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Indie Booksellers Report Strong Holiday Finish

6 January 2019

From Publishers Weekly:

Although independent booksellers reported difficulty in keeping certain titles in stock, the problem was not enough to dampen sales at independent stores this holiday season.

In fact, reports from around the country indicated overall sales throughout the holiday season were strong, even record-breaking. Some stores reported having their best sales days ever. Lots of interest in Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming (Crown) brought customers into stores, as did a range of other titles, including Educated by Tara Westover (Random House) and Circe by Madeline Miller (Little, Brown) on the adult side and Snowy Nap by Jan Brett (Putnam) and The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith, illustrated by Katz Cowley (Scholastic), on the children’s side.

“The Friday before Christmas, when the stock market tanked, was the biggest sales day we’ve had in 43 years! And the Saturday after that set another record,” said Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan., a Kansas City suburb, who noted that this year saw an unexpected doubling in gift card sales. Jennings said the store kept Becoming in stock throughout the holidays in part by clearing out all local Costco locations of their inventory. “We also watched inventory runs very carefully, and jumped ahead if we saw anything trending,” Jennings said, adding that, overall, sales were up 10% over 2017 for the season.

Jennings was among several booksellers who cited difficulty in keeping Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat, illus. by Wendy MacNaughton (S&S); The Overstory by Richard Powers (Norton); and Frederick Douglas by David Blight (S&S) in stock.

“Those were the three titles we had the most trouble with,” said Todd Gross, manager of Phoenix Books in Downtown Burlington, Vt. “We only got 30 of Salt, but could have sold 150.” He remarked that getting books from S&S has been particularly challenging for quite some time. “They can take 10 days to get us books, compared with two or three for Penguin Random House.” Gross noted delays in getting books can kill sales, and he praised Bookazine and Baker & Taylor in particular for great service during the holiday season. “They were quick to tell us when in-demand titles were back in stock,” said Gross, who said that his holiday orders flip from relying on publishers 90% of the time during the year, to relying on wholesalers for 90% of orders during the holidays.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG says the shipping operations of publishers only have one thing to do – ship books. They have been performing this function for a long time.

Likewise, the production departments of publishers have only one thing to do – print enough books to meet demand. They also have been performing this function for a long time.

A long time ago when PG was a baby lawyer, he was working for a law firm in Los Angeles and talking to one of the firm’s clients.

This client had started the first book wholesaler in Los Angeles and PG was learning about the client’s business. Basically, the business worked this way:

  • Bookstores could purchase books from publishers at lower prices than they could from the client.
  • However, publishers were not good at processing orders and shipping books.
  • The client was very good at processing orders and shipping books.

So, the client bought books from publishers and put them in a warehouse. Because he bought a lot of books, he had negotiated maximum volume discounts.

Bookstores bought their books from the client, even though he charged higher prices than the publishers did, when they didn’t want to wait for books to arrive from the publishers.

The client made a lot of money doing this, particularly when there was a bestseller. The bookstores wanted copies to sell to customers and they could get them from the client within a day. This client later made even more money when he sold his business to Baker & Taylor several years later.

Some businesses are set up to sell their products only through wholesale channels. This can work financially because they don’t spend any money fulfilling small orders. They crate and ship an order for a thousand widgets using bulk shippers instead of individually packing one hundred boxes, each with ten widgets inside, and paying UPS to deliver each one to a separate location.

Other businesses are set up to sell directly to retailers. This can work financially because they can sell to the retailers at a higher price because they’ve cut out the costs and profits of a middleman.

Apparently, typical book publishers still try to do both, so they bear the expenses of each type of business without being terribly effective at satisfying their customers.

Bookselling, Bookstores

6 Comments to “Indie Booksellers Report Strong Holiday Finish”

  1. Apparently a problem this year is actually getting the books printed…

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/23/books/paper-printers-holiday-sales-books-publishers.html

    In the past, it was often easy to get another batch of books printed in a week or two if a title sold unexpectedly well, but these days some publishers say it can take one or two months.

    “The capacity is so tight that if you get a book that takes off like ‘Becoming,’ you have to stop what they were printing and print more ‘Becoming,’ then whatever they were printing is late,” said Dennis Abboud, the chief executive of ReaderLink, the main book distributor to Target, Walmart and other outlets. “Then the train is really off the rails.”

    Actually, the OP, PW, mentioned this last summer…

    https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/manufacturing/article/77621-too-many-printers-too-little-paper.html

    There’s a lot of good stuff in that post.

  2. In fairness to trad pub – not a phrase I ever expected to write – despite their many errors and inefficiencies some of the blame in this instance must fall on the paper manufacturing industry who appear to have run down capacity too quickly.

    Fortunately for readers – though not for the brick and mortar stores – we can normally just buy the e-book. Mind you, this is not always easy: one title that is out of stock due to printing delays didn’t even have a UK e-book and I had to jump through convoluted hoops to buy the USA version.

  3. I do applaud the Kansas bookstore who bought every cheap copy of “Becoming” that they could find (Costco, etc) and then sold them at their store for full price. That’s serving the community, that is.

    • @DaveMich

      “That’s serving the community, that is.”

      Yes, it is. And no snark intended. Giving customers what they want, and in a timely manner, is simply good business practice.

      But I’m sure that there are some who will “decry” such a smart capitalist approach. There always are. CMAR (Cry Me A River).

  4. Turbulence in the printing business looks as if it may be a major force in the book business in 2019. I read DaveMich’s links with interest.

    I found this post, which I read a few days ago, interesting: https://tinyletter.com/annetrubek/letters/looks-both-ways-amazon-is-not-my-enemy-ducks

    The post is somewhat rambling, but it points out that printing is also a factor for small publishers. I’m not sure what to make of it, but having read it a few days ago, PG and DaveMich’s posts surprised me.

    My sense is that both printing technology and the economics of publishing are moving toward small batch POD.

  5. The anime and manga Skullfaced Honda the Bookseller waxed eloquent in the difficulty of getting books from publishers. The general opinion seemed to be that you should order twice or four times more books than you wanted, in order to make it more likely that you would get some.

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