Around the writing and publishing world

Several articles and reports caught my eye over the past couple of weeks.  I thought you might find them interesting, too.

First, the BBC has a fascinating video report on ancient libraries in a town in the Sahara Desert.

The ancient African town of Chinguetti was once a stopover for trade caravans and pilgrims in the Sahara Desert.

As many of the people passing through were rich and educated, libraries started opening along the route to allow visitors to read and write.

Today the remaining libraries are fighting to preserve these ancient books in the hostile desert climate.

I can’t embed the video, but you’ll find it at the link.  It makes interesting viewing.

Next, Viacom is looking to sell its publishing arm, Simon & Schuster.  This is likely to have a direct impact on some of the authors writing for Mad Genius Club, because they’re published by Baen Books, whose distribution is handled by S&S.  (I don’t know if the latter is a shareholder in Baen – can anyone tell us?)  I’ll be interested to see if there are any changes once S&S is sold.

The BBC published a major analysis titled “Why Amazon knows so much about you“.  It examines how the company has, almost from its earliest days, sought to monetize the data it gathers about its customers, and uses it to increase its market penetration.  The article isn’t directly about author-published books on Amazon, but it gives a useful perspective on writers’ value to Amazon.  We’re not just sources of income in terms of the company’s share of our books’ sales price;  we’re probably of greater value to them in the fans we draw to our books there, so that Amazon can gather data about them and use it to sell them other products.  We’re just digits in the database, so to speak.  It’s a sobering perspective.

Those needing cover art or illustrations can rejoice.  The Smithsonian is releasing millions of images and (in due course) other material into the public domain.

For the first time in its 174-year history, the Smithsonian has released 2.8 million high-resolution two- and three-dimensional images from across its collections onto an open access online platform for patrons to peruse and download free of charge. Featuring data and material from all 19 Smithsonian museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives and the National Zoo, the new digital depot encourages the public to not just view its contents, but use, reuse and transform them into just about anything they choose—be it a postcard, a beer koozie or a pair of bootie shorts.

And this gargantuan data dump is just the beginning. Throughout the rest of 2020, the Smithsonian will be rolling out another 200,000 or so images, with more to come as the Institution continues to digitize its collection of 155 million items and counting.

There’s more at the link.  I think this will become a very valuable resource for writers and others involved in author publishing.

Finally, and with a muttered, cynical “Oh, yeah?”, I note that “Barnes & Noble’s New Plan Is to Act Like an Indie Bookseller“.

In its 1990s heyday, Barnes & Noble’s superstores blended the sociability of a Starbucks with the bargaining talent of a used-car dealer. But two decades after Amazon.com Inc. capsized the bookselling industry, America’s largest chain of bookstores was flirting with bankruptcy. By the time it was acquired by the hedge fund [Elliott Management Corp.], its footprint had been slashed in half to a little more than 600 stores, sales were in their seventh straight year of decline, and the company was hemorrhaging cash.

. . .

At three times the size of its closest competitor, and the only major chain left of its kind in the U.S., Barnes & Noble was the cockroach after the catastrophe.

No corner of retail has been more disrupted by the decline of the physical shop than bookselling. In 1995, Jeff Bezos began selling books on Amazon.com because there were more items in the category than in any other. He aimed to sell the majority of the 3 million titles that were circulating in print, more than 20 times the number carried by the largest physical bookshops. Today about two-thirds of all books in the U.S. are sold online, almost exclusively through Amazon. Barnes & Noble is fighting to keep selling 1 in 5.

. . .

Barnes & Noble will shrink the space it allocates to miscellany, including its CD and DVD section, replacing it with expanded children’s and young adult sections. The company is also testing new layouts at some of its stores, such as lower tables instead of midlevel units, to speed up the traffic … Elliott has agreed to front the initial cost of renovating Barnes & Noble’s stores until the bookshops are profitable enough to reinvest in themselves … the company’s bookselling strategy needs a complete overhaul … Another major aspect of the strategy to revive the company will be to open new locations in “significantly under-bookstored” parts of the U.S. … The test will be whether each bookshop can be mindful enough of the community it’s attempting to sell to and curate a stock appealing enough to bring back readers.

