I’ve followed Nathan’s blog for close to two years now, and he has done an admirable—nay, outstanding—job of outlining, explaining, reiterating, and overall demystifying the somewhat byzantine method by which manuscripts (produced by you, the author) are acquired, auctioned, sold, &c, and eventually transformed into finished books (purchased by you, the consumer). So first of all, thank you, Nathan, for all you’ve done to make this business a little clearer to the rest of us.
The very last stage of this process, though—the sale of books from publisher to book store to consumer—isn’t really the focus of the blog, and so has received relatively little treatment so far. With Nathan’s permission, I’d like to shed a little light on this last leg of a book’s journey.
I work as a sales assistant at a major trade book publisher (feel free to insert your favorite name here: Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, &c), which means that my job mostly involves 1.) preparing sales materials for the sales reps who sell the books to a given account, and 2.) keeping track of the promotions we run at said account. Since the account I work on is a national chain (e.g. Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million), this is a fairly involved process. How does this affect your book once it’s already survived the gauntlet of critique group, literary agent, and editor?
First, the sales materials. Each book that we publish is grouped according to its on-sale date, usually by month but occasionally by span. (There are three spans: Spring, Summer, and Fall.) Within a certain month or span, different sales reps are responsible for selling different subsets of books to the account (for example, the two reps for whom I work divide the list of one imprint; one sells the hardcovers, the other sells the trade paperbacks and mass-markets). For each title in a subset, it’s my job to create a sales kit. My sales kits generally consist of:
– A cover sheet, unique to the account, that breaks out basic information (author, title, ISBN, &c) and provides the book’s subject code, which determines which buyer at the account is responsible for it and what section of the store the book will eventually live in. Each buyer usually specializes in just a couple of genres/categories.
– A kind of “fact sheet” that summarizes all the important information about the book: title, author, ISBN, &c, as well as marketing information, quotes/blurbs, copy, and “comp” information. Alas, yes, your book will be “comped” to a previously published title—either your last book, if you wrote one, or a book that is similar in content, format, and span/on-sale month, if you didn’t—and the comp’s sales figures factor into the account’s initial buy.
– A full-color copy of the book’s cover.
– Any other promotional materials (additional praise/quotes/blurbs, sell sheets, &c) that may be useful.
The sales reps then meet periodically with the buyers at their account and “pitch” them each title. (You thought the pitch was over with the editor’s acquisition. You were wrong.) These meetings are referred to as “selling in” or “sales calls” and they are the meetings at which initial orders are decided. Simply put, the initial order is the number of copies the account’s buyer wants to purchase in time for the on-sale date; any later orders are considered reorders and are used to replenish stock when it runs low. The sales kits are essential to these meetings—the rep uses them to get the buyers excited and to push them to order quantities that are in line with the publisher’s expectations. This generally involves convincing buyers (via cover images, sales data, praise and quotes from famous critics or authors, &c) to purchase more copies than they otherwise would.
So let’s say your book, I AM PRETTY AWESOME, a literary memoir, gets a 2,000-copy buy at a given account. Not bad! Your previous book, I GUESS I’M OKAY, sold 1,500 copies in its first four weeks and has experienced 80% life-to-date sell-through. (Sell-through is the percentage of books an account sells compared to how many it bought.) Not only that, but a couple of big-time authors have come out to praise it and it got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. Both the rep and the buyer are confident that 2,000 is a good number based on this information.
After the sales call, the reps will either enter the orders into our computers themselves or ask me to do it. At this point, the order quantity is called an estimate, since we estimate this is how many copies of each title the account will initially order. (Keep in mind that we tend to sell books to our accounts about five months before they go on sale, so it’s possible substantial changes can occur to the order quantity between the sales call and the placement of the actual initial order.) Once the order comes in, it is compared to the estimate, any discrepancies are worked out between the publisher and the account, and the books are shipped in time for their release date.
In summary: sales of your previous books, sales of “comp” titles, your platform as an author (as described on the fact sheets), the book’s cover, the current economic climate, events in the news, &c all contribute to how many copies of your book a given account will buy. If you’re lucky—either because you’re a big shot or because you happened to write a book about the life and times of Michael Jackson a few months back—the orders for your book could be HUGE, say, 10,000 copies. This will qualify your title for promotion, e.g. placement on that magical table at the front of the store, and so brings us to the second half of my job: promotion, through a system we call co-op.
Co-op, in short, is the process by which we work with an account to determine which of our titles get special treatment: placement at the front of the store, on endcaps, in special displays, &c. The account is paid for running these promotions for a set amount of time, either flat amounts or a certain amount of money per book. Any time you see a title on a major front-of-store display, it’s because that book’s publisher paid the account for the promotion. Stephenie Meyer doesn’t magically get her own table, and those “New Release” tables aren’t populated by the store staff’s personal favorites. The publisher and the account agree on time tables, promotions, and monetary reimbursement, and the account is paid upon completion of those promotions.
Of note: co-op is formalized through a legally binding contract process, so it’s not treated lightly by either the publisher or the account. Once the deal is inked, titles are promoted, and once they’re promoted, the account is paid.
Your next question, I imagine, is probably something along the lines of “holy hell, how do I make sure my book gets co-op? How can I help decide which titles it’s comped to?”
Alas, I’m afraid the answer is: you can’t. The vast majority of titles go to their section (science fiction, literary fiction, biography, &c) at on-sale, and the Grishams, Meyers, and Evanovichs receive co-op. To be sure, they’re not the only ones; new authors do get co-op for their titles. It’s relatively rare, though, so don’t be disappointed if your book isn’t front-of-store come release day, especially if it’s your first one.
I hope I’ve helped dispel at least some of the mystery surrounding book sales without dismaying too many of you—the business side of publishing can seem remarkably dispassionate compared to the creative side. Please leave any questions you have in the comments, and I’ll try to answer as best I can.