Why would booksellers buy the new Madonna tell-all if they didn't know what it was about?

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July 17 2008 11:50 AM

Blind Reading

Why would booksellers buy a title without knowing anything about it?

Life with My Sister Madonna  by Christopher Ciccone

Christopher Ciccone's new celebrity tell-all, Life With My Sister Madonna, hit store shelves on Tuesday. News reports say that his publisher, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, sold the book (co-written with Wendy Leigh) "blind" to retailers, meaning they purchased the book without knowing the author, the subject matter, or whether it would create a gossip maelstrom. Why would retailers make that gamble?

Because "blind" books are almost always big sellers. Publishers rarely try to sell a book blind, and when they do, it comes with a promise that the title will make a big splash. Sales reps might keep the details of a blockbuster hidden to make sure no juicy bits are leaked to the press ahead of publication. Under normal circumstances, the reps would provide book buyers with lots of detail on the titles they purchase, occasionally sending along excerpts. So, if they try to sell something blind, a buyer can be pretty sure that the publishing house is holding an ace.

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The practice is most closely associated with the Oprah Book Club. Whenever a selection is made, that book's publisher is notified ahead of time, but the information is embargoed until Oprah makes her official announcement. Until then, the publisher can try to sell the title blind. Sellers get e-mails informing them that a previously issued book will be an Oprah pick, but they don't learn the title or the author. The seller then orders a certain quantity of an unknown book only to discover what they've ordered a couple of months later. (Massive chain stores may get special treatment in this regard: Borders says it knows the titles ahead of the announcement; Barnes & Noble declined to comment.)

Booksellers can also purchase a book semiblind; for example, they might order a title from an established brand author without knowing what it's about—often because the author hasn't finished writing it. The next Michael Moore book was offered semiblind in May with only his name to sell it; as of July 7, he was still writing. Michael Crichton's publisher shopped his next book around this month, despite its projected December release. Book shops are willing to buy early in order to stay ahead of the printing, fulfillment, and shipment processes. That way, they can be sure to get the first available copies.

In general, very few books have the cachet to merit such treatment, and the publishing house is in essence staking its good word on the anticipated success of anything it tries to sell blind. That's why celebrity tell-alls and the top-selling authors tend to be the only books marketed in this fashion.

Sometimes this backfires. O.J. Simpson's infamous pseudo-confession, If I Did It, was sold blind by now-defunct ReganBooks—and then canceled before it hit shelves. Retailers got a refund for their blind orders, but many felt betrayed. William Morrow sold blind copies of a tell-all by Princess Diana's butler in 2006, but since he'd already told nearly all in a previous book, some retailers felt they'd been snookered. Still, retailers say they couldn't turn down blind sales even if they wanted to, for fear of missing out on the next big publishing juggernaut.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Doug Dutton, formerly of Dutton's Brentwood, and Michael Russo of St. Mark's Book Shop.

Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.

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