Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Great Bookstore Experiment

Fellow writers, let us band together and share information for the common good.

I've learned a lot about the bookselling buiness by working as a bookseller, asking questions of booksellers, and observing over 1000 bookstores.

By my count, there are about 680 Walden/Borders Express stores, about 550 Borders stores, and about 600 Barnes & Nobles. My numbers may be off--stores open and close all the time. I'm not sure how many large indie stores there are, or how many Books A Million. If anyone has more accurate numbers, please share them.

By my count, the Mystery/Thriller Section in a chain store averages 250 different authors (authors, not titles). Bigger stores have more, smaller stores have less.

I've hung out in bookstores for hours at a time. I've lurked in the Mystery section, waiting to pounce on anyone who browses there. I've done this at all times of day, all over the country, every day of the week.

And I'm concerned.

Maybe it's a watched pot never boils situation, but I don't see a lot of people buying mysteries.

Sometimes an hour will go by and no one even enters the section. Sometimes a reader will beeline straight for Harlan Coben, grab one, and be on her way ten seconds later. But I don't see a lot of browsing, and I don't see a lot of buying---especially hardcovers.

Booksellers have told me that a face-out book has an eight times better chance of selling than a spine-out book. And I know that a bookstore may only receive three or less copies of a new mystery, keep them on the shelf for three to five months, and then still return copies because they didn't sell. It's possible that your new hardcover may only be selling one copy in five months, per location.

I know booksellers read my blog, and I'd like to ask a question of them. How many customers does your store average per day? And what percentage of that is mystery sales? Feel free to post anonymously.

And for you mystery writers, give me three hours of your time. This is for your benefit as well. Go to your local bookstore, get a cup of coffee, pull out a notepad, and watch the mystery section. Count how many people browse the mystery section, and how many people leave with a book. Then post that info here. Include store, location, and time of day. If you're eagle-eyed, include the book title the customers bought.

What is the point of this experiment?

I'm not sure that writers understand how much the odds are stacked against them.

I spoke to a lot of booksellers on my last tour. And at least a hundred of them--even though they weren't supposed to--shared how many of my books had sold that year. The stores that knew me and supported me have sold between 50 and 180 of my books this year alone. The majority have sold less than ten. Some haven't sold a single book.

I'm guessing that a midlist mystery author might average one sale every two weeks, per location, if they only have a few books in stock and no coop placement.

I have no idea if I'm right or not, but I think I am.

I hope everyone who reads this blog gives this experiment a try. If you don't want to spend that long in a bookstore playing spy, but you are friends with a bookstore employee or manager, ask them how many customers they have per day vs. how many mysteries sold.

If you're a writer, ignorance isn't bliss. It's death. If a customer isn't directly seeking out your book--because they read a review, or had it recommended to them, or learned about it somehow--then the only chance you have of selling it is to a browser, and there aren't that many browsers. Seven paperbacks on the new release tower might have a shot at selling a few by chance. A single hardcover spine-out in the Mystery section has very little chance of selling by chance.

You hear me preach about the importance of meeting booksellers, of self-promotion, of establishing brand and name recognition. Invariably, many writers will tell me that promotion is up to the publisher, that writers can't make a difference, that all they need to concentrate on is writing a good book.

My response is always the same: the bookstore is filled with good books that customers walk right past. If no one knows about your book, it is going to rot on the shelf no matter how good it it.

Take three hours. Visit a bookstore. Post the numbers. Show me that I'm wrong or that I'm right.


Anonymous said...

Can I make a superficial comment, please?

I buy a book by its cover. When I shop the mystery/thriller section for my boyfriend, not me, I am repulsed by the screaming covers in bright reds and oranges, or the bright letters on black.

I know this is going to sound superficial and silly - but, you asked what might sell a mystery/thriller - and my idea is to change the cover design.

Make the cover attractive, interesting, thought-provoking. The allure of "Oh what is this?" causes me to pick up a book I know nothing about and want to read more. My most recent purchase like this was the slim memoir "Grayson." $16.95 I think was the purchase price at Borders for a very small amount of reading. And the cover? Oh, just the drawing of a little whale caused me to pick up and ask, "What is this?"

I was in Borders to pick up mystery/thrillers for my boyfriend and added a $16.95 book to his stack for myself.

Now, I do understand that cover design is subjective. What may attract my interest would not be noticed by another passer-by.

For me, there needs to be a pick-up factor in this bookselling equation. Attract the would-be mystery/thriller reader by not screaming "blood and guts" on the book jacket, which is what see in a title dripping in blood red on a black jacket.

I know your book covers aren't like that, but a good many are, which turns me off from what may be a very good story to read, but the cover seems to advertise only the crime.

JA Konrath said...

Book covers are extremely improtant, Anneliese.

