About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Great Experiment...

Borders has announced the first major change to result from the opening of its first new concept store in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago. One part of their revamped approach was to stock fewer titles, allowing a higher percentage of those fewer titles to be displayed. And now today's Wall Street Journal reports that this experiment was so immediately successful in increasing the # of books they actually sold that they're in this for the long haul. All of their stores will start to have fewer titles, with more of them faced out, with title count reductions in the 5-10% range, with the genre fiction section perhaps seeing a smaller reduction than some of the non-fiction categories.

What does this mean?

Is it possible to separate your reaction to this from your reaction to the new concept store approach in general? Where you go to a bookstore to find fewer books, but can research your ancestry and make photo albums and download a book to your Sony Reader, but find fewer books. You can either see this as the complete dumbing down of the bookstore, or as salvation as somebody attempts to think out of the box and do something new in a bookstore for the first time in decades. I want to reserve judgment until I see the thing for myself, which may not be until one opens in Southbury CT in May. But my own instinctive feel is to say that somebody has to do something. When I started in the business 22 years ago, you couldn't buy a book at Amazon. You couldn't play Warcraft with 28,285 of your closest friends on the internet, which you couldn't surf. Maybe it's not such a bad idea if you try and integrate some of that new stuff into a bookstore, and give more reasons to enter a store. Do you like that your bookstore sells chocolate, greeting cards, board games?

One major point that needs to be made: the superstore hasn't been a boon for the typical author's backlist. Even though there are more superstores with bigger selections and fewer mall stores with smaller, the bar for backlist success hasn't gotten bigger. I hate to say it's gotten tougher to sell backlist; you can fall into the trap of remembering how in the 1980s you had these three authors who did way huge backlist business while forgetting all of the authors who didn't sell in the "good old days" either, kind of like how we forget that the last half hour of Saturday Night Live has always been filled with bad sketches. But if it's gotten any easier, that has a lot more to do with the internet than it does with the physical bookstore. If having all of those books doesn't really do much to increase the sales of the ones at the very bottom end of the range, how big a hurt will it be for the retailer to stop selling them? The CEO of Borders says in the article how there are a lot of books selling but one copy a year in the stores that are carrying them.

In order to stay in print, a book needs to sell at least 25-30 copies a week on Bookscan, maybe 1500-2000 copies a year total, which may support a ship rate of 150-200 copies a month. Even though the technology may exist, most big publishers don't want to print 500 mass market paperbacks at a time. They want to print 2000 and not have them cluttering up the warehouse for three years. Do the math; 1500 copies a year total in a country that has around 1300 Borders/B&N superstores. How many copies is the average store going to sell?

For a $7.99 paperback, with a royalty of 6% or 8%, that's $1300 in royalty income tops to the author. $3K maybe in gross revenue to a big chain that sells 750 copies. Less than that for the publisher.

So if Borders stops selling some of those books...

Will I & my clients lose out as these $1300s zero out? Or become $1000s, or $500s? Will my less-successful clients lose out while my even marginally more successful ones benefit a bit and the top ones maybe even more? If you're the only author in the sf section, guess what sf author people will buy!

Will people download them at the Sony Reader station? Will POD terminals make their way into Borders? Will people go to Amazon and buy a print or Kindle copy? Will they go to the local B&N instead? Will the Borders buyers be more attentive to which backlist they need to carry when?

Will the publishers end up seeing more books go OP as some of these titles drop from a marginal 150 copies a week to a hugely iffy 100 copies? Will they decide to become more interested in doing short runs of 1000 or 1500 copies to keep books in print, taking better advantage of advances in printing and POD printing technology? Orbit in the UK is doing runs like this; the smaller British market might be forcing them to be a harbinger of this development.

Will Borders see a short-term benefit but a long-term loss if people start to buy these less successful books on-line or at B&N and decide they like that experience as much or more? Or will Borders be able to get a younger crowd into stores that will like these digital offerings?

