Friday, January 25, 2008

A Perfect TWELVE

The Complete Book of Aunts seemed like an odd title when it was first presented to me last year. Who would buy such a thing? After all, aunts are usually mothers, daughters, wives and sisters before they are aunts. I'm an uncle, but it certainly isn't a defining characteristic of my personality. I wouldn't even be remotely tempted to buy a book about uncles. I stared at the page and tried to imagine where in the store we would even shelve such a book. I was about to say "skip", when my Hachette rep mentioned that this book was being published by Jonathan Karp's imprint TWELVE.

That changed everything for me. I refocused on the catalog page, noticing that the dog on the book's cover was an alligator. I began to think that perhaps a strange book detailing aunts in history from Aunt Jemima to John Lennon's Aunt Mimi might have campy appeal. I decided to order ten copies and put it on our recommended reading section during the holiday season. Why such a drastic turnaround based on the publisher? Karp, the former editor-in-chief of Random House, is attempting to do something that is completely counter to much of publishing today. He's actually showing tremendous restraint in the number of books he's publishing, he's giving them all personal attention by editing them himself and he's going full bore on the publicity and marketing for his books. Hallelujah. If you are a bookseller, or a reader for that matter, it's like watching a true craftsman at work.

TWELVE, which released its first title a year ago, only publishes 12 books a year, neatly timed to one a month. Karp, who receives hundreds of solid manuscripts from established writers, saw something in Rupert Christiansen's book on aunts to warrant a full month of his company's time. I knew that TWELVE wouldn't let The Complete Book of Aunts die an anonymous death. There would be a heavy ad campaign and clever marketing to back it up. Karp's investment of time and money in a quirky title was enough for me to take a leap of faith and give the title front-of-store positioning. My gamble paid off, with the title garnering over 25 sales during the holiday season.

One of the most unusual aspects of TWELVE is the eclectic selection of titles. When the imprint was first introduced, I imagined a tightly focused house that would excel in one type of book. That simply isn't true. Karp has published fiction from established authors, like Christopher Buckley, and from unknowns like Matt Richtel. TWELVE's nonfiction has ranged from current affairs to histories to memoirs to philosophy and featured authors from John McCain to Christopher Hitchens. It's all held together by a vision of what makes a great book.

"We want to publish singular books -- stories, perspectives, and voices readers aren't likely to get elsewhere with the same kind of authority," Karp wrote during in an email interview. "Works of high quality and broad appeal. Books that influence the national conversation, entertain, and illuminate.... It's possible to fall in love twelve times a year without being promiscuous in your taste."

TWELVE led the national conversation for a while last year with the release of Hitchens' God is not Great. The title seemed to ignite a societal debate on atheism that had been simmering for years. Hitchens' work reached the top of the New York Times' bestseller list and was featured in countless newspaper articles, magazine pieces and radio shows. Hitchens always generates great publicity: you can't attack Mother Theresa and fly under the media radar. But the avalanche of attention that God is not Great received far outpaced his other recent books.

Karp has said in other interviews, when he was first founding TWELVE, that he believes "talented authors deserve a massive amount of attention." So far, he has delivered on that belief. Each book is promoted nationally. There won't be any authors crying because the publicity has been pulled from their titles.

"I suspect our spending per title is greater than the industry average, but that may be true for all Hachette books," Karp said. "Generally, this company (Hachette) has always published fewer titles than its competitors and marketed them more aggressively. That marketing philosophy was one of the reasons I wanted to publish books here. Authors appreciate that kind of attention, and we want to attract the very best writers."

Karp will have to attract the best writers if TWELVE has a chance to flourish in the future. That's going to be a tough task. TWELVE is operating in an industry where publishing more titles always seems to be the way to grow. The pressure to show sales gains, despite falling readership, from the corporate parents of book publishers is immense. Karp doesn't shy away from the challenge.

"Our goal is to keep raising the bar -- to publish progressively better books, by the finest writers, and to help them reach more and more readers. As a business, we won't grow by publishing more titles -- our promise to publish only twelve new books a year is inherent in the name of the imprint -- so the only way to grow is to sell more copies of the books we do publish, in hardcover and ultimately in paperback," Karp said.

I wondered if perhaps Karp was trying to start a trend in publishing. I must admit I'm a bit fascinated with trends after reading another TWELVE book, Microtrends: The Small Voices Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes by Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne. Penn, an advisor to Hillary Clinton, discusses dozens of trends that are bubbling under the surface of our culture. My favorite one is that a discernible number of young people are aspiring to become snipers. Those inclined toward military work used to want to fly air force jets, drive a tank, or blow things up, but now the glamour job is the secret marksman. However, Karp eschewed the notion of being a publishing trendsetter.

