Why Bookshop.org is not the saviour the book world needs

From NewStatesman:

When Bookshop.org arrived in the UK on 2 November [2020], the announcement was met by a huge amount of public enthusiasm from bookshops, publishers, authors, literary critics and readers alike. “This is revolutionary”, read a Guardian headline, while authors including Margaret Atwood, Richard Osman and Caitlin Moran directed their Twitter followers to purchase their latest books from the site. For many, it was a welcome initiative – finally, it seemed, here was an efficient, competitively priced platform dedicated to supporting independent bookshops.

But a number of high street booksellers and independent publishers are increasingly sceptical of Bookshop.org. “What sticks in the throat is that it seems not remotely to be what it purports to be,” said James Daunt, founder of the independent book chain Daunt Books and managing director of high street bookseller Waterstones. “But they do just enough for it to appear credible and it’s a really nice story: who doesn’t love an anti-Amazon story?”

Tamsin Rosewell, a bookseller at Kenilworth Books, Warwickshire, said Bookshop.org “crashed in like a juggernaut, and seems to be attempting to homogenise all indie bookshops into one online presence”. Its launch, she said, was “arrogant and clumsy”.

Bookshop.org, which launched in the US in early 2020, is “an online bookshop with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops”, its website states.

. . . .

Bookshop.org works by enabling independent bookshops to create their own virtual shopfronts on their site. Bookshops receive 30 per cent of a book’s cover price for each sale made through their shopfront. If a customer buys a book without going through a specific shop, 10 per cent of that book’s cover price is put into a central pot split among all participating shops. The books are sourced and shipped by Gardners, the UK’s largest book wholesaler. Titles are offered at a small discount – 7 per cent, typically still more expensive than Amazon – and are delivered within two to three days.

. . . .

But Bookshop.org’s arrival has caused great unease in parts of the book trade. After a difficult year for the industry, with many small presses and independent shops at risk of closure due to the pressures of the pandemic, many told me Bookshop.org is far from the saviour they need. Bookshops earn less through sales on Bookshop.org than they would from selling their books direct to customers, and booksellers fear the site, rather than competing with Amazon, is diverting shoppers away from the high street.

. . . .

First, the finances. One independent bookseller, who asked not to be named, told me: “We’re losing out substantially.” For every book sold via Bookshop.org, they explained, their shop makes 13-20 per cent less than if the customer had bought the same book, at the same cover price directly from the shop. “Bookshops would usually take between 43 and 50 per cent on a book,” they said. The 30 per cent an independent shop receives from each Bookshop.org sale has been described widely as a “full profit margin”. This, the website’s CEO, Andy Hunter, explained, is the money left after the 7 per cent customer discount, payments to the publisher, wholesaler and payment processor, and the 4 per cent Bookshop.org takes. But the anonymous bookseller claimed the phrase is “misleading”.

Jules Button, owner of Woodbridge Emporium bookshop in Suffolk, agrees. She said customers had ordered books from Bookshop.org thinking they were buying direct from her, unknowingly leaving Woodbridge Emporium to miss out on 13-20 per cent of the takings. “The general public genuinely think they are helping independent bookshops,” said Button. “I don’t think a lot of them realise it’s just another big warehouse and it’s a fulfilment service.”

The numbers don’t work in favour of publishers either. The publishing director of a small independent press, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that when Bookshop.org launched, they felt under pressure from the wider industry to open a page on the site because it seemed every other shop and publisher was – they didn’t want to be left behind. Amazon buys the publisher’s books at 40 per cent of the cover price. But to sell books via Bookshop.org the publisher must go via wholesaler Gardners, with which it already has an agreement of a 55 per cent discount, alongside extra costs like commissions to sales representatives and distribution fees. The director said that, with all these costs included, they sell books to Bookshop.org at around 35 per cent of the cover price: for every book sold on Bookshop.org, they earn 5 per cent less than if they had sold that book on Amazon, the very company Bookshop.org claims to be “fairer” than.

These concerns are keenly felt in a letter sent by a bookseller, drawing on “messages from fellow booksellers”, to industry trade group the Booksellers Association (BA). The letter, seen by the New Statesman, calls Bookshop.org’s launch marketing “aggressive”, describes the “discontent” among booksellers and publishers as growing “increasingly bitter”, and outlines a list of queries about the running of Bookshop.org, questioning the BA’s “very fast” and “forceful” endorsement of the site.

The biggest fear among those I spoke to is that Bookshop.org is not denting Amazon’s sales, but that it is instead attracting customers who usually shop on the high street – whether at a chain such as Waterstones, Blackwells or Foyles, or at an independent.

“My feeling is they’re preaching to the converted,” said author and artist Karin Celestine. She said that when she posted news of her latest book on social media, encouraging potential readers to buy it via their local bookshop, she was met with a flurry of support instead for Bookshop.org – from “people who were already shopping at their local bookshops”.

“To be comfortable about what Bookshop.org is doing,” Tamsin Rosewell said, “and the way it is marketing itself as an ethical alternative to Amazon, I’d like to see detailed, unambiguous data that shows it creating a movement of sales away from Amazon. If it can’t show that data, then in effect all it is doing is driving online many of the sales that would have come to the high street, to indies and to Waterstones, at a time when the high street economy most needs that trade.”

Link to the rest at NewStatesman

PG notes that Bookshop.org, despite the non-profit .org extension, is effectively a front for Ingram in the United States, where Bookshop.org started.

