Monday, October 20, 2008

Skipping Books From a Bookseller's Perspective

Since the issue of whether or not bookstores should stock all SFF books has been going around recently, I figured I'd add my 2 cents worth as a bookseller.

Author Gregory Frost mentioned in "the Wild River Review" that Borders isn't stocking his newest novel, Lord Tophet.

His response to this is for people to buy books from independent bookstores rather than chain stores like Borders citing that they have a better selection and more knowledgeable staff.

I beg to differ. While I happen to work at a store that has the best selection in the country for SFF (and every other topic) unless I'm at a Bakka Phoenix books in Toronto, I've yet to see an independent that carried a prodigious amount of Sci-Fi or Fantasy. Yes, most chain stores carry the same selection (or a variation thereon) but that doesn't mean the independents carry more. Indeed, considering the fact that they have the same problems associated with stocking books (only a certain amount of money to spend on new titles, shelf space, sales data) their selection is probably going to be lower than a chain store unless you're lucky enough to find one that specializes in SFF.

And as for knowledgeable staff, I find the insinuation that chain workers don't know books rather insulting. The majority of people I've worked with decided to work at a bookstore because they love books. Does that mean each bookseller will love YOUR genre and know everything about it? No. Does that mean independent booksellers will all know about SFF and be better able to help you pick a book? No.

I'm great with the SFF section because that's what I love and read. Mysteries? Don't ask me, I haven't got a clue. I can show you books and give you an idea of what to expect from them, but I can't say 'you'll love it' because I haven't read it. And I'm not you so my tastes will differ.

And if you're going to boycot your chain store, you might as well cut out everyone and just buy from Amazon, something I generally don't push as it means people like me, who ARE knowledgeable, are slowly losing our jobs. Those discounts they give? They undercut the market so all stores - and that includes your independent bookstores, can't compete. And no, we can't give the same discounts. Why not? Because we have a building with stock that Amazon doesn't have. That building requires heating/AC, electricity, security, computers, cashiers, managers and - amazing thing here - customer service reps to help you find your books. People like me. People who have bills to pay and require that our company make a 'profit' so that we can get paid. Because let's not forget that bookselling is a BUSINESS. Nasty word, I know. But if we go out of business no one's going to find your books on the shelf because there won't be a shelf. And I personally like holding a book and reading a few pages when I buy one, so having to buy online does not appeal to me.

And people may not realize this but unlike with things like food and clothing the markup on books is not very high. Which means that the profit margin is already low, so discounting books makes it that much harder for bookstores to stay in the black.

Tobias Buckell's post made me glad I work at the store I do. I had no idea individual Borders stores could not modify their stock to match their demographic. The WBB is rather exceptional in that while most Chapters/Indigo stores get stocked by head office we have a buyer for our store exclusively (because we have so much extra space and therefore more ability to stock a larger selection of books). And our current management want to carry the widest variety we can - so if we hear about a book we can suggest it and, provided we're allowed to carry it, we'll get it in.

"Allowed to carry it?" You ask. That's right. There are many reasons why bookstores don't carry titles. Here is another post that made me feel a bookseller's perspective on the issue of skipping could be informative. The writer of this blog makes the comment that sales staff LIE about the availability of books, citing all sorts of fictitious reasons why they can't order books into their store. While it's possible the bookseller's don't know the reason and are therefore giving vagaries, the truth is that we're generally not told why books can't be ordered in (and this is from someone who has specifically ordered in hundreds of books). It's possible that smaller stores simply aren't allowed to order in stock for their stores and that is an explanation in itself. If head office won't let you there's nothing you can do. For my store, here are some other reasons why stock can't be ordered:

Out of print - that's what the screen will say. What does that mean? Any one of the following (and perhaps more). The point is, we're not told for sure so anything we say will be an educated guess.

- publisher pulled the book due to lousy sales (this happens faster than you'd expect)
- book went to a different format (from hardcover to softcover so hardcover isn't being printed anymore)
- book is being reprinted so no copies are currently available for order
- book does not have north american rights (yes, rights are sold by country, so not everything available in Africa will be sold in Canada - much to people's surprise. And this goes for things like Da Vinci Code coming out in paperback in England while it was still in hardcover in Canada/US)
- publisher went out of business
- publisher uses a distributer we don't deal with (aren't reliable for getting stock, don't have a high enough discount rate so we can sell books at a discount to customers, aren't returnable, etc.)

