A pile of rotting veg, in a time of hunger

With the growth of vast supermarket chains, and bulk buying by them, the situation of local suppliers, dealing with local shop buyers died. It was just way too much hassle to deal with hundreds of thousands of mom-n-pop producers. If you were a small veggie producer, you couldn’t sell directly to the supermarket giant a half a mile away. Your product either went to market, and got bought by an agent (who was able to force the price down – and take a commission effectively from the small producer – unless they sold to small buyer. Then they’d screw both sides.) or you found small to medium sized outlets that would still do business with you, because they too were local, and were sourcing for their restaurant or catering business. It was that or the farmer’s market.

The large chains bought from a handful of very large produces or from a handful of agents who sourced the product where it was cheapest. Offshore, or wherever.

Which was a sort of working model… until the Wuhan flu made various states and countries shut down the restaurants, the catering biz, the farmer’s markets. And thousands of small-medium producers… dumped their product – because they couldn’t sell it.

Now, what long term effect this has, is complex, interesting and probably not good… but hey, we’re here to talk about books. Interestingly the above situation rather mirrors how the book market changed. Up to a point, that is, and then it became entirely different.

Once upon a time there were no book chains, and publishers had to sell to directly to small booksellers. Pretty soon they had distributors selling to the various little booksellers – from bookshops proper to racks in little corner shops. They knew their area, knew their customers – and who their customer’s customers were, and boy did they care, because if they didn’t the customer would not get any sales and would not buy next time. An area had a population of pretentious literary types, they’d make sure their customer had pretentious literary twaddle to sell. An area had lots of thirty something women – they be providing romance (a mainstay, apparently, at one time anyway of the married-with-young-kids-women – back in the day). And so on. It was a very effective system, and sold a hell of a lot of books – because it was tailored to the customer. It was a major PITA for publishers, and really good for authors, and readers.

Book stores became book chains, and buyers became regional or national, rather than local, and that could encompass a vast area, with all sorts of possible customers. But the buyer didn’t have a direct stake, and sure as hell wasn’t going to deal with the 500 little distributors who did. So gradually, the connection between what readers in a local area wanted and what authors could sell well was lost. The distributors got very cozy with the publishers and big buyers – neither of which had a clue just what the readers in the many discrete parts of their massive region liked to read and would buy. Unsurprisingly what got bought was what the NY editors liked – so you got bookstores full of literary twaddle where the readers wanted Romance or cowboy books, and stores in 98% Red-voting districts got window displays of Hillary or Obama’s books.

Short term, that was good for authors who produced work that exactly matched the NYC editors tastes and world-view, got sold by the distributors to chain buyers who had no clue what the audiences in the individual stores wanted. Of course sales went on a slow fall. And then along Came Amazon and disrupted their model by cutting out three layers of middle-men, and allowing local taste once again to dominate local sales.

One has to wonder if there is way to hook this sort of disruption to fruit and veg farmers. Maybe an online buy-a-box system or something like that.

Of course, the problem with a big disruption-force like Amazon, is that you can change a set of intermediates that took 92-94% of the income, to one that lets you have 70%… until it breaks the others. Then they start on you. And you might get even less – but without the small amount of services that publishers and booksellers offered in exchange for most of the income.

The key I suspect is to build your own list and and sell at least to those customers directly. It’s a tough path, but more secure. After all, the farmer who had to dump all his product worked hard on producing those… and wishes now he could sell them directly.  There is a hunger for a good read out there, but like the farmer, you could end up without being able to sell it for enough to pay your costs.
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay


  1. Having managed a small market farm, and dealt with farmers markets as both a seller and a buyer… prices at the farmer’s markets for goods are so much higher than the supermarket you get two kinds of buyers: the wealthy, and the very poor. Why the dichotomy? Because the wealthy can afford the conspicuous virtue-signalling consumption of ‘buy local’ and the poor have government vouchers they can use to buy fresh produce. There’s no motivation for the middle, either the middle producers or the middle buyers who can’t afford the high prices of the niche sellers. Will we see a change? I’d like to think so. The problem is, there’s another component in this. It’s not two-sided, it’s three or four or more. Local, state, and federal regulations that interfere with what can and cannot be sold, dictating the prices, who gets a permit, can you sell baked goods? It’s a hot mess,and it’s almost invisible to the buyers.

    For books? Being non-perishable, that market will even out and find it’s buyers. Far less regulated, too.

