Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Great Bookstore Experiment

Fellow writers, let us band together and share information for the common good.

I've learned a lot about the bookselling buiness by working as a bookseller, asking questions of booksellers, and observing over 1000 bookstores.

By my count, there are about 680 Walden/Borders Express stores, about 550 Borders stores, and about 600 Barnes & Nobles. My numbers may be off--stores open and close all the time. I'm not sure how many large indie stores there are, or how many Books A Million. If anyone has more accurate numbers, please share them.

By my count, the Mystery/Thriller Section in a chain store averages 250 different authors (authors, not titles). Bigger stores have more, smaller stores have less.

I've hung out in bookstores for hours at a time. I've lurked in the Mystery section, waiting to pounce on anyone who browses there. I've done this at all times of day, all over the country, every day of the week.

And I'm concerned.

Maybe it's a watched pot never boils situation, but I don't see a lot of people buying mysteries.

Sometimes an hour will go by and no one even enters the section. Sometimes a reader will beeline straight for Harlan Coben, grab one, and be on her way ten seconds later. But I don't see a lot of browsing, and I don't see a lot of buying---especially hardcovers.

Booksellers have told me that a face-out book has an eight times better chance of selling than a spine-out book. And I know that a bookstore may only receive three or less copies of a new mystery, keep them on the shelf for three to five months, and then still return copies because they didn't sell. It's possible that your new hardcover may only be selling one copy in five months, per location.

I know booksellers read my blog, and I'd like to ask a question of them. How many customers does your store average per day? And what percentage of that is mystery sales? Feel free to post anonymously.

And for you mystery writers, give me three hours of your time. This is for your benefit as well. Go to your local bookstore, get a cup of coffee, pull out a notepad, and watch the mystery section. Count how many people browse the mystery section, and how many people leave with a book. Then post that info here. Include store, location, and time of day. If you're eagle-eyed, include the book title the customers bought.

What is the point of this experiment?

I'm not sure that writers understand how much the odds are stacked against them.

I spoke to a lot of booksellers on my last tour. And at least a hundred of them--even though they weren't supposed to--shared how many of my books had sold that year. The stores that knew me and supported me have sold between 50 and 180 of my books this year alone. The majority have sold less than ten. Some haven't sold a single book.

I'm guessing that a midlist mystery author might average one sale every two weeks, per location, if they only have a few books in stock and no coop placement.

I have no idea if I'm right or not, but I think I am.

I hope everyone who reads this blog gives this experiment a try. If you don't want to spend that long in a bookstore playing spy, but you are friends with a bookstore employee or manager, ask them how many customers they have per day vs. how many mysteries sold.

If you're a writer, ignorance isn't bliss. It's death. If a customer isn't directly seeking out your book--because they read a review, or had it recommended to them, or learned about it somehow--then the only chance you have of selling it is to a browser, and there aren't that many browsers. Seven paperbacks on the new release tower might have a shot at selling a few by chance. A single hardcover spine-out in the Mystery section has very little chance of selling by chance.

You hear me preach about the importance of meeting booksellers, of self-promotion, of establishing brand and name recognition. Invariably, many writers will tell me that promotion is up to the publisher, that writers can't make a difference, that all they need to concentrate on is writing a good book.

My response is always the same: the bookstore is filled with good books that customers walk right past. If no one knows about your book, it is going to rot on the shelf no matter how good it it.

Take three hours. Visit a bookstore. Post the numbers. Show me that I'm wrong or that I'm right.