Archives for category: Bookstores

I know “everyone” thinks digital reading is the future of publishing (I just don’t happen to agree) — but print is certainly hanging in there. These charts compare the performance of print book sales over the last three years.

Topline American market performance for the week ending July 3, 2021, with 386.8 million units year-to-date and an increase of 60.1 million units year-to-date over the same period in 2020. Image: NPD Group

The arrival of a swallow or two should never be allowed to declare a change of season, but so far this year we do look to be in for a banner year. This is of course to some extent conditional on our being able to navigate our manufacturing capacity problems, but at this stage we begin to look set for a record year. Snarky commentators love to sneer that publishers just want to kill off ebooks, and that this sort of statistic just goes to show how good they are at that. (Funny that the only thing they think publishers are good at is stomping on the ebook.) But of course publishers don’t really care which format you buy, just so long as you buy. Numbers like these support the contention that most book readers prefer a printed book. Publishers really aren’t clever enough to make people want things they don’t want: we just provide the things they desire.

The Publishing Perspectives post from which this BookScan diagram comes, also shows performance by category.

The Every, Dave Eggers new novel, will be available on 5 October in independent bookstores only. I wonder if this will include Bookshop.com. The New York Times tells us that this window of opportunity will last for six weeks only, when Vintage will come out with a paperback (and audio and ebook cversions will also be published). These other editions will be available everywhere.

No doubt about it, this is a nice gesture on the part of McSweeney’s, the San Francisco publisher founded in 1998 by Mr Eggers. It can’t do any harm — well I suppose you might argue that it may reduce the sale of the hardback edition — but hesitaters, or those, if they exist, who cannot buy a book if it doesn’t arrive in a smiling Amazon package, will know they only need to wait six weeks anyway. But at the best we can hope that it drives a bit of extra, and new, traffic into your corner bookstore. Any reduction in sale can be set off against goodwill gained.

There was no directive handed down along with the other commandments to the effect that thou shalt not bring out a paperback edition before a year has passed after first publication of the hardback. A consensus has developed recently (well, over the last 50 years I guess) that this was how things should be done, but it’s merely an economic balancing act. The publisher gets more money for a hardback sale, so they figure everyone keen to read the book will buy the most expensive edition because they can’t wait. A year always seemed a bit arbitrary, though of course six weeks comes from quite a different universe. Ideally you want to exhaust demand before you juice things up by offering a cheaper edition. But do recall, lots of books are published simultaneously in hardback and paperback.

The Every is also newsworthy (in my world anyway) for the fact that the hardback edition will be published with 32 alternative jackets. The paperback will only have one — no nonsense like that at Vintage!

Photo: Publishing Perspectives

The Financial Times carried a piece in last week’s Life & Arts section recounting James Daunt’s task of “saving” Barnes & Noble. It’s paywall protected at FT.com, but here it is via afegames.

There’s little doubt in my mind that if anyone can revive B&N it’d be James Daunt. Having built up Daunt Books, a mini-chain, he transformed Waterstones by trusting the staff to select, understand and champion books that would matter to their local audience, and it seems to me the trick should in theory be repeatable in America. Has the pandemic affected things? Does the proverbial bear do what the proverbial bear does in the woods? What we can’t see just yet is whether that effect will turn out on balance to be negative or positive.

The negative option is perhaps pretty obvious, so I’ll focus on the other side of the equation. The pandemic shutdowns enabled Barnes & Noble to rejig their stores without any disruption from customers. Staff had nothing else to do! Head office has been drastically slimmed down, and long-term central buyers let go: buying decision making is in theory being pushed further down the organization. I assume government spending has provided significant financial help in one way or another. There are signs of landlords facing the reality of unoccupied real estate by rethinking the terms under which they lease their properties. The New York Times tells us of landlords (in Britain it’s true) doing things like agreeing rent space for free for a couple of years, negotiating turnover-based contracts, and allowing for very short leases, so it’s possible that the rental burden on bookstores may be about to improve. Demand for “the bookstore experience” was pent-up during closures: are people now straining at the leash to get into a bookshop? One imagines that training, indoctrination in the Daunt way of doing things, was able to be carried out in shuttered B&N stores without distractions. Forbes compared Mr Daunt’s approach to that adopted by The Big Y, a Massachusetts supermarket chain which has successfully introduced an element of local focus. Plus once you are at rock bottom, if you can hang on, there’s no way to go but up. And so on.

