Working Blind: The Sales Technique That Keeps Secrets

By Dede Schatz

Would you buy a book you knew nothing about–if a trusted source told you it was good? Many bookstores are facing this question, and in the beginning, many answered “yes.” “Blind selling” is a practice commonly used in the publishing industry to sell books into bookstores without revealing the author’s name, title of the book, or subject matter. Oprah Winfrey popularized the trend by having bookstores order boxes of each unknown Oprah’s Book Club book before she announces the selection on her show. She doesn’t have to leak the month’s choice in advance, and booksellers still have plenty of copies in stock. But many booksellers are rethinking the practice, thanks to the blind sell of O.J. Simpson’s book If I Did It.

Publishing companies often use blind sales for a known quantity like a new John Grisham book or an Oprah’s book club title, said Kelly Justice, the manager of Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Va., but in the Grisham case the author is revealed, “and you have a pretty clear idea of what an Oprah title is.” But blind selling can also be used to push a controversial book with a lot of marketing support. O.J.’s book was pitched “totally blind, with no information provided other than publisher and price.” Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books, said sales reps sold the untitled, anonymous work as “the most stunning, headline-grabbing story of the year.” A sales rep letter to booksellers read “This book will be the talk of America.”

Although the practice is common, the booksellers questioned could recall only one other recent example of a completely blind sale. In August, William Morrow (a HarperCollins imprint) sought orders for a book without giving its title, author, or subject. Morrow championed the book as “a shattering, provocative and mesmerizing true story” which “will receive major national media attention” in both the U.S. and abroad. It turned out to be a tell-all by Princess Diana’s former butler, Paul Burrell.

Burrell has been accused by those close to the Princess of betraying Diana’s name and cashing in on his association with her. The blind sale of the book angered Doug Dutton, an independent bookseller in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles. He refused to order any copies of what would eventually be revealed to be the Simpson book when he saw HarperCollins repeating the strategy.

“It’s moved to the point where it’s almost a regular part of publishing,” he said. “I was feeling part of something that had nothing to do with books, and everything to do with marketing.”

Mr. Dutton, whose bookstore is in the neighborhood where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were killed, felt betrayed when the Simpson book was revealed. “The first time it was foolish; this time it was offensive,” he said of HarperCollins’s approach, adding that he would avoid such books in the future. “I think as a policy I won’t buy them unless I can be presented with an overwhelmingly good reason by the publisher.”

Most booksellers believe they won’t see another blind sell as they did with the O.J. book or the Princess Diana tell-all book, but one thing is for sure—many will be suspicious of these sales from now on.

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