The horrible truth about bookstores

by Doc Coleman on March 12, 2014 · 7 comments

in Asides, Rants

The world of publishing is changing, and a lot of the old measures of success are going away. Oh, those measures are still there, but more and more authors are finding new ways to be successful in different ways. Still, there is some draw to some of the old landmarks: getting an agent, signing a deal with a large publisher, seeing your book in bookstores. And yet, having your book in bookstores may not be the road to success most people think it is. You see, they aren’t what you think they are. The fact is, bookstores are not in the business of selling books. “What is that?” you say? “Of course bookstores sell books. That’s why they are book stores!”

You would think that, wouldn’t you?

While it is true that bookstores do occasionally sell books, that isn’t how they make their money. No, selling books is not what keeps bookstores in business. But to understand how they really make their money, you need to know a little about how the publishing industry works.

Once upon a time

It starts with the writer.

Typically, the writer writes a story and gets paid absolutely nothing for writing it.

However, now the writer has a story to sell! In traditional publishing, the writer then hires an agent to represent the story. The agent is a person who has lots of connections in the publishing industry. In exchange for a percentage of all future earnings from that story for a period of time, such as eternity, the agent agrees to “shop” the story out to various publishers.

If the agent finds a publisher that is willing to take a chance on the story, a contract is signed where the publisher gives the writer an “advance” on future earnings in exchange for permission to print the story, and only pay the author about 5 to 10% of the cover price of the book. The agent collects the advance, takes out his or her percentage and passes the rest of the money on to the author.

Now that the publisher has the right to print and sell copies of the story, he engages all number of editors, typesetters, and printers to convert the story into book form. Not just a book, but lots of copies of the same book. At this point, the publisher has put up a lot of money and needs to recoup that money by getting rid of the books.

The publisher now offers all these copies to a distributor. The distributor sends out a catalog to bookstores to let them know that the story is now available as boxes of books. The distributor offers books from many publishers, and sends this catalog out to many bookstores. Some bookstores have many distributors that supply them, but quite a lot of them have just one distributor that provides all their books.

The bookstores look through the catalog, and place an order with the distributor. The bookstores pay the distributor for the books, the distributor passes the money for this order on to the publisher, and the publisher pays the distributor to ship the books to the stores. The distributors are happy because they just got paid for moving things from point A to point B.

Now, all this sounds a lot like this is all about selling books.

It’s not.

See, here is where the deal gets shady. Bookstores can only sell books that are actually put on their shelves. Shelf space is limited, so there are often books in stock that aren’t out on the shelves. Shelf space is so limited that some publishers pay bookstores money to put their books out on the shelves and sometimes they pay extra to make sure their books are on the best shelves in the store. This is why when you go into a bookstore the first books you see are almost always new books from big publishers. The big publishers can pay more, so they get the best spaces.

But so far, we’re still talking about selling books, right?

Not exactly.

After the books sit in the bookstore for a time, which could be several months, or could be a week or less, the bookstore decides the books aren’t going to sell. If the books actually made it out to the shelves, they get pulled, so the bookstore can send them back to the publisher for a refund.

Now, for some reason, the publisher is responsible for paying for shipping when a bookstore returns books. The publisher has already paid to ship the books out once, so he’s not really interested in paying to ship the same books back. The publisher would just tell the bookstore to destroy the books, but they don’t want stores to claim they have destroyed the books, get the refund, and then sell the books anyway. So, to make sure the books really are destroyed, the bookstore rips the covers off the books and ships just the covers back, and gets paid for each cover returned.

And that is the horrible truth about bookstores: they’re not in the business of selling books, they’re in the business of destroying books. If they actually sell a book or two between the time they come in and the time they are destroyed, that’s just gravy. And they get paid for putting some books in preferential spots.

If you’ve followed all this, you may notice that quite a lot of money goes back and forth between the bookstore and the publisher, while the distributor gets paid for shipping things. Personally, I think this business model was created for kiting checks. Of course, if you’ve read through all this and you understand how this model allows everyone to make money…

Please explain it to me.

Have an excellent Writer Wednesday, folks. And please pledge to support the Billibub Baddings Kickstarter! Time is running out! There are only a few hours left to pledge!

Previous post:

Next post: