HomeWriting LifeArticles on WritingOrdering to the net, or …


Ordering to the net, or … — 41 Comments

  1. First, apologies since I’m coming into this so late.

    The Book Standard had an interesting article that touched on much of this, as well. The interesting bit is this, “…was the fact that 93 percent of ISBNs sold fewer than 1,000 units in 2004, according to Nielsen BookScan. These books accounted for only 13 percent of sales. On the other hand, 7 percent of ISBNs sold more than 1,000 units and made up the remaining 87 percent of sales.”

    The rest of the article is at http://www.thebookstandard.com/bookstandard/news/publisher/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001180356&imw=Y

    I’ve run an indy bookstore on top of trying to launch a career as a graphic novelist and I completely agree (though it’s probably no surprise) with your thesis here. Central, automated buying is a horrible thing. I also am not a believer that it maximizes profit. It’s not as efficient and it’s certainly not humane.

    I also agree with your solutions, too. Readers must do more than just buy a book they love once. They have to talk about it and continue buying it for others. And get them talking, too. It’s the only way to make it work.

    Thanks for writing!


  2. But eitje, wouldn’t it have to be an audiobook then? I can’t speak for others, but that would be a problem for me – I much prefer reading books to hearing them.

  3. i wonder… why not just go digital? not digital print (which you’ve discussed before)… but an audible.com book, which could also be distributed via USB key. i don’t know how large the audible files normally are, but a dozen hours of voice-quality MP3 would fit on something like this:

    i dunno. i don’t know anything about books – writing, selling, etc. but it seems to me that if you could figure out a way to do publishing yourself – albeit digital distribution rather than physical – then you wouldn’t have to worry about who was carrying what.

  4. I live in a smaller town (40K). We have more indie stores than chains. The only chain is Borders, and the selection there stinks so we rarely head there for books.

    Oddly enough I find Holly Lisle books at Shopko, but not at the indies or Borders.

  5. Hey, Holly, the “Favorite Indie” page is a good idea, but it leaves out the opportunity to post if someone has a really good experience with a chain store. Maybe a “Favorite Bookstores” page? Include the criteria someone should consider when deciding to post so readers have an idea of what’s been considered.

  6. This is mildly depressing, but I have some good news for you, there is hope for you book outside of indie bookstores in Savannah! I was at a college fair last year, and I can’t be in the mall without stopping by the bookstore (it’s an addiction)so while I was wandering up and down the isles trying to find something to read I saw your book Talyn in the new fantasy section, several hard back copies on display for any fantasy fan to see (or book fan, since I rarely buy books in the fantasy department and tend to stalk up and down isles until I find something with a cover I like.) Anyway, I bought the book because I’d been reading your website, and I thought “hey, I’ve heard of her I’ll buy that.” Anyway, I guess I’m a proud bookstore citizen or something because I like to think that bookstores in my city are just better than anywhere else, but the employees also have a section where they can reccomend any books that they’ve read recently, and since we’re a city with a well known art college (SCAD or Savannah College of Art and Design) this might be unique, I can’t say as I’ve pretty much always lived here. Roger Ebert did say that we have some of the most artistic Starbucks employees around.

    As a side note, Talyn was cover out rather than spine out.

  7. As I was reading this, I was also thinking about where I get my sci-fi/fantasy books from.

    I order them in, via an indie store in Sydney. The Galaxy Bookstore is the only store I can rely on to get the books I want. Even if the book is out of print, they will let me know if/when it’s being republished (Andre Norton). Chain stores aren’t going to give you that kind of courtesy.

    The chainstores (of which there are two in my area) suck like a vacuum when it comes to orders and shelving what I’d like. “They aren’t popular; we only stock what’s popular.” I was told as if I was obviously reading the wrong type of book.

    I replied, “fine, I’ll order them from elsewhere.” And walked out; I know where I can get my fix…

  8. Re: the used bookstores

    I think they’re great for authors. Over the summer I went into a used bookstore and picked up the first book of Sara Douglass’ ‘Axis’ trilogy. I liked it so much, I went and bought the other two books of the trilogy brand new, plus a used copy of a book in her ‘wayfarer redemption trilogy’, and the other two books in that trilogy new. So, for the two books I bought used that she won’t see royalties for, I bought four books that she will.

    It was the same with Holly’s ‘secret texts’ trilogy. I bought a second hand copy of ‘Diplomacy of Wolves’ first, and then bought the other two books new.

