Shelf life and the book industry: Part 2  

Part 1

Shelf life and the book industry: Part 2  

Part 1

Here's some insight into the way the book industry works from expert Vicki Hinze; it's an excerpt, from a downloadable book called All About Writing to Sell. Her analysis gives a sober view of the mechanics of the book publishing world, a brutal business quite different from the romantic view most of us have somewhere in our brains (even those of us who have seen our own books get mishandled by publishers).

As we've seen before, get a book published is only a small part of the book. Like pop recordings and movies, the supply of new releases quickly pushes out all but of a few of the older releases. As computerized inventory taking at the two big book chains gets more efficient, so the shelf life of anything but best sellers diminishes.

A publisher contracts with an author to publish that author's book. After the editorial and preparation for publication process, the publisher decides on how many copies of this book to print. That's called a “print run.”

This print run is often based on the “order in.” About four months before the book's scheduled publication date, the publisher's sales reps take orders from booksellers, wholesale and distributor buyers. The number of orders placed for this book has a strong determining factor on the print run of a book,

Now let's say the order in is 90,000 copies. The publisher likely will set the print run at about 100,000 copies. …

Okay, so the book is published and shipped to the booksellers – 90,000 copies. But the publisher doesn't expect to sell each and every copy. Tons of things influence sales–when the book comes out, what other authors have books coming out at the same time, the bookseller (or chain store's) budget; a lot of things totally outside the author's control.

The book is on the shelf in the bookstore. But few books have a long shelf life. Most average about six weeks, unless the book has been selling well. If it has, then it's “modeled” at that store. Modeled means that it remains available in that store, typically on the shelf (though some use the term interchangeably with “in line,” which means that the chain of store's warehouse keeps them available for quick shipping to individual stores).

So let's say that the bookstore orders 12 copies of the book. This book isn't modeled in this particular store, so at the end of the book's shelf life,” which the bookseller determines, that seller finds that 6 copies are still in stock and remain unsold. S/he chooses to return those unsold copies to the publisher for credit. So s/he strips off the front covers (some publishers require the entire book be returned, but since publishers pay shipping costs this isn't typically done for paperbacks, particularly mass market) and sends the covers to the publisher. The publisher then credits that bookseller's account for the costs of these copies. (Like when you buy and then return something from a store, only in this case, the store is the customer and the publisher is the store.) This is referred to as “returns” by the publisher.

This is only part of the story, of course. Where and how a publisher chooses to spend its limited marketing bucks, the problem of cash flow from Borders and Barnes &  Noble based on the seeming endless streams of returns, tax laws that penalizing book companies for unsold inventories, and the intense pressure on publishers and editors from the multinational media oligopolies that own them, which oligopolies are pretty angry that they aren't getting the same rate of return they get from owning TV stations or billboards. [Oligopoly Watch]

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