Archives for category: Bookstores

The account given by Shelf Awareness of the trouble over CEO Demos Parneros’ firing, B&N’s chronicle of a deal undone, sounds embarrassingly like an episode of a trashy television drama. You’ll have to scroll down a little to get to the S.A. story: it’s the fourth item. As The Digital Reader points out this is just the opposite of the kind of publicity Barnes & Noble could use right now.

For a couple of years we have all been living in fear of a Barnes & Noble collapse. True, the share price did bump up a little recently, but maybe that was just because of take-over rumors. Surely the brutal truth is that the day of the massive bookstore has passed. Twenty years ago someone who was looking for a non-bestseller book would know that the widest inventory holdings would be found down at the mall, so it would be worthwhile driving down there to take a look. Worst case, B & N, Borders, Walden could special order it for you and in a week or so you’d have the book. Nowadays it’s just not worth using the gas — they probably won’t have the book anyway, and everyone knows that Amazon will, and will be able to get it to you quicker and cheaper than any B & N special order can.

More and more the center of gravity of bricks-and-mortar bookselling looks like settling on the local independent bookstore.* Its stock has been selected with the local customer base in mind, so maybe you will actually find that book there since they may have anticipated your interest! Offering the sort of intimate, personal experience that a chain just can’t manage, your local bookstore is above all local, and book readers are preselected to want to encourage local businesses which are making clear efforts to cater to an audience of neighbors. Barnes & Noble appears to recognize this — they’ve been trying to move towards smaller stores. But no matter how good the staff they put into these smaller stores may be, B & N cannot escape the crushing reality that they are not a local store: they are a national conglomerate. Killingly though, from the shareholder point of view, can small stores generate the sort of sales volume needed to keep a Fortune 500 company going?


* I’ve been preaching this small-is-beautiful line for ages. Just the other day I dragged it in to a discussion of the outlook for book publishing.

I thought it would never happen, but no doubt that was because of an undue fixation on our national governmental stasis. How could we forget that many states are different? The city of San Francisco has just budgeted $103,000 to support eleven independent bookstores. The Mission Times (via Shelf Awareness) tells the story.

“In addition to the grant money, the bookstores will receive technical assistance for marketing, human resource consulting, and help negotiating long-term leases.

The recipient stores were Green Apple Books, EastWind Books, Dog Eared Books Valencia, Dog Eared Books Castro, Alley Cat Books and Gallery, Adobe Books and Arts Cooperative, Comix Experience, Bolerium Books, Mission: Comics & Art, Stevens Books and Just a Touch Christian Bookstore.”

I still await, with dangerously bated breath, the legislation which will make it illegal for landlords to jack up the rent on bookstores beyond some sort of acceptable level. We have rent control and rent stabilization in New York City for people’s apartments, so why not for socially important shops too? It’s not really good enough to cross your fingers and hope that the landlord will be socially responsible enough to moderate rent demands on their own initiative. This did in fact recently happen when Three Lives was saved. No doubt one could make a list of other important institutions to be included, like the corner grocery store. We recently rallied (successfully, rather surprisingly) in this neighborhood against a chain pharmacy’s plan to turn our supermarket into a massive drug store — more pharmacies we don’t need, food we do.

The Travelodge chain has bothered to compile a list of books left behind by their guests in their British hotel rooms. Apparently they’ve had to deal with 70,000 abandoned books this year.

The top twenty forgotten books thus far in 2018 as recounted by Travel & Leisure are:

  1.  “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
  2.  “The Couple Next Door” by Sharri Lapena
  3.  “Bad Dad” by David Walliams
  4.  “Origin” by Dan Brown
  5.  “The Secret” by Rhonda Bryne
  6.  “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins
  7.  “Paul O’Grady’s: Country Life” by Paul O’Grady
  8.  “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn
  9.  “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway” by Jeff Kinney
  10.  “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling
  11.  “Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book” by Johanna Brasford
  12.  “IT” by Stephen King
  13.  “The World’s Worst Children” by David Walliams
  14.  “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” by J.K. Rowling
  15.  “Big Little Lies” by Liana Moriarty
  16.  “All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class” by Tim Shipman
  17.  “Harry Potter: Coloring Book,” Warner Bros.
  18.  “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher
  19.  “Donald Trump: The Art of the Deal” by Donald Trump
  20.  “Disney Princess Beauty and the Beast Magical Story,” Disney