Ingram is a huge printer/book fulfillment organization that is very dedicated to earning a lot of money for its owners. The address to which patrons of Bookshop.org return any books for a refund (at least in the US) is Bookshop LLC, Ingram Customer Returns Center, 1210 Ingram Drive, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

Ingram is a large privately-held corporation (no public disclosures about the business are required) whose announced managers tend to be named Ingram and regularly show up on lists of US billionaires. The company has two major lines of business, Ingram Content, which is the book side of the business, and Ingram Marine, which operates 5,000 barges and 150 towboats on America’s inland waterways.

PG tends to think of Ingram as Barges and Books.

Linking up with Gardners, the UK’s largest book wholesaler, would be natural for Ingram because the two companies already know each other well.

The entire business plan of Bookshop.org is to be the anti-Amazon. The marketing messages position Bookshop.org as the online face of your charming local bookshop owner. However, as the OP discloses, Bookshop.org is more about Ingram and Gardners than about anyone’s local bookstore.

No logo?

From The Bookseller:

There’s definitely a thing about birds and publishing houses. Not just in the UK, but all around the world. 

Off the top of my head, I could name dozens of publishers who have gone for birds for their logo. Perhaps for obvious reasons – wings can look like book pages, and the ability to fly evokes what we do when we read – many publishers have chosen a feathered creature. 

Forty years ago, when they founded Edizioni E/O (Europa UK’s Italian sister house), my parents picked the stork. There is no particular love for birds in my household as far as I can tell, but the stork is a migrating bird which, in the collective imagination, carries something in its beak (usually a newborn). The stork migrates from east to west, and that’s precisely what E/O stands for, est/ovest (east/west), because, at the time the name of company was chosen, it focused on bringing the very best of Eastern European literature westward, to Italy. 

This bird with its elegant long legs seemed made to grace a book spine. And that’s exactly where you find it on our Italian editions, while the front cover carries only the company’s full name.  

Our stork grew restless and ambitious, and eventually, following the dictates of its nature, migrated again, further west, from Italy to New York, where we established Europa US, and then flew back east to the UK, landing on the front cover of our English editions. As a matter of fact, our stork keeps migrating every which way: altogether we publish authors from around 70 countries, motivated by the deeply rooted belief that literature can and must travel far. 

The reason I’m telling the story of our stork is that there’s also a thing about publishers’ logos appearing – or not – on book covers. Apart from a few exceptions (notably Penguin and Faber), few UK publishers persist in this practice.  There are several sensible reasons for this – to leave enough space for quotes, to stress the author’s importance, to ensure a tidy look, and, ultimately, to convey that every book is unique and should be published to reflect this.

Also, most imprints have over time lost their original identity, adopting an approach which is both more general and more eclectic. So, books are often purposely aesthetically undistinguishable from one another, and branding is an insider game, something that happens within the trade, as a way to communicate publishing and acquisition strategies to fellow publishing professionals.

It would seem that a logo on the front cover is a privilege accorded only to prestigious publishers with a long history: because unless a publisher is renowned among readers, what is the point of having a logo that only a few would be able to recognize?

. . . .

Europa is a UK company founded by and staffed with cosmopolitan people. In continental Europe, where some of us are from, all publishers, from the biggest corporate conglomerates to the tiniest independent houses, from academic to trade to children’s publishers, put their logos on book jackets. It’s always been a straightforward way to communicate to readers that behind every single book there is a unifying editorial vision (in Italy we call it “il progetto”, the project). A way to tell readers that just as every author and every book is unique, every publisher is also unique and follow its own taste and ethos. All tools that can help readers make informed choices. 

In Italy, one can often overhear readers saying things like “I can’t wait to head to the bookshop for the Adelphi promo”, or, “I just adore Sellerio”, and, “I think Feltrinelli have the best books”.  The same is true of readers in France, Germany, Spain and in other countries. When browsing in a bookshop, the publishing house becomes one of the basic criteria for their purchases. The fact that, in addition to having their logo on the cover, publishers almost invariably adopt a coherent overall design policy, makes this process even more radical. In Italian bookshops, books are frequently grouped by publisher, not just on display tables, but on the shelves too. Vertical displays of a publishers’ backlist often provide readers with an overview, a sense of how a list is curated, and ultimately why it exists. Seeing a whole wall covered with titles by a single publisher or imprint focuses attention on “the project”, helping readers discover new authors.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Although PG loves Italy and many of the Italians he has met, he thinks the OP is vastly over-emphasizing the weight most book purchasers place on the publisher of a book which they may find interesting. Or not.

PG admits he may be projecting since he virtually never pays attention to the identity of the publisher when making a book purchase and couldn’t tell you the name of the publisher of any book he has read either recently or in ancient times.

The OP also assumes, like many others before it, that most people are buying/will buy most of their books from physical bookstores.

Book sales are up, but bookstores are struggling. It matters where you shop.

An Opinion Piece from The Chicago Tribune:

Two striking statistics recently reported by Publishers Weekly:

  • Print book sales rose 8.2% in 2020 versus 2019, according to NPD BookScan.
  • Bookstore sales fell 28.3% in 2020 versus 2019, according to preliminary estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The year-to-year increase in book sales was the largest since 2010, and was led by demand for books to keep children occupied during the period of remote schooling. Juvenile nonfiction was up by 23%, young-adult nonfiction by 38%. But adult books were up as well. By every measure, more books were sold in 2020 than in 2019.

