Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Dan Brown Cometh

As Laura mentioned yesterday, I have a theory regarding Dan Brown and the "Random House Hail Mary." Simply put, rather than adding to existing sales, I believe (as Arsen does—see link) that Dan Brown actually supplants existing book sales. Let me explain.

Let's say John Q. Public enters a bookstore intending to buy a book. Some people believe that John intends to buy a certain book, x, and if he sees something else he loves (as a result of co-op placement, let's say), he'll buy that new book in addition to x. I'll grant that this is probably the case for consumers who are more or less unaffected by the recession, or those who have enough money to pretend not to be.

With regard to the majority of consumers, however, I disagree with this model. I believe that, explicitly or implicitly, John enters the bookstore with the idea of spending x dollars on (a) book(s), and should he find something he strongly prefers to his original target (e.g. The Lost Symbol), he's going to buy that book instead of what he was originally going to buy. This sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but hear me out.

1. Dan Brown has a phenomenal amount of marketing and publicity, meaning he's going to be most consumers' initial target anyway. This is cheating, I know, but it's true: the amount of attention he gets before on-sale almost guarantees that he's going to be the number one priority for many consumers come September. So, before we even consider the number of people he "converts" in-store, he's already converted millions of people who have yet to enter a Barnes & Noble or Borders. You know when people say "If you buy one hardcover this season, buy x?" Well, in this case, x = The Lost Symbol.

2. The national chains will be more focused on Dan Brown than anything else. This means that they'll be subtracting space from other titles to allocate toward The Lost Symbol. More space for Brown per store means a higher likelihood that consumers will purchase his book over another.

3. Hardcovers are expensive. The average hardcover costs around $25.00. If you walk into a B&N intending to buy the new Charlaine Harris and instead discover a massive shrine to Dan Brown, will you buy The Lost Symbol? I think so. Will you buy both? Probably not; that's $50.00.

4. The numbers seem to bear it out. Arsen notes that, despite phenomenal sales for Dan Brown's last book, overall sales were only very slightly up at his store; sales for The Da Vinci Code replaced existing sales rather than adding to them. Individual consumers have limited amounts of capital, and when they have the option of buying one book or another, they seem to be more likely to buy their preferred novel over buying both. And when Dan Brown's out, his book is preferred almost by default.

Sure, pre-ordering allows consumers to pay now and pick up in September, and for this reason the major chains (as mentioned in yesterdays comments) are really pushing pre-orders. It should be noted, however, that this doesn't affect the total amount of disposable income any given consumer has, and that a pre-order for The Lost Symbol is still competing against other fall pre-orders; nothing has really changed.

If your novel is coming out this fall, then, you'll be facing some stiff competition; to be perfectly honest, I think you can expect to see slightly lower sales numbers for your title as a result of the Dan Brown colossus.

You tell me, though: do you think this is an accurate description of your own behavior as a consumer? Why or why not?


  1. I don't walk into the bookstore with a pre-determined to amount to spend, and I don't often have a specific book in mind that I want to buy.
    That said, I wouldn't buy 2 hardback books at the same time, because like you said, that comes to almost $50 for only two books.
    I usually have an armload of books and have to narrow it down. So buying one book, usually means I'm replacing another. If I bought Dan Brown's book (which I doubt I will) I would definitely be putting another book back to buy his.

  2. I do go with "an idea of a book" in mind- I ususally end up with one hardback and 1-2 paperbacks-which somehow makes me feel better, like I've spent less :)

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head. And I'm glad I found this blog, thanks for your efforts to keep us educated / informed!

  4. Bookstores are the only place where responsibility to my wallet deserts me. Despite my best intentions to purchase one title I usually leave with two or three although not all hardbacks.

    This does not hold true when I order online.

    I am absolutely susceptible to shelf space and visual display so regardless of how many books I buy the well promoted titles have the edge.

    I always felt that a monster title would elevate sales of other titles based on my habits but then, I am only a case study of one. I'm pretty sure the people who make their living on such things know what they are talking about.

    wvs: ingluc-the glut of tunnel vision consumers when a Dan Brown title is released

  5. I think it depends on how susceptible one is to book marketing and also one’s personal taste in books.

    I’ll admit that, as a librarian, I’m more likely to put off a purchase by adding my name to the reserve list at my library (or by requesting that the library buy a copy, if I think others might like it, too---anyone can do this, by the way) but a lot of my pocket money is still spent on books for my personal collections.

