Home » Bookstores, Mike Shatzkin » Half the new titles received from a publisher don’t sell a single copy within a month of their arrival in the bookstore

Half the new titles received from a publisher don’t sell a single copy within a month of their arrival in the bookstore

25 April 2013

From publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

Consider this data provided by a friend who owns a pretty substantial bookstore.

Looking at the store’s records for a month, 65% of the units sold were singles: one copy of a title. Only 35% were of books that sold 2 or more. (I didn’t ask the question, but that would suggest that 80-90 percent of the titles that sold any copies sold only one.)

Then, the following month, once again 65% of the units sold were singles. But only 20-30 percent of them were the same books as had sold as singles the prior month. Upwards of 70% of them were different titles. And upwards of 70% of the ones that sold one the prior month didn’t sell at all.

To further underscore how slowly book inventory moves, another report they do shows that more than 80% of the titles in the store do not sell a single copy in any particular month. So it is no surprise that an analysis of books from a major publisher that promotes heavily showed that more than half the new titles they receive from that publisher don’t sell a single copy within a month of their arrival in the store, which would include the promotion around publication date!

. . . .

Partly because of the high cost of buying and a supporting supply chain that a book outlet requires, publishers will see shelf space for books drop faster than retail demand. (The closure of Borders, which wiped out a big portion of the shelf space, is part of what is behind the recent good sales reports from many independents.) At the same time, retailers of all things will be under increased pressure to find more sales as the Internet — often, but not always, Amazon — keeps eating into their market.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

PG was going to say what he thinks this means, but decided to see what others thought instead.

Bookstores, Mike Shatzkin

56 Comments to “Half the new titles received from a publisher don’t sell a single copy within a month of their arrival in the bookstore”

  1. My first thought was, ‘This is what I wasted months trying to go the traditional route for? A sale or two, if my book is one of the lucky ones?’.

    What a huge disappointment for the majority of authors. I realize this data would be extrapolated over all the bookstores, so selling one a month in a single bookstore could work out to selling hundreds nationwide, but somehow, other than for a few big names, I can’t see that happening. I think the sales are more random than that.

    • There are thousands of indie bookstores out there, so those onesie-twosy sales can reach 5 figures over a typical 3-4 month run.
      But, yes, this does line up with the reports we’ve seen on customer behavior and declining pbook volumes. It takes a lot of overhead (in transportation, warehousing, and floorspace) to sell a modest amount of midlist titles. That is why the BPHs have sold their souls to the “bestseller” market.

  2. only half?

  3. The problem with his notion of vendor-managed inventory is that all the bookstores would wind up looking the same.

    • Exactly.

      I think it’s fair to say that the bookselling business currently breaks down as follows. If one knows exactly which book she or wants, the way to go is ordering online (Amazon, B&N, Alibris, etc.). If one doesn’t have a definite purchase in mind, but wants to browse & find something new & different, then the physical bookstore is the best choice due to the owner/manager taste & selection — as long as the bookstore demonstrates some kind of branding. If the local bookstores are all alike & offering selections of what Amazon has, then what is the point?

      The rest of Shatzkin’s article is a rehash of coping with the “long-tail” phenomenon. Either you try to offer everything (as Amazon does), or you accept you can’t do it for various reasons (which a bricks & mortar store does by being selective). Either approach works if you know what you’re doing. (Although B&M stores, like restaurants & bars, always need to pay close attention to location.)

      • Huh. I would’ve reversed that. If you know what you want — with the caveat that it has to be by a popular-enough author and/or Just Published — then the bookstore is where I’d go to get it. If I’m browsing, it’s the web (e.g., review sites) and/or Amazon in specific, for Also Boughts.

        • But the bookstore often doesn’t have it — due to lack of space — while Amazon, or one of its partners, often does.

  4. If half of the titles sell one copy per store in the first month, and only stay on the shelves for 3-4 months, then carrying those titles does nothing for the store: half their shelf space is non-productive.

    The value to writers, on the other hand, though low on a per-store basic isn’t quite zero since there are a *lot* of B&M stores out there; even one sale per store can add up to 30% or more of a mid-lister’s take.

