Joshua Henkin: Some Thoughts on Book Groups, Book Sales, Book Review Sections, and the Publishing Industry – Part the First

September 3rd, 2008 · 13 Comments
by Joshua Henkin

[BS: We are delighted to host Joshua Henkin, the author of the terrific and duly lauded Matrimony, now available in paperback. As he begins his second round of publicity for his second novel, Joshua reflects on lessons learned. And book clubs. PS — Joshua just learned this, but he’s graciously giving away two signed copies of his novel. Just comment below, with email address (for contacting you if you win only) and the BS kitten will randomly choose the lucky recipients.]

Hello, everyone, and thank you, Kassia, for lending me your bully pulpit. I’m here to offer a novelist’s perspective on the publishing industry on the day (at least the day that I’m composing this) that Oscar Villalon seems to be out at the San Francisco Chronicle book review, a section that may soon suffer the same fate as the LATBR.

My novel Matrimony has just come out in paperback, so I’m starting up the second round of book touring and publicity. In that connection, I was recently asked the following question by an interviewer: “What do you believe is the basis for this country’s love for literature and books?” Were we living on the same planet, I wondered, much less in the same country? In fairness, the question was about book groups, and according to a report of the Independent Book Publishing Association, over five million adults belong to a book group.

I don’t know whether those numbers are accurate, but there’s no doubt that the proliferation of book groups has been a boon to publishing. Certainly Oprah has helped keep the industry afloat, and the myriad book groups across the country have risen in no small part thanks to Oprah. I talk about book groups from personal experience. Since Matrimony was published last October, I have participated in close to sixty book group discussions of Matrimony in person, by phone, and online, and I expect to do many more now that the paperback has been released. I have never been a member of a book group (as a novelist and a professor of fiction-writing, my life is a book group), but I can safely say that I now have had more personal experience with book groups than most people on this earth.

I have written elsewhere about my experience visiting book groups, but in short, though I approached the endeavor with a good deal of wariness (I started out thinking of book groups as a kind of Ladies who Lunch and I expected my own experience to be If it’s Tuesday it Must be Darien), I have been pleasantly surprised. Not every book group member is a sophisticated reader (not every MFA student is a sophisticated reader, either, nor is every book critic), but quite a few are, and they are passionate about what they read. More important, book groups are creating new readers. People usually join a book group for social reasons, but reading a book is part of the deal, and so a reader is created out of someone who wasn’t one before.

But the news is not all good. I was struck by the fact that most book groups are reading the same twelve books. Water for Elephants, Eat, Pray, Love, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, The Kite Runner. I’m not casting aspersions at these books, a number of which I haven’t even read. But even if you love these books, they certainly aren’t the only good books out there.

In any case, what interests me more than the popularity of these books is the manner in which they get selected, because the process says a great deal not just about book groups but about American book-buying in general. I’ve seen it so many times it has become a ritual. 9:30 comes, sometimes 10:00, even 10:30. The book group members are getting tired. Husbands are waiting at home (yes, it’s true: book groups are populated almost entirely by women), and everyone needs to wake up early in the morning. When’s the next meeting, and what book are we going to discuss? People have to choose quickly before everyone disperses. Does anybody have an idea?

Someone says, “How about The Memory Keeper’s Daughter?”

Most of the people in the group have heard of it. One person knows someone who loved it; another person knows someone who hated it. But it’s a known entity. Does anyone have any other ideas? People are unsure, silent. Someone glances at her watch.

“O.K., then: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter it is.”

I’m not saying this is how it always happens. But you’d be surprised how often it does. If people haven’t heard of the book they don’t want to read it, so name-recognition rules. Oprah chose it, so we’ll choose it. It’s not even as thought-out as that. In a world with too many choices, people choose what’s familiar. It’s as true of books as of anything else.

This is why, though writers hate negative reviews, a negative review is much better than no review at all. The old adage is true: there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Two weeks after the review has come out, no one remembers what the review said, but when a person comes across the book at the bookstore, he says to himself, I know I’ve heard of this somewhere, and the writer just might have himself a sale.

