In early October, Gennita Low started an online campaign to ask folks to write to Wal Mart’s headquarters and ask them to stock her book. According to Low, Wal-Mart didn’t stock her first book, Virtually His, and as a result her sales numbers were so low, Mira has delayed the release of the sequel, Virtually Hers.
In an open letter that was posted several places online, including Karen Knows Best, Low invites people to contact Mira, and to contact Wal Mart’s book buying department to try to get her book in stock. Several fans have posted comments saying how eagerly they were awaiting the book, and many have mentioned that they’ve contacted Wal Mart on Low’s behalf.
One reader wrote to me that she was hella pissed off, because she’d pre-ordered the book and been told by Amazon that it was delayed again and again. She was livid that so much power of what she was able to buy in her romance selections was determined by Wal Mart.
Virtually Hers appears to be available starting December 1, so perhaps the nudging helped? Who knows.
CORRECTION: Per Gennita Low’s comment below, she received the rights back from her publisher. Virtually Hers will not be released Dec. 1. I hope it finds a new home.
But this is not the first time I’ve heard of Wal Mart putting the sinker on someone’s sales.
An author who asked to remain anonymous told me:
Walmart placed a HUGE order for my first book (68% of the print run). They returned 80% of their order almost immediately (aka 50% of my print run), meaning it’s likely those books never even saw the shelf (I lost my slot to a backlist title of a NYT best seller most likely). As far as I know they didn’t order book two at all (honestly, I just don’t want to know). Walmart basically trashed my career before I even had a chance. No amount of great reviews or awards is going to offset a 49% sell though (the book sold VERY WELL at book stores, for all the good that does me).
I asked her how she knew about the Wal Mart connection to her sales, and she replied that her info came straight from her editor:
My editor told me my numbers were “in the toilet”. Nice. I was surprised, since my agent had told me that my numbers were great (cue the lesson that Walmart doesn’t report to things like Bookscan, so your sales numbers can look fab when they’re not). I expressed this surprise and my editor said, “Let me poke around a bit and call you back. I remember something really wonky happening with your book and Walmart . . .”
Most authors check their sales figures by subscribing to Bookscan and calling the Ingrams’ number incessantly. These two sources get their info from actual sales (Ingrams from stores ordering from their warehouse and Bookscan from bookstores that report in their actual sales). These two numbers have historically been considered fairly reliable (kind of like polls). There are all sorts of formulas people use to get an idea of what those two numbers equate to in total sales (like triple your Bookscan total or multiple your Ingrams # by 6, etc.). But the idea was that if your Bookscan and Ingrams #s were healthy your book was doing well.
This is no longer the case.
Book sales have begun to be heavily driven by big box stores (Walmart being the most important one apparently), and those stores don’t report to Bookscan. So if it’s true that something like 47% of all mass market fiction is sold ad big box stores (I think) and your book isn’t in said big box stores (because it wasn’t picked up, or like me, they trash you right out of the gate) you’re royally screwed. But you may not know you’re screwed until you get blindsided by your royalty statement and the fact that your publisher isn’t picking up your next contract.
Now, I know next to diddly about Bookscan and sales numbers, and how sales and success are quantified. So I asked an editor: What’s up with Wal Mart?
Does Wal Mart have that much power?
The answer: an unequivocal “Oh, holy shit, yes.”
Wal Mart is the single largest bookseller in the US. Period, full stop. Most books in this country for retail sales are sold to Wal Mart. And so they have the most power, according to my source.
The completely wonky part is that they don’t make as much money selling books as they do selling, say, tires or automotive supplies or groceries. Books are a very small part of their selection, and a small part of their profit margin.
But books at Wal Mart are a holy hopping damn huge part of of the profit margin of your average romance publishing establishment, because when Wal Mart orders a book, it is an order that often has many, many more zeroes in it than orders for all the other retailers combined. It is not far fetched for editors and marketing staff to ponder amongst themselves, ‘But how will this sell at Wal Mart?’ Selling to Wal Mart is crucial for any author, any publisher, and anyone who hopes to realize a profit in publishing romance, particularly as predictions of the financial future of publishing in general turn dire indeed. Wal Mart is the most powerful figure in romance publishing, bar none (after Dear Author and us, of course) (snort).
Some of the email I received regarding Gennita Low’s campaign thought that readers of romance should boycott Wal Mart in protest of their outrageous market power. This is not the first time I’ve heard anti Wal Mart sentiment. As the nations largest retailer, they have attracted more than one lawsuit for alleged discrimination against women.
In the Fall 08 issue of Bitch Magazine, there’s an article about Wal Mart’s latest marketing campaign, which asks if moms have “formed their ‘momtourage’ yet,” targeting female readers and television viewers as potential customers. This is troublesome to the article’s author, because
[t]he superstore is currently involved in the largest workplace gender-discrimination lawsuit in history, with more than 1.3 million female employees suing the retailer for failing to equally promote and pay women…. In one 2005 ruling, [Wal-Mart] was fined $188,000.00 by the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission for violating state law when it refused to reinstate a woman after she completed her maternity leave.
Now, personally, I don’t have a Wal Mart within driving distance, so I don’t shop there. I don’t know if I would had I the choice, given what I know colloquially of their labor practices from friends of mine who worked there while we were all in college.
But I also know that for a lot of people looking to mind their budgets and feed and clothe their families, Wal Mart is the only option in town. Literally.
And for those of us concerned with the health and continued viability of the romance book market? Wal Mart might as well be the only option in town as well. They are literally the most powerful, and books aren’t even their main source of income. How do you fight such a behemoth with that much power over an author’s career future? Is it even possible? Or do we have to play within that power structure to advance our cause – the continued availability of romance novels? According to those with whom I spoke, it’s not possible to circumvent Wal Mart and survive in the current market. They buy in such quantity and sell in such volume that it isn’t possible to go without them. There is simply no way to avoid them.
When I asked my editorial source what readers could do, the answer was immediate: shop there. “We should all get down on our knees and thank God for Wal Mart. They buy romance, we have jobs, you have books to read.” It might leave a sour taste in one’s mouth, but we should go out of our way to shop there, according to this editor, because if more people shop for romance there, and it becomes more of a profitable enterprise for them, then they’ll buy more. If they buy more, there’s room to publish more, and there’s more for us to read. Turning-page economics, if you will.
I’m not pretending I know the answer to this one, and for the time being shopping at Wal Mart or deciding not to isn’t a question I face. But I know a lot of our readers look to Wal Mart for their book needs. GrowlyCub mentioned recently in a comment to my review of Lori Borrill’s Unleashed that:
I went and read the excerpt at Amazon and holy smokes, I want to read that book now! Our local Walmart does not carry Blazes any longer, so that means either a trip 80 miles down the road or waiting till Bamm.com can deliver.
No Blazes in the Wal Mart means one reader waits for shipping, or goes without. Even in the isolated cases, that’s a lot of power for one store to wield.
What’s your take? Do you shop at Wal Mart for books? Or do you avoid it? And if the biggest of the big box stores has that much market power and control over the genre, will that ever change? And how?