19 November 08 | Chad W. Post

This is the third part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors last week. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. And we’ll probably be posting bits and pieces of this for the next week or so.

Switching over to bookstores, it’s worth pointing out that, unlike other parts of the world, America doesn’t have a fixed price policy. Stores can discount books however they’d like, which has resulted in a fiercely competitive market where Amazon.com undercuts brick-and-mortar stores, Costco sells books as a loss-leader, and traditional independents stores have a hell of a time staying in business. Although Amazon claims that they survive on a “long tail” model (i.e., the idea that single copy sales for an infinite amount of books is far greater than a huge amount of sales for a small amount of titles), most stores operate on the same principle as the big publishers: you make your money by selling a ton of copies of a few select titles. That’s what drives Barnes & Noble and their huge stacks of books, and is the reason why one additional percentage point discount (chains frequently get a 46% volume discount whereas independents get 45%) can lead to enormous profits.

Paul Slovak, the publisher of Viking Penguin, once mentioned that he believed that at any moment in time everyone in the country is reading the same twelve books. Obviously he’s exaggerating—a bit—but it sure seems that way. The books on display at a chain store in New York City are almost identical to the ones on display in Denver, or in Peoria. To explain why that’s the case is actually a bit more complicated than it might first appear.

What it comes down to is which books the big presses have decided to really push. It’s almost like a horse race—you need a winner to keep betting, you have a bunch of horses in your stable, and you put all your cash on the ones you think will “break-thru.” These are the books that the houses advertise all over the country, that they push hard to media outlets, and for which they decide to do extensive author tours. They also use a lot of co-op money to promote these books. Co-op money is cash that a publisher gives to a bookstore to display and promote its books. For example, the front tables at the chain stores are paid for, as are the end caps, as are other special displays.

With these books on display, and heavily discounted, throughout the country, and online, with big, trustworthy publishers spending lots of time and money promoting these particular titles, it’s no surprise that these become the books that everyone is reading.


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