Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Welcome to the Digital World

Can Anyone Use a Computer Around Here?

Buying new books for the store, the crux of my job, can be an exercise in absurdity and futility. It's an antiquated, inefficient system that hardly takes into account the invention of the personal computer and completely ignores the existence of the internet. Here's how it works in a nutshell:

1. The publishers send out catalogs several months in advance of the publications of their new titles. I just bought Oxford University titles that aren't due out until next winter. These catalogs, which look and read like poorly edited magazines, usually feature one title per page. For each title there is a short (a few paragraphs) description, an image of the cover, often an author photo and information on the author's previous titles. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you get a humorous tagline that reads something like "a cross between All the Pretty Horses and the Da Vinci Code."

2. I flip through the pages of these catalogs (sometimes 500 or more pages in a single day), going through one at a time to discover the books I want. I dutifully look up old titles by the authors, previous editions of travel books, and books with similar themes or topics. The titles in each catalog are in a seemingly random order that must make some sense to the publisher, but usually befuddles me. For instance, HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, and Simon and Schuster each may have up to a couple dozen different catalogs. The new hardback fiction titles might be spread throughout as many as ten of these. This makes it nearly impossible to really know how much of any one topic or genre you are ordering during the sales call.

3. The sales rep goes through the catalog with me, highlighting books that the press is particularly excited about, or, more often, books that the publisher isn't really supporting with publicity, helping to guide me to a final number. Since the catalogs are out of date by the time they are printed, a lot of the rep's job during the appointment entails pointing out which terrible covers in the catalog have been changed, mentioning price increases, and informing me about upcoming publicity that was recently booked. They do this at every appointment. Honestly, I don't know how they stay awake.

4. Five or six hours into the appointment, when I've worked through all the titles in the catalog and it's all I can do to keep from dropping off to sleep, the sales rep stealthily whips out a stack of photocopied pages for me to peruse. These are sell sheets for titles that the publisher announced too late for inclusion in the catalogs. Often these books have no descriptions or jacket photos on the sheet. When I ask the reps about them, a shrug of the shoulders is the most common reaction I get. Of course, many of the most important books of the year get released like this, so I have to wade through these pages and pick out the Bob Woodward or Stephen King title lurking among them.

5. Once the rep leaves, my assistants and I enter all of the titles one by one into our computer system from the marked-up catalogs. When the data entry is complete, we recycle the catalogs immediately. It comes to over 100 pounds of wasted paper every few months.

A Better Way to Buy

Several publishers, most notably HarperCollins, are discussing the possibility of moving to an online catalog. I have one word for these publishers -- Hallelujah. It's about time. It was about time five years ago, but this is the book business, and things move at a glacial pace.

The publishers are doing it mostly to cut costs and to get some points for being green. Apparently, the current catalogs cost a fortune to produce and mail out. The bigger houses report that they spend over a million dollars on their catalogs. As far as being green, that's just a bad joke. We are in an industry that doesn't think twice about overprinting and shipping vast quantities of books that will never be sold. Our catalogs might come to 300 pounds a year, but our returns probably run to several tons.

What interests me about an online catalog, if it were done right, is that it could be a much better way to buy from the publishers. As soon as a book has a new cover, I could see it on the site. When new publicity, like an NPR show, is booked, it would be updated online immediately. Never again would my rep and I have to waste time looking at outdated pages. Instead, our appointments could be used to quickly discover the best books for the Boulder Book Store and to determine how best to position those titles. Add-on sheets for late titles would be a thing of the past. Instead, those books would be up and ready to go on the website.

Here's one buyer's vision of how this should work:

1. The catalog would be available online, and each store would access it through a distinct login. All of the information that is currently available on each title in the paper catalogs would be present on the online version. In addition, there could be extended reviews, pages of the text (especially helpful with children's books), author interviews, etc. Buyers would be able to annotate and customize these pages.

2. Each buyer would be able to sort the catalogs however they wanted. Publishers (in my wildest dreams, I see the major houses working together to come up with a standard format) would enable buyers to sort the books in dozens of different ways. How about looking at debut paperback fiction? How about hardback American history under $30? I'd love to sort out fiction with a spiritual theme.

3. The bookstore's computer system would feed into the online catalog to provide sales data on older titles. Why should I look up what John Grisham's last title sold, when the two computers could just talk to each other? We already give the publishers access to our sales information through a program called Above The Treeline; the presses should just feed it back to us on the online catalog. It should come up that I've sold 24 copies of Grisham's latest hardback and 47 of his most recent paperback. Perhaps carpal tunnel syndrome won't have to be the scourge of all middle-age book buyers.

4. An alert system could let buyers know of all the changes or additions that have happened since they last placed an order. Instead of receiving 5 to 10 pesky emails per week from each sales rep, perhaps buyers could just log on to the site once a month or so. I envision three tabs that would keep buyers informed: "New Titles," "New Publicity," and "Price and Title Changes." Bye-bye photocopied sheets.

5. The publisher's online catalog would dump the purchase order directly into our computer system. I know this is problematic due to most stores' (including the Boulder Book Store's) ancient computer systems. But it is still something that we could work towards once we get online catalogs up and running. The amount of staff time this would save is immense.

