Monday, August 11, 2008
Reverse shoplifting : an investigation
I first came across this practice on the Publish America Message Board. Since PA does not provide its authors with anything in the way of distribution or marketing, they are left trying to find ways to get their books into stores. Bookstores are not likely to order the books, which are highly priced and non-returnable (unless the author petitions PA to change this, and then the store is charged a restocking fee).
Some authors talk managers into placing the books on consignment, but when this doesn't work, they have one last option. It's called reverse shoplifting, and here's an example of it.
"I have started placing copies of my books in book stores; sometimes without their knowing it!"
Not the first time a PA author has tried this, either. Here's a whole thread devoted to getting past those little hurdles called "policies".
"I dropped one off at Martin's ( a local market ) and the manager gave it back to me and said to contact the district manager. Hell, I'd already signed it for the local one. I waited til he left and I put it on the front row of the best selling books. At least someone will look at it."
I wanted to investigate this practice further and see if it was at all likely to be successful, so today I went to the Indigo bookstore at the Eaton Centre and to the World's Biggest Bookstore, which is just five minutes' walk away. I spoke to three employees and a supervisor, asking them what they would do if they found a book that a hopeful author had left on a shelf without the manager's knowledge or permission.
At Indigo, I was told that any such books that the clerks found would be removed from the shelves and the store would then have to figure out how to return them to either the author or the publisher. At the World's Biggest Bookstore, the employees had never come across such books and so they directed me to a supervisor who gave me a lot of helpful information.
"Would you say that reverse shoplifting is not a good idea for authors, even if they're looking for any way to get more exposure for their books?" I said.
"No, not a good idea," she said. "If a customer tries to buy the book, that holds the line up while we try to find out why the book isn't in the inventory. Then we have to explain to the customer why we can't sell it. It's a waste of time."
"So you'd remember the book and the author, but not in a good way?" I said, and she agreed. On the PAMB, authors sometimes console themselves that "any publicity is good publicity", but I personally wouldn't spend money (purchasing a book from my publisher) if the end result was that people remembered me as the author who wasted their time.
"It's best if authors go through the regular distribution channels," the supervisor said, so I asked about books being left on consignment. She said that while the store will do this for local authors, it's rarely profitable because such books slip through the cracks. Books which the store doesn't order are not in the computer inventory (which comes from the head office, so the employees can't add books to it). This means that if customers or employees do a computerized search, they won't find the book that's on consignment. It'll only sell if the customers find it by themselves or the employees remember it and recommend it. She said this could be a problem for authors who went with vanity presses or other methods of printing which didn't give them adequate distribution.
"They should try to see it from the bookstore worker's point of view," she said, referring to the people who tried or advocated reverse shoplifting. I'm glad I had the chance to find out. On the Absolute Write thread where this practice was discussed, a co-manager of a Kroger store said that their policy would be to dispose of any books sneaked on to the shelves in this way, but I wanted to question people for myself.
Digression : I'm very shy in real life, so it was also good social practice for me to go up to strangers and ask them for a moment of their time. I'm fine once I get started and forget about being nervous and self-conscious.