Archives for category: Bookstores

Appears to be on 4th of March this year despite what Google may tell you.

Wait for it: only a few days now. Meanwhile visit their site which tells you how to get books for a £.

This is a UK celebration despite the title, so don’t go breaking coronavirus restrictions in California hoping to join in the festivities. World Book Day is funded by contributing publishers and sponsored by National Book Tokens Ltd and other supporters, as well as participating booksellers.

Here MC Grammar tells you all about their vouchers. He’ll make readers of us all.

If you don’t see a video here please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

I noticed World Book Days in 2020 and 2013 too.

Another force pushing us towards a single world market in the book business may be identified in the internationalization of book manufacturing and distribution. Now of course publishers have been ordering printing from overseas for years, especially since World War II. High quality color? Go to Italy. Price problems? Or lots of hand work — add-ons? Hong Kong here we come. When I was first in New York, working for Cambridge University Press, it was quite obvious that the tidal flow of manufacturing was governed by £/$ exchange rate fluctuations: now it would be cheaper in the USA, then it would switch back to favor Britain. Work would follow: publishers are always looking for the cheapest way to make their books. The development of digital printing, primarily of print on demand manufacturing, accelerated these options. One of the incidental implications of print on demand is that you can minimize shipping costs by printing a book as close to the ultimate customer as possible. This cost saving may not look like much when you think of one book, but over a year it mounts up to a significant sum.

Local territorial markets be damned! Ingram‘s Vice President of Content Acquisition, Kelly Gallagher, tells us “Sometimes as much as 30 or 40 percent of a publisher’s Ingram wholesale can be to non-US addresses. That’s also very glass half-empty, half-full, because it’s a pressure point for the local retailers and distributors in those countries who used to have a corner on getting books into their market.” From a Publishing Perspectives interview.

Amazon lies at the heart of all this. Amazon’s distribution system is amazingly slick. They fulfill an order in the most efficient (cost and timing) method possible. There’s a cascade of options, which involves answering a series of questions including:

  • Are there several books in this order?
  • If so, where is each of them best sourced —
  • from our inventory,
  • which warehouse is that inventory in,
  • is it here or overseas,
  • or should it come from Ingram’s inventory,
  • from the publisher’s inventory,
  • from any other wholesaler’s inventory,
  • by using POD,
  • and if POD then POD at our own facilities
  • or at one of Lightning Source (part of Ingram)?

All all these steps the algorithm focusses on optimal proximity to the customer and speed of delivery. Amazon is heavily dependent on (or makes extensive use of) Ingram’s services. In many ways Ingram’s stock can be regarded as an extension of Amazon’s stock, as can all the print-on-demand files that Lightning Source maintains. The cascade, regardless of where the book ends up being shipped from, will always result in the books arriving on your doorstep in a grinning Amazon carton. Your order may be split into two or more separate packages — the cascade will have determined which is optimal.

Now this system is beyond impressive: Amazon can get most books to most people overnight. I sympathize with the old guard bookstores, but is it really right to go after a company for having developed a system that’s so efficient that almost everyone wants to use it? Doesn’t monopoly require a certain amount of unfair advantage: using your market power to destroy the opposition. Amazon is merely guilty of designing such an efficient system that nobody else can match it. Surely that shouldn’t be a crime, should it?

Given what’s been going on for the last year one’s reaction to a recent story from Publishers Weekly headlined Bookstore Sales Fell 28.3% in 2020 might be “Just 28.3%?”.

Of course it’s not as simple as that. As the report Covid-19 and Book Publishing puts it “Book retail is really a set of businesses. First, it’s both physical and digital. More than half of book retail takes place online (with Amazon accounting for at least half of those sales). Physical retail, on its own, has several components, broadly speaking: chain bookstores, independent bookstores, big box retailers like Costco, and “newsstands” at drug and grocery stores, airport stores, etc.” It goes without saying that different bits of this business have been differently affected. Online’s going gangbusters, while, say, if nobody’s taking flights, business at airport stores isn’t going to be booming. There have been closures of bookstores (and openings too). Many a local independent bookstore was already walking a knife-edge before we got into shutdowns. It remains a disgrace that the landlord remains the only player in the retail system who seems always to be kept whole. Now that our government is no longer headed by a failed real estate tycoon, maybe we can get some sort of reform going. Sarah McNally’s suggestion of rents tied to sales would help to share the risk.

There’s no doubt that we’ve seen twin market changes during the crisis — towards online buying, and towards ebooks. I suspect the e-to-print ratio will eventually return to preexisting norms (not that that really matters to publishers), but online purchasing — of all sorts of product — seems likely to survive. Maybe bricks-and-mortar retail will end up as more of a show-rooming situation: try on that jacket and then have it shipped to your home after the sleeves have been taken up ½”. has made a good start on integrating independent bookstores into the digital marketplace, but individual stores need to be proactive in widening their methods of getting books to buyers. Many have already. They need to keep the innovations they’ve made and think of others. We’ve not lived for a long time in a world where the only way you could get a book was to go on down to your local bookstore and buy it.

