Joshua Palmatier/Ben Tate – The Importance of Shelf Space
When Goblin Quest came out from DAW, my agent took me on a madcap bookstore-visiting spree in the Chicago area. We soon discovered a pattern: Borders almost always had copies of my books in stock. B&N had none. This was more than a little disconcerting…
My friend Joshua Palmatier, aka Benjamin Tate (Facebook, Twitter, LJ) is another DAW author, with two series in print: The Throne of Amenkor trilogy (The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, and The Vacant Throne) as Joshua Palmatier, and the Well series (Well of Sorrows and the newly-released Leaves of Flame) as Benjamin Tate. He’s also published short stories in Close Encounters of the Urban Kind, Beauty Has Her Way, and River. With Patricia Bray, he’s co-edited After Hours: Tales from the Ur-bar and the upcoming The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity (March 2012).
Today, Joshua finds himself in much the same position I was in back in 2006 … only now Borders is gone. I’ll be honest, this is something that scares me as an author. Joshua’s been doing some guest blogging lately, so I asked if he’d be willing to talk about B&N’s decision and how he’s responding to it.
My newest novel, Leaves of Flame [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]–sequel to Well of Sorrows–has just hit the shelf . . . so to speak. Typically, an author is ultra-excited when the new book is released, and I am, but almost immediately after the release date I learned some rather disastrous news: Barnes & Noble, practically the only large-scale bookstore chain left in the U.S., elected not to carry the new book on its shelves. For an author attempting to build up an audience, this decision is, in essence, a death knell. It’s also not something that authors generally talk about. We tend to curl in upon ourselves and keep such heart-breaking news hush-hush. I know that was my initial reaction. But Jim asked if I wouldn’t mind talking about it here at his blog, and after some thought I asked myself, “Why shouldn’t I talk about it? It’s the real world of the publishing industry. It happens. Why keep silent?” So here’s why this decision on B&N’s part is so disastrous for me, and what I, as the author, have attempted to do to correct it.
Let’s face facts, I’m writing under a pseudonym now. The reason, to be blunt, is that my first trilogy, published under my real name, Joshua Palmatier, didn’t sell as well as hoped or expected; it didn’t find the audience it was intended for here in the US. So when the new series was set to be released, it was decided to send it into the world with an open pseudonym, Benjamin Tate. The hope was that the new name would attract new readers, and that fans of the Palmatier books would find out about Tate and buy the books as well.
To be honest, I don’t think this happened. WELL, in trade format, did not attract readers. When it came out in mass market with a brand new and incredibly cool cover, B&N decided to put only a few on the shelf, because of the sales of the trade. DAW designed an eye-catching cover for the sequel, LEAVES, that would pop on the shelf. But of course, LEAVES isn’t even on the shelf, which ultimately defeats the purpose of the eye-catching cover.
This means that the chances LEAVES will sell (and potentially bring in sales for WELL) have plummeted. I have little to no hope of a random reader—someone who has never heard of either Palmatier or Tate—even SEEING the book, because the browsing capabilities online at places like bn.com and amazon.com are geared toward the books that are already hot sellers. For all intents and purposes, LEAVES doesn’t exist for the random browser, so my chances of expanding my audience are gone.
What can I do to make LEAVES (and thus WELL) more visible? I really only have two options: cons and word of mouth. Cons are easy, but costly. I’ve signed up for numerous cons over the course of the next few months, but I have a day job, so I’m limited, and besides, each con costs a significant amount–money that I’m unlikely to get back in terms of the sales generated at the con. So cons, while extremely fun (I’m ticked that I couldn’t be part of Author D&D at ConFusion), aren’t cost effective.
Which leaves (ha ha) word of mouth. Immediately after learning B&N had decided not to carry my book in its brick and mortar stores, I e-mailed every friend and author I knew asking if they could help by hosting a guest blog or posting an interview or perhaps just mentioning the book online in Facebook or Twitter. I already had some of these lined up, of course, but now I needed as many as I could get, because the only way to reach new readers was to make the book visible online. You may have noticed numerous blog entries from me posted by my friends and fellow authors over the last few weeks, including this one by Jim. In general, authors are an extremely supportive group. Word of mouth—not just authors supporting other authors, but readers talking about books they’ve read or noticed to their friends in person and online—is the best way for a book to be seen. And for an author to pick up new readers.