Where was the memoir in the bookstore? In the non fiction section, shelved spine-out? Or on a new release table so you saw the cover when you walked past?

RandomRanter said...

Hello, I'm a browser. Mystery is typically the second section I hit - it varies a little based on the layout of the store. But I agree, I usually have the section to myself as I scan titles. Overwhelmed by choice a lot of people go for books they knew about before they walked in, or stuff that's on the new release sections near the register.

Anonymous said...

I never buy hardcover books anymore unless it is one of my real favorite writers. And, even then it better be a book I'm really waiting for. I didn't even buy hardcover for the last Gunslinger book and that series is one of my favorites of all time.

Another interesting thing to track would be how many people buy mysteries online. If the trend is moving online, maybe it is not quite as dire for mystery writers.

On a different, but slightly related rant. I will never buy one of those new tall paperback books. The ones that go for $9.99 because they are tall "for my convenience." Give me a good old fashioned paperback anyday. This is on topic because they seem to be popping up everywhere, and I will not buy them. If my only options are hardcover and expensive paperback, I'll wait for the used bookstore or library. So, in addition to having a good cover, books also need to come in a good size/price to get me to buy them.

troy cook said...

Hey, Joe. I just finished my "mini-Konrath" and am getting close to my goal of 100 stores. At each store I hung out for at least a couple of hours, handselling my book, and noticed some similar details. I can't give you specific numbers, but in particular, there weren't many browsers in the mystery section.

Lots of foot traffic went to the new fiction aisles and of course the tables in the center. So that's where I concentrated my energy. They also seemed more amenable to trying out new authors, a definite plus.

Thanks for your inspiration, Joe. Without you, I never would have gone to these stores. I've now personally handsold hundreds of books and gotten great placement at the stores I've gone to. My book is from a small press but the attention the booksellers have given it have helped it sell thousands of copies. And from an unknown author at that. Even better, a big time Hollywood film company found it at one of the stores and wants the movie rights. And better still, a big NY pub found a signed copy at a bookstore, read it and loved it, and wants to do my second novel.

For everyone wondering whether Joe is right on the money or off his rocker, I have to say it's the former.

In fact, I think I probably owe him a cut of the profits. :)

Thanks, Joe!

JA Konrath said...

Congrats on your success, Troy!

I don't like the venti-sized paperbacks either, Mike. Too expensive, too cumbersome.

David J. Montgomery said...

My anecdotal experiences match Joe's. I frequently browse the shelves in the mystery section of bookstores, but I only rarely see others doing the same.

Thinking of my non-writing world friends, I know very few who read at all, and almost none who read mysteries or thrillers.

I frequently offer people free books, I have so damn many of them... But I can't even give them away!

JA Konrath said...

Another blog linked to me and the writer shared his numbers.

His post is well-thought out, but he misinterpreted the reason I toured. I wasn't there to make fans. The 200 copies I handsold were extra.

I believe the 4000+ copies I signed will have a very good sell-through, but even that wasn't the point. The point was giving my book to booksellers, so they read it. The more booksellers who are familiar with my work, the more who will comfortably recommend me to customers.

If I hang out in a bookstore for seven hours, handselling books, I can sell a few dozen. But a bookstore can sell hundred, even thousands, over the course of my career.

Enlist the booksellers.

Even if you're on the New Release table, with ten copies face-out, you're still a slave to browsers. You have a better chance of being seen that one copy spine out in the mysteyr section, but it still requires luck to find you.

But if a bookseller recommends you, luck is no longer a factor.

Did I blow away every bookseller I met on tour, turning them into huge fans? Of course not. But I did make a really good impression on many of them, and some of them will handsell my books.

That's why I toured. And that's why I'm curious to get some responses from people on this blog topic.

Who is buying books? What are they buying? And how are they finding the books?

Visit your local bookstore and find out, then post the results here.

Anonymous said...

Hi Again!

"Grayson" was on the New Memoir table, they may have called it New Autobiography if I want to be ruhlly specific, and the book was stacked only three high.

BUT, in that "NEW" table's defense, I would like to restate my *purpose* was to be in the Mystery/Thriller aisle - note it is ONE aisle as opposed to the Literature section of Borders (section = one-fourth the store), and I walked away from the M/T aisle to the Info Kiosk to locate if the store stocked a particular M/T title.

Okay, if we went with the NEW tables being a factor in the shopability equation, then bookstores might want to make Mystery/Thrillers less of an aisle and more of a section (albeit smaller than Literature, or Magazines, or even, Reference), and have chairs and a few tables within that section to encourage folks in remaining/browsing. In my local Borders, the Mystery/Thriller section maps as more of a runway to the cashier, than as its stand-alone section to visit.