Despite all the trouble small businesses face, it may turn out to be local bookstores who ultimately manage to make it through. As the report says “many consumers view small, independent stores in their neighborhood as much-loved places to shop”. Barnes and Noble, undergoing reorg before Covid, must be especially challenged. They started out with an idea of how to “reinvent themselves”, but immediately had to put on the brakes because of coronavirus lockdowns. Now they are moving forward again. They are faced with the same sort of challenges that all big retailers are, particularly as so many malls, where lots of their stores are located, appear to be in the process of collapse. It is noticeable that big retailers who have prospered over the past year have been the ones who were able quickly to beef up their online business. Is B&N going to be able to match that?

In the end, whether customers’ love of their local store will be enough to ensure survival will have to be seen. My observation of past crises is that collapse tends to happen after the crisis is over, when we have all heaved that sigh of relief and turned our faces towards better times. Then, bang, bang; here come the bankruptcies: finding money for re-expansion seems to be the problem. Maybe all the government support we’ve seen will make things different this time.

Covid has been a disaster. But its effects on book publishing finances have been surprisingly benign* as this bar chart shows. Benigner for some categories than for others of course.

A balanced and sensible status report has been issued. COVID-19 and Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021 by Cliff Guren, Thad McIlroy and Steve Sieck has been reviewed by Mike Shatzkin. You can download a PDF or an ebook at the link to the title. Here’s the Contents list.

Everyone concerned with the book business will benefit from reading this state-of-play report. It’s descriptive rather than prescriptive. Striking, if ultimately unsurprising, is the difference between the effects on various types of business. One constant is that trends which were already at work have been accelerated by the pandemic. We might now say that ordering online has taken over from standing on line. Subscription services have been apparently effortlessly successful. Streaming: good. Physical: OK as long as delivered to your door. Just what higher education is going to look like in the future is hard to discern — beyond the almost inevitable “very different”. Will this affect university presses? Sure; but it may not turn out to be too bad an effect.


* Money, yes; people, no. Many, including my friend, colleague, and neighbor Hector Gonzalez, will be missed for ever.

A book which is published on commission is a book for which the author has paid the cost of production and manufacturing, usually nowadays because the publisher considers it too much of a risk for them to take on the book in the normal way. Many are the beginning authors who have had to do this, most of their output lost in the mists. But some exceptions exist of authors who did well our of the process and often continued to publish their books that way: Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, and lots of others. The publisher would receive a commission from the author on the sales they made, rather than paying them a royalty in the more common way.

The most common instances of commission publishing in our times is when learned societies “commission” an academic publisher or university press to publish their books. A learned society can obviously reach all of its members quite easily, which in the case of the more important organizations, may mean almost every academic working in the area (and this is one of the attractions of such a deal for the publisher). The Society will “hire” a publisher in order to reach a wider audience — perhaps libraries and overseas customers — but also to get rid of the hassle of dealing with sales, warehousing, accounting etc.

Looking at commission publishing from the other end of the telescope: there existed once upon a time a category of trade terms called commission terms where booksellers took stock on consignment and were paid a commission on any sales they made. We were still supplying some bookstores that way when I started out in London in the sixties. This type of trade terms may have fallen into disuse once it became common for books bought on normal terms to be easily returnable for full credit. Commission/see-safe terms were a way to get your books in front of retail customers without the bookseller having to take any financial risk.

Another usage of the word commission in the publishing world is in the job title “commissioning editor”. This has nothing to do with terms, either with authors or bookstores. A commissioning editor is a more senior editor with the ability to decide on whether to commission an author to write a book without having to get the go-ahead from their boss. (The formal decision to offer a contract, i.e. to publish the book, will almost certainly always require getting the approval of an editorial board however.) Like almost all job titles, this description has broadened out, and may not have any very specific meaning these days.

See also Subscription publishing.

Do they do this every year and I’ve just not noticed before? Whatever: Publishers Weekly has nominated a 2020 person of the year — and, the winner is . . . “The most important people in the book business in 2020 are not the powerhouse agents or the megabestselling authors or the Big Five CEOs. They are the booksellers, debut and midlist authors, editors, librarians, printers, publicists, sales representatives, and warehouse workers, to mention just a few—the workers, who have been the most important people in the business all along.”

Admire the depiction (PW‘s illustration is by Madeline Gobbo) of us all toiling away in the depths of the underground, mining books from recalcitrant deposits. I guess the folks decorating the tree are the sales and marketing staff; though if the picture actually shows the tree being undecorated, then they must be the ultimate book-buying customers. Nice for the diggers to be recognized, but don’t these working conditions need looking at? Makes you think of the opening of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland “The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree”.