Now of course to get on the list a book has to be quite popular: a lot of people have to be carting it around. But is that all? Doesn’t leaving your book behind imply a sort of loss of interest. After all if you were really into the book, in that can’t-put-it-down sort of way, well, you sort of wouldn’t be able to put it down, would you? One or two of the books might be thought of as falling squarely into that category. Unsurprisingly several children’s books figure: always difficult to get them to focus on packing.

Many of the guests leaving books behind did report that they did so because they’d finished the book — though one wonders who was asking them.

Perhaps even more fascinating is Travelodge’s list of odd things left behind in rooms.

Link via BookRiot, 4 September 2018.

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.


* 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.

We all watch in amazement as Penguin Random House surges ahead to ever greater heights of publishing output. Now of course we do have to allow for the possibility that they, or parent Bertelsmann, are making a mistake in getting ever larger in an already mature industry. Though that’s perhaps hard to believe: we are used to thinking they can do no wrong. They seem set on a course of industry dominance. (Is industry dominance not always a good thing? Perhaps not if you are dominating a doomed industry? But is book publishing doomed?)

The New Republic has an article, entitled “Penguin Random House is Building the Perfect Publishing House”, which examines the relationship between Amazon and PRH, or more accurately speculates about this relationship.

The Passive Voice provides a link to this piece, and follows it up with some acerbic commentary including this concluding paragraph: “PG [Passive Guy, the voice of Passive Voice] is continually amazed that anyone in the book business thinks Amazon is anything less than the best thing that has ever happened to traditional publishers and authors of all stripes. Despite all the platitudes staggering around physical bookstores and literary bars, there is absolutely nothing inevitable about the traditional publishing business in the digital age.” Don’t these two sentences kind of cancel one another out? If we have no future, how come anything current can be the best thing that ever happened to us? PG does tend, it’s true, to the view that the best thing that could happen to publishing is that it should go away, and this would of course sort all this out. A corrective to his partial, off-kilter view of publishing might be provided by Joe Esposito’s sober analysis at The Scholarly Kitchen of How Traditional Publishing Works.

Is Amazon the best thing that ever happened to publishing? I certainly don’t think it’s a bad thing, but for publishers, just like the advent of ebooks, it’s probably a fairly neutral thing. Sure Amazon’s size enables it to command ever greater discounts. Still, even without Amazon upward pressure on discounts was always there: the book chains came into existence at least in part to enable them to increase their negotiating heft. It’s true that pre-Amazon we used to have to sell our books to a multiplicity of smaller retailers, and now we get to sell lots of copies direct to a single large retailer. We still try to sell to the little stores too though, so it’s not as if Amazon had saved us anything by increasing our efficiency. Before Amazon, books were sold. Now that we have Amazon books are still being sold. Not as many copies of most of them as it happens, but that may have nothing to do with Amazon. The industry grows its output and massive corporations like PRH can churn through a lot of titles in a season — but of course PRH is basically just the result of consolidation of lots of smaller lists. All those books would still be there if they came from 90 publishing houses rather than just one. Amazon is indeed a huge retailer, and obviously has a giant presence in all book publishers’ thinking. But the publishing process remains basically identical to what it was twenty five years ago. We’ve taken advantage of a few technological advances, but we’ve been doing that ever since the scribes held up their hands in the face of Gutenberg’s Bible. Nowadays we publishers may have to fight harder to preserve our margins, but we have become pretty skillful at pressuring our suppliers too.

