Publishing — Learning at the Bookstore


Recently, I had a few hours to kill and a bookstore nearby — a heavenly match.  For awhile, I drifted along the racks, reading titles, looking at covers, enjoying the sensual aroma of so many books packed together.  After some time, however, I started to look at it all with a critical eye, not just as a consumer but with the eye of somebody in the business of writing.

It’s a common bit of advice to check out what’s selling at a bookstore within your genre and sub-genre, to know what’s being done so that you will understand where your book fits into the larger picture.  Good for general knowledge and for query letters.  But there’s an even larger picture which we don’t often talk about — the world beyond your little niche.

Homework time.  At your next opportunity, I want you to go to your favorite bookstore — Big Box, indie, mom and pop, doesn’t matter.  Here’s the hardest part: don’t bring any money.  You are not there to buy books.  Let me repeat — You are not there to buy books. However, you are there to think like a consumer.

Huh?  Stuart’s lost it.

No, no, hear me out.  I’m basically asking you to spend some time a little removed from what you do when you shop for books so that you can observe the consumer in action.  Concretely, I mean this:

Walk the aisles until something jumps out at you as a consumer.  Now, before you pick up that book — stop.  Ask yourself why did this book call to you?  Was it the author’s name?  The book’s title?  The cover art?  The placement on the shelf?

Now continue along the aisle with a critical eye towards these types of things.  Which books are cover out?  These are the books the publishers (not the bookstore) are pushing.  Publishers pay extra money called co-op to get certain titles cover out.  Why these books?  Some answers are obvious.  On my recent trip, Terry Goodkind’s Wizards First Rule is cover out because the television show Legend of the Seeker is doing well and is based on this book and others in the series.  Kim Harrison had a few cover out books because she is selling well and the publisher wants to sell more both to make money and cover their contractual obligations (such as the advance).  But what about those books spine out?  What catches your eye about them?  What about the titles at eye level versus those higher or lower?

Next, take a look at the genre aisle you’re standing in compared to where it is in the store.  At my local B&N, the SF/Fantasy section is quite well represented with four large aisles in the front next to the general fiction.  In fact, I was able to locate books by all of my MW co-horts.  But not all bookstores treat genre so well.  This suggests that genre sells well in my part of North Carolina.  Often times, genre is hidden in the back or off to the side.

Lastly, take a look at the co-op stands in front.  These are the little kiosks and tables set up right as you walk in.  These, too, are bought by publishers to push what they think is important.  Note what’s at eye level, what’s on the floor, etc.  For the four-sided kiosks, look at what’s facing you as you come in and what’s on the sides and the back.

From all of this observation you can learn what the publishers think is important, what the booksellers think is important, and even what the consumer thinks is important.  You can understand some (but hardly all) of the crazy decisions publishers and booksellers make, and even gain a little insight into how a publisher can boost or sink a book.

This is just meant to get you started.  There is plenty more to learn from being in a bookstore.  Eavesdropping on people discussing books can be a shocking eye-opener, for example (heard this in the paranormal romance section one aisle over from SF — “I don’t understand why the covers have to be so dark.  I mean, I like dark stories, but the cover doesn’t have to be that way.”)  The longer you spend in the store and the more observations you make, the more practical you can be about the publishing industry.  This can be a reality check about the business side of things.  It’s not meant to change what you choose to write (see Lucienne’s post about trends), but rather to help you build honest expectations for the mountain climb we all must face.

Oh, and once you’re done with your homework, you can get some money and buy a book by one of your favorite MW authors.  If you don’t know which one to get, I hear A. J. Hartley’s Act of Will just came out in paperback.


19 comments to Publishing — Learning at the Bookstore

  • Interesting coincidence that you should be writing this now, Stuart; I was out with a group of writer friends the other night and we were talking about various things we could do to study and understand the market. Reading top sellers in varous genres was at the top of the list, but studying bookstores was also discussed. Seems like a simple idea, but there’s so much you can learn.

