What’s the -philia for books?

…because man I love books. I love the good stories, and I love the well-crafted physical objects as well. Love ’em. So let’s talk about a whole bunch of book-related topics, to give me a book fix.

First I’d like to do a little bit of a rant about books as commercial objects. Actually, as I’m intelligent enough to understand the practical, even when my Romantic side is offended, this is really a rant about taste and marketing. You see, I am told that one of the largest American book chains won’t be stocking Lord Tophet, the sequel to Shadowbridge, because in the chain’s opinion the first book didn’t sell well enough to warrant stocking the second volume.

So let’s start with the obvious commerce side of things–we have a chain of bookstores that is doing stocking based (apparently) entirely on past performance, and assigning shelf-space (a limited resource? Really? I know roughly how genre sales compare to “literary” fiction, and I can see how the shelf space is allocated–it’s not a strictly profit-per-inch system) on a profitability basis, as if novels were interchangeable commodities. I guess there are people to whom this would make sense, but I assert that they have no soul. This is not a rational argument, it’s an impassioned assertion.

I am, however, prepared for the apparently rational counter argument that soul has no place in making business decisions, and that rationality must rule, but I have to point out that what might at first appear to be rational is actually irrational if looked at in the longer term.

I would assert that the death of the midlist (and all the associated problems for midlist writers), which is due primarily to the no-human-involved ordering strategies of the large chains–and this is just another example of that problem, albeit a very extreme one–is actually deleterious to the overall, long term performance of chain bookstores. I would claim this because it does two things: A) drives motivated buyers out of the store (you aren’t stocking something I want to buy, I will go elsewhere to get it, and why would I come back?), either to another store or to the virtually endless selection available from non-physical retailers, and B) limits the ability to grow an audience for a particular author or series. Think about people who are browsing, rather than searching out something they already know they want; they are not going to find something that’s not on the shelf. Hell, having the second volume on the shelf can generate sales of the first volume–there are people who will respond to the second book, say they’ll notice the cover, or a blurb, or the back cover copy, or whatever, in a way that they never did to the first, and then, once their interest is piqued, go buy the first one. (And don’t even get me started on stores that stock the latest volume or two in a series, but don’t keep even one copy of the first volume in stock–you are losing sales on that all the time.)

The point is simple: regular readers are going to spend the most money over the longest term, they are the customers you want. They are the group the most likely to both enter the store in search of a particular work, and to actually buy things on impulse while browsing. They’re also the people most likely to follow a series, and pickup more of them as time goes by–resulting in lots of additional sales. And if you don’t stock the midlist, especially the Damn Good midlist, you miss sales to them.

You often see the publishers getting the blame for the death of midlist, and ancillary problems, but here’s a case where the publisher has made the decision to support the author and the work, has put their money on the table by publishing the book, and still the mindless policies of the chains shut it down–there isn’t a clearer example in recent times of where the bulk of the blame really goes.

And that, of course, brings me back to taste and marketing. These books are really quite good. More people should have bought the first volume. But, as the man said, no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. Not enough demand to justify ordering an excellent book, but twenty trillion copies of Sparkle Vampire Romance in every store. Sigh.

As for marketing, one wonders at the decision to bring the book out as a TPB original in two slim volumes. If you want the hard core audience, why not a hardcover? If you want the people who are highly sensitive to price, why not put both into a thicker MMPB? I suspect the answer is again “computer ordering by the chains”, since I’ve seen that offered by publishers several times as justification for publishing the “split” books–that the chains automatically won’t order (or will drastically reduce orders for) books outside certain price points, meaning that there is a fairly hard maximum size on HCs and TPBs.

All of this is ridiculous, to my uninformed eye, and misses out on the should-be-basic fact that novels are not fundamentally interchangeable commodities. They are works of art. This doesn’t mean that they are fundamentally non-commercial or anything. Art can be very commercial. It does, though, mean that there should be knowledgeable human buyers involved in ordering and selection, and there should be a little less focus on maximizing short term profit at the expense of growing the audience. (And that could easily lead into a rant about international conglomerates buying up publishing houses and then setting ridiculous profit targets for them, which leads inevitably to the short-term maximization, and death of the midlist–at least at the big houses, but that’s enough of my ignorant ravings on this topic.)

The short term takeaway: these are good books, and Borders is dumb and deserves whatever they get.

Oh, and while I’m thinking about it, I should also point out this comment from Matthew Stover:

I just heard from my editor that the current market conditions for mm reprints makes a re-issue of an 800-page novel from 2001 kind of problematic. (My understanding is that minimum print run is something like 5,000 copies, and none of the big chains can be counted upon to carry a re-issue.)