    Oddly enough, before this post, I didn’t actually know the title of Dan Brown’s new book (I don’t order general fiction for my library), though I remembered he had one coming out---I read his first just as it caught on (snagged it at the library on the recommendation of a friend), but didn’t bother to pick up the next one. His stories are quite readable (or at least that one was), but they just aren’t my kind of stories, and I don’t think any amount of “Everyone is reading this” marketing peer-pressure is going to make me buy this last one.

    Personally, I happen to love Charlaine Harris, and would gladly climb over a mountain of Lost Symbols---and ford great swoons of Stephanie Meyer fans, for that matter---to get to her latest.

    However, I was an early American fan of J. K. Rowling’s series (I discovered the first three books while visiting Canada), and while I didn’t visit the midnight release parties, I made sure to reserve copies or pre-order the moment the stores told me to. And just this past weekend, I stood in line for a combined three hours at ALA to get copies of Neil Gaimon ‘s The Graveyard Book and Eloisa James’ A Duke of Her Own (the latter in paperback). Both copies were personally autographed by their respective authors (I was too busy geeking to swoon), which actually wasn’t the real point—I wanted the books.

    What actually disturbs me is that I could miss discovering a great book from a midlist\new author because the Brand! New! Famous! Author! Craze! might displace it.

  6. I tend to walk into a store knowing exactly what I want. In times of desperation, I might just go in to browse around for something that looks good. Having been disappointed time and again by bestsellers including a certain wildly popular book by Mr. Brown, I would not at all be tempted by The Lost Symbol, but then I have long since come to the conclusion that I am a complete weirdo in matters of books and popular culture and such.

  7. I usually go to the bookstore with something in mind, or a long list of prospective titles that I just don't know enough about and want to look at. Regardless, I almost always walk to a table in the cafe with a stack of books larger than what I was intending (it's only ever smaller if I couldn't find what I came in looking for).

    Then I sit down and read a few pages of each, and start separating them into piles based on whether or not I like it, and how much if so. In the end I usually walk out with only two or three books, whatever I think I can get away with on my budget.

    But I do have to say that I almost never buy a hardcover book from an author I've never heard of, or am not incredibly excited about. I think the only exception to this is Radio Freefall by Matthew Jarpe.

  8. Actually, I'll pick up Dan Brown at the library. I know it'll be there.

    I'm much more likely to bypass the front all together and head to the SF/F, Mystery, or graphic novel sections, with a possible aside into the science or philosophy sections.

    As for buying hardbacks in particular, there are only a few authors I do this for. I pick up the latest Cussler or Clancy for my father's birthday. I'll buy Martha Wells without even reading the jacket. And anything by Andrew Vachss. And any paperback I've read until the pages are coming out, I will get in hardback. For everything else, I'll wait until it's in paperback.

  9. My personal policy is I don't buy "big" books. I just don't. I put my name on the reserve list at the library and I wait. I'd rather spend my money on books that need my support, especially debut authors.

  10. Depends on the book. In my 20 years as a reader with money to spend, I've only ever purchased a hardback if I just couldn't wait to read the story. That hasn't happened more than a handful of times. But the few times it has happened it's because I discovered a book that came out by an author I love that I wasn't expecting to see and I didn't want to wait for it to go to paperback.

    I usually go into a store with either the intent to find a specific book or with a dollar amount in mind. There have been a few times where I'll chose one book over another, but it's not because it's being advertised. And aside from that, Dan Brown is not my kind of author.

  11. I believe you are correct in your analysis. I do think the chains push pre-orders because if you purchase the book now, come release day you go to pick up the book, but you "feel" like you havent spent any money at the book store yet, so maybe you check out other books while you are there.

    All the same, I wouldn't want my book comming out against Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, or Stephen King. But that may just be my own insecurity speaking.

  12. I usually go to the bookstore with genre in mind but not necessarily a specific book. I enjoy browsing the shelves for authors I'm not familiar with in hopes of finding something new. If I have a specific book I want, I'll usually head to Amazon or Powell's (love their used books.)

    Very rarely will I buy a hardcover, using the library instead of purchasing whenever I can. I definitely work with a budget so I would agree in regards to consumers buying someting INSTEAD OF, rather than in addition to, another.

  13. Choosing one book over another isn't just a matter of how much money I have to spend. It's also about time.

    No one, not even a rich person, has unlimited time. Even if I buy ten other books along with the Brown book, that Brown book still counts for two weeks of my life. It's going to be that much longer before I make it back to the bookstore. That whole time you guys are reading your library copy of the Brown book you're NOT reading someone else's book. That's got to impact sales, right?