    Now, assuming this anecdote (big assumption) holds across the industry, the assymetry it reveals suggests the distribution system is broken. Stores can’t continue to devote half their expensive floor space to (essentially) decoration and mood-setting. But a significant amount of pbook sales rely on that trickle of sales for survival.

    Well, actually doing *some* promotion and marketting of those titles is an obvious one, right?

    Or maybe building and empasizing a new distribution system that doesn’t take up as much dead space–POD comes to mind. Movie studios have been helping theater operators modernize their facilities for digital distribution and projection; perhaps instead of paying for shelf space (the Indigo and B&N solution) publishers could help bookstores finance POD systems. (And getting heavy hitters like Xerox or Ricoh into building updated and cheaper POD hardware would be a good start.)

    I can’t see the BPHs spending even a fraction of what such a program would cost, especially with print sales volumes declining–so the most likely alternative is to simply punt on B&M pbook distribution and rely on online sales for that 50%.

    Which puts them squarely where online platforms are playing, but without the predatory royalties.

    Hmmm… 🙂

  5. At first glance, PG, I see Mike is back to treating the book as a widget, IE every book is the same.

    I’ll give it another read and get back to you, but so far this story lacks arc.

    • The consumer decides if it’s a widget. If he’s looking for a few books for his trip to Cleveland, then lots of widgets will meet his need. If he needs Catcher InThe Rye for class, then only one book meets his needs. All books are unique, but they become widgets when the consumer doesn’t care.

  6. I wonder if this could be due in part to the bookstore only stocking one copy each of a lot of titles?

    • If the order person was lazy. Most bookstores can restock a title in 2-3 days, maybe quicker if needed (we could have a title in next day through Ingram at the store I worked at in the 90s). Since these are monthly sales data, it means one book bought could be quickly restocked and sit on the shelf for the rest of the month.

      • So not too likely they just sold their one copy and never bothered to reorder?

        • Depends on how long that copy was on the shelf before it was bought. If three months or more, not as likely to be reordered. If a week or two, very likely to be reordered. Also depends on what else is high on the list to order that the shelf space and usually limited book buying budget will afford. So a lot of factors. But if a book hit the shelves and sold in a week, good chance the bookstore would restock, maybe more than one copy if he’d received feedback there was a growing interest.

  7. Well, surely the latest bestseller releases sell better than that. However, this does affect midlist. I’ve known for years now that my series didn’t make it because it wasn’t pushed either by the publisher or by the stores. I also know that a new release that is returned to the publisher after a month or two to free shelfspace for bestselling titles is doomed and that the series most likely will also be doomed. If the books are not on the shelf, they don’t exist. In essence it means “Author Beware of Traditional Publishing.”
    In the end, stores will only carry bestselling authors.
    If they add POD to this, I can see a future. Otherwise, authors had best bank on self-publishing and Amazon.

  8. Wow. Well, that’s the beauty of online selling for eBooks, and print on demand through Lightning Source or Create Space. Books are never out of stock.

  9. When a store sells none of 80% of its titles in a month, and of the ones they do sell 80% of those sell one unit, they clearly need information about what is going on in other stores to know which ones to keep or reorder and which ones to return.

    If 80% of your inventory are dogs, and you ain’t a pet store, you need information about other lines of work.

    • Especially when the 20% that does sell are available all over town in supermarkets, drugstores, and dept stores.
      Its a tough spot to be in.

  10. “In the end, stores will only carry bestselling authors.”

    And Red Box only carries best selling movies.

    Who cares?

    Amazon and Netflix carry everything.
    (Alright, almost everything.)


  11. But … but … but …

    What this is saying is “Non-bestsellers sell slowly, very slowly, over many months. And we have the figures to show it.”

    But what publishing companies/bookstores are doing is investing in these books and then yanking them if they don’t sell fast, very fast.

    One of Rusch’s recent columns explained why trad pub can make money on the treat-books-as-grocery-produce model. This, on the other hand, ought to go in Wikipedia under “bad business model”.

