Lie to Me

Boulderbookstore  Authors talk a lot about the power of hand-selling, how a bookseller's positive recommendation of a book means more than all the self-promotion, blogging, and twittering you can do. That's because customers trust that booksellers are knowledgeable and well-read…and that they are sharing an honest opinion when they recommend a title and are telling the truth when they say a book is particularly popular with their customers. But that could change if independant booksellers follow the sleazy example set by the Boulder Bookstore, where the booksellers are being paid off to recommend certain books and to claim a book is a "local favorite" when, in fact, they haven't read the books and they aren't local bestsellers:

The “Recommended” section at the Boulder Book Store, an independent bookseller in Colorado, features a mix of titles and genres. And also: a mix of distribution models. Among the traditionally published works on display stand a smattering of print-on-demand titles — many of them being sold on consignment by authors from the Boulder area.

They’ve paid for the privilege. The store charges its consignment authors according to a tiered fee structure: $25 simply to stock a book (five copies at a time, replenished as needed by the author for no additional fee); $75 to feature a book for at least two weeks in the “Recommended” section; and $125 to, in addition to everything else, mention the book in the store’s email newsletter, feature it on the Local Favorites page of the store’s website for at least 60 days, and enable people to buy it online for the time it’s stocked in the store.

It's another attempt to separate aspiring, self-published authors from their money. The bookstore is offering the self-published authors shelf-space for a small fee, which would be laudable if it wasn't coupled with misleading the public into thinking the books were actually read by the bookseller and popular among their customers.

And for the self-published, print-on-demand author, it's one more check to write on top of what they've already paid for the book to be published, what they paid to buy copies of the book to resell, and what they paid to have them shipped. Add to that what the bookstore is charging to stock and dishonestly "recommend" the title as a "local favorite," there is slim chance the author will ever make a dime on his books…

To be fair the Boulder Bookstore, what they are doing is giving self-published authors a chance to get their books on a store shelf…something few bookstores are willing to do. And booksellers charging publishers for store placement isn't entirely new: Barnes & Noble and Borders charge publishers for front-of-store placement and prominent displays. However, and I may be wrong about this, the big bookstore chains don't charge publishers a fee to have their books "recommended" or falsely listed as a local bestsellers. But whether B&N does it or not, that doesn't make accepting pay-offs to deceive customers any less sleazy and shameful.

Photo of Boulder Book Store by Jesse Varner used under a Creative Commons license. Thanks to Richard Wheeler for the heads-up on the article.

20 thoughts on “Lie to Me”

  1. Amen. If you’re paid to recommend it, when you didn’t read it, this is a deceptive sales practice and ought to be ordered stopped by the Boulder Police. Persons who buy such books ought to be able to sue the bookstore for thousands since their trust is being abused.
    The larger question, of charging self-published authors for shelf space, and mention in newsletters, etc, reminds me of the fees that banks began charging in the 1980’s. The companies feel that each and every thing they do is a cost and ought to be paid for by the client or else why are they doing it? Booksellers seem to be following the same sort of business logic: “we place your book in our store, so pay us, so we can cover our rent.” I see both sides. For the professional — a doctor, lawyer, executive, etc — who writes a book, self-publishes, and can afford a $1,000.00 to pay to the book store, it might make sense and pay off — either in just recouping costs or making some real money.
    Anyway, it’s obvious the publishing landscape is changing. My guess is that publishers and bookstores are pricing the books out of the maketplace, and that e-books will put them, basically, out of business.

  2. Great post, Lee. Time to call these sleazebags out for their underhanded, deceptive practices. From now on, any mention of “indie bookstores” on the blogosphere, especially those urging everyone to patronize them should now read, by default, “all indie bookstores except the Boulder Bookstore”.

  3. In addition to these fees the Boulder bookstore also takes the usual 40 percent on the sale price. That margin once covered the bookseller’s costs and its profit, but now these fees are added to that.

