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.