Bookshelves for sale - paying for a spot in the limelight
In bookselling, as in real estate, success comes down to location, location, location - even inside the store.
Publishers often pay for the privilege of having their book greet customers as they walk in the door - much the way cereal companies pay for having that box of Frosted Flakes prominently positioned in the grocery aisle.
"It's a common practice in bookselling, and a common practice in retail in general," says Paul Capelli, spokesman for Amazon.com, which offers "publisher supported placements" in its virtual store.
But if the front tables of chains represent the Upper West Side in terms of book real estate, independent bookstores have felt more like Podunk, N.J.
"I'd take money if publishers offered it to me," says David Didriksen, owner of Willow Books and Cafe in Acton, Mass. "I said, 'How about $1.50?' And they laughed at me."
Independents market their shelves
Tired of that reaction, 1,100 members of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) have banded together. Last weekend, their Booksense campaign kicked off a cooperative marketing effort with Crown Publishing promoting "Isaac's Storm" - complete with national advertising and the nifty countertop displays usually seen in a Borders or Barnes & Noble.
The reason for independents' traditional lack of clout is the way publishers' allocate marketing dollars - based on factors such as the number of volumes sold and the advertising budget a store can offer. The ABA has a lawsuit pending against the chains charging unfair business practices.
While it remains to be seen if the collaborative Booksense effort can compete with the chains, "Isaac's Storm" will debut at No. 10 on The New York Times bestseller list Sept. 19, a promising sign for both the book and its sellers. "The success only bodes well for the program," says Joan Demayo, vice president of sales and marketing for the Crown Publishing Group, owned by Random House Inc. "[Booksense] has given focus to the independents, helped them be a bigger force than just one store."
It is difficult to gauge the overall impact marketing and placement in stores have on a book's sales, experts say. (Although Walden Books proved long ago that books placed face out on the shelf sold better than volumes with only a slender spine showing.) And with about 50,000 books published in the US each year, there's no doubt promotional efforts can help grab readers' attentions.
"Obviously, you have a head start if you can plunk down thousands of dollars for [cooperative marketing]," says John Oakes, publisher of Four Walls Eight Windows in New York. But smaller houses often can't afford to spend the money to ensure prominent placement, he adds. Even larger publishers can't risk thousands of dollars on every author - which is why you tend to see only the likes of John Grisham or Stephen King nestled in "display dumps" at the book shop door. "If you decline to partake of the opportunities presented, it's rare that you will get the kind of numbers in the store that you or your author would like," Mr. Oakes says.
But stores argue that it isn't all about money. For example, Amazon.com reserves the right not to promote a book that doesn't meet its editorial standards and maintains - despite outside skepticism - that its reviews are not for sale.
Later this fall, the ABA is launching its own Web site, which will feature the Booksense 76, titles recommended by bookstores across the US.
Earning the spot
"Our hope is that publishers will see one or two of their titles doing well [on the list] and want to help us market it," says Michael Hoynes, vice president of Booksense. "The distinction would be that the book had earned its way" - not bought its way onto the list.
While critics say the quest for marketing money has turned bookselling into a real estate game, "there's two sides to it. As a book lover walking into a store, I want to believe that every book was put there because somebody loved that book," says Nora Rawlinson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly magazine in New York. But, she adds, "I don't get too upset about the idea that a lot of these spaces are paid for. It's just a question of stores having equal access to that cooperative money."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society