What Self-Publishers Need to Know about Virtual Co-op (Genre Categories, Pt II)

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 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). Co-op, 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 talks 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 publishing houses. Thus, self-publishers have a very difficult time building momentum for their books. 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 marketing is left for the cash-strapped 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 each individual 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 optimize Amazon’s genre category system so that your book lands prime marketing real estate for free.

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Missed the first post in this series? Check it out here.

Genre Categories Can Make or Break Your Book (Pt I)

I recently finished reading Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. Even though this book is over a decade old, the advice in it is still spot-on.

In the book’s prologue Rabiner explains the importance of genre classification, and she shares the hard lesson she learned.

Double Shelving

When Rabiner was editorial director of Basic Books, she oversaw the publication of The Physics of Star Trek, a book combining entertainment with high-level physics.

Even before the book was released, it looked liked it was well on its way to best-sellerdom. For one, Barnes & Noble had placed the largest first order for it than any other title in the history of Basic Books.

But then Rabiner hit a big bump in the road:

B&N had decided to shelve The Physics of Star Trek in the science section, on its face a perfectly reasonable place for a title loaded with hard physics. Except that I believed a stronger market would develop among trekkers interested in hard science than among science readers interested in Star Trek.

Rabiner set up a meeting to persuade B&N to move at least half of the copies in the science section to the Star Trek section. She assumed the meeting would be short and sweet—after all, her suggestion would mean more money for B&N—but she discovered that things weren’t as simple as she had assumed.

Over coffee, I raised my complaint. Failure to stock The Physics of Star Trek in the Star Trek section as well as the science section would cost thousands of sales for both of us. Couldn’t they at least shelve the book in both places? To my amazement, the answer was no, they couldn’t. One of the buyers explained the problem.

As each publisher presents its new list to B&N, the titles are divided among the buyers, each buyer responsible for titles that will end up in one particular section of each of the chain’s outlets; for example, the history buyer is responsible for buying, stocking, shelving, and selling all history titles, and the popular culture buyer has similar responsibility for all popular culture titles. . . . But some books don’t slot conveniently into B&N’s system or that of any other bookstore. For example, memoir is a well-established genre among publishers, but no memoir section exists in most bookstores. So depending upon how it is written, one memoir can land in biography, another in popular culture, a third in psychology, a fourth in parenting or even history. [Note: I checked barnesandnoble.com and there is still no memoir section.] Cross-disciplinary titles present another problem. A book entitled The Zen of Computers could find its way into the computer section, squeezed in among thousand-page manuals about using Java Script in designing home pages. Then again, it might end up in New Age or science and technology.

An idea lies behind the system—clear accountability. Each buyer is judged by the performance of titles within his or her own section. Thus, when more than one buyer wants to claim a new release for his or her own, the problem is resolved, I learned that day, by a sort of “arbitration” (their word, not mine). Publishers are allowed no say in the process. Even more important, once that decision is made, the book will be shelved only in the winning buyer’s section . . .

In our case, despite good commercial arguments for double shelving, the book remained in science only. On this point, there was no moving anyone. . . .

I left that lunch more cynical but wiser . . . I understood for the first time why another book I had published just around that time, a controversial memoir written by a strong African-American woman, but critical of her ex-husband, an African-American icon, was doomed to weak sales once the decision was made to shelve it in African-American studies. It belonged in women’s studies.

Rabiner goes on to say that booksellers have since loosened up about double shelving, but the problem hasn’t been completely fixed.

What This Means for You

If you want to traditionally publish, you need to view your book’s genre through the eyes of your potential publisher and your potential sales venues.

It’s not enough to put in your query letter that your book could fit into multiple genres. In fact, saying that could potentially harm your chances if you don’t back it with an explanation as to how the mix would be beneficial. As Rabiner says:

Did a proposed book’s potential shelving ambiguity ever come up at subsequent editorial meetings? Yes. . . . I [asked] more questions of these books than I did of others—in particular, was there a way to focus the title and marketing strategies so as to avoid an expected shelving problem?

What If You Want to Self-Publish?

It may be tempting to think that this problem doesn’t apply to self-publishers, especially since nearly all indie sales come from online rather than brick-and-mortar bookstores, but genre categorization is even more life-and-death for the indie book.

With over half a million books self-published every year, most of them don’t even leave a ripple. The ones that manage to stay afloat capitalize on genre classification. I’ll dig into the nitty-gritty specifics for self-publishers in my next post.

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