Part I: If It's Not On the Shelf, I Can't Buy It
I've been training myself in the Seanan McGuire school of How to Help Authors by Buying Their Books. Specifically, I've been trying to buy new books, hers and others, the week they come out, not earlier, and preferably not later, as first week sales are important to an author's career, often being used to determine whether they get to write more books.
I don't like that this is the case -- I hate that it hurts authors if a bookstore puts their books on the shelves early. I hate that if the first week is slow and then sales pick up, it's not as good as the same number of sales more heavily weighed towards that first week. But, okay, if I'm willing to buy the book in the first place, and I'm fine with hardcover, trade, or paperback, you know, I can shoulder the hardship of buying it that first week, go ahead and twist my arm.
Some weeks ago, then, I walked into the Union Square Barnes and Noble, ready to buy:
Seanan McGuire's The Brightest Fell
Catherynne Valente's The Glass Town Game
Max Gladstone's Ruin of Angels
ALL of these were released that week. NONE of them were on the shelves.
Now, let me be absolutely clear: THE STAFF OF THE UNION SQUARE BARNES AND NOBLE ARE AWESOME!
Every single person I have interacted with in this store has been professional, helpful, sympathetic, and willing to do everything in their power to get the books I want into my hands. Every. Single. One.
They don't set policies. They walk the floor, answer the phones, work the registers, staff the information desks, and generally work every part of their anatomy off for hours every day.
I had, I think, three people combing the store trying to find my books. They knew at least two of the books were Somewhere In the Store. And, they spent about 20 minutes trying to find them.
The reason it was only 20 minutes was that at that point, I needed to head to a doctor's appointment. Understand: I left myself enough clearance to walk into Barnes and Noble to buy two hardbacks and one trade paperback that I could wait 20 minutes for staff to hunt for the books.
And there were apologies on both sides when the books failed to materialize, me because I absolutely had to go, them because they really wanted to get the books into my hands. And, before I left, they told me to phone the store, maybe later that day, maybe the next day, and if the books were on the shelves, great! If not, they could hunt them down and put copies aside for me.
Why weren't the books on the shelf? I gather that, whether this is a store-wide phenomenon or specific to that particular store, the staff isn't allowed to shelve books while there are customers in the store. Management is, or at least, was, trying to get folks to stay late and shelve after hours. This is store open from 9 or 10 am until 10 pm, which means that after hours is very late.
Also, while there is a general New / Recent Books section on the first floor, the section specific New / Recent Books sections are gone, at least for Science Fiction, Comics, and Manga.
All of this makes it harder for the store to sell me books.
I complained about this on twitter, adding in @BNSciFi. This netted me sympathy, an apology, and a $10 coupon, all of which I accepted. And, I called the store as instructed, confirming that the McGuire and Valente books were in and on the shelves. Max Gladstone's Ruin of Angels was in an indeterminate state.
I returned to the store and picked up the two books that were available. I asked about the third.
Staffer (editing to kill back and forth redundancy): It's not in the story... I'm not sure WHY it's not in the store -- I see it's out. I can order one in -- Okay, here's what's going to happen. I WILL order one in. You WILL get your book. Yes, I'll order copies for the shelf as well. We'll call you when it's in, and we will put aside a copy for you.
In other words, the staffer took me in hand and made sure I would get my book. Good, professional job all around.
I have no idea whether I bought Ruin of Angels in the window of that crucial first week.
So, last week, I called ahead, looking for three more books:
S.A. Chakraborty's The City of Brass, which I'd been anticipating for months -- yep, in the store!
Carrie Di Risio's Brooding YA Hero -- on the shelves, as I'd lost track of the date and missed the first week.
Mira Grant's (well, okay, Seanan McGuire's) Into the Drowning Deep -- the person I spoke to wasn't sure.
I went into the store. City of Brass was on one of the New Books tables, so I found it quickly. Brooding YA Hero was in the YA section, as I'd been told.
Into the Drowning Deep was not on the shelf, so I went to a staffer. At first she thought that it had not yet been released, as that's what her computer indicated. I told her that it had indeed been released, and that this was one author who was very good about telling her fans when her books were due out. She believed me, double checked, and was rather confused at the contradictory information on her computer, which both confirmed the release date was what I said it was and said that it hadn't yet come out.
Again, I had three staffers combing the store for it. And I'd left myself an hour or so for this. In other words: I left myself an hour for staffers to comb the store for a book that should have been on the shelf.
And I found a couple of other books to add to my pile.
And two of the staffers told me that the book was in the store, but they couldn't get to it.
When I told this to Josh on the phone, this was the point where he did some eloquent, if invisible, facepalming and staring at the phone in utter disbelief.
