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Of Butterflies & Dinosaurs - Nothing New Under The Sun
(the ARX acta diurna)
Of Butterflies & Dinosaurs
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, and 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.

I've watched 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 filthy "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...

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51 comments or Leave a comment
randwolf From: randwolf Date: September 16th, 2008 05:12 am (UTC) (Link)

notes, pt 1.

Interesting stuff. I wonder if we'll see any remarks from other publishing pros on this discussion.

Now, my perspective is entirely different, since I grew up in NYC and have mostly lived in large cities. So I remember when Barnes and Nobles and Brentanos were single large stores, which did much of their custom trading textbooks to NYU students. (& there were some good stores around Columbia, too, but not so many, or so big.) In those days (pause to rap cane on floor) most mass-market books were sold in commuter rail and bus stations. Nowadays, I believe it's supermarkets, and the biggest category is probably still costume romances (chorus of puppets singing "porn, porn, porn"). The book market at the south end of Manhattan Island was so big it could support multiple smaller bookstores, idiosyncratic specialists like Weisers (mysticism and metaphysics, also a publisher), the Strand (used review copies!) and, yes, the Science Fiction Shop, one of the first sf specialist bookstores. I think the model for the big superstores was those original big New York stores, and perhaps also big stores in other cities: Moe's in Berkeley, the Tattered Cover in Denver, Powell's in Portland, Oregon, all surviving still. Now, some people are lamenting the demise of places like Weisers (still surviving as a publisher) and the SF Store. Small businesses come and go, proprietors age and retire, but these places and those like them have not been replaced, nor will they be, and I do think it's a loss. Other small shops, as you say, they weren't much, and I'm not convinced their passage was a loss to authors or readers, though their profits were a loss to their community (more on that below).
randwolf From: randwolf Date: September 16th, 2008 05:14 am (UTC) (Link)

notes, pt2

In terms of a profit...the difference between a sole proprietorship or a small partnership like The SF Store and a big stock ("publicly owned") corporation like B&N is that the big shop can grow without limit, and will try to suck up as much of the profits of the market as they can. With a small group of owners, usually the people are in the business of making a living selling books. But stockholders are there to make a profit, not a living. There are different kinds of stockholders. Investors are purely there so long as there is money to be made, and their investment managers will dump a business in a blink, if they decide there is no more to be made--do it every day. Controlling stockholders sometimes care about being in a particular business. In any event, the stockholders pick the executives, and the executives pick the store managers, and the store managers try to make money selling books, and some execs and managers care more about it than others. With a large business, like Borders or B&N, factors other than just selling books enter in: big businesses raise money by selling stock (ownership) and bonds (borrowing). Bad or unlucky decisions in these areas can make all the difference in the success or failure of a firm. Ray Kroc, the enormously successful founder of Macdonald's, used to say he was in the real estate business, so that is also very important. There is a quasi-military aspect to this kind of business: controlling territory, winning hearts and minds, and so forth. Problem is, well, there are lots of problems, and we're seeing a large number of them come home to roost in the financial markets right now. But some "public" corporations are in a particular business, and their stockholders and execs want to be in that business. Others are just opportunistic. One of the huge problems with huge businesses is that often their management doesn't actually care about their nominal business, but they have a formula that lets them shut out competition. When that happens, both buyers and sellers suffer. Think of the cell phone companies, and how Apple has shaken them up. But even Apple had to suck it up and deal with the oligopolies: they couldn't release an unlocked iPhone; they had to cut a deal with AT&T.

Another part of the story is that the small stores, if they're at all successful, spend locally--they buy supplies and services from their communities. So their money hangs around in their communities. The big chains are apt to have regional or national buying agreements, and a lot less of their money is spent locally. Outside of the USA, and more and more within our borders, the agreements may even be international, with the money leaving the country and not returning.

And I think I will cut this off here--bedtime. Maybe some thoughts tomorrow on emerging socialist models of publishing.
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bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: September 16th, 2008 10:23 am (UTC) (Link)

Ah, it's called "doing business"--

will try to suck up as much of the profits of the market as they can.

Well, yeah, that's what businesses - that aren't JAGH - do. Maybe fecklessly and incompetently, but every single business out there tries to do this, whether it's the tiny family vacuum cleaner store on the corner, or the local dog-washing outfit, or the car repair place, or the law office downtown, or Amazon.com. It's called competing for resources for survival, goes with 'natural selection.' The ones that don't struggle for a bigger bunch of cactus seeds get their lunches eaten. The difference is that the bigger ones have more resources to devote to efforts at competing, including unsuccessful and even counterproductive ones, where a skinny little finch doesn't.

