Sunday, January 21, 2007

Return to Sender

Box it up and send it back

We live in a returnable, refundable, rebatable world. If you don't like your new stereo, box it up and bring it back to the shop. If those new shoes, bought from a catalog, don't fit like you expected, send them back. If dinner wasn't perfect, lobby your waiter for a free dessert. If you are unhappy with your spouse, well . . . divorce him or her and start looking for a new one. All of this returning makes us less, not more happy and fulfilled, according to Barry Schwartz in his book Paradox of Choice.

According to Schwartz, we think there is always something better behind "Door Number 2" in our society. We might be better off if we learned to live with what we've got. We might learn to love the foibles of our new television, rather than plotting its return, if we knew we were stuck with it. We might be more forgiving of our spouse's quirks if we were going to live with them for the rest of our lives.

In the past few months, I've been ruminating about these issues in a slightly different way. Could the publishing business and bookstores be more profitable, and thus happier, if they started moving away from a returnable model? Right now, 90% of the new books the bookstore buys can be returned to the publisher for credit.

I'll be the first to admit, this results in over-buying and it leads book buyers to have very little patience once the books are in the store. If a new hardback hasn't started selling in the first few weeks, I'm already contemplating its return. By two months, I've seen enough: it's outta here. There's no commitment. There's no love. If we truly owned those books, I'd try a lot harder to sell them. We would discount them, we would turn them into used books, and we would stack them on the remainder tables. It wouldn't exactly be love, but it might be more profitable if the publisher were providing some incentive for buying on a non-returnable basis.

We are at the beginning of a new buying season, and I've been asking all the reps what their publishers' terms are for purchasing non-returnable. You'd figure that buying and not returning would be something that publishers would want to encourage. After all, publishers are swamped with returns and often sell them for pennies on the dollar to remainder companies.

The publishers offer greatly varying incentives. Hachette (formerly Time Warner) has a generous non-returnable discount, but Penguin and W.W. Norton just give the tiniest smidgen of an extra discount for buying books as non-returnable. When I asked the Norton rep about this she had a reasonable explanation. Norton is a publisher whose livelihood depends on the sales of midlist books: those with smaller print runs, such as more literary novels and those by first-time authors. So Norton fears that if stores buy on a non-returnable basis, they would be less likely to take a risk on these titles. This is a legitimate concern, but surely there must be some way around it. Perhaps, the discount on the whole order could be tied to the percentage of these midlist titles that a store is willing to buy.

With Hachette's extra discount, plus the savings in freight from not shipping hundreds of books back, we can come out ahead, even if we don't change our buying methods. Everyone would win. According to my calculations, which are based on how many books we return and common sense, if a major publisher offered an extra 6% discount, that would usually make it worthwhile to buy non-returnable.

I have another reason, beyond pure profit, that I'd like to see the industry go towards non-returnable incentives. It seems criminal to me to be shipping these books back and forth and back across the country. That's a lot of fuel, in a time when oil seems especially costly. It's no accident that we are at war in Iraq and that drilling in the Arctic comes up every year. We are also cutting down a lot of trees for books that no one wants. It is with rueful irony that I noticed that deforestation is one of the major factors failed societies have in common with each other, according to Jared Diamond's Collapse.

Z is for Zorro and his travels

Here's an example of the current system: We are selling Isabel Allende's hardback Zorro as a remainder at the store. That book was originally shipped from HarperCollins' Scranton, Pennsylvania warehouse to a bookstore, perhaps on the West Coast. The store then shipped it back to Scranton, and then Harper sent it to a remainder company in Georgia. Finally, the remainder warehouse sent it here to Boulder, Colorado. Now we are trying to sell this pound of paper for less than $8. Wouldn't we all be better off if this tree were still in the forest? How much do you think UPS made on the deal? By the way, Zorro, as a new paperback, is selling at a disappointing rate. What a surprise.

What if the book were sold by Harper at a better discount? The original west coast store could have either ordered fewer books to start, or cut the price and made a display out of them once they realized that they had too many. Instead, they -- like us -- packed up a perfectly salable book and returned it. Buying non-returnable would have saved an awful lot of money for the store and for Harper, and it would have been more profitable for all involved -- except UPS and the remainder company.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Free Food for Booksellers

Dining with an author can be a heady experience: the conversation witty, the banter intelligent, the food sumptous and the bottomless wine glass liberating. In that moment, basking in the glow of a favorite author, eating expertly cooked halibut in a four-star restaurant with an attentive wait staff, all on the publisher's dime, it's easy to forget the everyday struggles of bookselling.

Of course, that's how it's supposed to go. I can't even remember how many times I've ended up feeling like a failed student who has crashed the party under false pretenses at one of these fancy author dinners. I didn't read the book, or worse yet, I read the first 20 pages and gave up in aggravation after another nightmarish metaphor.

