Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why the Collapse of Chain Bookstores is a Good Thing for Books. Part 3

Over the last two days, we looked at bookselling in the 1990’s. A period that saw the rise of a war between independently owned and operated bookstores and the corporate chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, the sinister successors of Crown Books, which had attempted and failed to crush indie bookstores in the 80’s. By the time we hit 2000, the chain stores were all well established, and the e-sellers such as Amazon had also made a name for themselves. Moving towards the new millennium, it started to look like the indie bookstore was dead…

Life during Wartime (2000-2007)

by Andrew Gifford

It’s sad, looking back, to see how booksellers and publishers became enemies when once, long ago, they had been the best of friends.

I often hear stories of late publisher extraordinaire Seymour “Sam” Lawrence. Lawrence discovered and fought for authors such as Jayne Anne Phillips, Susan Minot, Jim Harrison, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, Katherine Anne Porter, William Saroyan, Frank Conroy, Miguel Angel Asturias, Tom McGuane, Tom Drury, Richard Currey, and Pablo Neruda. It’s fair to say that not a single one of those names would be familiar if not for Lawrence. He would fill his car with their books and handsell them to bookstores across the country, glad-handing indie store owners and extolling the virtues of his chosen authors. A grassroots approach where bookseller and book industry met face to face. Lawrence is the most notable of this breed of publisher (and unofficial agent), but there were many who did the same. Direct marketing to the indie bookstores from publishers and agents who loved the business, and who loved the books. What Lawrence demonstrated, over and over, was that fine literature could succeed if positioned and promoted well.

You could argue that throwing money at the chain bookstores for paid placements is the same principle, updated for the new era. Just another version of Lawrence plowing dramatically through your doors with this offbeat weirdo sci-fi from some crazy author named Vonnegut.

But, of course, the differences are obvious. Marketing books became a million dollar business, and a cold one orchestrated from glimmering Manhattan offices. Book PR came in from the Wild West, put on a nice suit, and turned into something Machiavellian. Instead of peddling copies to indie booksellers, who may only buy a few, the name of the game became mass sales to chain stores. The craft of writing was no longer important. Publishing became, brutally, a bottom line industry.

This further isolated the indies. Why bother pandering to a few hundred stores who’ll only be good for one or two sales each when you can get in bed with the super-chain who’ll buy several thousand in one go?

From the indie bookstore perspective, the publishers had now betrayed them. By the time the calendars turned to 2001, the indies had declared war and assumed an unforgiving stance. The indie stores, forever inflexible, always the underdog, failed to realize that publishers were, at that point, just starting to see that the other shoe was about to drop. With the brief economic bump in the road after September 11th, there was a moment where the man behind the curtain at the mega-chains was visible. Borders and Barnes & Noble, like Crown Books before them, could not hold the center.

By 2003, the publishing industry’s avarice-addled approach to sales allowed Borders to mastermind a scheme where they were basically running their company off of an endless line of credit. Something that they would ride out until their total collapse at the end of the decade. Barnes & Noble engaged in a similar scheme. With the good graces bought by early successes, the chains would buy up huge numbers of books and then return them, keeping a steady rotation of books moving through the warehouse with only a small percentage actually making it onto the shelves. Publishers found themselves strapped with return fees and merchandise hitting their inventory again long after the money from the sale had been devoted elsewhere. By the latter half of the 2000’s, many publishers could expect a total return rate of 33% for each book title and, as the chain stores foundered, distributors took a casual hand with those returns. Damaged items were accepted, returns were allowed for several years after the original invoice date instead of just six or twelve months. As Borders, especially, parlayed book returns into a lifeboat, they began to destroy small and medium-range independent presses. In 2009, most publishers had cut the chain stores off and prepared to write off unpaid invoices. The death throes had begun.

Many folks saw it coming early on. When the chain stores panicked in the downturn of 2002, they immediately turned on the publishers. The days of fun were over, and never really returned.

Indie bookstores could have turned this to their advantage. With chinks in the armor of the chain stores showing, the indie stores could have appealed to the hearts and loyalty of the publishers. Certainly, they could have won over the small and independent-minded presses who could not afford to play the marketing game at the Harry Potter level. From 2002 onwards, small presses were being slowly driven out of business by the chain model. Each returned book is not only money subtracted from the profits, but also incurs a returns fee that’s anywhere from 10-15% of the net price. When a print run of 1000 copies sees roughly 300 (largely unsalable) returns with a 10% fee attached to each one, then the ship is starting to take on water.

I blame the indie bookstores for dropping the ball at this point. Publishing has always been a scatter-brained business. An old boys network that expects things to be a certain way even after the waiter and the bartender at the gentlemen’s club have died after 50 years of service. Even on the wild and crazy micro-press level – especially on that level – there’s a feeling of isolationism.

Book promotion, on the micro-press level, is roughly like begging for enough money to buy a shotgun and two shells, then going to a place where all the potential bookbuyers are in a dark room, kicking the door open, closing your eyes, and letting both barrels go. Maybe you’ll get lucky and hit something – the most famous example being Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, my favorite rags to riches small press story. Here’s this weird book about Custer written by some guy who wasn’t really a biographer and it meekly sells here and there for a few years, and then it hits this weird groove five years after release and crash-lands on the bestseller list.

The big chains, as soon as they began their quick-return scheme, shook small presses out of their near-solipsistic dysfunction and brought them together. If not in direct confederation with each other, than at least in thought. These big boys ain’t no friends of ours.

So why didn’t indie bookstores and small presses form a united front in the early 2000’s? How did these two potential allies miss each other at such a crucial moment? How did the indie bookstores drop the ball?

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