Friday, March 20, 2009

HarperCollins' Loss is Our Loss

The best sales rep I have ever worked with in my 12 years of buying will be retiring later this year. HarperCollins' John Zeck was not planning to retire so soon, but when the publisher offered early retirement he took them up on their deal. Ouch.

I have had some amazing reps, including this year's Publishers Weekly Rep of the Year Penguin's Tom Benton, my legendary Random House rep Ron Smith, and my always patient and very understanding Hachette rep Randy Hickernell but no one did nearly as much for their publisher as John Zeck.

Zeck is a tireless promoter of Harper's titles. What makes him different than almost every other rep is that he closely monitors his books from the initial sales call, to their release, to their sell through and even onto their life as remainders. He does this for dozens and dozens of titles every single season despite having the largest list of any rep, selling both kids and adult titles and working a huge territory.

If you aren't in the publishing industry, you'd probably assume that following a title through its life cycle is a standard practice for a sales rep. You would be wrong. Most reps follow through on a couple of titles and then they're off to the next season. The sheer volume of new books means that the reps are constantly working six to nine months in the future.

I encountered the awesome power of Zeck during my first year as a buyer. I was under a mandate to reduce the store's inventory and I was in over my head when it came to juggling all the responsibilities of my new job. Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells was beginning to take off in paperback. We had sold 20 copies in a few weeks and I was playing catch up with the inventory. I got a call from Zeck that I will never forget.

"Hey Dude, you need to order 100 copies of Divine Secrets."
"I don't need that many. Maybe another 20."
"No. You need at least 100. This book is going to be huge. You've got to stop chasing it."
"We aren't selling 100 copies a month of anything right now. It's too many."
"Just trust me on this. I'll eat the books if they don't sell."

I bought the 100 books, in part just to get him off the phone, and they sold in just a few weeks. By then I knew to keep about 100 books in stock at all times. We went on to sell 2,964 copies of Divine Secrets. Sure, we would have sold the bulk of those copies without John's help. However the truth is it would have taken me three months to get up to the quantity I really needed to sell the book to its fullest potential. John got me there in one phone call.

John and a few other notable long-time reps really taught me how to be a buyer. On long drives up and down from the mountains to ski, I peppered him with questions about the industry. I must have driven him nuts. "Why aren't there better incentives to buy nonreturnable?" "What kind of sell through on the frontlist are publishers really expecting?" "How come we have to buy by season instead of monthly?" "What percentage of hardbacks is sold in the first month of release?" He answered every question like a hyper big brother. Sometimes the answers were pure bullshit, but he always made me think. He always challenged me to do a better job, which was to sell more books.

His influence and his gregarious personality extended far beyond the booksellers his me. Last week my wife was listening to a Lisa Scottoline audiobook. At the end of the nine discs, Scottoline's acknowledgements were read. My wife was shocked to hear Scottoline mention the "world famous John Zeck." How many times does a Philadelphia author publicly single out and thank the Denver based rep for his help? Never.

Zeck is one of a kind when it comes to dealing with authors. He fully understood that they were the lifeblood of the industry and even if they weren't always the most pleasant people every effort needed to be extended to make them feel welcome and comfortable. At a recent promotional dinner hosted by Zeck, Simon Van Booy the author of the forthcoming Love Begins in Winter, leaned over to me and said pointing to John, "He's incredible. Is he like this for every author?" The answer, of course, was yes.

It's easy to lose sight of just how incredible John Zeck is at his job because of his larger-than-life personality. He takes over the whole office during a sales call. It's hard for anyone to get any work done when his booming voice drowns out their thoughts. He barks commands at our marketing director; he issues directives to our backlist buyers. He's a whirlwind with a new idea every 10 minutes.

The disruption to the office is exacerbated because he seems to be chronically disorganized and have attention deficit disorder. However, he knows his books, he knows our store, and he can work the Above the Treeline inventory system better than anyone in the country. By the time he leaves the office we are seeing a dozen titles in a different light, we have taken up the mantle for the books he is passionate about.

