Bookstores: Friend or Enemy

The other day, without meaning to, I started what could have turned into a flame war in a group I belong to. I did what so many of us have done before. I placed a link to an article I had seen referenced in the group with a note it was for future reference with the thought it might need to be snarked. I even noted that I hadn’t read it yet. Oh my, the “discussion” that came after that. The thing is, on a whole, the article is a good description of what the traditional publishing model happens to be. The author of the article is also fair to indies. However — yes, yes, you knew there had to be a however — I will take issue some of what she had to say about bookstores.

The first point in the article where my teeth were set on edge was when the author stated that “[p]eople use bookstores like a freaking library.”

That makes me wonder if she has a negative opinion of libraries, at least as an author. Me, I love libraries. They are one of the first places many of our children learn to love books. They are where we can find books we don’t have in our homes. We can discover new authors through the library. As an author, that is important. The cost of traditionally published books continues to rise. People aren’t buying as many books as they used to. That means new authors have to find an audience somehow and the library is the perfect place for it to happen. Readers can borrow a book by a new author. If they like the book, they may go out and buy the next book by the author. Even if they don’t buy the book (they may be on a fixed income and the library is the only way they can read newly published works), they will tell their friends about the book and that can and will lead to sales down the road.

Then there was this statement by the author of the post: Now the spines are cracked, the pages wrinkled and no one is going to buy that book, but the bookstore isn’t out anything because they can rip the covers off and send them back. Ultimately the writer is the one who takes the hit.

Here is where I have a couple of issues with what the author has said. First, the current purchasing model used by bookstores is one they basically negotiated with the publishers (from what I’ve been told). Publishers would have preferred the old model where the bookstores bought X-number of books. If they didn’t sell, the bookstores still owned the books and that was when we found them on the deep discount shelf. Now, however, the bookstores can send those books back.

Now, as Lamb states, the publishers send the books back. However, the number of books ordered is determined by the bookstore buyers. The real problem, at least with the big box stores, is that the individual stores no longer place their own orders on most books. The regional or national purchasing agent determines how many copies to order and then divvies them up among the stores they are responsible for. Then, based on how well a book is selling in that region (or nationally) the individual bookstore is told when to remove the book from its shelves.

My second issue comes with how she describes the treatment of books by those browsing in bookstores. Sure, there are some who don’t respect the books. But most of those I’ve seen treat the books with respect. For one thing, they are book lovers. The very idea of being destructive in their handling of a book, whether they own it or not, is foreign to them. For another, they know that if they are caught destroying or damaging the book, the bookstore is well within its rights to have them pay for the book.

But let’s continue.

Lamb goes on and comments about how bookstores want to give their customers the “browsing experience” and have stock on the shelves instead of going to the POD model. I’ll agree with her here. POD with the appropriate tech in the stores would be a much more economical model for the bookstore. However, Lamb seems to overlook the fact that people go to bookstores to see, well, books. The basic mindset is still to go in and browse and look for a book that grabs your interest. That is hard to do if there is nothing on the shelves.

From an author’s standpoint, I have a concern about going to a POD model in bookstores. We are already being hamstrung when it comes to royalties by the current method. Publishers rely on BookScan for sales figures. This method uses sales figures from only some bookstores and then a lot of handwavium to determine how many books have been sold. Which is absolutely ridiculous in this day and age of RFID, inventory control and instant communication. There is no reason why publishers and distributors shouldn’t know how many books are printed, shipped and sold or returned. All you have to do is walk through your local grocery store to see how bar code scanning helps them know when they need to order more of a certain product and how their inventory control function on their cash registers lets them know how many of an item were actually sold — and returned — and how much was paid for that item IN EACH TRANSACTION. Going to POD in bookstores without some sort of update to the mindset of the bookseller and publishing industries scares me. How would the accounting be handled and what safeguards would we have in knowing how many of those copies printed were done for promotional purposes (ie to put on the shelves) vs. were sold to paying customers and for how much?

Lamb is absolutely right when she talks about how the big box stores and the change in ordering impacted the mid-level authors. Those of us at MGC have written a number of times how the mid-listers have been sacrificed by the publishing industry, not only to the detriment of the authors and their fans but the industry itself. Publishers could count on those mid-listers selling a certain number of books because they had an established fan base. Then came the day of quick turnaround on books on the shelves or they were returned to the publisher and the publishing houses needed a sacrificial lamb. It was easy to justify cutting mid-listers because they didn’t sell mega-numbers right out of the gate.