One of the huge problems with huge businesses is that often their management doesn't actually care about their nominal business, but they have a formula that lets them shut out competition.

This is actually true of small businesses as well. "We're just pandering to make money" boasted the owner of the indy paper I used to work for, over and over in different formulations. Fortunately there were enough people under him who were passionate enough that the quality was able to remain pretty high in spite of that, but since I left the turnover has become truly scary. The family-owned custom framing and craft shop I worked for was for a long time the only one in town. The store was filthy - like, 20 years of grot, scary - the equipment broken, the stock miserable - but you would have had to drive to Boston to find a better one, or catalog order, so people still came. We wasted more more money redoing jobs because the manager didn't give a damn about his job and was sloppy writing down orders, and even more because he wouldn't fix the equipment and tried to foist bad work off by covering it with putty, than it would have cost to replace the air compressor in time for the Xmas rush.

Then Michaels came into town...

There was a foul local famiy-owned grocery store on the other side of town that blamed its demise on the fact of the competition of the chains, but its interior was - reportedly, I never dared to go into it - reeking of rot and decay, so that people were often afraid to buy food there, not even out of sentiment would they risk botulism; and the owners were hostile and contemptuous of clients. It's more of a miracle that they managed to hang on for as many years as they did, out of neighborhood sentiment, and that was mostly because they rented out other parts of the property. Many small businesses are also in the real estate business, just on a smaller scale, and being landlords is often how they survive their bad business decisions.

bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: September 16th, 2008 10:26 am (UTC) (Link)

more of how that merchanting stuff works

There is a quasi-military aspect to this kind of business: controlling territory, winning hearts and minds, and so forth.

As soon as competition arrives that is too strong for them to strongarm, then they have to either change or die. Many of them just aren't smart - or are too arrogant - to step up their efforts to win more - or any - hearts and minds. (Which is part of why I am trying to find another job right now, because it turns out that the guy who bought the small family business - which is also a franchise in a national chain, these are not mutually exclusive categories - thought he could just sit back and let the money roll in, and also thought that advertising is an expense category with no ROI. But being that I have built ads and printed ads and dealt with the owners of small businesses all across southern NH for over ten years now, I have a fair sampling I believe of the range of self-destructive stupidity and working harder/not smarter that is possible from Ye Olde Small Business Owner.)

that the small stores, if they're at all successful, spend locally--they buy supplies and services from their communities.

So do the big ones. B&N didn't import windex and half-and-half and vacuum bags from corporate HQ out of state for us. But as far as stock goes - nope, we got it from other local stores. B&N buys and displays (and so did Borders too) locally written and produced books - had a bigger section of them than any store but Toadstool, too; but indy new book stores are buying from the same national/international publishers that the big chains are. They're not doing more to sponsor local publishing, for the most part.

And I've seen good local ventures of many kinds, beloved and supported by the community, collapse because they didn't have the option of getting bonds/stocks etc - and other local businessowners chose to gouge them on rent until they starved.

FWIW, there's an indy new books store in Concord, the same town that one of the 3 Borders in the state is located. I've never been in because they don't stay open late or on weekends, which means that out-of-towners with real jobs can almost never get to them, so they might as well not exist for anyone not living in Concord. But they are popular and (at least last year) still apparently thriving on local business despite the BCB a mile away - because they run constant promotions, constantly advertise themselves in local media, offer all kinds of community activities like lectures and fun events for children. They don't rely on selling books alone, and they don't expect the books - or their store - to "sell themselves."

(The lack of an instore coffee shop isn't so bad either given their central location on Main Street, as there are always several - many of which come and go fairly quickly - within a few blocks that readers can resort to.)
voxwoman From: voxwoman Date: September 16th, 2008 12:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Excellent post. Depressing, but excellent.

I don't have much to add or comment on, except that there seems to be even more parallels between publishing and the music business than I had suspected.

That, and it seems that authors who want to be even vaguely successful really need to get involved with their own promotion. It's in their own self-interest.
From: deiseach Date: September 16th, 2008 01:09 pm (UTC) (Link)

Why do they think Amazon is so successful?

"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.)"

