The other day Jonquil posted about the bad experience of author Greg Frost with bookbuyers from Borders,
in particular to take issue his claim that prior to twenty years ago everything was so much better, before the Big Chain Stores took over, those halcyon days of yore when instead of the Soulless Corporate Shells there were quaint "Dickensian" shops full of dusty old tomes with eager booksellers attentive to their spiritual kinfolk's needs, where you could get any book you want, life was better etcera etcetera.
I contributed my own unfond reminiscences to that thread, but I really need to expand upon it, having been not simply a genre fan and bookbuyer since age 5 (oh, the thrilling days of discovering a picture book full of exotic ocean life or ancient Egyptian mythology at the Goodwill!) but also have worked in book publishing, printing production, book lending and book selling - I've known what Ingram is (and why they're EBOL) and what the dagger by Regnery titles on the NYT bestseller list means for a good many years now, what PPB stands for and PPI and "tipped in", ILL and GovDocs and Demco, and how to deal with the paranoid customer who won't leave a name and phone number on the waiting list for the long-awaited bestseller that has had all its ordered and reordered copies reserved for weeks, and the dishonest customer who wants to return an expensive book that she didn't buy from this store, and the frenzied one who wants "that book that was on TV, you know, it was red
(I think that all of us who have worked in bookstores have had that last customer.) And the ones who won't get off the ladders, or won't keep their kids off the ladders, or stop trying to play bumper-cars with the wheelie-stools, and the ones who think that they're cute to hide their trash behind books, or that if they hold the books over their heads they can manage not to pay or check out without setting off the alarms, or... Yeah, I know the drills.
Oh yeah, and also the customers convinced that we were hiding books, on purpose, hiding them someplace just to frustrate them
- and lying
about the fact that it wasn't in inventory and we'd have to order it for them and it would take probably a week, depending, to get it in. They just knew
we actually had Random Obscure, Maybe OOP, Maybe Special-Edition, title hidden somewhere in our small out-back area, and were doing something to fox the computers so that when they pushed their way up to our side of the counter or yanked the computer around and looked at the screen, the only copies were supposedly
out in the warehouse in Denver or Topeka or Framingham or somewhere not here
. (Why on earth would we hide books? It wasn't like we didn't want
to sell stuff and make money - and okay, sure, sometimes we staffers would bogart copies to use our payment-in-kind Christmas bonuses on, but if a customer asked for it we were obliged to surrender it from our hoards next to the refrigerator - because it showed up in the computer as inventory. But we who have survived years of holiday retail experience know that Logic rarely enters into these engagements.)
I also know about ROI, and the struggles to identify audiences and/or targeting mechanisms, and how these can be ruined by the hobbyhorses and grinding-axes of the PTB in any given outfit, and why "Oh, you work for a publishing company?" is one of the most heart-sinking phrases a body can hear, whether it's followed by "I've written some poetry" or "I'm writing my memoirs" or "I have this idea for a book" because who wants to be the bearer of bad news? And there is no way that you can successfully convey that you, a lowly production/sales/distribution flunky, will not be able to promise their many-page manuscript on How I Found Jesus & Lost 50 Lbs will even get a reading, let alone be of interest to the editors; and the problem with carrying either items or titles that have so little profit margin that, with shipping, you can actually end up losing
on every sale; or the popular products that might as well be nonsellers due to the fact that your suppliers - well, can't
, not consistently.
I've had people tell me earnestly that they only buy books from mail order catalogues because "did you know? retail stores mark things up!" I didn't have the heart to tell these poor old codgers that mail order catalogues also
marked things up, or did they think that the money to pay for salaries, printing, and mailing of catalogues grew on trees? (Evidently they did...)
So from this vantage of actual, if limited, book industry experience, I want to comment on this "Borders not ordering books" scenario in two different directions.1. Deckchair Reearangement Division
...Is what the purchasing department at Borders ought to be called. For those of you who haven't been following the market news, even casually - Borders has been in deep financial shit for a long time now. See here,
starting back in 2007, and also here, here, here, here, here,
, for just a handful of the reports and commentary out there about the ongoing saga of Borders' foundering, and the various frantic maneuvers they have been taking to try to stop the bleeding-out of cash, including going hugely into debt, putting up "Channel One" style TVs to try to make revenue by selling instore-advertising (yeah, that's going to work in an age of Tivo) directed at the not-really-captive audience, to finally trying to sell themselves to their biggest competitor - and failing.