  4. I totally disagree. Recommendations by booksellers happens all the time. Amazon & Barnes & Nobles do it. I would assume that those are not free. Google ads are not free. Ads in the NY Times are not free. So why should you demand that recommendations from a small bookstore be free?
    Lee where have you been these past years? You as a writer should know that in order to get publicity and word of mouth recommendations you need to pay for it.
    Whether your book is good or not does not matter. Sooner or later words get out from buyers themselves about the quality of your writing. So even if you pay everyone in town for a good word, if you sell crap then no one will buy it.
    Stephen King for example has a monster of a publicity machine behind his every book. Lately however, sales of his books are declining. Why? Because stories are repetitive. Tom Clancy was once a power house writer. When he started to have other writers write for him, his books lost readers.

  5. Any self-published author who’s paying merely to have their books on a bookstore shelf needs to rethink their sales strategy. That’s just a waste of money. Not to mention the fraudulent representation part–but is that really anything new? Why do I get the funny feeling this kind of thing is done all the time at bookstores and video rental places?
    Anyway, books don’t have to be in bookstores proper nowadays for people to buy them. So, what’s the point, really?
    Oh, and about this: “for the self-published, print-on-demand author, it’s one more check to write on top of what they’ve already paid for the book to be published”
    Lee … *sigh* … you’re confusing self-publishing with vanity publishing …

  6. It’s a close call for me. If a major trade publisher pays for a book to be stacked n kiosks at the front of a store, it’s called promotion. If a self-published author does it, it’s called fraud or self-delusion.
    As for the cost, I don’t know how many times I’ve read MJ Rose and other authors say that today, authors must bear the cost of publicity and promotion.
    Yes, bookstores take a percentage of the cover price of a self-published book where the author pays for placement. Exactly as they do with major publishers paying for placement.

  7. In radio it’s called payola and illegal. Allan Freed was ruined for doing it, even though it was common practice back then.

  8. when I see a “recommended for you” tag at amazon I don’t seriously think someone ACTUALLY read the book and is now sharing that tidbit with me cuz I’m so special!
    If I walked into an indie store (get the indie it’s crucial) and see recommended, loved by locals etc I’m gonna think the store folks read it. Silly me.
    If I see that in a chain like BN I think it’s just another ad.
    If any store wants to charge to put a book on the shelf they ought to have a separate, clearly defined area for “local writers” or even “self-published”. I think it would work–enough might be curious to check it out.
    IMHO For the most part self-publishing is vanity publishing.
    I think self-publishing works for some things that have very small markets to begin with like a guide to local history but novels and things traditionally thought of as something you do on a bigger scale have so far been disappointing to me–when I’ve managed to even get through the book…
    Other ways to get a book into the hands of a reader is not a solution for those who can’t write to begin with. It only helps those who can write and build on that skill (for example a mid-lister who doesn’t get much ad $)
    I remember in the mid 80’s everyone jumped on the desk top publishing bandwagon. Suddenly everyone could be a publisher of a magazine/newsletter! I don’t think one I subscribed to made it beyond a few years.

  9. I think there is a huge misunderstanding about what we are doing and even what our store looks like. We have four cases of recommended books that hold roughly 200 titles. Over the course of a year about 1,500 books flow through the section. At any given moment 1-5 of those books is self published. Right now there are three self published books.
    If a staff person has read the book and is recommending it, the tag under the book is bright orange and says “staff recommended” with the booksellers name. Otherwise the tag is white and does not claim to be recommended by a member of the staff.
    We have books recommended by our customers. We have books recommended because of dynamite reviews they got in local or national publications. We have books recommended by our buyers. All the self published books are accompanied by recommendations. If we don’t have a recommendation we don’t put it on the case.
    Our main goal is to expose our customers to as many intriguing, eclectic, wonderful books as we can.
    The self published books end up surviving on their own merit. We give them two weeks on the shelf. Sometimes they sell no copies at all and they are removed. Other times they sell amazingly well and we keep them up there for months.
    Customers read the tags, thumb through the books and make their own judgments. We might sell more self-published books than any store in the country. This is the future of the industry. Rather than scorn these writers we are trying to embrace them. Rather than hide their books from our customers we are trying to share them.
    We can’t read every book published and certainly don’t pretend that we have. We are just trying to give an opportunity to writers while covering our staff costs. These labor costs can be considerable when you are spending the amount of time it takes to really give a self published book a shot in today’s overhyped market.
    In the end, all the books are returnable and if a customer is unhappy they can always bring it back. Our return rate on self-published books is no greater than other books.