So, I would turn to you, the readers: If you’ve read a book that you liked, or you’ve seen a book that you thought looked interesting, talk about it. Mention it on Facebook, tweet about it on Twitter, blog about it. Hit up amazon.com or bn.com or your favorite online bookstore and leave a brief review. Or go to the book’s page at any of those sites and “like” it. Do the same at reader forums like Goodreads or Library Thing. Every little mention, every good word here and there, may bring in a potential reader for that author. In essence, YOU are the balancing factor when a single person at B&N makes the decision—for you—about what books you’ll be interested in. YOU are the ones who make books bestsellers.
For some of us, whose books are only going to be seen online, *cue R2-D2 holographic image of Leia* “You’re our only hope.”
February 1, 2012 @ 10:36 am
Ouch. I sympathize whole-heartedly, Joshua. I run a very small fantastika press, and while B&N carries our books online, it doesn’t carry them in stores. In fact, one of our authors (Natania Barron) just had a signing at her local B&N, where she used to work, and they didn’t even stock her book for the signing; she had to provide her own copies (or, rather, we shipped ’em down) and is now waiting for a check from the store.
In-person and online word of mouth is really the only way to sell a debut author these days, it seems, and it’s hard to do that with so many Big 6 books getting hyped up, and so little attention span to go around. I’m glad you started the concerted blog-tour effort, though, because I’d not heard of your new series before, and now I’m going to be adding it to the list – and certainly talking about it when I read it! May the word of mouth snowball for you!
February 1, 2012 @ 10:40 am
word of mouth has worked! i just bought “well of sorrows” 🙂
and i have never ever liked B&N. now that i have a kindle i rarely grace their doors. their customer service also leaves much to be desired which is also why i got a kindle instead of a nook.
Stephen A. Watkins
February 1, 2012 @ 11:27 am
This is rather a sad development. As a aspiring author, I see this as sort of another data point leading me toward the conclusion that even though my skill and capability as a writer are improving, my chances of having a successful publishing career are going down… Increasingly it is clear to me that being a good writer and telling a compelling story are no longer sufficient for success (if ever those criteria alone were merely sufficient): there’s just too much outside a writer’s control, and most of those factors seem to be turning increasingly negative.
Good luck spreading the word of mouth. If it helps, I can say that from my perspective I’ve seen a lot more word-of-mouth mentions and buzz surrounding Leaves of Flame in the past month or two than I ever saw for Well of Sorrows.
February 1, 2012 @ 11:36 am
Kate: If it makes you feel any better, the last couple of times I’ve had a signing at B&N, the store has only gotten in the most recent book and possibly the one before that. They didn’t even attempt to get in anything older (like my first three books) even though they were readily available from their distributor and they’d sold copies of those books in the store before. And thanks for checking out my new series. I hope you enjoy it!
February 1, 2012 @ 11:37 am
akamia reader: Thank you! I hope you enjoy the book!
February 1, 2012 @ 11:45 am
Stephen A. Watkins: I’d argue that skill and writing ability do have something to do with success–it can get you in the door–but that it certainly doesn’t guarantee anything after that. I’ve read plenty of books that were spectacular that I’d “never heard of,” and others that everyone was raving about that I thought were only so-so. I often wonder how some of the bestsellers I’ve read have become bestsellers. But I think this is true in any business really: skill and talent only get you so far, maybe all the way, but there are certainly other factors to consider along the way.
The publishing world is certainly in upheaval and flux at the moment, and I think we tend to hear only the negatives of that upheaval. I’d be hardpressed to come up with some positives to report just now, but that’s likely because of the position I’m in right now. *grin*
But there are positives. There is tremendous online support for authors trying to find audiences at places like Jim’s blog, numerous other blogs, review sites, etc. It is possible to get word of mouth online. Also, I managed to get an top-level agent interested in accepting me as a client even during all of this upheaval. So the business is still alive and kicking.