Borders isn't "a fucking...spoiled supermodel
" too lazy to get out of bed, they're the crew of the Titanic
, or the SS Andrea Doria
pumping like crazy to stop the listing of a vast machine in a hostile environment. Not that that makes the passengers any less unfortunate, but it's a realistic assessment, unlike Cadigan's.
a respected manager and supervisor agonizing every night long into the night over the tallies, at the Big Chain Bookstore I worked for - because failure to make enough sales meant not being able to keep everyone on, not being able to give us all the hours we needed, not - in worst case - being able to justify keeping this branch even open
. How can we help? we would ask, and the answer, then
, was to upsell frequent buyer memberships. (Alas, that branch is no more, thanks to rising mall rents and the poor economy: but it was folded into the adjacent, expanded one from another division, and people moved over to the newer store, so it could have been worse.)
Now, I don't know exactly why Borders is doing so much worse than B&N (appears to be) - unlike some past situations, I have no inside line on their struggles, I never worked for this
Big Chain Bookstore, so I don't know
what's led them to this ongoing-for-years flailing around. Without some sort of "tell-all" account from an insider, anyone's guess is as likely to be wrong, and based on their personal worldoutlooks, as mine. But given my experiences in various businesses, and watching mistakes being made, Cassandra-like, I expect we'll learn that there were stupid HP/Compaq or AOL/Time-Warner merger level mistakes, which might have been survivable in a time of plenty, but not after the Seven Lean Years we are living through.
They have hit an iceberg, financially speaking, and are taking on water faster than the pumps can get it out. They've got
to cut down expenses. Not ordering/reordering stock is what you have to do when you're running out of credit
. Though they haven't been owned by K-Mart for a long time, they are in a very similar situation to the one K-Mart was in in 2002 shortly before they declared bankruptcy, when they couldn't get suppliers to make deliveries of stuff like dog food and other staples. Anything Borders does needs to be regarded not as Industry Standard Practice but rather as throwing all the cargo overboard, because turning the ship around and driving it backwards to harbor doesn't look like it's going to work.*
So using this
particular situation to lament the existence of Big Chain Bookstores - and to privilege the supposedly-superior marketplace of the Legendary Indy Bookstore - is just not cricket. 2. "Every century but this--"
"Those musty antiquated bookstores out of Henry James and Ray Bradbury stories would offer you the widest choice of titles they could fit into their shop, even if they only carried a single copy of each." --Greg Frost
Actually, no, they tended to carry whatever the owner felt like carrying, whether or not anyone was interested in reading it. The ones that still exist, still do. Most of these are hobbies, run as hobbies, not as serious concerns. This is why the ones that exist are mostly used
bookstores, too, where they can pay almost nothing for the stock and, indeed, don't have to go out shopping for it if they don't want, but can wait for customers to bring it in boxes for their perusal. They can be treasure troves; but counting on them to find any given title at any given time, or being able to get it, is like wandering around a field of haystacks expecting to find needles. I have spent a fair amount of my meager paychecks at Lee's Books, but that's because I go in without any specific target in mind, since if I do
want a particular book or author I am bound to be disappointed.
My bookstore-frequenting experience in fact goes back to the mid-1970s, at which time I had access on a regular basis to two stores: one that sort of
"dusty" indy store which was actually also full of bizarre bric-a-brac and gift items like giant sequoia pine cones and camping mess kits, where the guy running it just talked all day to whoever happened to be in it, or read, and usually my family were the only customers there. I was only beginning grammar school, but I would bet any money that Mr. Regan (iirc) was not turning a profit, nor cared to. I think it may actually have been run out of his expandd garage, in retrospect. It was a great place to be seven years old, because he didn't mind children as long as I was quiet and didn't tear books, but as far as being either a viable business concern, or
a purveyor of literacy to the populace of exurban Dallas, that shop was not it.
