Stalking Invisible Book Sales
An Anti-WYSIATI Approach
by Judith Appelbaum
A new survey of IBPA members has just confirmed what much broader earlier surveys also found: Smaller publishers make sizable sales that nobody adds up. The latest survey, which drew a 10 percent response, indicates that even the largest publishers in this population of roughly 3,000 make more than half their sales independently of their distributors, in channels where no one tracks aggregate sales of books.
Those untracked sales may be sales to nonbook wholesalers or retailers, sales to consumers online or in person, and/or sales to educational institutions, corporations, and associations, as well as other “special” or “nontraditional” sales that established systems for counting book sales can’t see.
What happens when important information is invisible? According to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow, what happens is: “You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle.”
As you know if you’ve read Kahneman’s fascinating book, he’s talking about what he calls “the powerful WYSIATI rule,” using this “cumbersome abbreviation” for “What You See Is All There Is.”
“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense,” Kahneman notes, “rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
Since the segment of the book business that consists of small and midsize publishers is the segment that is growing fastest in terms of dollar and unit sales, as well as in terms of company count (see “Independent Publisher Power” in the February 2013 Independent), this seems an especially good time to focus hard on the rest of what “there is”—the part not included in WYS.
As things stand, you know what sales your company is making in shrinking traditional channels. You also know what sales it’s making in channels that seem to be growing in importance which distributors and book-business tracking systems don’t reach. But you have no way of knowing whether aggregate book sales in each of those so-called nontraditional channels are growing or shrinking, and neither do the biggest publishers or the other huge companies in the book business.
This may well mean that you—and they—are missing some golden opportunities, and it certainly means that you and your fellow independent publishers are being credited with only a fraction of the contribution that your sales actually make to all book sales.
Ways to See More
Several possibilities exist for filling the information gap, at least theoretically. Some belong in the when-pigs-fly category. For example, information on sales in the vast territory that is invisible to book-sales tracking systems and not reflected in data from distributors could suddenly be provided by every single small and midsize publisher. Or somebody could suddenly pony up money for a rigorous survey of publishers by the tens of thousands.
But in the could-happen category, analyses of industry sales figures might start using the ratio of visible to invisible sales as a tool for breaking loose from WYSIATI.
I’m no expert on statistics, but I’ve learned from experts over the years that even when numbers look rock-solid, they rest partly on quicksand (information providers understood key terms differently but nobody took that into account; a population that seemed consistent over time actually changed; respondents gave the answers they thought made them look best or the answers they sensed were the “right” ones; and on and on in that vein).
Of course, the fact that the numbers are always defective to some degree doesn’t mean they’re useless. It means they need to be presented along with explanations of where the data came from, what relevant data is missing, and how the available data was processed.
Following that scenario, if you wanted to fill holes in existing evidence about sales in the book business, maybe you’d try to find a way to factor invisible sales into conventional industry figures, using the percentages those sales have accounted for in surveys of smaller publishers conducted over the years.
The charts below give you some specifics about invisible sales as revealed in the new survey of IBPA members, while quotes and tidbits from members’ comments convey additional specifics. Thanks to everybody who provided information, and congratulations to all of you who are—and have been—selling successfully in channels that are increasingly important.
Not surprisingly, larger companies are more likely than smaller ones to sell through book distributors. Roughly 62 percent of the smallest companies represented in the survey (those with annual revenue under $100,000) report that they don’t work with them, and the figure is almost the same (c. 63 percent) for publishers in the next tier (those with annual revenue between $100,000 and $500,000). It is smaller for the midsize companies (those with annual revenues over $500,000 and up to $10 million) but, perhaps surprisingly, not small. More than 44 percent of those companies don’t use book distributors.
Midsize publishers, which account for roughly 6 percent of the respondents to this survey, generate sizable sales without using a distributor, whether or not they have one, and almost 30 percent of these publishers make more than 90 percent of their sales that way.
Like midsize publishers, both the smallest publishers represented in the survey (a group that presumably includes a number of self-publishers) and the next-smallest (a group that may also include self-publishers) generate substantial percentages of their revenue by selling to customers such as consumers, nonbook wholesalers and retailers, and corporations, associations, and other organizations.
This chart shows what happened when we asked, “If you did work with a book distributor, did the distributor handle all sales of your books in all formats and all channels?
Members’ Special Sales Comments to Consider
- The trade sales, handled by our distributor, are a crucial part of our business, particularly for the thousands of books ordered after a new title gets a major review. However, trade sales have been steadily declining overall for a number of years, so we can’t possibly depend on them exclusively. We sell books to banks, realtors, funeral societies, writers’ groups, and others, usually in quantity at a discount. Some college stores prefer to order from us rather than our distributor; ditto some museum stores, Web stores, etc.
- Personal contact is huge. Authors go to conventions, sell from tables, and sell to their friends in social settings, and those total sales are usually at least equal to retail sales via a distributor.
