Today I went to Barnes and Noble to pick up a middle grade novel a friend of mine told me about. The book is by an author who shall remain nameless, but suffice it to say she generally writes beautifully written, quiet books and has a respectful following, though her books are not necessarily bestsellers. However, just getting a book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble is no small feat, so good for her that she had a shelf presence at all. Unfortunately, after seeing it on the shelf for the last few months (it came out in May), when I finally went to purchase it, I couldn't find it anywhere. I asked a bookseller and what I learned next truly opened my eyes to the reality of how competitive publishing really is.
Turns out this book was in the back, which is where they pull books that have not sold a single copy in at least four weeks. There they languish for another couple of weeks just in case people like me come in looking for them and specifically asking for them. If no one asks for them, back to the publisher they go and their shelf-time is all done. So what's the window Barnes and Noble allows for your book to languish on their shelves if it's not regularly moving copies? 90 days. That's right, 90 DAYS. You have longer than that to return something to Costco (unless it's electronics, but I digress...)
When they pull up a title within the store computer, they have a special section that tells them how many copies have actually been sold of that title per month, and the numbers can be startling, if not a bit maddening. Here's an author I've heard of, a book I've read wonderful reviews of, and in looking at the actual sales data, she had sold exactly 3 copies of that book in that store since May. Period.
So when you think about how many copies she has to sell nationwide to make any money, let alone earn her advance, it's disheartening. And it may make the publisher take pause on considering how much they'll pay for her next novel, or if they even want to fill a coveted spot on their list with it, not to mention that Barnes and Noble, upon reviewing the sales record, may not elect to stock her next book next time since this one may have underperformed for their expectations.
There are so many hoops to writing. People think that once you get an agent, it's a cakewalk, but that's so not true. You can get an agent, but that agent now has to get the interest of an editor. An editor can fall in love with your book, but their team may not and so they pass. Or they may only have one spot on their list for a book in the genre you've written, and despite its merits, it's taken. But let's say they DO buy it - now they have to put it in their catalog and advertise it to vendors, hoping that above all else, the big daddy barometer of the publishing industry, Barnes and Noble, will carry it in their brick and mortar stores. And if you're so fortunate to get the green light on that front, you have 90 days to prove your worth. 90 frickin' days.
It is critical to realize that the competition is fierce and that the bar is raised ever higher daily. Our work must be polished and exciting and fresh, because without that something sparkly, no matter how beautiful or poignant or delightful, it will probably never reach its intended audience.
This is undoubtedly why so many frustrated authors are taking to e-publishing, which certainly provides a wonderful alternative to getting one's work out there. However, e-pubbing, with few exceptions, usually can't deliver the potential readership and exposure that traditional publishing can, and much of the work falls on the author exclusively to market him/herself.
Depressing as that state of the union may be, I hope it serves to empower us all to be better writers; to up our game and to reach a little further to find that extra somethin' somethin' so that our book never sees the back room.
And for the record: I read the flap of the book I came in for and was on the fence if I really did want to read it, but after learning what I did, I bought it in the hopes that the powers that be will see the sale and bring her book back out on the floor. We have to support each other where we can, right?