Then there was Brentano's, which was either in the big sunny mall with the fountains full of ducks, or the other one, which at that time was overwhelming with its selection of titles and carried European comic books like Tintin and Asterix, which I did not see again after I moved from Texas until the mid/late '90s. Brentano's, the pretty-big chain, had many more and varied books, and better organized, and when I moved to New England it was rather devastating to find out that the Brentano's here was about the size of a shoebox and had no comic books. But it was still pretty good, with a lot of children's books and art books and a respectable skiffy selection with a variety of titles, and also had gorgeous fantasy art cards and bookmarks and enameled boxes imported from around the world, and a lot of my babysitting money and library aide money went there for all of those things.
There was also a B. Dalton's, which mostly had oodles of Piers Anthony, Poul Anderson, John Norman, and Jack Chalker, in town. In the mid-80s the Brentano's changed and became much more austere and stopped carrying the cards with dragons and unicorns and the bookmarks and the cool painted boxes from India and started carrying more Larry Niven and less stuff with Thomas Canty on the cover, which was sad. (Then they closed altogether, but I had stopped going there before then.) However, the B. Dalton's became much more personable and having a better selection of everything. Both of these things coincided with these chains being bought by other chains, and not simply "the times" or "sunspots."
There was also an independent store in town, which I would have liked to support and frequent - but the women who ran it had a dismal view of genre fic, and didn't seem to think much of art history either. They had about one small shelf of SF, with a poor, random, and only-big-name-author selection; often titles were misfiled; and the one occasion when I asked them if they could order something for me was so traumatic that I never dared to do that again. (It was, however, not dusty, nor Dickensian: it was in fact very bright, clean, and full of things with lace and pressed flowers on them; the only shops I have ever been in that fit Frost's nostalgic description have been secondhand booksellers, with nary a new title in sight, and this has held true from California to central Texas to West Virginia to Maine.)
Ordering things not in stock was a big deal then, and usually impossible, even at big chains like Waldenbooks or Brentano's, but the women who owned this indy store made you feel as though you had asked them to give you a kidney, when you asked if they could order, oh, Andre Norton or Dorothy Sayers. Or maybe asked them to perform an improper activity with said kidney, given the repelled sneers that crossed their faces at the words "fantasy" and "science fiction."
They were also down a rather choked and miserably-high-traffic road in a plaza with wretched parking, but I would gladly have braved all that, if they had been the least bit friendly or interested in selling, instead of behaving like Theo Wren towards me.
Of course, like a certain former employer of mine, they blamed their failure on the existence
and inherent unfairness of Barnes & Noble as competition. It had nothing to do with the fact that I no longer had to order a Trina Schart Hyman book at significant shipping expense from a mail order catalog, because they had it in stock!!!1! or that the B&N clerk said, when I asked "Do you have X?" said "No, I'm sorry - you want me to order that for you? Will a week be soon enough?" and didn't sneer at dragons and rocketships and flying steeds, even as I was gasping in shock at the politeness and the helpfulness and the fact that this book I'd been hunting for for years
was going to be in my hands in a week... Nothing to do with the fact that when I asked, "can I get a gift certificate?" the answer was "Of course!" instead of a pinched glower and a sigh and the reluctant delivering of the same with the information that this was a terrible
burden I had put upon them. Or that I could get a blank book with a dragon on it and some cool bookplates and the wrapping paper for them and be able to attend a surprise birthday party on a moment's notice - even on a weeknight and after 5pm!
No, not a thing...
There was, and still is, of course, The Toadstool
- a local chain of (then) two bookstores, with a wide and eclectic selection and friendly staff, but the nearer is a twenty-some minute drive over winding country roads in the best of weather and I couldn't really justify hopping over there on a whim, not with my paycheck being as small as it was. So it was (and still is) a big hit in the remote and ill-served western part of the state, but not really a viable resource for most of the Manchester-Nashua reading population...2. Who Pays The Bills?
Aziraphale collected books. If he were totally honest with himself he would have to have admitted that his bookshop was simply somewhere to store them. He was not unusual in this. In order to maintain his cover as a typical second-hand book seller, he used every means short of actual physical violence to prevent customers from making a purchase. Unpleasant damp smells, glowering looks, erratic opening hours - he was incredibly good at it. --Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Good Omens.
