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The Book Hits the Bookstores

The Book Hits the Bookstores!

When actual copies of the book exist, the legal department sends two copies of each finished book and a copyright application to the Library of Congress.  Once all the orders are in for the various accounts, they’re organized and collated by the publisher’s sales department.  Purchase orders are generated and sent to the warehouse, where the books are picked and packed once the new month’s books arrive at the warehouse from the printer, and the resulting stacks of books are sent off in boxes to the bookstores. Often orders are combined to reduce shipping costs, so a bookstore will get a single shipment that has the top bestsellers for the month in custom boxes with the title imprinted on their sides, plus all the new titles ordered in smaller quantities for that month in generic cartons of mixed books, plus every backlist title the bookseller ordered from the publisher three months ago—except for that one book that she special-ordered for a customer, which is now two months late, and for which the customer has been calling two times a day since it was ordered…. Any new books that have been widely anticipated will be shipped, to the best of publisher’s ability, to arrive at every bookstore in the nation on the same day. Barring shipping disasters (and they occur with distressing frequency), the book will arrive at its intended destination on time.

So the book has reached the bookstore, real or online, but it still isn’t on the selling floor yet. Some bookstore employee has to open the boxes, sort through their contents, make sure the shipment is registered in the store’s inventory and is actually what they ordered, and get the books physically to the right place to sell them. If it’s a traditional bookstore, the employee generally gets to do that while waiting on customers and watching for shoplifters and cleaning up the mess made in the children’s section by assorted browsers. (It’s not just little kids that make messes. It’s a little known piece of trivia that teenaged boys will manage to find every piece of anything the least bit erotic in a bookstore—and this includes romances, though the boys prefer pictures when they can get them—and will sit and gawk in the kiddie section, hiding their finds behind children’s picture books, until they feel in danger of getting caught in the act, when they’ll drop everything and run away. Frequent smut runs to fish this stuff out and put it back where it belongs are a fact of a bookseller’s life.) As a result of the various demands on booksellers, that long-awaited book can spend a lot longer in a back room than it ought to before it reaches a place where a consumer can find it…

…if it finds that place—the bookstore employee is often a dedicated, book-loving professional, but not always (the pay’s lousy, you see), and even the most dedicated employee can be overworked into doing things slowly or badly. A book can be easily misplaced—The Vitamin Bible in the religion section, for example, or A Recipe for Love in cooking. And even once it finds it place, a book’s consumer has to know what’s available and where to find it, or has to be able to spot it while browsing. In a superstore with 150,000 titles, finding what you want in the vastness of the offerings can be a formidable challenge. In an online bookstore with even more titles, it’s easy to find the books you know are there, but browsing is sometimes difficult, and you miss treasures you’d have happily bought if you were shopping in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. New formats and new distribution systems are making the process of finding a book harder every day. Is it available on audiocassette or CD? Is it available for download into a handheld reader or a Palm Pilot? Is it available in E-book format? Can you handle print-on-demand for this obscure title?  Is it available at my local mall store, or has my local mall store closed down? Do I have the energy to cope with going to the local superstore, the budget to handle what I’m likely to purchase if I do, and the willpower to resist the smells coming from the café?

But the struggle to go from idea to book is usually a successful one. A book, whatever shape it takes, is almost always exactly where it’s supposed to be on the day on which it’s expected. A reader will hopefully see it, grab it, read the blurb, and buy it. Like a romance, this is a story with a happy ending. And, given the number of steps in the process, and all the ways that they can go wrong, you can see why I think it’s a small miracle every time it happens.

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