    It’s also how I started buying Tami Hoag books. And Terry Pratchett…

    I’m more willing to shell out $10 for an author whose writing I know I like, so for discovering new writers, I prefer the second hand books–or, along the same line, libraries. I’m a book hoarder too, I’m very likely to purchase a book that I read in the library so that I can reread it at my leisure.


  9. Travis – I’m not at ALL shocked if the managers at the chain bookstores make their decisions the way you initially assume. You can’t be held accountable for a bad decision if you just “read the numbers”. A bureacracy is as a bureacracy does.

    All the suggestions on how to cope with the current situation are good; but the only way any real changes will happen is if investors put pressure on the companies to increase profit and value. If a better software model will do that the way you presume you’ll see changes as fast as they can be made. You can make the coporate bottom line work for you with the right inovations.

  10. That’s a great idea, Holly! I would love to know where all the independant bookstores are hiding in my area (central Delaware). As it is, I ordered Talyn from bookpeople.com and they sent me an email saying they had to special order a copy for me because there were none in stock. I guess that means they sold out, which is a good sign, right? 🙂

  11. Bunch of answers all at once (I was offline most of the weekend):

    Amazon.com is counted as a regular book sale IF you buy the book new and from Amazon. But Amazon makes most of its money selling used books now—the new books aren’t even a drop in its bucket.

    Nor are they a drop in the bucket

    And if you’re buying your books used from them, or “new” but from one of the discounters, it doesn’t show up in the writer’s sales numbers.

    Travis—Can you infiltrate the chains as a programmer-operative and fix their damned code for them?

    And to everyone—a lot of indies sell online. Not all, certainly, and some of those who do don’t ship everywhere. BUT ….

    Here’s my idea: I’ll make a Plug Your Favorite Indie Bookstore page here. If you’re a reader, a writer, an idie bookseller or an indie owner, you can put a plug in for your favorite store. The list will not be copyrighted—anyone may copy and distribute it anywhere, any writer can add it to his or her page or weblog and suggest that readers buy there books from one of these stores as a first choice, with online and offline chains as a last resort. (If you do copy it, please add a linkback to my site.)

  12. This is fascinating to me because I’m not a writer, I’m a programmer. I know that the powers-that-be in the chain look at numbers generated probably automatically by probably relatively old software. The way you put it forth, they probably don’t even make a decision. They have the sales numbers and they plug that into the order form for the next batch.

    Add two or three lines of code to that program that spits out numbers, and the entire industry would change. All you need is to calculate a percentage sale rather than a number sold. The software would compare that percentage with average percentage of books sold for midlist writers (I’m not familiar with the term ‘midlist’ but I assume that such authors can be easily identified for this purpose) and if it’s higher than average, the software would present an order that is greater than the previous order, proportional to the difference from the average percentage sold.

    Ordering books to supply a chain of retail stores is an investment. The percentage sold is the return on that investment. More promising investments have a higher return, so naturally you would invest more in those. To think that chain book sellers don’t use this common business logic is a bit shocking.

    Furthermore, it would be trivial to write a bit more code that would identify authors who have growing popularity and suggest to the power-that-be that promotion for those authors could be a good idea.

    The above solution, I know, is completely impersonal, and would probably only help stomp out indie book sellers. None the less, it patches the problem you describe.

  13. Talyn sighting report: I saw two copies in my “local” chain (30 minutes away). One was in the New Paperbacks section, cover up like all the other books and the other was spined out in SF&F. I bought them both. I hope they had more copies in the back, because I didn’t see more. I wish I’d dared ask. I might go in again in a week or two and see if they replenished. 😀

  14. I’d love to shop Indies but the closest thing I have near (withing 25 miles) me is a used bookstore that has a small section devoted to new books.
    I have mixed feelings about selling used books. I wish there was a practical the writer could benefit financially from this sort of transaction.
    I will say though that, ultimately, a writer might benefit in that if a reader, such as myself, picks up a book by a writer new to me and likes it then a search for copies no longer in print is easy enough. This then develops an attachment to that author which can aid their career.
    A writing career is not for the faint of heart as I point out in one of my articles at http://www.helium.com

  15. Eitje,

    Spined out means the spine of the book is what is facing the customer when they look at a book on the shelf. One would greatly prefer that the cover of her book face the customer when they approach it.

    That being said, I really like this article, and will link to it. Reminds me a great deal of what Jim Macdonald says over at Absolute Write in the Novels forum.

