Thursday, March 5, 2009

Definitions for the Perplexed: Sell-In and Sell-Through

Many would-be authors are under the quaint misapprehension that all you have to do to get even the most niche-audience books on bookstore shelves is to publish it.

We know better, don't we. Bookstores have limited space, and that means two important things:
1. They aren't going to keep anything in stock if it isn't selling.
2. They aren't going to even try to stock something they're sure they can't sell. (Yes, it's possible they're wrong about that. Quel dommage.)

"You mean... bookstores refuse to stock a book?" you say. "Isn't that... censorship??"

No, it's business. And bookstores are supposed to know their clientele, and what will make an impression on them and what won't. (Also what will get them so het up they'll stop patronizing the store.)

Sell-in
refers to how well the publisher has been able to get books into stores. Good sell-in means retailers have shown enthusiasm for the book and have ordered it in approximately the quantities we had hoped--or better.

Good sell-in is a promising sign of how the book will do in bookstores (because bookstores are pretty good at knowing what their clientele will like), but it's not a sure sign. In a returnable industry, all publishers have had the experience of getting terrific sell-in only to receive most of the books back in returns, because they did not sell through.

Sell-through refers to how well the stores have been able to get books into the hands of consumers. Sell-through (which is difficult to track, except through unreliable Bookscan) means those books have really sold, and are not coming back. We can go to the bank with that money, instead of waiting around with it in our hands, to see if the bookstore is going to demand it back.

It's a tough, tough business, and it's only tougher these days. Do everyone a favor and go buy a book, ok?

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

EA -- It may make for a boring comments section to say so, but I've been really appreciating your series of definitions. I did notice this post went up at 12:02 am. I hope this reflects a sincere desire on your part to be explaining book-industry lingo at that hour. Because it would be OK if you wanted to get some sleep instead.

Sarah Miller said...

"Do everyone a favor and go buy a book, ok?"

*mounts soapbox*

From an indie, if you have one!

AC said...

Thanks for the definitions! Very good to know.

I just bought two adorable little-kid books for a co-worker's baby shower. I always get at least a couple of books as part of a baby present. Gotta start those kids off right!

Anonymous said...

I bought a book yesterday -- in hardcover, for full price -- does that count?

If only I had known to ask about "sell-in" and "sell-through" before my book got published, I wouldn't have walked through my local B&N searching for my book on the day of its release. It didn't get sell-in at B&N. No one bothered to tell me. Not the editor. Not the agent. Not the very large publishing house that published it in hardcover and told me it was brilliant. It was a sad day for me. After jumping through all those hoops to get published and meet those insane deadlines, there I was, alone, walking up and down the aisles, searching for my book. If hurt could kill a person I would've been dead in that aisle, I swear.

Sadder, was the next day when all my friends and family that had planned to buy my book asked, Where is it? We can't find it. What happened? Wasn't it good enough get stocked?

If I ever get another book published, I will never mention it to anyone other than my mother, lest I have to face that humiliation again.

Why didn't my editor TELL ME? The agent, TELL ME?

Sarah Laurenson said...

"Go buy a book"

*adding to top of to do list*

Got it!

Jan Jones said...

This is such a terrific series of posts. And I bought a book today, ma'am.

Kelly said...

I just bought four books yesterday!

Anonymous said...

What constitutes really good sell-through? Is it just getting into the major chains?

My book seems to be on a lot of international booksellers' sites but it's in English. Do un-translated children's books really do well in, say, Japan or the Czech Republic?

Thanks! These posts have been really helpful.

ae said...

Oui. Mais bien sur. Quel dommage.

I always support my local bookstore(s) with books for teacher/friend gifts...or books I will never depart with...for my own.

BuffySquirrel said...

No indies here. They all went out of business. Now we have two Waterstones (one used to be Ottakars, but the Powers-That-Be decided that allowing HMV to own both Waterstones and Ottakars wouldn't affect competitiveness. Er.)

I remember being in the last indie on its last day, seeing if I could pick up a bargain or two, and hearing one of the booksellers trying to explain to a customer why they couldn't take a book order from him. The customer couldn't seem to take on board the idea that The Shop Was Closing.