Those gains aren’t reflected in bookstore sales, though, as pandemic-related closures and restrictions kept us away. The worst months for bookstores were April and May, the leading edge of the lockdowns, but even as restrictions loosened, sales remained 20% or so below previous year levels.

. . . .

I want to suggest that books are not merely a consumer product. Instead, I’d like us to consider books as part of a larger ecosystem, which includes writers, publishers, booksellers and readers, and that good books depend on all parts of the ecosystem being healthy. As such, we cannot be indifferent about where we buy them.

Bookstores are a key component in making sure there is an interesting variety of books that connect with readers of differing stripes. If we lose bookstores, we will lose the places where word-of-mouth hits are born. We will lose the places where we may discover something we’d never heard of, simply because we brush past it on a table. We will lose one of the important congregating places where people who value books come together in fellowship. We will lose the place we might stop in after brunch on a beautiful afternoon when we need to walk off a meal and aren’t ready to go home yet.

We will lose booksellers, the people who tend to book system the same way a gardener works the greenhouse.

. . . .

Right now, with publishing and books, we could be at peak variety. The somewhat worrisome consolidation in corporate publishing is being offset with a greater thirst for diverse voices and books, not to mention the continuing growth of scrappy independent publishers.

But if we narrow the channels through which books are sold, we will also narrow the kinds and varieties of books that will be sold. Books will still sell, because just like apples, you have to have books, but we will be missing something if we lose that variety.

It is fantastic news that book sales have weathered the pandemic — better news than we could have hoped for — but to revivify the ecosystem as a whole will require us to examine our patterns of purchase. We need to make intentional choices about where we shop to seed the return of bookstores.

Link to the rest at The Chicago Tribune

PG suggests that this is one of the weaker special-favor pleas for traditional bookstores that he recalls reading during the past few months.

The very best place to find diverse voices and for diverse voices to flourish is online.

What about costs for readers of varying income levels?

Ebooks are usually less expensive than printed books. They certainly cost less to manufacture, transport and warehouse.

What about environmental impact? P-books v. E-books = No Comparison.

Ebooks win production, transportation and disposal/recycling hands-down.

Available inventory to allow a customer to buy the book they really want?

Every physical bookstore in constrained in exactly the same manner – it has only so many linear feet of shelf space.

That shelf space must be used to sell books. The fewer copies a book is expected to sell, the less shelf space it will be allocated by the operator of the store.

As a general proposition, having several copies of a given book on the shelf is more likely to catch the eye of a browser than having only a single copy of a book. Several copies on the shelf also means that if someone buys a copy, there are still other copies available to be sold. An employee doesn’t have to immediately recognize that a single book has been sold, then restock the shelf in order for a book to be effectively on sale for customers.

Limited size = limited inventory. Limited inventory = more white-bread, mass market books.

Like many others, PG has enjoyed exploring megabookstores like Blackwells in Oxford, Powell’s in Portland and The Strand in New York. However, giant bookstores are a dying breed. See, for example, Barnes & Noble. And even a giant bookstore has a limit to the number of books it can stock.

Plus, absent a lot of free browsing time, a customer’s discovery experience in a physical bookstore, large or small, can be less than ideal. If you like to wile away the afternoon looking for a good read, go physical. If you prefer to wile away your afternoon actually reading a good book, go online.

Back to inventory, online bookstores can and do stock a much wider variety of books than a physical store. Do you want to allow an author who is a member of an under-represented group in the book business a chance – online is your solution. Would you like to encourage Navajo voices to share their experiences and views with a larger audience off the reservation? Online, baby.

Plus a good online bookstore (like Amazon) makes it much easier for most prospective purchasers to locate a book they will like than Powell’s, even though PG has experienced excellent (for a physical bookstore) customer service in Portland.

There are simply far more methods of locating a desirable book online than there are in a physical bookstore and a much better likelihood of finding a book you will love online.

As one example, one word: Reviews.

Yes, some online book reviews are unreliable, but so are book reviews in newspapers and magazines. At least online, you are much more likely to be able to read more than one review by a single person, reflecting that single person’s class, education, preferences and biases.

Plus, on Amazon, in addition to seeing which books people are buying, Amazon Charts lets you see which books people are actually reading.

Hint for those purchasing gifts, particularly for young adults and children: Seven of the top Ten Most-Read Fiction Books when PG wrote this post were written by J.K. Rowling. The list of Most-Sold Fiction Books was much different.

Comparing the Top Ten Most-Read and Most-Sold Fiction Books, PG noted only two books that were on both lists:

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

and

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Does anyone working in a Barnes & Noble store at minimum wage (or the equivalent of minimum wage for a wealthier community) have that knowledge?

As they say in movies and on TV (but not that often in the courtroom) PG rests his case.

Forging Bonds at the Bookstore

From Publishers Weekly:

When I first got a job as a bookseller at Malvern Books, a small independent bookstore in Austin, Tex., I thought it would be roughly akin to working at a major chain: I’d stand behind the counter and ring people up, but without the discomfort of having to upsell memberships. It was through observing my gifted coworkers that I learned that bookselling is an art. At first, I wasn’t used to customers asking me for book recommendations and often felt like I was stumbling over my words. Once I started to think of myself as a sort of matchmaker, I began to have fun.

