The Business Rusch: The Book Trade
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
It’s amazing how hindsight makes things clearer. Actually, the changes in publishing have brought a lot of things into focus for me. Then I think about those things, and remember conversations or moments when I felt simply astounded at something, but let it pass, not realizing its significance.
Let me explain.
On January 13, the chief executive at Faber, Stephen Page, had an essay in The Guardian. I noted in a blog a few weeks ago that Page’s clearheadedness startled me, particularly when so many in traditional publishing have done everything they can to obfuscate the changes in the publishing world—and their own culpability (and obligations) in that change.
In his essay, Faber listed several things he believes traditional publisher must do to stay in business. Among those things was this:
“[Publishers must have] a focus on the consumer, rather than the book trade. Expertise in consumer marketing that contends for attention in all digital spaces, alongside strength in working with both bricks and mortar and online booksellers, will be vital.”
I’ll analyze the whole paragraph in a minute. But it was his first sentence that made everything coalesce for me. Publishers must focus on the consumer (reader) rather than the book trade (bookstores, distributors, etc).
Sounds like a well, duh, right? Especially if you read my post from last week on the ways that both traditional publishers and indie writers are ignoring their readers.
But it stopped being a well, duh in traditional publishing about twenty years ago. Honestly, I don’t know the timing to all of these changes, but I have a gut sense. Indulge me for a minute here.
When I was a kid in the late 1960s, early 1970s, I never went in bookstores, yet I spent all of my allowance on books (all right—and candy too. I was a kid, okay?). I got five dollars per week, then my dad took one dollar back and put it in my savings account in an attempt to teach me good habits. The remaining four dollars and I traveled a few blocks to a nearby drugstore. It sold a little bit of everything, from cigarettes to comic books. Except for the obligatory Butterfinger candy bar that I got on the way out, I never looked at anything except the books.
Rows and rows and rows of books. In my memory, hundreds of thousands of books. In reality, probably four shelves worth. Every week, I bought three to four novels with my four dollars. (Most of the books were Gothic romances, and most of them were 75 cents.) Mostly, I didn’t even look at the author’s name. I looked for that cover with some poor woman in her nightgown, running away from the creepy house on the hill, and I was sold.
The first time I remember going into a bookstore, I was thirteen. I was a member of the speech team that qualified for state tournaments in big ole Madison, Wisconsin. My friends and I walked down State Street, and discovered Paul’s Book Store, which was (and is) mostly collectibles and antiquarian books. No Gothics that I could find. I thought the store musty, expensive, and of no interest at all. (I appreciate it more now.)
I do not remember the first time I went into a bookstore of the more modern type, filled with all new books. It had to be college. And yet my parents’ house, my friends’ houses, my grandmother’s house, and every other house I went into were filled with books.
Where did the books come from?
The drugstore. The five-and-dime. The department store, with its lovely book section. The grocery store (where I first bought a paperback edition of Carrie with the silver cover—over my mother’s protests). My dad got the latest bestsellers from the Book of the Month club, and my aunt got her Harlequins direct from Harlequin itself.
Books were everywhere, and we didn’t have to go to a special store to find them.
Fast forward a decade. I got a job working for William C. Brown Textbook Publishing Company as a lowly assistant. The guys in the sales force were not much older than me (twenty-something), and all of them were hotshots with cajones big as the moon. They all wanted this account or that account, and they were full of stories about browbeating some poor store owner in Nowheresville to take some of the non-text-booky nonfiction to put in the racks near the comic books.
Wim-C’s sales staff (yes, pronounced Whimsy) had a huge competition going with John Wiley’s sales staff, to see who could steal accounts from each other, sell more books to more unusual places, and who could make the most money in a month through sales.
