Several weeks ago, we discussed why authors shouldn’t worry about the ebook versus print debate but should instead focus on their readers’ online versus offline buying habits. Shortly after that post, I visited my local Barnes & Noble bookstore, a beautiful two-story building complete with an escalator. I love that place.
But anyone who’s visited a Barnes & Noble recently has probably noticed the changes in their layout over the past couple of years. In mine, you almost have to go on a scavenger hunt to find where they keep the books.
The section of the store that used to be 150 feet of romance shelves is now filled with toys and Legos. Romance now takes up less than thirty feet. Same with Fantasy/Science Fiction, Mystery, and all the other sections.
The tables where they used to highlight the latest books, especially of the Dark Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance type of stories I write, are filled instead with desk supplies and backpacks. Books are now relegated to the corners of the store, seeming more an afterthought than anything else.
Walking through the bookshelves to look at the selection only made me feel worse. At least two-thirds of the romance section is taken up by the current and backlist titles of the major players in the genre, Nora Roberts and the like. Single copies of all but the mega-bestsellers are buried, spine-out, between the multiple shelves’ worth of this bestseller and that bestseller. Good for the bestsellers, not so good for the rest of us.
The New Reality Forces Us to Ask Questions
Yet many of us still dream of seeing our book on the shelf. Many of us go with a traditional publisher simply for the hope that their distribution will be the magic key to get our books into stores.
But with Borders gone and Barnes & Noble severely cutting back their selection, what does that mean for our dream? Is it still a possibility? Or are we deluding ourselves?
And more importantly, what does this new reality tell us about the kind of business decisions we should be making?
Placement in Bookstores Doesn’t Equal Sales
Personally, I haven’t given up my dream of seeing my books on a bookshelf someday. But there’s a difference between wanting to see our books on the shelf and thinking that having our books in physical stores will have a large impact on our sales.
We’re not going to start our career as a mega-bestseller, so our book would be buried somewhere on the shelves dominated by another author’s huge backlist. Not a recipe for big sales. The only real way to get attention in a bookstore is if our publisher made a substantial co-op push for our book.
What is co-op? Former agent Nathan Bransford explains how co-op works. In short, those cover-side-out shelves and tables at the front of the store or at the endcaps of aisles are real estate that publishers buy from the bookstore.
Backlist and Bookstores Don’t Mix
Over the long term, often called the “long tail,” our sales will come from online buying. Going back to the post about online versus offline, these long tail sales could come from print or ebook. However, we can’t get long tail sales from physical bookstores—because they don’t carry most books at all, much less any backlist books.
So the reality is that without co-op (and even that’s no guarantee of anything), bookstore shelving is more about a personal sense of validation or ego than sales numbers. There’s nothing wrong with that ego. *smile* But from a business perspective, that means we’re making long-term contract decisions on a very short-term situation.
In English, that means that we’re sacrificing the higher royalty numbers from other publishing options over the long term for a one to three month display of our book buried on a bookshelf with low sales expected. Yikes! It sounds kind of scary when we put it that way, doesn’t it?
What Choices Do We Have?
Should we be making different decisions? Is there anything we can do about this?
Yes and no. Some of us might look at this reality and decide the potential of one to three months on a shelf isn’t worth the lost royalties. Some of us might want to go with traditional publishing no matter what. And some of us might try to negotiate our contracts to find a middle ground.
Yes, we could potentially have our cake (a traditional publisher with possible bookstore placement) and eat it too (not give up the higher royalty rates for the long tail sales). But it would require us to negotiate contracts differently. Many publishers won’t want to change their contracts, but some might understand the need to adapt to industry changes. (Considering how many big publishers don’t do anything to support backlist titles, maybe they won’t care.)
Are Contract Changes the Answer?
Currently, most contracts with bigger publishers use an “out of print” clause for rights reversion. But with online print and ebook sales, a book might never go out of print under the “not available for sale” definition, and online sales—no matter how limited—can keep the book active under the “x number of sales per royalty period” definition. This is why the long tail backlist sales of a book are stuck under the royalty terms of the contract long after the book is no longer available in those bookstores we wanted access to.
However, some contracts with the smaller publishers are now time-limited, meaning that the publisher buys the rights for a set period (say, one to three years) and then the rights are automatically reverted to the author. A time-limited clause would let the publisher gain their profit from the biggest sales period of the book, right after the release, and yet let the author benefit from more favorable royalty rates off the long-tail sales if they re-release the book themselves after the rights reversion.
The New Reality Brings New Choices
Will publishers go for these contract changes? I don’t have a clue. But we won’t know unless we ask.
The point is that we—as authors—need to recognize the new reality:
Long tail sales for all but the mega-bestsellers come from online buyers because we can’t get offline sales from books that aren’t on the shelf.
Maybe that fact will change our mind about how we approach our goals and maybe it won’t, but at least we’ll have the knowledge for making our decisions.
Do you agree that long tail sales come almost exclusively from online buying? Does that fact change your goals? What’s more important to you, having your books in stores or making better money off your backlist? Have you seen contracts with the time limitation? Do you see that clause as a positive or a negative for authors?Pin It