I haven’t visited a Barnes & Noble for a couple of years now, so I can’t add anything meaningful to the hope that it does indeed all pan out. Elliott Advisors, new owners of B&N, and of Waterstones before that, “says it expects Waterstones as well as B&N to expand rather than to shrink. ‘We’re a rational investor and if you look at it holistically, these [Waterstones] stores are good for the cohesion of communities in which we operate’.” These guys have done the math — let’s hope the solution they’ve arrived at is the solution to the right problem.

“Traditional publishing is terrified of online sales, but can no longer deny that they’re important. That was the biggest change that came out of the pandemic, and even then, I’m thinking they will deny it.” Thus Kristine Kathryn Rusch in her weekly business-related post.

Well, yes, and no. Terrified isn’t le mot juste though. Reluctant to dive in on their own to be sure, but not scared. Anyone’s whose been involved in book publishing for some time knows that bookshops are essential to the health of our industry. You internalize this on day one and never relinquish the article of faith. And given that around half of all books have for several years already been being sold online by Amazon, online sales are certainly not something any publisher would regard as unimportant (or frightening).

So has the pandemic changed all this? I will fall into Ms Rusch’s trap and deny it. Bricks-and-mortar bookselling seems to have weathered the storm better than we might have feared. Traditional publishing wouldn’t be describable as traditional if it didn’t cling to its traditions, obviously. And foremost among those traditions is that bookstores are the place where people get to discover the books they’ll be buying. There are, we all know, any number of publishers who are doing brilliantly, selling thousands of copies without ever having a single one of them stocked in a bookshop. (Some of them are even describable as traditional publishers. Not too many advanced topology books are moving through bookshops.) But trade books meet book buyers in bookshops, to a large, if varying, extent. Clearly when bookshops were shuttered such meetings as took place had to be happening elsewhere.

Ms Rusch finds great meaning in the recent success of Walmart and Target in the online book game. She quotes The Hot Sheet: “Target and Walmart have performed well, and they even took away a small percentage of Amazon’s share in book sales (about 2.5 percent), according to Jess Johns, consumer insights manager at Ingram Content. This may come as a surprise, given the large increase in revenues that Amazon has reported, and it’s true that the pandemic has been very good to them. However, Peter McCarthy, director of consumer insights at Ingram Content, pointed out that the online retail marketplace has become more diverse during the pandemic, not less. People are willing to shop at many different types of stores; they pay attention to business and brand values as well as to the impact of their buying decisions on the community.” This is all no doubt true — and just how does this illustrate traditional publishers’ terror? Where does Ms Rusch think Walmart and Target are getting these books from, and for that matter Amazon? And how come she never mentions Bookshop.org, an online retailer set up to support the independent bookstore: ‘cos it might interrupt the flow of her disdain?

Even more extraordinarily those silly old traditional publishers are apparently “actually complaining that backlist now makes up roughly two-thirds of book sales instead of monetizing that backlist, as the TV companies have finally learned how to do.” Ms Rusch, television is a different industry with a completely different business model. There may be things publishers can learn from television, but monetizing backlist isn’t among them. What on earth do you think backlist sales means, if not a monetization of books that have sat in the warehouse for some time? As the writer disarmingly goes on to admit “I don’t understand traditional publishing.” Who’d have thought?

Data are apparently something else we are terrified of. Ms Rusch tells us “As long as I’ve been in publishing, publishers have fought against having accurate data — from sales figures to income levels. Even now, when data is easy to come by, traditional publishers have not hired data analysts to help them figure out what exactly is going on.” Maybe I’m just too dumb to know it when I see it, but I wonder what “fighting against accurate sales data” would look like. It’s very tempting to allow your rhetoric to carry you away to Neverland — just because Amazon, our major seller, refuses to release any data, should a commentator be justified in rushing off to a contention that we never wanted the information in the first place because we were scared of what it might reveal. (Data about traditional publishing may be scant and incomplete, but at least data exist which is more than one can say of indie publishing.)