I can picture the probable situation. I think the copies of the book were in whatever storage room is in the store, shrinkwrapped in large bundles atop pallets, possibly in the same bundle with other titles, surrounded on all sides by similar large shrinkwrapped bundles on pallets.
I was asked if I absolutely needed the book tonight. If I'd said yes, there is no doubt in my mind that the intrepid staff WOULD have found a way to get to that bundle and retrieve a copy of the book and put it into my hands. I didn't think this necessary. Also, I was starting to run short of time.
So, they handed me a printout of their information on the book, including a reference number, and told me to phone later that night or the next day, and use that number. If the book weren't already on the shelve, they'd call me when it was, and they'd pull a copy for me and hold it for up to three days.
That was Thursday. Friday, I had a lot of stuff come up, but when I called Saturday, I spoke to a staffer delighted that I had the reference number! Yep, full marks to that staffer's colleagues for making it easier for everyone to get the book into my hand and the money into the store's. I picked the book up on Monday, and I may have convinced a couple of the staffers that they really needed to read it.
I don't know if this counts toward first week sales. But, I tried.
In other words, I called ahead because I knew I couldn't trust the store to put new books on the shelves.
And, indeed, they didn't put one on the shelves and couldn't get to it within the amount of time I'd budgeted, which was about an hour.
And this included the time it took them to find it.
And their computers informed them that the book wasn't even out when it was in the store.
And, oh yes, one of the staffers checked for a New Releases section in Science Fiction because apparently, some sections have such a subsection and some do not and why the heck the decision was made to kill these sections I do not know.
And dang it, Barnes and Noble, I should not have to move heaven and earth to get books from you in such a way that I'm doing my best for the authors whose work I love!
And dang it, Publishing Industry, I SHOULD NOT HAVE TO DO YOUR JOB! I should not be doing this much work to get your authors' books into my hands because you've decided that if the FIRST WEEK sales aren't good enough, maybe you don't want to publish another book by that author in that series!
And this is the sort of thing that is killing stores. It's a death spiral -- the store doesn't keep current, so why do I bother coming in? But, if I don't, there are fewer sales, and the store is worse about keeping current, because it's not as if they have a lot of sales, and... yeah, bad all around.
And, while, as I've said, every single person I've dealt with in Barnes and Noble has been helpful and professional, the policies I've seen in action are very much discouraging me from showing any loyalty to the stores.
Apropos of this...
Part II: I Remember What You Did
Barnes and Noble is a bookstore chain I grew up with. I remember a lot about it, even when store staff and twitter staff don't because it was before their time.
I remember the commercials. "Barnes and Noble -- of course! Of course!" A discount on every book every day, of at LEAST 10%, and you didn't have to be a member of any club, let alone pay for the privilege.
I remember Barnes and Noble doing its push to drive the independent bookstores out of business. Discounts! Chairs and tables! Comfy couches!
And it worked. We lost most of our independent bookstores.
And as soon as we did, the couches vanished. The chairs and tables vanished over time.
And, the discount that everyone got every day on every book for no charge whatsoever? It went away. Bye-bye!
So, no, Barnes and Noble, I am NOT interested in paying money to join your club and pay for what I used to get for free. You drove stores I loved out of business, and you want me to pay for the privilege? No.
But it saves money? You really don't want me thinking about that. If I start prioritizing spending less, I can do better at Amazon and online used book stores. Loyalty? You haven't earned it. Loyalty is what I save for independent book sellers -- and authors whose books you can't bother to shelve in a timely fashion, unless you shelve them too early for their sales to count.
And, your priorities seem a little odd to me. Greeters? Maybe these are folks keeping an eye out for shoplifters, or maybe they're doing something else, but when I get greeted as I walk in, I don't feel like you know me. No, I wonder how badly things are going for Barnes and Noble.
And I wonder even more when I hear an announcement that cheesecake is on sale in the cafeteria -- when I hear it no fewer than three times, which I estimate means about once every 20 minutes. Look, this may come as a complete surprise, but when I go to a bookstore, I am shopping for books. I'm not interested in your cheesecake. If I want food, I'll go to a restaurant or cafe. I have negative loyalty to you as a source of food and drink.
I also don't get why your coupons aren't good on etext.
I'm not currently motivated to boycott Barnes and Noble, but if the chain is indeed in financial difficulty, well, I'm just not that motivated to do any more than I'm doing. Your policies are undercutting your sales and do not encourage customer loyalty.
Also, to be clear: I'm not angling for another coupon. I will totally accept one if offered, as it saves money on books, but that isn't what I want. I want Barnes and Noble to be a better store.