So I can buy my books from Waterstones, or one of the many charity shops, or online. So much choice!

christine tripp said...

Anon 10:18, it must have been for sale somewhere no??
The big chains really do have power, even the indy's I would imagine, if large enough.
For the first time in my book series, the publisher sent the finished cover illustration out to a group of booksellers. When the suggestions and critic came back, I had to basically start from scratch on the art, plus they wanted the cover to be blue, instead of the purples that had been used on the other 2 book covers. One seller even did a mockup, ha!
All I can say after that is, they had BETTER "Sell-In":)

Anonymous said...

I have been working as a bookseller in the children's dept. of a major bookstore chain. It's really sad how few books they actually keep in stock. It's the sure sellers of course, the classics and those by big name author/illustrators and MAYBE some award winners. Of course we have LOTS that are published by the company-owned publisher.

It was sad reading the post from the author whose book was not available at the big chain store. We do get new books in regularly, but if they don't sell well in about the first 90 days, they generally go back to the publisher.

The big chains will special order almost any book you want though, so if you (or your family and friends) are looking for a book (your newly published one perhaps --congratulations!), they should order it right then and there (In fact we are trained to immediately offer to order a book for you if we cannot put it right in your hands). If lots of people are looking for a book and the bookstore doesn't have it, it makes the store look bad and you can bet they will begin stocking it. The squeaky wheel gets the oil.

But the part I just don't understand is why a publisher would publish a book but then not arrange to have it stocked anywhere? Is that truly out of the publisher's hands? Is it all up to the bookstore buyers?

lauren said...

I live across the street from a Barnes and Noble, and every week I walk in with a list of the recent YA releases. I compare my list with what I can find on the shelf, and usually wind up mentally weeping a little for all the brand-new books that didn't make it to the B&N YA section, for whatever reason. It's frightening. Meanwhile, I see the same titles in the co-op areas over and over.

I was in the fortunate position of having drinks with a very well-published author last weekend, and she mentioned that at one of her publishers, the B&N sales rep reads contracted books in *manuscript* -- pre-ARC and everything -- and sometimes decides right then and there whether they're going to get picked up by the chain. ???!!!

I'm not agented or contracted yet, but sometimes when I'm working on my YA WIP late at night, I'll have a dark moment: "If you ever get this published, self, don't you know it'll be doomed to non-lead-title 'quiet novel' territory? It'll never get sell-in at the chains unless you wind up getting a friggin' Printz Honor or something. Why don't you just go to bed?"

stacy said...

Usually what you called "sell-in" I've heard referred to as "laydown." Just in case anyone had heard that term and was wondering.

Anonymous said...

Whoops, not sure my correction made it ... I am Anon 4:24 and I meant "sell-in," not "sell-through."

Thanks, EA!

christine tripp said...

I had to basically start from scratch on the art

Just to clear up my obviously poorly constructed post... I didn't have to change ALL the art in the book, I meant to say the COVER art!:)
For instance, I had to take the rubber clown nose, the dog on the cover was wearing, off. Consensuse was, people don't like/are scared of, clowns. (sure, I don't like them much myself but what about all the tons of clowns in the interior art???:)

Anonymous said...

@ stacy: "sell-in" and "laydown" are different. Sell-in is what EA says it is. "Laydown" refers to a big book being available for sale on the same day everywhere. Harry Potter got a laydown, for instance.

Most books just trickle out into the market around the same "pub date" but not on the exact same day. A big book needs to be everywhere - big and little - on the same day so that the sales don't go through just one channel or account.

-A Sales Rep

Anonymous said...

This is the anonymous big chain bookseller again. Is "laydown" the same as "strict on sale"?

cathyjune said...

Thank EA for the great post! And everyone who shared comments. I just illustrated my first book, which is soon to be published, and this helps me to be prepared... tho my head is spinning a little with all the new terms :) Guess it's 'bout time for me to go buy a book too!

Anonymous said...

Yes, "laydown" and "strict on-sale date" are generally used interchangeably.

-Sales Rep

David said...

Oh, oh. I wrote to an agent in a query that one of my books "sold through" its first several thousand copies. Perhaps I should have said "sold out." The books definitely got into stores, and were all sold (except a few on Amazon etc.), but what's the best set of terms here?