  14. Penny pinching is still the order of the day at my house - hard back = extra money - I wait for day one of the paper back release ...
    except for Potter and Fowl. Other than those I'm happy with the time delay.

  15. I love this blog! Just sayin'. :)


  16. I don't buy fiction hardbacks. They are far too expense, and they don't fit on my shelves. I am quite willing to wait for the paperback release.

    I'm very happy to have discovered your blog!

  17. If I were going to buy Dan Brown's book, I would pre-order it with the thought that bookstores might run out of it in the mad release rush. (To be honest, though, I'll probably wait for it to come out in paperback--I read Brown's books more out of curiosity than because I'm a big fan.)

    I do confess that I have gone into bookstores intending to buy one book and buying another instead, especially if the first is more expensive than I've anticipated. But usually I'll just plan ahead and wait for coupons, etc., rationing out my money instead of buying both books at once. (Unless I've got a coupon each for B&N and Borders! They're both close enough to me that it's not a big deal to make one trip to each.) Or I'll order online where it's cheaper.

    But most of the time, if the books aren't too expensive, I'll just splurge and get both. I don't buy many hardbacks as it is, so it's usually not too big a deal to get two books.

  18. I love, love, love my library. I wait in line at the library to get the book I want to read. Most of the time it goes fast a few days to a week because everybody knows that somebody is waiting for the book. I do, however, buy a book when a signing opportunity arises. I feel that this is a better investment. As far a searching a big book store, I don't. I love the feel of a local quality book store who has X amount of space and Fills X amount of space with QUALITY. I love that the crap has been sorted out and the wonderfuls remain. I find it a much more rewarding experience to part with my money.

  19. I enjoyed you on Nathan Bransford's site and I'm so glad you decided to blog. Love the title too! Please do, or maybe you could tell us in a post how you pitch novels. That would be so helpful to writers.

    As far as Dan Brown et al goes, call me cheap, but I know one of my friends will buy the book or get it for xmas. So I wait and borrow it and get whatever else I want at the bookstore. Usually a paperback murder mystery or two. Maybe a quality paperback noir classic and so on.

  20. I'm with Deb. I don't typically buy hardbacks either... I think the last one I did purchase was John Berendt's THE CITY OF FALLING ANGELS - but only because I found it on a discount table.

    I read two of Dan Brown's previous books - ANGELS AND DEMONS, THE DA VINCI CODE - and I enjoyed both (in paperback). I've rarely been the kind of person who MUST have something as soon as it comes out. I did pre-order the last HARRY POTTER book, but then I found it disappointing and a bit anti-climactic (incidentally, I can't believe it's being made into TWO whole movies!), so I can happily wait for paperbacks (at which point I usually buy more than one book).

  21. You people are way more responsible than I. If an author/story I love drops a new book, I can't stand it. Gotta have my own copy. Five minutes ago.

  22. I'm not buying Dan Brown's Book, or any of his books.

  23. I used to go into a bookstore and buy every book that I wanted.

    Now, I go with a list and a budget.

    Times are tougher.

  24. So are 'We', the thrifty ones, to blame for the fallout in the literary world? I would love to buy everybook I have ever read. I would love to fill my walls with bookcases filled with books and be proud to say "yup, read them all, twice" But then reality states my house is too small for my growing family, Morgage and food first, household bills second, clothing and personal nescesities, then finally I get around to my indulgences.

  25. I usually by-pass the Author shrines for the fact that I tend to not like the authors to begin with... Like Dan Brown. I hate Dan Brown and will probably pretend there is a hole in the fabric of space where is shrine is.
    Oddly enough... I DO like Chrline Harris.

  26. Great point, although I'm boycotting Dan Brown on principle. I'll try out new authors rather than feed the machine.

  27. I don't usually go over $20 when I buy books. Anything more than that just hurts (hey, I'm a college student!). Usually, I'll buy just one paperback, but if I see something that looks really good, I'll usually pick that up as well. Or if there's some kind of sale.

    I don't usually read mainstream fiction, though, so I don't really care one way or the other about Dan Brown's book. Whenever I'm at the bookstore, I make a beeline for the science fiction & fantasy section and usually spend all my time there.

