Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Half-Life of Shelf-Life

MJ Rose's expressions of frustration [see her Feb. 3/'05 post, 'Test This'] with the way publishers conduct business goes way beyond the usual ranting to address a number of broader issues about the industry. She covers a lot of ground, and there are a number of points I'd like to comment on (and may, later), but for now I want focus on just one of those issues, the matter of shelf-life and in-store promotion. She explains:

"Word of mouth takes at least 12 - 14 weeks to build....[For a book to succeed] it has to stay on the shelf in plain sight for [two to three months]....Yet the publishing industry continues to give a book - at best - 3 to 4 weeks of promotion and co-op."

I don't know the source of MJ's data, but in a perfect world, 12-14 weeks sounds like a plausible gestation period for word of mouth buzz to build organically. Certainly there's no doubt that the hardcover shelf-life for a book that doesn't immediately catch fire is growing shorter and shorter. For editors as much as for authors, there's nothing more depressing than seeing returns starting to come back six-to-eight weeks after publication. Which happens all the time.

MJ's right: in most cases (hell: in the best cases) publishers secure from 2-4 weeks of "placement" and/or co-op for new titles. Those books you see at the front of the store? For the most part they're there because the publisher has paid for them to be there--think of it as a "slotting fee" of the sort that General Mills pays to get supermarkets to stock Cheerios.

To my mind, co-op (the umbrella category for money spent getting bookstores to place, promote and sometimes discount books, in addition to getting them to place news about the book and author on their websites, in monthly newsletters, etc) is the most effective allocation of marketing dollars. Placement matters most. I'm not going to get into the "do ads sell books" debate here; but there's little doubt that getting your book placed on the "New Fiction" table at the front of the store for an extended period of time, or in an "endcap" display or a step-ladder display or in the front window--these things can make a huge difference.

But one aspect of this that MJ doesn't address is how decisions about co-op spending are made, and who it is that makes them. Tacit in her criticism--that publishers don't support the books long enough for them to come into the public's consciousness--is the notion that the choices in this regard are ours to make. The only way that could be true is if the booksellers themselves were passive participants. They are not. We publishers articulate our desires, convey our priorities, tell them how many copies we want them to take, and try to convince them that we mean business (when we do) by demonstrating the marketing and publicity campaigns planned for each book. And part of the ammunition for convincing them of this is to put our money where our mouth is through co-op--to give booksellers an incentive to take a bigger position, to promote it longer and so forth.

In the end, though, it's the bookseller who makes the final decision. And there are lots of reasons why a bookseller won't always play ball. Don't like the jacket. Don't like the title. Didn't like the author's previous book. Don't like the author. Don't like the category. Used to like the category, but now it's played out... And then there's the old-fashioned gut-check: 'I read this book, I think it sucks, and so all this stuff you're offering me, day-glo keychains and skywriting and a full-page ad in USA TODAY, they don't mean a hill of beans--my gut tells me I'm not going to sell many; and as a consequence I'm not going to take many, nor am I going to commit to putting this on the front fiction table for as long as you want me to. Even if you pay me to.'

In other words: for books (as opposed, say, to breakfast cereals), a willingness on the publishers' part to pay doesn't in all cases guarantee front-of-store placement.

Success breeds success, of course: if a book catches a wave and is selling well, booksellers sensibly are going to keep pushing it, keep giving it good real estate--sometimes with the publisher kicking in addtional co-op, sometimes not. But what can be done about ho-hum early sales? If a book's not selling right out of the gate, and a publisher cannot convince the bookseller to extend the front-of-store placement another two weeks, or isn't willing to outlay the additional expense? The publisher wants the same two-to-three month shelf-life MJ endorses (longer, even, to be honest), in hopes that a word of mouth buzz might finally start generating the sales that the original marketing push--reviews, book tour, f.o.s. etc--failed to do.

But does the bookseller? Does s/he have the luxury of waiting for a book catch fire? Certainly there are titles that a bookseller adores and so gives an extra chance for success, thus keeping them longer than perhaps their initial sales warrant; then again, such a title, almost by defintition, would have been the beneficiary of a bookseller's enthusiastic handselling; and, usually, a hand-sold book = a successful book. So the love-it-but-can't-sell-it-but-am-keeping-it-on-the-shelves-anyway scenario is a truly rare one.

