The Structural Inequality of Comp Titles
Although not as long as “last week’s post,” I would recommend downloading the PDF version. Besides, it just looks prettier in that format.
Although the main point of this post is pretty general and obvious—the rich get richer by already being rich—it was inspired by some publishing-specific, inside baseball type stuff, so I think it’s probably best to start by explaining how we (Open Letter) input all the information about our forthcoming books.
Every six months, I have to create “Advance Information” entries for each one of our titles in Helix, the operating system that Consortium currently uses1 to keep track of info—metadata, sales, inventory, etc.—for all the titles that they distribute. Like most publishers, I have a love-hate relationship with this process. On the one hand, it’s the first opportunity to start building out information for your forthcoming titles—which can be really exciting. I’ve spent the past week reading (or rereading) the books that we’re coming out with between September 2017 and March 2018 and have worked myself into a frenzy to share these books with reps, booksellers, and readers.
We have six books coming out during those months, and aside from a new Bae Suah and a collection of poems from Per Aage Brandt, the other four have never been translated into English. One of these authors is Madame Nielsen, whose first novel was recommended to me by the Icelandic author Sjón: “The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen is my literary discovery of the year.” In all seriousness, I believe this book could be our first ever bestseller. It is both that good, that short (just over 100 pages), and that accessible (it’s a love story with a lot of tension and tragedy).2
So there are aspects to filling out these entries that make me really excited. In two weeks, I’ll be pitching all these books to the core staff at Consortium, who will give me some pointers for jacket copy, blurbs, promotional ideas, etc., based on what’s worked in the past for books like this. Their advice is invaluable, as is the process of taking five minutes to try and reign in the abounding enthusiasm for a book (“Holy Shit! The way the melancholy that runs throughout the book is so charming, as it spirals forward and backward in time, touching upon all these various lives, but all told by a ‘boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it’ with a sort of writerly grace that I haven’t experienced in ages, especially in a translation so evocative and!!!) and hone it into something that others can latch onto, that they can process, that makes sense—that experience is also invaluable.
The part that sucks is actually entering all of the information. There are fields upon fields begging for metadata. Price, page count, carton quantity, four BISAC codes,3 shelving category, contributor bio, contributor role, contributor place of residence, promotional plans, selling and marketing points, and so on and forth.
Then there are the descriptive fields: key notes, which is a twenty-word “one-sentence summary crafted to grab the buyer’s attention,” and the description, which is limited to sixty words. Sixty! I can’t describe my mood in sixty words, much less a piece of literature. But again, as frustrating as this is—in part because I, and probably most of us, finish it last minute—it’s a great exercise in boiling things down to their core.4
All of that is fine—and not at all what I want to talk about. The main point is that, for every title we ever publish, we create these records that have a dual function: 1) to log all the important data about our books (price, ISBN, title, contributors) into Consortium’s database, and 2) to provide sales reps with some guidance for talking about these books to bookstores.
One of the toughest things to explain to my publishing students is why bookstore buyers bring certain titles into their stores. It’s easy enough to grasp that a store can’t carry everything, but the mechanisms behind their decision making can seem bafflingly opaque.
Over-simplifying here, but a successful bookstore tends to do a couple things really well: create a brand for itself by stocking a particular range of books (which oftentimes helps tie it to its community and make it something unique when compared to a “general” chain store), and stock books that will turnover fast enough that the store can generate enough revenue to stay in business. As much as one would like to stock only the books that they like, there is a need to have the books in stock that customers will come looking for. These don’t necessarily have to be the poppiest of the crap titles (Twilight, etc.), but the books that have the right amount of marketing push and publicity buzz to enter into the consciousness of a significant number of general book buyers.
For example, you need to have enough copies of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead before it’s reviewed on NPR and New York Times and becomes a finalist (or winner) for basically every single book award possible.