The Passive Guy also opines “Amazon doesn’t need to sell books. Randy Penguin does.” (Randy Penguin is what he wittily calls PRH.) And I suspect he may be right on this. Amazon started out selling books because they were simple; they commanded a reasonable price, the inventory wouldn’t spoil, the people who wanted them were likely to be digitally connected, and many people actually did live quite a long way from the nearest bookstore, and would certainly be willing to wait a day or two after buying the book before they actually saw it. I dare say one could figure out what percentage of Amazon’s sale is now comprised of books, but I do know it’s not the 100% it was initially. Cloud computing services, film and TV production, space exploration, and a list of retail offerings as long as the Amazon itself, must make books almost a sentimental reminder of the good old days when the company was just a little rivulet. Publishers are quietly increasing the number of books they sell direct to consumers (see my recent post D2C). We used to think that competing with Amazon would necessitate building a system as big and efficient as theirs: now I suspect we can see signs that a little-by-little response may be perfectly adequate.  Who’d be utterly amazed if Amazon didn’t end up just getting out of the book business, and selling the whole kit and caboodle to someone? Maybe PRH if they’re still intent on growing?

TechCrunch tells us of discussions around Senator Sanders’ introduction of a bill in Congress to regulate the “corporate culture” of big companies; Walmart and Amazon as well as the fast food industry are seen as large targets.

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

The bill, named the “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies” Act (after Jeff Bezos) was introduced on 5 September by Senator Sanders and Representative Ro Khanna of California. The bill would require companies with more than 500 employees to pay 100% tax on every dollar of government assistance that their workers receive. This tax would apply to everything from Medicaid and food stamps to public housing and other aid, which sounds rather hard to figure out: but hey what are bureaucrats for?

Unsurprisingly Amazon says it’s a great place to work. We have of course often heard about how horrible it is to work at Amazon, how workers queue up for hours to get through the anti-theft system at the end of the day etc. etc.. Maybe, maybe. It’s always easy to describe your workplace as awful: the boss is ignorant, your colleagues lazy, the work stultifying. I wouldn’t be confident that I wasn’t guilty of such a thing every now and then. Disgruntlement is endemic in the labor force. As I have occasionally had to say, “If it was all fun, we wouldn’t have to pay you to come in”. Amazon claims that their average hourly wage is $15, which falls right into Senator Sanders’ wheelhouse. Of course people persist in using median and average so as to maximize the impact of their argument. I wonder how the median salary at Amazon quoted by TechCrunch as “$28,444, less than Bezos makes every ten seconds” is calculated. Does it include Mr Bezos’ salary? Sen. Sanders gives examples of lots of Amazon workers making less than $15, and obviously there must be a lot to make that median work out.

Here’s Washington Post’s similar story. Although it is Mr Bezos’ own paper, it plays a pretty straight bat on the subject. I don’t really know the rights and wrongs of the Amazon wage structure, but if a company were systematically to be paying its workers less than they “should” be, confident in the knowledge that the workers would be able to make up any shortfall against the basic cost of living by getting food stamps from the government, I’m not sure whether I would regard this as altogether wicked. You pay the wages you need to pay in order to attract workers. If you pay too little, workers will find other jobs — something which I agree may be difficult in particular instances. If a worker, having a job anywhere, is able by the terms of the government’s SNAP regulations to qualify for food stamps, I can’t see any problem with their getting food stamps. At $15 an hour and a full time job you would not qualify for food stamps I think, (depends on the number of dependents etc.) but increasing the minimum wage might be a better approach than this odd tax claw-back. We might also look into the growth of part-time employment, a common means of by-passing benefit payments.

The food stamp program exists to ensure Americans, especially children, get a decent basic diet, and can be regarded more like a national health program than a work assistance one. Surely, just because a company is notoriously profitable cannot be turned into an argument that the nutrition of their workers should not be a concern of the state. We can probably all agree that it is desirable that anyone with a decent job should be able to feed their family out of their wages. The problem comes when they can’t, either because the pay packet isn’t large enough, because they can’t get enough hours, or because, as conservatives might claim, they spend their money on other frivolous stuff. Everyone has to think that children shouldn’t suffer malnutrition because of the spending choices of their parents. The (rather moderate) socialist Sen. Sanders ought perhaps not be attacking employers: shouldn’t he rather be introducing legislation to extend food stamps under SNAP to even more people, trying to curtail part-time and zero-hour contracts, or perhaps even pushing yet again for a national health scheme?