    Strange though that we should all be thinking about this at the same time. Must be something in the air (or water — I only live about 40 minutes away from Stuart).

  • Stuart, this is a great exercise (one I do rather less disinterestedly when I have a new book come out). I find the vagaries of what goes where and who makes those determinations fascinating and maddening. I doubt the public realizes how acted upon are their buying impulses. I once read–though I cannot say if it’s true–that the cameras in B&N were less for security purposes than for studying buying habits: what seems to draw attention to a book? What do customers do when they see it? How long do they spend considering the front, the back? Do they open it and read, and if so for how long…? And so on. Sometimes I wish I knew none of this stuff, that I could still believe that books sold proportional to the quality of their content, but you’re right Stuart, knowing this stuff helps to make sense out of the bestseller lists.

  • Edmund — We filter our water, so it must be the air. Or those psychotropic drugs you keep force-feeding me . . . or was that a dream?

    AJ — I’d not heard that about B&Ns cameras. If it were true, though, you’d think they’d have figured out something by now that we could all capitalize on. My deep suspicion is that while a good cover and good placement in the store can help a little, word-of-mouth is the only sure fire way to get people buying. Nothing else seems to ever work and plenty of times publishers lose money pushing book 1 when really book 2 is the one to become a hit.

  • Stuart,
    I wish I could believe that word of mouth is key, and I think it is for some books over the long hawl. The problem is that most books don’t get a long hawl. They get maybe 5 weeks, and if they aren’t flying off the shelves by then, they get very hard to find very fast. Faced with a store packed with thousands of titles, most consumers buy what they can see, alas.

  • Which books are cover out? These are the books the publishers (not the bookstore) are pushing.

    Unless of course I was in the bookstore an hour before you, in which case it’s possible my books (and those of my pals) are facing out because I moved them. *hee* Yes, I do. And yes, I know that eventually bookstore workers will come along and fix what I did. But for a little while, it makes me happy.

  • AJ — Well, that’s the flip side, isn’t it? Perhaps Lucienne can explain to us the insanity of giving books only 5 weeks to sell well, when it takes months for people to get around to reading a book and telling their friends.

    Misty — So, your the one! Actually, you have to be careful with doing that. For awhile, I read a blog by a bookstore employee. He said that they took notice of such things. It ticked them off, not only because it meant they had to fix it all but because they could get in big trouble — considering the publisher paid for the racks to look otherwise. If a specific title continually showed up wrong (ie, the author came in once a week to put the book cover out), that author found things like book signings and book orders and such harder to come by or suspiciously mishandled. Of course, if you hit a different bookstore each time, they may never catch you!

  • Stuart, I’m a little concerned about you dreaming about Edmund. And drugs. 🙂

    Bookstores used to be my favorite places on earth. I could roam asile after asile, pulling titles from shelves and reading the cover copy, reading the first page or two, studying the beautiful covers. And that was when I was a kid, long before I ever had a book to make me think of them as businesses. I used to go shopping with friends (not often; wallflower, you know) but they would go to the shoe store. Which bored me after the first 5 or 6 pairs. But I could stay in a bookstore for *hours*!

    Now, like you, I peruse them. Study them. Listen to people, watch people. Yes, as you said, the stores are part of the business, now. They are work. I’ve both lost and gained something special. Lost the aw eand the magic of a bookstore. Gained an understanding the child never had.

  • I do something similar periodically, Stuart, though I’m usually not as systematic (or intelligent) about it as you are. The one thing I do notice again and again, though, is that people in bookstores like books. That seems self-evident, I know. But Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million and others tend to set up their stores with comfortable chairs and nooks (as opposed to “Nooks”(tm)) and cranies where people can curl up and read. When I see them, these people aren’t curled up with e-readers. They’re curled up with books. Traditional, tree-killing books. I know that e-books are the wave of the future, that the industry is on the verge of a revolution. But whenever I go to a store, I find myself thinking that the paper book still has a future.

