Wal Mart

Book CoverIn 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.

Book CoverAnd 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?

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Charlene says:

    This surprises me. My local Wal-Mart has about fifteen feet of one side of a single aisle dedicated to books – and that includes fiction and non-fiction. They have more shelf space dedicated to those cheap nasty evil plug-in perfume things, and about eight times more dedicated to bottled water.

    I think Safeway has a larger book section.

  2. 2
    ev says:

    Wally World is the last place I shop for books- I may look if I am wandering or bored when I am there and need something, or on my way to lunch and for some odd reason don’t have a book with me. Or, *gasp, walk out of the house without one.

    Border’s is still my go to for books. At least there is something to choose from since they don’t censor what they sell. I do think Walmart does censor some of the books that they sell. I know they do it with the music, so what is to stop them from doing it with books?

    I try to split my shopping dollars between them and target. My daughter used to work for wally world and I know how she was treated.

  3. 3
    phinea says:

    Wal-Mart is evil and I refuse to shop there no matter how close it is. I will drive or
    online to get a book. I would never go without just because some dumb ass
    store won’t carry the book I want.

  4. 4
    Leslee says:

    Unfortunately, I am one of those people that has a limited income and I live in a small town. I shop at Wal-Mart because my wallet cannot accomodate my outrage at their labor practices. My husband calls them Evil But Cheap. Also my town has two Walmarts, a Target, and NO BOOKSTORE!!!! It kills me that we have all kinds of stores coming to our little slice of heck but not a single bookstore. So a lot of the time, if Walmart doesn’t have it I go without until I can get to a bookstore which isn’t often. I hate that they have so much power but they are the only game in town for me. I like Target as well, but their book section is not the best, Wal Mart just stocks more stuff.

  5. 5
    Ezri says:

    I do remember this happening with “Contact” by Susan Grant – Walmart refused
    to sell it because it was published shortly after 9/11 and involved an airplane hostage
    situation.  Of course, in the book, the folks were taken hostage by aliens, so the
    comparison doesn’t really hold up well.  I know it was a struggle for her to get the book
    out after that though.

  6. 6
    Anonymous Author (hiding out from Walmart goons) says:

    a) Walmart is the only option in my town;
    b) their book section is the size of a rat’s ass, with similar entertainment value;
    c) I don’t even walk by that part of the store, because their book choices are so limited;
    d) which means I do most of my book shopping on Amazon.

    As an author, I also hate the power wielded by Walmart, but fighting them is a bit like
    finger wrestling with Godzilla:  too big, too nasty, too easy to get crushed.

  7. 7
    Kathy says:

    I used to big a book buyer at Walmart until they stopped stocking the books I like to read.  It seems now that just have a shit selection and only one author on the shelf that I like, plus it takes them a week to stock a new release.  I’m with Ev, I go to Border’s.  And if that doesn’t do it, I just have to break down and order from the internet.  And the waiting is a pain in the arse.

  8. 8

    Wow, this is an excellent point—buy more books there, and they’ll increase their book selection.

    It never occurred to me that WM was such a big book supplier until I started learning more about publishing, because like Charlene said, both of the WMs within driving distance of my old house had barely a scattering of books; a couple of dozen titles, tops? Ten feet of shelf space next to the greeting cards. Target and Walgreens used to have more; I bought books from both all the time (in addition to B&N;and Borders both.)

    Heck, just buy books anywhere you see them, lol.

    I guess that’s abnormal.

  9. 9
    Tibbles says:

    Used to work at Wal-mart (stay at home Mom right now). Horrible employer and horrible at stocking stuff.  Tried to go back after second child.  No go. “Hiring freeze.” Married white female btw.  Go in the other day, several new (not trying to be racial or anything) black and latino faces at front registers who are slow as all get-out due to lack of experience (not calling anyone lazy).  Meanwhile people with experience are turned away.  Ours has about one half an aisle for all books.  Got Barnes & Noble and thought things were looking up. Nope.  University book store. Crappier selection than Wal-Mart. And Wal-Mart is the only place to go in this backwater University town.  Ain’t it great? We get a university, but can’t get anyone other than a B & N university book store, a Food Lion, a Kroger, and a Wal-Mart.

