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Great Moments in Contemporary Publishing

February 14, 2013

This is just too good to keep to myself.

An independent bookseller I know landed a major bestselling author for a rare in-store signing. He got the word out, took advance phone and internet orders for signed copies, and called his sales rep at the publisher to make sure the books would reach him in plenty of time.

“You’ve ordered 450 copies,” the rep told him. “I’m afraid we can only ship you 200.”

Why, for God’s sake? Hadn’t they printed enough?

“No, it’s policy,” he was told. “Two hundred books is our maximum order. We can’t take the chance of huge returns, or credit problems.”

“But the copies are sold,” the store owner said. “I’ve got prepaid orders for them, and I’ll pay in advance myself, and take them from you on a non-returnable basis. There’s no risk, and there won’t be any returns, and that’s 450 copies of a $30 book at the usual 40% off, which makes it an $8100 cash order. So what’s the problem?”

He got nowhere.

“But the author’s gonna go crazy when she hears this! You think you guys’ll ever get another book from her?”

Nowhere! Rules blah blah blah. Policy blah blah blah. “And be grateful we’re sending you the 200 books.”

Well, an independent bookseller had damn well better be resourceful, and this one certainly was. He got in his car and drove four blocks to Target, where the manager had no problem selling him 300 copies of the book, and gave them to him at a 45% discount, and still made a profit on the sale.

No, I won’t tell you the name of the store, or the author, and all I’ll say about the publisher is that they’re a major house, though one wonders how long they will so remain. I can assure you they’re not my publisher, and for that I give thanks.

Just a sweet little story on a charming aspect of contemporary publishing. Hard to imagine that some writers actually toy with the notion of doing it all themselves. How can they possibly make a go of it without the benefit of top professionals in their corner?


aaaHITMERight. I, OTOH, have some really bright and helpful folks at Mulholland Books, working on my behalf and on behalf of my just-published book, Hit Me. If you’re in the New York area, you can pick up a copy tonight at the Mysterious Bookshop. I’ll be happy to sign it for you, and you won’t have to go to Target for it…

From → Uncategorized

  1. Ugh. I can’t even imagine the level of stupidity on this. Ridiculous. And I *want* to get signed to a major publishing house. Makes me wonder who’s crazier–me or them.

  2. Reminds me a bit of the Donald Westlake book, “The Hook”.

  3. Damn, some books don’t make 450 sales in their lifespan. Knowing that I had 450 DONE sales, I’d have shipped in 900 copies so fast, your head would’ve spun if I was the publisher. But yeah, corporate America. Good to know you keep calling them out and fighting the good fight, sir.

  4. Kevin M. Sullivan permalink

    Obviously, the publisher can’t see the forest for the trees. This kind of ‘I’m not authorized’ to do or to change anything, is widespread, and it makes them look very small.

  5. Mike Batty permalink

    That’s it, Kevin Sullivan, the publisher was saving the trees for the forest!

  6. Nona permalink


  7. I’ve heard similar tales from Kristine Rusch (may be the same one). When they sabotage their own profits due to rules, they have begun to believe they are entitled to exist and turn a profit. Which usually spells a company’s eventual doom. A shame, but it’s as if they would rather perish than compete or change in any way.

    • This just happened a few days ago, so doubt it’s one Kris reported. I suppose this sort of thing will keep happening. And I suppose savvy booksellers will do their shopping at Tar-zhay.

      • Michael caldwell permalink

        If you can make an extra 12.5% profit on the stock, why wouldn’t you do MOST of your future purchases from Target rather than direct from the publishers…

      • Because Target and its fellows carry a limited selection of titles. But I’ve known of writers and agents who, when they need extra copies of an in-print title, find it less expensive overall—and far simpler and faster—to buy the books from Amazon than to order them from the publisher at the author discount. (That’s just The Way Things Work, not an indictment of publishing industry practice…)

      • Dilbert is the operations manual….

        Pretty much explains the world, doesn’t it?

  8. Wonderful. I was once in Houston while on tour for a book, which tour the publishing company had arranged and was paying for. I had something like two local television appearances, three radio shows, and two newspaper interviews scheduled–and there wasn’t a single copy of the book available in the whole damn town. The publisher hadn’t managed to get any there yet. That was a couple of decades ago. Things haven’t changed much in traditional publishing, except for the worse of course. Have a great launch for HIT ME tonight!

