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...
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