    1. I used to do the street markets in Greece regularly – because it generally was straight from the farm/orchard/producer, and it was fresher than fresh, and comparatively inexpensive. It was what everyone did for produce and fruit because the supply chain to the grocery stores was much longer and stuff usually was pretty wilty by the time it got there. Once a week, a couple of blocks of a main street would be blocked off, and the vendors set up in the early morning – little tables and booths, although sometimes they sold off the back of their trucks. In Spain, there was an old covered central market downtown – also not terribly pricy, and fresh from the farm. When they started with the farmers markets in San Antonio, I thought – oh, goody! Alas – fresh and straight from the farm, but OMG pricy. Essentially an open air gourmet grocery with a lot of little stalls.

      Amazon was a game-changer, when it came to selling directly to readers. Fortunate for us indy authors that it came along just as the book-selling trade contracted to fit the tastes of the New York literary-industrial complex.

      1. To be fair, there’s a lot of overhead in a market stall. Boxing and loading time, travel expenses and time, booth rental, setup time, hours on site, takedown time, travel expenses and time, time to unload, etc.

        Supermarkets have the benefits of economy of scale all the way down the pipeline.

    2. Here the markets are kept artificially high. It is vebotten to undersell the stores.
      Both Michigan and Wisconsin have protection racket laws to protect “the farmer”, that force the farmers not to sell via a stand for less than Super Value supplied stores (until Mejier, 90% were SV but Mejier doesn’t really count as their produce managers seem to be incompetent) so actually it protects the big suppliers.

    3. The farmers’ markets around here are actually competitive with pricing, although there is still the premium items. Honey, for example, is about the same cost per ounce that the squeeze bears have, and it’s local, with wide varieties.

      This is partly because I live in a very agriculturally-dense area, so transportation costs are effectively nil.

    4. Around here (Silicon Valley), farmer’s markets vary, so I’ve been told.
      In Palo Alto, for example, the farmers can charge whatever, the customers pay it without bargaining.
      But in my local market, there’s plenty of bargaining, and many good bargains, like “not so pretty” (but very tasty) organic apples for $1.00-$1.50 per pound, 10 lb oranges run $7 (conventional) to $15 (organic), un-shelled walnuts ($13 for 5 lbs), etc. Most farms are located in the Central Valley, with a few coastal (Watsonville and nearby) or edges (Brentwood, Hollister).

  2. Whenever I suggest that the usual response is, “I just want to write books, I don’t want to waste time trying to sell them. Ewww, icky!”

    1. To which the response is “sure, as long as you don’t care about getting paid or having people read your work”.

  3. I can understand why, as a writer, you’d like to sell direct to your list. However, as a reader who is subscribed to quite a few writers’ newsletters – and who buys lots of ebooks – I don’t find this a particularly attractive idea.

    The trouble is that Amazon is so bloody convenient for readers!

    It’s an organisation to whom I have already given my personal information and payment details – so the buying process is practically fiction free – and I have minimal worries about data security, which would not be the case with author websites. (I have no great concern about my email address – it’s probably already on “Have I Been Pwnd” – but anything to do with payments is another matter).

    Also, when buying from Amazon I don’t have to go through whatever distribution process the author has chosen (Book Funnel seems to be the most common for special free offers so I now remember how I want the book delivered, but it was a bit of a puzzle the first few times) and then fiddle around saving the file on my PC and using “Send to Kindle” to distribute it across my devices.

    And about lists and newsletters: readers expectations will vary widely but all I want is notification of new releases and sales, and for new releases things like excerpts and cover reveals leave me cold, just “it’s gone on pre-order” and “it’s now been released” are all I want to see in my inbox (and a pet peeve of mine as a UK resident, the newsletter should always give separate purchase links for each Amazon store).

    1. > The trouble is that Amazon is so bloody convenient for readers!

      …who have bought into the Amazon ecosystem, use the Amazon reader or some OS compatible with Amazon’s software, and don’t mind Amazon looking over their shoulder at every page turn and tattling back to the mothership.

      I realize most people have no concern about security or privacy, but… no.

      I could set up a VM and install Kindle-ware and Calibre and move the files off to some non-spying device, but… frankly, there’s nothing I want to read badly enough to go through the trouble.

      Amazon’s malignity or benignity isn’t the issue. The issue is they’re collecting data that’s none of their business and I don’t want them to have.