    Nice post. Thanks for this.

  • Faith — That’s the way of knowledge. After spending years in the theater, if I go see a play now, I can tell where something special is going to happen just by looking at where the lights are hung. I can’t just enjoy the show, but I have to think about it from a directing standpoint, too. But then the gains are wonderful as well.

    David — The point about e-books is one of the most interesting mysteries about the coming changes (at least, interesting to me). How will people find books, new books, new authors, etc. Amazon learned fairly quickly that people generally don’t “browse” their site the way you do a brick and mortar store. That’s why they started the whole “If you like this, you’ll like this” system of recommendations. I think book review sites and site where “friends” groups recommend to each other have big potential. Most likely, though, it’ll be something nobody has thought of yet.

  • Stuart,
    I peruse book stores regularly, though not so thoroughly. Most of my time is spent in the sci-fi/fantasy section. I usually check out the face-out new releases, observe the cover art, and which books are released in HC, TP, and MMP. Then I scan spines for catchy titles or covers, sometimes read the back-cover blurbs, and maybe a first page or two.

    I used to do this for the next book to read, but now I’m trying to see what titles work, what kinds of stories are in print. Lately, I’ve tried to throw some award winners and nominees into my TBR pile to see where publishers are putting their dollars and why. It might not change what I write, but at least I’ll know how to categorize my story in a query, and how to pitch it to an agent to differentiate it from what’s on the shelf.

  • amyknichols

    Hi. I wanted to let you know S.C. Green gave you a blog award over at The Parking Lot Confessional. You can pick it up here: Congratulations on an awesome blog!

  • admin

    Amy, thanks for letting us know! How marvelous!

  • NewGuyDave — Exactly. Another way to look at it is to consider how you look at things as an avid reader versus how you think the more casual reader might look at things. Believe it or not, there are people out in the world who don’t have a TBR pile. Scary but true.

    Amy — Wow. An award. Thanks! We’ll be sure to take a look.

  • Sadly, my TBR pile is far larger than I’ll have time for. Probably bigger than the three bookcases of books I have now.

  • mudepoz

    I grew up in bookstores. In sales agencies. My first job, as a 6 year old, was as a stripper. NOT that kind. The kind writers hate.

    I was looking at what my father called a dump-in (no clue what the jargon is now) and friend thought it was so nifty that the books had two different covers, one was black one white.

    It was very eye catching. It’s not cheap.

    I remember way way back when that was first done, how excited everyone was when Winds of War (I think) came out in different colors.


    But no way will you get me into a bookstore without money. I even waste my time at Airport kiosk stores and have been known to buy books when I have one at home.

  • Daniel — Okay, that’s a big TBR pile — three bookcases?!? Wow.

    Mudepoz — Yeah, airports are dangerous for me, too. Stuck with a three hour layover, eyes tired from reading all day. Hmmm, might as well check out the airport bookstore. Oh, look, a book to buy! 🙂

    Don’t know what a dump-in is — anyone know?

  • R.O. Kashmir

    Ah Stuart, welcome to the world of engineering. For that is what you are really suggesting we all go do. Of course the way you are suggesting is sure to confuse all those camera watching ergonomic engineers. *EG* Which I really love that idea. They need the excitement.

    On the other hand please remember that Dilbert is likely the best representation of how engineering really works. It always amazes me that these places still make money. Lots of money. Which is likely why this aspect of the business is so important. The engineers (after the lawyers) rule the world. So we best understand how they are doing it.

  • R.O. — Thanks for the comment. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I suppose it’s also “reverse-engineering” since we’re looking at the end result and trying to understand how it got to be that way. See that, we writers have to know everything. Sheesh!

  • mudepoz

    Mmm. Dump in, at least in the 60’s-70’s,+- was a prepacked box that was all one title. You just had to set up the box for a display.