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Success Story: 8 Hints From The Publisher Who Said No To Amazon

31 January 2014

From Forbes blogs:

Publishing isn’t an easy industry to break into and smaller, independent houses tend to get swallowed up by the bigger fishes. Barefoot Books bucks that trend. Barefoot was launched in 1993 by Nancy Traversy and Tessa Strickland, who wanted a business that would be flexible enough to combine with bringing up their children (they have seven between them) – and Barefoot has not only stayed the course but gone from strength to strength. The company, offers beautifully crafted books for children, although many readers keep them into adulthood. Barefoot is now thriving in both Oxford in the UK and in Concord, Massachusetts, US – but don’t expect to find Barefoot Books piled high in your supermarket or available at a knock-down price online. Traversy and Strickland first took the bold decision to step back from selling in major chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble – and last year they cut all ties with Amazon, the biggest of them all.

. . . .

Co-founder Nancy Traversy explains the Barefoot model

Be different – and once you’ve decided how to be different, stick with it 

“I think probably our biggest point of difference is how we define ourselves. We have an unwavering commitment to creating beautiful, high-quality amazing books for children and never compromising on standards, despite what distribution channels might ask for. Over the past 22 years we’ve created around 600 absolutely beautiful books. People often say they can spot a Barefoot book a mile away, even though we work with a wide variety of writers, illustrators and designers. A lot of publishers make beautiful books, but we think of ourselves not just as a publisher but as a way of life and that has underpinned our business since we started it from our homes in 1992 and launched it in 1993. We have a real commitment to introducing children to other cultures and diversity, using stories to bridge boundaries, and we started the business because we felt there was a gap in the market for books like that: not just books you’d see in your own culture, but books about traditions from all over the world that expose a child to the idea that not everyone is the same. We also believe in the importance of imagination in children’s lives. I believe strongly that space to imagine, play and be is important and the role of story in nurturing children’s imagination has always been core. The third major strand is nurturing children’s creativity and inspiring them.”

. . . .

Thinking on a human scale doesn’t mean thinking small

“I was lucky enough to work at home for eight years. I’d been to business school, spent time at Pricewaterhouse, worked in the design industry, but had never worked in publishing. With hindsight, that was a good thing – we were able to be pioneers, I was able to think outside the box, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I questioned the way that books were always sold through the big chains. I felt it was much more rewarding to connect direct to families. When my children were small, I’d do events at schools, at fairs – we relied on the power of word of mouth. Because our books were so high-quality and special, it didn’t seem right to stick them in a supermarket, pile them on a table. I remember one trade fair where we were asked for a package that would have included, for example, changing a cover. It was very tempting, we could have sold a million copies, licensed all over the world – publishers do that and it’s a very valid model but I wasn’t thinking that way. I was thinking ‘We can share with our friends, with friends of friends.’ From a very early stage we were out in the community. The human connection is so important in getting people behind you and supporting you, and you don’t get that in a chain, or through mail order, or on Amazon.”

. . . .

If big business can’t fit with your model, maybe you don’t need big business

“In the US, I got caught up in Borders and Barnes & Noble, because that’s just what you do. For three years we sold to them and it was soul-destroying. The books were just a commodity. You had to pay for ‘table real estate’, shift large numbers, pay for the space and often books came back – this is a returnable product. We sold better in some areas than others but we never really knew how much we’d sell or how much we’d get paid. We’d be getting returns and reorders on the same day! It was the opposite of what we wanted to do and we made the decision in 2006. And when Borders went down, we were among the few publishers who didn’t lose money. When we stopped with Barnes & Noble, we actually made more as we didn’t get the returns. Amazon: we shipped to them and then I realised how much they were discounting our books. Our World Atlas, for example: Amazon was selling it at 60 to 70 per cent off the published price and our Ambassadors [independent sales representatives of Barefoot who generally sell face-to-face through events in schools, farmers’ markets, homes, etc.] couldn’t compete. The penny dropped. I said ‘If we are going to support these women, we can’t do this.’ We realised that if we weren’t selling to the chains, we shouldn’t sell to Amazon: we should focus on the model that we started. The decision to pull – maybe it was brave, but it was the right one. It’s too easy to be dragged in and it felt dishonest: we were competing against our own channel, and I knew I could never scale the Ambassador community if I was working with Amazon.”

