Bookstores vs. Amazon – A Publisher’s View

In talking to our distributor’s buyer for BN, I learned that more books are sold through Amazon than from BN. It may seem like a no-brainer, but I found that interesting because most of our sales still come from bookstores. I’m not surprised at this revelation – only that we haven’t experienced it. Yet. I’m sure that day is coming very soon, and here’s why…

Barnes and Noble is a national account, meaning that all book buying is done at the corporate level by genre buyers. So let’s say the health buyer is having a bad hair day and, for whatever reason, decides she doesn’t love your book, even though the author’s promotion plan includes a national tour, big name celebrities who have blurbed the book, blah, blah, blah. They can say “No thanks,” and don’t even need to give a reason. There is no logic involved, and no amount of pleading or arguing will change their minds.

So a book that a publisher has spent tens of thousands could be shut out of the largest book chain in the US, all based on the opinion of one person. All the stars could be in alignment and a perfect author platform, and nothing – for no reason at all. I watched this happen very recently to an author whose first book sold hundreds of thousands, yet his second book was shut out. The distributor’s sales rep literally fought and begged for the BN buyer to change her mind. Nada. Zip.

To put it more succinctly, ONE PERSON holds the magic keys to the Shelf Kingdom at BN. And some corporate genre buyers are real jackwagons – to the point where I would think twice before accepting a book in a particular category. And it’s not just that genre buyer, but others as well.

The frustrating thing is that bookstores are excellent advertising opportunities, and it takes the jam out of my jelly doughnut to know that the investment in developing a book may struggle on the whims of a pouty genre buyer. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the saying goes…and I believe it.

Ironically enough, this is the very corporation that’s crying big croc tears for consumers to please support them and save them from the big bad Amazon. From where I sit, I have to ask the age old question that all publishers are currently asking, “What have you, Mr. B&N, done for us, lately?”

With inefficiency like this, is it any wonder BN is in trouble?

Indie Bookstores

I love them. They are far more likely to host events because they want to draw in business, and they want to support solid new books. They tend to be more efficient because they don’t have a giant corporate head peering down their blouses, and their staff tends to be far more experienced and knowledgeable. With all the events I’ve planned over the years, I experience far fewer problems with indie bookstores.

But they’re a dying breed, which I lament every day. And because they’re indies, there isn’t a cohesive uniformity about what books they carry. The flip side is that they are more likely to write purchase orders based on personal contact, be it from regional sales teams or the publishers.

Amazon, the Behemoth and BN.com, the distant cousin

Their attraction is availability, discounting, and fast shipping. I can get an ebook within seconds…while I’m sitting on the beach or rotting at the airport. As a consumer, I can read Stacia Kane’s Unholy series, or I can choose from the other 35 e-books sitting on my phone and tablet with a nip of my pinkie finger. Readers can get their physical books in a couple days…for less. As a publisher, this is music to my ears.

As much as Amazon can drive me nuts, I never have to worry about our books being stocked – and discounted. The downside is that there are millions of books on those sites, so it’s hard to make like cream and rise to the top. In a bookstore, the reader can peruse the shelves, kick the tires, and read a few pages. Sure, you can do that, somewhat, on Amazon, but the experience is different. On the other hand, you can buy a book (or three) in the comfort of your computer – on your own time – rather than getting in the car and driving to a bookstore.

No one knows where retail book buying is headed, but publishers have to pay close attention to the aspects that stand in our way of selling books – and none of the choices are optimal.

  • Amazon/BN.com = great pricing, availability, instant gratification
  • BN stores = arbitrary, decisions made by one person, the genre buyer
  • Indie bookstores = great, knowledgeable, but not enough of them to keep publishers afloat

In spite of the frustrations and uncertainty, I can’t imagine a world without books, and it behooves all of us publishers to figure out a way to keep our product in front of readers’ eyes.

8 Responses to Bookstores vs. Amazon – A Publisher’s View

  1. What’s your suggestion for saving indie bookstores?

  2. If I had the answer, I’d be a millionaire several times over. Businesses succeed because people buy their product. If shoppers can get the same item more cheaply somewhere else, then that business is going to be in trouble.

  3. Karen Syed says:

    I am usually the odd man out on this one, but we need to be very careful about putting too much stock in Indie stores. DO NOT get me wrong, I love many indie stores, but sadly there are many more that have the same kind of power as the genre buyers at BN.

    I have gone to indie stores to set up events with the most wonderfully produced books and a guarantee that the books will sell or we will carry them out in our hands, eliminating any risk to them, and have been told that, “we only deal with REAL publishers/authors.” This boggles my mind!

    I have gone in to stores and been ignored TOTALLY, even lied to. I used to visit stores to get to know the lay of the land and then go back to pitch our books. I would ask for the manager/owner (knowing I was talking to the manager/owner) and been told they were on vacation. I never call them on it, but it speaks volumes about their character. Why would I support them?

    I do support stores that support me, not only as an author but as a customer. I demand good customer service and a warm friendly attitude. It’s what I offer my customers and it is what I expect.

    There are no sure things in this business and there are good and bad in each aspect, but make sure you know all the angles in all the venues. 🙂

  4. Karen, it’s true that stores avoid POD publishers because they’ve been burned too many times due to the lack of distribution and varying return policies. In a perfect world, they would look at publishers on a case by case basis, but they don’t have that kind of time.

    Looking at it logically, if trade presses are having a tough time, I can only imagine how hard it is for POD publishers.

  5. Karen Syed says:

    I’m not talking about a POD publisher. I’m talking about my company that distributed through Ingram, Partners, sold directly to BN corporate, etc. I am talking about books that I did a 2500-5000 offset print run on.

    One book in question had a positive PW review written by an award winning author. The problem with indies is that they think they are the only ones taking a risk. as of last month, my unpaid invoices from indie stores is nearing $10,000.00, some of those invoices are as old as 3 years and those stores have actually tried to order books from me again.

    I’m not a POD publisher, I am, a publisher who uses, offset, POD, and eBook technology for producing books. All done in the best quality and also distributed to meet the retail industry guidelines-discounts and returns.

    My point was that indie stores are guilty of the same whims as places like BN.

  6. I’m sorry to hear of your troubles. I haven’t had those experiences with indie stores. I usually wave around my “I’m distributed by Consortium” line, and that stops anyone in their tracks. And they are likely to buy our books. BN is the big bugaboo for many of us.

  7. markos says:

    I was very surprised by your genre buyer example, more specifically the fact that they make arbitary decisions. These people are supposed to have corporate bosses looking over their shoulder, yes? Presumably these bosses review their emploees’ decisions or, at the very least, go over the result of these decisions. I would imagine that such a buyer would be very careful to have solid, objective reasons to justify her decision, so that, e.g., if a book they passed on becomes a runaway best-seller, they can say “I didn’t order it for reasons x, z and w”, as opposed to the “I was having a bad hair-day” line of defence.

  8. Well, that’s the thing; their bosses can’t possibly oversee every submission brought to every genre buyer – the sheer volume makes that impossible. That’s why it’s important to have a good distributor, who will fight for their catalog. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And the power the genre buyers wield is heady stuff. And no reasons are given as to why they turn down a title.

    As for your runaway best-seller scenario, that wouldn’t be possible without the ordering power of BN, since they are the largest bookstore in the US. If the Amazon and/or indie store trending showed an upswing, BN would jump on the bandwagon post haste.

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