What publishers are actually reluctant to do is to compete head-on with bookshops. Lots of publishers do now maintain an online store where customers can, if they try, buy a book direct from them, but these publishers all feel a bit embarrassed about this and are unwilling to put the pedal to the metal and promote the idea.* We all know the booksellers we deal with, many are friends; we recognize they are in a tough business; we share a lot of interests and concerns: we all want the best for books. While there remains hope for bookshops, publishers will never be too forceful in promoting their own DTC sales efforts: no publisher wants to be the one who fired the gun which killed off the retail book trade. If this is financially sub-optimal, so be it.

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*A few years back I did write a piece encouraging publishers to do more direct-to-customer sales. I am also rooting for the bookstore though.

See also D2C.

BookRiot alerts us to an article in The Guardian reporting on AuthorSHARE an organization set up in Britain by two second-hand-book dealers, Bookbarn International and World of Books Group. They plan to send authors a bit of a royalty on second-hand sales of their books. Funding of £200,000 is based upon donations, and payments will be capped at £1,000. The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society will administer the scheme based on information about online sales provided by participating retailers. The founders are soliciting other book dealers to join in.

American readers perhaps need to be reminded of Public Lending Right, a UK scheme delivering income to authors to reward them for library lending of their books; over here we live nearer to the jungle on this sort of thing. Maybe the British government can ultimately be persuaded to fund AuthorSHARE too.

“At the latest count, the ABA has 1,700 member companies and 2,100 locations,” Bradley Graham incoming President of the American Booksellers’ Association reported to the annual meeting. Two years ago membership stood at 1,887 companies, operating 2,524 locations. Clearly the pandemic has had an impact, though it may be excessive to assume that the missing numbers all represent permanent closures.

The ABA “lost 80 members unfortunately due to store closures” over the past year, but has gained 107 new ones since the beginning of 2021.

Publishers Lunch carries a report on the meeting.

It seems to me entirely possible that when it all shakes out the pandemic will turn out to have been good for bricks-and-mortar retail, especially in the book trade. Shutdowns showed us how much we missed them. And maybe landlords will have to moderate rents, though of course doing so is absolutely foreign to their way of life. The optimist in me wants to think that way, but the cynic says “Not so fast”; problems generally happen after the crisis is over when funds for expansion have evaporated.

See also Bookstore futures.

The Passive Voice reprints extracts from The New Statesman‘s jaundiced views of Bookshop’s performance in Britain. Don’t we have to wonder at the testimony of one James Daunt, described as “founder of the independent book chain Daunt Books and managing director of high street bookseller Waterstones”, but of course now the saviour-in-chief of Barnes and Noble, who, if they had a decent website, could be a huge competitor of Bookshop.org not to say Amazon?

It seems to me to take a peculiarly twisted mind to believe that because there are no numbers available, Bookshop.uk must be cannibalizing independent bookstore sales, rather than eating into Amazon’s slice of the pie. The evidence presented by The New Statesman is surely questionable. Have they really unearthed a publisher who’s just giving a 40% discount to Amazon?

But of course the entire premise is faulty. Nobody imagines that Bookshop.org was created in order to see off Amazon. It does provide independent bookstores with a mechanism whereby they can compete with the online behemoth: but nobody expected Amazon to even notice the fly pricks such a service could generate. Some people who buy books will always go for the bigger discounts available at Amazon, but if your local bookstore has an online presence there are some punters who’ll support them by buying online when they are unable to go in person. As The New Statesman puts it “Bookshop.org works by enabling independent bookshops to create their own virtual shopfronts on their site. Bookshops receive 30 per cent of a book’s cover price for each sale made through their shopfront. If a customer buys a book without going through a specific shop, 10 per cent of that book’s cover price is put into a central pot split among all participating shops.” Any bookseller who thinks a deal like this is going to enable them to sit back and wait for the money to roll in would seem to have an excessively large slice of the optimism required to get into bookselling in the first place.

Nonsensically The Passive Voice tells us that “Bookshop.org, despite the non-profit .org extension, is effectively a front for Ingram in the United States, where Bookshop.org started. Ingram is a huge printer/book fulfillment organization that is very dedicated to earning a lot of money for its owners.” His need to find a conspiracy behind every book makes him overlook the rather obvious fact that Ingram, as the largest book wholesaler around, is the obvious and only place for Bookshop.org to source its books with any hope of success. Ingram, like any business, is no doubt interested in the idea of making a lot of money for its owners, but would you think they should service Bookshop’s orders for nothing? You might as well describe this or that builder as a front for the local cement company, because you are always seeing their cement trucks lined up at building sites. Book wholesaling and book retailing are separate businesses, as of course in book publishing too.