  9. Levin Messick permalink

    It is not just publishing. Government rules don’t allow you to can people easily. Thus, much of American business consists of a bunch of suits who were promoted in an attempt to get them out of the way now making stupid rules for everyone else. You want common sense contact the janitor. True story, my father-in-law actually did this with a company that was giving him the same sort of run around forty years ago. He wrote his final complaint and addressed it to the head janitor. The janitor dropped the letter on the president’s desk with a note attached saying it sounds like this man has a valid complaint and maybe you can take care of this. The president took his janitors advice and fixed the problem personally for Dad. Have a great book signing and don’t send Keller on any Carnival cruises

  10. My wife works for a major book distributor, and she says that a factor that may not have been mentioned here is that the indy bookstore might have had credit issues with the publisher. Despite that, if the money was in hand, the publisher should have sent the books.
    No matter what, it’s a self-defeating policy when it’s not a credit issue. Said publisher has what my friend Spider Robinson calls a “recto-cranial inversion”!

    • That seems entirely possible, especially in that it would negate the argument that the bookseller was offering to prepay – at that point, only an offer to pay the outstanding balance PLUS pre-pay for the over-limit order would have changed my mind, had I been the publisher.

      Having said that it seems possible, I will add that it seems vanishingly *unlikely.* And, as you point out, it seems that the policy is more general than this anyway which would indicate Recto-Fossal Ambiguity Syndrome.

    • No credit problem in this instance. Just intransigence on the rep’s part.

  11. Donna Bayar Repsher permalink

    I used to be co-owner of an independent bookstore, and the situation described is not at all unusual. Nor is the publisher stating they’ll send out press releases. It’s all a bunch of baloney, and if you want to keep your customers happy, plan on doing whatever it takes to survive–we always sent out our own publicity, and often had to scramble for books, especially when trying to also have on-hand our guest author’s backlist.

  12. Quick thinking on that bookseller’s part. I hope the problem wasn’t an inflexible publisher’s policy but more of an inflexible sales rep who stuck with the letter of the law regarding sales policies instead of taking a question (and an opportunity) up to his superior.

  13. Are these the same rules that were established when martini lunches were the norm and flight attendants were still called stewardesses? Rules, they say. I think I found a use for the word “arcane.”

  14. “Has the whole world gone CRAZY???!!! Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules???”

    Oh wait…

  15. KC Hill permalink

    Policies and procedures before people and information.

    • Put that in Latin and it’ll show up on the publisher’s coat of arms.

      • Boniface permalink

        Ordinationes et procedendi rationibus ante populus et informationem.

      • That’s easy for you to say, Boniface.

      • If you would like a briefer but less literal translation than Boniface’s, you might try this:

        Leges supra iustitiam.

        That retranslates to English as ‘Laws over justice’ or ‘Rules over rights.’

  16. Reblogged this on Jordan's Croft and commented:
    I’m starting to think that I’ve heard so many ‘Publishing Industry Horror’ stories that I have PTSD. I can’t get my head around this. I really can’t. I’m mean, a bookstore owner wants to buy 500 pre-sold books and is told “NO!” as in HELL NO! Because it’s against company policy. Then the bookstore owner goes to TARGET to get the books he needs.
    It boggles the mind, it really does.
    You have to read this!

  17. Reblogged this on T. W. Dittmer and commented:
    Like Lawrence Block, I just couldn’t keep quiet about this. Don’t know whether to laugh or sneer.

  18. And the big GUYs wonder why writers are moving away from them and doing their own thing…

  19. Big publishers, either they change their ways, or they are on the way of the DoDo bird, and fast…
    maybe, just maybe the academic textbooks may keep a couple on life support.
    And by the way, 70% of the book industry is still on paper, so eBooks are Not the culprit, although they just love to blame them.
    I say to them, it is you and you alone to blame.

    I am a strategic consultant and an author, if you were wondering.

  20. I think there is a story in this….

  21. And this is one of the huge reasons I’ve pretty much put book signings on the back burner…

    • I’m afraid signings have been moving to the World’s Back Burner for a few years, Vincent, but there are plenty of other reasons. They don’t often make economic sense these days. This particular one did. And, I have to say, my own signing the night before last at Mysterious Bookshop was a great success, with a heartening turnout and no end of copies of Hit Me sold. (Of course there was no media escort or hotel room for the publisher to pay for, and I got there and back on the subway.)

  22. Ashley Grayson permalink

    Don’t forget: all the college grads with A levels in marketing go to work for Proctor & Gamble, Kraft, Toyota, and such. Publishers can only find the D students and some Fine Arts grads who have trouble with the upsell concept: “do you want fries with that?”
    Or it could be Publishers noticed that ammunition is totally sold out in America due to demand and every sporting goods store is receiving minimal allotments regardless of buying power. Wal*Mart has no .22 target/plinking ammo at all and they have huge purchasing clout. In Publisher-Land they must be thinking, “lets lower availability to drive up sales!”
    More likely, they hadn’t printed enough copies and chose to lie because when you are all about control, it is better to enforce a dumb policy than admit a shortcoming.