Are we beginning to see signs that we may be ready to shake off our petrified immobility in the face of the Amazon-monster? It seems so obvious that offering books direct to readers makes sense. Sure we all love bookstores, and wish them well, but selling books is what we exist to do, and an idea like Scholarly Books Unbound ought to make sense. The Scholarly Kitchen has a piece about the New Book Network‘s proposal.

There’s obviously a delicate balance between booksellers and book publishers. Publishers know that if they want to get a good buzz going it helps to have stacks of their books in front of eyes in as many bookstores as possible. But how much does it help? I suspect that with a prohibitive bestseller people are going to scramble to get the book regardless of whether they see it in a shop window or not. Sales of the specialist, slow-moving book will probably not be affected much by whether it appears in a bookstore or not. It’s probably the second-tier bestseller which benefits most from bookstore exposure.

Be it said here and now that we are discussing print books only. The distribution of ebooks is rather different. And we are talking only about print books from what has come to be called traditional publishing. Self publishing and indie publishing are different too.

Looking at any book’s retail price we can see a money cake which gets divided up between the three interest holders — author, bookseller, publisher (four if you count the shipping companies which today play a large role in our business). The size of the author’s slice is predetermined by the terms of the contract. Let’s call that 10%. Obviously, with a print book, it costs something to manufacture the object; let’s call that 15%. This leaves 75% of the cake to be shared by bookseller and publisher. Nowadays the bookseller, with Amazon in the lead, will be wanting more than 50% of the cake with books everyone’s aware of, leaving the publisher to cover overhead and profit out of the 25% remaining. Of course these numbers are not precise or even necessarily accurate: one book’s profit & loss picture will look very different from another’s. They are order of magnitude right, and are there simply to illustrate the issue.

Now as bookstores seek larger and larger discounts, approaching 60% in some instances, is the publisher not being forced to consider whether selling direct to the customer isn’t in fact a better deal? Well, it is undoubtedly a better deal in money terms, but we are not quite confident that giving up the ability to stack books up in customers’ faces isn’t worth quite a lot. In other words we aren’t confident we can sell as many copies on our own as we can do under the current distribution model. If we knew we could get away with it we would embrace direct to consumer sales. When I worked in Britain in the last century we had the Net Book Agreement, a deal between publishers and the book trade quite explicitly directed at ensuring the viability of a wide-spread network of independent bookstores — and it worked. Publishers knew bookstore were vital to getting books to customers — nobody had dreamed of on-line selling at that time, and a bookshop was the only means of reaching the public. (Well there were book clubs as well as book departments in department stores.) When Amazon was first setting up, publishers thought about competing head-to-head with them by building their own on-line book service, but decided not to as they considered the survival of bricks-and-mortar bookstores more important. And as long as bookstores were willing to settle for a half share of the remainder of the cake, this restraint continued to make sense. But now the game may not be worth the candle: obviously, if by selling direct you get all of that 75% (minus the cost of packing and shipping) you are doing a lot better than just being left with 25%. Lots of publishers already do this on the quiet, and many of them feel compelled (though I cannot figure out why) to offer a discount on these direct sales.

The request from book chains for a discount greater than 55% may end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Sure we love them, but can we afford to keep giving away money to bookstores? Any publisher who refuses the bookstore’s request for more discount faces a response which leads to none of their books being on sale in the stores affected. Collusion is not allowed, but if three or four large publishers were to refuse to give larger discounts, the selection available in these stores would be severely affected, and how long will people keep turning up to find what they want isn’t there. So I wonder if the threat is not just empty. Another massive, but hardly discussed side effect of refusing to sell your books to bookstores is that the returns problem disappears. D2C is returns-free — apart from the occasional manufacturing flaw — and that would represent a huge money boost for the publishing industry.

See my 2015 post End book returns?

We love to blame Amazon for everything wrong with our business. Remember how, twenty years ago, we used to love to blame the chain stores, prominent among them Barnes & Noble. We’ve switched the foot on which we wear the boot and now like to hold Amazon responsible for good old reliable B&N’s current ills.