Link to the rest at Forbes blogs and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

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23 Comments to “Success Story: 8 Hints From The Publisher Who Said No To Amazon”

  1. Using independent sales specialists as a sales channel is almost always incompatible with using mass market retail as a sales channel. It may be possible in some markets, but it takes very careful planning and analysis. This seems to be a hard lesson for a lot of people to learn and I’ve never understood why.

    • It goes beyond books as well. I was involved in farmers and crafter’s markets for awhile and saw them discounting their merchandise to sell to local shops and undercutting their fact to face sales at the market.

      I also saw them undercutting the stores by selling for cheaper at the farmer’s markets.

      Lots to consider there but one reason it didn’t implode is that people go to farmer’s markets often for the experience of buying a craft from the crafter.

      It’s the same with produce only you can never get the same price selling to a store as you can face face. The middle man needs his mark up to remain in business. Also you don’t really compete against yourself because produce is pretty fungible.

  2. Looks like a slightly disguised MLM since you can “join a team” or “build a team.” If you do not keep making a certain number of purchases, you will lose your downline and all commissions from your downline.

    Please note: If you become are deactivated, you will lose your downline (i.e. all Ambassadors in your Central Team, including those Ambassadors you’ve personally sponsored and so on). Your previous downline will be compressed up to your previous upline, if you had one, and you will not be able to reclaim them if you reactivate.

    • Exactly what I was thinking Elaine.

      Also note: You could earn “4–11% of your team members’ sales, with additional cash rewards of up to $3,000 per month!” Better yet you can buy a kit and get started!! LOL

      Seriously though…. Whoever got Forbes to blog about their MLM(particularly in a context where the MLM part isn’t immediately obvious) is a genius. Great Marketing both for customers and for their ambassadors.

      Amazon was probably discounting 60-70% because that’s the MLM mark-up.

    • IIRC, they got some press (almost positive PG had an article at the time) when they stopped using Amazon. Once it became apparent what their other sales channel was it made perfect sense.

  3. When we stopped with Barnes & Noble, we actually made more as we didn’t get the returns.

    This says a lot, doesn’t it? The returns system is a relic of the past that needs to go.

    • Oh, I dunno. If it boogers up MLM, I may have to reconsider my opposition.

      Well, no, not really, but as the saying goes, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

  4. What’s MLM?

    • Kelly, MLM is “multi-level marketing.” Think Amway or (depending on whether they cross certain lines) Ponzi schemes.

    • I believe they’re referring to “Multi-Level Marketing” — the idea is you sell a bunch of stuff, but you also bring in (for example) 10 people, who start selling stuff, and they give you a percentage of their earnings. And THEY each bring in 10 people, who also start selling stuff, and the ten people of each of your ten people provide their “mentors” a percentage of their cut, and those mentors provide *you* a percentage of their cut. And so on.

      I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between Multi-Level Marketing and a pyramid scheme, except that Multi-Level Marketing is legal and pyramid schemes are not.

      • MLM is shorthand for “P*** off all your friends and relatives.”

        Added: Fascinating. PG’s comments program added the asterisks above. PG’s blog is obviously not rated PG. 🙂

        Addendum 2: And now the asterisks are gone. Go home, comment censor. You’re drunk.

        • Meryl wins for best explanation. 🙂

          Christopher, I believe the point at which an MLM scheme passes the line into an illegal pyramid scheme is when it can be demonstrated that the main purpose of the “business” is no longer to sell a product.

          • Yes. In an MLM scheme, you’re supposed to make money mainly by selling products to people outside the scheme. A pyramid scheme makes money mainly by bringing new people into the scheme. It doesn’t take many levels to the pyramid before the number of people required to keep the money flowing exceeds the population of the world.

