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.


GunnerJ said...

Hahaha, do people actually do this and then defend their vanity press?

"Welp, I just paid several thousand dollars for these printed books, time to sneak them onto the shelf, boy oh boy am I happy with my decision!

Laurie Ashton said...

Are these people really that stupid? Even if someone wanted to buy the book and the bookstore was willing, where would the money go? Think about it - not to the author. So, what's the point? No, really, what's the point?

Kim said...

I was going to try this myself last week (asking bookstore people, not reverse shoplifting!), but I had my kids with me, which makes any sort of outside conversation impossible. Maybe next solo trip =)

I can't imagine anyone with a hint of common sense would think this is a good idea... but I've read it on the PAMB myself... **insert sigh here**

Anonymous said...

Wow. Just wow.

Yeah, being remembered as the author who took up someone's valuable time and probably ticked them off, there's a sure way to be successful!

It never ceases to amaze me how far some people will go to feel like they've made it!

Marian said...

Hi Laurie,

It's true that the money wouldn't go to the authors, but they're hoping that someone, anyone, beyond their friends and family, will see and read the book. They know that hundreds of customers browse through bookstores and that their only chance of reaching these customers is to get their book on the shelves.

There’s always the hope that the one person who reads the book will tell five others, who will buy five more books and tell others, and so on. There's nothing wrong with having dreams that keep you going past the rejections and setbacks, but what bothers me is not doing the basic minimum of research - speaking to a few employees. Then again, perhaps that would be too much of a disappointment and disillusionment for the authors.

Thanks for commenting!


Marian said...

"Welp, I just paid several thousand dollars for these printed books, time to sneak them onto the shelf, boy oh boy am I happy with my decision!

Hey GunnerJ,

It actually won’t cost thousands to buy one’s own books in bulk from the PAMB (though it won't be cheap either). Assume your book is priced at $19.95 for a regular paperback (which is normal for PA-printed books). PA sends emails to authors offering specials and discounts at least once a month, so if you buy 50 books, you could get half off, and you’d pay about $500 in total for the books. I’ve heard that PA charges up to $2/book for shipping and handling, so that would be an additional $100.

There would be further costs for advertising and distribution of these books, all paid for by the author. But the real loss for me is the sadness, disillusionment and burnout on the part of the author. First books are often learning experiences rather than publishable material, but since PA prints these books, the authors spend their time advertising and promoting these early efforts rather than writing and improving to the point where they become commercially published. This is fine for someone who just wants the one book, but a disaster if you want to have an actual career.

GunnerJ said...

Ah. I was basing my comment on the Tate article, where it said something about $4000. With PA I guess the savings are made up for by the raw, glistening shame of leaving your work out to rot on store shelves like unwanted melons.

Marian said...

Assuming that the books could get on to the shelves in the first place.

1. No sales rep from the publisher visiting bookstores to promote them.

2. No catalog sent out to buyers for the major chains.

3. No 50% discount to bookstores (normal in the industry). And the books are overpriced to begin with.

4. No toll-free number by which to order books.

5. No returnability (also normal in the industry; books which don't sell in a certain period of time can be returned for a refund)

6. No quality control, eg. editing.

7. No advertising of any kind from PA, eg. posters with the book cover on them. Most PA authors make or pay for their own.

With all these issues, the stores are highly unlikely to order books from PA, which means the author usually ends up buying the books from PA in order to sell them. That's how PA makes a profit.

GunnerJ said...

Well... that's if you follow the "traditional" route of "getting people to buy your stuff" and not the fresh, hip, innovative route of sneaking into stores and putting them there yourself!

I think reverse shoplifting might work better if the authors made the first page of their books nothing but their address and a note saying "PLEASE SEND MONEY YOU ARE ON THE HONOR SYSTEM FOR THIS BOOK!"

Doug said...

Print is dead

Anonymous said...

PA would work just as well for their victims if they stopped printing books altogether and had their website declare "IF YOU'RE A COMPLETE WANKING MORON, THEN SEND US ALL YOUR MONEY!"

It would widen their customer base.

Lynn Price said...

I laughed so hard that my kidneys displaced themselves into my lungs. Yes, I can attest that POD authors do this.

Jane Smith said...

Marian, thank you for linking to this piece from my article on the same topic: your piece is, once again, superior to mine and I am, as usual, indebted to you!

Here's a link to my piece on the same subject, for anyone who might find this. I don't think I add anything that Marian's not covered, though.