    • Reminds me of a grocery store I went into once to find a certain item. They told me, “We no longer stock that because it always gets bought out, and then customers complain because we don’t have any.”

      If that doesn’t bake your noodle, just think about it for a minute longer.

      • “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

      • Hmmm, well said, and concisely. You must be a writer! ;))

        We seem to be getting into Groucho Marx territory here.

      • I have a store here in SE Wisconsin that behaves that way — if you like the product, they discontinue it. It does boggle the mind.

        Lawrence, I believe Yogi Berra said it first. 😉 (And I’m glad your own book signing went well.)

      • It’s generally attributed to Mr. Berra. But, as he’s also said to have said, “You know, I never said half the things I said.”

      • Yep. 🙂 I’ve seen that.

  23. Reminds me of horror stories a buddy of mine who ran a small, local bookstore (in Wichita, KS) used to tell me!

  24. Makes Target look even better than usual.

  25. Wasn’t there a supervisor who could have overridden that sales clerk at the publisher? Not that I haven’t encountered similar things, on a much smaller scale. But still!

  26. When you hear ‘no’, go higher.

    The sales rep had the power to say ‘no’. He did not have the power to say ‘yes’. Go up the chain until you find someone with the power to say ‘yes’.

    Years ago, I ran a project that contracted with two different divisions of Martin-Marietta. Under contract, we had to provide hardware to MM West by a date certain. MM East was under contract to provide us the hardware. MM East subbed out the work. The sub delivered late, so MM East delivered late, so we delivered late to MM West. MM West filed a million dollar claim against us for late delivery. (I had frequent contact with the director responsible for this. He was so frelling anal and incompetent that it drove me to work around him.) Word got to the MM president, who ordered that the claim be withdrawn. He knew that if MM West persisted with the claim, we would claim against MM East. MM would only be taking money from one pocket to put into another with transaction costs shaving profits. Things settled down, and the work got done.

    I am glad the bookstore owner solved his problem. I would have solved it differently.

  27. John Stephens permalink

    I’ve seen this sort of behavior before. What it usually means is someone recently got punished for doing whatever you just asked them to do, and is in passive-aggressive mode until their butt stops hurting.

  28. In 2004, after trying to find a good history of medicine for medical students, I wrote one myself. It was turned down by academic presses because I was only an MD, not a PhD in history. So I published it myself. I started a little press and did the whole thing including cover art and typesetting (both done by pros). After 4,000 copies were sold over the next two years, I got tired of doing fulfillment and turned it over to the Amazon POD label. It’s now 8 years and last month’s royalty check was $ 550. That’s a little high, probably because of Christmas sales. The usual is about $400 a month. One of the universities that turned it down 8 years ago has since adopted it as a textbook.

  29. I agree that old-styles publishers are bureaucratic idiots. Unfortunately, Amazon seems to being going the same route lately. Any authors try ordering a large stack of your own book from Amazon these days? Can’t do it. Amazon has decided that they are in the ranking business instead of the book business and will block your order because they assume you’re trying to drive your book’s rank up.

    • Aggravating, but not incomprehensible. Their assumption is, alas, often correct.

      • Even if it were correct, the policy is still illogical. If someone wants to buy 100 books, and you make a profit on each book, why not just sell the books and simply not adjust the book rank.
        It’s the same mentality of prioritizing the policy and sacrificing the customer.

        On the bright side, it opens up the market to smaller businesses who remember that they are in the business of selling books, and that the more books they sell, the more money they make.

  30. The reality is that today the traditional publishers are not actually providing any value in the industry. It used to be that they worked their slushpile and developed new authors, now they don’t even bother to do that.

    Traditional publishing is in a death spiral currently with CFIT scheduled within the next few years.

  31. This is the kind of thing that a good literary agent solves with a 15 second phone call. Bookseller tells author, author tells agent, agent calls editor, books get shipped. If you happen to be dealing with an editor who’s new, or relatively junior, agent calls editor-in-chief or publisher, books get shipped. Like every big corporation, publishers have doofuses working for them; finding a way around them is a minor annoyance at best.

  32. Hedge permalink

    This story supports my assertion that there is more truth in the Dilbert comic everyday than in any of the news contained in the paper.

  33. Wow! This really makes you wonder how serious these guys are about selling books for their authors. That’s why the big ones are having so much trouble these days!

    • I have been a bookseller for nearly 25 years. And for 25 years I have wondered why the major houses are in business because they certainly aren’t interested in selling books. One of my book reps suggested that the major houses were in business to do book launch parties. My belief is that the major houses are in business to do lunch.