As I sit and talk with my fellow booksellers, doing my best to avoid the author, I can't for the life of me imagine who the market for the title might be. Compounding these feelings, the author never speaks to the group about why he or she wrote the book, or why anyone should read it. Instead, it's an evening of idle chit-chat, where I'm praying that the author or the publicist doesn't ask me what I thought of the book. Should that dreaded question come, if it's before the second glass of wine, I can usually fake a positive reply. If I'm into my third glass, which often happens at these dinners because the waiters keep refilling your glass before it ever empties, I'll tell the truth, usually with some expletives tossed in.

It was with a great deal of trepidation that I got the invitation from Warner Books to dine with debut novelist Min Jin Lee a couple of weeks ago. At first, I tried to ignore it, hoping that it might go away. Anything is possible when two feet of snow seems to arrive every 10 days or so. Once the advance copy of her book came, I was truly horrified -- Free Food for Millionaires is 552 pages long and has a god-awful cover. My wife (the editor of this blog) claims that I'm exaggerating and that the jacket is merely boring. I tried to pawn off the author dinner invitation on several different staff members. I stressed the free alcohol, crab cake appetizers and the wonderful personality of our sales rep in my pitch. Nobody was biting.

So it was on a cold and snowy night last week that I headed up to dinner in Loveland -- a town on the plains of northern Colorado that's at least 50 years past its heyday. I was accompanied by the marketing director of the store, and our goal for the dinner was to avoid the author. My colleague summed up my feelings very succinctly when she said, "I don't think we should be expected to read the book. They should make a speech. If they're not prepared to do that, they shouldn't send the author out on a tour like this." I heartily agreed and admitted that I hadn't read a single page of the book. She looked a bit surprised and told me that of course she had read the first chapter and a bit more.

We arrived at the restaurant, a nicely decorated chophouse, and were ushered into the Eisenhower Room (which featured pictures of Franklin Roosevelt) for the event. The table was set up in a rectangle, like a conference room, and people were milling about. I spotted Min Jin Lee among the booksellers on the right side of the room (it wasn't hard -- there aren't many Korean booksellers in Colorado). I dashed to the left and got into an animated conversation with a fellow bookseller I've met on many previous occasions. He assured me that he also hadn't cracked open the book and seemed fairly happy to hide from the author as well.

We were soon found out. Lee came around handing out presents to all the booksellers. She had New York Yankees hats for the men and "orgasms" (it looked like lip gloss to me) for the women. I stared at the Yankees hat and she sensed my disappointment. "Men are strange about their baseball caps," she said. I told her I was a Phillies fan and couldn't possibly take a Yankees cap. I didn't tell her that I hate the Yankees because they beat the Phillies in the 1950 World Series and broke my dad's 12-year old heart. Anyway, Lee was not to be deterred. She reached into her bag of goodies and pulled out a small box of chocolate caramel-covered toffee.

She was energetic, excited and didn't ask us what we thought about her book -- or even if we'd read it. I felt much more comfortable once we had talked and even asked her for a baseball cap to give to our shipping and receiving manager, a die-hard Yankee fan from Australia. We were soon ushered to our seats, and I managed to squeeze in between our rep and my colleague from the store. I sat back and thought everything was going great. I'd survived my run-in with the author and was now ensconced between two people I talk to all the time.

Much to my surprise, my rep stood up after everyone was seated and actually started talking about the author and the book. Even more shocking was that he asked Min Jin Lee to say a few words. All eyes fell on her, and she began talking about what an honor it was to be in the room with us.

She told us how she'd quit her job as a lawyer 11 years ago to write fiction. She told us of her first novel, a book with no real plot, tension or likable characters, that never got published. She spoke of her research and her family background. Her parents came from Korea in 1976 and set up a jewelry store with the money they made from a newstand in New York. As she talked, I started getting more and more interested in her book. She had things to say about ethnicity, class and money that sounded fascinating. If she could write half as well as she spoke, this just might be an excellent novel.

Then something amazing happened as she recounted her life as a bookseller at the Metropolitan Museum's bookstore. Min Jin Lee described a beautiful Harry Abrams edition of Vincent Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo that she coveted while working at the Museum store. She bought the expensive box set, and as she told us that she read the letters for inspiration, she paused, and overcome with emotion, she said that those letters meant so much to her because "he understood failure."

The room went silent. Suddenly, I saw Lee not as an author but as a human being with something profound to offer. She has lived what most people would think of as a charmed life: college at Yale University, law degree from Georgetown, and enough money to try her hand at ficiton for 11 years. And yet, what she identifies with most deeply is Vincent's letters about grappling with failure.

Once she got back in control of her emotions, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Still, I think most of us felt that we had experienced something remarkable together. Lee built on that feeling of community by asking us to go around the table and describe our first jobs or our most interesting ones. She listened attentively and asked probing and often humorous questions. In fact, we all laughed as we revealed that we were Taco Bell failures, tobacco pickers, incompetent baggage handlers and even strip club bouncers.

I left that room determined to read Min Jin Lee's book. I also know that even if, for some reason, I don't like it as much as I hope, I will still be able to sell it. As I drove back to Boulder through the snow and ice, I felt priveleged to be a bookseller, and I wasn't even thinking about the cajun salmon and garlic mash potatoes. I was thinking about what a pleasure it is to meet an author who is a real live wire with something to say.