Mike Shatzkin, weighs in at The Shatzkin Files, with a piece exonerating Amazon from the charge of Barnes-and-Noble-icide. B&N’s situation is of course a result of moves they themselves made (and didn’t make) in response to changes in the marketplace. Maybe the Department of Justice did have some role in this when they blocked B&N’s attempt to acquire Ingram, but who can know how that’d have turned out anyway. Back in the last century we all vaguely saw, with very little clarity and certainty, that selling books on-line was something we needed to do something about, or Amazon or something Amazon like would drown us. When you look back on the map of where you’ve come from you can always see those forks in the road where you took one turning rather than another. The assumption should not be made however that, had we taken the road less travelled, everything would be now coming up roses. To any business model, as to every thing, there is a season. When that time’s over, something else comes along. It looks like the something else in book retailing is now going to be an Amazon surrounded by a cloud of small, quick-witted independent bookstores. This is a situation easier to live with than to struggle against. Different isn’t necessarily worse.

The Passive Voice picks up a piece from Business Insider, telling of their visit to B&N’s Union Square store (it’s a big one). Their captioned picture gallery is pretty devastating. Now of course we know you can pick a moment that’ll make your point in a photo, but these images have an ominous familiarity. The long and short of it is surely that hardly anybody now goes into a bookstore intending to buy a specific book. Unless it’s a recent bestseller we can all more or less assume it won’t be there, so why bother? I think an on-line in-stock list by each bricks-and-mortar bookstore (as I suggested in my recent post Robot booksellers?) might help recover some of this trade, but things can’t go on like this.

The news of the opening of unstaffed bookstores in Beijing provoked Robert Gray into a round-up article at Shelf Awareness of 16 March 2018. His piece entitled “Bullet Points & Robot Booksellers — A Collage” may be found at his blog Fresh Eyes Now. Mr Gray includes a link to the story of poor Fabio, a Pepper robot, who was fired after only one week in Margiotta’s, an upmarket foodstore in Edinburgh. Let’s hope this means that we humans can hope that our days as bookstore assistants are not numbered (yet. Or not numbered with too small a number anyway.)

I almost think I’d prefer there to be at least one robot in Amazon’s NYC bricks-and-mortar store. The couple of humans on staff were so tied up with checkout that you’d have to stand on line just to ask if there’s a copy of a particular book in the shop. I just left, and went the next day to Three Lives (who didn’t have it either). I guess for a book shop to keep its inventory showing on-line might be a cost, but I do think that this may be an important thing to do. Sure I can call and ask, but I don’t. Nowadays, when we are all used to being able to order on-line right away, it’s surely dangerous to cede the on-line check-up arena to Amazon. Set up an inventory listing, link it somehow to your cash register (for deletions) and your order entry system (for additions) and bingo, there’s a list of everything you have. Even when I’m in the store I could check this listing rather than “wasting” the time of an assistant, but most importantly I can see at home if it’s worthwhile getting on the subway and visiting you to get it. That’s more or less what these Chinese bookstore robots are doing anyway, isn’t it?

Not entirely sure what to think about this piece, Publish and be damned, from Kenilworth Books (a bookstore in England’s green and pleasant Midlands) abbreviated and commented upon at The Passive Voice. I’d like to think I’m as much in favor of authors’ prospering as the next guy, and while some of what’s said here is correct, especially about bookstore discounts, overall I think it misses the target.

Publishers do not cavalierly divide their lists up into books they’ll promote, and books they’ll just let sink or swim. The raw reality is that a book’s marketing budget is (must be) a function of its sales. Books that sell lots of copies get lots of promotion; books that don’t don’t. Publishers make judgements, occasionally wrong — but god knows they’ve got a lot more experience at doing this than commentators or authors — as to which books are likely to sell in which quantities. The marketing and promotion budget will be a fixed proportion of expected sales revenue. Books with good prospects get lots of promotion money; those with less good, less — and theoretically (though no publisher seeks out this type of book) those with no prospects, none. None will of course never be $0. If you weren’t an optimist you’d never be a publisher.