As a side note, I don't know what this means, but it's good to know:
In San Mateo, there is a bookstore completely devoted to the Mystery/Thriller genre: "M is for Mystery" on B Street.
They always seem to have customers browsing and buying.

Maria said...

A few notes, sort of related.

Compare the paying magazines in Sci/Fi/Fantasy to those in mystery. There are many, many more paying magazines in the Sci/fi area. Many more.

I no longer shop in bookstores at all. I buy mysteries and thrillers and fantasy. I haven't bought a book for myself in a bookstore in 5 years. If I want to browse, I go to the library. If I want a specific book that I read about or because I like the author, I buy it online.

Oh--and I haven't bought a hardback in several years. I either wait for the softcover or get on the library waiting list for the book. Price matters. Some of these books I'd like to own--some I'd like to read right away. But the last hardback I bought was several years ago and I remember it clearly because I have probably purchased about 8 total in my lifetime.

Also, Anneliese is right. Covers matter. I don't want the book to look too gory or too scary. I like your covers Joe. They are great. (The books are pretty good too!) :>)

Jude Hardin said...

I agree with Mike about hardcovers costing too much. I'm starting to think, for midlisters anyway, that the only way to make a living is to publish three or four paperback originals a year under various pseudonyms.

I visit Books-A-Million almost every week. Here are some of my observations:

The mystery section keeps shrinking, which tells me mysteries aren't as popular as they once were. I see very few browsers, and I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone carry a hardcover to the register. I'm usually there about two hours.

The romance section stays fairly busy with women of all ages.

Maybe it's just this store, but there's always a lot of teens browsing the YA section. Some of that probably comes from books that are assigned reading for class.

I see a lot of younger children with their parents, looking and buying chapter books and picture books. I would guess that this particular store sells more of those than anything.

The hardcovers I see adults buying are mostly nonfiction.

So, what does my admittedly nonscientific research say? Not lookin' too good for the home team, Joe. I'm not sure what can be done about it. Mysteries just don't seem to be very hot right now. Even the Bombshell imprint, which produced thirllers with strong heroines and romantic subplots, has gone belly up. I'm still going to write mystery-thrillers because they're what I love, but I don't expect to be raking in the big bucks anytime soon.

JA Konrath said...

Jude, I think mysteries and thrillers are doing very well, but not in the mystery/thriller section.

If you look on the New Release tables, on the papberback towers, on the Beach Reads table, or Staff Picks endcap, you see a lot of mysteries. They are selling.

But perhaps not in the section.

Jude Hardin said...

Good point, Joe. I do still see plenty of mystery-thrillers in those areas you mentioned, and on the bestseller lists. It tends to be a lot of the same names we've seen for years, though.

Anonymous said...

U R Right, Joe.

Even ten years indies still represented 50% of the sellers market.

An author could "make it" in the indy market, via handselling, then be picked up in the chains, get some coop, build out a readership, and voila, a career.

Now, with indies comprising less than 25% of books sold, and falling rapidly, and chains unavailable in any meaninful fashion (i.e. difficult market access for individual authors) except to a smaller handful of large publishers with bigger coop dollars, it is more and more difficult for an unannointed midlister to break out. Midlisters themselves are becomiing an endangered species. Kinda like coral or health care. Lots left, but the trends are uniformly bad.
So I have often asked myself, how can an author access sufficient chains to make a difference?

Joe, I note that a very hefty percentage of the Rusty Nail 500 was Chain Drive-bys (by the way, I know that indies have no better friend and supporter than JAK!). Was the RN500, in part, a conscious experimental effort to show one writer CAN make an impact on the chains, if he/she can hit enough stores at the retail level with a polished marketing pitch and, of course, abundant talent?
Looking forward to visiting in Madison! IF I can get through your posse...

pattinase (abbott) said...

As someone who has read crime fiction for 30 years, I 1)borrow from the library 2)get at used bookstore 3) borrow from a friend who liked it 4)get used from Amazon 5) get them remaindered. Now I could afford to buy books new, but I don't. They seem more expendable than lit. novels. Although those too, I usually get through these same sources. I'm never sure if I will finish it so buying afor $25 seems too chancey.
Shame on me. That said, we have more than 5000 books in my house.

Anonymous said...

I've been in a lot of bookstores this summer, and the one thing I've noticed is that traffic is always pretty heavy, no matter what time of the day. Sure, it slacks off during certain times like the dinner hour, but even on a weekday morning, I've been amazed at how many people are in bookstores. Maybe they are reading less mysteries (be interesting to see what results this post generates), but they are certainly still visiting the stores and buying stuff, mostly books. Also, I haven't seen any industry sources talking about a decline in readership for mysteries, like there has been for romance.