  10. Why are some people failing to grasp the issue: If a bookseller takes money to “recommend” a title, the alleged recommendation is a lie intended to gull the customer. The bookseller has no valid grounds to recommend the title. No one in the store has read it or even examined the reviews, if any. Likewise, if the seller takes money to say on its website that a book is locally popular when it isn’t, that also is a lie. These are deceptive practices that should interest the Colorado attorney general. They deceive consumers. Deceptive advertising is illegal and the Federal Trade Commission devotes a great deal of attention to advertising and packaging, ensuring that consumers are not being gulled.

  11. There is nothing inherently wrong with a bookstore wanting to charge a self-publisher for space. Basically, it’s saying “to have your book in our store, we want doing so to be profitable… and we don’t have confidence in your sales”. And it can -potentially- be worth it for a self-publisher, if they have a book with an obvious hook that hte retail is overlooking (retailers aren’t always perfect at knowing the desires of their clientelle), or if there are other reasons (I’ve known publishers who were willing to go quite far to get their books prominent and visible in Hollywood-area stores, with the hope of getting some recognition of the work when they try to sell it to the movies.)
    And in many ways, the best ad for your book is a well-designed cover visible at the place that sells it.
    But before I’d enter into such an agreement with a bookstore, I’d want to know: have they done such a deal before? And if so, how were sales of the book? If paying $25 for a slot sells me one copy, it aint worth it…

  12. Are you the author Richard S. Wheeler? If you are, we carry your books. We’ve got a couple of copies of Snow Bound onhand. We’d love to have you come down from Montana to the store and see what we are doing and autograph the books. I think if you actually saw the tags and how they are attributed, you wouldn’t accuse a bookstore that is trying to sell your books of criminal activity.

  13. Amazon does it right. It publishes full reviews by credentialed critics. It publishes reader reviews. It lists sales rank, and also sales rank within narrower categories. All of it is valid information for prospective buyers. It does not, for a price, recommend a title or proclaim it a favorite.

  14. Arsen,
    I see a number of contradictions between what you are saying and the facts in the article. I also see contradictions with your comment here.
    You writes: “We have four cases of recommended books that hold roughly 200 titles. Over the course of a year about 1,500 books flow through the section. At any given moment 1-5 of those books is self published. Right now there are three self published books. If a staff person has read the book and is recommending it, the tag under the book is bright orange and says “staff recommended” with the booksellers name. Otherwise the tag is white and does not claim to be recommended by a member of the staff.”
    So what is the book doing on the Recommended Shelf if it’s not recommended by anyone? If it’s there because you’ve been paid to put it there…you are deceiving your customers and engaging in payola.
    Arsen writes: “All the self published books are accompanied by recommendations. If we don’t have a recommendation we don’t put it on the case.”
    But you’re charging $75 to feature a book for at least two weeks in the “Recommended” section. I guess it’s enough to have the author recommend his own work along with the check.
    So is the article wrong? Are you charging authors $75 to put their books in the recommended section for two weeks or not? If you are, what are you using as the basis for the recommendation if nobody on the staff has read it or you don’t have rave reviews respected critic and trusted customers?
    And what about the fee you’re charging authors to have their books listed as a “local favorite” regardless of whether they are or not? Did the article also get that wrong?

  15. Arsen: Here is the key criterion. Do self-published books appear on your firm’s Recommended table when there are actual recommendations, such as several favorable reviews, regardless of whether the author paid? Do self-published books appear on your Local Favorites site because they actually are favorites, even though the author didn’t pay? If not, it’s just payola.

  16. I’m a fairly well known author in Colorado and live within 20 miles of Boulder. The Boulder Book Store doesn’t carry a single one of my books, even though BN carries all of them on the shelves in Colorado, with automatic restock. When I approached the store to do a signing several years back, they wouldn’t even return my phone calls. If they support self-published authors, it’s certainly news to me.

  17. BN has a staff picks section and newsletter but I get the idea they actually read the books and there’s no pay to play requirement. That would be a different matter.
    Would Arsen recommend Mr. Wheeler’s books without a pay off is the question? Has he?
    Richard, get me your new email address if you would. My recent email bounced. I may be coming back to Livingston for a temp job.


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