  16. I’d like to know about Amazon too. That’s where I get nearly all of my books. Of course, I don’t really have an indie bookstore to support – the only one nearby (and “nearby” means half an hour away) only sells travel books and literary books. Is using Amazon better or worse than using a chain bookstore? I’m hoping it’s the former – for one, the nearest chain bookstore is also half an hour away, and also, online ordering has been a lifesaver for me, since I’d really prefer not to go out shopping if I can help it (I don’t do well with crowds).

  17. We have a brand-new, brave independent bookstore opening in our city of 135,000 this month. I have been volunteering there because I want an independent bookstore here!

    So I went down to the new store today to special-order Talyn, but I found two copies on the shelf! (This means it was in the first, fourteen-plus-pallet shipment from Ingram that we all unpacked, categorized, and shelved over recent weekends.)

    I bought one. There’s one left. The movement of the title will be noticed, even though the shelves are packed and most of the books are spine-out.

    As an independent publisher, in putting our books out in the world I deal with the same forces that Holly is discussing. The window is slightly wider for independents, because the chains don’t send back our books for about six months. But they often send them back in unsalable condition (for full refunds, of course . . . that’s the way the business works).

    There’s got to be a better way.

  18. I’m curious about where Amazon fits into the equation, too. Of course, the nearest chain bookstore to me is over 50 miles away— one must go to the city for things like that. So we have two indies in town. And my nearest city is Portland, so of course, when I want to stop at a bookstore in the city, it’s never a chain, anyways. It’s Powells. Powells is heaven. I decided, at about age 12, that I never wanted to win the lottery… I’d much rather just live in Powells.

  19. I’m comfortable with admitting that there are many things in this world that do not work as I think they do.

    I’m fairly ignorant of the real inner workings of the publishing industry beyond what I’ve learned from reading Holly’s posts, but it would seem to me that writers benefit more from sales through stores that order titles they intend to hand-sell to customers who walk through their doors looking either for those specific titles or for recommendations from the staff that then lead them to buy the titles those stores have ordered, and subsequently reorder.

    If that is correct, then wouldn’t my mail-ordering from such a store, given that I have no access to a comparable store locally, be more productive in terms of boosting the figures for titles of authors I wish to support? Does that give my dollar greater leverage than having a local store special order a single copy of a title? It would seem so to me, but I’ve already established my ignorance, and so I defer to the more informed among you.

    This is so educational.

  20. I work at The Other Change of Hobbit in Berkeley, a small independent bookstore that specializes in Science Fiction and Fantasy. I hand-sell books all the time. Frequently our bestsellers are the bestsellers in the chains.

    Tiny pimp: We do mailorder anywhere in the world and yes, we got in Talyn last week!

  21. Yikes! Being disabled, I buy a lot of books online. Sometimes I use Amazon. Sometimes I use smaller companies. This makes me wonder how the discount booksellers online fit into the whole picture. Besides, it is really tough for me to go “out” to shop. I can buy nearly anything online. (and have) *wonders if online shopping causes cancer too* LOL.
    *sigh* We learn somthing new everyday in Hollyville, don’t we?

  22. The nearest independent bookseller to me can only offer discounts on small press titles, but she said she can order anything available and sell it to me at list plus tax, which is not a problem for me.

    My question would be how do special orders like that through an independent who does not specifically order titles, as per your example, fit into the overall sales figures for a title? I would assume it would be relatively insignificant, and would miss the point of growing sales via independent outlets.

    Oh, I’ll still buy a copy of Talyn as a Christmas gift for my daughter, but it’s depressing to think that I may have no truly traditional independent booksellers left in my local area to support.

  23. As noted I work in a bookstore so it’s more advantageous of me to buy from them, even if it is a big chain store. Mine (at least locally) has a reputation for hiring Book People, which is nice. We all discuss everything we’re reading. I just wish I had more money to buy my own books. My husband’s like, why can’t you just go to the library? It’s hard to explain how I want to support an author’s career; nobody thinks about that when they buy the book, I’m guessing.

    As someone above said, no two authors are alike. Being treated like interchangeable commodities is really horrible. Isn’t there anything to be done about it? Tambo mentions upping Word of Mouth as well as your indie bookstore revival… *sigh*

  24. Two questions, Holly.

    (1) How do online sellers like Amazon, factor into this equation?


    (2) How does one go about making a trackback?

  25. Wow. Thanks for that explanation of how chains and indies differ. I had no idea how precarious the Midlister’s hold on future publication is. That’s especially sad for readers because authors are *not* interchangeable. Every writer has a unique voice and a unique style to offer. When I’m in the mood for a Terry Pratchett, a Douglas Adams will not satisfy.

