Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Who needs a title, anyway?

Here's an interesting piece in the New York Times on a little-known piece of bookstore insider info. How does Oprah keep her new book club selections a secret, and yet make it available in the stores on the same day she announces it on her show? Booksellers have to order the title blind, not knowing what the book is until they open the shipping boxes. (In theory, those boxes stay sealed until the "laydown" or sale date, but sometimes, a few of us peek.)

Apparently, this trend was carried to an extreme with the recently canceled O.J. Simpson If I Did It book. The title was such a secret that bookstores had to order it without any foreknowledge of the title, subject or author. As noted in the NYT article, this has happened at least once before, with the forgettable tell-all by Princess Diana's former butler. "The what? By whom?" you say? Exactly.

It's all, of course, a result of the event-book, blockbuster mentality. If you don't have the new Oprah book on the day of the announcement, you're going to miss a large fraction of your sales, and moreso because the people you turn away will go somewhere else the next time Oprah announces a title. When a book makes a big splash in a news cycle, it'll usually fade and be forgotten within weeks if not days, so booksellers are willing to make a gamble on an unknown title based on the sales that the promised newscycle event will drive into the store.

Sure, it sucks, but any reading is good reading, right? Right?


Anonymous said...

Don't the chains sell these books basically on a consignment basis? If the book bombs they can always off-load it to the publisher for a full refund. The publisher basically holds the inventor even while its on the store shelf.

Am I right or terribly wrong?

Gavin said...

Actually, all books are basically sold on a consignment basis--bookstores can return them to publishers for full or nearly full credit. (Of course, it's credit and not a refund. With the big publishers it doesn't make much difference, but it can bascially mean a write-off if you'e dealing with a specialty publisher without other titles you can sell.) That's why discounts on books are relatively small: except for remainders (those really cheap books at the front of the store, which have been sold back to the bookstore at a deep, deep discount), bookstores are better off returning titles for credit than trying to clear out their stock at more than 40-50% off.

Anonymous said...

You’re right. This is an interesting piece. What I found most interesting was the response of Mr. Dutton, independent bookseller. Of course it’s about marketing. It is na├»ve and foolish to believe that it is going to be otherwise. Not to mention the fact that, as a retailer, it is not his job to pass judgment on what is offensive, at least not if he intends to stay in business. As a consumer, he is free to take umbrage to whatever he may wish. As a retailer, he should stock items without making value judgments, and allow his customers the opportunity to make their own decisions about what they will and will not read. By refusing to allow his customers this opportunity, Mr. Dutton is allowing his personal beliefs to get in the way of his respect for his customers’ intelligence and freedom, not to mention flying in the face of freedom of speech and the press. Censorship, anyone?

Personally, I think Borders handled this situation the best way possible. Prior to the announcement that the publisher would be pulling the book and destroying any and all copies on which it could lay its hands, Borders decided to carry the book. This decision, however, was accompanied by a statement indicating that Borders would, in no way, promote the book, that the book would be displayed spine out in the section only, and that all proceeds from its sale would go to charities providing assistance to victims of domestic violence. Personal bias aside, what a classy way to handle an extremely sticky situation.