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F R I D AY, JAN U AR Y 1, 2010
Incentives? Or Shmears? A Window into Bookselling's Heart of
Bismarck said that it is unwise to look too closely into the way we make our laws or our
sausages. You may be able think of some other things that don't bear up too well under
intense scrutiny . High on my list is what publishers
particularly mass-market paperback
publishers, hav e to do these day s to get their merchandise display ed in and promoted by
bookstores. It might be described as publishing's dirty little secret, except that it's not so
little. In f act, it's become so perv asiv e that it touches ev ery body in publishing, ev en
though not ev ery body is aware of it y et.
In f act, not ev ery body wants to know about it. Some y ears ago a f riend of mine, a
top-notch paperback salesman, phoned me to tell me he had just been hired by a
hardcov er publisher to launch its mass-market paperback line. "That's great," I said. "In
eight weeks y ou'll be back on the street looking f or another job."
"What do y ou mean?" he gasped.
"I don't think y our boss wants to know what y ou hav e to do to get paperbacks sold.
When he f inds out, he'll want no part of it."
He ref lected f or a moment, "Yeah, well, it does get kind of nasty out there. And this
man's such a gentleman . . ."
"That's why I giv e it eight weeks."
In due time he phoned me again, "You were wrong. It wasn't eight weeks. It was sev en."
One of the things my f riend's f ormer boss didn't want to know about is exemplif ied by a
good news-bad news story told to me by another publisher, the head of a small
hardcov er house. It happens that he was about to publish a celebrity biography and was
pitching it at a bookstore chain. "We lov e it," the buy er said to him. "In f act, we'd like to
do a f eature piece about it in our promotional catalog."
"Wonderf ul!" said the publisher.
"It will cost y ou $7,500," the buy er said to him.
The publisher reeled with shock—but he ended up pay ing the $7,500. Why ? "The
alternativ e," he said, "was worse,"—meaning that had he not paid it, he was af raid that
the chain would not carry the book.
This good news-bad news story is any thing but a joke, f or such experiences are common
among publishers today . With f ar more books published than there is bookstore space to
accommodate them comf ortably , the struggle f or adv antage has driv en publishers to
resort to desperate and sometimes dubious measures. Just how dubious they are may
be inf erred by the number of publishing people who ref use to talk on the record about