I suspect, too, that when MJ refers to a two-to-three month run, she's not talking about a B&N keeping two copies of a novel (from, say, a 20 copy order, of which they sold 6 and have now returned12) upstairs in the stacks; she means face-out or on a table. Actively merchandized. But if a book's not selling after four weeks, what's the motivation for a bookseller to keep a stack of the books in prime real estate? Strip away from the bookseller the "specialness" we tend to attribute to those passionate about books, and what you've got is a retailer trying to stay in business. And the way a bookseller stays in business is by selling books. Full stop.

So: is it likely that the chances for a hardcover catching fire will improve in its fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth weeks if it hasn't already before then? My experience suggests otherwise: almost inevitably, the further we get from pub date, the less likelihood there is that a book's going to get "discovered" and embraced. The media moves onto to other titles, other opportunities; and each day dozens of new titles arrive in cartons and get unpacked, each with its own set of promises and expectations. And what inevitably happens is that these new titles push the old ones out, and the same Darwinian process begins again. And again, and again, endlessly.

So it's not enough to say that publishers are too cheap or short-sighted not to set up enough co-op (etc) to ensure that a book catch hold. Because there's another factor at play: the simple reality is that bookstores can't afford to hold onto merchandise that isn't selling. And so when they identify such merchandise, they tend to replace it with something new.

I'd love to be wrong about this; I'd love to be told that MJ's vision of the (potential) relationship between shelf-life and buzz is viable, and that her proposed test--to seriously extend co-op on a select group of titles & therefore have some real data to build on--sounds realistic and likely to produce the desired result. And there's a very good chance I am wrong: what I know of the details of co-op and in-store merchandizing (or think I know) has been amassed largely through osmosis. Marketing and sales departments rarely "open their books" for an editor's (or author's) scrutiny--not, I think, as a matter of secrecy so much as a factor of the imperfect realities that they face: the machinery of publishing such a huge volume of titles and putting out three lists a year would come to a grinding halt if they had to submit to marketing "audits" on every 8500-copy novel... But to get back on point: it's quite likely that I've gotten the nuances of the bookseller/publisher dance wrong as relates to co-op; and it's certain that others with more direct experience--booksellers, sales people, marketing directors--can provide much greater specificity.

So I hope booksellers, marketers, reps, and anybody else with experience in this realm will jump in here and share your opinions and expertise.


Ami said...

Here's a link to an excellent article at Inversion by John Eklund. He's a book rep from Milwaukee and he speaks to some of the things MJ has mentioned as well as what Max is talking about here. Great insight into his point of veiw... as a book rep, looking for books to 'love'.


Anonymous said...

As a former bookseller for an online retailer with a co-op program, I can attest to the accuracy of Max's concerns that sometimes the stores just won't take the co-op, not even if you raise the bid. Now, I was in a unique situation, in which essentially each "section table" was run by its own manager, rather than by one central figure, but I used to reject co-op opportunities all the time if I didn't feel that I could put a book "out for display" and look myself in the mirror the next day. Sometimes, as in the case of a book by a nationally syndicated radio host, the publisher would ask a second time, and even ask my company's own marketing department to ask me, but--and perhaps this is because it was still the early stages of this retailer's co-op program--I was able to stick to my guns and create a display that was guided by an (admittedly idiosyncratic, and ultimately problematic) vision of quality as much as it was driven by the perceived need to shift units.I didn't feel that book represented the best we had to offer, and I wasn't going to pretend that it did, so it never got co-op placement. (Mind you, I don't believe said book was going to linger in obscurity, because of the author's established visibility, so it wasn't as if I was damning his book to oblivion, though of course that possibility existed for other books by other authors.)

Based on what I see this retailer featuring nowadays, I wonder openly if co-op has become the guiding principle for display configuration there, but that's another story.

Libertarian Girl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Libertarian Girl said...

Here's the link to the John Eklund article Ami mentions above.

Anonymous said...

That Eklund article is -excellent-. My favorite line: "When a book makes a best-seller list it is instantly less interesting to me."

In an industry where the most passionate people actively punish commercial success, is it any surprise that the practices which might -lead- to financial success are not embraced? Are, in fact, avoided? This so perfectly sums up so much of the problem.

As a previous poster said, Red Dress Ink sells 70,000 copies of trade paperback without much effort. Why? Maybe because they're printing books people want to read.

MJ Rose talks about how other industries market products. One thing other industries are pretty clear about, I imagine, is this: develop products people want to buy, and be -happy- when they sell. Sneaker manufacturers are not trying to develop sneakers so elegant and rarified--and, yes, so excellent--that only members of the International Association of Haute Cobblers will appreciate them. Or, if they are, it's with the full expectation that -those- sneakers are their own reward.