- We are well established in our niche, with an active Web store. We also print and distribute 50,000 catalogs a year. Our first book about grain elevators sold out in a few months. We love the freedom to sell as we choose. We don’t sweat our Amazon rating, but we have a lot of fun celebrating a unique American building form that is so important to the bread we eat.
- I find it is not worth it to go through a regional or national distributor or wholesaler. Too many rules, too many hidden costs. The contracts are all written in the distributor’s favor. So a friend acts as an independent contractor, placing books in bookstores and nontraditional locations like general stores and drugstores, which sell as many books—and often many more books—than traditional bookstores. In three years, we’ve sold 20,000 books.
- When we were looking for a distributor, many would not represent us because we sold poetry as well as fiction, and all of them told us that poetry doesn’t sell. Well, it doesn’t sell through our distributor anyway. But we sell quite a lot of our poetry books in person at both book and craft festivals. And now that we have “poetry posters”—original poetry set on original photography—our festival sales have increased by approximately 35 percent.
- We create nature books for children and sell a large percentage to the natural resource market—national parks, U.S. Forest Service, wildlife refuges, state parks, and the like. It has been a wonderful market for us. We also have significant sales to agencies, schools, and associations. We have never had to worry about returns from any of these markets.
- Doing business with “nontraditional” channels has become so commonplace that we should really find a better descriptor than “nontraditional.” If sales channels were mutual funds, the “traditional” book supply chain might be rated as speculative. To reduce the volatility of the traditional sales, we make sales to Ingram nonreturnable. Having taken that leap of faith, we encourage more publishers to do the same.
- I travel to schools and preschools and read books to children. I sign the books that they buy and return to the school when I get the next book published. Lots of fun!
Where the Sales Are: A Partial List Culled from Publishers’ Reports
- Department of State, Foreign Service Books (a division of the American Foreign Service Association), military institutions, universities, and U.S. embassies; about 100,000 copies sold.
- Train and toy shows; state/regional fairs.
- Doctors, dietitians, national celiac organizations and food companies in the United States and Canada, direct with a volume discount.
- Craft shows, schools, gift stores, and signings at banks, hospitals, homes, etc. We have sold several hundred thousand books.
- Zoos, aquariums, and nature centers; and, because the book is illustrated with photographs, camera stores.
- Hardware stores, nursery gift shops, museums, campgrounds, National Seashore gift stores.
- Turner Classic Movies bookstore.
- Sixty thousand copies to physicians, organizations, corporations, and other nonbookstore entities.
- UPS stores on turning carousels, Safeway book signings, Walgreen book signings, Fred Meyer book signings.
- More than 7,500 copies sold on short discount to a bank as a business gift.
- Veterinarians, through veterinary associations and groups.
- Author visits to schools (the schools buy copies, and then the students want to buy their own copies).
- Military bases, trains, buses; gyms; restaurants, Costco Warehouse stores; emails to purchasers of previous books.
- National Park and Monument Associations and museum gift shops.
- Local gift shops, airports, Ma-and-Pa stores, an art gallery, Costco.
- Direct mail and presence at relevant trade shows, plus author presentations.
- Halfway houses, drug treatment centers, and colleges and schools.
- Fabric stores and consumers directly.
- Local coffee shops and wineries.
- Online and print horse catalogs, art galleries, local bookstores, and tack stores.
- Fairs and conventions that have themes similar to those of our fiction titles; especially successful when the author is present.
- National parks through Eastern National, teachers and parents through nature catalogs, an adventure travel company, zoos and aquariums, schools, teachers, and parents during author visits, teacher conferences, and book fairs.
- Jewish and vegetarian conferences and conventions.
- Retailers that sell items related to our topic area, such as scale models and performance parts; consumers through enthusiast Web sites; aftermarket product manufacturers; and enthusiast clubs.
- Keynote speeches we booked for our author at universities, fundraisers, events at civic organizations, and so on.
- K–12 schools, charter schools, and museum and parks gift stores; and, after a lot of persistence, distributors to National Park Service museums/bookstores.
- Stores that sell musical instruments; at concert venues, recording studios, a classic vinyl records store, a college music course; nationally and internationally from our Website.
- “Back of the room” by the authors themselves or through various author/program Websites.
- Mom and Pop stores; restaurants, gift shops, and similar outlets.
- Speaking and book-signing generated the same number of sales that our national book distributor could get.
- Where my authors are speaking.
- Fairs, conventions, and iBookstore.
- Service clubs, particularly Rotary clubs, as well as libraries, churches, and schools; just 200 books left from a 10,000-copy second edition.
- The Department of Defense, National Guard, and at family conferences. More than 90,000 copies sold of two current titles.
- Plus many more places that pertain to particular books and authors.
Judith Appelbaum, editor of the Independent, is the author of How to Get Happily Published and the managing director of Sensible Solutions, the book marketing company spawned by her book. To reach her, email email@example.com.