Bookselling is a nickel-and-dime profession. If whole industries could have a day at the casinos, the technology start-ups would be putting thousands of dollars on red at the roulette wheel, the insurance companies counting cards at the blackjack tables, and the movie moguls in the closed-circuit television room betting everything on their favorite horse. Then, there would be the publishers, stuck in the back corner by the bathrooms, muttering that there aren't any nickel slot machines as they reluctantly put quarters into the one-armed bandits.
Two events last week reminded me once again of why it is so hard for independent bookstores to survive in this industry. These reminders weren't major fiascoes or influential business decisions; in fact, neither one was actually an event at all. One was a memo from Simon & Schuster offering credit if bookstores sold Jimmy Carter's new book, the other was a poorly headlined article in the Christian Science Monitor declaring the demise of author book tours. But somehow the two together pointed me to an underlying truth: the chintzy mind-set of publishers.
Thanks for Small Favors
Jimmy Carter's latest book is what would commonly be referred to as "a real dog." Almost every Christmas, Carter manages to release a bestselling book. His titles alternate between the political, the homey and the inoffensively religious. This year's book, Beyond the White House: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope, seemed to offer a little bit of everything or perhaps a lot of nothing. No one is buying this book. I ordered 40 copies for the store and after eight weeks we have sold just one. It's not just us. In a nationwide database of independent stores that the bookstore subscribes to, I can see that less than 150 of nearly 2,000 have sold. And I can't believe that the chains are doing much better.
You'd think with all of these books out there, growing dusty, Simon & Schuster would do whatever it could to avoid the avalanche of January returns that they are surely facing. Well, to their credit, they are offering bookstores a "shared markdown" on the Jimmy Carter book. Every year, booksellers are greeted with a slew of these after the holidays. The publisher will offer book stores a credit for every book they sell. Usually, it is half of the amount that the bookstore paid for the book. The publishers typically recommend that bookstores sell the book at 50% off, but they make a point to say that stores can charge whatever they want.
Over the last few years, we have sold many of these books at 25% off. In essence, we are giving the customer the entire credit from the publisher. We end up making the same profit as if we sold the book at full price, so it's worth our time and effort to move these books. Our customers get a discounted book from the deal, and the publisher gets fewer returns. Everyone wins (except for the shipping companies who would handle all those returns).
That wasn't good enough for Simon & Schuster. Bookstores will only get credited for books that they sell at the "Maximum Promotional Retail" price, which is 50% off. Simon is requiring bookstores to cut their profits in half. It is a true shared markdown, according to Simon. Let me get this straight. They release the dog of the year, they want bookstores to go to the extra trouble of marking the book down and documenting their sales -- and then they want the bookstores to give up half of their profits.
I returned almost all of the Carter books as soon as I was finished reading the email. If the discount had been optional, as usual, I would have put the books at the front of the store in our 25% off section and tried to sell the books as a great Christmas deal. Simon was too chintzy to give me that option. Now, UPS wins when I return the books and perhaps again if I buy a few copies for $3.00 each from a remainder company in the spring.
Who Can Afford Book Tours?
A November 30 Christian Science Monitor article, Why book tours are passé, details how the publishers are sending fewer authors on tour and how the tours are shorter. The article touts the new technology that allows readers to have a virtual experience with an author through websites, blogs, podcasts and book videos. The beauty of all this, for the publishers, is that it is so much less expensive than sending an author out on tour.
Now, I'm a big fan of all these new media. I'm blogging right now, as a matter of fact. But the thought that a virtual anything can replace the experience of seeing, hearing and conversing with an author is absurd. The publishers have a golden opportunity to enhance their author tours with new technology, but on its own, it is a poor substitute. The virtual world is not a world where books can win and hold people's attention over the myriad of other offerings available. Author readings, on the other hand, are real and tangible, and they provide people with a much sought-after authentic experience.
In the last few months, we held two different "author" events in which we showed a short book film that was produced by Powell's Books, one on Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach and one on David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter. The films -- the first two ventures in the "Out of the Book" series -- are well-made and offer something that is really different from the standard C-Span book fare. They are lively and engaging pieces of film making while also remaining literate. They are the best that the new media has to offer. It was great to be able to show them since McEwan wasn't touring and Halberstam tragically died before the release of his book. But even they don't come close to the experience of having the author in the store.
The McEwan film brought in about 40 people, and we sold a handful of books. Halberstam's netted us just 20 customers and we only sold one book at the film's showing. If McEwan had appeared at the store, read from On Chesil Beach, answered questions and signed books, we would have easily drawn at least 200 people and sold close to 100 books. The autographed books, especially first editions, would have continued selling well after his appearance.
I really believe that none of the publishers do author tours correctly because they simply don't know the local media. That's the real problem. The most crucial thing on an author tour is getting that local publicity. It's left up to the chronically understaffed bookstores to generate the local buzz on the event. Even more entertaining, the stores are expected to make this happen with their minuscule co-op budgets.
What I don't understand is why the publishers don't have regional publicists. There are regional sales reps who know all the stores in their states. The reps in our region even know every little dinky shop the tiny mountain towns. Those reps know who should read a particular title in each store. And yet, the publisher has no personal connection with the book reviewers and feature writers of the local papers. There is no rapport between the publishers and the local radio hosts. If HarperCollins, Random House or Hachette had a full-time publicist in Denver, that person would know every television, radio and newspaper reporter in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Salt Lake City and a dozen other towns. The benefits would be immense. Press coverage for an event would be one well-placed phone call, or email away.
The other problem is that the publishers, mostly public companies, only think about the next quarter. They need to show an increasing profit year after year. Sending authors out is an investment in the uncertain future. It might not show dividends immediately and make the stock holders happy.
In the summer, the author Howard Frank Mosher came into the store during his nationwide tour. Mosher, a literary novelist from New England, doesn't really warrant a big tour in today's publishing world, but he thinks it is critical to get out and meet his readers. He was scheduled to sign in Denver at the Tattered Cover in the evening, but came to Boulder during the day to do some interviews that he had set up himself. It was also important to him to meet me and any other booksellers he could find.
I asked him if touring was really worth it for him. He answered quickly, like he was used to getting the question. "I don't know how the money works out," he said. "But when I first started going to stores, I'd get three, five, maybe ten people. I'd do a reading and answer all their questions. Gradually, more and more people started coming to the readings. Now, I'm getting thirty, forty people. Every tour I do I get more readers, more people coming up to me to tell me how much they appreciate my coming to their town."
I thought of his answer as I read the article in the Christian Science Monitor. The article talks about the humiliation of authors who draw no one to their events. "What's the point of the book tour?" these small-time authors ask. Well, if you're Howard Frank Mosher, there is bound to be at least one person you can make a connection with, even if it's just the book clerk who is setting up and taking down the chairs for your reading.
It's probably easier to sit in New York and whine about how expensive it is to send authors on tour, than it is to try being creative and make those tours work. It's easier to create a My Space page for your author, than it is to line up meaningful interviews in towns throughout America. It's easier, but it won't sell more books. Maybe I was wrong about the slot machines, perhaps the publishers are addicted to the crap shoot.
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