Good to know you’ve seen some buzz about LEAVES OF FLAME as well. I have been working hard to get the word out there. And I’m happy to say that not all of the mentions have come from or been elicited by me. Some of it’s happening on its own.
February 1, 2012 @ 11:51 am
FWIW, most of my book discovery comes from a) author recommendations (esp. at cons), b) online reviews, c) shelfari.com
February 1, 2012 @ 11:52 am
…but I’m probably weird.
Jim C. Hines
February 1, 2012 @ 11:53 am
Well then, you’ve come to the right place 😉
February 1, 2012 @ 12:01 pm
That jives with what they told Natania – “Well, we don’t carry it regularly right this moment, so we’re not going to carry it for this…”
Which is just depressing. Although not quite as depressing as finding out that the signing sold 25 books, and they’re still not planning to stock even one copy in store, despite it being readily available from their regular distributor.
You’d really think they’d want to capitalize on the “love this guy and want to buy all his books” phenomenon that often happens at a signing/event, and stock as many of your books as possible for readers to snap up! But then, that might be logical…
February 1, 2012 @ 1:34 pm
That’s pretty much how I’m finding new books and authors as well, except I use GoodReads and Library Journal. *grin*
February 1, 2012 @ 1:36 pm
Logic, as in academia, pretty much flies out the window once you reach a certain level in the hierarchy.
Jim C. Hines
February 1, 2012 @ 2:03 pm
A lot of things in publishing are changing, and that’s scary. On the other hand, I expect a few things to stay the same, and one of the biggest is the fact that people will continue to want good stories.
Like Joshua said, there are no guarantees, and sometimes crap happens that we can’t control … but the ability to write good stories means a lot, and I don’t expect that to change.
February 1, 2012 @ 3:45 pm
Interesting post, Josh. BTW, I think the Leaves of Flame cover is awesome!
February 1, 2012 @ 4:28 pm
Oh, yeah, very happy with the LEAVES OF FLAME cover. *grin*
February 1, 2012 @ 5:38 pm
I have to admit that I’d never heard of your books, but just checked them out on Amazon and got all of them (as ebooks).
To be honest, even if I went to the bookstore anymore, the chances are mighty slim that I ever would have found your books there. Especially w/ the fantasy/sci fi genre, I’d go to the store, look at the selection, and feel lost. I really wanted 1) knowledgeable recommendations and 2) to have all the books in the series available to me right then. Because no one else in my circle reads fantasy/sci fi, I’ve gone online–Amazon, reviewer blogs, author blogs–and discovered so many new authors and books that I never would have known about just from aimlessly browsing the store shelves.
Something that I find very helpful are the sites/blogs that have regular “what are you reading?” segments where actual readers can mention what they’ve been into. Nothing formal, just a brief mention of the books, maybe w/ a quick note about whether they’ve liked it or not and similar books they’ve read or know about. I buy a lot of books based on those kinds of posts from regulars.
As noted above, due to space and convenience I’m almost entirely an ebook consumer now. As a result, book covers have gone from being a fairly significant factor to a negligible factor in initially capturing my attention and my ultimate decision to buy a book. I barely looked at your book covers when checking them out, and will probably never look at them again. (Sorry.)
This was all my very long-winded way (sorry again) of saying that I hope B&N’s decision doesn’t have as bad an effect as you’re thinking it may, and that WOM/online interest will come to the rescue. Best of luck to you!
And thanks to Jim for introducing us to you and your books.
Daniel D. Webb
February 1, 2012 @ 7:06 pm
I’ve been a B&N bookseller for going on seven years now. For the most part, it’s been a good experience; I’ve gotten a lot more grief from customers than from the company. However, authors should be aware of the tremendous flux in which the publishing industry currently stands, and the impact this has on bookstores. Barnes & Noble is doing well, financially, but is focusing on surviving the accelerating shift toward digital readership. The majority of the company’s business is still in ink-and-paper, but I think the bulk of its current focus is on the nook. While I’m a book enthusiast myself, I accept this with good grace because frankly, more and more people are going to ebooks and this is what keeps me in a job.
