THE BLOG

Fire Sale on Bestselling Books? Not Quite.

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the last week, all of the major discounters in the United States have decided that fourth quarter revenue is going to be weak. As a result, they've elected to use books as the sacrificial loss leader to generate sales of everything else. Even if it means a loss to them on the sale of books, they can still rack up sales of plasma screen televisions, fleece jackets, holiday decorations, and giant bags of potato chips (among other winter necessities). "I just saved money; let's save some more!"

Context is important here. There are a number of bestseller lists in this country. These lists compile their sales data from multiple outlets, and there is a particular methodology for each to balance the various channels in which books are sold. A small number of online retailers maintain their own internal rankings, and you can watch their lists change seemingly in real-time. It's all quite impressive and it should be, because it's mostly an extension of the marketing plan for the book. Simply put, most of the time the system is fixed in favor of a handful of selected titles. It's not the publishers doing the fixing, though many are well aware of the system. It's the handful of buyers who control the selections of books at discount outlets for books.

It wasn't always this way. The pressure on publishers to deliver more and more "bestselling" books came out of the introduction of books as "loss leaders" back in the 1980s. At the time, retail executives from the grocery business came over to the book world. The thought was most likely "we do this with toilet paper and soda, let's do it with the latest book." It was a gimmick to get people in the door. First it was just a handful of titles, usually a big new release by an established author. Soon the discounting applied to all of the "bestsellers," a shifting term whose definition was either based on a list compiled by a newspaper or the company's own internal criteria.

Along came online retail. For major online retailers the entire category of books is a loss leader. They want to sell you anything and everything; their lure is cheap books. As long as they have your attention, and your buying habits, and your web movements, they can draw you back with the promise of "cheap" and "free." Nothing is free. In fact, marketing and sales professionals know that while the word "free" has magical powers to draw people's attention, the "free" item or service actually has little or no value. By extension, thanks to discounting, if it's not a bestseller, it must not be a good book.

As an independent bookseller, our definition of a bestseller is a book that continues to sell day in and day out without anything other than word of mouth driving it. At a discounter, a bestseller is the book they have the most of in stock. It is usually marked down upon arrival, placed in a prominent place, and lauded by the staff. The last tactic can be quite comical, when the staff are ordered by the corporate office to promote a book they've neither read nor find particularly entertaining.

Now there is a new list of bestsellers, chosen from "the biggest books of the holiday season." Are they any good? They must be, there they are: bestsellers before they've even arrived. Behold, life Under the Dome*. The real issue is whether or not you're getting any value from "saving money." Why these books? Ask our competitors.

Whether you believe in The Audacity of Hope* or prefer Going Rogue*, whether you are searching for The Lost Symbol*, or simply trying to Have a Little Faith*, the person to ask whether the book is worth reading is not the same person who piled 500 copies of it next to a similar-sized pile of toilet paper. Independent booksellers can tell you the difference. We usually have better service, too. You get what you give.

Our competition may be screaming that the roof is on fire. We don't need no water.

*These titles are or will be bestselling books in 2009. All are available wherever books are sold.