There are two things related to this that anyone outside of the book industry might not realize: 1) if a customer comes looking for a book and you don’t have it, you lose the sale, period, and 2) you have to order your initial stock on these titles 4-8 months before publication date. Granted, you can always order more copies from the wholesalers, but the numbers work out a lot better for the store if you order the right number up front.5
Let me go back to an idea from last week’s essay to help bring this forward. From that piece:
To know which books will do well enough, to cover the titles that people will definitely be talking about (thus perceived as “important”), to stock the titles that are most likely to sell—the closer these things are to certain, the more stable and profitable the industry is. Hits can come out of nowhere and far exceed sales expectations, but it’s best if that happens in a context in which you already control the baseline for as close to 100% of the products you’re putting into the market as possible.
To reiterate and clarify: Publishers, booksellers, critics, authors never know for certain which books will be hits. But there are titles that we can know—with a high degree of certainty—will sell a particular amount. Because of x, y, and z (review coverage, past sales, author profile, book topic), there is a range that publishers can rely upon. A particular book might sell 300,000 copies, but will likely sell 30-50,000, and will only in the most catastrophic of circumstances, sell a mere 5,000. Being able to project this—the stable books, with decent upside and high floors—is the key to being a successful large(ish) publisher.
Bookstores play a dual role in this: to stay alive, they need to make a significant portion of their revenue from these “solid” books, and also, the more they stock these books, the more likely they are to hit the upper level of the predicted range.
Sure, there are all sorts of unpredictable and unexplored (at least for now, until future essays) mechanisms for why a book goes from selling 30,000 copies to 300,000 copies, but still, if I owned a bookstore, I would want the majority of my inventory to consist of titles that are almost guaranteed to sell 30,000 across the country, saving a small portion of my space (maybe 15-20%?) for the strange indie books that would differentiate my store from Barnes & Noble, yet would probably sell 3,000 copies across the country. To make this as specific as possible, for every eight copies of The Underground Railroad that I stock, I’d stock two titles from Open Letter/Deep Vellum/Dalkey Archive/Archipelago (sans Knausgaard)/NYRB/etc.
If I were a bookstore, I’d want in on stocking the titles that will make up 80% of the revenues for publishers and other bookstores. I want to be the norm, for the most part, and variate on the fringes.
Which brings us to comparative titles. Comp titles. And a caveat.
With every entry that I create for our forthcoming books, I have to enter five (or more) “comp titles.” As the people at Consortium have explained (over and over and over and again), comp titles are books similar in format (paperback original vs hardcover), publisher (indie vs big five), marketing budget (again, indie vs big five), author brand (six previously published novels vs some dude from the Faroe Islands), and publishing proximity (all comp titles have to have been published in the last five years).
This probably seems weird to anyone outside of the publishing industry, so it might make sense to go over what doesn’t make a good comp title: book that is similar in theme or setting to a book published ten years ago, a book similar in theme or setting to a book by a best-selling author, book similar in style and character to one by a publisher significantly like you.
As I’ve been told over and again, comp titles are for bookstores to know how many copies to order upfront, based on three-month sales of books similar—in publisher, publicity access, marketing budgets, overall prominence—to those of Open Letter.
One the first6 level, I totally get this. Comp titles are signals to bookstores of which titles are in that group almost guaranteed to do really well (30,000 sales or whatever), with huge upsides. They want to know what books they can get a couple copies of and restock whenever.7 If you haven’t been reading the footnotes, you might want to go do that now.
Theoretically, except for Amazon, all bookstores are limited in the number of titles that they can carry. And the more titles you can carry that will sell 80+ units, the way better. (See footnotes, but if you buy right on a popular book, or over, that’s for the best, even at the expense of shelf space.) The best option is to buy “slightly” under on books that are “Solid Titles,” and buy way under on “Indie Books” that might break out. In terms of numbers AND common sense, this feels right: if you have a solid bet, go for it, buy a bunch, and then buy as many titles as possible that might take off, but probably won’t. I feel like this is a legal betting strategy.