Malvern is unique in that we sell new books, mostly fiction and poetry, from small and independent presses exclusively. A good portion of the store is devoted to books in translation. When I first walked in, as a customer, I was astonished to see not just a few shelves labeled “poetry” but an entire wall. As a poet, I was in heaven.

When I became an employee, I’d often watch people do a quick loop around the store and leave, disappointed, I believed, because we don’t stock the latest bestsellers or books from the Big Five (or Big Four) publishers, and therefore they didn’t recognize our titles. But for customers who were open to suggestions, I had the joy of matching readers with authors they were not aware of.

Sometimes the handselling stakes were high. Once a frazzled looking young woman told me that she was about to spend two weeks “trapped” with her conservative family for the holidays. I knew just the ticket—an engrossing feminist book about a 1950s Hollywood starlet who’d lived a wild life and experienced an unfortunate fall from grace.

Another man announced that he’d just fallen in love and was looking for poems. He asked for two poetry book recommendations: one to celebrate his newfound amour and another to protect him from heartbreak if the relationship failed. “I’ve been hurt before,” he said. I handed him the perfect antidote (which he later told me worked like a charm)

The more I worked at the store, the more I began to notice that people yearn for connection beyond book recommendations. Even before the pandemic began, I’d answered phone calls that didn’t have much to do with the books at all. One elderly woman wanted help looking up something on the internet, which I happily obliged. Another gentleman wanted information about how to get out of a parking ticket. A fair number of callers want to know how to get their books published, in which case I’d refer them to an organization like the Writers’ League of Texas for a sense of community and support.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG was inclined to lay on the snark before he decided the author of the OP was probably a nice person who genuinely cared for the people who came into the store.

The article did depict at least some bookstore patrons as lonely people, however, not something that caused PG’s marketing juices to begin flowing.

Publishing saw upheaval in 2020, but ‘books are resilient’

From the Associated Press:

Book publishing in 2020 was a story of how much an industry can change and how much it can, or wants to, remain the same.

“A lot of what has happened this year — if it were a novel, I would say that it had a little too much plot,” said Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp.

Three narratives ran through the book world for much of the year: an industry pressed to acknowledge that the status quo was unacceptable, an industry offering comfort and enlightenment during traumatic times, and an industry ever more consolidated around the power of Penguin Random House and Amazon.com.

. . . .

To its benefit and to its dismay, publishing was drawn into the events of the moment. The pandemic halted and threatened to wipe out a decade of growth for independent bookstores, forced the postponement of countless new releases and led to countless others being forgotten. The annual national convention, BookExpo, was called off and may be gone permanently after show organizers Reed Exhibitions announced they were “retiring” it.

. . . .

The industry had long regarded itself as a facilitator of open expression and high ideals, but in 2020 debates over diversity and #MeToo highlighted blind spots about race and gender and challenged the reputations of everyone from poetry publishers to Oprah Winfrey, from book critics to the late editor of Ernest Hemingway. Employees themselves helped take the lead: They staged protests in support of Black Lives Matters and walked off the job at Hachette Book Group after the publisher announced it had acquired Woody Allen’s memoir, which Hachette soon dropped. ( Skyhorse Publishing eventually released it.)

. . . .

“My main takeaways from 2020 are that books are resilient and that the industry has indicated a willingness to change (about diversity) and to make opening gestures towards sufficient, industry-wide change,” said Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, who next year will take over at two prestigious Penguin Random House imprints, Pantheon and Schocken Books.

. . . .

An alarm bell rang early in the new year. Jeanine Cummins’ novel about Mexican immigrants, “American Dirt,” had been widely cited as a top seller and critical favorite for 2020 and was likened by “The Cartel” author Don Winslow to John Steinbeck’s Depression-era classic “The Grapes of Wrath.” In January, Oprah Winfrey announced she had chosen it for her book club and Cummins began a nationwide tour.

. . . .

But to the surprise of the publisher, Macmillan, and Winfrey, Latino authors and critics alleged that Cummins had reinforced stereotypes about Mexico and Mexican immigrants. Along with Cummins, Winfrey invited a panel of detractors who faulted an industry that is an estimated 75 percent white, and the talk show host herself for choosing few works by Latino writers. Cummins’ tour was called off after Macmillan cited threats of violence, even as her book remained on bestseller lists.

. . . .

In the following months, leaders at the National Book Critics Circle, the Poetry Foundation and International Thriller Writers resigned or were forced out amid allegations they had failed to address issues of diversity and racial justice. The Center for Fiction removed the late Maxwell Perkins’ name from its award for editorial excellence, noting that besides working with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald he published books by eugenicists supporting white supremacy.

. . . .

Saraciea J. Fennell, who leads the advocacy group of book professionals Latinx in Publishing, worries that the wave of new hirings and imprints is simply cyclical and asked, “How long are they going to last? Is all this going to be around in 10-15 years?”

Macmillan CEO Don Weisberg, who cited a wide range of diversity programs at the publishing house that began before “American Dirt,” said he “understands the skepticism.”

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Weisberg said. ”You’ve got to build an entire infrastructure that makes it part of the norm.”

. . . .

As Barnes & Noble CEO James Daunt acknowledged to the AP: “This was Amazon’s year,” when the online retailer was ideally positioned for a public turn toward the internet not just for convenience but for safety. Daunt said Barnes & Noble managed better than he had expected, but still results were “spotty.” The superstore chain ended 2020 with fewer employees than when the year began, he said.