    • Coming back from reading S.’s whole post, laughing. S. writes: “… And we have the figures to show it. Here, look, here’s some figures. Why are we operating this bad business model?”

      Mind you, I don’t like his solution – the publishing companies get the figures and use them to dictate supply, and bookstores sit back and sell what they’re sent.

      Hm. Why don’t I like it? After all, indie publishers supply Amazon, and Amazon sits back and sells what it’s sent.

      I don’t like it because it places control (eg, profit; control = profit) in the hands of middlemen in a big, bloated supply chain. And in the hands of middlemen who’ve proven they prefer to treat their suppliers (ie, writers) like medieval serfs. Now they can treat their sellers (ie, bookstore owners) like serfs too. How wonderful. Thirty years down the road, bookstore owners can also take comfort in the magic words: “Don’t quit your day job.”

      I really prefer the business model where control lies in the hands of writers and sellers.

      And ultimately readers, with as few middlemen involved as possible.

  12. The only thing I can figure it means is “don’t invest in physical bookstores.”

  13. Awhile back I did a post about my vision of the mall bookstore of the future. PG was nice enough to place it up on his blog and it bounced around the series of tubes for a few weeks. If you haven’t seen it;


    In that store I had an Espresso book machine and the shelves contained only display copies of books. One each. The store created its own inventory during the hours it was closed based on the owners own sales predictions and customer demand. There was also a digital database available if the desired book was not on the shelf. Simply put; this eliminated the shipping, stocking, returns, and greatly reduced the accounting needed. I also added coffee, author services, advertising programs for authors, gift cards, etc. The store was an experience.

    Mike Shatzkin was kind enough to comment back to me with the opinion that all of this could be done at home on Amazon, missing the store as an experience point completely. (I even put the book machine in the front window with clear plastic covers on it so people could watch it do its thing)

    For a man who likes numbers, he provided none.

    From Mike;

    “From the store’s perspective, buying — and managing the supply chain to support the buying decisions — is expensive. VERY expensive. Books are hard to buy. New ones are coming all the time; the number of publishers from which they come (and who are the primary sources of information about the books, even if you could “source” them from wholesalers at a slight margin sacrifice for operational simplicity) is huge; the shelf life of any particular title is undeterminable; and the sales in any one outlet are very hard to read.”

    So I have to ask which is cheaper, the espresso book, or the book produced and delivered the traditional route? Espresso books are more expensive to produce, but once done there are no additional cost added. An offset print run produces a cheaper book, but then that book has to be shipped, inventoried, stocked, and if not sold after a predetermined number of days, returned. The on-site EBM eliminates ALL of this. The publishers (any publishers) could “publish” new books simply by uploading the file into the bookstore database. The store owners could share information on what was selling and where and adjust their own store accordingly on a daily basis.

    Mike argues that VMI is the answer to managing returns and optimizing limited shelf space. Need shelf space? If a displayed book is no longer selling, reduce its size to a display card or just return it to the digital data base and keep it available via a touch screen. Returns? Why not eliminate them altogether?

    I’ve looked for ways to make this complicated but I’m having a hard time. With this store every book that wishes to be available is. There are no shelf-space issues. Inventory is custom tailored to every stores needs and immediately available. There are no shipping costs. Inventory control is primarily electronic. Zero returns. The list goes on and on.

    And we still have the store as an experience, one that offers author services and supports itself through several profit centers other than the sale of books.

    • I’d build on everything above AND create a network of independent bookstores subscribed to a common e-commerce storefront. Bring in your e-reader, browse the shelves and discover new books, then use the built-in camera to snap the bar code and add the book to your cart/device. Since the customer is using the store’s free wi-fi, the store is automatically identified as the originator and earns a small commission with no friction from the customer perspective. This lets stores benefit from the “showflooring” that is already happening and potentially makes e-book readers feel like a part of the bookstore community instead of enemy spies.

      • Preston gets it. 🙂

        (If you want to gift that book to somebody right from the store go right ahead.)