  10. 10
    Lorelie says:

    I’ve got a Super Walmart about three miles from my house. And I shop there.  I’ve heard about how they treat employees, and it sucks, and I hope people keep suing the hell out of them, but my budget won’t let me abandon the cheap for the moral.

    And I do buy books there.  B&N;is my first choice, but sometimes it’s just handy. And their selection isn’t bad.  About 15 feet devoted to Romance alone.  I think they get every single Harlequin from every line put out every month. ;)

  11. 11
    JanLo says:

    I do not shop at WalMart specifically because of its labor practices. I think if folks do shop there, they should start demanding the titles and publishers they want. It’s called customer service, although it will take many, many voices for WalMart to even begin to listen. As our wonderful reviewer Doc Turtle said: it has the turning radius of the QE2. But if no one tries, the corporation will go along its merry way oblivious to censorship and upholding social values that not everyone shares. There, that’s my 2 cents.

  12. 12
    Gennita Low says:

    The best way to help authors (and not just me) is to write a letter to Walmart (local and HQ) asking for your favorite authors’ books.  The person I talked to used to work at Walmart and knew its policies.  Walmart will sometimes contact the person and ask for recommendations because, as this person told me, “they like to say they have anything asked in stock.”

    I don’t think my book is coming out Dec. 1, btw, since my publisher gave me back the rights to my book last month ;-).

    BTW, my royalty statement reflected that I sold a hella number of books and I’d mistakenly thought that my publisher was going to be pleased with the numbers…until the “retail” column was pointed out to me and I was told that THAT was the column they all looked at.  So I’m still looking at my statement today wondering how a good report card can be so bad.

  13. 13
    Tina C. says:

    I guess I’m lucky because I have a multitude of sources for books in my town, with local bookstores, chain bookstores, Walmart, Target, all of the chain drugstores, and the grocery store.  I can buy books anywhere and I’m still a fairly regular customer of amazon.com, too. 

    That said, I’m a pretty regular customer of Walmart, also.  Yes, I hate Walmart’s labor practices and the way they cause local businesses in small towns to go out of business because they can’t compete.  However,  my wallet can’t afford to fund my antipathy because you really can’t beat the prices.  If I need clothes, I try to hit the consignment stores first, but I can’t find what I want, then I hit Walmart.  If I need bedding or electronics or cookware, I hit Walmart.  I simply can’t afford not to.  And if a store I’m in carries books, I look at the books.  And as a book junkie, I often buy at least one if I stop to look at them.  So, while I don’t specifically shop there for books, I do buy them when I’m already there.  After reading what about how they can destroy an author’s career without even trying, though—damn.

  14. 14
    ev says:

    For used books I have been also using the Border’s site- the selection is good and the delivery is quick.

    I tend not to use Amazon, because i think it is getting to big for its britches,and don’t want to see it taking everything over. Which it seems to be doing in some cases.

    I hate WM hiring practices also and the way they treated my daughter. I think she should have sued them but she is young. Unfortunately, to get anything I have to travel a bit and WM is cheaper. Besides, they know me and no one questions that I am using my husbands credit card instead of mine. (I accidentally threw mine out and haven’t gotten around to cancelling it yet- always need the danged thing)

  15. 15
    ev says:

    Our little city did fight them on putting in a Super Walmart for just the reasons Tina C. said- putting local businesses out of business. We won. So they just redid our store and although it doesn’t sell the quantity of food like a Super does, it does have a decent selection of stuff.

  16. 16
    Keri Ford says:

    My Super WalMart recently remodeled and boy am I happy they did. The book section is so much larger. There’s one aisle that’s completely category books and one much longer aisle that carries romance off all genres that I can tell. My biggest beef is they’ve got all the genre’s mixed together and strictly ordered them by author name (best I can tell, anyway). Makes it hard to find someone new in a genre you like. I haven’t started picking up my books there, but I’ll start if it helps in the end. And just maybe I can track down a Wal-Mart in charge person and get them to explain to me while they’re stocking like they are.

