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