I think everyone who has ever worked in retail anywhere has had that customer :-)

Good points, all of them. Bookstores will only stock what they think will sell, and if they think you won't sell, they won't stock you. I too have nostalgia for the small local bookshop, but let's face it: as you so rightly point out, the selection depends on the owner's preference. If he or she doesn't like, isn't knowledgeable about, or couldn't care less about a particular author or genre, it's not going to be on the shelves.

I've also grumbled about going into Big Chain Store and finding the shelves overflowing with the same six or eight Big Name Authors and not the one I was looking for, but then again - the best-sellers by the Big Name Authors are the bread-and-butter of the business. By selling X thousand copies of Danielle Steele or whomever, they make the money to allow the publishers to publish, and the bookstores to stock, the loss-making authors.

And that's another point: if the publisher is not publishing (or promoting) your Deathless Prose, you can't in good conscience blame the bookstore for not stocking it.

Which brings me on to why Amazon is so successful (and even they had bumps in the road): I was amazed, astounded, overjoyed (and threw money at them like a drunken sailor) to find they had the books I'd been looking for for twenty years or so! since I read recommendations about them when I was twelve years old and managing the class books borrowed from the library! and that no bookshops that I could reach (maximum travel distance fifty miles, which may sound like just down the road to Americans but was and indeed is a Big Distance here) - neither big chain nor local owned - had in stock, were not interested in ordering for the grand total of one (1) customer, and were out of print anyway - but these people had! and would send me! and recommended other stuff to me that I might like, too!

They actually wanted to sell me what I wanted to buy - whoa!

But again, it's a business. And I'm pretty darn sure they made enough money off the books I would never, ever buy in a million years (Clive Cussler, I'm looking at you. And John Grisham. And you can stop sniggering too, Tom Clancy) to be able to fund the costs of including re-prints by obscure small presses of genre authors.

Pat Cadigan - sorry, I've read some of your stuff, I've liked some, I've disliked more, and if every bookshop in the land had your books and your books alone on their shelves, I still wouldn't buy it.

You can't make people buy what they don't want. And if they won't buy it, bookshops won't stock it, publishers won't publish it, and all the complaining about the rapacity of business won't change that.
From: deiseach Date: September 16th, 2008 01:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

The irony of his recommendation

Mr. Frost recognises that the publishing industry is a business, and is run on those principles.

His prescription for the malaise is to encourage us to support our local, independent bookshops rather than the big chains.

There are two local bookshops in my town, and I can guarantee that Greg Foster's books are not on the shelves. If I wanted them, I'd have to go to either Waterford (twenty-eight miles east of me), or Cork (fifty miles west of me) to the Big Chain Bookshops.

So confining my purchasing to the locals would not, in the end, do him a straw's worth of good.

Now, to take it from the other side, there is fault on the part of publishers. The devouring of smaller companies by larger, until there are bloated behemoths of multi-imprint names, means that a lot of money was wasted on playing business games rather than investing in authors. And the big companies now need to recoup that money, so jumping on the bandwagon of issuing tv tie-in cookery books, celebrity kiss'n'tell biographies, and the eternally reliable gardening volumes, along with No. 59 in the latest series from Big Name Author instead of new and untested authors, along with chasing the carbon-copy of the latest success (so everyone is searching for the new J.K. Rowling, for example) is bad for writers and readers.

Stores looking for 'hello money' to promote wares? Supermarkets do it, too. Treating books like tins of beans (pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap) may not be appealing, but going back to the small local bookshop is no guarantee, either.
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: September 16th, 2008 02:46 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yanno, I nearly used the "Technopeasants" icon for this post--

There's just so damn much in this argument to try to untangle, it's like when you've got three or four different balls of yarn in your basket some of which are the same color, and the cat got into it. You just kind of go "asdfjglh!!1" and point and flail and consider dumping it all into the trash, but well, that's some good wool and fancy silk-blend in there, so...

I suspect several things going on here. One is the fact that - well, strike downward, it's safer: if you go after publishers for screwing up your livelihood, well, they're the ones subsidizing your attempts to become the next Stephen King, who wasn't always THE Stephen King after all, so biting the hand etc - even if they're also the hand who has sat on your MS for years, mismanaged the printing binding and distribution and totally blown the promotion for it. "You'll never eat lunch in this town again" is not just a Hollywood worry. (We saw that just now with Mr. Sanders, frex.)

