Bookstores vs. Amazon – A Publisher’s View

August 9, 2012

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, 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/ = 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.

The Era of Bookstores…Anyone Got a Crystal Ball?

June 6, 2012

“Is the era of brick and mortar bookstores really beginning to fade?”

I happened to see someone post this on Twitter, and it got me to thinking about this same question – especially after my post about the business of publishing. I would be remiss if I didn’t add bookstores into the mix, since they are a vital cog in the publishing wheel.

Or are they?

The Good

Admittedly, there isn’t a publisher alive who hasn’t had their frustrations with bookstores.  I’m in the process of scheduling events for authors all over the country, so I talk to A LOT of CRM (community relations managers). Most of them are so fabulous that I want to adopt them and bring them home for Twinkies and margaritas.

Many of the author events are off-site (not in the bookstore), meaning that I need a bookstore to come in and handle the ordering, transportation, set up, selling, packing up, and transporting back to the bookstore. This is a huge undertaking that requires at least two bookstore workers to handle the event. And throughout this process, I’ve been met with many smiles and a “sure, we can do that” attitude.

Offsite events are a great way to corral a huge chunk of an author’s audience in one confined place, and bookstores make those events possible.

And as much as I love offsite events, most of our sales still come from bookstores, so I want to do everything I can to make them happy and keep them in business.

The Bad

Book events are risky for bookstores because they have no idea how many people may show up. That means ordering the book (pay for shipping), doing an inventory for the books, advertising the upcoming signing (announcing in the paper and making posters), and setting them up, may be a huge bust if only five people show up to the signing.

The original idea of the book signing was to get people into the store. The idea is to buy the book, then wander around the store and buy five or six more books, which is what makes bookstore managers smile and think happy happy joy joy thoughts.

However, with so many more people writing and using the various publishing options, bookstores run a higher risk of doing all the labor for zero returns. The books may have been poorly written, or there was no pre-signing publicity on the author’s part – so the only folks who would bump into the signing were those who wandered into the bookstore that day.

This didn’t go unnoticed with the bookstore managers, so a lot of them place parameters on signings:

  • Charge a fee:  We’ve seen some of the indie bookstores charge a $100 co-op fee that goes toward advertising. Now, I’m not totally convinced that money actually goes toward advertising, so I always ask what my author will get for that fee. Regardless, I always pay it for my author. The one thing this normally accomplishes is that it weeds out the self-pubbed/vanity press/POD-pubbed authors.
  • Provide a list:  I’ve also seen a number of cases (again, with indie bookstores) where they ask the author to provide a list of people coming. Sure, you could lie, but when you have a lousy turnout, not only are you unhappy, but so is the bookstore. “Who cares,” you think, but you NEVER want to piss off a bookstore because they are the ones who make book recommendations to their customers. If they like you, they’ll push your book.

I remember when I was doing the promo thing for Tackle Box, I contacted all the local writing groups in the area and gave them a rundown about the book and what I’d be talking about at the signing event. I always had a great turnout because the subject matter scratched the itches of my intended audience.

And since many bought the book, this made the store managers happy, and I was always invited to come back. And this is how you can avoid a bad situation. When planning a bookstore signing, it’s a good idea to put yourself in the bookstore’s Vickie Secrets in order to appreciate all they do to host your event.

Oh, and always bring them cookies as a thank you. We aren’t the only ones who love chocolate.

The Ugly

On the flip side, I’ve had experiences that made me wonder if stores were working valiantly to speed up their demise.

It’s a well-known fact among publishers that bookstores hate saying “no” to an author’s request for an event (in-store or off-site) and, instead, feel they have to give a reason that is in conflict with the truth. It’s much easier to shift blame to the publisher as to why they can’t host the author’s book event.

Case in point; we recently had a situation where an author’s personal publicist called a bookstore to inquire about a special stocking. All went well until the CRM pulled up the title. All of a sudden, the title became “problematic.” She told the publicist the book was listed as “nonreturnable,” and had “excessive expedited shipping fees.”

The publicist was shocked, and who do you think she blamed? You got it; us. Her thinking was, why would a bookstore lie about such a thing? After all, they have no dog in this fight, so it must be the publisher’s fault, right? Not always. Sure, there are cases when that’s actually true; but in a case where a trade publisher has full distribution by a blue chip distributor, the real answer to the question of why is, they don’t want to say no.

This is especially irritating because deflecting the heat off of the bookstore forces the publisher to undo the damage by explaining that, yes all books are returnable, no there aren’t expedited shipping fees unless you’re talking about a situation where the books were needed yesterday. In a word, it’s BS.

As a result, I will drink tainted Russian vodka before I ever call that store again. That CRM has proven herself to be a liar, and who wants to do business with a liar?

I called another bookstore, and boOm, they brought in extra books. No problems at all. It’s harder to fleece a publisher because they know the terms of their own distribution and will cry foul if a store manager or CRM tries that same tact.

Another recent experience came when I was trying to get hold of the CRM. She was out, so I asked for her name. The bookstore worker gave me the CRM’s first name. I asked for her last name. “Um, we don’t do this due to privacy reasons.”

What? Privacy? Is she kidding? I explained who I was. She relaxed and said, “Um…I don’t know her last name.” I could hear her asking around if anyone knew the CRM’s last name. No one knew. “Um, no one knows her last name. Sorry.”

When I told the story to our bookstore representative at our distributor’s office, she was aghast and said that was the most unprofessional thing she’d heard all month. Needless to say, I’ll never call on that bookstore again, either.

The Consensus?

It isn’t fair to lump all the weenie experiences into one ball of yarn and indict every bookstore. There are far more great ones than crappy ones, and they work very hard to help publishers stock their books. I’ve called any number of stores to pitch a new title to them, and they always order the book.

From my perspective, I would cry croc tears if bookstores went the way of the dinosaur because they provide such a fabulous service. It’s no lie that Amazon is convenient and has lower prices, but they also have zero customer service. You can’t talk to someone who just read YOU LET SOME GIRL BEAT YOU? or HEART WARRIORS and listen to them gush over the book, while practically jamming the book into your arms.

Bookstores do that. Seen it many times. Absent a crystal ball, it’s impossible to say how things will shake out. I do know that Business 101 plays a major role in any business’ viability, and I pray bookstores find a way to be the antivenin to Amazon because many of us still love the personal touch and the many special services only a bookstore can provide. Even when it means the occasional bump against The Bad and The Ugly.

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