Sidenote: I am glad to know there's one other person out there compulsive enough to actually count the number of authors in the mystery section of a bookstore.

JA Konrath said...

Harry, I don't deny bookstore traffic. The majority of the bookstores I visited on tour had full cafes and lines of people at the registers.

I just didn't see many of them browsing the mystery section.

I don't think the numbers have slacked off, or that there's a decline in mystery sales.

My contention is that there never was a huge demand for mysteries. Or, for that matter, any books. Instead of watching the Mystery section, you can watch the Wildlife Section, or the Maps section, or whatever. You don't see hordes of people storming the isles, filling their carts.

Anonymous said...

I'm sitting in a Barnes and Noble right now having my first public wifi experience. There are a ton of people in the store. Nobody is browsing in any "section". Everybody is end caps and front displays, magazines, or coffee'ing.

Nobody is in mystery, romance, fiction, scifi/fantasy or reference.

Weird snapshot, I'm sure.

I was at a mall bookstore, Waldenbooks, I think earlier today. Nobody in the mystery section.

I almost bought the Time of the Twins series by Weiss and Hickman. One of my favorite series of all time. They had a very snazzy collectors edition (all 3 in 1 book). My snazzy collectors edition got stolen about 15 years ago. In the end, I couldn't turn over the $25 for softcover, $40 for hardcover. I think I get most of my NEW books for gifts these days.

Jude Hardin said...

I've read that publishers aren't buying nearly as many series-oriented mysteries from new authors as they used to. What, besides a decline in sales, could be the cause of this trend?

Anonymous said...

I think it's worse than you said, Joe. I've spent a lot of time in bookstores this year, and my biggest impression of the average bookstore customer is this: A person who walks up to the customer service desk - bypassing all those lovely front tables, endcaps, not to mention the back shelves - with a piece of paper in his/her hand. On this piece of paper is written the title of a book given to him/her by his bookclub, a teacher at school, or someone who wants this one book for a Christmas or birthday present. The person hands this slip of paper to the customer service rep, who goes and retrieves it. The person then walks straight up to the cash register - again, bypassing all those other wonderful books - pays for this one book, and leaves.

Lovely image, isn't it? But oh so true. So the thing is - how do you get your title on this little slip of paper? Hell if I know.

Jude Hardin said...

With the best marketing tool on the planet, Melanie, the one you can't buy.

Word of mouth.

David J. Montgomery said...

I have a friend who runs a used bookstore with lots of high-end collectible sci-fi and mystery. He recently told me that, right now, mystery is soft and sf is strong. But he said it's cyclical and that 10 years ago it was the reverse. He expects that in another ten years, it will have flip flopped again.

I do think that in today's market, the demand for standard mystery series fare is very soft. (Witness how many authors in the past 5 years have burned through 2-book contracts with Minotaur or a similar press, only to be dropped and never heard from again.) I know that I have grown tired of this type of book. There is little invention or freshness driving most of these books, and that is resulting in poor sales.

On the other hand, the demand for high-concept thrillers is extremely strong. Just check any bestseller list or airport newsstand and you'll see the evidence of this.

So when we're discussing whether or not people buy crime fiction, the answer to a large part depends on what kind of books we're talking about.

The reason I find Joe's efforts so interesting is because he's trying to break out of the midlist author rut by using innovative and vigorous self-promotion. Granted, he started from a more advantageous position than most first-time authors. But if he's able to succeed, it will provide an interesting model for others to consider when thinking about their own careers.

Anonymous said...

What more advantageous position did Joe start from?

I'm not being a smart alleck. I don't know Joe's background at all. Joe, do you come from money or another planet? Or were you parents famous writers?

Jude Hardin said...

I think you nailed it, David.

Unless you're an established bestseller (Sue Grafton, James Patterson, Robert B. Parker, etc.), the standard mystery fare (a grizzled cop or PI chasing the bad guy) just won't cut it these days. There has to be something different, something "high concept" for an author to break out.

JA Konrath said...

Mike, I got a three book, six figure deal from a highly respected publisher. It didn't make me rich (far from it) but it was enough money that they ponied up for coop space and marketing bucks.

>>>>On this piece of paper is written the title of a book given to him/her...<<<<

Mel, I saw that no less than 50 times this summer. You're absolutely right. People come in with a title in mind, don't bother to look at anything else, and leave with what they wanted.

The trick is to be on that piece of paper.

Bob Farley said...

My thoughts: No matter if your book is selling like hotcakes or not at all, the answer is the same: you still try to market your book. If a book sells ten copies, that's great, but so what? If it sells a hundred copies, that's even greater, but again, so what?

Who needs another mystery when every day we're confronted with dozens? Where's my other sock? What will my son eat for breakfast without complaining? Why won't my car start?

