Publishing Lessons: Fixing the Glitch

Posted on 10 May 2012

When Living Arrangements was published in November, I contacted my local Barnes & Noble to verify that they’d ordered some copies of the book. In response, B&N told me they could not and would not order the book because it was listed as “non-returnable” in their system. They would only order a copy if a customer pre-ordered it and paid for it in advance.

Obviously, this was not a high moment in my writing career. I was so embarrassed and disappointed that my book could not appear in B&N that I did the worst thing I could have: nothing.

I assumed that because Living Arrangements is published by a small, university press, and because B&N is the largest national bookstore chain standing, that this pre-ordering business must have something to do with the evils of corporate publishing. Considering that independent bookstores could order Living Arrangements with no problem, and because book distribution in general is one big mystery to me, I thought that little books like mine were routinely treated this way in the big chains, and I had no choice but to accept it.

I was so busy making all these assumptions and accepting my B&N-less fate that I didn’t think to mention this issue to my publisher. Flash forward a few months later, when I was preparing for the Ohioana Book Festival. B&N is handling the book sales for this event, and when they informed me that they could not carry Living Arrangements and I’d have to sell my own consignment copies (of which I’d still have to hand over a large percentage to B&N), I forwarded the info to my editor at BkMk Press. In return, I received an instantaneous, just-slightly-panicky message that my book indeed should be listed as returnable and this is a problem that needs to be fixed ASAP.

You see, B&N should have been able to order and carry my book all along. By not discussing this issue right away with my publisher, I made the situation worse.

I need to point out here that the error was not B&N’s, and it also wasn’t my publisher’s fault — instead, it was a glitch that occurred elsewhere in the book distribution system. A glitch that I had the power to address if I had been more proactive.

When I was at AWP this year, I listened to several debut authors admit that they wished they had spoken up more during the publishing process. They wished they’d realized they had the right to ask questions, the right to be informed, and the right to be involved in the process. Too often, they said, they would think, “I’m so lucky to have a book deal at all that I shouldn’t bother anyone by asking too many questions or demanding too much.”

It is so easy to fall into that mindset, particularly if you’re published by a small press, or maybe even more so if you’re a little fish in the big pond of a major publishing house. I felt so fortunate to have my debut story collection published, and to have such a wonderful editor (who, over the course of the last year, has cheerfully taken my countless phone calls and answered all my neurotic and anxious questions with the utmost of patience), that I would sometimes tell myself to calm down, back off, and just let things happen. Unfortunately, it seems I often stressed over the things that ended up mattering the least while letting the bigger issues — like this B&N snafu — carry on uncorrected.

My publisher set about fixing this distribution glitch a few weeks ago. When I called B&N yesterday to confirm that they had ordered copies of Living Arrangements for the Ohioana Book Festival on Saturday, a B&N employee cheerfully told me, “Yep, we have your copies right here!”

See? Easy. Now let’s just hope that, after all this, someone at the festival actually buys a copy.

Photo: qnr

p.s. My presentation went well last night, or as well as it could when I’m expected to drag my introverted self to a podium and speak in public for an hour. Recap and photos coming soon.


9 responses to Publishing Lessons: Fixing the Glitch

  • Teri says:

    This is such a great snippet of information, Laura. It’s so true that we don’t know something, and then we feel bad or stupid or demanding for asking. Thanks for sharing this!

    • When I was a kid, my best friend and I one day decided that we would ask each other any question at all, the very questions we felt too stupid to ever ask anyone before. On one hand, it felt so liberating to just lay it all out there and admit what we didn’t know. On the other hand, since we were both kids, we didn’t exactly have any of the answers, either. At least we tried.

  • Paul says:

    I’m glad it worked out for you. I’m glad you did pursue it. And I’m glad you shared this experience.

  • Downith says:

    Laura,I’m glad it worked out for you. It’s scary how little we know about the process – thanks for telling us about it. You know, in case, maybe, one day …

  • Averil Dean says:

    I would have assumed exactly the same thing. Thank goodness you and your publisher discovered this and got it straightened out.

    I hereby declare that we writers shall ask questions when something about publishing doesn’t make sense. (We might ask our questions in very small and timid voices, but that’s a declaration for another day.)

    • Sounds good. I also enjoy the “Um, so maybe, if you don’t think this is any trouble, maybe we could do this?” kind of approach to asking for something. Not annoying and passive-aggressive at all!

  • Catherine says:

    Pro-active is the word! This was useful information for me as I am with a small publisher and am not sure how much to push. I’ve had great treatment all the way and I’m happy they will be strengthening their marketing resources for when my short stories come out next year, but the distribution thing is quite a mystery for me too.

    Thanks! You’ve given me a couple of ideas.

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