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T.S. Shanbhag, who once owned Premier Bookshop in Bengaluru (Bangalore) died May 2 at the age of 84, after contracting Covid-19. His Premier Bookshop, which carried only books in English, in splendid apparent confusion, had closed in 2009.

Robert Gray memorializes him in Shelf Awareness14 May issue. Ramachandra Guha writes about him at Scroll.in.

The Economist, the world leader in obituaries, remembers him in their 15 May issue.  “On that day, 161 Bangaloreans died of the virus. He was probably among the most unassuming of them. But what had also died with him, many felt, was a rare part of old Bangalore, an unhurried place far distant from the slick and booming version, together with an old-fashioned style of quiet full-hearted service. In that small corner of the city he had made a sanctuary, along with Prem Koshy, whose coffee had kept him and the browsers going. Koshy’s was open as usual; the metal blinds came down only for lockdowns or personal bereavements. But inside Mr. Koshy sighed for ‘the angel of my books.’ ” 

Richard Charkin, in his latest Publishing Perspectives piece, tells us “We all love bookshops and we should move heaven and earth to support them. But can we ignore the fact that most publishers’ results seem to have improved, at least in the short term, while traditional bookshops were closed in many countries? Logic says that publishers are losing money servicing these accounts and thus we have to find new business models to ensure their continuity. Losing money is not a sustainable option.”

I wonder if there’s data to show to what extent publishers’ results improved last year because more ebooks were bought than normally? I suspect that’s the case, but cannot prove it. We’ve had evidence of such a shift from Britain though, and it may be a proper trend. However I can’t help thinking that the switch to ebooks was a bit of a desperation play on the part of readers — they couldn’t drop in at the local bookstore, so buying an ebook seemed like a good alternative. Ebook evangelists will believe that this will mean than most of these people will become permanent ebook preferrers. They might be right — and just as easily, they might be wrong. Some reluctant ebook readers may now be converts; others may be eager to get back to things as they were.

Mr Charkin’s sage dictum “Losing money is not a sustainable option” does sound unanswerable till you think — hold on a minute, publishers don’t lose money on sales through bookstores. They just make less of it than if they only sold ebooks. I dare say that if they only sold airliners they’d also make more money — but of course they don’t. They sell books; and as long as people want their books in physical, printed form, publishers will have to provide them that way, even if selling an Airbus A220 might be better for the bottom line.

Personally — but what does what I think matter, it’s time that’ll tell — I believe that things will revert to the norm. As bookstores open up the people will come. Demand demands supply.

Which came first the remainder table in your bookstore, or the urge of the publisher to sell off moribund inventory at a large discount?

For both the author and the publisher the decision to remainder a book must mean different things. Of course to both remaindering represents failure, but obviously a somewhat more personal kind of failure for the author. Clive James’s poem “The book of my enemy has been remaindered” which appeared in The London Review of Books in 1983 gives a bit of the flavor:

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered.

For the publisher remaindering represents a desperate attempt to turn unsaleable stock into money. If nobody seems to want the 10,000 copies of that book sitting in your warehouse, selling them off at a few cents more than they cost you to print will represent a sane business decision, converting the sort of paper you can’t use into the kind you can. For the publisher the remaindering decision just means that you made the wrong decision when you decided on the print number: publishers are programmed to be optimists — we can never fully accept that a book we are enthusiastic about doesn’t meet with the same reception out in the real world. Of course you can (almost) never get the print number decision right, but if you undershoot, you can probably reprint. If you overshoot — well, there are all these books sitting sullenly reproaching you.

A sharp growth in the remainder business came about because of the Supreme Court’s 1979 Thor Power Tool decision upholding the IRS’s decision to limit the ways in which companies could claim tax relief for written-down inventory. The effect of the decision was immediately to make the cost of holding onto inventory more expensive than it had been before. A business was born.

So in a way the bookstore remainder table and the publishers’ need to get rid of inventory came about simultaneously on January 16th, 1979.

Now that publishers seem to be being more cautious in their print number decisions, and in a time when (almost) any book can be reprinted in small quantities, down to a single copy (see Print-on-demand), might we expect a decline in the prominence of the remainder table in bookstores? Probably not: technology hasn’t yet guaranteed better decision making.