      1. I can see where you’re coming from, and 10 or 20 years ago would probably have agreed with you. However, as I have got old – if this sheltering at home thingy works for us statistics say I’ve only got about 12 more years in me – I’ve concluded that a lot of things just aren’t worth worrying about: they really don’t matter.

        If Amazon wants to spy on my reading I don’t care – even though it’s none of their business – any more than I care what someone thinks of my fashion choices (pretty terrible), the music I listen to, or whatever. Well actually, I care what my wife thinks but that’s as far as it goes (and my wife is pretty easy going as long as I refrain from criticising her choices and use my headphones).

    2. There’s a middleman niche available here – someone with taste and the ability to sell, who will collect the orders, and send them to the authors to sell. Maybe get a box or so on consignment of books that might secure a market?

      Still, the authors will likely have to do some printing/shipment. Better is to work with Smashwords and similar types of Indie Publishers, and collect a commission for directing those orders into the pipeline.

      I really hate the contempt that Americans have for salesmen. Without them, many people wouldn’t find out what’s out there, special features, and the pros and cons of similar products. I once had a great denim salesperson explain to me WHY certain high-end jeans cost so much more. Has to do with fabric quality, fit that matches the average woman’s figure, and excellent cutting and sewing (no unraveling threads, no seam that meanders around the leg). I still tend not to spend the money for designer jeans, but I also do go looking, now, in the used clothing shops for the better manufacturers.

  4. In Japan, local farmers organize and sell via cooperatives under the JA (Japan Agriculture) brand. JA (and the related JF for fisherman) is a huge sprawling thing, with bits that sell all sorts of things including (for example) car and property insurance – we get ours from JA – but the local groups seem to have reason autonomy and even compete to a degree with each other when selling to other parts of Japan.

    JA coops usually have their own chain of supermarkets (often called something like A-coop) and in them they sell local fruit and veg (and fish) as well as stuff from elsewhere and all the other things you need from a supermarket.

    The coops also sell to the major supermarket chains too, but they are big enough that supermarkets are able to handle them but yet they are small enough that they can specialize and experiment and so on.

    I sort of wonder if there isn’t a possible business model for books in this space. You’d need a sort of mothership that handled common tasks like payment processing, printing, ebook hosting and so on, but let smaller groups coordinate their own branding and sales while still using the common mothership for the standard bits.

  5. The fiddley bit is the fourth, fifth, and sixth parties involved, like Cedar says. I’d have to collect local (city and possibly county), and state taxes. And then send all of those monies (pennies at best, in some cases) to all the different taxing entities, and document everything. And what about overseas sales? Ye gads. Just thinking about it is enough to discourage people from even starting to look into how to start direct sales.

    1. There are umpty web storefront companies whose business is to take care of all that stuff for a minor cut of the profits. “Storefront packages” are basic web services; they just install the right modules for >Flatstate >Calaveras > Hooterville taxes and everything is done electronically via EFT. Some will even email you the shipping labels.

      Yes, it’s complicated… but so is a word processor, and “it would be too much trouble to write my own word processor” isn’t much of an excuse for not writing either.

      1. No print, sorry. That means having inventory in my home, which means I’m breaking local zoning laws. I can have a server off-site and sell e-books, but I can’t store inventory on-site. I’d have to have a business address, and pay appropriate taxes on that. (No, my city is not geared up to modern small-business e-commerce and PoD systems yet. Yet.)

        Yes, there are options such as GumRoad and others, with lots of levels of tax sorting and service. Yes, the systems can be learned. Yes, marketing can be created and sorted out. Are some of us looking at this? You bet. Are things as plug-n-play as D2D, the ‘Zon, and similar? *wags paw* Plus not all states are as friendly to incorporating a small business as others are.

        At the moment, the question for the writer is WIBBoW – would I be better off writing? Or would I be better off learning everything I need and organizing everything and hiring the services and people I need to be able to set up and run a store-front and marketing system? *shrug* It’s a question each writer has to sort out for himself or herself.

      1. The last time I looked at their ToS, it was up to the individual sellers to deal with transaction taxes, export fees, and the like. It does say that for the US, they will collect state taxes and send those to the states, for some types of transactions. For others, the seller has to do the leg-work. The seller gets the paperwork needed to prove compliance from E-bay.


        Note, I am not logged in to get to the full ToS, this is just the “front page” information.

        1. Many ebay sellers already have a storefront operation. I met a woman who owned a used collectibles store. A LOT of her goods went out on FedEx every day. She just used her normal bookkeeping/credit processing software.

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