Friday, December 29, 2006

Confessions of a Former Bookseller, Part III

My intentions with this blog is to put forth my thoughts about writing/publishing and my love of drama. My goal is to update it at least weekly in the new year.

There are still some gems of knowledge that I gleaned from working at a bookstore that I feel I should share. So until I exhaust that theme, here's part III in my series of Confessions of a Former Book Seller:

In defense of a good spine

I believe a book's spine is more important than its cover.

I don't want to diminish the power of good cover art, or wonderful hooks and blurbs on back covers that entice readers to crack open books to read the contents. Nope. I'm saying that if the spine is lousy, the cover art won't have a chance to work its magic.

That's because most books are not placed "face out" on book shelves. They are instead placed with their spines out. If your book has a bad spine, it'll never get picked off the shelf.

You not only have to have a compelling title that will intrigue someone who is browsing the book shelves, you also need to make sure they can read the title.

When I worked as a bookseller, I saw a lot of bad examples of how not to create a book. The worst I remember was a book that had a white cover with pink italic script. I remember picking up that book and laughing with other booksellers in the back room about it. We weren't laughing at the book's content, but rather the fact that no one would be able see the name of the book on its spine or its cover.

I mean, what where they thinking when they picked that combination? Did the author want the book to match her favorite dress? And on a field of white? Then there was the italics. That font should only be used on front covers and only in subtitles. It should never be on a spine, because the reader is trying to read titles sideways, please don't make it any harder on them than it already is. The longer the book length, the wider your spine will be and you should try to make the font of the title as big and as bold as possible. You want your book to stand out from all of the competing titles on the shelf and scream, "LOOK AT ME! PICK ME!"

Part of what makes a good spine is contrast in color. You need to have the text stand out from the background color of the cover. A friend of mine has a book that graces my shelf which unfortunatetly does not follow that simple rule. The background color is blue and the text is black. If I didn't know what to look for, I would have a hard time finding it on my shelf. That's because it is almost camouflaged and my eye automatically jumps to spines that are easier to read.

Try your own experiment and look at the books on your shelf. See which ones you can read with ease and from the average distance you would stand away from a shelf at a bookstore. Find out what you think works best and what is difficult to read. Also remember that as people age, their eyesight isn't what it used to be and the larger the font the easier it is to read.

And please, do not go for saddle stitching. Unless your book is for arts and crafts and destined to be sold in risers or spinners in specialty markets, it is the death knell to go for a staple to be your spine. The same goes for spiral binding. Just don't.

If you can't read the book's title when it's on the shelf then it is doomed to gather dust there. No one will pick it off the shelf either to buy it, or a bookseller to return it. Instead, your pride and joy will be destined to remain unloved on the shelf like a forgotten toy.

I would have thought that these concepts about having a spine with a good contrast would be common sense. However, I have brought this subject up at writers conferences and most recently at a meeting of my writers club and you'd have thought that I had just given them a revelation from on high from the reactions I got from people.

So please while obsessing about what images you want to have gracing your cover, I humbly implore you to spend a little time thinking about your spine as well.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Confessions of a Former Bookseller, Part II

If you haven’t read part I, please scroll down and read that entry first.

I was not your average bookseller. No, when I was hired I was given the responsibility of being in charge of customer special orders. The Barnes and Noble chain had decided to try and do everything they could to get any book in print into a customer’s hands.

Our store was one of twelve alpha sites for the program. When our doors opened in November 1994, we were one of the first to see how it would work. I helped develop the manual that was used to train all the other superstores when the program went nationwide.

Essentially when a book wasn’t in our store that a customer wanted, a bookseller would order it for them. Our computerized ordering system would connect at the end of each day to a series of book distributors such as: Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Book People and Pacific Pipeline. Included in the day's orders were replacement copies for the store for those books which were “modeled,” specific requests by managers for hot trends and customer orders.

(Side bar about book which were “modeled.” Those books are backlist titles which have a proven sales record. That could be anything from “Huckleberry Finn” and “What Color is Your Parachute?” to “Calvin and Hobbes.” The home office determined how many copies of a specific title a store should have on hand. For example, we had probably about 10 copies of “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron on our shelf. Whenever we sold a copy, the computer automatically ordered a replacement copy so we would maintain a stock of ten copies of that title.

New books are not modeled. So you can have a new celebrity kiss-and-tell book released with great fanfare and three months later it is returned to the publisher and on the bargain table in six months and never makes it as a coveted backlist title.

In the publishing business there’s a phrase known as “gone today, here tomorrow” referring to books being returned from the bookstores. The goal for authors should be not only great initial sales at time of publication, but long-term interest from the book buying public to make your revenue stream come years after you finished writing your masterpiece.)

How the process worked

I would get a list generated each day of titles that failed in the ordering process. That none of the book distributors were able to fulfill our request. My job was to see if those books were available directly from the publisher.

I took that sheet of paper which sometimes had 80 or so books on it and go up to a terminal with Bowker’s Book in Print and find out who was the publisher for each individual book. Then I’d write down their contact information.

