A corollary to the sentiment I attempted to debunk yesterday (i.e. that publishers just go ahead and decide which books become phenomenons) is that the main way publishers decide on the eventual popularity of certain books is by choosing which ones get front-of-the-store display. They therefore hold all the cards when it comes to determining which books get that crucial boost and which books don’t.
This is borne out of a slight misunderstanding of the way that process works.
Background: Co-op is a catchall term for, among other things, that magical (not really) process by which books non-magically appear at the front of the store. That space is nicknamed “real estate” for a reason. In the simplest of explanations: publishers pay for it.
Only it’s not really that simple.
The myth I want to dispel in this post is that there is a publishing employee sitting on a fancy chair high up in a Manhattan skyscraper giving the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” to co-op and thus deciding the fate and popularity of every book they come across. In reality it is a complex process with decisions made by many different people, and crucially: bookstores have a say too.
Agents are typically a few steps removed from the co-op process, but luckily there are some blog posts out there on the Internet that explain it far better than I could.
For an overview of co-op, you couldn’t really do better than Eric at Pimp My Novel, a sales assistant at a major publisher, who has a series of posts giving a birds-eye view of this process. He notes that while many of the spaces are reserved for your big name authors and existing bestsellers, there is sometimes space for new authors as well.
Eric also links to a fantastic overview by Andrew Wheeler, a marketing manager for Wiley, who explains the interplay between publishers and booksellers:
Eventually, the sales rep will call on the buyer, and, among other things, map out what co-op nominations that publisher wants to make for the period in question. The buyer will generally have to wait until all of the nominations are in from all appropriate publishers before being sure everything is set — it’s entirely possible to have thirty nominations for a table that will hold twenty books. (And the chain may decide to refuse other nominations for other reasons, as well — the chain always has the final decision, though the publisher with a sure-to-be-in-heavy-demand title has a lot of leverage.)
In other words, co-op is a business negotiation like many others: two parties are each trying to maximize their benefits from the deal, and their interests are parallel but not necessarily identical. (The publisher would love to get a dedicated display space; the chain wants to have the biggest and best books no matter who publishes them. Both want to sell a lot of books, though the chain is generally agnostic as to which particular books.)
The key here is that publishers make co-op nominations. It’s up to booksellers to decide which promos to accept, and they do that based on their best guesses as well.
Now, this post is not intended to minimize the importance of marketing budgets and making books available for co-op and promotions and all of those things that go into making a book a success. All those elements are extremely important, and the fact that so many bookstores are closing and taking co-op space with them is a huge blow to publishers.
But this is a complex process. There are lots and lots and lots of people involved and they all want to sell the most number of books possible. If you don’t personally like the books at the front of a bookstore there isn’t a “publisher” to blame, but rather approximately 7,276 people (I counted) who are making their best guesses about how best to maximize their budgets (just kidding about the counting).
What can you do if, like everyone, you’re an author and you want co-op? Take it away, Andrew!
What you can do here is what you need to do in general — write the best book you can, one with a real and sizable audience, get it into the hands of an editor (and maybe an agent, if you’re in an end of publishing where that helps or is necessary) who is really enthusiastic about it, and follow their lead about what you can do to help them promote and publicize it.
Co-op is not the be-all-end-all of a book’s fate. As always: it’s way more complicated than that.
Photo by advencap
Dr. Nick says
Who has the ultimate say (after nominations)…publisher or seller (B&N for example) on which books actually make the front shelf?
Nathan Bransford says
Booksellers choose from the titles publishers have nominated.
Dr. Nick says
Thanks Nathan…Just realized that you already said that in your post.
T. Anne says
I buy most of my books from the internet. Does Amazon do something similar as far as advertising is concerned?
"it's way more complicated than that"
One of the things that I think helps make a 'best seller' is distribution. Who decides what books are sent to pharmacies, grocery stores, hospitals? I'm guessing it's the publisher, but maybe I'm wrong?
It's harder to generate word of mouth if the book can only be found on line and in major bookstores. I live in a town with only one major bookseller, and it’s really not that small of a town.
So yes, some books gain fame because their great, but others (not saying their not great) are everywhere. There are many more chances for readers to pick these ones up.
Chuck H. says
If you don't mind, Mr. Bransford, I'm not gonna worry about any of that until I actually have a snowball's chance in hell of getting something published. I do find most of your posts informative and/or entertaining, though.
I've bought many books–totally unknown to me–because they were on the center table and looked interesting. Now that my local bookstore is closing (in two days), I wonder how I will be introduced to these new authors. I bought THE HERETIC'S DAUGHTER this way last summer (debut author)–never heard of it, never read a review, but it was highlighted on the center table and it looked interesting so I bought it (and liked it). I really don't think I'm an exception–I notice many people like me at bookstores–just circling the table looking for a good book to read.
Nathan Bransford says
Eric actually talked about that yesterday.
