Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Confessions of a book mover

So I go into my local supermarket a while back to hunt and gather and lo! there on the paperback rack is my book. As Martha says, it's a good thing. But alas, I am down on the bottom, wedged between the horoscope books and a romance with a really creepy cover. I curbed my cart, looked around to see that no one was watching, and promptly moved my modest stack of five books up to the No. 5 slot, bumping James Patterson down to No. 9.

Uh-oh... I hear sirens. I hear gasps. You MOVED your own books? You took over another author's legitimately won bestseller space? How crude, desperate and socially unacceptable!

Yes, I did it. I confess. I moved my books. And before you get all self-righteous, I know that are hundreds, nay, thousands of authors out there who do the exact same thing. But they won't fess up. And even the ones who claim they would never stoop to such a low, well, they commit sin by comission because they have whole armies of friends and relatives strategically placed all over the country who move their books FOR them. ("Hey, what can I do? Aunt Nancy up in Maplewood is just trying to help.")

I used to move my books all the time when I was just starting out back in my romance writing days. But I stopped. So why did I do it this time? What made me lapse? I think it was because I was feeling a little bit of disgust at the whole wacked-out book promotion and display system.

Most experienced writers know that prime shelf space in the chain bookstores is bought. This is called co-op advertising. It is a system adapted from the supermarket model where manufacturers pay more money for better shelf visibility. This is why the Special K is on the top shelf and Generic Oat Flakies are on the bottom. This is also why some authors get the Just Published shelf in the front of Barnes & Noble and your new book is shoved in the back of the store somewhere.

What? You didn't know that prime bookstore space is BOUGHT? Many published writers don't know. Most unpublished writers don't know. And I'm betting almost no readers know. Most folks who walk into B&N, Borders and see the big stacks of books by the front door believe they are there because they are bestsellers, or really good or important books.

Co-op is a complex, multi-tiered "cooperative" enterprise between publishers and bookstores, an advertising agreement really. In plain terms, it means that many of the books on display at the front of a store or placed face out at the end of an aisle are there because the publisher paid for them to be there, not necessarily because anyone at the bookstore thought the book was noteworthy or interesting.

The way it works is booksellers -- mostly chains, but also larger independent stores -- keep a certain percentage of a publisher's net sales, usually 3 percent to 5 percent annually. This money is used by the bookseller to defray advertising costs (like when a chain takes out ads or prints fliers to promote certain books.) But the publisher's money may also buy prime real estate in the stores -- those nice tables near the front door, the Just Published shelf, the Recently Released shelf, the good spots by the register, and even having a book shelved cover out inside of spine out.

You can see where this is going. But what does it mean to you, the powerless author? I'm lucky. I've gotten pretty good co-op support from my publisher so far. And I am sure it has been a big factor in getting me on some bestseller lists. But I wasn't so lucky on my first go-around as a writer. When I first started out as a romance writer, I was naive. Hell, I was dumber than a box of returned books.

I used to go to my local Big Bookstore and wonder why my books weren't there. Or if they were, why they weren't out on the New In Paperback table. I went to the manager and told him my books were on the South Florida bestseller list and I was a LOCAL AUTHOR, so why weren't my books out on the front table? The manager tried to be nice but there was pity in his eyes as he said I should talk to my publisher.

I got even angrier when I went to my local drugstore. My book was there, too, but it wasn't on one of the racks labeled 1-10 Bestselling Books in South Florida. The 18-year-old manager shrugged and told me to call his distributor. I did more than that. I went to the distributor's Miami office and asked him. Nice man in a blue suit. Told me, with pity in his eyes, to talk to my publisher. Later, I found out that the bestseller slots in drugstores and supermarkets and airports have nothing to do with sales. Each slot is bought and paid for on a sliding scale.

Now, back in the 1980s, publishers held their promotion cards even closer to their vests than they do now. No one would talk to me about co-op. And like I said, I was too dumb and disconnected from other writers to find out the truth.

To make a sad story short, I got dropped by my first publisher and had to climb my way back into the business. Flash to the present and my second career as a crime writer. I networked. I educated myself about the business. I asked my publisher if there would be co-op support for my books. I got answers. I now know that if my publisher has say, XX-dollars to spent on promoting my book, I don't want a tour. I don't want an ad in the Times or USA Today. I want end-cap displays in B&Ns, stepladders in Borders, and as many slots in as many airports as my publisher's budget will buy.

I don't begrudge the co-op system. It is what it is, a complicated merchandising machine that has evolved over the past two decades to accommodate the huge number of books competing for shelf space and consumer attention in superstores like B&N, Borders, big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco, and other outlets. Everything has been supersized and many publishers say that the tables and flashy cardboard displays that crowd the front of chain bookstores have become a marketing force more powerful than the traditional ones -- reviews, newspaper and magazine ads, tours and interviews.

I read an article recently that quoted a veteran New York editor saying "The Barnes & Noble stepladder is the best piece of real estate there is. When I go into a store I practically genuflect in front of the stepladder." (He added that one of his books with sales of about 800 copies a week immediately jumped to 3,000 to 4,000 copies a week once he paid for its placement on stepladders in stores across the country.)

I know I have to live with this. Even try to embrace it, if I am to succeed. So why did I move my book the other day?

I dunno. Maybe I was remembering the humiliation of my long-ago meeting with that empty suit in Miami. Maybe I was just pissed that so many good books languish in the backstacks spine out and never get found by readers. Maybe I am just distressed that so many readers today don't realize their choices are being made for them the moment they walk into the bookstore door.

Old habits die hard. I did move one more book...a really good book by a friend of mine who isn't getting any support from her pub. But I haven't moved any more of my own books since that day. I am P.J. Parrish and I am a book mover. I have been clean now for four weeks.


