The shelf life of a tub of yoghurt…
The wolf wanders into a bookshop, and snaffles bag-loads of remaindered books.
So earlier this week, after a nice meeting in central Melbourne, I wandered into bargain bookstore ‘The Book Grocer’ and found myself loading up on early Christmas presents. Fifty dollars bagged me three adult novels and six children’s picture books.
Apart from the six picture books I found (more on that below), the children’s section was pretty thin. But I was mystified by the presence of some really good novels for adults – all by prominent authors and on sale at normal prices in book chain stores. “Murakami! I know…” said the lady arranging boxfuls of ‘how-to’ books into alluring piles. “It’s not always to do with the sales or quality – they just print loads in case they run out.” We agreed that adding extra thousand or so to a print run of a book that was bound to be popular was probably worth it.
Books sold at The Book Grocer are remaindered. That means they are books that the publisher sold wholesale at discount and are new and unused (though they may have sat on shelves elsewhere and been handled a few times). Books at The Book Grocer have been bought outright and, unlike the books in chain or independent bookstores, unsold copies cannot be returned to the publisher.
So the Murakami is there in lovely hardback for $10 because Random House printed a few too many. But what about the others – the books that didn’t sell well enough? And especially the picture books? I was relieved not to see books I’d worked on going cheap, but then most of ‘my’ books haven’t been out a full year.
“I think the font has something to do with it”, said the book lady. “There’s a sort-of ‘remainder-me’ font. You can spot it a mile off. The books with hipster fonts don’t seem to make it in here.”
What’s a hipster font? Well, super-hip Flying Eye Books (wonderful children’s imprint of Nobrow Press) probably use it. A hipster font would be some kind of script or slab-serif, with a hand-crafted look, or a classic-looking font with a few modern elements.
As a sometime graphic designer, the wolf still requests regular email newletters from font foundries (graphic designers get serious ‘FoMO’ if they’re out of the loop font-wise). So a ‘buy-me I’m cool’ hipster font might look like one of the three fonts below:
And I reckon a ‘remainder-me’ font MIGHT look like the fonts below (the wolf has put together a graphic for clarification):
But perhaps the wording of the book’s title can get a it overlooked in on the shelves of a traditional bookseller, especially when it’s a skinny paperback displayed with only the spine showing. For instance, ‘Aunt Amelia’ by wonderful author/illustrator Rebecca Cobb, who illustrated Julia Donaldson’s ‘The Paper Dolls’, is being sold at The Book Grocer for $6 – or $10 for two. Is it because the name ‘Aunt Amelia’ on the spine of a paperback just isn’t that big enough of a draw? Aunt Amelia, by the way, is a crocodile. The book is really good – funny and sweet and very appealing to children. But a little crocodile pic on the spine of the book may have helped it sell more copies.
And then there’s the books that are just great: they look good; are perfect for kids; fill a market niche; probably had regular print runs and yet… here they are being sold off quick. I don’t understand why they’re there, but I’m grateful because I just wandered in to have a browse and there they were and I love them. For example, I picked up six of Marcia William’s wonderful series on classic stories. These are just great for early readers. They’re lively, accessible, thorough and well written. These books may not look as ‘hip’ as the books above, but they’ll bear many, many readings. So yes, support your local (non wholesale) bookshop but, if you’re looking for a few extra presents then… grab these while you can Melburnians!
Jen Storer told me last year that new books typically have the shelf-life of a tub of yoghurt. Aoife Clifford, writer of literary page-turner All These Perfect Strangers, protested when I mentioned this to her: “I’d like to think of it more as long-life milk”. However you put it though, it’s NOT a long life – unless you’ve produced a best-seller with staying power. The typical length of time an independent bookshop might hang on to a book is 6 to 12 months. After the first month the ‘new releases’, which will mostly have been displayed face out with cover showing, will be moved into a quieter section of the store and arranged alphabetically by author– lined up with just the spines out. Unless you sneak into a book shop and, with a wolfish chuckle, pull the last few copies from the bookshelf and turn them facing out, they will quickly be lost in the ‘old news’ shelving nearer the back. There are just SO MANY BOOKS!
Finally – the COVER. This is a whole post in itself. But just quickly, there are trends and patterns. For picture books, hand written text is really cool and, when it’s done well, communicates quality. The covers below (both Flying Eye Books) are just beautifully crafted. That, along with smaller print runs, should keep them from being sold off cheap…
For adult readers a cover can also have a huge impact on sales. My new best friend (the lady stacking books at The Book Grocer, remember her?) told me they get a lot of ‘movie versions’ of popular novels. Apparently people are embarrassed to be seen reading them. Why do publishers do this? There must be some reason… but they always looks so tacky compared to the original. Surely a sticker with ‘now a Hollywood blockbuster’ works better?
Covers that don’t reflect the actual text inside also cause problems: middle-grade novels that look like teen novels; crime novels that look like romantic novels. The book shop lady talked about a version of We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver that had been packaged like a romantic novel. The target readers, ie. those looking for ‘serious’ fiction on difficult issues, would have have passed it over, while anyone who’d bought it hoping for a light, romantic airport novel would have had a pretty miserable flight…
Finally, having a book remaindered is not the end of the world, but it’s far from ideal. There’s not much in it money-wise for the author(s). If a book is remaindered, the author(s) typically get 10% of the publisher’s receipts, eg. diddley-squat. And if the remainders are sold at less than the cost of production, then the author(s) get nothing. However, with most publishing contracts, the author should be given the option to buy copies of their own book at the remainder price – before they get sold to wholesalers. Many authors do like to buy as many of their own books as they can afford at this point, as they make good gifts, can be sold at markets etc, and it means the author is still partially in control of where (and how) the book is seen. No-one wants to see the fruit of their labours in ‘Dirt Cheap Books’. What a title. Grrrrr.
And now some links:
And here’s an informative article on book cover design.