What I’ve been told time and again about Comp Titles is that these are used by booksellers to help them decide how many copies of a book to order up front. They look at how similar (or “comparable”) titles sold over the first few months, and then place their bets. Given all that’s come above, that totally makes sense. You want to buy right on the books that will do the best for you, because maximizing turnover of stock bought with the highest discount, is the most efficient pathway to profit.
But what makes for a good comp title?
Here’s what most people assume: A good comp title is a book similar in plot, or setting. (Like comparing a mystery set in Morocco to another Moroccan mystery.) A book with the same tone (comic, suspenseful, etc.), or general appeal (“family sagas about Italians are hot right now!”). The assumption is that books should be compared to books that have a similar aesthetic, since readers tend to look for titles that are in line with what they already like. (“I just finished Ferrante—what do you have that’s just like that?”) So a store would be well served to operate under a “If you liked X, you’ll love Y” sort of methodology.
All of that is completely wrong.
Relying on Consortium’s expertise in this (which has been backed up by various sales reps), what makes a good comp title is a title with more paratextual similarities related much more closely to the publisher’s position in the marketplace than the book itself.
What makes a good comp title? A title that is published by the same publisher or publisher of a similar size and situation. A title with the same sort of marketing budget and initial print run. Titles from authors at a similar point in their career, or that have other structural similarities. And all comp titles have to have been published within the last three years.
All of this makes good sense—especially from a buyer’s perspective. They don’t want every tiny new indie press comparing their 700-page “postmodern masterpiece” to Infinite Jest, since there’s a one in one trillion chance that this book will sell one one hundredth as well as IJ. When it comes to books that aren’t necessarily likely to sell 30,000 copies total, stores are deciding whether they should initially buy 3 copies for their shelves or 1. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, the store will order 7 for a display. To show buyers comparisons to books that sold 50+ copies in their first couple months is in no way helpful, when the book they’re considering is very unlikely to sell more than 5.
But there is something within these parameters that constantly nags at me . . . In this system, the quality and nature of the books themselves have been eliminated, and your chances of getting significant pre-sales depends on the pre-existing size of your publishing house, and how much money you have.
For example, we published Bae Suah’s A Greater Music last year, a book that has some general similarities to The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Preference for one book or the other put aside, it would seem to make sense—on the surface—to use The Vegertarian as a comp title. After all, Han Kang and Bae Suah are two of the hottest authors coming out of South Korea, and are more or less equals in that country. People who read and loved The Vegetarian would presumably be interested in reading another female writer from South Korea—especially one translated by the same translator. (Who, it’s worth noting, was responsible for promoting and getting both of these authors published in English translation.)
But that’s totally wrong. On the one hand, the odds of any book selling as well as The Vegetarian (even pre-Man Booker) is highly unlikely, so the numbers you get from looking at past sales are pretty garbage. And, more importantly, Crown has money and power, whereas Open Letter is run on a fraying shoestring of grants, kindness, and self-sacrifice. I wouldn’t be surprised if Crown spent more on marketing The Vegetarian than Open Letter spent total in the last six months.
If Crown were to have done A Greater Music, they could definitely have used The Vegetarian as a comp title—and bookstore buyers would’ve taken the numbers seriously. They wouldn’t have ordered quite as many copies as what they sold of Han Kang’s novel, but they would’ve bought in at a far higher rate than they did for us. (Throwing out bullshit numbers here, but it’s not unreasonable to assume an average store would’ve ordered 12-15 copies of A Greater Music from Crown, versus 1 or 2 from Open Letter.)
In short, if you’re of a certain size, you can compare your books to books that came from publishers of a similar size which, in almost all instances, sold much better than books from smaller publishers (like Open Letter). As a result, your books take up more space in bookstores, are more frequently displayed, and end up selling better.8
As helpful as the comp title process might be for buyers, reps, and the like, its very structure reinforces the core inequality of the publishing business: the haves get to take up more space and sell more books, the have-nots have to get really lucky and work outside of the system to get a book to take off. And for smaller presses, it makes it almost impossible to get through to buyers about the quality of your book. Unless they read a title and fall in love with it, all the signals in place telling them what to buy, what to pay attention to, are pointed away from the indie press book toward titles from the most successful. All of which reinforces the idea that there is no meritocracy at work here. The best books very rarely rise to the top; a mediocre book with more resources behind it will always beat the “better” book from a smaller press.
