Sell-in and Bookstore Sales

There's an old adage in the publishing business that you can't sell any books if you aren't on the shelves. OK, I just made that up, but I have to believe it's been said thousands of times by book industry professionals in all sorts of meetings. Like many adages, real or imaginary, it's both true and false at the same time. Publishers get their books onto store shelves through sell-in, getting bookstore buyers, chain buyers in particular, to order books from a catalog before they are even published. In an odd push-and-pull, the projected print-run for a book helps convince store buyers it's a good gamble to order, while the sell-in numbers help the publisher determine how many books to actually print. Trade authors love to see a high sell-in, because it shows them that their publisher is serious about their book.

Let me concede a point right here. A title with a big sell-in is likely to sell far more books than a title with no sell-in and no bookstore stocking at all. So, the question you have to ask yourself is, are you in the publishing business to sell a lot of books, or to make a living? The problem with a big sell-in is it demands offset press economics, a big print run. It demands the trade discount as no store will pre-order a lot of books at a short discount. It demands a big marketing budget, because when a publisher shoots the moon with a big print run and the expensive production budget that entails, it locks them into making a big effort to sell the book. Again, great news from the author's standpoint, not so great for the publisher's accounting department. The greatest problem with the big sell-in is it doesn't guarantee the title will sell. I wish I had some statistics on sell-in vs lifetime sales, but I've never come across any.

So what happens to a title with big sell-in that fails to sell in the bookstores? It may start out stacked on tables in the aisles or with face out (full cover showing) paid for placement on the shelves, but it ends up the same place as all titles that don't hit their stride in a couple months - back to the publisher for pulp or remainders. And this finally brings us to the inspiration for today's post, a brief discussion I had with somebody about the Long Tail and middlemen. The one thing a large sell-in practically guarantees is that if the book doesn't sell well, dirt cheap copies will displace the new sales through Amazon and Internet bookstores. It's a short and violent life for a book.

For the big trade publisher, a failed title is a failed title and they go onto the next one on the list. They're playing the odds, like the Hollywood studios. A big trade will publish from hundreds to thousands of titles a year, so a single failed author is someone who can and will be forgotten. For the self publisher, every title counts. Self publishers who try to play the big trade game may hit it big and earn six figures on a single title, but it's a long shot in the dark. Conservative self publishers work with on-demand printing and short discounts, never even considering bookstore sales. Rather than looking for a single title that sells 100,000 copies a year and flames out, the conservative self publisher tries to build a stable of titles that sell a few thousand copies a year, for years and years.

The trade publisher or self publisher following the traditional sell-in model counts a few thousand copies a year a failure. For the conservative self publisher who's structured pricing so that every copy nets five or ten dollars, a few thousand copies per title per year add up to a real business. All without bookstore stocking, sell-in, or significant brick-and-mortar bookstore sales. For more ambitious self publishers using the on-demand model, you can go with the trade discount and a low cover price to try to mimic the big trade model, but it often makes more sense to just go offset and trade distribution at that point. Some self publishers using the on-demand model and who have better instincts for the jugular than I do focus on higher priced titles. The five to ten dollar net you can achieve with cover price in the $10 to $20 range can turn into $50 to $60 net per copy on titles priced in the $80 to $100 range. I just don't know anything that valuable to write about:-)

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