"This model works best for TWELVE. Larger companies have different goals and different objectives. We want each book to have the potential to be a bestseller. A larger company may not have that objective for every book it acquires, but by acquiring more books, those companies are giving a lot of talented writers a chance to begin to find a readership," Karp wrote. "Personally, I've come to believe the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson: The publisher who publishes best, publishes least. (Not his exact words, but I'm sure it was his intention.)"

In my research for this article, I couldn't find the Thomas Jefferson quote that Karp mentioned. However, we should all remember what Jefferson said about reading on numerous occasions: "I cannot live without books." Somehow, I think Jefferson could live without a lot of the books being published today, but he just might perish without his monthly title from TWELVE.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hachette Takes a Hatchet to Indies

Hachette Book Group, better known as Little Brown, has been doing a lot of things right when it comes to independent bookstores over the last few years. Several senior members of Hachette came out to Boulder late in 2006 to have discussions with dozens of representatives from independent bookstores all around the country. During those conversations, I certainly got the sense that Hachette was a publisher that really cared about the independent marketplace.

It's not just the words of a few executives that put them on the positive side of the ledger, however. Their actions speak as loud as their words. No one in the business has a better cooperative advertising plan to offer bookstores for their newsletters. They, unlike Penguin USA and Simon & Schuster, actually let the bookstores choose what books they want to feature, and the co-op pool is generous enough, unlike Random House and HarperCollins, that we don't have to be all that picky. Hachette introduced a thoughtful and superbly marketed imprint, Twelve, last year, giving independent bookstores tailor-made books, like Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great and Christopher Buckley's Boomtown, to sell to our demographic. They have also honed their Emerging Authors program, throwing marketing and co-op dollars behind writers that independent bookstores can sell.

It was with all this in mind that I began my Hachette appointment last Thursday. Not even the immediate over hyping of James Patterson pablum (a full-color, glossy calendar marked with the release dates of his eight new books) was able to break me out of my good spirits. It was only when I tried to order six copies of Patterson's novel Sail (co-written, of course, by Howard Roughan) that the appointment quickly turned sour. Suddenly, my thoughts of Hachette went from warm and fuzzy to cold and prickly.

My rep informed me that if I ordered six copies of the Patterson book, I wouldn't get them in time for the national laydown date. The only books that Hachette will send out on time are those that are ordered in carton quantities. I looked at him as if he were speaking Aramaic and was an escaped lunatic from a bad Mel Gibson film. I smiled, in response: surely I had misunderstood him. Obviously, Hachette wouldn't renege on the most basic job of a publisher -- to deliver new books on time. I asked him what he meant. Unfortunately, what he meant was that Hachette, for all its smooth talk and gestures of good will to the independent stores over the last few years, had, in fact, adopted a policy that would put independent stores around the country at a distinct competitive disadvantage. Worse yet, the customers would think it was the bookstore's fault when a beloved author's title was not in.

I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm down. It's not really possible to be mad at my Hachette rep. He is about the nicest, kindest man I know, and besides, he didn't come up with this asinine policy. "When will we get the books?" I asked. He assured me that we would get the books within a few days after the laydown date. "That simply is not good enough," I told him. Faced with an immediate decision on Sail, however, I upped our order to meet the 10-copy carton requirement to ensure I'd get the books on time. We typically sell more than half of all the Patterson books (typically six or eight copies) that we are going to sell in the first two weeks of the book's release. I couldn't risk missing that window because of Hachette's ineptitude.

As the appointment went on, I seethed with anger at every book I ordered. Between my buy and the kids' buy, the Boulder Book Store easily ordered over 500 books on Thursday. There were a handful of laydowns that I just couldn't bring myself to order in carton quantity. When those books are released, we will not have them. Despite our large buy, our order isn't good enough for the number crunchers at Hachette. Those will be dark days in our store. Hachette will rev up its publicity machine with a national media onslaught for these titles, and we will invariably have a few customers who will request those titles. We won't have them. Of course, Borders and Barnes & Noble will have them in stock. It's not so hard to order a carton of books when you have a 1,000 locations.

Sure, I could order a carton of every laydown book, but just how much shipping (Hachette's money sending the books to us and ours on the returns) do we need to burn when we know we aren't going to sell that many books? Shame on Hachette for putting independent bookstores around the country in this position.