            • The pyramid scheme is an investment scam. Where you pay the first round of investors off with the money from new investors. No money is ever really made. You lie about your earnings and pay people dividends and such out of the principal investment.

              As long as new people are investing this can go on for years if you cook the books right. If you seem successful people will stick with you, never pulling their money out. Then when it collapses those people realize their principal was used up.

              In the case of Bernie Madoff many people actually made money over the years.

              • What you’re describing there is a Ponzi scheme. It differs from a pyramid scheme in that all the money “invested” goes directly to the person running it. As you say, it can keep going for years. A pyramid scheme usually collapses quite quickly, because it requires an exponentially growing number of participants to sustain it. A Ponzi scheme just needs enough money coming in to pay dividends and withdrawals – and a lavish lifestyle for the organiser.

      • I’m sure others can contribute more on this than I can, but I believe in MLM, you’re selling actual products to customers.

        In a Ponzi, you’re selling “memberships” or some such “opportunity.” This “opportunity” might possibly include merchandise kits that the downstream suckers purchase. No products are actually sold directly to outside customers, only internally. Or nothing physical changes hands, it’s a “franchise.”

        Yeah, it’s a fine line between legal and illegal, but rather blurry when it comes to ethical and unethical.

  5. the admin of such a model is a horror in MHO. Barefoot books sounds like it’ll become avon calling. But they early on piggy backed on others’ works in print for adults, so maybe that’s just their style, to piggy back. If that’s what they want, cool. But admin of a huge personal network is way WAY different than creating. Instead its a continuous mind and time suck of daily sales fluffing up, listening to troubles, hands on helping, pyramid management, then managing the managers… job. Job is not the same as work. I dont want to buy books from the equiv of partylighte or shaklee models. if its moolah bb is after, they ought create originals that NO ONE has ever seen before. That would shake the forests of the world.

    “Because our books were so high-quality and special, it didn’t seem right to stick them in a supermarket, pile them on a table. ”

    You mean where masses of people go to buy their kids clothing and food and school supplies and the things they can afford from single and double paycheck families from the middle and low econ classes of income… Sure keep “so high quality and special” out of the reach of the middle and lower econ classes’ kids. Great idea. And c way of expressing bb’s ‘spaychal-ness’.

  6. PS: imho, nothing wrong with ‘avon calling,’ by the way, it was esp back in the day, a respectable way for women who were looked down upon for working outside the home, to make some bucks selling back then all kinds of chemical -laden cosmetics. Imagine they are more ‘pure’ now. It also made a huge amount of $$$$$ for its founders. But the smaller salespeople at the bottom, sort of like Mary Kay and beauticontrol and other odd sales orgs, worked really hard for their money, had a kind of sorority, were given cars from time to time to reward those ‘managers’ who could bring in the most sales but more so, new sales ‘associates’, or could compete to earn a trip or something now and then, had conventions where people dressed up and the ‘do-wells’ were the speakers, etc. Like I said, a huge business just to run the ‘dependent on new associates business model’ of sales tiers for the owners. Reminds me of a publishing house that pays others to do sales. And takes the lion’s share. lol. hmmm. Just my .02

  7. Thanks for all the explanations, everyone. 🙂 I would have responded sooner, but had a little computer meltdown. Crisis averted now, and I managed to save my files.

  8. MLM meets the publishing business–two industries built on fraud and fleecing, now new and improved and coming to a neighborhood near you!

    Seriously, for anyone reading who’s tempted by this or similar scams, sit down and do a little basic exponential math. For one person to create a fully populated 4-level downline requres more people than the population of the planet. Such schemes stay alive through two means:
    1) by virtue of the churn of people who come in and out believing they’ve found the next great thing
    2) by the sweat of the handful of truly amazing salespeople who get caught in the net and manage to move a lot of overpriced product (the tragedy is they never make as much doing it this way as they could with virtually any other sales job, assuming parity of effort).

    Check the math. Basic arithmatic will save you time and money. Better to write the next book and get it out to every sales channel you can access 😉

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