When I started this post, I did so figuring I’d be flaying Lamb over how she viewed used bookstores. Why? Because some of the comments I’ve seen around the internet claimed she denounced used bookstores as bad for authors. She doesn’t, not really. She points out something a lot of readers don’t understand. When you buy a book from a used bookstore, the author gets nothing from that sale. Also, she rightly points out that the books you will find in such stores are, by the vast majority, traditionally published books. So, used bookstores aren’t much help for indie authors.

However, for authors whose books are found there, used bookstores do serve a purpose. In fact, it is much akin to the same purpose libraries serve. A person is more likely to pay a percentage of the price of a new book for an author they have never read before than they are to pay full price. So, even though that author doesn’t get a royalty from that particular sale, if the buyer likes the book, there is the possibility of a royalty sale down the road. Even if the reader doesn’t buy a new book later, they will discuss the book with others who might. To me, it is promotion and a good thing. Word of mouth is the best sort of promotion an author can have.

So, whether we like the accounting method for sales or the purchasing model currently in use, bookstores are something every author should look at as a valuable marketing tool. This is especially true for the traditionally published author or for those indie authors fortunate enough to have a locally owned independent bookstore in their area that is open to having indie books on their shelves.

My opinion is we are going to see a change in bookstores. Heck, we already are. Those big box bookstores like Barnes & Noble are moving further and further away from “bookstores”. The new COO (CEO?) has announced that he wants to take the stores and make them into a lifestyle store. So we may see them going to an approach on books that is POD. I’m not sure. If they do, the traditional publishing industry will feel the hurt, if for no other reason that it will be a major departure from the current operating models.

The best change on the bookstore front, in my opinion, is the slow return of the locally owned bookstores. Some are coming in as niche market stores. Others are similar to the mom and pop general interest stores that were driven out of the market when Border and Barnes & Noble came on the scene. These stores can be our best friends as indie authors because they are more open to letting us hold author events there and, as noted above, to selling our books.

So, to answer the question asked above, bookstores are my friend and they should be yours. New or used, they serve a purpose and help get our names out there. Sure, I’d prefer those browsers buy my books but if they read it and like and tell their friends, I’ll take that as well because those friends might wind up buying even more books than the original reader would. And kudos to Ms. Lamb for the job she did dissecting traditional publishing.

31 thoughts on “Bookstores: Friend or Enemy

  1. POD would actually be a good thing, IF the bookstore/chain purchasers that the right approach to it. In my mind, the right approach is to have a physical copy of each book that’s available for POD. Or at least a copy of the first book in a series.

    If they were to do that, the customer could still come in, browse books, touch, feel, get the “old time” experience of going to a book store, while still being able to take a copy home with them from POD.

    Or, if they wanted to, they could still order a physical copy of the book from the publisher to stock their own shelves at home.

    Personally, I see bookstores as a distribution venue for hardback books, and POD potentially replacing, or at least supplementing the paperback market.

    1. An issue there might be speed. If the POD process takes longer than waiting in checkout, you’ll see people going “sorry, I’m in a hurry”.

      Also, is POD tech currently up to making something the quality of a traditionally produced book?

      1. Agree on both points.

        There has to be an advantage for POD over “just ordering the regular print book on-line”.

        1. The potential advantage to POD, to this reader/buyer, is twofold: (1) If the bookstore needs to have only one copy of a book on the shelf, there’s room for many more books – you can, as a physical-book lover, get the analog of Amazon’s preview by briefly browsing for style and clarification of what the blurb actually meant; and (2) it may not be as quick as just pulling the book off the shelf to buy, but it’s a lot quicker than waiting to receive it in the mail.

          My shopping process would probably be to buy the high-probability POD books first (i.e. favorite authors & subsequent books of a series) and, while waiting for POD, browse unfamiliar authors or other series, buying more if attractive enough. Thus the bookstore, if it takes proper advantage of POD and shelf space, competes better than formerly with the library for exploring.

      2. There is also the cost of POD to the bookstore. The “printers”, for lack of a better word, are expensive and I have no idea what maintenance on them would run. If the cost of manufacturing a POD book is such that suddenly is costs as much or more than a traditionally printed book, buyers will balk. Add that to the potential wait time, and it could be a non-starter.

      3. A thought just occurred to me on that one. If there’s a copy of the POD book on the shelves to browse, the store could sell the display copy to the in-a-hurry customer, then start the POD process to print out a new display copy.