. . . .

For independent stores and publishers, the pandemic amplified the divide between the industry’s biggest players and everyone else. At the same time Penguin Random House was preparing to buy Simon & Schuster, a transaction that if approved would create the largest publishing entity in U.S. history, smaller companies such as Archipelago and Cinco Puntos Press were starting GoFundMe campaigns.

“It’s been very hard to survive,” said Archipalego publisher Jill Schoolman. “The cash flow is really tough and we owe our printers.”

Link to the rest at the Associated Press

PG notes that the author of the OP managed to write the entire summary of US publishing in 2020 without mentioning ebooks. If any of the major players in the US publishing business had mentioned ebooks, PG would have expected such a mention to have appeared in the OP.

Dead trees and more dead trees, as far into the future as the traditional publishing eye can see.

A Sales Rep With No Regrets

From Publishers Weekly:

The year was 1978. I had just graduated from high school and was eager to begin the next chapter of my life. I was always interested in becoming a police officer, so I began the process. Law enforcement personnel came to my home to meet with me and my parents. It was a great meeting. Unfortunately, the meeting ended with them measuring my height. Apparently there was a height requirement. I failed because I was too short.

My mother suggested I further my education, so I registered for college to get a business degree. Since classes didn’t start until fall, my sister suggested that I apply for a job at the nearby wholesaler Gordon’s Books, which was then based in Denver. She had worked there briefly and loved the owners. Gordon and Blanche Saul were awesome! So, against my parents’ wishes, I decided to get a tuition refund and continue my career with Gordon’s. Within a short time, I was promoted to supervisor of order entry. It was great getting to know different booksellers and helping teachers and librarians with their book budgets.

Gordon’s was sold to Howard Bellowe, who, in 1991, would go on to sell it to Ingram Industries, which hired many Gordon’s employees. In joining Ingram, I became one of the first inside sales reps for the company, working for the famous Art Carson, our v-p of sales. I managed a small sales team in Denver and handled all new business. When Ingram decided it wanted its inside sales reps to be located in its LaVergne, Tenn., headquarters I was laid off. A year later, in 2001, the warehouse was closed. After 21 years working in wholesaling, I was looking for my next adventure.

Shortly after I left Ingram, Bill Preston, who had been my manager at Gordon’s, called me. He was the vice president of sales for Baker & Taylor, which had a sales office in Colorado. He wanted to know if I was interested in coming to work for him. I turned him down because I did not want to go through another layoff. After all, B&T was not based in Colorado. I was in my first week of training at the Rocky Mountain News when Bill called again: “I can’t believe you would give up all these years in the book industry,” he told me. And so began my career with B&T. I was its first inside sales rep.

During my time with B&T, I went on to manage sales teams in various offices. When (as I had feared) B&T closed its Denver office, Bill allowed me to work remotely. I went back to managing a territory, which was a blessing, because I missed working with my wonderful indie bookseller accounts. In 2019 B&T decided to close its retail division and, after more than 19 years with the company, I was once again looking for a new opportunity.

In early June of that year, on the Sunday after BookExpo, I was sitting at my computer working on my résumé when an email popped up from Cindy Raiton, president of sales for Bookazine. Many of my wonderful bookseller accounts had approached her at the show suggesting she talk to me. I flew to Bookazine’s headquarters in New Jersey to meet with Cindy and the owners. I was immediately impressed with their operation, kindness, and dedication to independent booksellers. I was soon hired, but less than a year into the job, Covid hit and I was laid off.

So here I sit today, too young to retire but with no idea of my next journey. I have not had to look for a job since 1978, so I am feeling a bit overwhelmed. Being laid off once is awful, but being laid off three times—well, there are no words.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG has two thoughts:

  1. The treatment the author of the OP has received sounds quite a lot like the publishing industry as PG knows it. Author or employee, the big boss runs the show and a great many people are expendable.
  2. A good sales person is often capable of selling a variety of different things. Convincing a potential customer to choose the product or service you’re able to provide is a skill that requires some knowledge of the market, but is most dependent upon people skills, intelligence, the ability to build lasting relationships based upon trust and understanding the commercial needs of others, expressed or unexpressed.

Some people with excellent sales talents become an Independent Sales Representative, AKA a Manufacturer’s Rep. PG doesn’t know if the book business has any, but, if they don’t, it might be a good idea to consider.

For those unfamiliar with this term, an independent sales representative is almost universally paid on a commission-only basis and usually sells to customers in a specified geographical region. Basically, she/he is part of a company’s sales, marketing and customer service team, but may live anywhere and doesn’t usually have an office of her/his own at the company.

One of the nice things about working as an independent sales rep is that you don’t have to work exclusively for a single company. Skilled independent sales reps typically sell a variety of products that don’t compete with each other. Sometimes, they’ll sell several different products needed by a particular industry, so a sales call can involve taking orders from a single customer for more than one type of product provided by different manufacturers who the sales rep represents. In contrast, an inside sales employee can usually only sell what her/his employer manufactures.

If one company terminates an indie sales rep, he/she still has the other companies’ products to sell to generate an income, so the impact is different than what happens to a full-time inside sales person who is laid off.

One other benefit of taking this path is that, typically, there is no cap on the amount of money the rep can earn. If the commission is 7%, the rep receives 7% of $1,000 or 7% of $1million if that’s what theindie rep sells during a month, quarter, year, etc.