        • I’d argue for one change: instead of display cards that have author bios, have them be very thin pamphlet with the sample chapters. Because the customer behavior is – title/cover, flip and read ad copy, sample beginning of book. (Outside of certain genres, very few prospective readers vet by politics/ethnicity/resume of author before sampling their works. You can certainly market by that, but I’d save the space for pushing the work instead.)

          As a seller, I want the customer to hit the end of the sample, and immediately look jarred back to reality, mildly grumpy about it, and wanting the sale right then, right there. That’s when I’ll have as many ways as I can to make the wallet come out and painlessly transfer cash for happiness.

          • Consider that idea stolen, Dorothy. 🙂

            Since that would be part of the author service would you as a writer be willing to pay more for the pamphlet to help push your book? If say the card was part of a standard ad package and the pamphlet was an optional upgrade?

            “painlessly transfer cash for happiness” Love that too, but probably not a good marketing slogan. 🙂

            • Interesting question, and it depends heavily on your traffic makeup. In your initial hypothetical example, you’re visualizing a mall bookstore where people come for distraction and time filling. Having sold instructional and fiction books to aviation enthusiasts (it was a small section of an avionics store, but a lucrative one when I was hand-selling them to customers) and having spent too much time in airports, I’m probably visualizing a different venue than you.

              If the majority of your customers have time to browse without pressure, then you’ll want an expresso machine / ebook combo alone, and sample chapters on hand.

              If the majority of your customers are through-traffic, like at an airport, a college bookstore, or if your “bookstore” is more the decoration to a high-volume coffee shop, then the value of sample chapters drops drastically, and you’ll want glossy, visually arresting cards in a display and a pre-selected stock of books for a customer to grab in the time it takes to wait in line for ordering their coffee.

              Not that you wouldn’t also want the expresso machine as a crowd draw for people with time and small children, but it’s about catering to your particular market.

              • It’s said that if a former consumer base shrinks by a factor of 2 or 3 then the current business model will not survive. So unless the store I’m picturing can increase the target consumer numbers, or offer something in addition to the base product/revenue stream, its doomed from the start.

                As some have pointed out, most of what the store has to offer can already be had at Amazon. So the store will have to offer more to be successful. The store will need to offer something that makes them a destination, a specialization or a co-location, something that will help it find the audience beyond the general reading audience.

                I placed the store in the mall to take advantage of the existing population and more importantly the mindset of that population. People enter the building for a variety of reasons, the bookstore may not even be on their list but studies show that when people visit the mall a large part of the reason is for discovery purposes. If you already know exactly what you want you are most likely better off getting it online at Amazon. If you need to see it, touch it, feel it, smell it before you make a decision than you need a store. People come to the mall for one or two specific things and then see what else they can find before its time to leave.

                The store I envision will give people a reason to spend time in the store looking for something they want to take home, rather than just counting on it to have exactly what they came in looking for. (although there’s no reason it can’t have every book there is to offer available) Something they didn’t know they wanted until they saw it.

                I also picture it as a tool for the indie author, a place where they and their peers can meet and build their books together. Be it by making connections, providing a platform for signings, advertising, or just to bounce ideas off one another.

                Cheers for writers, only with coffee and books. Instead of Norm and a cold draft beer we have Norma who likes cozy mysteries and caramel macchiatos.

                So the answer to your question would be all of the above and more. If the store manager was given the leeway to adjust the store to fit the local traffic, rather than being fixed to a rigid corporate plan, and had all the tools to do so, I think this could be a store people would come to.

      • That brings up interesting questions – pardon my curiosity, but if your events sell 7-10 of your own books, on average, are they usually to known fans who come for a signed version, or to new readers? At what point does it become worth spending the time promoting at the bookstore (and helping the bookstore’s bottom line as well as yours), vs. spending that time writing the next book?

        • Thanks for the thoughtful reply! 🙂

          As a non-author who has never attended a signing, they’re still a fairly foreign concept to me. I’ve read writers complaining about the grueling nature of a book tour, so it’s good to know that a single signing can be considered fun.