I'm sure I've missed a few reasons. At any rate, there are lots of reasons why a particular book won't be stocked. And right now here's a big one in Canada:
People are complaining about the exchange rate and the printed cost difference between books being sold in Canada and the US, making them not want to buy hard cover or trade paperback books (trades are the larger paperbacks that traditionally cost around $15-25). Our head office has stopped ordering a lot of midlist hardcover and trades because NO ONE WANTS TO SPEND THE MONEY right now. So we simply don't stock them unless someone asks at which point we'll request the book (and my guess is the smaller stores don't stock them even if someone asks). Ultimately, there are only so many books that can be stocked, and buying trends make a difference in what gets stocked and what doesn't. And if the company feels books are getting too expensive, it will cut back on the books by newer and midlist authors and stock more high selling titles and authors.

Another problem is with the order system itself. Take a title like Good Omens. It's a perennial best seller. The problem is, it's always in reprints. We get a bunch into the store, they sell out in a few weeks, and then we have to wait half a year to get it in again. By this time our computer system has decided it's not worth stocking the book because IT HASN'T SOLD IN SEVERAL MONTHS. So unless you've got a bookseller who recognizes the problem and puts in an order, the book stays gone. Now that's not the most common problem, the most common problem is an original order number that's too low so the book appears to sell less than it would otherwise have (ie, get in 10, sell out and when your 30 arrive everyone's already got it from Amazon or nearby stores - so it looks like the title doesn't sell as much and gets stocked at a lower count). Bookselling is not an exact science. It's hard to guess how well certain things will sell. Some books get a lot of copies ordered and don't sell at all. Other books are constantly in demand while still others are constantly out of stock.

Of all the posts on this issue, the one by G.B.H. Hornswoggler is the best that I've seen. He's in publishing on the marketing side, and therefore knows what he's talking from from a business perspective.

Things he mentions:

-stores aren't obliged to carry every book published (here here, though we do try), they have to pick and choose

"But bookstores are businesses, not public conveniences. No store has the responsibility to carry every book published -- although, to be honest, that's a straw-man argument, since no one is asking for that. (They're just wishing that their books, the books they like, and the books by their friends be spared the chopping block.) I market books for a living, so I can tell you an unpleasant truth: the order for any book, from any account, starts at zero. The publisher's sales rep walks in the door with tipsheets and covers, past sales figures and promotional plans, to convince that bookseller's buyer to buy that book. In many categories -- SFF is still one of them -- the chain buyers say "yes" the overwhelming majority of the time. But not all the time. Sometimes, that buyer is not convinced, and the order stays at zero."

THANK YOU. In addition to being a very clear, readable post, I also learned several new things about the book business.

There are more posts on the issue but I think this post is long enough. Bookselling is a business. To stay in business bookstores need to make a profit. That means being selective about what they carry. Which means, unfortunately, that some books get skipped. I'll finish by quoting a reader comment from Hornswaggler's post:
The Brillig Blogger said...

This is just about one of the best posts on this subject I've ever seen. The comments about indies are spot on; as an agent I was amazed when the beloved Shakespeare & Co. had their bye-bye sale on the upper west side to see what books of mine they had quantity of that everyone else had returned, or in DC just this past month where Olsson's went out of business after years of having a very strange sf section. Always be glad there are two chains, since they tend not to screw up with the same books and authors. Borders skipped SLY MONGOOSE but has reordered the RAGAMUFFIN paperback, while a B&N that sells out of RAGAMUFFIN has seen the last of it. Borders carries Jim Hines, B&N does not. B&N spent 7 years loving Sookie Stackhouse more than Borders but since True Blood is out has fallen behind. For Elizabeth Moon, you want THE DEED OF PAKSENARRION in trade paperback go to Borders, you want the BRC trade paperback of THE SPEED OF DARK go to B&N and check the Fiction section. We need both of them. And both at bn.com and borders.com have features that allow you to plug in any zip code and check store availability nearby. Use that sucker; both chains have good and bad sf/fantasy stores and maybe you can drive five more minutes and actually find the book you want instead of bemoaning its absence.

Competition is the best thing for all businesses. If you're an author, send people to the stores that stock your book - chain or independent, to keep it stocked and reward the store for stocking you.

1 comment:

patty said...

very informative! thanks for posting this.