If you want a literary reward (and awards), publish a literary book. If you want a commercial reward, publish a commercial book. But if you publish a literary book, which wasn't written, wasn't designed, for commercial appeal, there's no reason to bemoan the lack of commercial success. That's silly. Maybe this is the problem. Maybe there are two industries, both of which we call publishing, and our expectations are confused because they share the same name.

Jozef Imrich with Dragoness Malchkeon said...

I have been to a number of writers' festivals and I am always surprise how isolated the industry seems to be. Rather than attempting to get a slice of the consumers who are not part of the publishing world, the insiders of industry tend to grab readers from one another.

How can the industry create events like the Big Day out when different bands get together and create one voice. A decade ago a Big Day out did not exist, but today the line for the ticket goes for hours. I often wonder why the Writers' Festivals rarely join forces with other art related industries where the young seem to enjoy themselves so much ...

As always Edward Wyatt has a good timing as today he managed to write about a short history of book marketing:

David Steinberger, a former senior executive at HarperCollins who helped create parts of Publishing Plus, says communicating directly to readers is important because most publishers cannot afford to compete directly with film, television and other media for their attention.
"But the Internet allows you to do that inexpensively," said Mr. Steinberger, now president and chief executive of the Perseus Books Group, an independent publisher. "In an industry where you are constrained by a limited number of powerful retailers acting between you and your customers, a direct relationship is potentially very valuable." Michael Crichton? He's Just the Author More and more websites are pointing the writers in the right direction some give them even that friendly push as well:

John Kremer's Book Marketing Blog Book Marketing Works - Booklets and consulting for authors who want to sell into "non-traditional" markets How to Get Happily Published -- Info on Judith Applebaum's book which is widely hailed as best-in-class Authors: How to Get Your Business Book Published -- a special report by MarketingSherpa's staffStill I hope that more readers take note of Joe Posnanski who said recently that
“there are wonderful books out there. Books that will reach inside you and make your heart soar and change you like only a good book can. You just have to look for them. Go deep into the bookstore. Find a book that strikes you. Read a few pages.
“Nothing worthwhile is easy. You have to think for yourself. Because in this world, if you don't want to think for yourself, you can be sure that someone will think for you.”

Anonymous said...

Entrepreneurial Guy here. A little while back I asked about starting a discussion regarding returns. Max, how do most publishing companies feel about this, and is anything being done to try to change this practice?

Anonymous said...

What would poor General Mills do if asked, after a two week run at eye-level in the cereal aisle, to refill their retailers' shelves with new flavors of Cheerios (only *not* Cheerios) with new box art etc. And to then be given only a couple weeks to somehow entice people to try 'em before they lose their position... and boxes upon boxes of stale cereal are returned to the factory.

I don't purport to have any solutions, but it seems totally crazed to me to have a marketplace where the retailer has not only so much power, but such a destructive stranglehold.

Kate Allan said...

Very interesting. I used to market wine and worked in category management - i.e. helping retailers decide what to stock on their wine shelves :). Think General Mills but for wine!

What strikes me are the parallels between the wine market and the book market.

Wine as a product has a 'mystique' which is more important than the shelf price. It's to do with knowledge and personal choice. Although part of the market buys from aisle ends and on price because all they are seeking is an 'everyday drink' and they have certain expectations which they look for cues to fulfil, there is a substantial proportion who want product engagement at a high level, and who want their buying to be through personal discovery and recommendation. There is an element who actively dislike being 'marketed to' (how they define this is a diferent question).

In a typical wine aisle in a UK supermarket are hundreds and hundreds of SKUs (different products). In a wine merchant it's worse. The catalogues are endless...

I could go on. :)

Suffice to say that I think, if books are like wine, then there is room from specialist niche purchases and independent sellers, as well as mass market and mass retail.

Why? Because they are offering different things to different consumers.

Anonymous said...

Harper Collins is not going to lead the way to the future of online book marketing. They don’t even own the Publishing Plus URL -- they have no idea what they are doing.

The problem isn’t the tight window of coop placement - it’s the timing of the campaigns. The solution might be consumer buzz campaigns started months prior to the on sale date - before even publicity mailings start, so that there's actually some demand beyond that of impulse buying browsers.

The interesting thing about online placement is that even though there should be an unlimited amount of front-of-store shelf space online (a new store for every customer) Amazon ruthlessly limits the kinds of co-op marketing they will allow publishers to do. There is a limit even to virtual placement it seems.


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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."