Monday, July 14, 2008

"I Can't Find My Books at Barnes & Noble"

Boy, I can relate. Gift Card Books are miniature gift books designed with a little pocket to hold a gift card, an idea I developed a few years ago. With the explosion in popularity of gift cards I was certain it was a multi-million dollar idea that would set the publishing world on its ear. Everywhere I presented the idea people thought it was a "no-brainer."

My good friend John Whalen at Cider Mill Press picked up the idea. John is the former publisher at Running Press where he helped establish the Running Press Miniature Editions gift book line. John knows gift books and he cut an exclusive deal with Barnes & Noble for four Gift Card Books: Thoughts, Quotes, and Wishes for a Happy Birthday, The Gift of Friendship, Pet Therapy, and Opening Lines: The First Sentences of Classic Plays, Poems, and Books.

In the time between B&N's initial expression of interest until they finally issued a purchase order (almost a year) we went through four or five different buyers, each one wanting to see different concepts. In addition to the four books they bought, we had book ideas for Christmas, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, graduation, books for coffee lovers, chocolate lovers, book lovers, newlyweds, new parents, teachers, books to say thank you and congratulations, and a handful of other ideas. When B&N did finally place the purchase order we had about two weeks to finalize, design, and proof the four books before they went to the printer. The goal was to get them in stores by Thanksgiving weekend to catch the Christmas wave--the most popular gift book season. The books arrived in the B&N distribution center in mid-November. I sent an email to everyone I know to tell them to look for the books.

The first weekend in December, my wife and I got a sitter for the girls, we went out to dinner, and went to B&N to see my books in the store. After a good five minute scan of the store, my face was flush with something between embarassment and anger. I asked a clerk to look up the books. It took several attempts before he finally found them (entered with the wrong titles) and he told me he could order them but that his store, my hometown store, was not getting stock--special order only.

Suddenly the dozens of calls and emails I've received over the years from authors who had a similar experience ran through my head. I called John. I also know what it is like to be on the receiving end of the phone call with virtually nothing you can do about it. He confirmed the books were shipped and received. He confirmed it was a national buy and that the books were to have front of store placement, but B&N didn't release them.

Turns out B&N did not actually release the books until mid-February even though they are listed in their system with a December 2007 release date. And the books were supposed to be placed on a ladder display near the cash register though none of the Nashville stores ever displayed the books. In fact, I had to ask clerks to help me find them.

On my last trip to New York in May I stopped in to the B&N store on Fifth Avenue and there they were--my four books on display at the check out! It was a very proud moment for me. Even though we missed Christmas, the books have sold consistently. In fact, at the current velocity B&N should run out of stock just before Christmas again this year, and they have declined re-orders and passed on new concepts. It's a tough business, even for a "no-brainer." Sometimes the 800 pound gorilla just won't do what you ask it to do, even when you give him all the bananas.

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