Once I had my list then I’d try to see if there were any publishers who had more than one book that I needed to call about. I mean, why call Little, Brown and Co. three times when you could call them once and ask about three titles?

I learned a lot about publishers in this process. I hear people at writers conferences and at meetings complaining that there are only five or six major publishing houses who make all the decisions about what to publish.

Nonsense. There are a lot more publishers than that.

I worked at that job for a little over two years and I had filled two entire rolodexes with cards and contact information of publishers. Some were behemoths with multiple imprints, and others were “mom and pop” operations. There were also many medium sized publishers including university presses who produced wonderful books. One of my favorite smaller publishers is Ten Speed Press.

The one publisher that I developed an intense dislike for was AMS Press. That was because they were just incredibly and intolerably rude to me. I could never figure that out. Here I was calling them because someone wanted to buy one of their books and they were always be snide and rude.

It was an interesting job because many of my preconceived assumptions simply did not hold up. I had expected that any title from the bigger publishers that weren’t available from the distributors and still in print would not be available from the publisher directly. Not so. I ordered books all the time from Random House, Harper Collins, St. Martin’s Press, Warner Books, etc. It surprised me, but what the heck I got our customers the book they wanted.

The Process of going “Out of Print”

I had been told by my manager to expect that mass market paperbacks if they weren’t available from our distributors were most likely out of print. That’s because her thought was that many titles have a short shelf life. If they don’t sell, they become strip returns and then go “out of print.”

I found her perception to be inadequate to describe the process. An unavailable mass market title from a major publisher would go through the following steps:

1. Out of stock. (It might be pending a reprint or not. That information was not known. Although sometimes they would give a date and that generally meant that there was a pending reprint although the order was always subject to cancellation.)

2. Out of stock – no date. Similar to #1 but given a different status.

3. Out of stock indefinitely.

4. Out of print.

It didn’t matter whether or not the status was due to reason 1-4, the end result was that I could not get them their book. I would make my publisher calls up until 2 pm which was 5 pm Eastern time because most of the major publishers were on the east coast. So it was later in the day I would call to give people bad news calls. The only ray of hope I could leave them was by giving the name of other book stores in town who did “out of print” searches. I pimped those bookstores multiple times on a daily basis in the hopes that our customers would find what they needed.

I found that more than mass market novels that the kind of books that had a shelf life nearing that of cottage cheese were computer manuals. Because technology evolves so quickly that computer programs are almost obsolete by the time they reach the market. Making their companion manuals just as time sensitive. We would get calls from customers who had gotten hand-me-down computers from friends or relatives and were looking for computer manuals to go along with their out-of-date programs. Those people were always out of luck. That cottage cheese had turned sour about a year or two earlier and would never come ‘round again.

Hot titles being out of stock

On the other end of the spectrum were “hot titles” that were out of stock nationwide because the publishers had not printed enough books to meet demand. The distributors had none left and the publishers were trying desperately to get another printing into distribution as quickly as possible.

I remember several hot titles where it would be literally over a month before our backorders got filled. So trying to order them directly from the publisher didn’t work either. And unfortunately some customers would get really snitty when we couldn’t get them their books in those cases. I remember a few of them saying that B. Dalton had copies, why didn’t we? They didn’t want to buy it at B. Dalton because they wanted our discount, but we didn’t have a copy so what good did it do to complain to us? Honestly, we weren’t trying to withhold any titles from people due to a political conspiracy.

Eeeeeegads. Sometimes dealing with the public can be a challenge.

Now, with all the online book dealers who are vendors for Barnes and I pretty certain they have disbanded the publisher order program. Because it was a lot of work and now people can go online themselves try to find titles themselves and purchase used or out of print books online.

More observations to come.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Confessions of a Former Bookseller, Part I

I used to work as a bookseller for Barnes and Noble.

Yes, I did. Go ahead and start throwing rotten tomatoes and telling me how I should have worked for an independent bookstore instead.

Get it out of your system.

I admit that I worked for one of the Eeeevil national chains parodied in the movie You’ve Got Mail as Fox and Sons.

Some of the observations that I made as a bookseller at a major national chain might not hold true if I had worked at a local indy, therefore as budding novelist, I’m glad I worked at B&N. I think some of the observations may also prove helpful to other writers who would like to see their work carried in major chains across the country as well as indies.

I worked at B&N from 1994-1996 prior to the true rise of the internet. By the time I left, was just in its infancy and B&N did not have email access for their stores, nor was there a Barnes and – so some of the information is dated, but I think it will still prove illuminating.

How the stores are structured

I was one of the original store hires and so I was there when the store was still devoid of inventory. We had to start from nothing to over 100,000 books on the shelves categorized and alphabetized in about four weeks time. It seemed like a task worthy of Hercules.

The store was color coded by departments and each department had its own supervisor and crew was assigned to shelve that area.