  28. I think it all depends on the consumer and why they went to the bookstore in the first place. I live a bit out of town so when I go into the bookstore, it's usually because I plan to buy multiple books. If I were a Dan Brown fan (I'm not) then I would probably go with the intent of purchasing his book and browsing for others.

    However, especially with the recession, I can see how sales for other authors could go down when a colossus is released. But I wonder if this affects all genres the same way. It seems to me that YA and general fiction are the genres with the big names. When Dan Brown comes out will he impact non-fiction the same way he will other fiction?

  29. Hi Eric - I usually head on over to the clearance table to see if some of my favorite authors are there. Why buy one hardcover for $25 when I can buy four hardcovers for the same price? Otherwise, I will spend full price for the books of authors I know or for an author who has just won a major award, such as the Pulitzer.

  30. I must be atypical. I walk into a bookstore, and spend about three times what I intended to on a good day. On a bad day, I walk out empty-handed.

    Your theory won't wash for me, because after mistakenly buying a Dan Brown book (thinking Dale Brown), I will NEVER buy another one again. I'm one of those readers who just can't tolerate his complete lack of attention to detail. So I wouldn't buy the book no matter how much shelf space it's given.

    That detail aside, I would probably buy the book I came in there for in addition to one or more impulse buys. Assuming I could find it -- I rarely can find the book I'm looking for in a bookstore. If I know exactly what I want, I tend to buy on-line. I go to a bookstore when I DON'T know what I want.

    Also, the $25 price for hard covers is the accurate cover price, but all the chains I'm familiar with routinely deeply discount new, hot hard covers, so Dan's book would typically be 25% off cover at places like B&N. Add the customer discount card for another 10%, and the reader can probably afford two hard covers if they're smitten.

  31. Hi Jean—

    True, up to 30% discounting is very common at chains like B&N and Borders. Not every promoted title has discounting, though, and even with a 30% discount on two $25 hardcovers, you're still paying at least $35 ($25 x 0.7 x 2), and if you live in a state with sales tax (let's say 7%), that's nearly $40 for two books.

    Not just that, but unless there's a very specific discounting scheme (such as buy one, get one half-off, or BOGO), people are still less likely to buy two items than one, even with discounting. (They feel their initial savings of 30% are "erased" by buying a second book.)

    Before I worked in publishing, I was a research assistant studying marketing psychology. Interesting stuff.

  32. "I must be atypical. I walk into a bookstore, and spend about three times what I intended to on a good day. On a bad day, I walk out empty-handed."

    This is basically me. (Actually much of what Jean said I could have said. *looks at Jean suspiciously* Long lost twin?)

    I tend to go into bookstores and emerge with 6 more books than I intended. There's that quote (Erasmus?) about how "when I have money I buy books, if there's any left I buy food and clothes." That is me in a nutshell. I must be an oddity.

  33. @marski: I think that this the theory holds regardless of the economy (although certainly the economy is cutting into all discretionary spending) and I definitly don't think that the point is to make any kind of judgement on thrift. Maybe people are sticking more to their budgets than previously, but I think that the theory is still sound.

    The point made above about time is a really good one also. They really go hand in hand, time and money. If I find a $30 brick I just have to buy, that might get me to my budget and fill out my free time as well.

  34. PS. Eric, I'm loving the new blog but have been having a tough time with the comments. Sometimes I can't copy/paste into the comments field (maybe something to do with the 'select your log in' options?). I've never noticed anything with other blogspot blogs so figured I'd mention it.

  35. Hi Meg—

    Thanks for letting me know—I'll look into it and will try to get it fixed ASAP.

  36. Not an accurate description of what I do, but I know a lot of people who think that way. If I go to a bookstore, I know that I'll be spending as close to $100 as I can get, $100 being the limit on the debit card I trust myself with at bookstores. I might want to get specific book, but I never buy just one, nor do I intend to. Most of the time grab anything I specifically wanted, then head to the discount harddcovers section, and finally start browsing the trade paperbacks. I generally avoid the mass market paperbacks like the plague. There are just too many of them, I'm not fond of the cover art, and I often find the writing sub-par.

    As for the Dan Brown... I've read the four other books he wrote - not that I bought them, I'd never do that - and have found that he only has one plot. He changes the characters and settings, but the surprise twists aren't surprising anymore when they're about the exact same characters and come with the same pacing each book. So I'm not buying this latest offering, and I doubt that I'll read it.