    • Somewhere in my mind I see a comfy used bookstore with a POD system on hand as the perfect combination of all my booky needs in one happy location…

  14. Sometimes a book is an impulse buy, sometimes you need to think about it, or buy it only when you’re in the mood. If the book is gone, you can’t think about it.

    Except of course that Amazon remembers.

    • That’s what the Amazon app on my phone is for. Dangerous, but so very handy. Coupled with Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping, it’s like feeding my paycheck into a wonderful, happy shredder of near-instant gratification!

      Latest example: Just ordered a new lockback knife this morning, selected express same-day shipping…expecting it any minute now…

  15. and yet another Shatzkin blog goes by without once mentioning…um…authors. Who…um…kind of matter. The impact of his system on them is something he doesn’t even contemplate as we seem to be invisible.

    • He doesn’t mention readers either. Those slowly-selling books were maybe poofed off the shelves by brownies.

  16. Instead of each bookstore having its own POD machine, why not have a mobile POD truck? They have them for dental work and mammograms and blood donation, why not books? Then each bookstore could schedule the book truck and advertise to its patrons the day and time. Customers could even pre-order. The bookstores could see what books were selling well and get extra copies for browsers and non-book-truck days.

    When the tech gets even smaller and more efficient, the book trucks could troll neighborhoods like the ice-cream guys. What music would a book truck play, I wonder?

    • If you have a mobile POD truck, why do you need the book store? Just call the truck, tell them the books you want, and they can print them as they drive to your house.

      • I see your idea but I think it would add cost to the book and most likely make it a profit-negative venture.

        “That will be $6 for the book and another 3 for gas, thank you.”

        The mobile store is still a great idea as an addition to the store. Maybe in partnership with the local library or school system? Any teachers out there wish to weigh in on that? How many towns have events where the mobile store could take part? Festivals. Fairs. Races of all types. Sports events. Even the already mentioned blood-drive?

        I need some couch time to think about this more.

        • I doubt a POD novel would be as little as $6. That’s about the cost price for my POD novel on Createspace, and it retails for about double that through Amazon.

          I recently visited a book store for the first time in months and came away with about $120 of books. Adding $3 for gas on top wouldn’t have stopped me buying them.

          You also forget that I’d probably burn more than $3 of gas myself driving to the book store and back.

          • Cost is relevent to page count, but I just pulled those numbers out of my a**. (I wish gas was only $3):)

            If the store owner knew you were good for $120 a visit he might drive the truck to you everyday. But there is no way of knowing what the customer will spend or the distance to each customers house before it is summoned. I’d have to crunch some numbers to know for sure but my gut tells me the profit margin would be low.

            Say $120/hr, -gas, -overhead, -insurance…

            I think to make such an idea work you’d need to park the truck in a high foot-traffic location and let people know its there. Maybe through social networking or a rotateing schedule. What about visiting nurseing homes where the population still reads paper books?

            Which brings me back to what music to play?

            • But there is no way of knowing what the customer will spend or the distance to each customers house before it is summoned.

              That’s why I said you’d call (or use the web) and tell them the books you want, and probably pay for them before they’re printed. Then they just turn up at your front door and hand over the books.

              Even if they deliver later in the day when they’re already in the neighborhood to deliver to another customer, that’s still faster than buying from Amazon and may be faster than driving to the book store and back.

              I’m not sure it’s a viable business model either, but I’m not really sure where the book store fits in if the POD truck is printing the books.

              • I see what you’re saying now Edward, I got the immpresion that you wished the store to come to your house so you could then shop in it. (on it?) Makes sense now. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

                What if you could upload your draft, order a proof copy, and then have it delivered the same day?

                Maybe partner with the pizza business next door and deliver both at once? Bonus.

      • It already exists – it’s called Amazon + UPS.

      • I do that. I tell Amazon, and then the UPS driver drops the book on my desk.

