Co-op Money: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly
In my previous post I talked about the marketing struggles of The Physics of Star Trek. In short, Barnes & Noble had decided to shelve it in the science section instead of the Star Trek section, which meant a potential huge loss in sales for B&N, the publisher, and the author.
Luckily, the book was able to recover through co-op money. As Susan Rabiner explains in Thinking Like Your Editor, co-op money is given to bookstores from publishers to help sell their book. It can be spent several ways; “for example, to pay for print advertising . . . or to obtain better placement of the book within the bookstore” (such as piled high on the “New Arrivals” table or face out on the “Recommended Reading” shelf).
But not all books have such a happy ending. If the preorders for The Physics of Star Trek had not hinted at best-seller status, its publisher most likely would not have shelled out more co-op money. And even if the publisher had opted for more money without the surety of a best seller, B&N could have disagreed:
Even if lots of co-op money were set aside, such money would still not guarantee front-of-the bookstore display . . . . That space is valuable and limited: Booksellers will not devote any part of it to a title that cannot pay its keep there, no matter how much money a publisher offers.
The Virtual Co-op v. Self-Publishers
At first glance, it might seem like this co-op talk has little to do with self-publishing—after all, self-published books rarely appear in brick-and-mortar bookstores (and if one does, it’s probably selling very well, so bookstores are happy to give it prime real estate). The co-op concept, however, has everything to do with self-publishing because it’s also used by online bookstores and can be enormously detrimental to indie authors if not understood and handled well.
David Gaughran discusses co-op at length in his book Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books. (At the time of this writing, he’s offering his equally excellent first book for free: Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish and Why You Should.)
Gaughran writes about how online retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo sell the most visible spots on their sites to the highest bidder—i.e., to large publishers. This of course makes it extremely difficult for self-publishers to build momentum. These retailers also close off other avenues for indies to find a following. Gaughran explains:
There are no Top Rated lists on Barnes & Noble or Kobo, so you won’t be able to put your book front and center on the strength of reader reviews alone. The big site promos for those two retailers tend to only include books from major publishers. Search functionality is poor on both sites too . . . Categories are a mess. All of this . . . serves to focus sales on the Best Seller lists and the books sold by large publishers, which are either handpicked for promotions or sold into co-op spots.
Well, that’s all pretty depressing. What’s left for a self-publisher?
The Egalitarian Amazon
While Amazon isn’t completely co-op free, it has a far more meritocratic method for marketing books than the backroom deals of the other online booksellers.
Amazon gives self-publishers a much more level playing field; those all-important opportunities for visibility—those digital front tables—are open to anyone.
“The system is largely agnostic,” Gaughran says. “Amazon doesn’t care if the featured title is published by you, me, them or Penguin, and it also doesn’t care if the book is 99c or $14.99.” Simply put, Amazon will show the title most likely to be purchased by that particular reader.
But of course there’s a catch: Too many publishers, both traditional and indie, don’t understand Amazon’s genre categories, and therefore, fail to capitalize on its valuable free co-op.
In my third and final post in this series we’ll discuss how to use Amazon’s genre category system so that your book lands prime marketing real estate for free. In the meantime, sound off in the comments: Does co-op, both in stores and online, sway your decision to publish traditionally or independently?
Missed the first post in this series? Check it out here.