Personally I think the ones who really deserve the accolade are the warehouse workers. (It’s true they are included; I think that must be them below that top lefthand root, decked out in white hazmat suits.) Office staff got to work from home — which has been such a success we may never go back 100% to the status quo ante — and this might be looked on as a sort of pay bonus — no commuting (time or cost), no restaurant meals for lunch, no cleaner bills for your office-wear, but yet your regular salary. Warehouse staff have had to battle their way, often via public transport, to the same old coalface in times when just turning up could put people at risk. They‘re not going to get paid if they stay safe at home! Warehouse workers kept at it and got so many books out the door that publishing has been having a banner year. We find out who our essential workers are in such times of stress.

The Bookseller reports that the UK’s Bookshop online store has raised £500,000 for independent bookstores in its first month of operation. There has been a little grumbling about the start-up, as evidenced in this New Statesman piece, but consensus seems to be that it is “a good thing”. Clearly places like Blackwell’s which already have a vigorous online operation will benefit less that many bookstores.

In the U.S., has raised just over $9.5 million for independent bookstores since starting earlier this year. allows independent bookshops to create their own virtual shopfronts on the site. This capability is also available to publishers and magazines — independent bookstores do still benefit from traffic on such storefronts. For example if you read online a review of a book in The New York Review of Books, you can buy a copy at by clicking on the book title which will take you to the publication’s “store” at The link to The Look of the Book at my recent post What a book cover can do takes you to LitHub‘s Bookshop storefront.


St John of God is patron saint of booksellers and indeed of the entire book trade; also of hospitals and the sick.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-82): St John of God. From Hospital de la Caridad, Seville.

João Duarte Cidade was born in Montemor-o-Novo, in southern Portugal in 1495, but was abducted or lost at the age of eight. He was taken in as an apparent orphan and put to shepherding. When he was about 22, seemingly to escape the attempts of his boss to make him marry his daughter, he ran away and became a military man, fighting as a mercenary for Spain against the French and Turks in Hungary. He spent the next 18 years as a mercenary, and when his troop was disbanded went to Andalusia and became a shepherd once more. When he was about forty he was converted by hearing a sermon preached by St John of Avila, and aimed at a martyrdom in North Africa helping Christian slaves. He was talked out of this plan and became a book pedlar in Gibraltar, with such success that he opened a bookstore in Granada in 1538. He soon appears to have suffered a breakdown, running through the streets rending his hair and giving away his book inventory. He got out of hospital in 1539 and filled his house with poor sick people. His final illness was incurred while rescuing a drowning man from a flood, and he died in 1550 at the age of fifty-five before the altar of his hospital’s chapel. His followers formed the Brothers Hospitallers, naming him as their founder.

I guess it’s obvious why he became the Parton saint of the bookselling. But who gets to appoint patron saints? One can see how in medieval guilds a patron saint might be adopted. It happens that Saint John the Evangelist is apparently patron saint of editors and authors. Saint Augustine of Hippo is patron saint of printers. Saints Genesius and John of God get a look in in the printing industry too, while St Brigid of Ireland is patron saint of printing presses. Pope Celestine V is patron saint of bookbinders. He’s referred to as Pope not Saint Celestine although he was pope for five months only (he resigned), and has been a saint for over 700 years. The ways of the lord are indeed mysterious. John of God gets the clean-up status, looking out for the book trade in general.

I do think this needs to be said. Richard Charkin’s open letter of thanks to Jeff Bezos is fair and balanced. It appears at Publishing Perspectives.

Humankind is built to resent a winner. We are all (in the book business) very ready to criticize Amazon. Of course they make our lives difficult by seeking to redistribute the surplus available on any book sale; to redistribute it away from publishers and towards their own coffers. What a surprise! They negotiate hard: and while it’s obviously difficult to fight and win against them, they tend to win because they are actually vital to the publishing industry. If the boot were on the other foot, we publishers would never ever contemplate reducing discounts to booksellers, or tightening royalty terms, or upping prices and reducing production standards to make the public pay more for less, would we? In all businesses I expect people love to complain about their largest customers, especially if they are large enough to demand special treatment. We used to grumble about Barnes & Noble: now we go on about Amazon.

But however much publishers love to inveigh against them, we have to acknowledge that Amazon does also sell most of our books. Say that again: Amazon sells most of our books. And they are extraordinarily good at what they do. Almost everyone who has done any online buying has benefitted from the efficiency with which Amazon can get stuff to you, and I mean all sorts of stuff, not just books. They seem always to have everything, so you’re not subject to the vagaries of your local retailer’s inventory control. Be careful what you wish for. Sure you can say it and be pretty sure it’ll never happen: but what if Amazon went out of business? Without Amazon all publishers would be in big trouble now. Some may be in trouble in any case, but most are doing fine, and many are looking forward to record sales for the year despite pandemic shutdowns.

A little gratitude might be not inappropriate. (Not that they really need it!)

Foggy Pine Books in Boone, North Carolina is making a frank appeal. Every bookstore needs to sell a certain number of books every month just to pay rent, wages, insurance etc. in order to survive. Shelf Awareness of 13 November reports Foggy Pine Books as saying “we came in just under the that number last month at 1,008 books sold.” Buy some expensive books from them. Or at least from your local bookstore: they may not have the blackboard, but their needs are just the same.