  2. I like bookstores, but I haven’t been inside one in at least a year. I’ve got dozens of free books on my iPad, waiting for me to ‘browse’ through them. Most will get dumped. Too often, you get what you paid for.
    As for the ‘browsing experience’, Indie publishers of eBooks get the benefits of that. Amazon’s the biggest, but not the only purveyor who ‘lends’ books. Mine were on a couple of those sites early last year, before I wised up and removed them. The KU program offers not only the browsing experience (it costs the reader nothing, since he/she will already have paid the subscription fee, something that’s common to all the companies that allow ‘borrowing’), but I get paid when they do.
    I get most of my income now from KU borrows. Yesterday alone, my borrowed pages read exceeded 11,000. I’ve had other days almost as good. Last month, the pages total exceeded 182,000.
    It’s also a huge encouragement for authors. Libraries allow browsing, but the author of the book never knows how much people like it. Maybe they’ll do as you suggested, buy other books by the author, but maybe not. It’s the same as those freebies I mentioned; did anyone read the book, or simply dump it?
    So I don’t do freebies. Want to read my books (currently 8 novels, a novella, and a short story) for free, sign up for Amazon’s KU program.

    1. I love the KU program as both a reader and an author. As a reader, I can try new authors and not worry about losing money in the process. I can also read more of my favorite authors (especially since more and more of them are indie vs. traditionally published). I can do so with a clear conscience because I know the author is getting paid for each “normalized” page I read. As an author, the reasons are basically the same. It is a win-win in my opinion.

  3. I was at B&N for 13 years as a bookseller/manager in a very high traffic location. Many a loiterer would spend their days sitting around and reading, usually splayed out in an aisle and blocking most traffic in that section. The wear and tear on books wasn’t a huge deal but you did encounter issues with books that were beaten up over time by those who had no intention of buying. In those earlier days, you stripped the cover to ship back to the publisher but you tossed the books into the trash. Yes, I used to spend a good half hour with cartloads of dated or worn mass markets, stripping the covers, and launching the otherwise perfectly good books into a compactor. That method changed a handful of years back. Instead of trashing them outright at the store location, you now pack them into sealed plastic bins and pay to ship them back to the warehouse for recycling. Same end result, though. The books are trashed.

    We also had a policy of not buying self-published books because they were not returnable. We hit many a snag with authors posing as customers who would order 25 copies of a title for any number of reasons that seemed valid, only to find them unwilling to purchase them, leaving them as dead stock on our shelves. No one wanted to buy them, we couldn’t return them, and we would not get authorization to remove them for close to a year (because corporate calls all the shots.) And in those early days there were some hideously awful looking self-pub books. Still some now, but self-pub has come a long way.

    We used to have a small bit of buying power after that initial wave that was mandated to us by the corporate bean counters. Individual booksellers could place orders for re-stocking purposes, or to even bring in a title we didn’t have, but such orders had to face the approval of the manager before processing was cleared on a daily basis. If you made your case in the brief comment section it was an easy deal. Well, until they started caring more about toys, crock pots, candles, and soap than they did about books.

    And as the guy who ran their sf/fantasy section, I tended to ignore their call to return or strip titles. I tracked those books carefully and kept what was necessary. It never made sense to me to have a book called out for return when you were still selling 2 per week. So I didn’t. When called out on it all I had to do was show the sales figures.

    But bookstores (big box types, I mean) aren’t focused on books anymore. It’s just another “thing” in their sales slot. And the employees we used to hire were book people. Not so any more. If you have a pulse, are willing to work under 30 hours and still be considered full time, and can fill a weekend slot on a regular basis, you’re in.

    1. The bookstore I worked for would buy self-published books from time to time. A few of them were actually successful. Then we had stuff like the 600-page “thriller” connecting health care to the demise of the Avro Arrow fighter program. Not making this up. We also got a truly insane 9/11 conspiracy novel which I’m proud to say never sold a single copy.

  4. She really thinks going to POD would benefit the traditional booksellers? I’d think it would absolutely kill them. What would the practical difference be from traveling to the store to get a book printed there from getting it next day delivered by Amazon? If you already know what you want there is no difference, if you don’t know and have to browse for an object that isn’t there there would be no difference from doing it at home on a computer screen or in the POD shop on a computer screen.

    1. Agree.

      When I went to browse Book Stores, it was with the idea that “I can page through the book and if I liked it, I’d pay for it & walk out with it”.

