Archives for category: Bookstores

You can see how trade publishers would be worried at the news that Amazon and Barnes & Noble are thinking about reducing the number of copies they order. Shelf Awareness‘s 23 August article reports this story — but come on; even if it’s true, it’s not Armageddon.

In a rational world publishers would welcome bookshops refusing to overstock new pubs. If you can stuff ten thousand copies into that section of the supply chain, then you court the risk of getting a lot of them back in three or so months. When they do come back they’ll distort your inventory/demand picture, and quite possibly turn a promising book into an overstocked loser. There’s little more frustrating than being forced into a reprint only to get a massive return before the presses have stopped running. Publishers can see what’s out there in inventories: they just can’t control the fate of such stock. So even if B&N and Amazon are going to be ordering fewer copies, a rational publishing industry should really regard this as a thoroughly good thing. The idea that people buy books because they see them in large piles in the front of bookstores can’t really be true, can it? Virtual piles are obviously better in any case: and now that most sales happen online, virtuality is king.

Andy Hunter, founder of Bookshop.org, asks “What if we use the same tools that some might use to disrupt an industry to actually reinforce it?” Same might be said to apply to rhetoric too, but while it may not represent the difference between failure and wealth, Bookshop.org’s involvement with independent bookstores has obviously been “a good thing”. A little self-congratulatory trumpet blowing is altogether earned.

Do consider using Bookshop.org for your book purchases — if you can’t get to a bookstore — and make sure to link through a local bookshop so they get the benefit. They are currently claiming $21¾ millions earned for local bookstores. It’s true you’ll not be getting the discounts that Amazon offers, but surely supporting local businesses is worth something, isn’t it?

It may not be publishing’s biggest problem, but it’s certainly one of the top ones — and one we could ourselves cure, if only we had the will. We insist on being willing to take back books we have “sold”, giving full credit for them. What this means is that you never really know what the sales of a book are: they may all be out there in bookshops — but nobody knows how many, and when, they’ll start turning up at the warehouse with a request for a refund. But we are apparently hooked on returns. Returns are crazy. Returns of POD books are crazier. And returns of ebooks are beyond crazy.

NPR has a story about authors protesting Amazon’s returns policy on ebooks, which allows you seven days to cancel a purchase made in error. Now of course seven days is more than enough to read almost any book, so if you are a ruthless reading addict, you can avoid ever paying for a book. If the book’s too long, I wonder if, having bought it “in error” one week, you can buy the same book “in error” a week or so later after having gotten credit for the first purchase — and so on until you’ve managed to finish the tome, when you finally return it for the ultimate credit. That this should be an option is nuts. Obviously Amazon, maniacally customer-friendly, want to encourage you to buy that pair of shoes, confident in the knowledge that if they don’t fit, you can return them for full credit, no questions asked. This quite rational policy just gets extended to all products, and bingo, books are priceless.

With ebooks of course there’s no physical object being swapped back and forth — all the reader is getting is access to a file, then giving up that access when their money is refunded. So the publisher isn’t losing anything more than the tiny electronic cost of doing these transactions. The author though, having gotten a royalty credited to their account when the ebook was first “sold”, has to watch that royalty being clawed back from their account.* This looks a lot more like losing something real! Of course both parties have immediately lost another potential customer. Assuming there’s a finite number of people who might ever buy a particular book, if lots of them are able to read it for free, that represents significant damage to the ultimate earnings of author and publisher.

I think it’s obvious that seven days is far too long to allow a customer to decide to return a product for credit. Maybe if it’s a pair of pants it’s understandable that they need to be delivered and tried on before you know whether they fit or not. I do know people who have bought an item of clothing, worn it to a party, and then returned it for credit the next day. Even this, although utterly immoral, is not quite as ludicrous as “buying” an ebook, reading it, and rerunning it for full credit.

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* OK, OK; there can’t be many authors who have real-time access to their royalty statement.

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The American Booksellers Association, as its website informs us, is a “national not-for-profit trade organization, [which] works with booksellers and industry partners to ensure the success and profitability of independently owned book retailers, and to assist in expanding the community of the book.”