What good does reading a mystery do a person when there are a zillion books about how to beat the stock market and get rich, how to lose 40 pounds and get rich, how to play the guitar and get rich? Is reading your mystery or (someday) mine going to make somebody rich? Besides you and me?

Mysteries, sci-fi, romance--all that stuff has a rough row to hoe when people need real life answers to problems much, much more than they need to read a story book.

The few who don't have or don't care about their difficult life problems to solve by reading the next great healer guru are the ones who drop by the mystery aisles, imo.

Jude Hardin said...


Joe spoke the truth about his background.

I'm the one from another planet. :)

Anonymous said...

Ah...I thought he meant that you started with an advantage. You were given a good contract off the bat because they thought your books would sell. That's a different advantage than I thought he was talking about.

Jude Hardin said...

*Mysteries, sci-fi, romance--all that stuff has a rough row to hoe when people need real life answers to problems much, much more than they need to read a story book.*

Maybe we need fiction to ponder the larger questions, Bob. Questions a little larger than "how do you want your eggs?"

No, we're not curing cancer. At the very least, we strive to entertain. But good fiction goes a bit further. A good novel can enrich your life way more than the latest miracle diet pill. Fiction is more than a commodity, IMO.

Anonymous said...

Joe wrote:
"The point was giving my book to booksellers, so they read it. The more booksellers who are familiar with my work, the more who will comfortably recommend me to customers.

If I hang out in a bookstore for seven hours, handselling books, I can sell a few dozen. But a bookstore can sell hundred, even thousands, over the course of my career.

Enlist the booksellers."
You've hit the nail on the head. I worked CD retail during the 90s at a Midwest independent chain.

Frankly, some of the most memorable experiences I and my colleagues had was having emerging artists stop by the store--or invite us to soundcheck if they were playing a show--just to say "hi" and introduce us to their music (read: "give us free CDs and other schwag" which can be huge when you make retail money).

I want to refrain from dropping names, but I met several bands and solo artists months before they were multi-platinum sellers. Clearly they--or their management and/or A&R rep--were people like you who got it. Often, within days of their face-to-face introduction we were selling boxes of their CDs.

The correlation wasn't an accident. And it didn't even matter whether we liked the record or the genre of music. We were impressed with the people... they were frequently engaging and made us feel like friends. As a result, in some ways, we felt invested in helping them succeed.

I imagine almost everyone who's ever worked in a record store wanted to be a rock star for at least ten minutes. Meeting people who were actually making records and playing music for a living was a big deal. I can see how a lot of booksellers would feel the same way about authors. If you're ever unsure whether you're on the right track... rest assured, Joe, because I for one think you are.

troy cook said...

For everyone worried about soft mystery sales in general: Recently I had a conversation with a top dog at B&N corporate. For the most part they see sales improving in the mystery genre and have been expanding the mystery section at lots of the stores.

I thought that was good news And a look at the bestseller lists seem to validate the statement.

David J. Montgomery said...

Looking over the past couple NYTimes' bestseller lists, I see a lot of thrillers, but only a couple of mysteries. The handful of exceptions are all well-established stars of the genre: Pelecanos, Burke and Jance. I certainly hope it changes, but it seems like it's still damn tough to sell mysteries these days.

JA Konrath said...

Ross-- I love indies.

But so does every other author.

I know most of the mystery store indie people, and love them to death. They like me too. They also like (insert every mystery author who has ever signed at their store.)

Contrast that to someone working at a chain store. I shook the hands of dozens of booksellers who have never met an author before. You can see the value in that.

I tried to visit as many indies as I could, and called many of them while on the road to see if they stocked my books. Most didn't. Some now do, but if it was a choice between me signing stock at a chain and just dropping in to say hello at an indie, I signed stock.

Did my tour make an impact on the chains? I'm sure it did. Many of them ordered more of my books--that alone was worth my effort.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon your blog as I was reading 'Abed Munder--The Wheeled Wonder' on MSN spaces. I really need to email him a 'thank you' for including your blog as a link on his space as I thoroughly enjoy reading about your trials and tribulations as a published (!) author.
I am in the process of writing my first novel and all I can think about is getting published. The funny thing is, getting published is difficult but really it is only step 1 in becoming a marketable author.
Anyway, regarding this particular blog, I have a bit of insight. I worked for a huge bookseller here in Canada (I won't name any names--I'm sure you can figure it out on your own) as a category manager (buyer). I also worked on the sales floor quite a bit and I agree with you--Mystery is a tough sale these days. The retailer I worked with did most of their business in mass market (well-known authors) and 'hot' hard cover releases by very famous, well-known authors. Being a newbie in this genre is very hard.
The number one thing for a new author in any section of a bookstore is coop placement as you briefly pointed out. This also goes hand in hand with 'judging a book by its' cover' thing the anneliese mentioned. It's ALL about exposure because we all, at one point or another literally judged a book by its' cover, right?
Also, I think another problem is the mystery/thrillers don't seem to be marketed towards women. At the risk of sounding narrow-minded, Janet E seems to be the only one that comes to my mind when I think of mystery/thriller for gals.
Another interesting trend these days (Mike pointed it out)is the increse in sales of trade paper version of books. I think a lot of writers are better off avoiding hard cover releases--people just don't want them anymore. We live in a world of convenience now and it is not convenient to carry around a big hard cover book on the subway commute each morning.