    No wonder I have such a hard time finding books I want to read at my local Borders. All the books I might’ve liked (ie: not vampire, not chick lit, not urban fantasy :D) have been squeezed out of existence.

    Tomorrow I’m going to see if the Big Bad Chain has “Diplomacy of Wolves” and “Vengeance of Dragons” to go along with my signed copy of “Courage of Falcons”. 🙂 I’ll keep an eye out for paperback copies of “Talyn.” Unfortunately, most of the people I can think of who might enjoy Talyn live far away and Amazon.com is the best option for me. 🙁

  26. I opened up trackbacks for this post. If you’d like to spread the word about supporting your local indie (if you have one. We don’t.) and want to use this post to explain why independent booksellers are good for books, maybe we can start a Save the Indies campaign.

  27. I guess your two posts on this subject finally drove the point home for me. Thank you. I’ve been ‘chained’ for so long I’m not even sure what a local bookseller looks like anymore. I just emailed one in my local area that I found on the web to inquire about them. Since they’re probably closer to me that the B&N and much easier to get to than Borders, it’ll be a win-win situation if they can order new titles for me. First of which, of course, will be a pb copy of Talyn that I will be giving as a Christmas gift to my elder daughter who’s a big fan of strong female leads in fantasy stories.

    Setting aside the consumer in me for a moment, I also thank you for opening my eyes to the future of my work as an aspiring author. Much of what you’ve shared with us over the years here has been illuminating, but your explanation of ‘sell-through’ and ‘selling to the net’ have been a real wake-up call for me.

    Thanks. And while I’m at it, I failed to follow some of your instructions precisely to the letter during NaNoWriMo, but I used parts of your advice to drag myself through that puppy with a “win” this year — and I still have another dozen or so scenes to write to complete the first draft — far more fully developed than anything I’ve attempted in the past, thanks at least in part to you.

  28. Publishers, editors, and agents all know about the Three-Book Death Spiral.

    Agents gnash their teeth over it, editors do everything they can to prevent it, and publishers don’t care.

    ‘Cause you know what?

    There are always more writers, and as far as publishers are concerned, new writers are cheap. Writers are Star Trek’s red shirts, World War I’s trench fodder, the Third World’s poor. If a thousand hit the wall and don’t stick, they’ll always make more.

    If you hit the big lists in three books, of course, fantastic. If you can manage to hang on by shifting yourself all over the place and if by doing so you develop a following, you can stay, so long as you remain versatile and don’t let your heart get broken by the dead books you loved.

    You want to write in one wonderful world for the next twenty books, though, and the series hasn’t taken off in three? Bye. Don’t need you.

    I’m about to break my heart on Talyn, and I know I shouldn’t. I know it. But some books and worlds are special beyond all reason, and to me, Talyn and Hawkspar and the may-never-be-born Redbird and the world of Korre are those books, and that world.

    And as far as chain bookstores are concerned, the owners and the majority of the employees don’t care any more about books than they’d care about any other product. Book people are rare and nearing extinction in chain stores. To everyone else, the corporate bottom line is all, and writers don’t even exist except as faceless and irrelevant bottom-chain providers of product. One is just the same as the other.

  29. Buying two copies, one for me and one as a Christmas present to a friend who will enjoy it. Contemplating buying another one for a friend who never reads, as well, even though they probably won’t even touch it. 🙂

  30. That’s awful. I’ve heard it before, though. It’s especially sad since most people don’t shop at indies. (I don’t; I don’t know where there IS one in my area, though I’m sure they’re there.) Why don’t publishers (or at least the agents who handle these writers’ careers) notice this? Or do they and say, oh well? Do they see it as weeding out, or are there just so many *new* books that they don’t give a hoot if the old ones tank? Given the bottom-dollar mentality, you’d think they wanted to do everything they could to make all of their products succeed, and this obviously isn’t doing that. Is it really that much more cost-effective for them? Is this why people like JA Konrath are doing huge self-promo?

  31. As hard-line a market capitalist as I am I have to admit that the current business plan used by the big media marketers is analogous to killing that famous golden egg laying goose. Someday they WILL run out of people willing to feed their machine with “product” or “content” or whatever buzz-word they’re using to describe BOOKS. Sad, really. I do have hope that technology will make the big chains obsolete. But it’ll be a long, tough road for new and midlist writers trying to make a living.