This morning, I was expecting 492 copies of Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol to arrive with our UPS order. I greeted the driver at the door with a big smile and eagerly helped catch the boxes. My grin disappeared when only one measly box of the Lost Symbol showed up.
Was it a 492-book carton? Was Dan Brown’s new opus just a slim, stapled pamphlet retailing for $28.95? No. The box contained a single 12-copy floor display. We were missing 480 copies of our order.
I did what any normal book buyer would do in this day and age. I tweeted about the problem. I figured it was the fastest way that I could reach as many Random House people as possible. I also called my rep in a panic. We are not expecting Dan Brown to save our year or even our month, but we sure don’t want to look silly by running out of the most hyped book of the year an hour after its release.
The books arrived a couple of hours later (it only felt like a month as I could hear every one of my racing heartbeats vibrating through my body during those long minutes) on three big pallets that also contained the missing 400 copies of Jon Krakauer’s new book Where Men Win Glory.
The much ballyhooed Fall season is here. It officially starts tomorrow with the release of these two monster titles. It’s a season packed with big, exciting, wonderful books that is supposed to save publishing and by extension bookselling.
Perhaps, if every season were filled with great books rather than an endless supply of schlock, unsupported midlist titles and pathetic trend followers, the industry wouldn’t be so far in the hole that it would need saving.
After writing a blog post about Random House’s bounty of remarkable Fall books a few months ago, it seems that I have become one of the people in the industry that the media likes to contact whenever they need some prognostication work. I’m not Nostradamus, but I’m happy to play him on the phone which is what I did when the Christian Science Monitor and Bookselling This Week called recently.
I don’t think it’s possible for one, two or even 10 great books to change the landscape in publishing and bookselling, even in the short term. The issues plaguing bookselling (fewer people reading, the devaluation of books by making them loss leaders and books competing against exciting new technological gadgets and games) are ingrained in our culture, our economy and our educational system. These are systematic problems that aren’t going to go away.
If we sold every copy of the Dan Brown and Jon Krakauer books in the month of September and we’re able to retain all of last year’s September business, the store wouldn’t even be up 10% for the month. Not exactly a seismic jolt. We certainly wouldn’t complain, but it’s just one month in an otherwise dismal year. It’s more likely that we won’t sell out of the Lost Symbol and Where Men Win Glory, and even more likely that we won’t be able to match our September 2008 business.
No, we are going to have to win this battle (and I believe it is a battle for the intellectual soul of this culture) one book, one customer at a time over a period of years. There aren’t any easy answers, or magic solutions. There won’t be any sighs of relief or rejoicing for a long time.
Our opportunity with the Fall books is that we can win over a few people as more permanent customers when they buy one of these blockbusters. Of course, that is if they aren’t grousing about the fact that we are selling Dan Brown at a $29.95, instead of $16.00 like the giant warehouse stores.
Heck, they might not even buy the blockbusters at our store. Let’s face it, you can’t buy a 32-pack of toilet paper, a gallon of ketchup or a 10-pound block of cheese while you’re here. At least we have gourmet chocolate and lots of copies of the books.