Now, the problem of Borders in full hatch-battening mode is not coterminous with the ongoing argument that no, really, the big chain bookstores are ruining the quality of books out there and destroying authors' livelihoods
Never mind that, thanks to the vastly larger selections and greater accessibility of the BCBs, books were being read - bought and sold - in much greater quantities than before. No longer were you SOL if you wanted something besides seventeen copies of the latest Stephen King novel. No, now you could get books at reasonable prices that were previously impossible to get even via ILL, sometimes - all those forlorn readers who'd come in looking for the much-recommended and long-OOP Edward Eager stories when I worked in the kids' room in the library, I wished I could find them all and tell them that they'd all come back in print, and in paperback. Not every
distantly-remembered title, just as not every of the seriously daunting number (just of childrens' picture books, let alone all books!
) of titles put out every year - but enough to feel like a reader was drowning in riches. Genre fiction, science books, memoirs, travelogues - the expanded space meant expanded selection, meaning wait, I just got distracted, they have like ninety Dover clipart books in a spinner rack, I'll be gone a few hours 'kay?
No, they didn't have everybody and everything. But they had infinitely more than any indy store I'd ever been in in my life, and my experiences up here in the northeast were not a statistical anomaly, going by way too many other reports from other fans.
And they still do. At least, B&N does. (That's the only one I can get to now, being carless, and it's been since before Borders' big troubles became public that I have had wheels, and wheels that I trusted to drive 10 miles to the next town. I have no doubt that our two state Borders still have more than the shop that used to be in Northside Plaza, despite everything.) Manga's cut into Literary Fic, but other than that it really doesn't have more or less of anything than it used to. Stuff migrates around, especially during the approach of the Winter Solstice, but it hasn't been "taken over" by gifts and toys and music and non-novel-but-still-reader-related materials in the last ten years. It does however have the best selection of classical and folk music that has ever been available in retail in town, and of foreign films, old films, documentaries, and other things that are talked about in the Serious Books in the art section. IMO, this is not a bad
thing and never was. People griping about bookstores selling bookmarks and stickers and unusual cards and plush Angelina Ballerina dolls a) I guess don't ever want to have or give a cool bookmark or bookplate or card or book-related gift, b) don't remember that yes, even twenty years ago bookstores sold these things
, even if it wasn't very organized and the selection was often disappointing.
But we're not arguing with reason, we're arguing with emotion, with fear, with ZOMG! Unworthy Strangers Are Taking My Stuff here. With lizardbrain reactions dressed up in lots of lofty words, in the end.
Because I'm getting a tremendous vibe of we don't really understand how marketplaces work
from both Frost and also Cadigan, here, and with it a very entitled
mentality, same as with that old debate about the moral obligation
of fans to support shortfic vehicles that don't give us good ROI, to sponsor and subsidize them because they are Important and Good For Us, and don't ever ask if these are cold ashes we're venerating here...
And since I've been on all sides of this business - the making of many books hath no end!
- and have something of a sense of just how fucking EXPENSIVE
it is to produce books, and once they are produced to pack and ship and paperwork them all across the country and even the world, and of how fucking expensive it is to rent commercial space and pay for the utilities and habilitation of said space, and how expensive ad buys are, in various media, and how thin the margins can be and how far they have to be stretched, I have both sympathy and unsympathy for all sides, all around. It's funny to see with all the usual hate and scorn of vanity presses and writers who resort to them, what is in effect a demand that there be vanity bookshops
to support the writers who go through the regular process.
Um, no. Seriously. Nobody's entitled to have a retailer promote them over any other author, any more than a maker of cake mix X is entitled to have the grocery store carry them, and promote them over cake mix Y. Not unless the makers of cake mix X are shelling out of their pocket for the grocery store's bills - which is what paying for display dump space is. Vendors are really not
entitled to be subsidized by retailers - even though they often are
, when it comes to bookselling. We didn't get anything extra from Del Rey or Tor or Ace or Eos for trying to promote their books to customers out of our own enthusiasm. All we got was the satisfaction of seeing someone walk away with Andre Norton instead of John Norman, of convincing someone to try Tolkien instead of Extruded Fantasy Product of the hour, and the time we spent - if we had the time to devote to one customer, which when there are thirty people all needing help was not always possible nor
fair - hunting around, or describing various books, or finding someone else on staff who might know about a book, instead of just letting them grab something at random, was not profitable
in terms of paying the rent and the utilities and our wages.