As an aspiring author myself, one of the most heartbreaking parts of my job is dealing with new authors, and having to explain why they will never see their book on our shelves. If it is self-published or from a vanity press, no chance; I can detail exactly why but won’t here for reasons of space. As for the rest…it all comes down to sales. If the book sells, the store will carry it; if not, it’s gone. The downside is that new books sometimes don’t get the chance to earn their way in the first place because a new book is always more of a risk.
As for what you can do to get around this, your word of mouth approach is the first and most important step. However, if you want to get your book in stores and known to booksellers (this is an advantage; people ask me for recommendations all the time), there is another path. Most B&Ns have a Community Relations Manager, or CRM, who is responsible for (among other things) author relations. Call or drop by and ask for this person. The company may be too huge to notice your book but if you visit a local store, you’ll often find them delighted to see you. We LOVE supporting local authors; signings and local publicity bring people into the stores.
Also, shmooze the booksellers; in addition to people who ask for recommendations, we have a fair amount of leeway when it comes to displays in the store. I’ve personally campaigned for and set up a display of books by an author I like who visited us. I’ve kept Jim Hines’s books in the Staff Recommendations display as much as I can (which is little, as we’re technically not supposed to put mass markets in there, but I try). Most bookstore employees are readers, and they talk to each other, and to customers.
The chain is heirarchical; if a new title does well in a given store, it may well be distributed through the district, and then the region, and so on. Get a foot in the door at the nearest store before trying the overall company.
I’m in the process of re-drafting my novel, so I’m not at this step yet, but you’d better believe I pay attention to the industry and mean to use every scrap of information I have to get my book out there once it’s launched. A good digital strategy is vital in this day and age, but you can probably get the local store on your side too with a little effort.
And Jim, Barnes & Noble didn’t pass you up completely. My store has the entire Princess series in our permanent inventory. I’m on this site now because one day last year I stumbled across “The Mermaid’s Madness” while shelving and thought “Hm, that’s going to be either fantastic or pathetic.” I now own all four, as well as the whole Jig trilogy.
Best of luck to authors, new and old.
Jim C. Hines
February 1, 2012 @ 8:21 pm
Thanks for weighing in on this. Re: B&N and my books, my understanding is that the B&N buyer liked my princess series and picked that up, and when that sold reasonably well, they started stocking some of the goblin books too. So yay for happy endings!
I know part of what’s going on is the instability as everyone tries to figure out how much of the market e-books will become and how to balance it all. Shifting some emphasis to the Nook and e-book sales is a smart move. Personally, I wish we weren’t losing so much shelf space to toys, cafes, and other stuff, but I know the bottom line is that everyone’s trying to keep the business profitable.
My experiences with CRMs and staff has been mixed. I’ve run into some CRMs who seem to have a lot of freedom to stock books, while others say they can’t order my stuff without an order from up high, even if I’m coming by to sign stock.
And on a personal note, thank you — I very much appreciate the support, and I’m glad you decided the books were non-pathetic. (And FWIW, Libriomancer will be a hardcover 😉
Anyway, thanks again for sharing your perspective and experience, and best of luck with your own writing!
Jim C. Hines
February 1, 2012 @ 8:26 pm
That’s interesting. I’ve been told that e-book covers are important for people who are browsing on Amazon or other sites, and that a good cover on the “People who read X Also Read…” lists can help your book jump out.
“Because no one else in my circle reads fantasy/sci fi…”
::Gasp:: We need to get you a bigger circle, stat!
February 1, 2012 @ 9:42 pm
As Jim says, that is interesting. I would have thought that covers would be MORE important for the ebook reader, since that’s the only thing that would catch your attention. But I can see how it works for you as well, since you base your purchase decision no whether others have recommended the book. (I participate in some of those “what are you reading now” posts as well, probably not as much as I should. I’m getting more into the Twitter “Friday Reads” posting as well.)
