How Books Are Sold

Publishing has always been my greatest pleasure. Whether it is producing a free pamphlet or a full-on book, publishing is for me what keeps graphic design so endlessly engaging. Design is, above all, a tool for getting words into print, giving text and ideas a physical shape that speaks to readers. Right? If only it were as simple as that. Once you have designed, written or published a book, how does it get into the hands of readers? Retail environments are the last step between your book and your reader, and it takes more than great design and great content to get your book seen.

The first chain bookstores, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, appeared in the 1970s. Located in malls, they drove many neighborhood, independent shops out of business. Barnes & Noble (B&N) and Borders became dominant forces in the 1990s, while the future of book selling lies with the big-box outlets: Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, and so on—these mass sellers already account for 27 percent of book sales for Random House.

Does it matter that independent bookstores are disappearing? If people would rather shop in the big chains or the big boxes, why be sentimental about neighborhood stores? Historically, independent bookstores have been places where titles get discovered that are not actively promoted through heavy marketing campaigns. Angela’s Ashes and Cold Mountain, for example, became huge bestsellers because independent bookstores built their success through local sales and word-of-mouth. Authors discovered this way include Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amy Tan and Cormac McCarthy.

As book sales become more centralized, marketing resources are concentrated on those few books at the top of the list. It becomes harder for “new discoveries” to happen. You may have thought the books on the front tables at B&N were hand-selected by a local book-loving manager, or that the titles on view are “bestsellers” or the books being talked about in the press. In actuality, the publisher has paid the store for this placement in a deal known as “co-operative advertising” or cost sharing between the retailer and supplier. Those books on the table often do end up being bestsellers, in part because of this positioning in the store. A book is far more likely to be seen by browsing customers on a table than on a shelf, especially given the vast size of a store such as B&N, and customers instinctively ascribe a value to the books placed there.

How does this affect us as readers and writers? The co-op system is widening the divide between top-of-list books and those at the middle and bottom. If a publisher has invested a large advance to the author of a particular book, they will want to insure the title’s success by investing in costly co-op deals as well. A low-investment, low-risk book is unlikely to get this kind of attention, and thus lingers on the shelves. If it’s a special interest title, such as travel, parenting or graphic novels, readers will seek it out, but a general interest book, such as a new novel or a work of narrative nonfiction, is harder to find.

Independent bookstores don’t sell in high enough volumes to qualify for significant co-op funds. Their tables and windows reflect the “discoveries” of the staff and an awareness of current book buzz and word of mouth. The displays at St. Marks Bookshop in New York City are hand-curated by the store’s managers and owners. Included are bestsellers alongside titles you won’t see displayed at B&N, such as Offensive Films and The R. Crumb Handbook.

Price as well as convenience drives consumers to B&N. Many shoppers won’t pay full price at an independent store when they can get a discount of 20 percent or more at B&N—and buy a muffin and use the toilet while they’re at it. Who pays for this? The publisher does, by providing books at a lower cost (but larger volume). Often, this “deep discount” is taken out of the author’s royalty, which is calculated at the net (discounted) price rather than the list price of the book. has been good for publishing diversity, and it also happens to be a great place to buy design books. B&N has a poor selection of books in the design field—just a narrow shelf area (and usually no tables at all). In contrast, Amazon offers thousands of design titles and keeps the books available for a long time. According to Steven Heller, the world’s most prolific design author, the accessibility of design titles online is basically a good thing, but it has a deleterious effect as well: “Since Amazon and B&N exist online, buyers for the chains feel that people who want design books will migrate to these sites, so the stores do not have to buy a lot of stock.”

Meanwhile, specialty shops such as Nijhof + Lee in Amsterdam offer graphic design books in both their physical store and on their website that are hard to find anywhere else in the world. Shop owner Warren Lee explains, “We do not even attempt to compete with sites like Amazon as far as price is concerned, but we can compete on the level of specialized knowledge, language, flexibility and availability of limited-edition publications.” Dedicated design mavens will continue to seek out unusual titles at places like this, and may even be glad to know that Nicolete Gray’s recently republished treatise on Renaissance lettering is not yet available at Wal-mart.

Despite concerns about the potential effect of mass retailing on what gets published, books are certainly not disappearing. According to the NEA’s 2004 report “Reading at Risk,” the book industry in the year 2000 published 122,00 new titles and sold a total of 2.5 billion books, a number that had tripled over the previous 25 years. Some people think this is too many books. Mark Lamster, an editor at Princeton Architectural Press, says, “There’s a philosophical issue that transcends this whole story, and that is the vast amount of material our commercial culture actually produces every year. Obviously, there’s tons and tons of crap. But there’s also a tremendous amount of good stuff, or interesting stuff, being pumped out into the system. From a physical standpoint, this means the shelf life of any project is just tiny, because we need to make room (at B&N, physical room) in our lives for the next thing to come along.”

In the meantime, reader-driven forums like this one pose a different challenge to the makers of books. With digital threads proliferating far faster than the publishers’ lists, it remains to be seen what long-term impact the blogosphere will have on the culture of the printed page.

How Books are Sold.” Essay by Ellen Lupton, posted on AIGA Voice, April 4, 2006.