Again, more at the link.  It’s a long article, focused upon the business of selling books rather than writing and publishing them, but it’s full of interesting information.  In the light of B&N’s previous missteps, one can’t help but be dubious about its prospects of success in reinventing itself, but who knows?  Under new management, and with a capital injection, many things are possible.

That’s all for today.  More soon!

17 comments

  1. Hmm. Veddy interesting, but futile. I’d hate to be the one tasked with unsinking that ship, especially now that the panic will encourage people to purchase online even more.

      1. Phantom, the guy presumably knew the industry and who he was working for when he took the job, so my pity is limited. It may be he has an exceptionally enormous case of hubris, or he’s content to collect his giant salary as the enterprise dies. If you know it’s going down for the count, why not milk it while it’s dying?

        1. I’ve done a bit of retail. Its not fun when nobody comes to your store.

          If they don’t come because you have the wrong location or the wrong staff or the wrong stock, that’s one thing. But if they don’t come even after you’ve done everything, because of a disease? That’s harsh.

          Could be the guy is a vampire, getting the last blood left in the dinosaur, but he’s doing every single thing everyone here has been yelling about for many years. It would be nice for me personally to be able to go to a bookstore that has things in it I want to read. So I hope he manages to ride out the storm and succeed.

          1. Would B&N have let a guy who could actually revive the chain rise to a position where he could be a candidate to take the reins? I be boocoo skeptical.

  2. Concerning reviving a brick-and-mortar retail operation enervated by online competition: The sole way that’s proved effective in the past has been to adopt a niche and stay within it. There are still bookstores in NYC, but nearly all are niche retailers: mysteries, F&SF, romance, what have you. B&N seems an unlikely contestant in the niche marketing arena, but stranger things have happened. Whether the approach will appeal to them remains to be seen.

  3. This B&N re-launch article contains that datum I was talking about the other day. Sell-through and return rates. From the article:

    “He [Daunt] also ended Waterstones’ promotional contracts with publishers, which cost the chain millions of pounds in lost revenue but gave managers unprecedented agency. It allowed booksellers at the company’s stores outside London to promote more relevant titles to their individual locations. In the northern seaside resort town of Blackpool, managers devoted more shelf space to Japanese comics than fiction, and a book about a local soccer team was prominently displayed at a shop in the southern county of Surrey. It also helped reduce the return rate—Waterstones’ has since dropped from a quarter to between 3% and 4%, which has drastically cut labor and freight costs. (Daunt says lowering Barnes & Noble’s return rate is a major priority.)”

    So, Waterstones had an overall return rate of 25% when they were working under promotional contracts with the big publishers. Which they had to bear the freight cost and handling/packaging costs for. According to the article, B&N’s average return rate for new titles with promotional contracts is 50%.

    A 50% average return rate for publisher-promoted titles. I’m trying to cut down on being mean this week, so I’m just going to leave that there.

    1. Of course Waterstones’ only returning 3%-4% of stock would, by the old metrics at least, potentially be as bad or worse news than the 25% rates, as the old wisdom (I believe the last commentary I saw on the matter was Jim Baen himself on his Bar site) had it that a DTF “sell-through” in excess of 80%-90% (call it 85%) meant you were missing out on lots, potentially *thousands*, of sales (& their attendant revenue).

      I wonder how those numbers work now?

      1. Apples and oranges.

        Store inventory sold and copies of a single title sold are not the same thing.

      2. “…a DTF “sell-through” in excess of 80%-90% (call it 85%) meant you were missing out on lots, potentially *thousands*, of sales…”

        If you go to the vitamin store, they do not have a pallet-load of vitamin C at the front door, put there by the producer because they’re flogging vit C this month. They have ten bottles of the products that move, and they re-order weekly or sometimes daily. Things that don’t move very much, they have one or two bottles. There are items that hardly ever move, but they keep one or two just so they can be that store where you go to get that thing that nobody else has. If they don’t have it, they can order it.