So go after the retailers, blame them - it's not like Waterstones or B&N is going to stop stocking your titles if they're selling just because you made nasty comments about Big Chain Bookstores. And attacking the Big Name Fans Bookstores as a "clique" suppressing the underdog author is both a good way to get easy sympathy (toss in a faux-nostalgic tweedle about The Good Old Days and any politician on the Field of Mars would recognize what you're doing) and infinitely safer than throwing rocks at the more appropriate targets.

But I detect also a strong strain of Going After The Readers, creatures even lower on the literary food chain - no, not you Dear Reader, those other readers, the nasty tasteless unwashed ones who like junk food for the mind and probably vote for whatever party you oppose and are RUINING EVERYTHING with their tacky grotty crassness, wanting juvenile books with space aliens and half-nekkid women and caped musclemen in their underwear dull shallow books on movie stars and building your own potting sheds and napkin folding and puppy dogs and books by authors who AREN'T ME!

Yes, Cicero & Co. would recognize this maneuver, too. Hurl the little streets against the less, it's way safer than taking on your own masters...

And the big companies now need to recoup that money,

Even little companies need to recoup their money, which is how come so many of them got devoured during the execrable '90s, when Greed Was Good and so many idiots slaughtered their cash cows. It would be lovely if there were enough modern day d'Estes, enough millionaires able to run small presses out of their pockets with nary a care for paying the corn and coal gas and electric bills, and to run cozy little perfect bookshops to stock those titles, but - well, I wish there were someone out there giving away free ponies and cute little farms to keep them on, too. It's like complaining that there just aren't enough Princes Charming out there to marry every worthy working girl and make her queen...

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bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: September 16th, 2008 03:26 pm (UTC) (Link)

Word on the Amazon/internet availability

One reason why so many respectable & otherwise lawabiding sorts decided that music downloading didn't count, is that they'd given up on the record companies after years of pleading for reissues and fruitless yard sale hunting for old LPs, decades OOP. The companies weren't making any money off them, hd no interest in investing anything in them, didn't consider it *possible* to make money off them, so what harm was being done to them in swapping them around? What harm to the artists, who weren't going to be getting anything anyway? Except, of course, sometimes it brought people *back* to popularity, or *to* popularity, creating the audience for their new stuff that hadn't been there.

IOW, it was almost exactly like a secondhand book swap, at least where OOP tracks were concerned. And yet the (infinitely-more-rapacious than eithr publishers or booksellers even big corporate ones) record companies chose to throw all that away and alienate their customer base to no profit.

You can't make people buy what they don't want. And if they won't buy it, bookshops won't stock it, publishers won't publish it, and all the complaining about the rapacity of business won't change that.

Not only that, it won't pay the rent and electric and water bills for the store or the staffers' salaries. Maybe in Frostland, the Money Fairies flit along to pay retailers' utils and clerks' wages, but they don't in *my* 'verse!

From: deiseach Date: September 17th, 2008 11:52 am (UTC) (Link)

Why I taped all my music off the wireless

Shhhh! I know it was (and indeed is) hideously illegal, and I could be dragged away in chains for this wanton act of blatant criminality, but come on...

... back in 1980, when I was buying records for myself (ah, the good old days of vinyl), they cost a whopping £14. The average industrial wage at the time was average earnings of (i) all industrial workers were £1.868 per hour or £79.86 per week; (ii) women, on adult rates of pay, were £1.369 per hour or £52.56 per week; (iii) men, on adult rates of pay, were £2.120 per hour or £94.41 per week.

(Thank you, Dáil Éireann debates for that info!)

So take £14 from £79 and you'll see why people weren't buying a lot of records. And I wasn't even earning a wage at the time, so yeah - cheap cassette tapes and illegal home taping ahoy!

Then along came CDs, and no good explanation as to why they should cost the same as a vinyl LP (except for "this is the price we've always charged") until eventually, grudgingly, the cost came down. And lo and behold, the record industry did *not* collapse.

And exactly why, as you say, people couldn't really see that sharing long-deleted, unavailable, hasn't-been-in-shops-for-thirty-years music was a blight and a malison on all decent, right-thinking behaviour.
threegoldfish From: threegoldfish Date: September 17th, 2008 03:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Amazing post and dead on. Thank you!
txtriffidranch From: txtriffidranch Date: September 17th, 2008 08:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ummm...with that indie store in Dallas where you had such a traumatic experience with trying to special-order science fiction? It wouldn't have happened to be named after a certain English playwright, would it? If it was, I was married to one of those three for nearly seven years, while she spent her time poring through the latest Publisher's Weekly in hopes that I'd pull the $113k necessary to buy her a nice bookstore in New Hampshire out of my ass.