  37. I live in a rural community, so I shop most of my books on Amazon. When I go in to Amazon to buy a book, I usually have something specific in mind based on either reviews or word of mouth recommendations.

    When I do go to the bookstore in the nearby city, I don't shop based on the big marketing campaigns. I've been burned into buying badly written novels one time too many to trust the big displays anymore. I agree with the rationale that I only have so much money to spend and I want to spend it on a book that I will enjoy and keep. That means I will go with an author who I know has produced well written books in the past.

    I've only read one Dan Brown novel from beginning to end, Angels and Demons, and I forced myself to read that, because I honestly was trying to see what all the fuss was about. The Da Vinci Code was so badly written, I couldn't get past page five.

    I may have to eat my words, but I think the Dan Brown colossus is about to crumble. A writer can thrive on clever marketing for only so long, and Dan has about over-extended his stay. He is an excellent example of how good marketing can promote your novel.

    Oh, and if you have a choice between Dan Brown and Charlaine Harris, go for the Charlaine Harris. At least her books are well-written.

    Great blog, by the way.


  38. Oh, it must be nice to be Dan Brown. Big displays, pre-ordered hardbacks, yada yada yada. I have a book coming out and all I can think from what I just read is thank God is not coming out in the fall and that it will be in paperback. I agree, it has to be a pretty important book to buy it in hardback these days.

  39. I generally go in with a rough idea of how much I can spend, and try to maximize the number of books I come out with, unless a very favorite author has something new out in hardback.

    Dan Brown doesn't factor into my buying habits, though. I'd rather spend my money on something else.

  40. I almost always buy online. But for example tonight, I decided to go to B&N and I only wanted to get The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice (I've always borrowed them from library and now I want to have them) and the Screwtape Letters (for my bookclub). Well, I left the store with not only those, but also Coraline, and several others. I'm addicted to books. I have to have my own copies of them, and I like to get the best quality I can find. I'm planning on getting the new Dan Brown, 'cause I loved his other books. This one sounds VERY interesting.
    Some people buy shoes; I buy books. Some people eat out every day; I buy books.

  41. Great post, I agree completely, though I never really thought of this before.

    When I enter a bookstore, I almost always have a pre-determined spending limit (otherwise I'd buy way too much), and some ideas of a few books I'm interested in.

    I haven't ever purchased a book by Dan Brown, but I do remember times when an interesting book on display has caught my attention enough for me to purchase it, instead of what I had in mind. And this is, like you said, is because I'm not going to pay $50 in one visit; the other books can wait.

  42. I guess a big title like a Dan Brown will only increase store sales (and help the book industry) insofar as it can bring in buyers who don't often buy books, and might otherwise have spent the money on dinner or a movie. The paperback versions may have done this.

    I think phenoms like Twilight and Harry Potter, on the other hand, have done loads of good for the book world (and the Shopaholic series, and a few others). When someone comes into my bookstore who's never come before, that's gotta be a good thing. And the 9-12 and Teen sections have only gotten bigger and bigger over the years, and not to the detraction of adult fiction, or bio, or other similar genres.

    [I had one customer who was so surprised that I knew where Shopaholic was, without my looking up the author, that she told her friend I must not have a life! Now that's someone who doesn't get out to Bookland very often. ;-) ]

  43. I go to a bookstore with a very specific goal in mind, or else I get overwhelmed by the number of possibilities (especially as opposed to the lack of possibility emanating from my wallet). And if the bookstore doesn't have That Exact Book I Want, I'm probably not going to buy anything. If I walk in with plans to buy the seventh volume of Y: The Last Man, I won't replace it with Blankets (even though I'd really like to buy the latter someday), because then I won't have any money for Y when I do see a copy of it for sale.

    But I am a student, and my disposable income is going to be especially curtailed this coming school year. When I can't even afford an apartment without a loan, it's not in my best interests to go browse aimlessly in a bookstore.

    I wouldn't be buying a Dan Brown even if I was loaded, though, so I might be a moot point here.

  44. I do this all the time!

    If I only have X amount of dollars to spend, I spend that amount: either on the book I had in mind or on something else that caught my attention.

    As for Dan Brown, I'll wait until his new book is available at the used book store down the street!

  45. One book doesn't supplant another when I'm in the bookstore. I'll buy 2, 3, 4 books at a time. But every book I read takes time. I'll buy 30-40 books a year and read them all, plus books from libraries and books loaned from friends. In the end I read a book a week and every time I buy a book it's probably another week before I find myself back in a store.

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