        Vitamin stores are under serious pressure from on-line outfits including Amazon, but they aren’t all gone yet. The successful ones have dedicated customers, built by knowing the customer base and selling to it. Its difficult, but people are doing it.

        Point-of-sale computers and inventory give you -instant- reports on what’s moving and what’s not. All you have to do is look at those graphs and you can construct a model of what is going to succeed in your area. B&N hasn’t been doing that. They’ve essentially been selling shelf space to the big publishing companies and acting as a carpeted warehouse with a coffee bar in it.

        That wouldn’t be so bad if the publishing houses had a clue what their audience is. I would guess that most of B&N’s income is from the coffee. Occasional gems do arise, but the field is very dreary.

        What I’ve chosen to take from this is that I was fortunate to have my book ignored by trad-pub.

      3. Jim Baen, may he rest in peace, died in 2006. Even if he were remarking upon that in the last year of his life… a lot has changed in the shipping and stock and point of sale tracking in 14 years.

        Back when restocking could easily take 2-4 weeks, yes you were missing out on lots of sales. I remember, in 2004 or so, I tried to get a book at B&N only to be told I’d have to order it, and it would be there in 2-3 weeks. I went home and ordered it on Amazon, because it’d be faster and I wouldn’t have to do in-store pickup.

        Given that many books had a shelf life measured in only a few weeks, that lag in restocking time could easily miss the window when it was available at all, so the amount of potentially unsold books was 0 to infinity.

        These days? If the book is out, they’re restocking with 24-48 hours in many cases, depending on proximity to the distributor. So the potential number of unsold books is now just “for the hours while it’s out.” Which is not non-zero, but is certainly much smaller.

        1. Yes, I realized Jim had been dead for a long time (though I hadn’t looked up how long), which is why identified him as being, to the best of my recollection, the source of that information (I don’t recall exactly what was said when, but by identifying the source I also identified how recent it wasn’t).

    1. They’re the last dead-tree standing. They have a monopoly on in-person book retail.

      You would think that a company like that would find a way to make a profit out of being a monopoly, but that is apparently not the case.

      1. The one that was in my area had an extremely limited selection of “best sellers”, tables full of direct-to-markdown picture books, and some shelves of shopworn stock nobody had thrown away yet. Things like “MSDOS 5 for Beginners” weren’t likely to be hot sellers in 2005… yet there they were.

      2. They’re the last dead-tree standing. They have a monopoly on in-person book retail.

        Er, sort of? It’s worth noting that the local B&N didn’t win the newspaper’s “Best Bookstore of 2019” award: the 2nd & Charles (a mostly used media store) did. They’re the last “big box chain” but there are plenty of other places to buy paper books, most of which are cleaning B&Ns clock.

        1. In Ontario Canada, there’s basically one chain. Chapters/Indigo. Almost all the other little stores and smaller places are gone.

          There are funny little places like the art book store The Labyrinth on Trafalgar Rd.

          https://animationroadshow.blogspot.com/

          I give them a free plug if I can because they deserve it. I love this store because it has LOTS OF ART BOOKS you can’t get anywhere else, also anime fan stuff, little statues, pins, Pop figures, all that goofy stuff a grown man like myself should be embarrassed to even know about. The owners are the type of geeks who can rhyme off all the Marvel Avengers and then all the characters in SAO. They’re weirdos, like myself.

          The other bookstore I like is Bakka-Phoenix, but it is in the middle of Toronto and I never go there. They have everything SciFi, and they actually read the books. I’ve gone there since they were on Queen St. in the 1970s. Third set of owners, still chugging along. If those guys can do it, and keep doing it, that means it can be done.

          The question is, can Heather Reisman do it at Chapters/Indigo? I think the answer to that question is a qualified “No” because Heather, bless her little pointed head, is a censor at heart. Subjects and books which do not pass the Heather Test are not found at Chapters/Indigo. For example, you can’t find Guns & Ammo or other gun periodicals at Chapters/Indigo.

          Same problem they have at B&N really, bias in management that hobbles the store’s performance.

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