If you think she sneered at SF before, you should have been with us when she deigned to come to conventions with me: at one show in New Orleans, she was nicknamed "the Nancy Spungen of fandom" for her incessant whining and crying about how she didn't get a discount in the dealer's room and how she wasn't invited to talk on panels. She's now running yet another arrogantly run bookstore on the West Coast, and my greatest joy is that she'll never have enough money to come back to Dallas to hit me up for cash to keep it afloat.

(Oh, and with the other two? They went the same direction. One's still flailing away at a used bookstore not far away from the old store, and the other's working at...the very same Borders that they lamented had killed their own Frumpy Fiftysomething's Used Books and Quiet Desperation Emporium franchise.)
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: September 17th, 2008 09:07 pm (UTC) (Link)

Sorry, didn't mean to confuse--

The awful indy store was in the plaza on the DW Highway in Manchester - the one in Dallas was the cute (but defintely dusty) one out of the old guy's garage. But if she had managed to make it up to NH instead of the West Coast, then I would expect that it WAS her, however unlikely the coincidence.

I think there must be a mold from which the world's Theo Wrenn Brownes and the female version thereof are cast out in pairs!

(Oh, and were you in Dallas when the pet store Bird Dog & Cat Fish was there? That was a great aquarium shop...)
txtriffidranch From: txtriffidranch Date: September 17th, 2008 09:19 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Sorry, didn't mean to confuse--

Yes, I remember Bird Dog and Cat Fish: I was one of its last customers when I cleared out its frozen pinkie mice at the end of 1997. My wife used to pick up pet supplies there when she was in high school, and she related that it used to be a great store...about three owners earlier. Unfortunately, by the time it went under, it had gone through two owners who really didn't care, and the place was a wreck by the time it shut down a decade ago. Much like some of these indie bookstores, in fact.
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: September 17th, 2008 10:36 pm (UTC) (Link)


At least they had almost 20 good years after I used to goggle at the moray eels and anemones and strange Amazonian fish in the big tanks. Store mortality/longevity would be a fascinating subject for a dissertation or a book - there is a local, formerly-beloved, lately-loathed, most recently beloved-again laundromat/corner store a few neighborhoods from here which the original owner has bought back in exasperation to make it a going concern much to the pleasure of the neighbors (and there are several restaurants like this too) because they just can't stand to stay retired and let what they made be milked dry by someone who turned out to be a callous cash-cow farmer.

(I assume you fed the mice to your plants...?)
From: deiseach Date: September 18th, 2008 01:44 am (UTC) (Link)

No resemblance to real life, of course

All this reminds me of the Channel 4 series "Black Books":


"Black Books was a British sitcom broadcast on Channel 4 starring Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig. It was written by Dylan Moran, Graham Linehan, Arthur Mathews, Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley and produced by Nira Park. The show won the BAFTA for Best Situation Comedy in 2001 and 2005, and won a Bronze Rose at the Festival Rose d'Or of Montreux in 2001.

The series is set in the eponymous "Black Books", a small, independent bookshop in the Bloomsbury area of central London. The show is based around the lives and often surreal antics of its foul-mouthed, eccentric, misanthropic, alcoholic Irish owner Bernard Black (played by Moran), his assistant Manny (Bailey), and their friend Fran (Greig).

The series revolves around Bernard's loathing of the outside world and the people who inhabit it. Bernard displays little enthusiasm or interest in retail (or, indeed, anything outside drinking, smoking and reading) and refuses to interact with the outside world. Many episodes are driven by Manny and Fran's attempts to force him into a more socially acceptable lifestyle. However, as they themselves are remarkably ill-equipped to interact with the world outside the shop, their efforts usually result in chaos, sucking them back into Bernard's nihilistic view of the world.

The series is notable for its surreal and off-beat sense of humour, particularly when regarding the state of the shop: it is frequently depicted to be in an unhealthy state of dirtiness, with sea-water molluscs living on the water pipes and, when it is in a particularly bad state, dead badgers on the floor."

You can get a taste of it here:

dinpik From: dinpik Date: September 18th, 2008 06:51 pm (UTC) (Link)

WRT Holly Lisle and Talyn

Friend of mine said Lisle's gone down the rabbit hole since she's known her, and her ranting about bookstore conspiracies is just a way to avoid admitting her books aren't selling because they suck.
From: deiseach Date: September 20th, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

The whole industry's in a state of chassis?

