3. Contracts, Production, Promotion
Publishing houses in the US still launch a book in hardback first, which is how it used to work in the UK. Nowadays it’s very rare, except for a few very big and established names. However, there’s a new way of doing it, which is to bring out a trade paperback first (i.e. the larger size of paperback). The aim is to have a double bite at the cherry. With trade first and standard to follow, there’s more time to get momentum going with reviews and word-of-mouth. And when one format has had its time on the bookshop shelves, another appears to maintain the presence.
A different means to the same end is the advance short run of reading copies, using a short run method of printing. These will go out to reviewers and/or bookshops and/or general movers and shakers within the book industry. With luck, reviews will be appearing soon after the selling copies hit the shops, instead of several months later.
The word ‘trade’ has a further meaning for children’s and YA fiction, where titles are marketed either as trade or as education. Whereas trade sales are made through bookshops in the ordinary way, education sales are made through schools, organised by school-visiting reps. For some reason no one can explain, titles are almost never marketed as both trade and education. The education market has its own requirements; it pays, but it doesn’t do much for an author’s general profile.
Bookshop sales work in different ways depending on the type of shop. At one extreme are the ‘independents’, who make their own decisions and order in whatever they think they can sell. (And don’t we love ‘em!) At the other extreme are the newsagencies, that have their books supplied by a supplier like stationery or greeting cards.
The chain stores such Smiths, Waterstones and Easons in Ireland are in the middle of the spectrum. To the extent that they're franchises and not run directly from head office, they can make independent decisions on what to order in. However, head office buys in many titles at a discount for volume, and stores are expected to take and sell copies.
When the books arrive, they’re categorised according to the shop’s shelves: Fantasy/SF, Children’s/YA, etc. Bookshops will almost never put a title in two separate places, which can be a problem for a book that crosses between genres.
What about end-of-row positioning, dump bins, special spots? Let’s not get carried away! A publishing house has to offer incentives to bookshops and/or head office to gain these spots. With company stores, there’s payment involved … in fact, they require payment even for putting up posters of a book.
(If this sounds topsy-turvy, it’s how supermarkets work too. Food makers have to pay for a prominent space on the shelves for their products.)
Lastly, the issue of shelf-time. Groan! The old expectation that a book would stay on display for 6 months is highly optimistic nowadays. It’s sell fast or perish! When you think how long we take getting around to buying a book, how long we take reading it, how long before we recommend it to friends—well, a movie that’s on the screens for a week has more chance of building momentum by word-of-mouth.