May 12, 2012

Front-Loaded Book Sales

Front-Loaded Book Sales

It’s been an exhilarating day, as the new eBook of the Tinderbox Way: 2nd Edition has been flying off the virtual shelves. Thanks.

James Fallows has a new book. Paul Krugman has a new book. David Frum has a new book. Veronica Roth has a new book . They’re all talking about the many chores of talking about one’s new book.

Why does this matter?

Trade books — books sold in bookstores, have to pay rent. American book selling is a consignment business — booksellers can return unsold books and get their money back — but books take up space and your landlord isn’t going to give you back any of last month’s rent because nobody bought War And Peace.

Bookstores need to stock lots of different books because you never know what the next person who walks in the store might want. You do know, unfortunately, that if you don’t give them whatever it was they wanted, many will often leave and not come back. So you want to have lots of books on hand.

But, to make rent, you have to sell those books occasionally. Your best-sellers will make up for some slow-moving stock, but on average you need to turn over your stock about 3.5 times a year. If you have a tiny shop with 5,000 books, you’d better sell 15,000 or 20,000 books a year. Books have to earn their keep.

In addition, those unsold books are an asset on the publisher’s books. If they’re not going to be sold soon, the publisher wants to take the loss on them now in order to minimize tax liabilities. That increases the torque on books still more.

Finally, there are only so many ways that books can get attention. Free media helps a lot, so people go on book tours and publicists cajole reviewers and everyone tries to get on TV. Advertising apparently works in Europe, but seldom works in the US; when you see book ads, they’re aimed at bookstore decision-makers, not you. You’ve got bookstore windows and tables and endcaps. You’ve got store clerks.

If you’re selling in bookstores, you’ve got to start big and the clock ticks fast. I’ve known writers who received nifty awards when their book was already out of print.

Electronic books and new media don’t have to work this way. Some of the factors still matter: Eastgate carries more inventory than I’d like, though in the greater scheme of things it’s not that much. But simply being brand new need not play as big a role as it does when you’re dealing with printed paper.

Still, those first days are big. Sales of both editions of Tinderbox Way have been far more heavily front-loaded than a new Tinderbox release. My impression is that this has held true as well for other tech publishers in the eBook space. (Want to comment? Email me. ) I’m not at all certain I understand why this is true.