      Once I discovered Amazon and other on-line bookstores, the idea that I’d go into a book store & order the book if they didn’t have it in stock, just didn’t work.

      Unless POD works in minutes, it’s not worth going to the Book Store.

      Oh, ordering books on-line meant that the books would come to my home while ordering books in the stores meant returning to the stores. IE the physical book stores won’t send the books to my home.

      1. Yep, those issues need to be resolved.
        Re: “POD in minutes” — I’m thinking of how tech evolved on getting photographs printed – from a couple of days, to overnight, to 4 hours, to do it yourself in a few minutes. Make a market that will support the R&D, POD will follow, a step at a time.
        “Next day delivered by Amazon” – eh, possible but adds too much to the price of the book; next week is the norm. Granted, we buy more through Amazon than through bookstores, but it has a lot to do with available choices, which POD could solve.
        “ordering books in stores meant returning to the stores” – so it has been but not necessary: several retail chains allow both ordering on line and picking up at the store, and vice-versa. No reason a bookstore chain couldn’t do this too, although distribution practices would have to evolve – with enough feedback for the store to know that having the single browse copy and no immediate physical sale was still resulting in income to the store.
        I think _most_ of the objections to bookstores are solvable, with the aid of POD, if they can evolve fast enough; and will meet the needs of many, not all, customers (especially as mentioned above, for hardbounds.)

        1. “Next day delivered by Amazon” – eh, possible but adds too much to the price of the book; next week is the norm.

          Which is one reason Amazon Prime is so popular. Not only do you get free delivery within a day or two, but you get access to thousands of free books, movies, TV shows and music. If you order a lot of things through Amazon, or consume a lot of media, that yearly subscription comes out to pennies per use.

        2. “Next day delivered by Amazon” – eh, possible but adds too much to the price of the book; next week is the norm” Unless you have Amazon Prime in which case Free 2 business day delivery is he new norm

        3. I’m thinking if POD could manage to function one day, in the same manner that 3D printing seems to function in some areas of Japan (so I’ve heard)

          Ergo, much the same way the photo printing kiosk does; you pay a fee for the printed book. You go to the kiosk, order the book to be printed, get an estimated time for when it’s finished, and run other errands / wander the mall, come back at later time to pick up your book,which could be held by the kiosk for you.

          In some ways this might allow an exclusively e-book author to have accessible print on demand physical volumes.

          It’s a thought.

      2. Last August or September I was after a particular book, and was visiting a relative. B&N was about 30 minutes away and we had some other things to do in that area anyway, so I figured maybe I’d have the book to read that evening. This, mind, is after I’d checked on-line to see that B&N carried this item – but I did not know local inventory.

        Got to B&N and was surprised at how few books were there now. I didn’t find what I looking for on the shelf and asked. “We can order that for you and you can pick it up…” “I’m just visiting the area I live in another state.” “We can have it shipped to a store closer to you.” That one is an hour’s drive away and I seldom have reason to visit that area. So I asked about having the book shipped to my residence and got told I had to (or really really should) join their club – for a fee. I left disappointed, annoyed, and not having purchased anything.

        The next morning I placed an order with Amazon. Amazon isn’t killing bookstores, not really. Some bookstores, however, are committing suicide.

        1. “we can order that for you” became the bane of my existence in my end days at B&N. We went from, “yes, we have that right over here” 90% of the time to “We can order that for you” 90% of the time. This interaction taking place with a customer who is standing at customer service with a printed sheet of details about the book from Amazon. The vast majority of folks would reply that they’d just buy the book from Amazon if we had to order it for them.

          But we always had those scented candles available…

          1. Nod.

            Add to that the problems of people who live 45 minutes away from the nearest B&N.

            If I take the trouble of driving that far, I want the book in my hand.

            If B&N “has to order it”, it would be less trouble for me if I just ordered it from Amazon.

            1. That was my reaction. If we hadn’t had other things to deal with in the area so that the trip was going to happen anyway, I’d have been much more sore about it.

              It also seems as if B&N is following the path that the local (in the town I live in local) book/music stores took – long before downloading became dominant. To “reinvent” themselves they… shrank the amount of books, CD’s, and videos (VHS? DVD?) they stocked, and used the space for higher cost items that anyone with any sense WOULD drive a significant way to get at a much better price, if they wanted them at all. The results were predictable – but evidently not predictable enough for them to avoid. And thus is how the local On Cue failed into being acquired by Sam Goody that then folded.