But “comes across the book at the bookstore” is key. There are too many books competing for too little space. As readers of this blog no doubt know but startlingly few others do (I discovered this first-hand from talking to book groups), the space in the window and on the front table at Barnes and Noble and Borders is bought by the publisher. It’s called coop, and because books tend to be impulse buys, if you don’t have coop for your book, you’re going nowhere. The reason that the average hardback book has a shelf life of six to eight weeks isn’t that people have short attention spans. It’s that the book quickly gets restocked to the back of the store, and, shortly thereafter, it’s returned to the publisher. Once your book is out of sight, you’re only going to sell copies to people who walk into the store intent on buying it.

It’s for this reason that if a writer were given a heap of money and told she could spend it however she wanted to market her book, I’d recommend that she spend part of it focus-grouping different covers (I’m astonished that publishers don’t focus-group their covers; the cover is the single most important thing in getting someone to buy a book, and you have only a nanosecond to attract a reader’s attention), and I’d have her spend the rest on coop. (Remember, this is a hypothetical. With rare exceptions, authors have little to no say over their covers, and coop is prohibitively expensive. Even if the author could afford to pay for it, he wouldn’t be allowed to because publishing houses have a limited number of slots and are therefore forced to choose which of their books get coop.)

In any case, the placement of your book in the bookstore is probably the single most important determinant of its sales, as Borders recently discovered when, as an experiment in some stores, it started stocking fewer books but placing more of them face-out. The results were startling (though they shouldn’t have been): Borders sold many more books. In fact, as I’m writing this post, I just clicked onto the following from Reuters: “The Borders Group, the bookseller, posted a lower-than-expected quarterly loss, helped by TIGHTER INVENTORY and lower costs.” [emphasis added].

There you have it. The way bookstores make money is by stocking fewer books. This, of course, is bad news for writers, especially for those writers who haven’t yet established themselves. In Los Angeles, the loss of Dutton’s is reflective of what’s going on everywhere—independent bookstores are hemorrhaging nationwide. This is a huge problem because independent bookstores were an important stopgap against the problem I’m talking about. At a place like Dutton’s, what’s at the front of the store is not as crucial as it is at the chains, because you have booksellers who know books and can recommend something to a customer. What’s more, these booksellers help determine what gets placed at the front of the store.

In the same way that we buy coffee from fewer and fewer stores, we buy books from fewer and fewer booksellers. Our choices get constricted, our taste gets streamlined, so when a book group decides what to pick next, its members choose one of the ten or so books that come to their minds, which are the same ten or so books that come to everyone’s mind, whether they’re in Hoboken or Fayetteville or Evanston or Anchorage. As with the economy at large, the book industry is feast-or-famine. Nowhere was this made more clear to me than in Rachel Donadio’s endpaper “Promotional Intelligence” in the New York Times Book Review a couple of years ago. Donadio noted that in 2005 “almost half of all sales in the literary fiction category came from the 20 best-selling books.” That’s an astonishing and disheartening statistic.

Take my own case. When Matrimony came out last October, I was essentially an unknown writer. My first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, had come out ten years earlier and did well critically but sold only about five thousand copies in hardback. My graduate students think that selling a first novel is hard, but selling a second novel is even harder, unless you’re one of the handful of writers whose first book takes off. I have quite a few friends who have written really good second novels that they can’t sell because their first novels sold poorly. Prior to Nielsen Bookscan, agents could fudge their writers’ numbers. Now those numbers are incontrovertible, spat back from a computer.

Fine print: Joshua Henkin’s website. Go. Buy Matrimony: paperback or (yay!) Kindle edition. Comment below — it’s free!

File Under: Square Pegs

13 responses so far ↓

  • Julia // Sep 3, 2008 at 9:49 am

    It would seem that self-promotion — as in Joshua Henkin’s talking to ALL those book groups — is vital.

  • feener // Sep 3, 2008 at 10:11 am

    this is very interesting, i worked in the publishing industry for 10 years, i was in the finance department. now I am a SAHM and I am in a book club. YES how he describes the book getting picked is exactly how it happens. Once we picked a book based on a People Mag review. The pub industry is very interesting to me b/c it is all word of mouth.
    the idea of coop is a hard one to ignore, the booksellers have the publishers by the balls in many cases.