It doesn't make any difference to Jill or Joe Schmoe at $8.00 an hour which $8 book someone walks out with, at the end of the day whether it's Author X or Author Y, Genre A or Genre B or Mainstream, and unless Author X and Y are going to come along and pay the store's overhead and the salary of people like me going home to unlit apartments with no phone because neither the fulltime tech job nor the partime bookstore job pay more than $500 a week, then neither Author X nor Author Y has a right to complain that they're
not getting special treatment like the bestselling authors - some of whom actually only became bestselling authors because enough of us underpaid Big Chain Bookstore staff made them so to begin with.
Is it the supermarket's responsibility - or even its right - to push tomatoes over potatoes, just because your
farm grows tomatoes? Yes, the system is broke, the system is bad, Big Chain Bookstores are exploitative - but then, so are publishing companies, depending on underpaid employees who don't need the money to live on to keep yes, your SF and Fantasy book costs down. I've applied for jobs in the field, and was told this explicitly. And at least the Big Chain Bookstore I worked for gave extremely
generous employee discounts, like nothing I've ever experienced elsewhere: essentially, we were paid partially in books, and not damaged or remaindered merch, either. This had, and afaik still has, the effect of attracting Book People to the staff, which means enthusiasts who like to share their love of books, and who don't need
Sales Goals and artificial stimulants to do so. But it's a hell of a marketing plan, from the POV of author and publisher, and really it's the latter's job
to promote books and authors, even if many of them really really suck at it, and don't have a clue any more than Hollywood studios have at how to promote movies to the audiences out there.
See, simply having the book on the shelf isn't going to sell it. Yes, if someone walks in and doesn't find that title, and is too timid/neurotic to ask for it, and can't wait a week to have it ordered, and doesn't want a single thing else, then that's a missed sale. But most authors on the shelves I blow right past, just the way I blow right past most of them on the Amazon site. I don't know them, or I've had bad impressions from somewhere, and my finances are so limited that if I'm going to gamble on a new writer, it isn't going to be on a $20 something hardcover or a nearly $20 oversize paperback. I need to have some reason to take it off the shelf, and take it home.
And when I was working in the BCB? Well, if you were Lloyd Alexander, or CJ Cherryh, or a certain number of other authors, then you were in luck when I was on the floor - although I did try to be fair and match readers up to authors/books they would probably like even if I loathed or didn't know much about them. Other staff had their fave picks, and we prosletyzed each other, or tried to. But when you're running around cleaning up the caramel bun that someone's left on top of the cookbooks, answering the bell because sixty people have materialized at the register, trying politely to convey to someone that no, I DO NOT WANT TO DATE YOU YOU FREAK NOW LET ME CASH OUT THESE OTHER CUSTOMERS BEHIND YOU!!! or chasing someone's kid off the ladder so you can climb up
the ladder to get more of the latest Danielle Steele or Dean Koontz down from the overflow stacks, calling the other store to see if they happen to have a hardover of X and can they set it aside for customer Y? and fighting with the broken vacuum cleaner that corporate won't replace because that doesn't increase profits either, well, counting on any of us to be able to be your personal sales rep is kind of like waiting for an asteroid made of solid gold nuggets to fall in your back yard. There are a LOT of other writers out there, you know.
But at least we weren't allowed to sit around on the clock ignoring customers and reading our own picks, or chatting with some favorite customer while other, "great unwashed" would-be customers fretted, or to sneer at people for their taste and send them packing in scorn for whatever genre they preferred, or refuse to try to order something, the way that the indy booksellers that Frost glorifies could, and would, and did, all too often. If we didn't make a minimum amount of sales every week, the manager wouldn't be able to justify the high cost of mall rent
to the company. BCB was a business, not a goddamn hobby.
And if I face-out your book, I can't put as many books - yours or anyone else's - on the shelves. But the face-out book will
- probably - sell more copies. (Let us all pause a moment to recall Holly Lisle's claims of BCB conspiracy and refusal to shelve her execrable Talyn
, when in fact B&N had it face out on the front wall for weeks on end.)