“Independent bookstores act as community anchors; they serve a unique role in promoting the open exchange of ideas, enriching the cultural life of communities, and creating economically vibrant neighborhoods.”

There are eight regional groups acting independently towards similar ends.

California Independent Booksellers Alliance
Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association
Midwest Independent Booksellers Association
Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association
New Atlantic Independent Bookseller Association
New England Independent Booksellers Association
Pacific Northwest Independent Booksellers Association
Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance

In Britain they have a single central organization, The Booksellers Association.

Nate Hoffelder links us to this 2020 story from Berrett-Koehler Publishers telling us 10 Awful Truths About Publishing. They seem to have been doing the math, and let us in on the news that “the average U.S. book is now selling less than 200 copies per year and less than 1,000 copies over its lifetime”. Apparently there are now over 4 million titles being published in the USA every year, ten times as many as were published in 2007 when dollar sales peaked. A different world. One driven by self publishing of course, which, seeing how Brandon Sanderson did on Kickstarter, could turn out to be the way best-selling authors choose to go from now on?

Still these scare stats don’t scare me. As an average over 4 million items, 200 is a pretty decent number. It suggests a whole lot of people are doing a whole lot of reading. And like all averages, it is just an average: many books will have sold massively, and a massive number of books hardly at all. You’d need to get the numbers behind the blog post if you wanted to see what’s really going on, but I’d suspect that many traditionally published books are on the right side of the bell curve while lots of self publishers are content to bump along to the left, where of course they will be being joined by lots of traditionally published books, some of which failed, and many more of which were expected to sell exactly those sorts of low numbers. We hear about the wildly successful self publishers, but many have more modest aims. I was just speaking to my cousin the other day, who is about to self-publish a family history. An ex-printer, he’s gotten a book manufacturer who’ll print and bind 150 copies for him at a price he can tolerate. Don’t look for reprints. I take this as a nice reminder that self publishing actually existed long before the internet facilitated its explosive growth.

I can’t help thinking trade publishing, which is about as far from this model as you can get without being a Hollywood movie producer, is going to get more and more different from the rest of book publishing as time goes on. Trade publishing has evolved a system dependent to a significant extent on having their books displayed in retail establishments so that as many people as possible are exposed to a book at the time it is published. The rest of us have gone along with this methodology too. For the analog world this was a pretty efficient system, but digital techniques begin to make it look rather clunky.

Nothing stays the same, but self-publishing is, according to Nielsen, looking more and more like traditional publishing, as Publishing Perspectives told us a few years ago. Maybe the Brandon Sanderson operation has a little in common with the James Patterson operation, but I’d doubt that Mr Patterson is longing to set up a marketing and distribution system — why’d he need to? I don’t believe self-publishing will be becoming more like traditional publishing — I believe that the vast majority of self-publishers have no such intention, indeed many of them are militantly opposed to any such notion. Yes, some of the more successful ones may end up almost being forced in that direction, but such moguls are few and far between, though disproportionately represented in media coverage. (And, by the way, I don’t see any reason why traditional publishing would ever want to become more like self publishing. Maybe they will end up paying a slightly higher royalty rate though.) Nobody expresses surprise that magazines never became newspapers, and vice versa.

In 2017 Cory Doctorow talked about launching a website which would enable authors to sell not only their self-published books, but also books published by traditional publishers. The Digital Reader, and The Passive Voice (Link no longer active) were aghast. I can’t see that Mr Doctorow’s idea ever came to fruition, but in principle I don’t see why it shouldn’t be perfectly viable, as long as the author’s not out to make a fortune off the other books they sell. Obviously a successful indie author has a large on-line following eager for the sort of books that author writes: offering other similar books at the author’s website would seem such a glaringly obvious idea that I can’t believe it isn’t already happening. In a way all that is needed to see this occur is that the publisher open a bookselling account with the author/self-publisher, offering some discounting, and arranging for transmission of any orders to a distribution center, their own or Ingram’s or Barnes & Noble’s say. Finances need working out, but if the end result is, as it’d almost have to be, the sale of more books, who’d object?

