Why Book Buyers Buy Books

Every once in a while, I get the urge to title a post along the lines of, "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck…" and though it’s not a great strategy for constructing an essay, it’s the reason I’m writing about why book buyers buy books. For starters, I would divide book buyers into four basic categories: retail customers, institutional customers, large book business buyers and independent book business buyers. Each of the categories can be broken down further and may even deserve a post of its own, but it’s probably a good idea to present them all together once for the sake of coherency.

Retail customers include people who buy books to read them or put them on coffee table to impress their friends, and people who buy books for their friends and family. The little crack about impressing friends foreshadows that even in this simple category, people buy books for diverse reasons. As a publisher, it’s important to figure out before publishing a book what factor is most likely to close the deal for the average buyer, and to make sure you meet that goal. For an impulse buyer title, the key might be price, availability or shelf appeal, while for a reference book it might be weight or a recent copyright date. Gift books and books for pleasure reading might be bought for their uniqueness or for their sameness, it’s really a question of personal taste.

Institutional customers include schools, government offices, large companies, essentially any entity that is purchasing books for use rather than resale. These are some of the easiest buyers to figure out because they often publish requests telling you exactly what they are looking for, right down to the part where the apes either drowned in the deluge or learned the backstroke. I’m differentiating here between schools which provide free books to students and universities which sell the books through bookstores. Institutional buyers have muscle in the publishing world and they know it, so they won’t hesitate a moment to tell you they are only interested in your book with certain changes. Generally speaking, this isn’t a segment that most self publishers target.

Large book business buyers include Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon and Books-A-Million, retail chains that carry books, and university bookstores. University bookstores may account for as much as a quarter of all retail book sales, though this has more to do with the cover price than the volume. University bookstore buyers are typically acting as procurement agents for instructors. If instructed to stock your book, the buyers will do so as long as you don’t throw too many obstacles in their path. Buyers for bookstore chains operate on a few different levels. Obviously, they care about their history with the particular publisher, how much money and effort the publisher and the author will invest in promoting the book, and the size of the print run, which is seen as a measure of the publisher’s commitment to the title. One hears they are sometimes swayed by a full court press on the part of a title’s backers and a three martini lunch, but I don’t swim in that sea so I can’t really say. Retail chains like Walmart may also go for a super sales pitch (without the martinis) and the right price, and with the exception of universities, all large book buyers are heavily influenced by facts on the ground. If a title sells at a high rate through any outlet and generates buzz, they’ll be willing to give it a shot if it fits in their business model.

Finally, there are independent book business buyers. The reason I didn’t limit this category to independent bookstores is that most specialty stores find that niche books are a profitable sideline and help increase browsing. Specialty stores are often served by specialty distributors who carve out a number of niches and actively promote the books of publishers in their stable. The downside with specialty distributors is a discount rate in the 60% to 70% range. Some specialty distributors do floor planning for their customers, actively managing the book section of the store (often one bookcase) to maximize profits in a minimal space. Independent bookstores can deal with wholesaler/distributors like Ingram or Baker and Taylor, master distributors, specialty distributors or direct with the publishers, depending on how much paperwork they want to be bothered with. Independent bookstores run by trust fund babies can choose books according to their personal taste, but most independents are in a battle for survival, and have to serve up what the local masses are interested in chowing down.

A single title might sell for a number of reasons to different types of buyers, but if you kid yourself that it’s all of the above and more, you are going to find that your only option is always a large overseas color offset run. That means gambling tens of thousands of dollars and forcing yourself into an expensive distribution solution where the only way to come out ahead is to publish a bestseller every time. You may get better investment odds than with a lottery ticket, but you’ll lose far more often than you’ll win, and those will be expensive losses. For publishers using print-on-demand, consideration of why book buyers will buy your book is even more critical than for offset publishers, because the inherent limitations of print-on-demand providers will prevent you from competing on every point. Quality moves in lockstep with price, and distribution on a short discount is available only through a tiny subset of printers. Weighty tomes are a bad match for glued perfect bindings, and color interiors are just too expensive at the current prices. So don’t be a "run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes" publisher, do your homework and keep your shirt on.

No comments: