The Selling of BooksIf you been following the lifecycle of my novel Candy from Strangers, you know we’ve discussed the process of writing the book, have covered how I found a literary agent and are ready to move on to placing the book with a publisher. In other words, we’re finally ready to talk about selling the damn thing.
But before we get into the specifics of selling books to publishers, it’s worth pointing out that selling is the operative word when it comes books. In fact, I’d wager that very few other products have to be sold as many as six times before they reach the hands of the end-consumer. Don’t credit my math? Let’s count the sales hurdles a book has to pass before you get asked the question, “Would you like a bag for that?” at the register of your local independent bookseller:
- Agent – We’ve already discussed this one, but this first hurdle is actually very tall. According to some sources, agents reject as many as 95 to 98 percent of all submissions they receive. Miss Snark and her readers give stats that are just as daunting.
- Publisher – Okay, sure, it’s hard to get an agent, but once you land representation, you’re set, right? Not so fast. The first source I cited says the rejection rate for agented submissions to publishers is also 95 to 98 percent.
- Distributor – Surely, I’m finished now. My book’s been accepted, I’ve cashed the advance—what are you talking about distributors for?
Well, if your book has been placed with a small publisher, they probably don’t have their own sales force and they will likely rely on a distributor to move their books further down the distribution channel. Publishers Group West is an example of a distributor. They represent a group of independent presses who rely on them to place their books with bookstores and wholesalers.
But distributors don’t take on just any publisher or book. To gain representation with a distributor requires another submission (aka sales) process. Granted, once a publisher has been accepted, usually all their books are eligible for distribution, but some distributors screen each book from a publisher—especially very small publishers.
That is why if you sell your book to a small press it’s very important to understand their distribution arrangements. If your publisher isn’t represented by a distributor, it may be very hard or impossible for you to get your books into bookstores or libraries.
- Wholesalers – Now I know you’re BS’ing me. Where do wholesalers come into the picture, and what’s the difference between a distributor and a wholesaler?
Wholesalers are the quintessential middlemen in the book business. They exist because many retail outlets and libraries would prefer to deal with one source (or, at least a limited number of sources) for their book purchases, rather than having to maintain relationships with all the publishers and distributors in the world. The two biggest wholesalers in the book business are Ingram and Baker and Taylor. Ingram is bigger and more powerful; Baker & Taylor tends to sell to libraries more and may have more relationships with the very smallest bookstores.
Because of the power they hold in the industry, the bottom line is, if your book isn’t carried by one or both of the big wholesalers, your sales will suffer in a big way. And, yes, once again, there is a submission process for a publisher or distributor to gain representation.
In fact, wholesalers have so much power in the business that some distributors have representatives from the wholesalers (and the big chain stores) on their selection committees to screen the books they select. The distributors figure there’s no use representing a book that the heavyweights in the industry won’t like.
- Bookstores – Bookstores are obvious, but as we’ve seen from the foregoing, a big part of getting them to stock your books is making sure they can order inventory from their preferred supplier. But of course that by itself isn’t enough. Bookstores have limited shelf space, and with the chain stores at least, a lot of the decisions about what to stock are made at corporate headquarters. Then there’s the little matter of returns.
Besides the number of sales hurdles, the other thing that makes books unique among retail products is they are one of the few consumer offerings that can be returned all the way up the distribution channel back to the manufacturer. Bookstores can return to wholesalers and distributors, who in turn can return to publishers. And all along the way the stock can get damaged, which results in outright losses, and if the publisher is using a distributor, each return means an additional restocking fee, which amplifies the cost of returns even further.
- Readers – If consumers can get past what the Bookseller Chick calls “book blindness,”and actually pick your title out for purchase, congratulations are in order. Your book has finally made it into the hands of a real, live honest-to-goodness reader.
Now you can only hope that he or she doesn’t dump it into the used book market where it will compete with new copies! Some suggest that’s not such a bad thing—at least at the macro level—but it’s not clear to me it’s all that swell for small presses and individual titles, especially reprints.