The quality of the book itself—this cherished object, this artistic enterprise that editors, booksellers, and the like tend to fetishize—is less important than the business structure surrounding that salable object.
1 Consortium was recently purchased by Ingram, so starting in April we’ll be using something called “TitleSource.” (Everything at Ingram ends in “source” for some unknown reason. Like LightningSource. Not sure what this is about, but it’s pretty essentialist and pervasive.)
More importantly, every distributor uses a different one of these management systems, but in the end, they’re all basically the same: a database to store metadata about titles and track the movements of all units into the warehouse, out to stores, back to the warehouse. So what follows in the piece above is not Consortium-centric.
2 It’s also written in an inimitable style, which, in today’s book world, is probably a strike against it. But that’s a topic for next week’s essay.
3 Basically the codes that help categorize books. For example, “Fiction, Literary.” Or “History, Latin America, General.” You can see the whole list here. Even a cursory glance will show that this list is both incomplete and gated in funny ways.
4 CoreSource perhaps? Sorry. So sorry.
5 Here’s a mathematical model for you that should help to make this clear: Let’s assume that over the course of a month, you end up selling 80 copies of The Underground Railroad (retail price: $27). This is obviously contingent on the size of the store, but let’s just see what happens under three different scenarios: you order too few, you order the right amount, you order too many.
Couple more premises: 1) you get a 47% discount from the publisher, 40% from the wholesaler, 2) you get free freight from both, 3) it costs $50 to return excess stock—no matter the amount, and 4) 75% of people who would buy from your store decide not to, if you’re currently out of stock.
Scenario A: You initially order 32 copies of the book from the publisher. You sell all 32 copies ($27*32*.47=$406.08), but have 48 customers who come in to buy the book when you’re out of stock, only 12 of which end up buying the book from you ($27*12*.4=$129.60). (These copies you order from the wholesaler because it’s faster and more efficient.) You don’t return any copies, so you make $535.68 on this title.
Scenario B: You somehow order exactly 80 copies right off the bat and sell all 80 ($27*80*.47=$1,015.20). You make almost twice as much as you did by under-ordering—$1,015.20.
Scenario C: You buy hard, because fucking Whitehead, you know? So you get 120 and sell 80 ($27*80*.47=$1,015.20) and return 40 (-$25). That’s not bad; you made $965.20.
Scenario D: What happens if you buy hard on a dud? What if you only sold 20 of the 120 you bought? Then you make $286.20 on the sales ($27*20*.47), but lose $50 (or more?) on returning the extra 100. So you end with $236.20. That’s a better per copy revenue ratio (barely) than scenario A ($236.20/20=$11.81 vs $535.68/48=$11.16).
Main point: Getting it right is how to maximize your income. Know which books are going to sell, get enough to cover demand, but not too too much. (Especially if you multiply these numbers out across 100 or so titles a year.) But how to judge which books and how many copies? Those are the questions.
7 I think the crucial point is that bookstores maximize profit by stocking titles that have a large turnover rate. You have to figure out what that rate is for your store (maybe you sell 20 copies of The Underground Railroad every month, and five copies of War, So Much War; whereas a different store does 100 of the former and .25 [one every four months] of the latter), and adjust to that. But the more information you have when you place your initial order—the more likely a title is to sell 20+ copies—the better off you are.
8 Another idea to explore in a future post, but I doubt anyone would question the fact that the more copies of a book on display in a store, the more likely it is to sell. These are the books you notice, that bounce off the periphery of your awareness over and over, and which a lot of people end up buying. Especially in comparison to the single copy of A Greater Music hidden back in the fiction shelves . . .