His passion isn't just about hot new books, or sexy titles by up and coming authors. When we run out of the Goodnight Moon board book for even a day, I'm liable to get a call from Zeck. "I'm looking at Above the Treeline, and you're out of Goodnight Moon again?! Just order a dozen and get it over with." Does that sound like a disorganized person who has trouble focusing? No way. Sometimes, I think John's hit upon the perfect salesman act. He creates a huge storm, but he has an idea about how every piece of dust is going to settle.

Harper would be insane to lose him. I predict that without an absolutely top-notch replacement, who would probably cost nearly as much as whatever Zeck is earning, our sales will drop by 10%. When I told our children's buyer, she rolled her eyes and indicated the falloff would be much greater in her department. Zeck has cajoled, bullied, and outsmarted us to the point where Harper dominates our children's recommended titles and overall sales.

Here's my suggestion to Harper. Pay John Zeck the early retirement package (call it a bonus and fire someone at Fox News to cover it), give him a couple months off, let him choose his territory and be thankful that you dodged a bullet. I have no idea if John would even consider this deal, but frankly, if Harper were to cut their sales department to one person, that person needs to be John Zeck.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hachette: From Boom to Bust

Hachette Gets Cheap, Real Cheap
During the deluge of bad news that has pounded the publishing industry in the last six months, one company, Hachette Book Group, has emerged unscathed. Thanks to the popularity of Stephanie Meyer, Malcolm Gladwell, David Sedaris, and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, not to mention the dozen or so James Patterson best sellers that come out every year, Hachette is sailing through this recession. While Random House, HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, and Simon & Schuster were all cutting back, Hachette was handing out bonuses.

I don't begrudge anyone in publishing a bonus and was quite happy to find out that the people I know in Hachette were being rewarded for a magnificent year. Just about everyone connected to the printed word is undervalued and poorly paid, so to see bonuses being doled out during hard times was the feel good story of the Christmas season.

Unfortunately, Hachette has decided to not only withhold their largess from their bookselling partners, but they have instituted severe cutbacks that will cost many independent stores $3,000 in the upcoming year. It turns out they want to improve on their good fortunes, by breaking the backs of the very bookstores that promote and sell their titles.

Yesterday, we were informed that Hachette was eliminating their newsletter co-op program ($2,000), their author events co-op ($200 to $800 per year) and their Emerging Voices program ($200). These were all programs where bookstores acted in concert with Hachette to promote individual titles. We bought display quantities of 40 different titles and advertised them in our email newsletter to earn the $2,000. We hosted events to earn the $200 event co-op fee and, most importantly, we bought 10 copies of books by relatively unknown authors to earn the co-op attached with the Emerging Voices authors.

In most businesses, $3,000 might be a fairly insignificant amount. In the bookselling world where a profit of 2% is considered stellar, it is a critical sum. That's enough money to pay a bookseller for one hour of work every Monday through Saturday all year long. Unfortunately, that's how little booksellers earn. It's enough money that we and other stores have been brainstorming how we can possibly make cuts to save it. Heck, we are even buying cheaper toilet paper and paper towels just to realize a savings of about $1,000.

The worst part of Hachette's moves is that many of these programs are working. We bought 10 copies of Katie Crouch's Girls in Trucks when it appeared on the Emerging Voices last year. It's a book I probably would have brought in only two copies without the Hachette incentive. We have now sold 67 hardbacks and are expecting it to explode in paperback this summer.

"I think the newsletter program really worked," my Hachette rep Randy said. "You would change buys from three to eights. There were titles that you bought tens of that you never would have bought in those quantities without the extra money."

Earlier today I tried to reduce my buy of Giulia Melucci's I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, one of this season's Emerging Voices books, from 10 to 3. It's too late. Hachette has already invoiced us. I can tell you in the future we won't look on Hachette's midlist titles with such a generous eye.

As usual, Hachette made it's decisions with very little input. No bookseller input at all from what I can tell. A little over a year ago, Hachette tried to unilaterally impose a case quantity minimum on hot new titles. That ill conceived idea, which now sounds brilliant compared to eliminating most of their co-op, met with such wrath from booksellers it was quickly rescinded.

One can only hope that this initiative meets the same fate. I doubt it. There is simply too much money on the table. It's a shame to see Hachette take their successes for granted and dump on the booksellers who have worked so hard to sell their titles. Something tells me that they won't get much bookseller support when the next tsunami hits the publishing world.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Musings about eBooks.