Which explains why you can’t buy new copies of the second of his two best books: Blade of Tyshalle. The first of the series seems to be in print (at least you can order a new copy from Amazon), but not the second… even though the publication of the third volume is imminent. Yes, that makes sense.

Just think about that for a second: Stover is a multiple NYT Best Selling author for his Star Wars novels1 so we can surely assume that there will be some readers who know his name and are well disposed to it, who might see the new book on the shelf, and pick it up. And some of them will surely notice it’s volume 3 of a series, and then try to get the first two. But… they won’t be able to. And, of course, the fact that this might limit sales of the third volume is apparently something no one is worried about.

Me? I have the first two books already–they’re great–so I won’t have a problem just picking up the third volume the minute it appears. But selling to me doesn’t grow the audience. And when you have someone with at least the potential to drag in a very large new audience on name recognition alone, why wouldn’t you do whatever you could to make that possible.


How did I miss noticing that Brandon Sanderson has chapter-by-chapter annotations for his novels up on his web site?

I spent a fun hour this week reading through his notes on Elantris and Mistborn, and will likely do the same for Well of Ascension as soon as I get around to reading it (probably not until the third book is out).

I love this kind of behind the scenes stuff.

And I should enjoy it now before that whole Wheel Of Time thing makes me have to adopt the pretentious “too cool for that guy” pose2.

I often get asked how I find things to read–despite the volume of books that come into our house, I am a fairly discriminating reader. I have a complex system, with many inputs that bring me news about things that might be up my alley.

And that’s only part of the story–besides me algorithms and system, there are just a lot of people who consciously or not are constantly trying to sell me books.

The softest sells are recommendations for things I am not familiar with from trusted sources.

Like Justine selling me on Dorothy Dunnett‘s Lymond Chronicles.

Or Jeff Ford selling me a book about mirrors. And then going on, to sell me another half dozen books shortly after (I already had the Nevins, Manguel, and Castenada). As if that weren’t enough, he then got me out looking for a Hawthorne story I hadn’t read.

In the harder sell category we have Ken MacLeod selling me his latest work, with a precis that pushes many of my buttons. Of course I’ve read MacLeod before, so I don’t exactly have a lot of sales resistance.

And then there’s the Fantasy Book Critic with a piece on “overlooked” books, trying to sell me another half-dozen books. They have me interested in three of them, one I already own, one I am apathetic to, and one you couldn’t pay me to read. Any guesses?

And then Andrew Wheeler (who would probably have seventeen ways of crushing my uniformed rantings up above in a single retort) is selling me a Peter Beagle travelogue that I hadn’t previously been familiar with. Yeah, I’ll pretty much have to buy that.

And that’s before we get to discussing lists or more formal reviews.

It’s actual something of a miracle I don’t buy more stuff.

  1. I know nothing about these, but I assume they are at least well written, since Stover writes very well indeed when he’s not working a license.(back)
  2. I am 90% kidding here–I won’t care any less for Sanderson’s personal stuff, but I suspect I will have to treat any TWOT-driven fans as arriviste, because I’m a bit of a dick. And because, you know, Sanderson’s writes better than Jordan by a long chalk.(back)

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  8 comments for “What’s the -philia for books?

  1. August 22, 2008 at 12:15 am

    >>What’s the -philia for books?

    Bibliophilia. Though I personally suffer fro Biblioholism.

  2. August 22, 2008 at 7:02 am

    Yeah, me too.

    Although I prefer to think of it as a “gentle madness”.

  3. August 22, 2008 at 11:46 am

    You know, I read the Washington Post review of the teen vamp novels all the way through, and at the end said ‘Well. Another series I don’t have to read. Hey, wait – Elizabeth Hand has a book I haven’t read yet? Which got an award? Excellent!’ So, thanks for the link to the article.

  4. August 22, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    And it’s a very, very good book too. Keep your eye on Small Beer Press–they put out a lot of really good stuff.

    Also, you wouldn’t be Paul Knappenberger (sp?) who used to party with me on some of my mad road trips to Minneapolis, are you?

  5. Kira
    August 24, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Now, you know the numbers don’t work like that. If that worked to “grow” the audience by enough to justify the cost of carrying the book then the JIT ordering system would reveal that pattern. That’s part of how the icky vampire books (all of the back volumes) made it into Borders in the first place.

    I think you have a better argument in asserting that publishers should pressure bookstores to carry books like the one you mention because in the long term it increases the volume of reading and helps keep publishing alive. There are lower-cost strong-arm tactics that publishers could use to do just that, such as bundling books together. Gladwell had a very good article about it, years ago.

  6. August 25, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Yawp, I am. And I’ve been keeping track of you via your blog (found it through Lorraine-a’-Malena’s) ’cause our paths hardly ever cross otherwise. 🙂

    Small Beer Press. Noted.

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This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.