Obviously, Hachette has figured out that it costs more money to break open the cartons and repackage these books in a timely manner. Somehow every other publisher has worked out a method that doesn't unfairly penalize independent stores. Every other publisher gets their laydown books to independent bookstores on time. Only Hachette has decided to purposely thrust themselves into a situation where they will appear incompetent to booksellers throughout America. In the hope that Hachette will rethink their terribly insensitive decision, here are a few suggestions on how they could address this issue:

  • Give stores incentives to buy carton quantities. Perhaps, Hachette could offer extra co-op or discount on the first carton that an account orders to each ship-to location. Gigantic stores that order 5,000 cartons to a central distribution center would only get the deal on the first carton. Smaller indies would have some encouragement to bump their orders up.
  • Make all new releases national laydowns. Random House sets all of its new books to be released on Tuesdays. It doesn't matter if it's the biggest book of the season or a book with a tiny print run. The problem with Hachette is that only a dozen or so books are laydowns. They end up getting caught shipping five books at a time when an account doesn't order a full carton. If every title were released as a laydown, there'd be at least a box or two of books being shipped to the indies every week.
  • Realize that there is a cost of doing business. Breaking up cartons for independents is just a small cost of doing business. Stop counting your pennies and look at the broader scope of the relationship.
  • Up the price of laydown titles by $1.00 to cover the cost of shipping individual books. Will anyone really notice if Sail, already listed at an inflated $27.99, were $28.99 instead?

I hope that Hachette can figure this out, because I'd like to get back to concentrating on all the great things they do. There's a new David Sedaris book, Indefinite Leave to Remain, coming out in May, and it doesn't get any better than that for an independent bookstore. Oh yeah -- I bought 10 cartons of the Sedaris book, plus a display. A purchase like that should be enough to convince Hachette it's worth their while to send the Boulder Book Store a few stray books on time.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Bargain Shopping

The Boulder Book Store marks each new year with an all-store sale on January 1st. We've turned what used to be the slowest day of the year into one of the busiest. I remember working New Year's Day in the years before the sale, when you could play a hand of solitaire at the front register between customers. Now, we welcome all the exhausted, the hungover, the stuffed, the seemingly shopped out, the football-hating customers and give them 20% off. It's not an original idea. We stole it from Changing Hands Bookstore in Arizona.

Yesterday, customers came to the register juggling stacks of books, eager to spend their holiday gift cards. My favorite shoppers were the ones looking for the super discounts. They trolled through the remainders and used books, looking for the deal of the year on books that were already absurdly cheap. We even had a number of customers down on their hands and knees wading through our used book markdowns that normally sell for one to three dollars. I didn't want to break it to them: they were only going to save 20 to 60 cents on a book they may not ever read. Didn't these bargain shoppers get the memo? Spend more, save more.

As I waded through dozens of customers in our upper north room who all seemed to be looking for the perfect calendar, I started thinking about the psychology of a sale. Let's face it, most of our customers could easily afford everything they were buying at full price. In the case of the calendars, they would have had a much better selection two months ago and they would have had the added bonus of being able to circle our January 1st sale on their brand new 2008 calendar ahead of time. Instead, they chose to come out on a cold holiday and brave the crowds to save just a few bucks. Most of the shoppers were our frequent buyers who get 10% off all year round, so they were really saving an extra 10% yesterday on items that are already priced as low as one dollar.

I don't think it's the money that is saved. After all, you could go to the library and save 100% on most of these items. It must be the perception of finding a great deal. The excitement of the hunt. A customer's perception really is everything in the retail business. About three days before Christmas, I had a customer approach me to discuss the "pricing" of our items. He was holding Tony Hillerman's new paperback Shape Shifter ($9.99) in one hand and the "Planet Earth" DVD ($79.99) in the other. He wanted to know how we had the gall to charge $9.99 for a flimsy paperback.

My mouth dropped open as I stared at the "Planet Earth" DVD that was in the hand that he wasn't shaking at me. Finally, I focused on the Hillerman. It was one of the steroid mass market editions that are becoming more popular from the major publishers. They look like the old mass markets, except they're an inch or two taller. I personally wouldn't be caught dead reading something that appears so ungainly, but I tried to remember the reasons the publishers were giving for the new size. The main reason the publishers gave to retailers was that it would allow them to effortlessly milk an extra two dollars from the customers. Their words were, "a more attractive price point for the retailer." That reasoning wouldn't work in this situation. The next explanation was that the print size in this format would be bigger for the aging baby boomers. I tried that one.

"I don't need bigger print," he said through nearly clenched teeth. "I've been reading Hillerman for 20 years and never complained." I was sorely tempted to comment on the fact that he had no qualms about spending nearly 80 dollars on a DVD. It was hard to resist pointing out that our net profit on the DVD was about three times the cost of the Hillerman book. Instead, I offered him my 30% employee discount on the book. In the end, I didn't want to jeopardize the DVD sale. It was almost worth giving him the book for free. My god, even the Boulder Book Store is reduced to using books as a loss leader.

At least I didn't get any bitter comments yesterday. The sun was shining, the air was crisp and everything in the store was a bargain, or at least in the case of Tony Hillerman, it was priced just right.