Stumbled across this link on the state of the publishing industry:


"In its heyday, publishing was a vast array of mom-and-pop shops, in which the pops tended to be independently wealthy. Their competitive advantage was not efficiency or low costs but taste. Maxwell Perkins at Scribner; Bennett Cerf at Random House; Roger Straus and Robert Giroux at Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Barney Rosset at Grove; and Alfred A. Knopf epitomized the gentleman editor as gallerist, snatching up unknown geniuses. One British publisher advised an American at the time: “Take lots and lots of gambles, but small ones.” So they did. They took poor writers drinking, put them up in their homes, and defended them in court. They made handshake deals, spent their personal wealth in lean years, and built backlists out of modernist classics. Discovering Faulkner was like buying Picassos in 1910.

In the early sixties, Knopf sold out to Cerf, who sold Random House to RCA, and the era of consolidation began. Formerly independent publishers shriveled into mere imprints of massive corporations. Knopf became part of Random House; so did Doubleday and Bantam and Ballantine and dozens of still smaller shops now distinguished mostly by their names, like corporatized Broadway theaters bearing the monikers of long-gone cigar-chomping producers.

By the nineties, five big conglomerates were divvying up the spoils and their lucrative backlists. Many of the smaller companies that had been struggling, like FSG, Ecco, and Crown, were flush with corporate resources. But in exchange, they gave up final say in how they’d publish their books—or even what books they’d publish. And suddenly an industry accustomed to 5 percent margins was being run by media moguls aiming for double digits.

The corporations began by doing what they knew how to do: acquire, expand, diversify, spend. Sign up all kinds of writers, pay some of them a ton, market the hell out of them, see what sticks. It was the nineties, after all. A few books sold spectacularly, but more failed, and in the last ten years, the bill has come due. So today, the order comes down from beleaguered CEOs: More blockbuster books, fast. Which leads to cutthroat auctions and ballooning advances. You can’t win big if you don’t bet big.

Lately, the whole, hoary concept of paying writers advances against royalties has come under question. Following their down payments to authors, publishers don’t have to pay a cent in royalties, which are usually 15 percent of the hardcover price, 7.5 for paperbacks, until that signing bonus is earned back. The system is supposed to be mutually beneficial; the publishers guarantee writers a certain income, and then both parties share in the proceeds beyond that level. But it only works for publishers if they’re conservative in their expectations. As auctions over hot books have grown more frequent, prudence has gone out the window— paying a $1 million advance to a 26-year-old first-time novelist becomes a public-relations gambit as much as an investment in that writer’s future.

From: deiseach Date: September 20th, 2008 04:35 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: The whole industry's in a state of chassis?

That money has to come from somewhere, so publishers have cracked down on their non-star writers. The advances you don’t hear about have been dropping precipitously. For every Pretty Young Debut Novelist who snags that seven-figure prize, ten solid literary novelists have seen advances slashed for their third books.

Of course, back in the boom nineties, the corporations themselves were pumping up the expectations of midlist writers. Consider Dale Peck. His first novel, Martin and John, came out in 1993 to excellent reviews, and by his third book, in 1998, he was, by his own account, wildly overpaid. Books, he says, “were like Internet stocks, getting enormous advances without demonstrating any moneymaking whatsoever.” Having rarely sold more than 10,000 copies, he took up with superagent Andrew Wylie, developed a reputation for being a “diva,” and pretty soon couldn’t sell a book to save his life. Until he started specializing in genre fiction—first children’s books, then horror. Last year, Peck sold Body Surfing, a thriller about demons exiting people through sexual release. He’s now splitting $3 million with Heroes writer Tim Kring to produce a trilogy of conspiracy thrillers.

Peck sees an increasingly hostile environment for the kind of books he used to write. “When you get $100,000 for a novel,” he says, “you want $150,000 and then $200,000, so when they pay you $25,000 for the next one, and my rent is $2,500 a month, what do you do? The system works just fine for commercial fiction. But for literary fiction, I think we had a nice run of it in the commercial world.”

The good fiction that does manage to snag a stratospheric advance is mostly either a follow-up to or a knockoff of a freak hit. The astonishing success of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain led to a bidding war for his second book, which Grove/Atlantic editor Morgan Entrekin lost with great regret to Ann Godoff at Random House’s eponymous imprint (known as Little Random). Lucky him. The price tag, more than $8 million, might well have sunk Grove, one of the few biggish independent houses left, because Frazier’s follow-up, Thirteen Moons, sold less than 500,000 copies, according to BookScan. Ann Godoff was fired not long after the deal was made. “It is possible they broke Little Random’s neck,” says one agent. “Frazier’s wife will not have the luxury to buy another racehorse.”

