Selling Books, One at a Time

I am a subscriber to the excellent Notes from a Small Press email newsletter, by Anne Trubek, founder and director of Belt Publishing. I’m not sure how I found my way there; I suspect Robin Sloan may have been involved.

In this week’s edition of the newsletter, Anne writes about the backlist; in part:

The backlist—named after the place in a publisher catalog where the titles are listed—are books that were published at least six months earlier. Most sales for a book occur while they are on the frontlist (you probably can guess where that terms comes from), specifically during the first 90 days after publication date, though many of those sales occur in the month or two before publication, in those initial orders placed in anticipation. When a title is a frontlist, it’s costing publishers money and time: we are paying off printing bills (usually the highest single expense), publicity costs, marketing, designers, proofreaders—all those items that are figured into the P&L, or profit-and-loss statement. And we are thinking about how to do all those things better, and biting our nails. But after six months or so, that time and those costs subside, and the book moves to the backlist. All the costs have been paid off, and it consumes less of our mental energy. Which means each time we sell a copy of a backlist title, a much higher percentage of the revenue goes straight to our bottom line. One backlist sale equals about three frontlist ones in my mind.

Farther down she referenced the Belt book How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass.

Excellent title.

I was curious, sought more information, and found:

Are you moving to Detroit because your rent is too high? Did you read somewhere that all you needed to buy a house was the change in your couch cushions? Are you terrified to live in a majority-black city? Welcome to Detroit! And welcome to the guidebook that you coastal transplants, wary suburbanites, unwitting gentrifiers, idealistic starter-uppers and curious onlookers desperately need. Now updated for 2018, How to Live In Detroit Without Being A Jackass offers advice on everything from how to buy and rehab a house to how not to sound like an uninformed racist. Let us help you avoid falling into the “jackass” trap and become the productive, healthy Detroiter you’ve always wanted to be.

That’s a book up my alley. So I bopped over to the website of The Bookmark, my local independent bookseller, and tried to order a copy. I was dismayed to find that the book was listed there as:

special order — may be slow to obtain — suppliers are waiting for stock

Concerned that something was amiss with the backlist pipes, I emailed Anne, and she quickly responded, advising me to check that the ISBN I’d ordered was 978-1948742313, which is for the more recent second edition.

It was not.

I’d ordered the first edition, which is, indeed, “slow to obtain.” But the second edition, The Bookmark’s website tells me, can be here in 13 days or less. So I switched out my order and I eagerly await my copy.

In the meantime, I followed another link from Anne’s newsletter to the newsletter Quoth the Raven, penned by Danny Caine, the proprietor of the Lawrence, Kansas The Raven Book Store. My first issue arrived in my inbox today; it is a collection of snippets from the book-selling floor, including:

Today we had a launch party for Sarah Henning’s Sea Witch. We ordered 75 books, which felt decadent, reckless. Selling even 50 of those would smash in-store event sales records. Last time we checked, the Facebook event had 40 people “going” and 120 “interested.” 100 people showed up, the store was stuffed and sweaty. The crowd spilled onto the sidewalk. We sold out of books with ten minutes to go before the event even started. The first two customers bought five and six books each, respectively, and I knew we were screwed in the best way.

I have long maintained that what’s next in retail is not the challenge of providing more choice, but rather the challenge of providing less choice.

The algorithms were supposed to solve this problem for us, but they’ve proved not up to the task, for they’ve no way of jumping over conceptual fences to recommend the unexpected.

Anne and Danny understand this, I think. I’m happy I found my way to them, and I look forward to having them narrow my choices.