The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), PubWest, and Portland State University’s (PSU) Graduate Program in Book Publishing have released a report outlining the findings from PSU’s student-led research on publishing distribution practices.

The report presents analysis and recommendations to address five important issues facing publishing distribution today, namely:

  • How can the book industry decrease the return rate for books sold into trade channels from an average of 30% to an average of 15% (or less)?
  • As consumer buying habits further migrate from retail to online, what does efficient and cost-effective delivery of print books to readers look like going forward?
  • What needs to be done to make book printing truly carbon neutral by 2050?
  • What’s stopping the industry from embracing POD as the preferred means for printing non-illustrated, black-and-white trade books?
  • Although COVID-19 did not create the book industry’s supply chain problems, it certainly exacerbated them. What shortcomings in the book industry were most exposed due to the pandemic?

Link via Publishers Lunch of 14 April.

Now, it is of course easy to criticize the way book publishing and distribution works. It took us a few centuries to get it down right, and we’ve grown accustomed to its look. We like to show off our books in large piles in shop windows on the date of publication. Everyone, even publishers, can agree that the way things work isn’t ecologically perfect. Getting a whole industry to make a course correction is somewhat harder. As long as people want to get their book-reading materials in a print format, getting the book from the end of a bindery line somewhere or other and into the hands of the customer will remain an expensive requirement. Maybe the beginnings of a solution might be sought in their premise: “As consumer buying habits further migrate from retail to online”. Not of course that Amazon, Bookshop, etc. are about to declare their exit from the bookselling business just because delivery in cardboard cartons in trucks rumbling along our highways is ecologically “expensive”, but there does actually seem to be a little bump in the popularity of bricks-and-mortar bookstores going on, as a result of (or is it just, during?) the pandemic.

You can bet on it that publishers would themselves love to cut the returns rate on their books. It’s crazily inefficient to be forced into a reprint of a book just because one branch of Barnes & Noble sends you an order for fifty more while lots of other B&N branches are overstocked and are about to (but when, oh when?) return hundreds of copies.

They wonder “What’s stopping the industry from embracing POD as the preferred means for printing non-illustrated, black-and-white trade books?” An easy one. Cost. As long as you can make a penny more selling a book in the traditional way, that’s what you’ll do. Trade publishers do use POD in certain situations, but it really comes into its own with more expensive books — technical and academic books for instance — where the original unit cost was already high because of the expensive typesetting and setup costs.

But how much more ecologically pure is getting a book, however printed, from your local bookstore than having it dropped off by your smiling Amazon driver? It costs energy to get the book to the bookshop, as well as to get you there. Presumably trucking books from the bindery to the publisher’s warehouse, and then trucking them again in a differently sorted bulk delivery to bookstores does cost a bit less at a bulk rate than sending one book to you in its own carton, but it is still a cost. I wouldn’t be utterly amazed to find out that it cost less on average to get a book from the Amazon driver than it did to pick it up from the bookshop yourself, but I have no numbers.

Does one has to conclude that ebooks will save the planet? But of course that’s not right either. Electricity is energy too. Maybe someone will come up with a little machine which you can wind up and have print out a copy of your book complete with a cover, which all book lovers will have next to their computer printer. Dream on!

Seems to me this may be taking things a bit too far. Topping & Company, a bookshop I visited recently in Edinburgh, sells all its hardback books with a plastic jacket protector in place. Turns out they have stores in Ely, Bath, and St Andrews, where one assumes the same protective policy is pursued. This must cost them quite a lot, so they have to be strong adherents of the collector mentality, whereby the value of an old book is determined by its physical condition as much as by its content. They also sell old books: I noticed a first edition Shuggie Bain for £385 — including of course a well-protected jacket. The Edinburgh branch is certainly a very pleasant and good bookstore. Maybe this over-the-top care and attention is evidence of a more fundamental care and attention.

In America we see these plastic jacket protectors in our libraries as part of the Brodarting process. I dare say British public libraries use the same technology.

