Thursday, June 04, 2009

It's All About Distribution

Question of the day: How do books get in which stores, their placement etc? I've heard authors say if they don't make it in Walmart or Target, they expect to take a huge hit in their total sales. And that makes up a tiny slice of their total sales. Can you explain a bit more about this process?

Ah yes, this is one of the big secrets that many soon-to-be published authors don't uncover until they're published: distribution (and print run) are king. In many, many ways, much of the success of a book is determined long before it hits shelves, and is up to a team you might not even have thought much about - the sales team.

Here's what happens: you write your book, you and your agent deem it genius, you and your editor deem it genius, and then...from there...a lot of it is out of your hands. Hopefully the art dept gives it a fabu cover, and hopefully the marketing and PR team come up with an incredible campaign, but what really has to happen is that the sales team has to believe that this book can sell the hell out of itself, and thus, when they take it to Barnes or Borders or Amazon or Ingram or Target or Walmart, etc, their buyers want to place big orders. If the sales team just isn't as jazzed up as it needs to be or if they can't sway the buyers to place big orders, your book simply isn't going to get in enough places to make much of a dent. You can hustle the hell out of it and if buyers can't find it, well, they can't buy it now, can they? (I would say that this might be the single biggest complaint you hear from published authors - that no one can find his/her book, and if you feel like complaining, just know that you have company on this one.)

As far as what really makes the biggest hit, in terms of sales? Yes, Target, Walmart and Costco are biggies. In fact, I was just informed that Target placed a big order on the paperback of TOML and named it a Breakout Book from Aug-Oct, and my team (ugh, not to sound pretentious) is jazzed. Because the support of one of these biggies can completely change the trajectory of your sales and your success. That said, can you hit a best-seller list without it? Well, sure, my hardcover did, but you still need a strong distribution throughout the major chains (again, up to your sales teams and the store buyers). There are few things more frustrating than getting great reviews and great press and knowing that people WOULD buy it if they COULD find it, but since they can't find it, they forget about it, and voila, there goes the momentum that a prominent review might have held.

So how do buyers make their decisions? I'm not a buyer, but from what I can tell, it is partially based on previous sales, partially based on trade reviews, partially based on the amount of support and $$ that your publisher is throwing behind you. So they place an order, and these cumulative orders determine your initial print run. If Target or Walmart decides to place a biggie order, it can significantly boost your print run and generate a ton of enthusiasm which trickles down to your entire team...and thus, might help them sway other buyers to place bigger and better orders.

As far as Amazon, I think it depends on the book. I found that Amazon orders made up about 15% of Time of My Life hardcover sales. But then, I had strong distribution in stores, so maybe people preferred to literally get their hands on it when purchasing. Others might find this percentage higher if their book is harder to find or lower if their book is available everywhere (airports, grocery stores, etc).

It's funny to realize how much of this process is out of your hands. Well, maybe funny isn't the right word for it. :) But so much of it depends on outside factors: what buyers think will sell, other books that are launching the same month that yours are, how much marketing dough they're throwing your way, etc. I guess my advice is to go into it with realistic expectations: almost every author I know (barring the biggies) has gotten those emails saying, "I want to buy your book but can't find it!," and it is so, so frustrating, but it is simply how this game is played. Hopefully, your sales team is doing a kick-ass job (a HUGE shout-out to mine for landing me Target - I freaking LOVE THEM!!), and that's all you can ask for at the end of the day.

Other authors want to weigh in? I'm sort of fascinated by this subject.


Nathanael Green said...

It's interesting to see how much marketing and sales comes to play even in supposedly creative endeavors.

I wonder how much influence even a newbie author might have on the sales team, though. Has anyone ever asked their publisher if they could come and present a quick pitch at a sales meeting? Or at least get a list of addresses to send out a "here's why my book's going to sell like nuts and why you should be excited about it" email?

It seems like it's out of the author's hands, but I wonder if a little bit of nudging and brassiness might give you a little more of an in?


Batman said...

Ok, this might be a question to be spun off, however, a tangentially related one. Do you believe the “How to” Poker book market is saturated? And if so, what's an author to do? :)

Hyatt Bass said...

This is so interesting, Allison. I am in such a pre-pub tailspin right now--no matter how many good reviews and shout-outs I get, I'm so anxious about what is going to happen when the book is actually in (or not in--gasp) the bookstores. But, in answer to Nate's question, I am a first-timer, and when my publisher bid on the book, they gave me a huge pitch about how they planned to sell The Embers . Then they did another big pitch meeting for me when I first came in and met everyone (after we'd closed the deal). If you are fielding offers on your book, make sure to ask these questions.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the hard truths of publishing. In my case, my publisher doesn't put a lot of marketing money behind my orders & print runs are small, which begs the question: why even publish them? And I do hustle my ass off continuing to hope that will make a difference in demand and orders. A girl can dream, right?

Shereese said...