Stop thinking of authors as employees of a publishing company. They are not (though over the course of history a few publishing companies have employed writers for specific tasks — usually rather boring reference-type writing). The truth of the matter is nearer the opposite. Publishers exist to serve their authors: it would be less misleading to say the publisher is employed by the author than the reverse. Publishers originate nothing: they provide services to authors to enable them to reach readers. To compare earnings for clothes designers to those of authors is pretty irrelevant. Not too many designers of clothing are creating their designs on spec and then looking for a manufacturer to make them up. They work for the clothing company, and design what that company wants to see designed. They are on a salary track. Authorship, for better or worse just doesn’t work like that. Sure, one could say that, in a sense, the author does assume some of the risk of publication: if books don’t sell their authors can be said to have wasted their time writing them. But that’s not really what people mean when the assert that the publisher assumes the risk of publication: that’s a financial statement. The publisher invests money in turning the manuscript into a book and bringing it to market. If the book fails, the publisher loses money. If the book fails the author doesn’t earn any royalties. The publisher’s bank account will be smaller: the author’s just won’t have gotten larger. A potential loss rather than a real one. (This leaves to the side the matter of advances against royalties, functionally a mechanism for financing the author while the book is being written.)

Classic cart-before-horse-ism is displayed in the claim “And this is the way that the publishing industry generally views authors now – they are cheap producers. And if one gives up because they can’t make ends meet, there will always be another easily and cheaply obtained.” Authors are not producers for the publishing industry. The publishing industry exists to take such manuscripts as have been written and bring them to the people who’ll pay to read them. True, publishers will often attempt to direct writers towards certain projects, and try to bind authors to them in order to be able to benefit from their future offerings, but the author always has the choice of not signing a contract with an option clause, or of changing publisher. By choosing a publisher authors are choosing the company they want to design, edit, produce, market and sell their book. One hesitates to cite supply and demand: but in a market economy what publishers pay authors is bound to be “the going rate”. If that weren’t so we’d find the big houses running out of stuff to publish as authors rejected their terms. Have you noticed a drop-off in output of publications? The Kenilworth Books writer even takes time to complain that there are too many books being published.

“If the net revenue by the publisher then is only 30% of cover price, the author will get 30p of a £10 book, not the 60p they would have got had it been sold at a standard 40% trade discount.” True, true; but what will the publisher be getting? Maybe 10p of net profit. Don’t forget the printer must be paid, as must salaries, interest on borrowed money, rent and so on.

Bookstores do have legitimate beefs with the question of discounted bulk sales, especially to non-trade outlets. Such deals are clearly not in the interest of the corner bookstore. Publishers used to be reluctant to do such deals in the days when there were bookstores on every corner (well, on at least one corner in most towns). But, as the big chains and online retailers grew in importance, publishers’ sales management became less motivated by the wishes of independent booksellers, and these bulk sales became rather sexy. We should perhaps not forget to set against this effect the crash in book club sales. Sales to Book-of-the-Month Club, which in their heyday could be huge, were less visible to the carping commentariat than the skids of books confronting you as you go into Costco. But from an accounting point of view, they were rather analogous. I’m not sure how common the sliding scale of reduced royalty implied in the article is. In the simpler world I remember the contract would allow for a reduced royalty in the case of sales at greater than X% discount. This is theoretically justifiable in that a cheap sale is valuable not just for the lump sum it brings in, but because of it’s potential promotional effect in generating word of mouth. When you see those skids at your superstore, do you not assume that this is a popular book? Still, one might agree that agreement from authors before a steeply discounted sale was agreed might be justifiable, though this would surely best be taken care of by an additional clause in that freely-negotiated contract.

The Bookseller article referenced at The Passive Voice can be found here. I’m slightly leery of this sort of discussion. What god-given level of profit for publishing companies did Moses bring down from Mount Sinai? Is 9% really too high? Is the fact that profits have generally been rising a bad thing? Authors are not by and large making profit sharing agreements with their publishers.* If their publisher doesn’t make enough profit they won’t be around too long, and the books they publish will become unavailable. If only all our eggs were really golden — but be careful when you consider wringing the goose’s neck.


* In a profit sharing contract the author will agree to receive not a royalty (fixed percentage of sales) on every copy sold, but a proportion of the profits the book makes. Here the author is really sharing in the risk of publication, and in some instances may also be financing some or all of the manufacturing cost. Such contracts are rare nowadays.