    • I could totally see this working like one of those food wagons. They pull up, sell their food and move to the next location. Or they have a few regular spots. That’d actually be a way to service rural areas. Have a regular route where you’re in a certain town in the morning, down the road in the afternoon and just do a circuit of the whole area. I mean, there’s the whole Amazon + UPS thing but since we’re being told people just CAN’T discover new books without a book store, well, why not? Once the POD technology gets cheaper/more mobile, I’d almost bet somebody will try this.

      • Dude! Call it a premium service, market it as the anit-Amazon, and for only $50 a month (plus the cost of whatever book you buy), they’ll come to your neighborhood once a week so you can have the privilege of having your books printed just for you. For an extra $15 a month they’ll be rude and tell you what to read, satisfying that need for a gatekeeper to “curate” their “literature”.

        • Ha! Another profit stream! Genius! 🙂

          What I might do instead is offer the big five all that sales data I’m gathering….for a price of course. Don’t worry, I’ll be rude when I do it.

  17. Sabrina,

    Why not have a mobile POD machine? Most local libraries have a “Bookmobile” do they not? Good idea.

    The store would still need at least one EBM on hand to service the customers at the store though. Depending on the speed of the machine and how busy the store is they may need several. I always pictured one in the front window, one behind the cashier, and another in the back somewhere cranking out inventory.

    As for music? Nothing by Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles. But anything else would work. 🙂

  18. Bottom line– Is it any wonder trad publishing concentrates resources on books they are convinced will be massive sellers? Otherwise they lose too much money, never make back an advance from the poor midlisters. And why take a risk on debut authors at all? Just wait until an author sells enough as a self-pubber then offer him or her big money. Co-opt ’em. No muss no fuss. The self-pubber has already done the work and built the audience.

    • Julia,

      You have summed up the future economics of publishing (for narrative books at least). It is economically insane to do a print run of a book without a built-in audience. It is economically insane to go digital-first with a traditional publisher.

      Of course, that means book marketing is going to have to change completely. Forget book discovery. The future of book marketing is reader discovery. Authors need to learn how to build a fan base, not just a sales base.

  19. What people don’t realize is that traditional publishers have really ramped up their digital marketing strategies in the past six months, so slow shelf movement is only part of the story. The “major publishers vs. Amazon” storyline is complicated by a lot of work to promote books on Amazon and other e-retailers in ways that really only indie authors used to do. Just because CEO’s are all fire and brimstone doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of mid-level guys who get the situation and are finding new ways to move their books.

  20. Ah, so we should centralize the decision for what is available on shelves, all across the country, in the hands of a few publishing execs who all live in NYC? We didn’t learn from the fall of the Soviet Union, and didn’t learn from the fall of Borders, so we have to try a central planning experiment again?

    Remember the laughter about Borders stocking lots of porn in the heart of Mormon country, and the groans that you couldn’t get more of a popular regional author’s books in a store, even when they were selling out quickly? The rolled eyes that extra books couldn’t be bought ahead of a book tour? The annoyance that they wouldn’t stock more of the titles that the local school district wanted kids to read, nor to the local school year, and the way their “seasonal” books and items were set for the upper eastern seaboard of the US, no matter where in the country the bookstores struggled along?

    I’m sure Shatzkin thinks he’s one of the best and brightest, and he has the very latest computer technology at his fingertips – but central planning is an idea that should have been mercifully shot and buried years ago. If it claws its way out of the grave again, we need to shoot it in the head, stake it through the heart, burn the remains and disperse them in running water. Don’t let it bite you, lest you start moaning “But it’d be so much simpler” or “If only the right people were in charge…”

  21. I’m sixty-six years old, and during my working years, I’ve owned a used bookstore, sold books via catalogues, book fairs, subscriptions, and on-line. I’ve been a publisher and morphed into an agent thirty plus years ago. I began closing down the agency this past year. Why? Because the Internet and Amazon are the best things to occur since moveable type for writers and readers. Not so much for booksellers, publishers, agents and editors, but for the creators of books and the folks who read those books, its a wonderful time. Midlist authors can make a living. Books are easier to find and less expensive. But big-publishing, pbooks, B&M stores, and agents are toast. Sad but true. It was a fun way to make an interesting living, But, its over.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.