“bookstores are businesses, not public conveniences. No store has the responsibility to carry every book published… I market books for a living, so I can tell you an unpleasant truth: the order for any book, from any account, starts at zero. The publisher’s sales rep walks in the door with tipsheets and covers, past sales figures and promotional plans, to convince that bookseller’s buyer to buy that book. In many categories… the chain buyers say “yes” the overwhelming majority of the time. But not all the time. Sometimes, that buyer is not convinced, and the order stays at zero.”
None of what Andrew says will be news to any one working in publishing — skips are an accepted, if unpleasant, part of the business — but, as Andrew notes, authors on the receiving end of skips are outraged by them, and I’m sure more than a few debut authors will be shocked to discover that there is such a thing and that it happens frequently enough to have its own terminology.
In most cases agents or publishers don’t discuss the possibility of skips with their authors before they actually happen — no one wants to be that pessimistic about a book’s chances! But that is not to say we should be less than forthright about the realities of business, or pretend that this doesn’t happen.
I recently had an exchange with a freelance publicist who told me with all confidence that he was going to book his client-author on national radio and television. Knowing the book, and having had some experience of the challenges of book publicity, I just about spat out my coffee. Charitably he was naively optimistic. Uncharitably, he was bullshitting me, and probably his client, to justify his hourly rate.
A publicist, however good he or she is, cannot guarantee an author publicity any more than the greatest sales rep can guarantee sales or prevent the dreaded ‘skip’. You can charm and you can twist arms, but ultimately the decision lies with someone else — a producer, a book review editor, or a buyer — with a set of priorities different to your own. To pretend otherwise, leaving things unspoken or offering overconfident assurances is a disservice to your author, and will probably bite you in the ass in the long run as a publisher (or freelance publicist).
Authors, unsurprisingly, have a tendency to be smart people. By and large they don’t want to be left in the dark, or have their hopes unrealistically raised. Sure they should take some responsibility — ask questions and educate themselves — but we should be honest and upfront about how the book business works, putting books in their proper context and giving an author a realistic sense of what is possible.