Ellen Etc says
As an indie bookseller, I can attest that while co-op money is influential for specific promotions, and helps pay for flyers and bookmarks, the managers in our various stores have final say about what gets placed where. We display the books that each location's customers are buying.
or you can try my smaller 'store by store' approach. i have an author friend and whenever i'm in my local waterstones i stick her books in a prominent place. every little helps. and i don't dislodge any existing authors so don't shout at me
Kathryn Packer Roberts says
How do book signings help? I noticed once that several books signed by the author appeared in a prominant place at my local bookstore. Were these left over from a book signing perhaps? (Is this a dubm question? Sorry, new to the game)
Mark Terry says
I think co-op is great, but there are some potential drawbacks. With my first book with my last publisher, The Devil's Pitchfork, they paid some co-op to get it onto the front tables at Borders for a week or so. We saw some nice sales as a result, but the co-op was only for a week or so. Distribution was otherwise a bit spotty, so despite the number of other things my publisher did and I did, sales for a "first novel" were a little disappointing, more for my publisher than me, since they didn't feel they were getting their money's worth from the co-op and other promotion.
Well, they seem to have overcome their disappointment for the second novel, The Serpent's Kiss, by not doing co-op, not doing AuthorBuzz, and only sending out 3 advance reading copies, resulting, not surprisingly, in very few sales, following the trend established by the first book. Somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I had apparently become pasta you fling at the wall to see if it's done.
I have managed to find a publisher for the third and fourth book in the series (The Fallen comes out officially next week), and there's no co-op at all, but they've done a tremendous amount to get review mention, which has been excellent to-date.
The point here is that if co-op isn't effective–and it's enormously expensive–for whatever reason, it's not just one nail in your book's coffin, but a whole bucketload. It's not a panacea and there's probably some real timing involved in what makes it most effective, both in terms of whether there's name recognition, a flashy cover, sales already on the rise, length of time co-op goes into effect, and other factors like the phases of the moon and the editor's Cialis and Prozac running out.
Josin L. McQuein says
There's something about the choice of "agnostic" to describe how the chains feel about the choosing that highlights the process. All that emphasis placed on it from writers and publishers, and yet the chains have no real loyalty to anyone. (Which is better for them.)
Not sure why, but now I have an image of the local manager taping a bunch of books to a dart board and tossing at them.
What's the median advance on a book that receives a nomination versus a book that does not? I'm trying to see how the numbers play out; I struggle to think this is all gut work.
Nathan Bransford says
I'm not privy to that information enough to have a good guess, but Eric might have more info.
Icy @ Individual Chic says
If an Indie bookseller knows the author (perhaps they've introduced themselves) does that make it more likely that their book might get to take advantage of co-op?
Jenn Kelly says
So does this mean they'll notice when I take my books off the shelf and put them at the front of the store, squished in with the big names?
This is really good information, thank you (!), but it's awfully complicated.
You know, it's much more simple just to blame the publisher for everything, and I'm not sure I want to let go of that stance.
On the other hand, it's just a tiny step from that to blaming both the publisher and the bookstore. I think I could live with that.
Informative post, Nathan.
B&N and Borders started losing my book buying business when they installed the coffee shops.
I troll the store, grab five or six books, order my coffee and skim.
In the past I might have bought all those books, but now I sit down with my nosh and take a closer look at my picks. Four or five go back on the shelves after I realize they aren't worth the $20+ price tag or I can wait and get them at the library.
I do the same thing on Kindle store with the sampling feature. If the book doesn't hook me with the sample I won't buy it. No more impulse purchases for me.
Wow, very enlightening, thanks Nathan.
But, man. There's so much to this publishing lark. Just trying to write a killer story is hard enough.
david elzey says
but taken by the numbers, when you say a bookstore chooses which books to co-op, with a company like barnes & noble thats a decision typically being made for over 800 stores. unless there are regional reasons *not* to co-op the book nationwide, each of those co-op titles is going to ship a minimum of ten copies per placement, plus at least two copies on the shelf.
measure that nearly 10,000 titles shipped against what a store would typically get of a non-co-op title – two to four copies max, and not at all locations – and there is great visual disparity that a shopper reads as a sign of quality. seeing a stack of ten copies on a table of a new book versus two copies buried on the shelves makes it look to a shopper like the co-op title is better. it's perception, but we know that perceptions sell.
so while the actual mechanics of choosing which co-op books to feature doesn't necessarily mean that publishers are marketing for success, it's still a fact that the consumer makes decisions based on these superficial marketing methods.
I always like to peruse the "Employee Picks" table (or shelf or whatever). Especially if the employee looks cool. And then I'll think that if I read a book they like and also like it then we can be best friends! Apparently I need more friends.
Elaine AM Smith says
Speaking of co-op and real estate and tables, I miss Borders UK. I drove past my empty store today, still empty. Don't get me wrong there are other book shops but that is what they are – other book shops 🙁
My solitary boycott of Amazon doesn't seem to be very effective.
ryan field says
I wonder if any ambitious authors who didn't get nominated ever slip a few copies of their books on the front displays by accident.