Lots of questions. I do know that the cover is one of the most important things to selling a book, so the idea that you could sell more by showing more covers isn't a crazy one. I do know that anything can be done well or done poorly. Real-world example: Simon Green's DEATHSTALKER LEGACY/RETURN/CODA sold much better at B&N In hardcover than at Borders, and I think a big reason was that the earlier five books in the series had remained core titles with consistent availability at B&N while some of them had drifted off-shelf at Borders in the several years gap during which sales had slowed as they inevitably will when no new book is on offing. The new approach at Borders increases the chances of things like that happening, but good buying can minimize those risks, to say "I know we weren't carrying those old Deathstalker books 3 months ago, but now with the new book on the way..." This week, Borders may be selling more GOBLIN WAR by Jim Hines, because those books have at least been on the shelf at some Borders, while the older ones aren't to be found at B&N, but what if this new approach means the Hines books had a harder time staying on at Borders, too. You can see that the questions here are real, and many. Like the new idea at Borders, don't like it, just be happy we have two major book retailers so the mistakes can even out.

I'm going to be very curious over the next several weeks to see just which JABberwocky books if any will be getting the heave-ho at the Borders in NYC...


Mark Terry said...

As an author who was published by a mid-sized press and who had to twist arms just to get into Borders or B&N (the publisher was Midnight Ink, part of Llewellyn), again, it strikes me as primarily helping bigger authors from the major publishers. I don't think it's a BAD idea; in fact, it's a good idea, but it's probable that it's only going to reinforce the sell-lots-of-copies-of-only-a-few-books paradigm that's going on now.

Well-established authors: rejoice.

Ed said...

Funny you should mention Goblin War. I went to my local Borders last week, when I knew the book was realeased. I'd read book 1 in the series and liked it. I'd hoped to scoop up book two along with the new one. When I got there, on the day of the release, they had Goblin Quest, and Goblin War. One book each. That's it!?

As a reader that's frustrating, I want to read the books in order. So I walked out, thinking to head to the B&N to find them. Which turned out, they didn't have any of them. By the time I'd got back to Borders, their single copy of Goblin War was gone. Now I'm a frustrated customer, who will probably turn to the online source to purchase, and am starting to get a bit tired of patronizing stores that just don't carry the authors I'm interested in.

The Brillig Blogger said...

The Wall Street Journal reporter raised the question Mark Terry asks, about whether this would benefit the bigger chains exclusively, and George Jones said not, that they would continue to stock books from a wide range of publishers, and some smaller could even get more face-outs. Of course, they always say that!

I think I should encourage more of our clients to indicate on their web sites which chains are most likely to have particular books of theirs. Perhaps it would help to support the stores that are supporting the authors, and could save gas money.

Dwight Wannabe said...

Speaking as a guy who always seems to be in the hunt for the obscure book, out-of-print since 1992, Borders has frustated me so many times with their "roll the dice" inventory, I'm now conditioned to buy NEW and older titles on the secondary book markets.

Alibris and eBay. I don't even look any more.

So yes, I'm frustrated with the Chain Store's lack of titles. But I gave up on them a long time ago.

Mark Terry said...

If you went back, say, five or six years ago, one of the most interesting things on Janet Evanovich's website (which was way ahead of the game in terms of audience interactivity) was a section listing independent bookstores that Janet tried to visit. I thought that was pretty savvy of her. (Of course, if ever there was a way to force a writer to keep his/her website up-to-date, it's to post all the indie bookstores on it, then make yourself update it as they go out of business).

Unfortunately, one of the things that happened to Janet was she got so big that most indie stores couldn't accommodate a signing where 500 people show up. There was even a time a few years ago, and I don't know if it still applies, but I was told this by an independent bookseller while I was doing a signing, that St. Martin's Press was forcing bookstores to have a minimum purchase of Janet's latest book--and that the numbers were so high that a lot of independents couldn't afford to order that many.