    So glad to see Gennita got her rights back. With all the talk that’s been with this book and the anticipation behind it, maybe someone will pick up and get it on the shelf.


  17. 17
    Chasity says:

    I live in the woods.  Literally we’re in a tiny “holler” in the middle of now where.  Our “town” has a post office and gas station.  To buy groceries I have to drive 30 minutes to another small town that has a Food City.  That town has a dollar store, a library, and several fast food restaurants.  If I’m feeling frisky, which isn’t often, I’ll drive the hour it takes to get to the “bigger” small town, where I’m limited to Super Walmart or Kmart with a few other small business types around.  Walmart is the place to be in that town, which sucks.  I hate that place with a passion unlike any I’ve ever had.  I do arse myself up to go there once a week simply because it’s the only place to buy certain items. 

    As for the book section, the selection sucks and the shelves are always messed up.  To find any book, you have to dig through all the other shit in front of it.  I do on occasion buy books from there, but it isn’t often.  I’ve been bitching for years now that we need a bookstore since the closest one is 2 hours away.  If there’s a book I’m completely dying for I’ll hit up amazon. After reading them I usually donate them to our local library.  I must say our local library selection is the bomb.  Those ladies sure do know how to stock their romance section.  They usually have most new releases a few days after they are available, but there are just some titles that they are forced to wait on.  That’s where I come in :)  I buy them up, devour them, and then donate.

  18. 18
    Jane O says:

    There is a Walmart near me, but it has a tiny book section, and romance is a tiny section of that. I’m amazed that they are somehow a major seller of books. The local Target has a much larger and better selection.
    I also have a Borders and a Barnes and Noble nearby, but I still end up most often using Amazon, where I can get the books I actually want.

  19. 19
    Susan G says:

    Keri – I wish your Wal-Mart would talk to my Wal-Mart!
    We recently had a remodel, too, but our book section became considerably smaller. That was quite disappointing to me because before the change I could count on new romance releases being available on or before the drop date with the very nice Wally discount. Now I rarely visit the book section because there is so seldom something of interest.

  20. 20
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    I dislike shoppping at Walmart for many of the reasons already mentioned here, but do so on occasion for the sake of convenience and price.  However, the selection of books, even at the closest “super” store, is pretty limited from my point of view—most of it seems to be taken up by celebrity bios and religious books, neither of which interest me.  I do most of my shopping for books at Borders, or online, and my favorite is a semi-local used bookshop, where I can literally get lost for hours.

    help83:  help out 83 starving novelists and buy their books today!

  21. 21
    DS says:

    I wrote to Walmart after the Susan Grant fiasco.  I never received a response and that pretty much ended my book buying days there,  Well, I told them in my letter I was going to quit buying books there so I did.  I don’t buy much else there either.

  22. 22
    Angela James says:

    I don’t buy books at Walmart either, but I know a lot of people who do, and I used to when I lived in a town where Walmart was the only option. But if I’m being honest, I buy very few print books these days and even fewer from brick and mortar stores.

    I hope Gennita finds a home for Virtually Hers soon both for her sake and for the sake of fans of Virtually His.

  23. 23
    Antonella says:

    “Wow, this is an excellent point—buy more books there, and they’ll increase their book selection.”

    But at what cost?  Giving Wal-mart even MORE power over what we read?  We’ve seen the censoring they’ve imposed on some CD’s and DVD’s.  Do you want them doing that to books as well?  I hate the idea of any bookseller wielding that kind of power over the publishing industry.  I’d much rather buy my books elsewhere and spread the power around. 

    As for their lower prices – I’ll pay the extra buck or two to shop at a store with clean aisles and employees that don’t look like they’ve been chained to an oar.

  24. 24
    Denise says:

    I live in a big metropolis, so I can avoid Walmart 90% of the time and still find good deals with other competitors.  That being said, I’ve stopped in the book section of my local Super Walmart to see what they have. 

