If you've ever walked into a Barnes & Noble, you have no doubt noticed the new releases pyramid front and center.
If a book is in the news or written by a celebrity author, you will find it in this display. I always give it a quick circle and often recognize the titles because I saw it featured on the "Today" show or in Printers Row Journal or on "Fresh Air."
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
You may be thinking that books are featured here because they have been judged the "best" of the current crop, but the reality is every book in that display is present because a publisher has paid for it to be there.
The same is true of the "new fiction" and "new nonfiction" tables, where stacks of books are displayed face up. When an author or book gets a stand-alone rack? It's been paid for. The shelves at the ends of aisles, known as end caps? Paid for. See a little pile by the register? Paid for. Even with books in the regular shelves that are displayed face (instead of spine) out, it's likely the publisher paid for the privilege of showing off the full book jacket.
And while the exact amounts are a bit of a trade secret, for the prime real estate, the
Every book within every bookstore is only leasing whatever space it has because the book industry engages in an even stranger practice: returns. In a process that dates back to the Depression, when publishers were trying to incentivize the stocking of new or unknown authors, bookstores are allowed to return any unsold book for a full refund. Books that sell consistently, classics like, say, "To Kill a Mockingbird," or newer favorites like "The Help," are perennially available, but for the vast majority of books, the hardcover version gets three to four months to gain sales traction before it's shipped back for its refund. A paperback gets six to 12 months to prove its sales mettle before it, too, is returned.
These orphaned books are warehoused with millions of their compatriots, where they wait until they're called back into duty by other stores. (Publishers are even required to pay taxes on this inventory.) Sometimes, the exact same copy can be shipped back and forth to the same store more than once, leaving the book unread, though well traveled.
Once a book is permanently gone from the stores, it's either on its way to the purgatory of remainder-hood, which is the stack of year-or-so old hardbacks with big, $3.99 stickers on them, or the even worse — and almost inevitable — going "out-of-print" stickers. "Out-of-print" doesn't just mean that they aren't making any more copies, but that demand is sufficiently low and the cost of warehousing sufficiently high. Any remaining copies will be "pulped," a process that involves exactly what it sounds like.
It's a terrible system. In terms of getting books into stores, it obviously privileges the big, commercial publishers with marketing dollars to spend on placement, meaning smaller, more risk-taking publishers have a harder time getting noticed, or even placed on shelves at all.
But without returns, bookstores would stock only what they know they can sell, significantly diminishing variety.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline
2. "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" by Ransom Riggs
3. "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson
4. "Among Others" by Jo Walton
5. "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini
— Ron C., Schaumburg
Normally I would not recommend this book because it is such a contemporary classic (and looking at Ron's list, I would normally guarantee that he's read it), but twice recently I have run into readers with similar profiles and they professed to have never heard of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by
1. "Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon
2. "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" by John Green and David Levithan
3. "The Devil You Know" by Mike Carey
4. "The Gun Seller" by Hugh Laurie
5. "Anansi Boys" by Neil Gaiman
— Brianna K., Chicago
I'm hoping that Brianna isn't already acquainted with the work of Charlie Huston and his supernatural noir Joe Pitt series. Start with the first one, "Already Dead."
1. "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel
2. "Foe" by J.M. Coetzee
3. "The Girl She Used to Be" by David Cristofano
4. "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson
5. "North Korea: Another Country" by Bruce Cumings
— Kate H., Hometown
Kate seems drawn toward the mysterious. For her, a book from 2012 that gave me actual chill bumps: "You Came Back" by Christopher Coake.