The launch of Amazon's Kindle 2 on February 9th has released a torrent of discussion about the future of ebooks on television, in newspapers, in the pages of national magazines, as well as online conversations in blogs and on Twitter. I've refrained from joining the choir of commentators because I feel that I don't have a cogent argument to put forward about my extreme discomfort when it comes to eBooks.

I sincerely believe that if Amazon's Kindle or Sony's Reader Digital Book or perhaps an iPhone eReader application were to take off the way the iPod has over the last five years, bookstores as we know them would cease to exist. Sure, there would be some small, niche stores. Perhaps even a few general booksellers that were a tiny fraction of the size of my store could exist in big tourist destinations, but the world of oversized chain booksellers and scrappy full-service, general independents would largely disappear.

Instead of trying to put together a rational, logical essay about all of these ideas swirling in my head, I thought I'd just jot down a few thoughts about eBooks, in an effort to join the conversation.

  • The prices of Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader are outrageous. We are talking about a device to enable people to read books. Books, the top source of information for about 500 years, have been relatively affordable, throughout modern history, for people of all walks of life. New books generally range in price from $3 (Dover classics and children's early readers) to $35 (hardcover biographies or histories). The $359 price tag truly prevents eReaders from being something that will be available to all classes of Americans, let alone people in poorer countries. If some books are eventually only published as eBooks, millions of people will not have access to them. That's scary.

  • Every new scientific or technological idea is not necessarily a good one. My wife and I have been debating the merits of cloning Neanderthals for the past few weeks. I've been in favor of bringing our ancient relatives back to life. It would only take about 30 million dollars to meet one. We could clone about 25,000 (a small city) if we spent the entire stimulus bill on the project. My wife is concerned about the ethics and humanity of the enterprise. EBooks seem about as necessary in today's world as Neanderthals. For generations, the book has been an unbelievably efficient means of communicating complex ideas and stories. EBooks don't add anything to the reading experience. IPods, on the other hand, allow us to mix our music and categorize it in ways that weren't possible unless you were a disc jockey. We aren't going to make mixed books. Do you need to carry around 100 books? Should we scrap books simply because we can? What are the real ramifications of digitizing our cultural legacy? Could a virus wipe out a future Thomas Paine's cry for revolution?

  • Reading is a vacation from the computer and television screens. We spend half our waking lives, maybe more, in front of these screens. Reading a book slows us down, forces us to concentrate in a way that neither the television nor the Internet does. If reading a novel is no different than reading a website with multiple links, will our ability to focus on something longer than a blog post begin to erode?

  • Now that I have a baby, I seem to find myself in the library a bit more. It's a restful place in downtown Boulder with excellent diaper-changing facilities. We've started borrowing DVDs and books on CD while we are there. Almost all of the library's numerous patrons are glued to computer screens. Many are watching entertainment videos on YouTube, viewing sports clips on ESPN or just tweaking their resumes. Often, I amble, virtually alone, through the stacks of books, glancing at their colorful spines. I get the feeling in those quiet aisles, as I look at John Dos Passos' collected works taking up half a shelf, that I'm witnessing the demise of a whole civilization of learning. I think eBooks will just hasten the decline. Without their physical aspect, books will have no chance of competing in the entertainment world.

  • Each night, I read a book to our four-month-old daughter, Martina, before putting her to bed. We've read Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B. Johnson, my personal favorite, Chubbo's Pool by Betsy Lewin, I Kissed the Baby by Mary Murphy and Dawn by Uri Shulevitz several times. I perch her on my lap and spread open the beautiful, illustrated pages before her. The paintings take up most of her field of vision. She's completely absorbed by the riot of colors and shapes that she sees. EBooks will never be able to do that.

There are two recent blog posts that I would recommend for a sane and rational bookseller perspective on eBooks. Rich Rennick, a bookseller with Malaprop's in Asheville, North Carolina states his belief that there are opportunities for independent bookstores in his post What About EBooks? Patrick, a bookseller with Vromans, the top independent bookstore in Los Angeles, talks about the actual experience of reading an eBook and what the future of eBooks might mean for independents in his recent post, I Read and E-Book (And I Liked It).