    The physical size of the book section is impressive, quite large for a store that sells virtually everything from apples to transmission fluid.  However, the book selection sucked.  Honestly, if I was a Nora Roberts fan, I’d be in heaven.  Three shelves and four display racks devoted to her titles alone, with 75 copies of each available to the buyer. 

    While I admire la Nora’s professionalism, I’m not a fan of her writing, so it’s frustrating to see this much retail space devoted to a single author.  I understand why they do it.  She’s a powerhouse of book sales, and Walmart’s business is to make money.  Still, I’d love to see some of those displays changed to showcase newer, less well-known authors.

  25. 25
    Lori says:

    Books are not the only area in which WM has this power.  Anyone trying to get a new home-related product into the market has to basically kiss WM’s butt to have any chance of getting it off the ground.  If you have a great idea and want to start a business to sell it WM pretty much holds your fate in its big corporate paw.  The truth is that WM isn’t cheap & evil, it’s cheap because it’s evil. 

    I’m certainly sympathetic to people who have few or no other choices by virtue of location or budget.  At one time I lived in a “one stop light & a WalMart” town and you do what you have to do to.  Still, I agree with Antonella that giving WM more power is not the solution.

  26. 26
    TracyS says:

    If I want to stay in budget (and I really do! LOL) I have to shop at Wal-Mart and Target.  I buy as many of my books as I can there (because they are a little cheaper, and I’m already at the store, and the nearest bookstore is 35 minutes away).

    Our local Wal-Mart cut back on the Harlequin books for awhile. That lasted all of 2 months and they were back in stock.

    They don’t carry most erotica, but my walmart has a huge selection of Romance. In fact Romance is about 75% of the books in stock.

  27. 27
    Suze says:

    I wonder if Walmart is the reason that so many of my newer paperbacks fall apart so easily, even though I don’t buy them there.  In my experience, even the brand-name stuff at Walmart is badly-made crap that won’t last.  They have to make it cheaply to sell it cheaply, so it falls apart, and it’s more cost-effective to just buy new, creating a vicious cycle of crap.

    So Walmart has turned everything they sell into disposable products, even lawnmowers.  The only thing about Walmart that I approve of is that the parking stalls are big enough to both park in AND open your car door.

    I’ve managed to avoid setting foot in Walmart for about 5 years.  It’s not that I’m strong and ethical, it’s just that they don’t have anything I want badly enough to go into that depressing, dirty, crowded building.

    I buy my books at the grocery store, on-line, and on my occasional trips to the city where they have nice big box bookstores.

    It’s yet another argument to re-think the whole process of publishing books.  If we could just get someone to apply the cheapness and availability to e-readers, then mass-market authors wouldn’t be so dependant upon sell-through numbers.  I think.

    And Congratulations on your election, you Yankees!

  28. 28
    rebyj says:

    Walmart here in Nashville changed their book section last year and since that change I haven’t bought ONE book there . Their selection sucks. There is a “best seller” rack,(usually way out of date) an African American shelf with about 12 books , a hard back non fiction section full of Jesus and Oprah , a handful of Harlequin series and a perpetually full Harry Potter display.

    Our Kroger’s and Walgreens carry a more up to date and bigger selection.  95% of what I buy,  I purchase online at Amazon.com, Overstock.com or at the used book store more than buying retail new anywhere.

    I hope you get “Virtually Hers” published Genita!

  29. 29
    Madd says:

    I’ve never bought a book at wally world. I think that’s really saying something when you take into consideration that I spent 3 years living in a place where you had to drive 20 miles just to get to a wal-mart, the only source of non-food/farm equipment items in the area. And even though the grocery store was only 13 miles away, their selection was limited, so we usually just picked up groceries at wally’s.

    I either ordered from Amazon or waited till we “went to town”, a 60 mile drive up to the closest city, and got my books at Books-A-Million.
    I don’t know why I never buy books from wally’s. I never even browse them. *shrug*

  30. 30
    Jane says:

    I don’t doubt that WalMart has significant buying power and can help make an author’s career, but there are plenty of books that sell and plenty of authors with successful careers that never got stocked at Wal-Mart during the building period.

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