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The Novel Afterlife

How do books wind up on the bargain table—and what does it mean when they do? by Zachary Petit

It’s a moment of authorial horror: You’re browsing your favorite bookstore, and you stumble upon your book. For $5. In the section with the sign screaming “BARGAINS!” You flee to the dollar store for tissues and an antacid, and then you spot it, near the hand towels emblazoned with kittens and roosters—your book. For $2.

Take a breath. Ryan Kugler, president and co-owner of Distribution Video and Audio (DVA)—a close-out business that buys and sells remainder books—says it’s not a mar to your name. It’s just how the system works.

“It’s good for an author to know that this could and does happen with their writings,” he says.

In a nutshell, DVA works with major publishers that let the company know when they have excess inventory. DVA, a $20-million enterprise, looks over the items, buys the desired stock and distributes it—on the Internet, to bookstores, to flea markets, to truck stops and yes, to dollar stores.

So how do they choose what to buy in the first place?

“We choose what’s good,” Kugler says. “But, define what’s good.”

Essentially, for DVA, that boils down to new releases—the newer the better. Oversized coffee-table books. Chart-toppers. Timely or timeless topics. As for what best retains value in the market, Kugler says the recent economic downturn has affected all genres, but one evergreen always stands true: children’s books.

But why do books end up at closeout businesses in the first place: because of the publisher, or because of the author?

“I think it’s the publisher,” he says. “It’s not like any one publisher is messing up or any one author is writing the wrong content. I think that overall, when a book comes out, it does its business in the first six months, and then after that, the publisher has more titles to put out so they’re going to sell off the inventory that they have.”

And what does all of this tell writers?

“Keep doing your job,” he says, adding that authors shouldn’t be swayed by the presence of a liquidation business: It’s just part of the game, and there will always be excess inventory. Publishers have to move their remainders in order to keep the money coming in.

“It just happens,” he says.

So take a breath and put those antacids back. In the long run, your publisher is just making room for your next book, right?

This article appeared in the January 2010 issue of Writer's Digest.Click here to order your copy in print. If you prefer a digital download of the issue, click here.

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