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September 24, 2004

ERROR-CORRECTION UPDATE: Well, maybe. My TechCentralStation column noted postings on a Borders union chatboard from Borders' employees who said they were hiding books. Now, in a message that appears in place of the original chatboard, the union says that the messages were posted by someone who may not have been a Borders employee. (They don't say that he/she isn't, only that they don't verify employment. But it sounds like trolling, regardless. I've asked the TCS folks to note this in an update, too.)

Reader Jon Woolf, meanwhile, thinks there's another explanation for all the anti-Bush books cluttering up bookstores -- they're just not selling as fast as the staff thought they would:

There are two possible reasons why the bookstores are full of copies of anti-Bush books, while pro-Bush or anti-Kerry books are hard to find, and those two are diametrically opposite in their implications.

Reason 1: the bookstores are anti-Bush and pro-Kerry, so they stock and prominently display anti-Bush books, while not stocking or displaying anti-Kerry books.

Reason 2: the bookstores are driven by two conflicting forces: expected sales and actual sales. They stock what they expect to sell and don't stock what they don't expect to sell. If they guess wrong on what will or won't sell, they have to "push" the nonsellers because nonsellers are a big loss in money terms.

In particular, if a bookstore guesses wrong and orders a lot of copies of a book that then doesn't sell, those copies are going to stay on the shelf for days or weeks. All those stacks of anti-Bush books that you see every time you walk into a Border's -- how many of them are the same copies, sitting on a table or in a shelf gathering dust, not being sold? Suppose a Border's puts out a table with 20 copies of some anti-Bush book and 20 copies of UNFIT FOR COMMAND at 10:00AM. UNFIT is popular, so all twenty copies of it are gone by 10:30. Meanwhile, nobody buys even one copy of the anti-Bush book. Then if you walk in at 10:45 what do you see? Twenty copies of the anti-Bush book and no copies of UNFIT. Bias in the management? No. Just the marketplace at work.

Hmm. Interesting theory, though I'm not sure I buy it.

UPDATE: Reader Kenneth Grover emails:

In your post which reflects on the two possibilities of why bookstores have many anti-Bush books your reader posits two causes: ideological and push sales. Both reasons are in effect along with a third; false perspective. Bookstores approach the ordering of books from their ideological bent (We smart, they dumb, we buy smart books, nobody want dumb books). This leads to the first situation of sold-out conservative titles and mounds of liberal titles. Then, since this is a bad situation, they have to push the unsold liberal books as much as possible to try and get out from under. The real kick comes in with the fact that their false perspective has broken the feedback loop and nobody changes their buying decision on the next go around.

Reader Matthew DeLuca emails:

Regarding the question of whether or not bookstores are biased towards Kerry in their selection and display of political books, I've made a point of asking the checkout clerk at each bookstore I visit (four, so far) why there's no copy of Unfit For Command available. Invariably, the answer has been that the book has been flying off the shelves, that they can't keep it in stock, the publisher can't ship fast enough, et cetera. I don't sense that they're feeding me any kind of line, either...so I'm sticking with the theory that it's a simple supply versus demand issue.

I'm shocked that Al Franken's books aren't selling better. On the other hand, reader Shelby Clark doubts that the unsold-volumes theory really explains things beyond the short-term:

Bookstores (most especially the big chains) have relatively generous returns policies. If books are sitting unsold for weeks, they will be returned to the publisher for a full or substantial credit/refund. Bookstores absolutely will not sit on large stores of new books that aren't moving.

I don't really know what this means for your or Woolf's theses, but that's my view. Credentials: I worked for several years at a sizeable NY publisher of popular books; my wife was for many years a bookstore manager, and the industry remains a serious interest to us both.

I thought that publishers had tightened up on returns somewhat, but I could be wrong. And reader Kevin Carbis emails:

Caught your post (actually I catch just about all of 'em) on the possible explanations for the Anti-bush slant in bookstores. This has occurred to me a couple times. I work in downtown SF and the closest bookstore is a Border's up at Union Square. I'm in there at least twice a week, I have to take the stairs up to the tech and history books. The landing on the staircase has a lot of extra space which is usually full of books. For weeks now, its been Clinton's My Life. There must be 200 copies stacked there. Every week, 200 copies. Then one week, 200 copies all marked 10% off. Then 20% off, now 30% off. I'm sure they restock to make the stack look nice but the size of the stacks and the size of the discounts make me wonder if the second explanation might not be more plausible than I would have thought.

Beats me. But as I noted in the column, even one of my farthest-left colleagues has found the gauntlet of Bush-bashing books (which I guess Clinton's isn't, really) so depressing that he's ordering from the Internet now. I wonder if store managers take that into account.