Inside sales jobs involve the situation described in the OP. You’re an employee of a company and have a boss. Typically, you’ll be assigned a sales quota and a territory (a “territory” can be a geographical area or a line of business, e.g. nuts, but not bolts. An inside sales person often receives a base salary and benefits plus a commission on sales she/he makes.

The inside sales person’s boss typically receives a salary plus what is sometimes called an “override commission” based on sales made by the people she/he supervises. If the inside salesperson makes a $1,000 sale, the salesperson may receive a commission of 5% of the sale and the boss may receive an override commission of 2% of the sale.

One of the unwritten rules of a great many inside sales departments is that an inside sales rep shouldn’t earn more than the boss does, a distinct possibility for a really good sales rep who has a lower salary than the boss, but a higher royalty percentage. One of the ways to keep an inside salesperson from earning too much money is to split his/her territory and hiring a new salesperson to sell in the new territory or adding the new territory to the territory of another sales rep who services a less-fertile geographical area.

Over his legal/business career, PG has known some very successful independent reps who have been able to earn a great deal of money from their skills and work. For some standardized products that can be purchased from a number of manufacturers, an independent sales rep can effectively “own” the customer and, should a manufacturer treat the rep badly, she/he can sign up with a competitor and take the customer elsewhere.

While laws in the United States vary from state to state, a manufacturer’s ability to legally limit the activities of an independent sales rep’s activities are almost always more limited than an employer’s ability to limit the activities of an employee or ex-employee, at least for a period of time.

PG knows very little about the details of how books are sold to bookstores and book wholesalers, but if working as an independent sales rep works in this field, the author of the OP might have an alternative means of finding a way of using her connections and sales abilities that might not be subject to periodic layoffs that cut her income to zero.

UPDATE: PG did a bit of online research and discovered the National Association of Publishers Representatives, so, at least for some categories of publishers, apparently an individual can act as an independent sales representative. Here’s a link to the advantages the NAPR says can accrue to a company using an Independent Publisher’s Representative.

Book Tours – Analyzed

The post that appeared immediately prior to this one included a video in which the author was performing a video substitute for a physical book tour. When PG posted the video from YouTube, it had received 2,594 views.

PG is of the gigantically, perennially and irrefutably humble opinion that traditional book tours where a publisher sends an author out to visit a number of bookstores for an event in the bookstore to which anyone who learns about the event can attend.

Typically, the bookstore staff sets up some chairs for the audience, has several stacks of the book being promoted spread around the store and provides the author a table and a chair.

Thereafter, the author makes a short speech about her/his book designed (almost always by the author) to induce members of the audience to buy a copy of the author’s book. After completing the pitch, the author sits at the table and autographs books that members of the audience have purchased, often with a trite phrase, “I hope you enjoy my book!” or something the purchaser requests, “For Lurlene from her loving granddaughter, MaryJoJean.”

After chatting with strangers and signing all the books that are purchased, the author packs up, thanks the bookstore staff (perhaps leaving them some candy) and exits the store to travel to the next bookstore on the tour schedule. On a large tour across the US, airplane travel and hotels are involved.

For a really, really, really bestselling author, the publisher might send a minder to help schlep the author around from place to place.

To PG, this sounds like a mid-Twentieth-Century marketing strategy. (“Housewives! Have we got something new to brighten your humdrum day! The latest scientific innovation in kitchen cleaners!”)

Let’s break the thinking behind what passes for the marketing strategy behind a book tour.

  1. The author’s time costs the publisher nothing.
  2. We will send one of our authors to a physical bookstore. We’ll have the bookstore create some sort of poster announcing a book signing by Arthur Author for his latest book.
  3. If the publisher is feeling really generous, it might pay to have some cheap promotional brochures printed and shipped to the bookstore so the store will have something for an employee to sprinkle around for most of its customers to ignore. If it’s colorful, children might pick up a brochure to leave in the back seat of the car when they get home.
  4. The bookstore will have its employees set up chairs and a signing table, unpack a couple of boxes of books, place a few books around the store and stack a bunch on the signing table.
  5. In advance of the designated time, the author will leave an inexpensive hotel room, drive a rental car to the store after cruising around a strange city for awhile, walk into the store and start meeting total strangers.
  6. The introverted author who hates speaking to groups of people will thereafter speak to a crowd of strangers which will always be smaller than the author expected to show up.
  7. After trying to be interesting and entertaining for 15-20 minutes, the introverted author will then have to talk to a stream of strangers for about 60 seconds each, try to appear to be enjoying the process of acting like a homecoming queen, and write something trite in each copy of the book.
  8. Emotionally exhausted, after the last customer has left, the author will then effusively thank the book store manager and staff for their efforts, glance at the large stack of unsold books, and stumble out to their means of transportation and try to remember where the next book-signing is scheduled and when she’s supposed to be there.
  9. If the author is sufficiently depressed, she may estimate how many copies of her book were sold at the book-signing, calculate the royalties she will receive from those sales and realize that each of the store employees earned more on a per-hour basis than the author did for the time she put into preparation, travel, getting dressed up, undergoing the introvert’s torture of talking to a bunch of strange people (including some who were stranger than others) in the store, then more travel.

Perhaps PG is missing some giant financial or psychological benefit that accrues to a typical author as a result of a traditional book-signing or series of book-signings, but he doesn’t think so.

Then, let’s consider that Amazon sells more books than any bookstore or chain of bookstores in the world.