February 1, 2012 @ 9:50 pm
First off, I used to work at Waldenbooks, so I know the advantage of having a bookseller in the store who likes a particular genre and can be there for suggestions. I was one of those people. I try to talk to these types of booksellers whenever I’m in a particular store, ask if any employees like SF&F in particular, etc, and introduce myself. I also introduce myself to the CRM, but my experience with them has been extremely varied and across the entire spectrum. I’ve had some who were thrilled and wanted to set up an event immediately, and then I’ve had others who were downright rude. But again, I try to talk to them if I’m in a store or plan on being in a particular are (for a con, or visiting friends, or whatever).
Sounds like your store (and CRM) are great. Where were you located again? *grin*
I also think that authors are definitely aware of the current flux in the industry, perhaps even hyper-aware. I know I’m part of a couple of groups where authors can chat about the industry “behind the scenes” and activity in such forums has increased dramatically over the past few years. We’re all trying to figure out where things are going to land and how we can survive the upheaval.
Daniel D. Webb
February 1, 2012 @ 9:56 pm
Yes, it definitely varies from store to store. Mine is a large one and we’re aggressive when it comes to author support and hosting events. I’ve not worked at any different locations so I don’t know how other stores do it, and I’m willing to believe that not all have the same resources we do.
Befriending the staff of bookstores remains good strategy, though. We have local authors who we’re always glad to see, and some who make us groan and roll our eyes when they walk in the door. Guess who gets more display space. 😉
Daniel D. Webb
February 1, 2012 @ 10:00 pm
Sounds like you have all the right ideas. I’ll be checking out your work for myself, but pardon me if I decline to comment on my location. Even keeping my comments about the company positive and staying away from proprietary information (and that’s not my real name, either), it’s a gray area what we’re supposed to say online under the social media policy. Yet another example of technology outstripping the industry.
But the industry is catching up. My own unscientific assessment is that within some years, ebooks will have a bigger market share than print. However, print will never die. It may become a niche market, but it will always be wanted.
February 1, 2012 @ 10:03 pm
Oh, I wasn’t expecting you to answer the location question. It was a joke, a little elbow ribbing. *grin*
February 2, 2012 @ 6:35 pm
Maybe I just don’t fit the pattern. (Darn, I’m always the weirdo.) Or maybe I’m really more influenced than I realize.
It’s not that I believe ebook covers have zero effect–it would be dead wrong to say that my eye doesn’t ever get caught by an interesting cover and make me check out the book further. A catchy title can have the same effect. So, I guess that serves the same purpose as making me pick a book off the shelf in a store.
OTOH, a bad cover isn’t going to kill an ebook for me. Lordy, I’ve bought lots of ebooks with covers that were horrible/ridiculous/embarrassing that I never would have looked twice at (much less bought) in the store if the reviews or reccies hadn’t lured me in.
This isn’t scientific, but I also think covers are more important for some genres than others. Sci-fi/fantasy, romance, YA–kinda known for the covers. Mysteries/thrillers, horror, westerns, spiritual, poetry–most of these have pretty standard, interchangeable covers, IMO. (I bought some mysteries the other day, and they all had either the chalk body outline or menacing-looking city/landscapes. Totally generic. Nothing unique or memorable.) As for non-fic, altho I definitely want a cookbook to have a visually appealing cover, I’m not going to pick one history of the Crimean War over another simply because of the cover art.
Ultimately, reviews and reccies definitely have more influence than cover/title.
(As an aside, I should note that I’m not a hard sell. Nope, I’m dead easy. I have (many) thousands of ebooks, so the marketing, whatever it is, is working on me.)
“Because no one else in my circle reads fantasy/sci fi…”
::Gasp:: We need to get you a bigger circle, stat!
==> That’s why I’m here! Seriously, tho, I won’t even go into how few people of my acquaintace read anything at all. Not even newpapers or magazines. Inconceivable.
Apologies for blathering. Again.