In one way nobody cares whether a book is the number one bestseller or not. If you enjoy it, you enjoy it. If you hate it, no amount of being told others loved it is going to make any difference. In so far as you were induced to buy the thing because you were told it was a bestseller — well, you may have a beef, but really, is that a wise way to chose your reading material?

However it does come as a bit of a shock to have one’s most cynical suspicions confirmed by a W. H. Smith whistleblower. As iNews tells it, bestseller status is available for sale: “The practice has come to light after a former WH Smith employee alleged that when he worked at the retailer, staff were instructed to display author and TV presenter Richard Osman’s novel The Thursday Murder Club in the number one slot in stores, regardless of sales figures, because publisher Penguin Random House had paid for the space.” (Link via Nate Hoffelder’s Weekly News Update.)

As the piece tells us, reliable information about book sales is provided by Nielsen’s BookScan, which collects point-of-sale data from retailers. (However their information doesn’t include sales of books published by indie publishers, and self-publishers.) There is of course a remote possibility that the whistleblower’s not telling the truth; disgruntled ex-employees do exist. But his story is confirmed by James Daunt”s statement that he ended this very practice when he took charge of Waterstones.

So bear in mind that a placard in a bookshop claiming that something is a bestseller may be no more than the expression of a publisher’s wish that this should be so. But also consider whether that, true or false, this would be a sound reason to buy in any case.

Independent bookstores are having a moment. The pandemic first of all slapped them in the face, but innovations like kerbside delivery pulled them through. Being confined to home seems to have raised consciousness of the desirability of supporting local businesses, and bookstores have benefitted. Lots of new ones have opened — a major publisher boasts of having opened accounts with two hundred new or expanded bookstores in the past year. And demand for books continues strong. 2021 was huge; 2022 looks like beating it.

Not quite the same the whole world over: China’s independent bookshops are also experiencing a moment, but one of a rather different kind. Sales of books in China have migrated online to a much greater extent than ours have. There bookstores’ share of book sales have declined from 85% to 20% between 2010 and 2020, The Economist tells us (doubtless behind a paywall, I fear). The term “independent bookstore” has of course a slightly different meaning in China: it really just means not state-owned — state censors still govern what it is they can stock. However, apparently the latest trend is for wannabe internet celebrities, wanghong, to spruce up their webpages with photos taken in a smart bookshop.

If only they’d find time to buy a book or two.

I wrote about the burning of these twin bookstores in Minneapolis after the George Floyd murder. So I should probably let you all know the outcome. Shelf Awareness of 31 January brings us news that a new building has been located and is being purchased.

This is their story in full:

Don Blyly, owner of Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore and Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore, Minneapolis, Minn., which were burned in 2020 during the protests and vandalism after George Floyd’s murder, has found a new site for the stores, as he outlined in the stores’ newsletter. He is buying the building, with a tentative closing date of March 24, and hopes to open for business in June.

Future home of Uncle Hugo’s and Uncle Edgar’s.

The building is about two miles east of the old location and a short block and a half from Moon Palace Books. Blyly noted that “the Moon Palace people and I believe that having two bookstores with such different selections so close will do good things for both stores.”

The building is currently occupied by a company that makes and repairs stained glass windows, among other glass-related work, whose owners have decided to retire. “The building has a large WPA painting of Minnehaha Falls painted directly onto an interior plaster wall, a large walk-in safe which is probably helping to hold up the roof, and massive support beams in the basement to hold up the first floor, so that you could probably park a fully loaded semi-trailer on the first floor without danger of collapse–which is just as well, given how heavy books are,” Blyly continued. “There is no off-street parking, but a lot of on-street parking, most of it without parking meters.”

Before the Uncles stores can open for business, electrical, plumbing, insulation and security work must be done. Blyly also needs to buy and build “a lot of book shelves,” and the used books from his house and storage area have to be moved and shelved. The stores require a new computer system, and the data from the current system, which includes more than 21,000 titles the stores stocked for more than two decades before the fire, has to be transferred and updated. He also has to order upcoming titles as well as titles that have been released since the fire.

Blyly sold the stores’ destroyed old site and has some insurance money. In addition, the stores’ GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $195,431.