  5. I still like going to my local bookstore even if I only buy a few books there a year. It’s a chance to glance at the new releases and see if there’s anything I might be interested in.

    Also, it’s a nice place to bring one’s date, if she is of the bookish persuasion. 🙂

  6. I’d also point out that the existence of used bookstores increases the demand for new books, especially new physical books at bookstores. People are more likely to buy things if those things have a resale value, even if it’s a low resale value percentage-wise.

    So that while buying a book used does not put any money in the author’s pocket—the author already has that money—if the used venue did not exist there would be less money for the author, either because fewer sales occurred or new book prices would have to drop by a lot.

  7. Buying a used car, DVD, or house doesn’t put any money in the creator’s pocket either.

    Just because they’re books doesn’t mean they deserve special consideration.

  8. When I first read her blog last week I was a little put off by it. But then I reread it from the perspective of an author only, rather than that of a reader, and I can see a point she’s trying to make with regards used bookstores and libraries. I think she’s wrong, but I can see a point there.

    The reason I think she’s wrong is the same reason I think the bigwigs at Barnes & Noble are wrong. Readers talk to each other, they share with each other. They get their friends and family members excited about things they’ve read. Having a library or used bookstore available increases the chances that someone is going to come across your book and tell someone else about it, get them excited about it and buy it new to have in their collection. Instead of thinking about libraries and used bookstores as a lost sale, we should be thinking about them as free advertising after the initial sale.

    1. Absolutely. It is like the Baen Free Library. Give the reader a freebie, especially the first book of a series, and get them hooked. Now they want to read more by that author and will, hopefully, open their wallets to do so.

      1. Baen is an excellent example of how to do it right. I first ran across Flint’s 1632 freebie there, downloaded it, and read it. I’ve since purchased 8 or so of Flint’s books, in hardcover, and plan on buying more. A win for Baen, Flint, and me.

  9. First, the current purchasing model used by bookstores is one they basically negotiated with the publishers (from what I’ve been told). Publishers would have preferred the old model where the bookstores bought X-number of books. If they didn’t sell, the bookstores still owned the books and that was when we found them on the deep discount shelf. Now, however, the bookstores can send those books back.

    This is not exactly the case. The current policy, where books are sold returnable, was put in place by the major publishers. It began as a special promotion several decades ago, and quickly became permanent. Big publishers preserved their business by hogging as much bookshop shelf space as possible, squeezing out smaller competitors (and self-publishers).

    To sell returnable stock requires a huge up-front capital investment, which big publishers can afford but small ones usually can’t. That limits competition, which is the whole object of the exercise. Bookshops happily went along with the deal because it reduced their costs, but it was not their idea in the first place.

  10. I have found that many locally owned used bookstores will carry self-published books (mine, anyway) on their shelves, either on consignment or buying them outright.

  11. Reader input. The last time I was in a bookstore was to attend a book signing. I had tried the author based on input from either blogs or forums and had ordered the independently published book from the author, he turned out to be pretty successful. Yep, Larry Correia.

    Our reading is done mostly on the Kindle, (yeah for larger fonts! and easier on my wrists) or more rarely, having Amazon deliver the book to our door, (one dollar credit for slow shipping to be spent on ebooks).

  12. I usually hit three book stores every week, one part of a small chain and two used book stores.
    The new book store, to see what is newly published.
    Have not purchased a new book from them in roughly a full year.
    One used book store I look and occasionally buy.
    The other used book store I have several books on a list for the owner to call me when they come in. I have a positive balance on my account there from from trading in my used books. Sometime in the future I will run out of books to trade in and eventually I will reduce my buying of printed books to almost nothing.
    Most if not all of my new book purchases are from Kindle Unlimited. Before I get a book from K.U. I look at the authors page and if most of the authors books and all of their books in a series that I want to read are not in K.U. I will not buy, nor follow.
    K.U. really works for me, I am reading about one book a day from K.U..
    Even at $2.99 that would add up in a hurry.
    But $10.00 a month is doable and afordable

  13. One further point on the stock in used bookstores. Those books have already been bought as new once, meaning that the publisher and author have already been paid once each for the sale of those books when new. That the books are being sold in a used state, and for usually less than the price that they were bought new for, is no different than a person selling their used car or used furniture. Should GM get more money every time one of their cars is sold in the used market ? Well, why should book publishers ? And, there is the issue of finding books that are out of print in terms of new stock. Such a used book being bought by a reader may well drive that reader to find other books by that author that are in print.

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