The Game

Having one’s book appear on the New York Times Bestseller list is not strictly a matter of popular opinion. Rather, inclusion on that list depends entirely on selling a predetermined amount of books within the first week of a book’s release. For the Times, this magic number is 9,000. Inclusion on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list is a bit more forgiving: one needs to sell only 3000 books within the first week to qualify.

Achieving these numbers is rarely accidental; a book publishing company has a number of tools at its disposal to ensure being listed on these lists. Presale orders, for example, count towards those first-week sales (so, when you see a book being “pre-sold” on Amazon, the publisher is often front-loading sales for the purposes of getting on a bestseller list). Another tool is including a “buyback” clause in book contracts. The way this works: a publisher offers an author a deal to publish a book, and in this offer is a clause requiring the author to buy a set number of their own books from the publisher. The way this buyback is usually framed is “here’s a stock of books you can sell yourself”, but spoiler alert: the buyback amount is often coincidentally the same number as a bestseller list threshold.

The astute reader will surmise that preorders count as “presales” for our Aviary book, and would therefore allow us to get within shooting distance of some of these bestseller lists. And this should be correct.

But it probably won’t be.

To give context as to why something like a bestseller list is interesting to Sarah and I at this moment, it might help to paint a clearer picture of the scale of our book order. When she and I created The Alinea Project, we printed 750 copies. In the world of offset printing, this is a tiny order. Yet when 750 books showed up at our small apartment in Oakland, it easily filled a spare bedroom (and most of the hallway). Our apartment was a loft, and I had promised to sign and number each book, which meant carrying each one up a flight of steps to our dining table, unpacking it, signing it, re-packing it, and carrying it back down to our car to drive to the post office. The book weighed about 8 lbs. per copy, which translates to nearly 3 tons of books we moved by ourselves. Packing and shipping that amount of books took us about a month of solid work.

In contrast, we’re currently printing 30,000 copies of the Aviary book, which is a number large enough to threaten being meaningless. Of these 30,000 books, about 3,500 copies are spoken for by early supporters such as you. This leaves 26,500 books unspoken for. That’s 26,500 books (weighing over 100 tons, measuring over 4,000 cubic feet in volume) that need to be transported and stored somewhere.

It probably goes without saying that this amount of weight and space far exceeds the bounds of a spare bedroom or an unoccupied storage closet in a restaurant.

There are, of course, warehousing, logistics, and fulfillment companies who can help us manage this. These services come at a cost, however, and comparing one service to another can be a bit complicated. The longer our books hog up space in someone’s warehouse or the more they need to be shuffled around to a more advantageous geographic spot, the more cost we incur.

At the risk of sounding absurd, there is nothing “automatic” about figuring out how to deal with all this. Once we’ve done the work of producing a book, it will not magically just appear on the shelves of bookstores or in libraries. These tasks are usually handled by a book publishing company, which might have an extensive network of infrastructure designed to accomplish them efficiently. But in this case, it will be Sarah, myself, Nick, Chef, and our team who work to figure out how to navigate these waters.

As an example: an obvious matter for us to consider is selling our book through Amazon. If we choose to warehouse and ship books ourselves, the cut Amazon takes for providing us a bit of digital real estate on their website is relatively low. But if we handle the matter of shipping a book to customers, the book won’t be eligible for “Prime” shipping on Amazon. To be eligible for “Prime”, Amazon wants to be in control of shipping, which means our books need to be sent to one of Amazon’s warehouses. This incurs storage fees and an overall higher cut that Amazon takes of the sale price.

To add further complexity: when our books are loaded onto a boat in China, the boat needs to know where these books are going. Amazon has warehouses all over the world. We could choose to allocate the books to these warehouses ourselves (at a lesser cost, but without really knowing where the books are most likely to be sold), or we can allow Amazon to distribute the books as needed throughout its own warehouse network…at a higher cost to us. Learning how to weigh the variables of these equations is something we are rapidly coming up to speed on.

This may help explain why learning about inclusion on a bestseller list is suddenly an interesting matter to us. We’ve learned, however, that bestseller lists like that of the New York Times depend on numerous sources to report numbers during the first week of sales, including brick-and-mortar bookstores and the publishing company itself. And here’s where we fall into a black hole: we’re a restaurant group. Because we hold no formal status as a publishing company or a bookstore, we aren’t allowed to present sales numbers on behalf of our book. For this reason, it is unlikely you will see this book on a newspaper’s bestseller list, regardless of its quality or how well it is received.

Rather than feeling daunted by the scale of these new problems, there seems to be a collective heightening of excitement as we work with the rest of the team here on these issues. Working in unfamiliar waters is something that’s woven tightly into the fabric of this entire group, spearheaded by Chef and Nick’s insistence on innovation. “I get kind of uncomfortable if I know exactly what I’m doing,” Nick is known to say from time to time. When Sarah and I – creatures of habit, planning, and lots of consideration – get hung up with questions that start with “But what about…”, Nick and Chef will often shrug and just say “I dunno. Try it and see what happens. We’ll probably screw some stuff up, and we’ll fix it, and we’ll learn and get better over time.”

Thinking like this helps Sarah and I worry less about getting things exactly right and allows us to focus more on what we want to try first. One of the things we’re currently working on, for example, are marketing campaigns for the book. This is another area in which Sarah and I are amateurs, but we have a sizable runway to come up with ideas for advertising, and it’s pretty interesting trying to empathize with the different reasons this book may appeal to someone. When we present Nick with ideas and ask which he thinks is better, he often says “I don’t know, we should try them all and see what works.” This “no umbrellas in a brainstorm” attitude exemplifies Nick’s rather amazing ability to enable a broad range of creative thinking, and once again we’re reminded of how fun it is to get to watch people do things they’re really, really good at.

Until next time;