It may not just be Borders that's in trouble; it possibly could be Del Rey quietly dropping mid-list authors by attrition? (Okay, bit of wild speculation there, but say part of Foster not getting shelf space in Borders is because the publishers aren't coughing up to promote him because they want to thin out their lists?)
From: deiseach Date: September 20th, 2008 04:54 pm (UTC) (Link)

That article specifically mentions Borders

"“We just don’t know what our business looks like without Borders. And that’s terrifying. There’s just no way of getting around it.” —SIMON LIPSKAR, AGENT

If you think marketing is impossible, talk to the people in sales. Their job—forcing books into a shrinking handful of outlets—involves all the supplication of publicity without all the fun and free booze of book parties. And it has the added bonus of bleeding their companies dry.

Borders Group, which controls 10 to 12 percent of the bookselling market, is on death watch, putting publishers in an even less enviable negotiating position with bookstores. The remaindering and shredding of books—a cost borne largely by the publisher—is a relic of a consignment model developed during the Depression that makes no modern sense. Publishers also pay for placement in big bookstores, which they call “co-op,” under a complicated arrangement meant to cover up the fact that it’s payola (or, as some call it, extortion). Those 300 copies of, say, American Wife stacked precariously at the entrance? Bought and paid for by the publisher. “You feel raped having to pay for placement in a store you’re selling to,” says an agent.

But at least with two major chains, you can play one against the other. Even in its weakened state, Borders can still boost a book into best-seller contention. If something is selling well at Borders, a publisher can pressure an increasingly stingy Barnes & Noble to reorder. If Barnes & Noble absorbed Borders’ business, it would control 30 percent of the market—versus 10 percent for all the independents combined, with big-box retailers and Amazon controlling most of the rest. (At its nineties peak, the indie-only American Booksellers Association had 4,700 member stores; today it has 1,700.) This matters because the following response from Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio is only technically true: “We buy every title published—our business is a long-tail business—less than 5 percent is from bestsellers.”

Editors insist that plenty of books get skipped. Richard Nash, head of indie publisher Soft Skull Press, estimates that one in twenty are passed over, though ten to fifteen copies are shipped into their warehouses in case there’s a special order. Many more are getting smaller initial orders than ever. That’s a very long, very skinny tail.

Barnes & Noble, briefly interested in Borders, has since recanted. Recently William Ackerman, a major Borders shareholder, suggested they should sell to Amazon instead. That probably won’t happen, but his reasoning is clear. Barnes & Noble is old news. Amazon is the future.

From: deiseach Date: September 20th, 2008 04:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

The big, bad wolf is knocking at the door?

"“The fear of Google [BookSearch] is ridiculous paranoia. The fear of Amazon is enlightened self-interest.” —MIKE SHATZKIN, BOOK-INDUSTRY CONSULTANT

Attendance at this year’s BookExpo was way down, but you wouldn’t have known it if you were among the 700-odd people at a presentation by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Lean, wiry, shaven-headed, and big-eared, Bezos talked up the Kindle, the new e-reader that may or may not account for 1 percent of the book market. No one knows. But while bookstore sales were to drop 7.1 percent that month, Amazon was on its way to 31 percent sales growth (albeit for all media products) for the second quarter. The audience greeted Bezos warily: His sleek, West Coast style made Jane Friedman look like Vladimir Nabokov.

In a Q&A session billed as “Upfront and Unscripted,” none other than Chris “Long Tail” Anderson quizzed Bezos on his plans. He couldn’t get many straight answers (though Bezos was delighted to discuss the suborbital space vehicle he’s working on). How many books would Bezos like to have available on the Kindle? “Well, I probably won’t be happy unless we have 20 million, but I’m hard to make happy,” he said, and then let loose a honking laugh.

Next: Will the Kindle be the iPod of books?

Publishers have been burned by e-book hype before. A few years back, analysts were predicting we’d all be reading novels on our Palm Pilots. Barnes & Noble even began selling e-books. Though it doesn’t quite look the part, Bezos’s chunky retro Kindle is the closest so far to being the iPod of books. In mid-August, a Citigroup analyst doubled his estimate for this year’s sales of the readers—to almost 400,000.