Overall, it can be a pretty odd business.

Tim Akers said...

Complicated stuff. My main thought is Yes, someone needs to do something. I think facing most of your books out is, frankly, a brilliant idea. If that happens at the cost of less diversity on the shelf, then maybe that's the price we have to pay. If it increases overall book sales, then maybe it will encourage a better backlist in stock for the authors that sell.

And my second thought is Yes, let's be happy that there are two major booksellers, and that they're doing different things. And we have the internet, for the backlist.

Think of it this way. If the store stocks the first book and the latest book, and the backlist only exists online, that makes a kind of sense. You aren't going to randomly pick up the second book in the series, and you aren't going to want to wait to get your hands on the latest book. If you're interested in the series you want to start on book one, and they have that in stock. If you like the first book, you can get the rest online. If you're a long time fan of the series, you can rush down to your local on lay-down-day and get the latest. I can see the sense in that.

Mark Terry said...

The face-out bookstore could be the prototype for the Espresso Machine bookstore, where you only have one copy of the book available, it's face-out, then you have it printed out for you. Which reminds me of Best Buys, where you pick up the tag, pay for the appliance, then watch it come down the conveyor belt.

Of course, I hate Best Buys, but nonetheless, that's what it sounds like, doesn't it?

Mark Terry said...

The face-out bookstore could be the prototype for the Espresso Machine bookstore, where you only have one copy of the book available, it's face-out, then you have it printed out for you. Which reminds me of Best Buys, where you pick up the tag, pay for the appliance, then watch it come down the conveyor belt.

Of course, I hate Best Buys, but nonetheless, that's what it sounds like, doesn't it?

Kristi said...

This reminds me of what happened to our work cafeterias a couple of years ago. Their food was never spectacular, but it's terribly convenient. Then some brilliant manager type ran some numbers and figured out that most of their revenue was earned right between 11:30 and 12:30. So, they narrowed their hours to something like 11-12:45. Since this cut out anyone needing a slightly early or slightly late lunch, folks got in the habit of not relying on the cafteria, and either started packing a lunch or going out more often. That meant that the cafeteria was selling less food, so they cut back on their choices, which further limited their clientele. See where this is going? The place is not open when people need it and doesn't serve food that people want to eat. Now they complain that they're not profitable enough, and every now and then the foodservice company grumbles about pulling out. Well, duh.

If only someone could convince a fast food restaurant to open across the street from us, they'd make a killing. If Borders wants to sell out to Amazon, then they're on the right track.

Sonya said...

I'm not entirely sure I can separate my reaction to this idea from my desire to be published and my assumption that as I new author, my books are unlikely to make it onto the shelves of such a store.

However - bias having been admitted - I do think they're making a mistake. I buy a book from Amazon when a.) I already know which book I want to buy, b.) I don't mind waiting a few days to get it, c.) I want to get it as inexpensively as possible, and sometimes d.) I can't find it on the shelf at a local book store. Very rarely will I visit more than one or two local bookstores (Barnes & Noble first, usually, then the Borders) before I figure eh, whatever, I'll get it online.

I visit Borders much less often than Barnes & Noble already. Their cafe is not as good, and the nifty search-for-yourself computers are made somewhat less enticing owing to their necessity - I can ever find anything in that store. Being able to search inventory without having to bother a salesperson is wonderful. Doing so because you can't figure out where in the heck they shelved something is decidedly less wonderful. I have in my mind that Borders is useful as a back-up possibility for something that I really sort want right now and cannot find at B&N, but I'm not going to go into a Borders to browse.