Toronto, Canada

tess gerritsen said...

Joe, it's easy to get depressed while sitting at a chain bookstore, seeing how little traffic goes through the mystery section. But check out how sparse the traffic is for the literary fiction section as well. Or any of the other fiction sections, with the possible exception of romance, where you'll see maybe one or two women cruise through. I often wonder where and when ANYONE buys a book in a bookstore, because it never seems to happen while I'm watching. All I see are people browsing in the magazine aisles. The only place I see people buy books is in airport stores (almost always paperbacks) and in wholesale clubs, such as Sam's or Costco, where women will wheel their carts by and pick up three or four or more books at a time. Book buyers are like the kitchen fairies -- they only do their magic while we aren't watching.

So maybe, to hold onto our sanity, we shouldn't watch.

Anonymous said...

Anneliese wrote: "I buy a book by its cover. When I shop the mystery/thriller section for my boyfriend, not me, I am repulsed by the screaming covers in bright reds and oranges, or the bright letters on black."

Gosh, I have to say I have the same problem. I'm very sensitive to colors, and some covers are so garish they give me a headache. So I hope some publishers read your blog and take note.

As to your experiment suggestion, I think that's a great idea, for any writer to do in their given section of the store. I just have to make sure I take limited funds with me, or I'll blow my budget. ;)

Anonymous said...

Jude hardin wrote: "Maybe we need fiction to ponder the larger questions, Bob. Questions a little larger than "how do you want your eggs?""

And eventually most of us figure out that we're not going to get rich, diets don't work, and we really just want a good book to read while we're waiting for the tow truck if the car breaks down again. :)

Jude Hardin said...

I like that, Barbara. It's always good to have an emergency novel nearby.

Tess: I think that's probably very good advice.

Finz said...

I work part time at Jabberwocky Books in Newburyport, MA ( We were fortunate enough to partake in the Joe Experience this summer! We are a rather big independent book store north of Boston. We have a rather healthy mystery section, though not as satisfying as our sci-fi/fantasy aisle. One of the reasons is that many of us who work here love to read mysteries. Once we recommend a series and start the customer on the first book, 9 times out of 10 they will be back to read more. We also place written reviews under our favorite books. It is not uncommon to have a customer come up to the register with 4 or 5 of "my" books.

Newburyport is a rather well-to-do community and we do sell a fair amount of hardcovers. However, most people will not buy a hardcover from a new author unless the book has received lots of praise (THE STOLEN CHILD comes to mind). Midlist authors such as Steve Hamilton, Kent Krueger we're happy if we sell 2 copies of their books in hardcover. Most people just want to buy paperbacks and that's where we really sell them.

We also have a very healthy used books section and I often use it as an opportunity to introduce a reader to a series. I know for me personally if I wasn't fortunate to get ARCs, I would never pay for a hardcover book!

We also find that books that are faced out sell better. I hate going into BandN and seeing all those mysteries spined out. It is not a good browsing experience.

The Dark Scribe said...

Hey Joe,

Yeah, your stats are pretty accurate. I work for B&N. We have about 800 stores in the US, and the store I work in is located in a fairly affluent area. Our mystery section is like a fallout zone. Our customers read literary fiction almost exclusively. Some are fans of Coben or Evanovich or Grimes, but they won't even explore other mystery authors.

In the last thirteen weeks, we've sold 7 copies of Whiskey Sour, 4 copies of Bloody Mary, and 5 copies of Rusty Nail. Actually, let me rephrase that: I've sold those copies. Of the thirty or so employees in our store, I'm the only one who consistently reads mysteries.

Part of the reason for this is our location, and the inherent snobism of working among the inordinately wealthy. But part of it has to do with a lack of readership and a lack of interest outside of the best-sellers.

Anyway, congrats on completing your tour, and thanks again for all of your inspiration and advice.

JA Konrath said...

Thanks, Paul! You rock!

I'll also thank you in the acknowledgements for Dirty Martini, coming out next summer.

Steve said...

Here's a related, but somewhat OT fact/observation.