And, the author earns a higher royalty when Amazon sells an ebook than when Joe’s Books and Bait Shop sells a paperback.

But, as always, PG could be wrong.

Authors Get Real About Going on a Book Tour…From Their Living Rooms

From The Oprah Magazine:

Novelist Laura Hankin found out that the launch event for her second book was cancelled through a Facebook notification from the bookstore. “I cried very hard. But then I also was like, how dare you cry over a canceled book event? That doesn’t matter,” Hankin tells OprahMag.com. “It was just another bit of uncertainty amidst a whole world of uncertainty.”

Hankin’s novel, Happy and You Know It, was released May 19, about two months after the coronavirus forced much of the United States to shelter in place and work from home—a time when bookstores were cancelling events left and right and authors were forced to call off their promotional tours.

Now, Hankin is one of many authors, publicists, and booksellers who are figuring out the publishing world’s “new normal,” which has meant participating in Instagram Live events, answering questions on moderated Zoom chats, or—like Hankin did—making music videos.

Hankin decided to process her own mixed feelings in a song called “Indoor Book Tour.” Using cheeky lyrics about being stuck on the couch and having the in-person audience of a single cat, “Indoor Book Tour” highlights the solitude of what had once been the active, social act of book publicity.

Link to the rest at The Oprah Magazine and thanks to DM for the tip.

The demise of the second-hand bookshop

From The Critic:

In 1973, Graham Greene wrote an introduction to a bookselling friend’s memoir. As Greene was one of the most respected writers of his day, this was no small gesture, but the author was also a committed bibliophile. The book dealer and biographer John Baxter’s memoir A Pound of Paper contains treasurable glimpses of Greene deliberately signing obscure copies of his works in far-off locations, in the certain knowledge that these items would become hugely sought-after rarities, and he remains one of the few serious literary figures who also understood the glamour and romance of the bookselling trade. In his introduction, he openly acknowledged this, writing ‘Secondhand booksellers are the most friendly and most eccentric of all the characters I have known. If I had not been a writer, theirs would have been the profession I would most happily have chosen.’

If Greene was alive today, he would look at his beloved second-hand and antiquarian bookshops with an air of sorrow, leavened with a touch of bewilderment. The recent news that one of Charing Cross’s most famous booksellers, Francis Edwards, was to close after 150 years, maintaining only a presence in Hay-on-Wye, was greeted without the anguish that it might have been otherwise. After all, covid closures are ten a penny these days, and in the era of Amazon and Abebooks, maintaining an expensive shop in central London without regular footfall might seem a folly. Yet the story of Francis Edwards, which had been allied to another shop, Quinto, since 2008, comes to epitomise the decline not only of a certain sort of retail, but sounds the death knell of an entire industry, which, despite or perhaps because of its unworldly and vaguely anachronistic nature, has remained a constant part of many people’s lives and affections for decades.

. . . .

The Oxfam bookshop on St Giles in Oxford is, for my money, the most likeable and successful of all the many Oxfam bookshops in the country. It is unique in that its stock is not just interesting and desirable, but replenished on a virtually daily basis; it is extremely rare that I walk past its front window and don’t see at least five books that I want to buy immediately. It is especially strong in history, literature and illustrated books, often selling rare and valuable items at surprisingly reasonable prices, even if the big-ticket books, lurking provocatively in a glass case, can sell for many hundreds of pounds. It was founded in 1987 as Oxfam’s first dedicated bookshop, and was opened by the author and barrister John Mortimer; he later returned two decades subsequently to celebrate the shop’s 21st birthday. It is a wonderful place, and I cannot even begin to calculate how much money I have spent there, as a student in the city, a visitor and now a resident. But it, and the other Oxfam bookshops in Britain, sounded the death knell for other, ‘normal’ bookshops.

The reasons why are simple. Every book that the Oxfam bookshop stocks has been donated, meaning firstly that there are no acquisition costs to be borne, and secondly, as the majority of the staff are volunteers, the only costs of employment are that of a manager, who can often be responsible for several different shops. Otherwise, given the charity’s abilities to claim tax relief from the government for rent and bills, it is making a considerably greater amount of profit than any competing bookshop could ever hope to do. Thus, the rest of the bookselling trade, faced with this cuckoo in the nest and the rise of internet availability, faced a simple choice: evolve, or perish. It is a shame that so many shops decided, as if it was pre-ordained, that they would shut their doors and that would be the end of that, thank you very much.

Link to the rest at The Critic

It’s Time to Radically Rethink Online Book Events

From Electric Lit:

Before the stay-at-home orders came down in Baltimore, the last thing I did in person was participate in a panel conversation about—ironically—“art and the apocalypse.” In retrospect, we should have cancelled, but the threat in Maryland still felt surreal; those were the days when it seemed like we could beat the pandemic by washing our hands.

I’ve been thinking about that panel a lot lately because my first novel is coming out in August, and I’ve been trying to envision a book launch without an in-person event. I’m embarrassed to be grieving for this tiny problem, which is less than negligible compared to all we have witnessed this year. But publishing a novel has been a lifelong dream for me, and book events have been an important part of that dream—because other authors’ events have been such meaningful parts of my own inspiration. I have vivid memories of electric readings by Victor LaValle, César Aira, and Tim O’Brien. I got teary-eyed watching a hundred public school kids crowd in to see D. Watkins at the Baltimore Book Festival. After hearing Valeria Luiselli speak about The Story of my Teeth, I was so inspired I wrote an entire short story in an afternoon. When my dreams have felt far away, when my fiction has seemed meager and hopeless, I have gone to a bookstore and sat on a folding chair and been reminded that books are my spirituality—they are my connection to my own humanity, and to my understanding of grace in others. The magic of a book event is in the revelation, fresh every time, that my very favorite thing to do, a thing I do mostly alone, is also the thing that connects me most closely to other people. 

