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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What I Heard in San Jose. Did Any Publishers Hear the Same?

I spent a fair amount of last week at the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in San Jose, CA. This is an annual event, where independent booksellers from around the country come to discuss issues pertinent to their slice of the book industry. This is an incredibly invigorating event for booksellers and each year I come back recharged and inspired about the ongoing possibilities for independent bookstores.

While I made notes on everything from staffing issues to web-site design, there was one moment in the conference that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.

It was no surprise that some of the hot topics of the week were e-books and e-book pricing. There was lots of speculation and conjecture. In the midst of a presentation from a representative from Google, discussing digital books, the presenter, as many do when discussing the future of the book industry, brought up a few analogies to the music industry. A graph was shown that displayed the ongoing declining gross revenue of the music industry over the past 5 years. While many people have discussed at length how publishers, in dealing with the digitization of books, need to learn a lesson from how the record labels mishandled the digitization of music, this presenter, almost as a throw away after thought, brought up what I believe to be a key issue that publishers and bookstores need to begin focusing on right away.

The presenter said, that when asking a top record label executive what he attributed this decline in revenue to, he stated, without hesitation, that “the decline of gross revenue is directly related to the decline of physical well stocked CD stores (paraphrased).” The record label executive was saying that in a physical store there are exponential “serendipitous” sales that simply don’t happen online (or at least not to the same degree).

Customers, media, and publishers often pay lip service to the need for physical bookstores. But this was the first time I had seen data that suggested, if these stores were to go away, outside of it being a cultural blow to their local communities, it would be a significant financial blow to the industry at large, specifically publishers.

So what does this mean? It says that publishers need to make sure that in their overall strategic planning, that their support to physical bookstores remains a very high item on their checklist. Some publishers have taken some very important steps in this direction. Some publishers have programs to ensure that their bestselling stock gets distributed as evenly as possible across all retail outlets (physical, independent, chain and online).

But what else can publishers be doing? One thought came from Mitchell Kaplan of Books and Books in Miami, FL. Mitchell spent his week talking to booksellers and publishers about changing the way publishers sell books to bookstores. Rather than having to pay within 30-90 days for merchandise, he suggested that publishers allow physical bookstores to take their merchandise on consignment. This would allow stores to have more stock from each publisher including deep backlist (older titles) that don’t sell as frequently. This idea echoes a comment made during a panel discussion during the 2009 Winter Institute by Roxanne Coady of R J Julia’s Bookstore in Madison, CT. At the time she challenged a few major publishers to begin thinking about physical bookstores as the publisher’s showroom, and to figure a way to compensate the bookstore for being a place of year round advertising for the publisher’s titles.

Maybe these are the answers, maybe they are not. Either way, I hope the publishers who were at Winter Institute heard what I heard and will begin thinking about further partnerships with their showrooms. If they are, I know myself and many other bookstore owners would be happy to explore future models.

Robert Sindelar

Managing Partner, Third Place Books


  1. Here are my thoughts on this subject. The whole idea of returns is what is costing the industry millions of dollars and resulting in huge amounts of waste...damaged books, shipping & packing costs, employee hours, etc. Bookstores should buy conservative numbers of books and keep them. If they sell out, buy more. No more returns!! Publishers should get paid in a timely fashion. I doubt there's a publisher out there who would be willing to 'loan' books to bookstores on consignment. It costs plenty of money to produce a book, and there are people to be paid (the author, editor, illustrator, indexer, publicist, printer, binder, shipper, warehouse, etc.). They need to pay their bills too. Let's be fair; it's a tough time for all parties, publishers and booksellers. I am very sympathetic to the indie booksellers plight, but not paying publishers is not the answer. Robin K. Blum, In My Book

  2. It's not about bookstores not paying publishers. It's about paying publishers when the books actually sell. If we were to get rid of returns without drastically changing publisher terms, you'd see a huge drop in inventory at stores. That would mean less first novels, fewer small press books and a greatly diminished selection. Surely, publishers don't think that's the way of the future. Consignment offers publishers a way to get books out in the public rather than gathering dust in the warehouse.

  3. (The consignment idea) It's a fanciful idea...but it's not going to work. There aren't too many (if any) vendors in other fields that work on consignment.

    I seriously doubt if any publishers would go along with it, for the reasons I stated above. Publishers have expenses and it's tough enough to wait for 30 or 60 days for payment, not to mention waiting for six months until a book is sold. But if pubs are willing, then go for it...

  4. The example that Mitchell Kaplan from Books and Books gave was a deal he had come up with an art book publisher. By going on consignment ith them, he was able to more than double their presence in his store and on one title alone, he went from selling 20-30 copies a year to almost 150 copies. There are other examples of success in this arena.

    Robert Sindelar - Third Place Books