  34. This is what happens when a company is captured by it’s own bureaucracies (think Detroit’s big three). They become so enamoured of their own “rules” and “policies” that they forget that they’re supposed to serve their customers…

  35. Good lord, now I know why so many authors are going indy by setting up as their own publishers with an account at LSI and hiring the neccessary talent for editing, layout, cover design and publicity. This kind of ridiculousness is cut to a minimim!

  36. Quite frankly, I’m surprised all you very bright and insightful folks missed it: it’s the new publishing house model—their new strategy.

    I’d guess this whole thing went down something like this:

    The decision makers of B.I.G. Publishing has the sales rep speaking to the indie bookstore owner on the speaker phone in the board room. They’re all smiling as they coach the sales rep.

    VP of Marketing is whispering to the Chairman, “This is the perfect way to implement our new marketing strategy, BJ”

    “Sell only to Target, Walmart, and what’s that other place, JB?”

    “Amazon, BJ.”

    “Isn’t that a tribe of women, JB?”

    “No BJ, it’s the largest online bookstore—the largest retailer in the world.”

    “Oh, yeah. But what about those brick and mortar stores, JB—you know, like the one that sells that Nookie.”

    “That’s Nook, BJ—Barnes and Noble. We’ll have to see how that goes. They’re in trouble, splitting from Nook and going private trying to keep their doors open. Looks like they’re heading the way of Borders.”

    “Borders, JB? Oh, yeah, those guys have it together. Love that little Hobo eReader they put out. We’re still going to sell to them right?”

    “No, BJ. They went bankrupt over a year and a half ago. If we play our cards right, we’ll only have to ship to WAT—the new, big-three booksellers.”


    “No, BJ, WAT: Walmart, Amazon and Target. They seem to be where readers want to go, nowadays. Readers don’t want to make a separate side trip to buy a book at some looser indie bookstore. Hell, it’s obvious they don’t even want to go to a big chain bookstore. They want to buy books where they shop for groceries and clothes—or online. Piss on all the others, BJ. WAT is the answer to keeping us afloat.”

    BJ grins. “Think of the savings in shipping costs!”

    “Wholesalers pay that, BJ. But we’ll save in logistics and be able to lay off ninety percent of our staff.”

    The sales rep frowns up from the speakerphone and gets a shoulder shrug from VP JB.

  37. Pettifogger permalink

    The adherence to rules beyond the point of common sense is symptomatic of large bureaucracies. It happens both in business and in government. The difference is that, as noted in the article itself and in other comments, the adverse consequences of such adherence in business result in loss of market share and perhaps bankruptcy. In government, there is no adverse consequence.

  38. LB– really nuts– *shaking my head–

  39. Reblogged this on David VanDyke's Author Blog and commented:
    A painfully resonant story or stupidity.

  40. the problem with corporate america is that anyone below CEO isn’t allowed to think anymore. The modern communications network has allowed decision making to be so centralized that many corporations think they only need one thinker and every one else just follows orders. very sad

  41. As an Independent bookseller, I’ve had no problem getting 400+ hardcovers for signing events. It’s a matter of establishing the right type of accounts. FWIW, you can’t switch from returnable to non-returnable for just one title. I suspect the rep said, “Sure, we can switch your account. But then you won’t be able to return any books you bought previously.” The publisher doesn’t want to take the time, effort and cost to track that a bookseller bought 100 returnable books at one discount and 200 non-returnable books of the same title at a different discount and therefore they can only accept the return of 100 books at that lower discount…and oh, by the way, set a precedence of doing this for thousands of titles for hundreds of booksellers. That said, this in no way negates the stupidity of not selling 450 copies to a bookseller if he can prove they’re presold. Trouble is–for every legimitate claim like his, I suspect there are 100 similar claims that result in big returns because oops, they weren’t actually presold but promised or oops, the turn out at the signing didn’t match the RSVPs, etc.

  42. Reblogged this on Jaye Em Edgecliff and commented:
    The worst part: this isn’t even a remotely unique story. One can find people giving first hand accounts of their own publishers, or the publishers of friends, etc. pulling such ridiculous nonsense.

  43. David permalink

    “No, I won’t tell you the name of the store, or the author, and all I’ll say about the publisher is that they’re a major house…” And why not? Do you think that this kind of conduct should be protected from public criticism and public pressure to reform?

    One possibility is that the guy running the publishing company would go through the roof if he knew that a rep had refused a GUARANTEED order in excess of the “quota.” Unthinking adherence to a codified routine is the mark of a bureaucrat, not an entrepreneur.

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