Words of Caution

HarperCollins held a meeting at the recent Book Expo America in Los Angeles with buyers from many of the top independent bookstores in the country to discuss their plans to implement an online catalog in the next nine months. It was a fascinating study in how people react to change. I was leading the charge into the online world with a handful of other booksellers. Many other buyers were much more hesitant to change a system that has worked for them, despite its inherent flaws. To them, the rush to change seemed reckless.

My biggest concern is that bookstores are some of the most under-capitalized businesses you'll ever find. Most stores do not have state-of-the-art computers and speedy internet connections. If an online catalog features too many bells and whistles, (HarperCollins is planning on having video and audio components to many pages) it could take too long for bookstores to load the individual pages. Staring at a stuck screen for more than an instant is going to bring the whole appointment to a crashing halt. There has to be a quick-loading basic page, with the exciting, colorful features all offered as something booksellers can access only if they want to learn more.

It's true that there are some potential downsides to ordering from an online catalog. It's harder to snuggle up with a laptop than a catalog in bed. Also, there's definitely something alluring about seeing photos on glossy paper as opposed to a computer screen. And a catalog is a lot easier to pass around the office.

However, the potential to revolutionize the buying process, save hours of tedious labor for both reps and buyers, and to make better decisions based on current information is too great to ignore. It's time for publishers to step up and make this happen. I applaud HarperCollins for the strides they've made and challenge Random House (the so-called industry leader), Penguin (publisher to most of last year's mega-sellers) and Simon and Schuster (home of the most useless catalog in the business) to wake up and give buyers a tool they can really use.


Joe said...

Agreed, 100%. Well thought out and spot-on, Arsen.


Dave said...

I work for a Boulder-based publisher, and I was just interviewed for an article about digitizing catalogs. Is there any benefit to a downloadable pdf catalog or does a publisher have to go all the way, as Arsen describes?

Joe said...

A pdf wouldn't be annotatable, and would have to be printed out by the bookstore, anyway. You'd be switching the burden of paper waste from you to us... which is great for you, but doesn't solve the issue.

I say either go all the way or not at all.


PersonaNonData said...

Arsen, This is very interesting and I linked to it on my blog. Of note in my post I mention my experience in reviewing the buying processes at libraries which deal with much the same problem. I would be interested to hear your opinion of Ipage, Titlesoure, pubeasy or BIP as potential solutions.

Cristina Mussinelli said...

I've recently done a one day seminar in Italy focused on Booksellers and Web 2.0.

At the end of the day a quite big publisher presented his new extranet for the booksellers... it is a absolutely web 1.0 broadcast project with no idea of how to create a bi directional flow of information among all the people interested in selling more books...

mg said...

I'm a collection development librarian and using title source 3 from Baker and Taylor makes my job a little easier. When you look up books in ts3 you get a lot of info on the item, a picture of the cover, and reviews from LJ, Kirkus, and PW. Also, it is linked to our library catalog so I can click on a little ISBN button so see if it's in our catalog. Once I choose an item and put it in a cart to order, I can click on a little duplicate check link to see if it's in or has been in another cart. I've also used Ingram's and Brodart's services in the past and they work pretty much the same. Maybe you already knew all of this or maybe this won't work for you, but I wanted to share just in case.

Adam Hodgkin said...

Very interesting post and suggestions. But the situation is both more complex and simpler (in some respects) than you allow. Some comments on why here:

John Edwards said...

I had to recheck the date of your entry. I thought it might have been dated, say, 2001 or something like that.
Frankly I am amazed that the larger part of the book business still works like that. Plain ridiculous...

kaz said...

I've always found it somewhat mind-boggling that publishers in the land that invented the internet still use such ancient technology to sell books.

We do things a bit differently here ... I work for an independent Australia publisher. In May 2003 our sales team had to give up their bulky, labour intensive and expensive 'paper kits' in favour of a laptop system. This pretty elementary bit of software presents the book's cover, blurb, sales points, table of contents etc as well as multimedia files when they’re available. If the bookseller so chooses they can place their order directly with the rep, into the laptop, and the order is processed when the laptop is connected to the internet that evening.

The system allows us in the marketing department to update covers, blurbs, prices whenever we need to ... and if a book wins a prize, or an author does something remarkable, or a title rushes into the program after the kit has been completed, we can add a new entry simply and easily overnight. And we have a replica of this ‘kit’ in the Bookseller’s section of our website, designed for our telesales people to use with their small and remote customers (although these orders still need to be processed using an old-fashioned order form – the reality of that paperless office idea is still a way off).

It wasn’t always easy. At the beginning many or our customers baulked at the prospect of buying books in this way. But they’ve got used to it. And we don’t kill nearly as many trees in the process.

UB's Michael said...

Joe wrote:
A pdf wouldn't be annotatable, and would have to be printed out by the bookstore, anyway.

This is simply not true. You could view them on-screen, as many do now, and you can also add or edit comments (and then circulate the electronic file to your colleagues if need be).

PDFs would be a step in the right direction, but dynamic web-based content that Arsen alludes to would be better.

Sue said...

Excellent thoughts! Heck, I'd be overjoyed to receive CDROMs (Save those trees & all that expensive shipping!)that are compatible with BookLog so I don't have to RETYPE every bloomin' entry into our system!