A corollary to the sentiment I attempted to debunk yesterday (i.e. that publishers just go ahead and decide which books become phenomenons) is that the main way publishers decide on the eventual popularity of certain books is by choosing which ones get front-of-the-store display. They therefore hold all the cards when it comes to determining which books get that crucial boost and which books don’t.
This is borne out of a slight misunderstanding of the way that process works.
Background: Co-op is a catchall term for, among other things, that magical (not really) process by which books non-magically appear at the front of the store. That space is nicknamed “real estate” for a reason. In the simplest of explanations: publishers pay for it.
Only it’s not really that simple.
The myth I want to dispel in this post is that there is a publishing employee sitting on a fancy chair high up in a Manhattan skyscraper giving the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” to co-op and thus deciding the fate and popularity of every book they come across. In reality it is a complex process with decisions made by many different people, and crucially: bookstores have a say too.
Agents are typically a few steps removed from the co-op process, but luckily there are some blog posts out there on the Internet that explain it far better than I could.
For an overview of co-op, you couldn’t really do better than Eric at Pimp My Novel, a sales assistant at a major publisher, who has a series of posts giving a birds-eye view of this process. He notes that while many of the spaces are reserved for your big name authors and existing bestsellers, there is sometimes space for new authors as well.
Eric also links to a fantastic overview by Andrew Wheeler, a marketing manager for Wiley, who explains the interplay between publishers and booksellers:
Eventually, the sales rep will call on the buyer, and, among other things, map out what co-op nominations that publisher wants to make for the period in question. The buyer will generally have to wait until all of the nominations are in from all appropriate publishers before being sure everything is set — it’s entirely possible to have thirty nominations for a table that will hold twenty books. (And the chain may decide to refuse other nominations for other reasons, as well — the chain always has the final decision, though the publisher with a sure-to-be-in-heavy-demand title has a lot of leverage.)
In other words, co-op is a business negotiation like many others: two parties are each trying to maximize their benefits from the deal, and their interests are parallel but not necessarily identical. (The publisher would love to get a dedicated display space; the chain wants to have the biggest and best books no matter who publishes them. Both want to sell a lot of books, though the chain is generally agnostic as to which particular books.)
The key here is that publishers make co-op nominations. It’s up to booksellers to decide which promos to accept, and they do that based on their best guesses as well.
Now, this post is not intended to minimize the importance of marketing budgets and making books available for co-op and promotions and all of those things that go into making a book a success. All those elements are extremely important, and the fact that so many bookstores are closing and taking co-op space with them is a huge blow to publishers.
But this is a complex process. There are lots and lots and lots of people involved and they all want to sell the most number of books possible. If you don’t personally like the books at the front of a bookstore there isn’t a “publisher” to blame, but rather approximately 7,276 people (I counted) who are making their best guesses about how best to maximize their budgets (just kidding about the counting).
What can you do if, like everyone, you’re an author and you want co-op? Take it away, Andrew!
What you can do here is what you need to do in general — write the best book you can, one with a real and sizable audience, get it into the hands of an editor (and maybe an agent, if you’re in an end of publishing where that helps or is necessary) who is really enthusiastic about it, and follow their lead about what you can do to help them promote and publicize it.
Co-op is not the be-all-end-all of a book’s fate. As always: it’s way more complicated than that.
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