As COVID has become our new normal, book events have started up again, in virtual formats. But like every other online substitute we’ve instituted—family Zoom calls, Instagram birthday wishes—these internet readings have lacked some of the magic of human connection. Is there a way to recapture that magic online?

. . . .

By the third week, I had swung from denial to despair at the never-ending stream of news of illness and death, health care system failures and government malfeasance. The experience of these months reminds me of when I fall asleep on the couch watching a movie and then refuse to get up to go to bed. I know that I will feel terrible sleeping on the couch, but all I want to do is keep sleeping on the couch. My friend Nicole calls this feeling “special features,” because back in the days of DVD, she would demand her partner play the special features after the movie so that she could continue to sleep. By my fifth week of staying at home, I felt like I was living in special features.

To alleviate the loneliness, I found solace in online book events. Bookstores and literary festivals, podcasts and grassroots publicity efforts, and publishers and authors had intrepidly brought their work and energy online, gathering readers together despite the pandemic with heroic success. I went to more book events online in April than I have ever been to in a physical month; there were nights I hopped between three different conversations, from Zoom to Crowdcast to Instagram Live; it was like wandering through a literary night market, the tents all patchwork-stitched together but the doorways tacked open to warm, inviting fires inside. In those first three lonely months, wandering through this nightly market has been a comfort.

But lately, I’ve started to wonder why these events have not yet evolved. Most events are still following the old-fashioned format of the in-person bookstore event, where two authors have a conversation, maybe with a short reading, maybe with an audience Q&A. Rather than developing new ideas for book events to suit the technology we’re using, the literary community is by and large continuing to do what we’ve always done. 

Don’t get me wrong—many of these events have been truly excellent. But the internet, which can be thrilling and inspiring and creative, rarely mimics the conventions of the physical world. So why are we still circumscribing book events according to the limits of what is possible in person? 

These restrictions are not ideal for digital space. In bookstores, the “in conversation” model works because it gives you the inspiration of being in the same room as the author, as well as the excitement of being part of an audience. Neither of those translates organically to Zoom or Instagram Live, where it doesn’t really feel like you’re in the same room. And while there is often a chat box, or little hearts floating up the screen when people “like” something, the sensation of being part of the crowd is abstract. Without this sense of community, some online book events have left me feeling lonelier than I was before. 

It’s time to start experimenting—and to try radically reinventing what a “book event” can be, in this radically different year. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG has six reactions to the OP.

  1. Don’t look to traditional publishing for technological innovation. Not in their DNA, not in their bloodstream, not in their frame of reference, not in their world.
  2. A great many authors are introverts and speaking to a large group of people, let alone pitching their books to a large group of strangers is akin to medieval torture. Some will put together a schtick-style personality to use in signings, but they still may not enjoy the experience, particularly if they have to repeat their schtick night after night. It’s even more depressing if they spend all prime writing time away from their keyboard and don’t sell very many books.
  3. What portion of readers will buy books in physical bookstores in the future? The historical origin of book signings is based upon the belief that if you can draw a lot of people to a physical bookstore and they hear an author talk about a book, they’ll pick up a copy before they leave. This assumes that they 1) prefer physical books to ebooks and 2) won’t pick up their cell phone and order the book from Amazon for a lower price, perhaps even while they’re listening to an author talk about the book.
  4. If Amazon is the preferred place for a lot of people to purchase books, why not focus energy and money online, where purchasing a book is a click away?
  5. If you catch a bookseller in a candid mood, they’ll admit that book signings are a pain to deal with. They have to keep at least one more person working in order to handle a crowd, which costs money. You have to order more copies of the book than you ordinarily would to make certain you have something to sell to people who attend, but you also probably have to pay someone to return a bunch of unsold books so you can use your limited budget to buy different books that people will buy. If someone outside the store wants to make a quick visit to buy a book and sees a mob of people in the front window, isn’t it possible that they may skip the purchase or go elsewhere because they don’t want to spend the time necessary to work through the throng to locate and purchase their book? Plus, maybe have to track down someone to take their payment.
  6. With regard to online gatherings, PG notes that human beings are marvelously adaptive creatures. Certainly, we like to physically gather with kindred spirits, but we can also become more accustomed to seeing someone’s face on an iPad. PG has already seen improvements in the quality of online presentations and meetings because a perceptive individual will try to improve her/his performance in a business/commercial setting, whether it’s a conference room, bookstore, coffee-shop interview or in a video conference. At the beginning of this pandemic, nobody seemed to think about their cat playing in the background during a video call. Now, only the terminally clueless fail to put pussy into another room and shut the door. And, if you’re dressed properly only from the waist on up, you should expect to show up on YouTube in your underpants, you idiot.

PG suggests that the book signing is an outmoded publicity technique whose time has past. If an author values his/her time, it is unlikely to be worth the time, effort and queasiness involved in talking to a bunch of strangers while worrying about flop sweat on your forehead and in your armpits.