And I'm really definitely not going in to a Borders to browse if I know ahead of time that they're carrying fewer titles. When I buy a book in a bookstore as opposed to online, it's usually because I'm browsing, and something looks interesting. It's rarely the book on an end-cap display or featured at the front of the store - it's happened once or twice, but not often. Buying the book that's on display sort of negates the whole point of getting lost in the aisles and sitting down on the floor to read the first chapter and just, well, the whole idea of going to the book store as a way to spend the afternoon. I'm more likely to buy the book that has only one copy on the shelf than the one that has twenty copies - I can always come back for the multi-copy book. The single-copy book might be gone later. And the more single-copy books there are, the more likely it is that I'm going to find something that is just exactly the nifty, weird little thing that I want right this very instant with my hot chocolate, thankyouverymuch.

Tim Akers said...

I think maybe the one thing we're all missing here is that they're selling more books. Selling more books is good for the industry. I mean, that's a pretty critical point, right?

Dwight Wannabe said...

@Kristi: Perfect parable. Nicely done.

@Tim: I think the point is that if the business model for bookselling is left in the hands of short-sighted corporate greedbags, the long-term prospects become ominous for all involved.

La Gringa said...

I guess as someone who came out of independent bookselling and who spent sixteen years making sure books were faced out everywhere in our store, I just don't see what the problem is. We always made sure books were faced-out - as many as possible - and if that meant sacrificing some titles to sell more books overall, it was a worthwhile sacrifice. The reality is that when a book is faced out, the sales of the spined-out titles to the left and the right of that book also increase.

When I moved to New York from San Francisco ten years ago and encountered my first Barnes & Noble, it made me crazy to see so many spined-out books. Spining out miles of titles is really a terrible marketing strategy. There's nothing to catch the eye. I used to go surreptitiously facing out stacks of books whenever I went into the Union Square B&N, just to please my own aesthetic sense.

I think that this is a lot of hand-wringing over nothing, to be frank.

My two cents.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps what Borders and B&N should do is get bookshelves that are a couple inches deeper than the standard and have a small groove near the front. That way, they could face all the books they want and still have as many on the shelf as always. They might need to have employees wander through the store, facing books as people buy them, but there would be plenty of space to have extra copies or backlist titles behind the new ones.

Jim C. Hines said...

I'll be visiting the concept store in Ann Arbor next weekend. (I've got a signing at the Ann Arbor B&N.) I'm curious to see this thing first hand.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, they'll need a longer baseline before they can truly say if the experiment is a success or not. My gut feeling is this is another instance of corporate number-crunchers trying to sell more "book product": it may look good now, but I don't know about the long-term viability of the plan. And the available of Amazon, ABEbooks, and the other sources that carry far more titles may not give this new paradigm much of a chance.

And when you said

good buying can minimize those risks, to say "I know we weren't carrying those old Deathstalker books 3 months ago, but now with the new book on the way..."

I thought, "well, yeah, but that same good buying would have worked just as well 10, 20 years ago, or a decade from now." Changing the thinking behind the store won't bring about the "good buying": only a concerted effort to buy better will do so.

Jim Van Pelt said...

Hi, Joshua. I didn't know you were keeping a blog. Sheesh! Interesting thoughts on the bookstore experiment. I know that I seldom go to a bookstore now if I know the title I want. It's easier to Amazon it. I go to the bookstore to browse and impulse buy.

Jim C. Hines said...

I visited the store last night, and it really didn't strike me as too different from any other Borders store. Maybe a bit shinier, with a few more flat-screen TVs.

I suspect you would have spotted more differences than I did, with your vast Borders experience :-) But nothing I saw struck me as revolutionary...

Anonymous said...

Maybe facing out books was exactly the savy merchandising Borders was looking for when it hired the ex-CEO of Saks over guys from the book industry? Perhaps to sell books as well as he sold clothes & lose any library feel of spined-out books? The hassle of pulling out each single book, is tedious at best - not to mention uncompelling! Aren't bookstores supposed to be a respite from that? With easier purusing so people will buy instead of borrow? I dunno, I just don't get how one doesn't see that? But then again, I don't get how pundits question pros either so what do I know?