Tuesday 16 December 2008

Desperately Seeking A New Model for Selling Books

I am extremely busy, coping with the pre-Christmas rush.

But not too busy to comment on some potentially industry-changing news from across the pond.

Last month I attended a Children's Book Circle event at which booksellers representing the supermarket, the chainstore and the independent explained how the business of selling books worked.

Here they are being very friendly with each other despite the title of the event: "High Street vs Supermarket - the Gloves are Off"

From left to right: independent, Borders and supermarket. At the end of the panel discussion the three booksellers on impulse picked up some props that the supermarket bookseller used in his talk. The cards read (l to r) "They only take bestsellers", "They get huge discounts", and "They are evil".

I suppose I'll have to report back what I learned: that most booksellers are nice people, including supermarket booksellers who are only doing their best considering they've got such limited display space. That they are all crazy about books and that's why they sell them. If they're crazy enough about a book, a book really stands a chance of success. That supermarkets can't afford to stock losers, chains have to compromise and independents take the road less travelled - they try not to discount despite commercial risks.

I had expected the audience to ask some sharp questions (I didn't ask any ... I'm only an author). But I was taken aback at how docile and polite the editors and publishers were. I suppose at the end of the day, the booksellers hold the whip hand when it comes to the success or failure of a publisher's books.

Well there has been some interesting news from the United States where Borders has accepted to accept books from Harper Studio on a non-returnable basis.

Nathan Bransford, the blogging agent, describes the problem:
The returns model has long been a problem for publishers, who often end up having to print (and pulp) twice as many copies as actually sell, an economic and environmental mess. While it allows bookstores to be flexible with ordering and theoretically allows them to take chances on unknown commodities without being stuck with the bill if they don't sell, some have called the process, well, sloppy and inefficient. It's a system that few people have any affection for, and now Borders is signaling a willingness to tweak the model (of course, at a steeper discount). Read the whole thing
Earlier this year I had listened to Barefoot Books publisher Tessa Strickland describe how focusing their sales on gift shops had freed Barefoot Books from this wasteful tyranny.

Literary agent Richard Curtis wrote the definitive piece that declared the returns model:
As a student of publishing history, I'm aware of all the "death-of-publishing" prophecies that have proven false in our time. But I don't think I'm risking much by stating that the publishing industry cannot endure much longer the way it is being run. The need to change our ways is particularly acute in light of revolutionary developments in electronic publishing. Read the whole thing
The fact that he wrote this editorial in 1992 (just one year after the birth of the world wide web) is a chilling reminder of how long it has taken for the industry to take baby steps towards saving itself. The recent slashing and burning in major US publishing houses led Curtis to republish his essay on December 4 (way before Borders announced the deal with Harper Studio). He ended the re-posting with: "It gives me no pleasure to say I told you so."

But if Borders - a MAJOR publisher - is willing to dump returns, surely, there is hope? Will other booksellers follow suit? Will the practice travel across the Atlantic to the UK? Will this result in a natural cull of the "overcapacity" that characterises the writing world as described in the other day's New York Times essay?

Nathan Bransford writes:
It's going to be interesting to see how this shakes out, particularly if it is adopted in a more widespread fashion. But BRAVO for experimentation in a time when we desperately need to see some new ideas in action.
Which leads me neatly to the story of this one bookseller who has found other techniques of pulling customers:From the blog of Eric Stone who visited the naked bookseller in Quartzite, Arizona.


  1. Yes, the whole buy huge and return just before we have to pay for it thing that Waterstones etc do is wasteful and mucks up the cashflow of the smaller publishers who need the income. BUT, I wonder whether this just means now that Borders and whoever follows suit will just take less of a risk with what they actually buy? If they can't return a book, they have to be sure they are going to sell it. So where do new authors fit in? If the publisher isn't willing to pay the price required to have it racked, then will they take them or are we now going to see stores full of "best sellers"? Still, could be great news for the independents.

  2. An interesting turn in events. Let's hope it's good news.


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