  • Kat J. Meyer // Sep 3, 2008 at 11:16 am

    I’d go a step further with Joshua’s observations about co-op and indie booksellers – co-op at an indie store can be hugely effective for the right book and author. If you can get an indie bookseller behind your book, AND get your publisher to put some money and effort behind co-op with that indie store, you’ll likely receive great bang for your buck. Indie booksellers need and appreciate the advertising dollars that they get from publishers, and they spread the passion that they have for a title like wildfire.

  • Robin // Sep 3, 2008 at 11:38 am

    This is precisely one of the reasons I won’t join a book club. I tend to shy away from the bestsellers and the Oprah’s picks, and am always on the lookout for lesser known titles. There are a lot of gems out there if you look hard enough!

  • Connie // Sep 3, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    I’m a publisher and I can’t spend coop bucks with Barnes and Noble unless they invite me to for a particular title. And when they do, I accept, because it’s always worth the money. Sometimes when I visit bookstores and find my company’s books on the shelves, I stealthily turn them face out.

  • Stacey Kannenberg // Sep 3, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Thank you for stressing that people choose what is familiar!! It’s so true — Good Night Moon was written over 60 years ago! People buy it because they have heard of it. Baby Einstein is now a household name. The key to my publishing success has been in developing into a “brand” that has longevity and year after year the goal is to continue to get more and more name recognition with a large “Google Footprint”.

  • Joshua Henkin: Some Thoughts on Book Groups, Book Sales, Book Review Sections, and the Publishing Industry - Part the Second | Booksquare // Sep 4, 2008 at 5:11 am

    […] [BS: Part two from Joshua Henkin. See yesterday’s post here.] […]

  • links for 2008-09-04 « Charlottesville Words // Sep 4, 2008 at 10:02 am

    […] Joshua Henkin: Some Thoughts on Book Groups, Book Sales, Book Review Sections, and the Publishing In… "…More important, book groups are creating new readers. People usually join a book group for social reasons, but reading a book is part of the deal, and so a reader is created out of someone who wasn’t one before. […]

  • Stephen Baker // Sep 5, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    Question for authors on tour. Do people pay attention to what you’re saying? I ask this, because I’m about to go out on my first book tour (for The Numerati) and I have this fear that I’ll talk to people at various events, and if they don’t have something to look at, they’ll pull their iPhones and Blackberrys out of their pockets. So I’m thinking of setting up a slide show, with pretty photos, just to keep them engaged. (I’m mostly worried about the talks at tecky places like MIT, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, just to give this point some context). Is this a smart thing to do?

  • Rachel // Sep 10, 2008 at 5:57 am

    What he says is so true. As a publisher, I have witnessed this firsthand. As a reader, I had long ago decided to spend my dollars and hours on reading the fiction which doesn’t make the book club lists. I don’t tend to like what the populace at large likes anyway. I have found numerous gems by searching at the back of bookstores.

  • ELLEN WOLFE // Sep 10, 2008 at 8:36 am

    Our group has everyone throw their suggestion in a pot and we pull for 6 months – works great. I am goin to suggest Swimming Across the Hudson for my next pick!!!

    Interesting info – thanks.

  • Tony Williams // Sep 15, 2008 at 2:34 pm


    I have found a couple of things in promoting my non-fiction, “Hurricane of Independence.” First, in speaking, you don’t need gimmicks like a slideshow – in fact, I never use them as a speaker, or when I was a teacher. Instead, I use my words and rhetorical devices to engage the reader in an exciting narrative story that will keep their attention for roughly 30 minutes depending on the audience. Secondly, there is an art to attracting customers over to the table at a book-signing and encapsulating the entire book in one lengthy sentence. What will make them buy the book? You only have their attention for 10-20 seconds and have to capture their imagination. My own pitch involves both the second deadliest hurricane in history and the Revolutionary War to appeal to history buffs and general readers. I’ve perfected the pitch within a month of my first book coming out to where almost 80-90% of the people who stop and talk, buy the book.

    I have also discovered very quickly who is going to buy books and focus my attention on them. The reality is that most college students at the local college where I do a lot of signings are not going to read the book, whereas their parents will stop and talk and probably buy the book.

  • Book Club Run Down | Kim Werker // Oct 7, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    […] you’re looking to join or start one. After reading some of what author Joshua Henkin* has written about his experiences visiting dozens of book clubs, I have the impression we do things a little […]