This past weekend, some neighbors of mine hosted a garage sale. My wife and I are fans of these things; seeing all the junk that people have in their houses makes us feel less bad about all the junk we have. And they are a GREAT place to find old, hard-to-find hardcovers. My first edition Mary Higgins Clark, Where Are the Children? was acquired for a quarter at a garage sale, or maybe even a dime.
It turns out that sales were much brisker on the second day of the sale, and my neighbor explained why. Her explanation, condensed: "On Saturday we kept seeing people drive past, slow down, and keep on driving. So on Sunday we changed the way we set up the tables. We faced the tables towards the street, and we put bright, shiny, red, interesting things in front. As that stuff got sold, we kept bringing the more interesting, more likely things to sell to the front table, facing the street." Long story short: They made the bulk of their sales on Sunday after learning the lesson of merchandising, of displaying their wares in a savvy way.
I've been thinking about how we can apply these merchandising lessons to our industry. As most of you probably know, we publishers pay for premium, eye-level space at Barnes & Noble and others. Sadly, this isn't working very well - many of us can't afford to do that, mostly because the return on investment is so low (or even negative). Ditto for those mass-market paperbacks you see at the drugstore counter; the profit margins are razor thin.
I think the issue is that as an industry we focus too much on trying to get the attention of readers. Most readers feel like a kid in a candy store when they go to a bookstore, and I think a lot of them go in to a B&N knowing what they want. But if you think about the really blockbuster books of recent memory - Da Vinci Code, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - I think it's pretty clear that these books became the phenomena they were because they pulled in both casual readers and non-readers.
What we really have to do, I think, is find ways to get books into other outlets, where they won't be competing with 12 million other books for attention. For example, how about some new books in Macy's windows, showcased alongside the latest fashion? And in windows of local boutiques, amidst the millinery and lingerie? How about in patio stores, in a section called "Summer Reading," with a book displayed on each table-and-chairs set?
We've got to do more with the Hollywood and celebrity connection, too. Yes, I hate myself for saying that, but if everyone who picked up a Star or National Enquirer or People magazine started seeing celebs reading a book, that would increase sales massively. Of course, none of us could afford to have Lady Gaga displaying one of our books prominently in her show, but wouldn't it be nice if she'd do it as a favor to us?
Walmart does a pretty nice job of merchandising the few books it carries (though the prices are surprisingly high; one can usually get better deals on Amazon). But I say: Let's do away with the "books" section of the store and instead have mini-sections within each department. Let's put the chick lit books in the women's clothing section, the thrillers in the men's clothing section, the mysteries in the Domestics section, since we know that women are more likely to try new authors than men are. Doing so would lessen the sensory overload at looking at a "Book Section" with hundreds of titles on display and make people more likely to pay attention to the relatively fewer books being shown. Of course, all books should be displayed front cover out - a spine alone isn't going to do much for us.
And how about some of these sports venues helping out with book sales? God, the number of people who spend all weekend watching sports on TV! How about those announcers talking about and/or showing a book or two to raise awareness? There's plenty of sports-themed fiction out there. Maybe the players would even talk about a book or two (though, with many of them charging for autographs these days, I doubt there's much of a chance that they'd do it pro bono for the good of books).
Bottom line: We've got to get our books in front of non-book-lovers, and that means getting them seen and displayed in non-book venues. I don't need to tell anyone what Oprah did for the publishing industry. How about the news featuring a local author a couple of times a week? That doesn't seem like much to ask instead of an update on Paris Hilton's latest antics.
Now, of course, it will be the "Big Guys" who get this sort of treatment, those who are published by companies with Deep Pockets. Where does that leave us independent publishers? Well, I guess I'm hoping for some sort of domino effect - or even the possibility that somehow we'd manage to get our most worthy books into some of these venues through sheer luck or goodwill.