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Good stuff, Kris.

I knew those spots were paid for somehow, but I never thought about it being something you could negotiate for in a contract.

Any idea how much those spots cost? I'm just wondering if it would ever be practical for an author to use his/her own money to get better placement.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Bryan D. Catherman said...

Beautiful confession. It makes me want to move your books. (Ah ha! Your secret plan is out of the bag. But I'll still move them anyway.)

12:12 AM  
Blogger M. G. Tarquini said...

And even the ones who claim they would never stoop to such a low

It's not so low to stoop. I mean we're talking...what? Couple of feet at most? It's not like we're crawling under the shelves and HIDING the Patterson books under there. Know what I mean?

12:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Publishers do this too. Every editor I work with moves books from time to time ... especially if there's no co-op to be had or if there's an "unworthy" book taking up prime space!

Sometimes B&N or Borders will REFUSE to take your co-op money. Somebody else bid more, or your book just doesn't fit. Then what do you do?

You move books, that's what you do.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

"Co-op is a complex, multi-tiered "cooperative" enterprise between publishers and bookstores, an advertising agreement really..."

That bears a remarkable resemblence to "payola" that beat up on the radio industry, where DJs were paid kickbacks, etc., by record industry reps & others to play their tunes.

Ah well. Distribution is everything in the book business, and it's the single biggest problem with being published by a small press or POD.

Question then: does your agent ask about co-op when you're negotiating your contracts? I would think it would start to become a contractual issue for writers, or should be.

I knew about co-op and have run afoul of the entire distribution issue, but I appreciate your insights. What's also sort of interesting is how bookstore personnel can be kind of, well, oblivious. I was doing a signing in a Borders just before the last Harry Potter novel came out, and there was this huge 3-foot by 6-foot sign hanging from the ceiling advertising the book. I kept staring at it and finally asked the bookstore guy what it cost the publisher, and he just got vague and shrugged and said, "Dunno, I think corporate sent it to us."

Well, yeah, no kidding.

Mark Terry

9:40 AM  
Blogger SAND STORM said...

Wonderful post! and if you should fall off the wagon...well we will avert our eyes.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Julia said...

I'm not published, but I always look for books by authors I know, and at least turn them from spine out to front out on the shelves.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Barbara W. Klaser said...

What a great post. That makes sense, if one can request the money be spent a certain way.

I don't think you stooped too low, either.

6:05 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

To Jude,
I don't know what co-op costs actually are. I suspect they are wildly all over the place based on a lot of weird factors. I don't know the inner workings of your local B&N, say, but I know that the author has no power by himself for placement. It is all in your publisher's hands.

The thing about co-op is that it IS expensive, which is why not all books get it. When you do get a contract, one of the first questions you might ask of your agent is where your book ranks on the monthly lineup of books they are putting out. A "lead title" gets the biggest push. There are secondary titles and on down the line. So the process begins way before your book hits the stores. It begins in the marketing meetings where the bean-counters and your editor(s) make those first basic decisions about which books they will back -- and which they will let to find their own way through the thicket.

It's a jungle.

6:47 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

To anonymous:

Yeah, I had an editor confess to me he was a book mover. I also worked with a media escort during my one and only tour who was an expert book mover. But he had a strict moral code. He never displaced one author for another, just kind of reshuffled the deck a little. Unless the author was a prick then all bets were off.

I watched him at work at B&N once: He grabbed all my books off the bottom of the shelf and proceeded to carefully redistribute the whole rack. "I'll move your books up but Jeff's good guy so I won't put you in his spots," he said.

"Jeff" was Jeffrey Deaver. Hint: If you ever are lucky enuf to get a tour, be very nice to your escorts. They have very long memories.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

What a great blog!

I move my books, too. I go to the local Borders and ask them to put it in the New Releases kiosk all the time, and they usually do. But those are just two stores.

I'm learning that "second lead" doesn't mean a whole heckuva lot.

In Borders I'm put in mystery, and in Barnes and Noble I'm in fiction, because it says "Novel" on the spine. My editor tells me it's great to be in fiction, but I think I'm getting lost. I'm there with Mitch Albom and Jodi Piccoult, spine out.

Do you have any opinion on that?

Re. co-op dollars, I'm guessing that they did pay to put me in the New Releases kiosks at B & N and Borders, but very, very few, in select markets. And not Arizona, where the books are set, so this might be a pipedream. Forget Walgreens.

There's so much to learn, and so much to figure out, and so little we can do about anything. But you certainly know how to tell it to us straight.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Very helpful, Kris. Thank you.

10:47 PM  
Blogger JA Konrath said...

Wonderful post!

3:07 AM  
Anonymous J. Carson Black said...

And the accompanying photo is priceless.

11:58 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

My talented better half, Kelly, made that photo. Is it part of a little movie for made for SleuthFest a couple years ago about the perils of a first-time author. Really hilarious. I still play it from time to time.

As for the question of whether it is better to be in Mystery or Fiction in stores? Beats me. I am in General Fiction and I sometimes think that puts me at a disadvantage but my publisher swears it is better. Maybe because my books are kind of "thriller" and categorizing them as mystery narrows the reader net?

I DO know that I am shelved between Robert B. Parker and James Patterson. I wish I could say I had been smart enuf to think of that when we were trying to come up with a pen name, but I wasn't.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I move books too.

Not mine, but authors that are in the wrong section. It burns me that bookstores but John Rickards in the lit section, dwarfed by Mordecai Richler.

My husband went to three bookstores before they figured out why the computer said they had his 'thrillers' but nobody could find them. And knowing us mystery folk to be as dedicated as we are to the mystery section of the bookstore, his prime target audience isn't even seeing his stuff.

And he isn't the only one. I could make a list...

10:42 PM  

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