Why weren’t publishers elated? What’s wrong with a company that returns only 10 percent of the books it buys and might eventually eliminate the cost of print production? Well, it doesn’t help that Amazon, which has been on an intense buying spree (print-on-demanders BookSurge; book networking site Shelfari), lists publishers as its competitors in SEC filings. Editors and retailers alike fear that it’s bent on building a vertical publishing business—from acquisition to your doorstep—with not a single middleman in sight. No HarperCollins, no Borders, no printing press. Amazon has begun to do end runs around bookstores with small presses. Two new bios from Lyons Press, about Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, are going straight-to-Kindle long before publication.

Amazon, in short, plays hardball. When Hachette Livre UK couldn’t come to terms over Amazon’s U.K. payments, Amazon removed the BUY NEW button from its listings for the company’s key books. Hachette’s CEO responded with an open letter, saying, “Amazon seems each year to go from one publisher to another making increasing demands in order to achieve richer terms at our expense and sometimes at yours.”

The ultimate fear is that the Kindle could be a Trojan horse. Right now, Amazon is making little or nothing on Kindle books. Lay down your $359 and you can get most books for $9.99. Publishers list that same Kindle version for about $17.99, though, and—as with all retailers—charge Amazon roughly half that price for it. Which means that Amazon keeps only a dollar on each book, while the publishers make $9.

But Amazon may be offering a sweet deal now in order to undercut publishers later. If their low, low prices succeed in making e-books the dominant medium, they can pay publishers whatever they want. “The concern is they want to corner the market,” explains one books executive, and then force publishers to accept a genuine 50 percent discount. “If they took over as little as 10 to 20 percent of the market,” says an agent, “publishers simply would not be able to exist.”"

So - small local bookstore definitely neither the answer nor the future, Greg.
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: September 21st, 2008 01:14 am (UTC) (Link)

Oh, geez--

Publishers also pay for placement in big bookstores, which they call “co-op,” under a complicated arrangement meant to cover up the fact that it’s payola (or, as some call it, extortion). Those 300 copies of, say, American Wife stacked precariously at the entrance? Bought and paid for by the publisher. “You feel raped having to pay for placement in a store you’re selling to,” says an agent.

I think this violates some equivalent to Godwin's Law, just like claiming that one has been "lynched" for being publically castigated by one's peers for expressing racist views.

Having to pay to get extra-special extraordinary treatment that nobody else gets is like rape. Ooookay. (What do they call buying box seating for theaters or sports events, I wonder?)

I guess they don't understand that the alternative is "Stuff them in wherever you find a hole" in the more professional stores with the more professional managers, or else "Arrange them by color and size to make an attractive display" depending on how desperately strapped for time the staff are.

This is not likely to be a good method of getting guaranteed front-and-center visibility (especially if your book is ugly or funny-sized - or has a #@4&%^@# slippery binding*), but it's better than your odds at Small Indy Bookstore, even leaving aside the horrors of unprofessionalism like that which TxTriffidRanch has described.

Because there's absolutely nothing to stop Indy Bookstore Owner from going and putting the books by their favorite author up front, face out, and books they don't like down under the tables, or on the far back shelves...

Which, hey, wouldn't cost them anything. But I guess being a Publisher means you're entitled to free advertising from your vendors!

* Believe you me, there were Big Name Bestsellers that we would have rather have kept out in boxes and just handed out on request, if we had been allowed to instead of contractually obliged by that "payola" to give them their paid-for display space. Mostly it was because they had been so poorly bound, being rushed to press and out to distribution, that they weren't properly glued, flattened, or trimmed, and so wouldn't stay on the shelves or in neat towers but rather leapt off at passers-by or skewed messily or slowly melted down over the course of the day. Sometimes however it was caused by 'cute' art directors using a very slick matte laminate, or having the book made a non-standard size, so it would stand out. They stood out, all right - would have stood out right on the corner for recycling if the bookstore management had had any say in the matter!

bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: September 21st, 2008 01:20 am (UTC) (Link)

collapse of the tulip trade...

There was rather an echo of the whole "New Economy" thing there, mirroring the "Web-something? Lower-case 'i' in its name? Throw money at it!" at the same time. And, well, what's continued with mortgages etc.

You'd almost think that Big Businessmen had the sound practical sense of a bunch of eight-year-olds, spending their Christmas or New Years' money on which ever transforming plastic robot looks coolest, no matter what they actually could use or would want when the adrenaline rush of having that toy from the advertisment wears off...
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