How complicated! I do not live in the USA, Canada or another very affluent nation. In my country the situation for authors is really perilous because about the only books that are included in the average family budget are school texts. We do have great celebrated authors but most of them publish in the USA. (Octavio Paz, Laura Esquivel, Carlos Fuentes and Elena Poniatowska) I don't know how the regional publishers stay in business because the masses certainly can't afford to buy many books. Meanwhile, back in the USA… while the situation is not ideal for book sellers,buyers, writers, agents,publishers… at least you have a still thriving industry… Keeping a little perspective always helps…
Great point, so if the initial print run is not big enough, then there is no way the first printing will be co-oped.
So the bigger the advance, the bigger the initial print run, the more likely a book will be nominated? I'm just trying to do napkin math on this.
So the 1.5 million print run of Stephanie Meyer's new book most likely will be co-oped. I'm just guessing.
Ishta Mercurio says
Wow. And here I had thought that it was the publisher alone who made these decisions.
I live in a city with only one independent bookstore that I am aware of, and it serves a niche market that I am not a part of, so I'm left with the big-chain branch. However, I go there often, they know me there, and I have been asked a couple of times now when I'm going to finish my book so they can start selling it. I've been told by the staff there that they really try to promote local authors and I have seen local authors' books occupying one of the spaces on a table or an end, so maybe there is some way for branches to make some independent decisions regarding placement?
I wonder if anyone here knows the story of how The Lightning Thief got big? According to the friendly staff at my local bookstore, it started out with a very small initial print run, but then a kid read it and convinced his friends to read it, and then the school read it, and it grew from there. The series is co-opted in my bookstore now, so starting small and eventually getting co-opted is possible.
Matthew Rush says
Nathan, first off I love the image of the thumbs up thumbs down guy. I don't LOL much but it did make me smile.
My only question is how much does co-op change within a single chain from city to city or region to region?
Ellen Etc says
Nathan, in the bookstore biz we use "co-op" to mean the money that publishers give us to support in-store advertising of selected books. Co-op helps pay for our print newsletters, bookmarks, signs, and other promotions. It isn't the placement itself, because books for which we never get a dime of co-op money often end up in that prime, front-of-store (or countertop display) real estate.
CS: No wonder booksellers can't find books where the inventory system lists them. Helpful customers such as yourself think that a) you're doing the author a favor; and b) the bookstore staff doesn't notice when a book is moved. (Generally we blame the author's mother for that, however, and titles that "travel" a lot this way get made fun of in our staff room.)
Kathryn Packer Roberts: Yes, in our store we place signed copies in a prominent place after the book signing. The "signed" sticker makes the book look important, plus we appreciate the author's time in doing the reading.
Icy: Knowing the store staff doesn't help with co-op. Personally knowing them, such as being a recognized customer or someone they know from the community, does encourage the bookseller to hand-sell (i.e., talk up) your book to potential customers. But if any friendly person with a RETURNABLE book from a distributor we use (Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Partners West) introduces themself to me and tells me briefly about their book, I'll order a couple of copies for our stock, just to give the book a chance.
Ian: Yes, after publication you need to take off your sensitive writer hat and put on your determined publisher hat. (I'm sorry!)
Nathan Bransford says
Thanks for the addition, Ellen, displays go into that as well. I added a "among other things" because while the post was focused on front store placement, yes, there's more to co-op than that.
Secret Love says
Is there any value in posting'teasers' on the web?
I have a website (www.secretlovechild.com) and I have thought about putting short extracts, beginnings of novels, etc., to gauge public reaction.
Would this have any value in marketing and/or finding the ever-elusive agent ?
Anna Bowles says
I didn't know the word 'co-op', we've always just called them promotions in the (UK) publishers I work for.
I'm in kids' mass market and whether Waterstones will want a book for a particular front-of-store promo is quite often a big influencing factor in deciding whether to publish or not. Sometimes a book is even commissioned at short notice on the grounds that it will probably go into said slot.
Kate Evangelista says
I read the Pimp My Novel post as well yesterday and it was really interesting. I mean, I will never step into a bookstore and ogle the display the same way again.
I found your blog by accident but I found this article so interesting. I am not a writer except for two blogs but I will from now on be reading this one.
Thanks for sharing, Nathan 🙂
Advance doesn't always factor in. My advance was ridiculously small, but my cover was nice and I got some nice blurbs from big names.
We had a *really* large retail buy-in and my print run was enormous, and so my publisher ended up getting me a ton of co-op. It was very surprising to me, because I'd expected nothing at all (due to my small advance). So there's a bit of hope for you all!
Fantastic post, Nathan. The only (small) caveat/addition I can think of is that occasionally, a chain will decline a co-op nomination and get such a powerful push back from the publisher that they will change their minds. It's relatively rare, but it does happen.
Generally speaking, though, yes: the chain has the final say as to what goes where in their stores.
The kind of distribution that you're talking about is called "mass merch" and there is an entire sales force at each publisher or publishing coop devoted to selling books into jobbers and wholesalers, who in turn stock the airports, drugstores, hospitals, pharmacies. There are only a few big wholesalers left in the country who do this now, and yes, coop is also involved, which is why you tend to see the same fifteen or so mass market paperbacks in every airport kiosk across the country. Ultimately the process is the same.
And there is another in-house sales team that works to get books into places like Walmart, Sams, Costco, BJs, etc. Same principle and yes, they also use coop.
Does that help?