Recently, in my company's mall-based stores, there's been a huge migration of authors from Fiction and Romance into the mystery section. The reason for moving these authors is to put the small stores in line with shelving practices of our Big Brothers.


The upshot of this is increased traffic into the Mystery aisle. Now, if folks want Brown, Clancy, Patterson, et al, they have to hit the Mystery Section.

More traffic equals more potential exposure, at least theoretically.

r2 said...

I don't know a thing about book publishing or book marketing, but I have spent my entire career in general marketing. Here is something I know for a fact: $20 is the magic number when it comes to impulse purchases.

Many, many people will "try something" if it costs less than $20. Many more if it's less than $15 and even more less than $10.

But $20 is the threshold for most people, whether it's Donald Trump or someone who makes $30,000 a year. Something that costs $21 or over is more of a considered purchase. In fact, the drop off of people who are willing to make an impulse purchase when it is $21 vs. $19.95 is simply staggering.

So, yes, with most hardbacks costing well above $20, you will only find people buying them after much consideration and thought. Perhaps booksellers should follow the model set up by Best Buy and stores of similiar ilk and price books at $19.95 when they first come out. If you notice, no matter what the list price of a DVD, on the Tuesday it is newly released, it is always priced at $19.95

Jude Hardin said...

Very interesting, r2. What amazes me is that that threshold has remained stable for thirty years or so, even though prices and incomes have risen dramatically in that time period.

For that to happen, booksellers would have to cut their markup in half. Or, that five dollar loss could be distributed in percentages to all involved. It might be worth a try.

Joshua James said...

I love books, just love them, but it's difficult to get me to buy a hardcover, the cost is so much more and it's not nearly as convenient to carry around as a paperback.

Unless I'm at a booksigning or something where I feel I should buy the hardcover, I'll wait for it to come out on and buy the paperback.

Allison Brennan said...

Joe, I agree with Tess: don't watch. It's depressing.

The #1 most important thing for any author, especially those not on the bestselling hardcover list who get all the prominent placement and 40% off cover price, is to be on the new release table. I'll admit, that's the first place I go in BN or Borders. New releases. I want to see what's out in any given month. I see the new release table with lots of traffic and people on all sides looking at books. Picking them up, reading the back, taking them or putting them down.

Sheri in Toronto: at the risk of sounding like a sexist, the reason more female authors aren't known as "mystery/thriller" authors is that they tend to get published as romantic suspense. Which is fine with me because romance readers are the most loyal and most diverse of readers--they'll read just about anything.

But if you're looking for a few good mystery/thriller authors who are women, try: Tess Gerritsen, Linda Fairstein, Mary Higgins Clark, Faye Kellerman, JA Jance, Wendy Corsi Staub, Patricia Cornwell, Perri O'Shaunhessy and Tami Hoag. There are probably more that I can't think of off the top of my head. And also look for romantic suspense authors as well--some have a very strong suspense focus.

I'll admit on the browsing that my local Borders is one of the busiest Borders I've been in. It's always packed, it always has a line to buy (except early in the morning and at night) and I see people in virtually every aisle.

r2 said...

I did the experiment. I sat for approximately two hours and fifteen minutes right next to the mystery section which is upstairs in our B&N between the music section and the kids' books (why?). Not one browser in the mystery section. Kinda scary.

Liz said...

Here in the UK we don't actually have a mystery section for books. The sections noted on Waterstones shelves are sorta like this:

Sci-Fi and Fantasy and next to that is Horror (always!!) and invariably 2 metres away you will have Crime (Tess falls under this, as does Phil Rickman, Harlan Coben and all other thriller/mystery/action writers) then you have Fiction and everything else gets lumped under that, even if it is historical fiction. Oh, and I forget - there is a Romance section with a large section for Gay and Lesbian Fiction too.

I will make it my duty to now go and peer at the different sections and see who buys what from where. I also think that the UK has more people who are keen to buy books - any books, to while away their time so if they see sumat that is interesting, they will buy it and give it a whirl. You did literary snobs though, but I am happy to say I am not one of those.


Bob Farley said...

I just had a funny thought. Maybe somebody has said it, too. Something on the order of the watched pot. Monkeys being observed had to get used to the observer. People being watched don't behave normally. Maybe seeing somebody posted at the aisle to the Mystery section scared the people away. Maybe they were closet Mystery readers who didn't want their identities found out.

ElizabethLetts said...

I also spend a lot of time in bookstores and I've noticed that a lot of book buying goes on at the new fiction trade paperback tables. I'll often see women with four, five or even six books in their hands at that table.

But I think part of the problem is that old-fashioned browsing from bookshelves is probably a lost art.

I spent my childhood wandering up and down rows of books that were shelved spine out in the library. My parents, dedicated readers and library goers, are perfectly contented to browse in the same manner in a bookstore.