Orange: Children’s

Green: Bestsellers and bargain books

Pink: Self-help books, (popular psychology, as well as psychology text books), motivational titles, health, games and puzzles, humor, field guides, travel and cook books

Yellow: business titles, legal reference, history, religion, philosophy

Blue: fiction, reference books, foreign language, drama, poetry, anthologies, art books, How-to manuals for car repair, gardening, woodworking, needlepoint

I remember exactly the floor plan of how the store looked when we opened, and they’ve changed things since then a few times over. I don’t know if any of those color designations still hold or if the home office had decided to tinker with what was in pink vs. blue departments.

The important part of the color designation was when the books were delivered. We had several days when entire UPS trucks delivered their contents to us and we would be like the proverbial fire brigade chain setting the boxes of books in the middle of the store. All the boxes came from Ingram, and it was considered to be the Superstore start up kit.

One of the assistant managers would open a box and yell out the various colors and people would then take the box and move it to a pile. Later we would be opening the boxes and separating them for their various appropriate shelves.

After the segregation and categorizing came the alphabetizing. All with the opening date looming.

The night before we opened to the general public we had a fête for the employees and guests. Several people wore tuxedoes, and we had food and wine. It was a glorious night. I was showing my husband around and took him to the receiving room and I saw one of the supervisors doing something that I will never forget.

She was stripping the covers off of paperbacks for the first strip return.

We had not even opened our doors to the public, but we were obligated by the home office to strip the covers off books and destroy the printed content. Because the strip returns were generated on a nation wide computer system and they did not distinguish between existing stores and new ones.

Our store was opening a week before the Thanksgiving holidays and the beginning of the Christmas book buying season, and yet we still had to destroy books that we worked to get in the store and alphabetize. Books that no consumer ever had the opportunity to purchase.

I thought of it as being sacrilegious. That was just my first observation of how corporate mentality is not necessarily predicated on logic or common sense.

There are more similar observations to follow.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Conflict is Drama

That is the mantra I use when I write. It is a quote from Michael Shurtleff. It serves to remind me the reason that people turn to fiction, movies, plays, literature is to live vicariously through others who are bolder, braver, or more desperate than we are. We want to see the turning points in people's lives and not their mundane day-to-day lives.

There are many books on the market about the craft of writing, but the one that I refer to the most was not written with authors in mind. It was written for actors. Michael Shurtleff's Audition: everything an actor needs to know to get the part is a book that I have purchased probably ten times over.

Because I keep recommending it, then lending it, then never getting it returned. Recently, I decided to break that habit and I now tell people to go to our local library borrow a copy, because I know they have many copies. This is so I won't have to buy this book for an eleventh time.

Why do I love it so much? Because I learn new insights with each reading.

Michael Shurtleff knows how drama works. His intended audience is actors and helping them bring words to life, from the page to the stage. Over the years, I realized that what he tells actors what they should look for in a good script is what every writer should be putting in their literary creation whether it be for the stage, screen or book.

His lessons taught me that you should always say "yes" to love. When you wonder if a character is in love with another, say "yes." And then see what dramatic possibilities open up.

Do they want revenge? "Yes."

Is she in love with another character as well? "Yes."

Is she torn between the two lovers? "Yes." Does she feel guilt? "Yes."

Just try it. See what happens. In a myriad of ways, try to say yes to love and to wanting things.

Another aspect of Shurtleff's wisdom is the realization that the relationship on stage of friendship is all about competition. It is not about people who simply enjoy one another's company. Nope, at the heart of all friendships is the need to compete with one another. He uses examples of friends competing over who is the better tennis player, who is the wittiest, who has the better job, sexier looking spouse, etc.

And that is what you should show on the stage, or on the page.
The best example I can think of to demonstrate how friendship is about competition is the movie, "Sideways." Jack and Miles are two friends who have known each other since college and go on a weeklong trip to the Santa Barbara wine country before Jack's wedding.
The movie starts out easy going, but soon, we see that Jack and Miles have tension between them. Jack wants to screw around before getting married, and Miles would rather they play golf and taste wine. They have different expectations, and they have tremendous conflict over these differences.

Then the movie goes into a pretty dark place. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the movie, but suffice it to say that Jack begs Miles for his help. Miles complies, but only because the two of them have a long history together.

It is a relationship based on history, guilt, and manipulation. It is apparent that both Jack and Miles have the goods on one another. Like they know where the bodies are buried, metaphorical or literal. Those are things in the backstory that are never included in the text or on the screen, but they exist. The actors must embody this history in order for the story to work.

That is the heart of their relationship. It is not simply spending time with someone who makes you laugh.

Conflict is drama.

I love Greek Mythology and have loved it since I was a little girl. The stories are larger than life. They are filled with envy, lust, greed, betrayal, murder, matricide, patricide, fraticide, infanticide, infidelities, madness, revenge, tragedy and of course, heroism.

That is the essence and soul of drama. It is not enough to simply be attracted to someone, you must fall instantly and helplessly in love with them. It must be an all encompassing love. One that you will willingly risk your life, your fortune, your reputation, everything. You will experience love, or die trying.

People turn to drama because they want to live vicariously and make choices that would be too risky or painful to take. In Real Life people shy away from confrontations, whereas in Drama you must seek them out.

Literature and Drama requires characters who fight for what they want.

Dream big. Fight hard.

Fight to win.

Conflict is Drama.