Saturday, June 13, 2015

Why Your Favorite Book is Not in the Bookstore (And What to Do About it)

I've recently become increasingly cognizant of something: readers who are not themselves in the
book business often have no idea what today's book business is like. This is not an insult, any more than it's an insult to say that a patient doesn't know everything the doctor knows. It's not necessarily a reader's job to know the book business. However...

It is to the disadvantage of both reader and author, as the whole landscape of writing, publishing, selling, and buying books has changed dramatically in recent years... and it continues to be a moving target. So I've decided to write a few blog posts that will constitute a sort of "Book Business 101" geared toward readers--and toward anyone who wants a high-level overview of how the business works these days. It is my hope that this series of posts will help readers to find great books that they might not be aware of, and that will be of benefit to some great authors. So here goes:

I've decided to start this little mini-series with a post about bookstores and where the books in them come from. Here's how it used to work:

If an author wanted to "get published," he or she had but one option. Get a publisher to notice your book, sign a publishing contract, and then watch your book enter the bookstore, if you're lucky. What the traditional publishing model established was a monopoly on the part of the big publishers. Authors had no choice but to beg for their attention. So the publisher could sell books and treat their employees--the authors--however they saw fit. Here's how they did it:

Big, well-known authors, those with a track record for selling a lot of books, were the publisher's most valuable commodity. So they got the publishing dollars. When those authors released a new book, the book would be on the front shelves of the bookstore, and the publisher would spend a fortune on promotion, which included sending the author on a world-wide book signing tour to further increase his or her exposure. The occasional, incredibly lucky breakthrough author, would become a part of this literary elite, this one percent.

The lower ninety-nine percent of authors didn't get this royal treatment. If they were lucky enough to get a book deal at all, their book would be edited, possibly re-titled, their cover designed for them without their input, and then they'd be handed a couple of boxes of books and instructed to go find a way to sell them. Their books would be placed in the bookstores--on the back shelves, where a reader would have to search to find them. If they didn't sell, which was frequently the case since the publisher did nothing to support or promote them, then the unsold books would be returned to the publisher and the author's royalties would go in reverse.

There was also a window for this: typically six weeks to three months after launch. If a book didn't sell during that period of time, it was yanked out of the bookstore and the next author's books were placed on those back shelves instead. End of story.

Here's the kicker.

This is pretty much still the traditional publishing model. But here's the landmark change: This is no longer the only option for an author. Today, authors can self-publish or publish with a smaller, more personal publishing house, and sell their books online, bypassing this whole annoying and expensive process. Increasingly, authors are doing this, often abandoning traditional publishing contracts to do so. There are many advantages to this, but the biggest disadvantage to the indie-publishing model is that it's practically impossible to get your books into bookstores or libraries.

Let me say something again: Increasingly, great authors are abandoning traditional publishing contracts to self-publish or indie-publish their books. What this means to you as a reader: Increasingly, great books are no longer on the shelves in brick-and-mortar bookstores. 

What can you do about it? Well, there are two things. First: buy books online. Amazon is really the biggest online bookseller, to the point that it has almost replaced brick-and-mortar stores in controlling a monopoly. But the reason it's so popular is that it has a ton of great books, and they are easy for readers to get. A future post will detail how you can filter through the crappy books to find the really good ones, but for now, just be aware that if you're looking for a good book, you are as likely to find one online as in the bookstore. Perhaps even more likely.

With that being said, most bookstores WILL order a book for you if you ask for it. If you hear of a good book online, but you want to support your local bookstore, go in and ask if they carry the book. If they say no, ask if they can order it for you. If a particular book is requested by enough readers at enough bookstores, the bookstores will take notice and will start to carry it. And this is HUGE for the author.

So there it first installment of Book Business 101 for Readers. Readers, please feel free to post questions in the comments section if you're wondering more about how these things work. And authors, please feel free to share your experiences, whether they agree with or contradict what I've just said. My goal here isn't to be the authority on the subject, which I certainly don't profess to be, but to encourage the dialog that gets the info out there and helps readers find books they want to read. Happy hunting!


  1. Good post.

    You mentioned libraries...there the bottleneck is Baker & Taylor. They own the market for distributing books to libraries, and they refuse to deal with indies. (Actually, they say they'll work with you if you have a large and varied catalog and regular releases, which pretty much leaves out indies.) Many library systems large and small won't even consider buying a book not in B&T's catalog. They'll always take donations, but there are only so many paperback copies your typical writer can afford to give away. So if you want to know why your favorite indie book isn't available in the library, that's why.

    1. Lance, excellent point. Yeah, most of what I said about bookstores here translates for the most part to libraries as well... and Lance pinpointed the reason.

    2. I should add, however, that I have had *some* success with letting readers know that they can ask their local library to buy the book. Some have come back to me and said, "yeah, they agreed to carry it!" and others have said the opposite. So I figure, each library that buys a copy for that one person to check out is a win.