My fifteen-year-old son is at a complete loss trying to browse in a bookstore. He sees a sea of spines and has no idea where to start.

Browsing is time-consuming. I've noticed that cereal boxes aren't shelved spine out in the super-market.

I think bookstore patrons might be more willing to browse if the experience were more user-friendly-- hence the success of the tables.

I've seen indies where all of the books are shelved face out.

In the big boxes, the shelves are almost functioning as wallpaper.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Joe, I think all of your readers may be on to something here.

Although advertising isn't bookselling, we are both trying to accomplish the same thing: sell people stories. Right now, in my day job I'm running a series of consumer focus groups to test an advertising campaign. It's been several years since I've done this and one of our discoveries astonishes me: People don't want to read anymore.

The stats bear this out. Newspapers across the country are printing smaller page counts. Their circulation is shrinking, ad sales are falling. People aren't reading newspapers like they used to. Hence, they aren't reading print ads.

And it doesn't seem to be age group specific either. We tested several age groups and the result was the same.

The thinking in advertising has always been: A great image and a clever headline will grab an audience's attention and imprint a message. Then, provide a few paragraphs of copy for the 33% who will be interested enough to actually read about your product.

Well, those days are gone. At least according to our consumers. All they wanted to see was an image and a headline. In fact, providing any more text annoyed them. It made them feel like they had to make a decision as to whether or not to read.

"Too much," they said, over and over. "Too many words."

People are so busy and distracted now. It's hard to concentrate. Browsing takes concentration, thought, patience. Perhaps therein, the lost art lies.

David J. Montgomery said...

Let me throw in my 2 cents since the topic came up... Female crime writers I recommend (in alphabetical order):

Alafair Burke
Janet Evanovich
Elaine Flinn
Tess Gerritsen
Denise Hamilton
Libby Fischer Hellman
Naomi Hirahara
Julie Hyzy
Jonnie Jacobs
Laura Lippman
Gayle Lynds
Michele Martinez
Karen E. Olson
P.J. Parrish
Twist Phelan
Linda L. Richards
M.J. Rose
Theresa Schwegel
Sandra Scoppettone
Patricia Smiley
Julia Spenser-Fleming

That's just off the top of my head, but there are so many great women crime writers. Check 'em out!

Anonymous said...

"...The trick is to be on that piece of paper."

It may not be a buying trend so much as a promotion gimmick.

I know a writer who -- as a PR "investment" -- does exactly that, with his own book. He thinks that by asking bookstore staff for the book, then buying it, the staff will remember the title somehow. He wanted me to do a second round for him, calling the bookstore to ask if they had it, then coming in and making a big deal out of buying it.

Can he be the only person who's thought of this?

Anonymous said...

I work in a public library. Except at the New Book shelves (though spine out, they are the functional equivalent of bookstores' feature tables announcing 'These Are The New Ones'), I see almost no browsing in the fiction. People come in on a mission for a particular title or a particular author. They find what they're after, or not. They look it up in the catalog, or not. They ask at the desk, or not. And then they're gone. Browsing isn't in it.

Mysteries are our most heavily circulated items, but people are only browsing among the new ones. (The Addicts of the New are insatiable, sometimes coming in everyday to browse.) Everything else, they already know what they are after.

Maxwell said...

I like to exploit the discounts of the Borders Rewards program, so I shop in person with the coupon of the week. But, I don't feel I ever get a fair representation of what a book is about by the blurbs on the cover. Also, I have a limited time for my lunch break. So I have adopted a strategy that would probably seem odd to your bookstore observers.

I figure out what I want to buy on my employer's nickel, by reading reviews on Amazon. Sure, you can't take them at face value, but with a little practice you can glean a good idea what books to shop for. I make a short list, often jotting. notes right on the coupon.

When I hit the store, I may be hitting more than one section or just one - it depends. Usually, about half of my list will actually be in stock - coupons only work for in-stock items. I quickly grab one or more of the books on my list, give them a quick prose check and then check out. It's a rare day my entire visit takes more than five minutes.

I don't use Amazon exclusively to develop leads on what's a good read. If I fail to find a book on my list at the store, it's unlikely that I will ever pursue it any further. If I find out that the book I'm considering is a mega seller, which is usually evident before the Borders run, I put it on a different list for when I go to used bookstores.

At used bookstores, I browse in the more traditional manner. For new purchases, I almost never buy without first consulting some aspect of the internet. Yet, I hate waiting for something to be shipped, so I'm a half-Internet shopper. I will occasionally buy from Amazon, but usually, I just get info out of them and use their wish lists as reminders to myself to keep looking for something particularly intriguing. It’s also a really handy service for getting somebody a gift when you know you aren’t going to have a chance to see them in person for the occasion.

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