I'm a newbi author and I believe marketing the hell out of a project is key. When your new, its hard to get your publisher to throw any money into guerrilla marketing but you should try anyway. I believe book jackets make a huge difference in selling your project. It is often underrated.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Thanks for all of your comments, guys! Nathanael, Batman and Anon, I'm going to pull your questions/comments out onto the main blog to answer them further and to get additional thoughts from other readers because they're definitely worth elaborating on!

Amie Stuart said...

Hyatt's right abt marketing etc coming into play in a book deal. Unfortunately, I think for most writers, this is never even discussed (I'm thinking genre fiction and specifically romance)

I know this sounds like the stuff of urban legends...but true story. An author's 1st book was ordered in *large* quantities by Wal Mart, then Wal Mart decided they didn't want it and sent almost all of their order back--totally killed her numbers (and maybe even her career--at least with that pseudonym anyway).

For authors like me, writing trade paperback erotic romance, Wal Mart won't even look at us (Target etc also). So all we have are Amazon, ebook sales and brick and mortar book stores. I had to change the title of my last book because the buyers from a certain chain didn't like it. NOT a big deal, but I've heard similar stories from other authors.

Mark Bloomfield said...

I have some hard truths to share folks - with upwards of 150,000 new titles being published annually resting your hopes on your publishers efforts to achieve sell "through" - meaning people buying the book at retail you are bound to be disappointed. Publishers do have a privileged relationship with retailers. But even in the rare case that they do manage to whip up front of store enthusiasm ITS THE AUTHOR and only the author who has the capability to persuade someone to buy a book. Authors need to realize in the current environment that their ability to engage their fans and TURN THEM INTO ADVOCATES is the key to driving retail activity. Granted - that is difficult and requires a different skill set than writing. But its the truth and those authors who are willing to tactically tease out their readers, leverage social media platforms, engage and enlist fans will succeed. Ideally, that process runs in parallel with your writing. I assure you - people buy books that their trusted friends and associates tell them to buy - not because of a newspaper ad or a big stack at the front of the store.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that's right, Amie. What does "the team" do with genre fiction (especially romance)? I write paranormal What percent of sales for that type of novel come from Hastings and Borders and what comes from internet?

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Mark - I agree with you to a certain extent. Word of mouth is ultimately what sells books, and some authors are better than others at generating fan support. But I still maintain that most books cannot build momentum, despite word of mouth, without a solid print run. There are a few that I can think of - PREP is the most obvious example, but that got a huge review in the NY Times, IIRC, which changed everything for it.

Laura Miller Edwards said...

I think the most interesting part of all of this is that it's so against the way I buy as a reader. I guess we writers don't buy like the average reader. I always go to the a bookstore first because they are bound to have more titles. Walmart usually only has a few odds and ends, and it's annoying if I'm really book-shopping.

I'm guessing I'm not their target-- Walmart, Cosco, Target, they're looking for the impulse buy. Folks who went in for a jug of milk and see your book and decide to buy for that trip coming up, or a day at the pool.

That actually makes a lot of sense.

I LOVE your blog! I just picked up your books -- I'm a big fan of all things time travel (label me nerdy) but with heart, not sci-fi, so I think you're stuff will be right up my alley. :)

Congrats on the Cosco win!

Sheila Bounford said...

I could not agree more with all of what you say - although I think there is an important distinction to draw between "distribution" and sales and marketing efforts. "Distribution" is the "nitty gritty" and what underpins all marketing efforts be they put in by the publisher or the author. In this day and age it starts with good bibliographic data put out into the supply chain by the publisher at the earliest opportunity pre-publication, and then kept updated (for pub date, price and availability changes) by the publisher's distribution IT systems (or the third-party-distributor's IT systems if your publisher is distributed by a third party).

This is the only way in which your book will be visible to buyers in large stores and in independent book stores, not to mention in the online channels where (here in the UK at least) sales are growing the fastest.

I've said for a long time that the ISBN is the Cinderella of the book industry. But these days the isbn is more like Cinderella's slipper. If it can't be seen on the right foot (or in the right place) the princess isn't going to the ball...

Amie Stuart said...

Laura I'm not a huge big impulse buyer either BUT my local Target carries a lot of YA (which I read a lot of) so sometimes I can save myself a trip to BN.

What does "the team" do with genre fiction

I think this varies from pub to pub but I'd guess it's hard for a newbie or even mid-list romance (paranormal/suspense pick your poison) author to get a lot of love. Rumor has it even Dan Brown didn't get a lot of love at first :D

I think e-book sales are still a small part but can't be discounted (think long term)..and most sales come from brick/mortar stores, not online retailers.

Followed the #TOC thread on twitter a few weeks ago and I seem to recall more books are bought online (overall) but JUST (not sure if that was online sales of print books AND ebooks tho).

As Allison said, is word of mouth. But I do think there's only so much we, as authors, can do. At the end of the day, you've just got to have a darned fine product.

Ok that's my fifty cents. I've got characters to terrorize :D

Nathanael Green said...

I think successful sales (of anything, not just books) relies on a huge number of variables.