February 2, 2012 @ 6:42 pm
Just putting my 2 cents in to say that you sound like the ideal bookseller, Daniel D. Webb. And, no matter how nice the store, how big the inventory, how great the location, it really is the booksellers that make the bookshopping experience a pleasure. Thx.
February 2, 2012 @ 7:56 pm
Just as an aside, what Joshua is facing is going to become more common as the remaining retailers get persnickity with each other with tactics like this where B&N reportedly won’t carry books published by Amazon: http://www.examiner.com/literature-in-lexington/barnes-noble-will-not-sell-amazon-published-titles
(Note: “Published by” seems to mean “Amazon’s publishing arms as the publisher”, not “Available at Amazon”)
Jim C. Hines
February 3, 2012 @ 7:25 am
I don’t know that you can generalize B&N’s decision about Amazon to other retailers getting persnickity with each other…
February 3, 2012 @ 12:21 pm
Books a Million is now doing the same. http://publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/50495-books-a-million-won-t-carry-amazon-titles.html
February 3, 2012 @ 3:20 pm
Done and done. Bought Well of Sorrows and Leaves. (Luckily, I had a gift card handy.) I’d heard good things about your earlier series, but as happens so often, I didn’t get to it. This new series, a complex world inspired by the history of the colonial New World, sounds really interesting, so I’m looking forward to it. Well of Sorrows is also the Fantasy Book of the Month Club reading selection for February at SFFWorld.
Amazon’s penchant for exclusives to keep other retailers out is now coming back to haunt it. The “ban” is part of negotiations between the retailers on opening up the e-book market. Expect more ranting on all sides before they calmly come to a deal.
February 5, 2012 @ 3:55 am
Word of blog workes 🙂
I have the Throne books on my shelf already, now I will hit amazon looking for Well and Leaves.
Thank you for the tip 🙂
February 15, 2012 @ 6:31 pm
The funny thing, Joshua/Benjamin, is that I really enjoyed your books released under your real name. I’ve actually scanned the bookshelves looking for more titles you’ve written and found nothing…which makes sense since you’re using a psuedonym now. So it’s ironic that your publisher, in an attempt to build your reader base, has made it difficult for those who were fans of your previous books to continue buying your new books. How are we to know that you’re going under a new name? I suppose the assumption is that there were so few readers who were fans, that essentially starting over is better than building on what you had…which I think is an iffy assumption. However, having discovered here that Ben Tate is Joshua Palmatier, I’ll continue to buy and enjoy your books under your psuedonym.
February 15, 2012 @ 9:29 pm
Hey, KatG, thanks for taking a chance on my books. (Gift cards are handy, aren’t they?) I hope you enjoy them!
February 15, 2012 @ 9:30 pm
Katrine: Thanks. Did you know Ben Tate was really Josh Palmatier, or was that news to you?
February 15, 2012 @ 9:33 pm
Abe: Yeah, they took a chance that some of my fans would lose track of me. I’d say it was more than just a few though, and will always wonder if I should have been stubborn and told them it had to be released under my real name. I think they were hoping people would discover it through my blog, webpage, etc. (I’ve “come out” on my JP webpage and blog and such.) I’m glad you enjoyed the Throne books and really hope you enjoy the Well series as well!
February 27, 2012 @ 9:48 am
Joshua, Jim, and other writers who read this blog — Are you familiar with Shelf Awareness?
About Shelf Awareness
Shelf Awareness publishes two newsletters, one for general readers and one for people in the book business.
Shelf Awareness: Enlightenment for Readers, our new newsletter, appears Tuesdays and Fridays and helps readers discover the 25 best books of the week, as chosen by our industry experts. We also have news about books and authors, author interviews and more.
Shelf Awareness: Daily Enlightenment for the Book Trade, which we’ve been publishing since June 2005, provides booksellers and librarians the information they need to sell and lend books. It appears every business day and is read by people throughout the book industry.
One nice feature is that authors can promote titles, called drop-in titles.
The webcomic Unshelved is another venue for promotion — library setting, and very funny!
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March 5, 2012 @ 11:17 am