Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why the Collapse of Chain Bookstores is a Good Thing for Books. Part 4

Through the 90’s and the rise of the chain bookstores and the online stores, to the early 2000’s. The last three parts have looked at the war between the corporate chains and the little independent booksellers. With the brief economic downturn following September 11th, the chains showed their true colors, and it also started to become clear that they wouldn’t be able to survive, though their demise would take a decade to happen. Most affected: indie bookstores and independent small presses. Yet, the two failed to meet in the middle and form an alliance against the corporate booksellers and big money publishers. I blame the indie bookstores for dropping the ball…but why?)

by Andrew Gifford

Instead of embracing their wayward former allies, the indie bookstores maintained their campaign of defensive retribution. Maybe they were too shell-shocked, maybe they simply didn’t see the same inevitable collapse of the chain stores on the horizon. Either way, many stores developed a weapon that would only prove to be a Doomsday Device, and their hardest hit victims, invariably, were the small presses. This weapon was the dreaded “Co-Op Fee.”

By far the most poorly handled tactic in this war of bookselling is the co-op fee. Making co-op fees available means that publishers will agree to help out with advertising costs if the bookstore in question decides to use the publisher’s book in their newsletters and other material. The fees are unspecified, so there’s no telling what they’ll be. Distributors and most PR folks tend to insist that publishers make these fees available when new books are announced. If not made available, then that meant certain doors would be closed. Even if (quite distressingly) a press said that co-op fees were unavailable, it was not a guarantee that they wouldn’t be billed for them anyway.

I found co-op fees to be particularly distasteful from day one. Obeying politics, I made them available for the first two books I released. On the small publisher tier, the damage isn’t usually too bad. A slow drain of a few dozen dollars a month as some bookstore somewhere (allegedly) pushes the books.

After my second book, The Fires by Alan Cheuse, I learned my lesson.

A more famous author meant that I was paying fees to mysterious and unnamed sources to the tune of about $150 a month, and sometimes more. After awhile, it started to feel like I was paying protection. Where was this money going? If I'm paying for a portion of the print run of a newsletter, then how come I'm not getting these newsletters? Jesus, how about a thank you at least?

These stores were putting together glitzy newsletters -- often very expensive and attractive ones -- and shipping them out to a bulk mailing list and not spending a penny on it. There's nothing for them to lose, either. You come to the store and buy the books and they make their 40-50% markup in profit, or, if the books don’t sell, they simply return them at their leisure for a full refund. Win-win.

The more aggressive co-op fees came into play during book tours. I sent Cheuse on a very traditional 20 stop tour across the country, which was well beyond what my budget allowed. The tour was great and we pushed plenty of books, saw plenty of returns, and I ended up $5000 over budget, which settled unhappily on my credit cards. Overall, though, a success. A book tour isn't ever about making money, it’s about getting the word out. It’s a necessary evil to keep the flames burning long after the author is home with his feet up. If an actual venue sells out of the 50 or more books they bought, great. But they never do because the people who come to hear an author speak often have the book already in hand. That’s the nature of bookselling in the 2000’s. Each venue will easily return 50% of the books they over-ordered for an imagined audience. And why not over-order if you’re not losing anything, right? The only one who ends up hurting is the publisher.

The bittersweet nature of a book tour, as return fees mount up month after month, isn’t helped when bills start to come in from certain stores. Out of 15 bookstore stops on the Cheuse tour, seven of them sent me a bill for "co-op fees." Tellingly, they didn't send the bill through my distributor. These arrived at the SFWP mailbox. The fees were to pay for advertising, I was told. Something that confused me since, as I was putting the tour together, the bookstores sent me their media lists and I took care of all the advertising out of my own pocket. I asked one store what, exactly, they had done to help promote the stop. They told me that they "featured it in their email newsletter."

Okay. Ready for the punchline? That bill was for $500. Each of the seven stores billed me for between $250-$1000 for...something they couldn't ever really specify.

Alarmed, I turned to my distributor for advice and they told me that the smart thing to do would be to pay the bills. For a couple of the stores, they negotiated a lower price. Because I’m pretty stupid, I paid, maybe, $1000 out of what, between the seven stores, totaled about $5500 in co-op fees. Then I wised up, told my distributor politics be damned, and just threw the increasingly threatening bills away. A year later, they stopped. And I stopped booking authors at indie bookstores, and stopped agreeing to co-op fees of any kind.

The worst offenders of that list of seven are now closed, but the odious nature poisoned the well for me as far as all indie bookstores were concerned. As I swapped stories with other small presses, I started to hear of the same transgressions. With a sinking heart, I realized that small presses didn’t have a home. With murderous return levels from the chain stores, and embittered usury from the indie bookstores, small presses found themselves on the ropes. A dissolution of a devoted monastic order that opened another power vacuum – one that allowed self-publishing to gain prominence.

The co-op fee scheme, when I encountered it in 2007 with the Cheuse tour, was already becoming a thing of the past. By 2009, indie stores were shifting into a sort of self-exile, only surviving if they specialized. To use examples from the DC area, some survived off of their venerated patrician history, like Politics & Prose. Others focused on specific subjects, like my old employer. Most simply became cafes and restaurants and only marginally acknowledged their bookstore past, like Busboys & Poets and Kramer’s.

With the chains starting to show cracks in the foundation, and the indie bookstores a dying breed, and small publishers gasping for air and barely holding onto life, and the far-reaching economic downturn of 2008, the battlefield was ripe for an epidemic, passed from trench to trench. The malarial fever of the publishing and bookselling world – ebooks.

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