In this case, distribution and promotion by the publisher are only a few key ingredients. Word of mouth, quality of the book itself, etc are all at least as important as the promotional effort.

But that doesn't mean any one piece should be ignored. Every chance to reach a reader should be jumped on with both feet. Sure, that means authors spend a lot of time marketing and we tend to whine about that. But industries across the spectrum have known for years, if you want to sell it, you've got to market it.

pubbed author said...

PREP actually got a HUGE marketing push. The book was designed and released with an eye towards making it a "make book." Curtis Sittenfeld had FOUR publicists all assigned to her book when it came out. Curtis is very up front about all this. It's the kind of marketing plan most authors would amputate body parts for:

Read the Atlantic article linked above and weep. What you're thinking is that she got a "small" ($40k!) advance. But the book was actually a tremendously pushed book.

What Amie is describing is absolutely true. My publisher did a separate print run for the huge order Target put in, then Target never even took the books out of the boxes. I was going to be one of their big featured books -- and then they pre-empted my title. Thousands of books returned to the publisher without ever seeing the light of day. Killed my sell through and I'm still paying for it, many titles later.

Sorry, Mark, but that's a load of crap. The author can do absolutely NOTHING to affect his or her sell through in any meaningful way. I've had titles where I've hustled like hell and maybe sold a few hundred copies, and I've had titles where I ignore it and the publisher lifts a finger to put it on co-op for a few weeks and thousands upon thousands of copies sell in a snap. Can I effect my sell through? sure, if they print 3k copies of my book, then me creating "advocates" out of my fans and moving an extra 300 copies will really impress them. But they can sell three times that per week that in one chain outlet if they give me co-op.

But honestly, how many times have you been a ravenous fan of your book and INSISTED that all your friends read it? And how many times have they actually taken your advice? And even if they try to, if they go into a bookstore and there's no copy there? Well, they don't buy it. They buy the book sitting on the front tables or the book that the publisher has paid for the dump of. And you simply are NOT going to get into Costco or Target or on the front tables unless your publisher makes it happen. PERIOD.

The publishers decide which books they are going to push, and those are the only books that can become a success. They can also "back the wrong horse" such as with THE GARGOYLE that was a huge push and a flop, but it rarely works the other way. The only time I've EVER seen a difference is when the book taps into some very, very specific market (such as The Memory Keeper's Daughter and the autism support networks), but usually, the publisher sniffs this out well in advance and compensates for it.

I have a few very ravenous fans. They have an active fan list, they send me emails, they give away my books as presents, they make their book clubs read me every year. I love them. They've made... oh, maybe a few dozen people read my books. Which is great, but it's not moving my percentage points any. Only my publisher can do that.

pubbed author said...

In addition, since I'm being the resident crabapple today, it really bugs me to see all these "how to promote your book!" articles that talk about having a website (got a great and vibrant one, and my small retinue of fans love it), or making friends with your bookseller (right, chains have to order --and apparently sell, as we've seen from the Borders scandal -- the titles their SINGLE corporate buyer tells them to), or, my favorite, "visit NYC and meet your 'team' in person."

You know what happened when I tried to do that? First of all, most members of my "team" didn't show up at the meeting. The ones that did left after ten minutes of condescending to explain to me what BEA was (got it, thanks). They said no to everything I suggested, even the free and simple stuff, insisted they "don't do" certain things (lies!), turned around and used my suggestions on another author, and displayed an abominable ignorance not only about the TOPIC of my book (which tends to come up in meetings about how to promote it), but also the fact that I had a large backlist and a bunch of good connections from the same.

It was the most depressing meeting of my life.

Some publishers take good buzz and run with it. Others decide where your book fits and punish you for daring to try to sell more copies than they want you too.

Jayne said...

Pubbed... I had a friend that wanted to meet with her "team" and her editor SHUT her down cold. Told her it would never happen. I've also seen publishers propose some online marketing stuff that made clear how out of touch they were. (and not for me).

On another note: Garden Spells was another book given a HUGE push by their publisher (Bantam/Ballantine). There were probably hundreds of copies given away at RWA in 07 and the book made the Times bestseller list when it was released and touted in the publisher spotlight.

I've said before and I'll say again that publishers can MAKE a bestseller happen. So can readers, but it's a lot more work--and for the record, I"m not saying that all bestsellers are "made".

The flip side to being a bestseller that you don't see talked about much...the pressure put on authors for each book to outperform the last (in regard to sales/bestseller lists). Lynn Viehl blogged about this a while back.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Jayne - this is a great point, and something that I definitely experienced in writing book #3. The pressure to outdo myself is pretty enormous, and while I'm not complaining, it is the one downside of having a book break-out. (Again, not complaining at all, but the pressure is palpable.)

Anonymous said...

Great post and congrats on the Target placement! I was just pursuing their books a couple of days ago, especially their Break Out Book section, lot's of good books there, can't wait to see yours among them:)

ghost writer said...

I must agree with Nathanael Green, but he left a question at the end of his comment while I think with a little hard work, yes you can!
I believe that your blog can be another helpful tool in this regard!