IMO bookstores are like cinemas, and while cinemas in my experience have some
amount of control over drawing in the local custom (is the physical plant defective/repellent?Is the selection truly dismal?) the burden of film promotion - and properly so - is on the maker of the film. Local cinemas can, with varying freedom, put together Midnight Showing costume parties and do special offers to attract viewers - but in these cases, they simply are giving or trying to give customers what they want, what fans were already
doing on their own with line parties, and if they increase profits and avoid going dark this way, then all the better. But is it either just or appropriate for a cinema to decide to make and run ads for this
movie instead of that one, to promote this studio or actor or story over another? I'm not even sure if there are rules about this kind of thing, but if there weren't, it seems like it might be a COI anyway. Promotion of your specific product is your job, whether you're the publisher or the studio - the cinema owner's product is a place to watch movies in comfort
, not the movie itself. It would be great if a theatre could survive showing only classic or auteur films - but who is morally obligated
to support it out of their own pockets?
I guess I'm baffled by this sneering at concern for profits: what are profits, after all, but income
? And these concerned authors aren't sneering at income - not at least when it's their own! So why do some seem to think that other people are obliged
to give up their income to contribute to theirs? No more than any given writer has a right to expect or demand a publisher to give
them printing and distribution - save for a vanity press - does any given published writer have a right to demand that a bookstore give them shelfspace at a loss. It reminds me of the "Tax & Spend" mantra idiocy - and of the Crunchy Cons like Rod Dreher who want other people
to go out there and be Back To The Land farmers so that they can have organic produce easily, who want other people
to make art and sponsor it so that they can enjoy it, and yet complain mightily about having to support things that they don't care about or use or approve of. If I could get a loan to start a business, and opened a bookstore that carried no books on sports because I don't give a damn about sports in general, I'd be within my rights. But if I couldn't pay the rent because I live (as I do) in an extremely sports-minded area, and people wanted
books on hockey and football and baseball and soccer, and I told them to scram, whose fault would that be?
Now, I'm ABSOLUTely willing to contemplate a new System in which all
wannabe artists are given a stipend by the government to create (not least because I have aspirations myself) - nothing much, just enough to live on, and not have to worry about ending up under a bridge starving; let us expand the NEA - surely it would be a better use of taxpayer moneys than lining the pockets of corrupt tycoons and cronies and minions! Not that I think that we would ever do
it, but I think it's entirely conceivable that a country might decide that The Arts were so
valuable, that so much potential of worth to society was being lost in the fact that so many must scrape for mere survival, that enough of a majority would say No more mute poets! Let us go one better than ancient Athens!
and devote enough of a chunk of the GNP to sponsoring such a program that it would actually be fair and viable. But let us not pretend that such a thing would be anything like a marketplace.
In my experience, publishing companies tend to be the biggest screwers-up of book promotions, partly due to the Too Many Cooks syndrome - not to mention the death-spiral syndrome of releasing a new book in hardcover first to try to make up the cost of creation, which means that fewer people are going to be able to afford to give it a try, and will wait until it comes out in paperback - or, these days, used online - which means that sales figures will be artifically lowered in terms of interest and readership, delaying the paperback and making it likely that the publishers will decide that nobody wants more from this author and they'd better cut their losses. But the drive for unreasonable and/or ever-increasing profits is a) something that is not new
in publishing, though there was a big spike in the mid-90s, b) something that is not limited to publishing but is the Achilles' Heel of Wall Street generally, c) the need to
make profits in itself is not unreasonable because well, business, not a goddamn hobby. (Generally speaking: there are "hobbyist" publishing houses just as there are "hobbyist" retail stores. But they don't displace much water.) But advertising and promotions - whether effective or stupid - are expensive, too. Somebody
has to pay for the gamble, as well as to toss the dice, no matter how the pot is split.
I'm not one to say that whatever a business does in pursuit of profits dulce et decorum est
- after all, if it were true then Borders wouldn't be in desperate straits, now, and many worthy endeavors fail to thrive, and Sturgeon's Law is ever validated - but the fact remains that only people who don't need to worry about where their next meal is coming from go around saying things like, "Oh, don't worry about making money
! Just Follow Your Dream!(TM)" and unless someone is willing to make that possible in a realistic way, then they really have no business asking it of anyone else.
* Yes, this really did work once, when an iceberg had smashed the bow only of a steamship. I read the eyewitness accounts in a tie-in feature titled something like "Interviews With Survivors Of Other Shipwrecks" in a newspaper published while the Titanic disaster was still unfolding in realtime, which our library enlarged and displayed in the lobby in response to the [in]famous movie, in a "commercializing" maneuver which purists denounced at the time...
Tags: books, business, economics, publishing, rants