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  • Pamela Beason

Perception Is Everything

In my work as a private investigator, I interviewed people involved in many situations in many ways, and I’ve learned that each person’s perception can be completely different. The witness who calls 9-1-1 has one perception of the crime being committed, the responding police officer has another, and the “criminal” and “victim” have yet different understandings. One case I worked was a perfect example of this. A young man was accused of assaulting his girlfriend at a bus stop. The witness who reported it was a middle-aged man eating at a nearby restaurant, and he was horrified that the young man (a large muscular teenager) was attacking this small teenage girl.

The police officer was told by the dispatcher that an assault was in progress, and she arrived with that “understanding” firmly planted in her mind, and refused to be dissuaded, no matter how often the “victim” said that she and her boyfriend were just playfully tussling. After interviewing her, I was convinced that the teen girl was telling the truth. Although she was very small, I could tell from her speech and demeanor (and her history) that she was a tough young woman who wouldn’t take any crap from anyone. When I interviewed the reporting party (the witness), it turned out that he had a teen daughter, so he had immediately thought of her when he saw the large teen boy wrapping his arms around the smaller girl and lifting her off the ground.

Pretty much everything in life goes this way, especially these days, when a good percentage of Americans simply assume the truth is whatever they’d like to believe. We all do this to a certain degree, sometimes out of ignorance, and often because of the role we are playing in the situation.

I experience my own conflicting perceptions when I visit bookstores. I’m painfully aware of the different “roles” in the book business because I am an author, a publisher, and a voracious reader. So, I both adore and detest bookstores, depending on which role I am assuming at the time.

As a reader, I adore bookstores! I find new authors and great reads in bookstores; they’re some of my favorite places.

When I walk into a bookstore as an indie author, I notice the books on center tables, in windows, in display cases at the end of aisles, and I know that generally speaking, this is not an indication of popularity but because the publisher has paid for that placement. Stacks of copies of the same book can make me cringe, because I fear that many of those books will be “returned.”

Most readers have no concept of returns. When a bookstore orders books, the publisher typically discounts the price by 40-55% so the bookstore (and sometimes the distributor) can make some money. That’s painful enough for the publisher (and explains a lot about the cost of books), but if the bookstore doesn’t sell all the copies it orders, the store can demand a refund to “return” the unsold books. (I put that word in quotes because due to the cost of shipping, “returned” books are typically destroyed instead of actually returned.) Returns are billed to the distributor/publisher, who then passes that cost on to the author.

My worst experience in the bookselling business came when I attended a Left Coast Crime Conference in Honolulu. A bookstore typically handles book sales at conferences, and when I walked into the book room in Hawaii, I saw piles of my books. Readers patted me on the back, thinking this was a wonderful thing for me. I winced, knowing this would come back to haunt me. Number 1, I am not a well-known author. Number 2, most attendees for these conferences arrive via air, and they’re not going to lug back 100 pounds of printed books.

Sure enough, as the publisher, I later got a bill from the printer/distributor for around $600 in returns (destroyed books) from that Hawaii conference, which I of course deducted from royalties due to the author (me). This is the way it works in traditional publishing, too, and that’s why the publishers always hold back a substantial amount in author royalties for three to six months in case there are returns. Having learned painful lessons like that over the years, I no longer sign up to have bookstores order my books at conferences, unless that’s the only choice. Instead, I bring a few copies on consignment, and I sometimes supply books on consignment with local bookstores, too. Yes, I still have to discount those books and I have to pay for printing and shipping, and I have to deliver them, which reduces my profit to near zero, but I will get unsold copies back instead of having to pay for no-longer-existing books.

As a reader, I love bookstores. I want them to exist everywhere. But my knowledge of the book business as a publisher and author causes me to experience them from a completely point of view. I sometimes wish I didn’t have that knowledge. Because perception is everything.

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