It’s hardly surprising that independent booksellers should feel frustration and powerlessness in the face of discount-granting publishers. Publishers not only get to determine the discount they’ll give, but also set the retail price off which that discount is granted. But, while I’m sure it’s never easy balancing your books, surely this piece from Publishers Weekly by bookseller Jonathan Platt can be said to miss the point that costs have gone up for everyone not just for bookstores.

Unfortunately we live in a world where neither bookstores nor book publishers function as public charities or quasi-governmental organizations. I dare say arguments in favor of such a situation would prevail in Utopia, but unfortunately we are doomed to deal with the here and now. We regularly hear how publishers should be giving authors a better deal. The same argument applies at both ends of the publishing supply chain: most books just aren’t selling as many copies as they once did. Publishers can keep their income up by simply publishing more of them, which doesn’t help bookstores any, nor authors other than those who can churn out multiple volumes each year. Now we should admit here that publishers’ margins have improved a bit over the past year or so: but surely no business owner would suggest that any improvement in profitability should immediately be passed on to customers. If this were to go on for a longer period, who knows?

The way retailers can counteract overhead cost increases is to increase sales revenue. Some of this happens just because the prices of books go up. Obviously 47% of a $29.95 novel is more than 47% of a $6.95 one — the price at which Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969. (See How to boost your sales?) No doubt it’s frustrating that you as a bookseller have no control over the price of these books, and while it’s quite legal to charge more than the face price of a book, it requires considerable intestinal fortitude to set such a policy — in the face of on-line discounting this might also be suicidal.* To the extent that price increases for books march more or less in step with price increases for everything else, this is perhaps of little comfort. (I would argue that trade discounts have in fact grown since Portnoy‘s days: perhaps not as much as Mr Platt would like, but grown.) Real revenue enhancement unfortunately has to come from selling more books or other stuff, or doing the job with fewer people. Harsh perhaps, but the same reality is faced by the publisher and any other businesses.

Be it noted that many independent bookstores are having success in achieving just these ends, and that we are in fact living through a time of bookstore growth. Heck, even Barnes & Noble opened a new store in Maryland last week.

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* I wonder if any good would come of changing the pricing policy for books. Mr Platt justly identifies discounting by big-box and on-line stores as a large issue. His implication that this was a sort of general policy decision by publishers is of course not correct. If someone offers to take a huge number of copies off your hand, you may be liable to offer a discount: I dare say if you went into Nonesuch Books & Cards and asked to buy 100 copies of Fear, even Mr Platt might be willing to cut you a little bit of a deal. I would imagine that if publishers were to attempt to fix discounts to big retailers on an industry-wide basis this would in fact be an illegal restraint of trade. But would it help if publishers were to cease establishing a retail price and selling to bookstores at a discount from that price, and change to selling at a net price — more or less half of what their retail price is today? Bookstores would then be able to set whatever price they wanted, and might perhaps then be less at risk from losing sales to discounters? Not sure that’d be so. I expect what would happen would be a flight to the lowest price available from say Amazon which anyone can discover instantly on their iPhone.

While our current system may not be perfect, it does, I suspect, function better than any achievable alternative.