customer if they want us to keep a book on our shelves. Holly makes it seem as though independent booksellers are the only ones who read what sells in their stores, which is also untrue. Granted chain booksellers have a harder time choosing what to read because of the sheer amount of stock that comes in each day, but if we read a book that piques our interest, you better believe we will fight for it.

It is almost as though Holly, and many others believe that chain bookstores are a big machine, with absolutely no human beings behind its workings, which is false. Passionate booksellers (which our company has many), including myself, do actually care about authors, and wish we had more space to work with books. We can order whatever we feel we want to, if space is available to us. We are not paraded over by head honchos who force us to create the demise of mid-list authors.

Booksellers, especially managers and lead booksellers are required monthly to use our systems to go back month by month up to a year to order in quanitities or all new titles we never received, and place them on 'new' displays for 3 months or more. This means any book available to us has at some point seen our sales floor. Apologies abound if we were then supposed to force people to buy books they supposedly 'never found' because they were right in front of them. There isn't enough time to read all the books we encounter daily.

On a final note, sad and scary but true, an independent bookstore simply doesn't always have the size and breadth of ordering that a chain bookstore does. Being an author, and a reader, I do like indie and chains alike. However, I find that the size and capability of ordering that chains have allows even MORE authors to get recognition for their works than at independent booksellers which can only stock x number of titles by x number of authors. There is more of an opportunity for a wider range of authors, which it seems no one ever even mentions.

As an aside, I had shortlisted Holly's 'Talyn' when I saw that we had received 2. I shortlisted four more for placement on our New SciFi/Fantasy mass market table, and it sold well.

katyusha said...

From what I read of the article (and the five or so following up, and an article from Norman Spinrad) Holly isn't saying that chains are the problem. She is saying that the algorithm used to order books is the problem--which it clearly is, for everyone, as I'm sure the chains end up losing money as well. This problem would be quite neatly and easily solved by adjusting the formulas to a sales percentage rather than just a number, and using (I dunno) common business logic that a percentage above such-and-such is a GOOD investment, and buying MORE rather than to the net would also be a good idea.

Also, in case you missed that bit, she said nothing against booksellers. Bookstores, if anything, but not the people that work in them.