Fast forward another decade. I met the sales rep for Roc Books—not for Penguin/Putnam, but for the imprint Roc. Back then (1990), each imprint shared a sales staff with only a handful of other imprints. This woman was interesting, but scared. She had just come to Eugene, Oregon, from Coer d’Alene, Idaho. At the time, Coer d’Alene was home to a number of white separatist groups, and this woman was of obvious mixed race. She had been chased out of several stores because of her skin color. (See why this sticks in my memory?) She was going to ask for a new territory, since that part of Idaho scared her so badly.
She and the other sales reps didn’t just go to bookstores. They went to each area’s book distributor. They also went into truck stops and other places that might carry books, and did a bit of hand-selling. These reps not only made more money if they made more sales, they got promoted as well. It was another way into the book business.
Five years later, the sales reps were gone. They stopped visiting long before the chain stores wiped out many independent booksellers, long before the entire distribution system collapsed in 1997 or so. At this point, book editors stopped going to thrice-annual sales meetings, and instead sent a video presentation. Then the publishing companies stopped having off-site sales meetings altogether.
Budget cutbacks, I was told. Consolidation and shortsightedness, I suppose. I didn’t work for the big publishers in-house. I worked for a publishing company Dean and I started, and then for a mom-and-pop organization, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. We still contacted our distributors and bookstores directly.
By the mid-1990s I was able to save my entire novel writing career with one letter. One of my publishers was going to publish a novel “dead” (under the radar, without even putting it in the catalog; she was trying to kill an editor’s career and to do that, she had to destroy every book he touched). I wrote to a friend of mine who just happened to be the sf buyer for Barnes & Noble. I enclosed the novel, explained the situation, and asked him to order a few copies of the book if he liked it after he read it. He not only did that, but he ordered my backlist as well. And then he ordered a lot of other books that editor edited, saving other careers.
It was great for me, and for those writers. But it wouldn’t have been possible just five years before. Five years before, no single buyer had that much power, no matter where he was.
When I started out, Romance Writers of America were starting out too, and one of their recommendations to the first-time romance writer was to bring coffee and donuts to the truckers who delivered books for the local regions. It worked: the truckers would go to grocery stores, drugstores, and all those mom-and-pop places, delivering books and placing them on the shelves. If the truckers liked a friendly romance writer, they’d put her book in a prominent position.
There were good things and bad things in this system, but it was dynamic. Excellent book editors who kept track of things could tell you where their authors sold best—the Midwest, the South, the Southwest. They made sure those authors went to those locations during book signings.
With the big distribution collapse of the late 1990s, all of that vanished. Instead of hundreds of regional book distributors who sold books to the drugstores and department stores, the number of book distributors went down to ten. (There are even fewer now. If you want to find out what happened, check out this blog post.)
Independent bookstores were strangled by the chain bookstores opening in their neighborhood (and often providing more choice and cheaper prices). Suddenly the number of places for a publisher to sell books declined.
Publishers had already given up large parts of their sales staff, so they had no idea how to react to this change. They decided to focus on bestselling books at the expense of everything else. Yes, there was still a midlist, but it was small and the chances of building a series or building an author name became harder than ever.
Publishers tried to find a way to hedge their bets. They knew that John Grisham and Nora Roberts sold, so they pushed legal thrillers and romantic suspense novels that were “just like” Grisham and Roberts. Publishers started doing a lot of advance reading copies and fancy promotions targeting the remaining bookstores. Publishers also wined and dined the handful of remaining book buyers, trying to get them interested in the newest, latest, hottest book by an unknown.
The choices for the reader narrowed and narrowed some more. I don’t know about you guys, but I remember wandering bookstore aisles looking for something that wasn’t the latest Dan Brown clone or the latest fantasy set in a boarding school. Then the western section all but vanished, followed by any historical romance not set in England in the early 19th century, and so on.
It became important for a publisher to convince five or ten or fifteen people that the book was brilliant. The publisher—in effect—sold to the book trade only. If bookstore people didn’t like it, hell, if the book buyer at Borders or Barnes & Noble didn’t like it, well then, the sales force wouldn’t sign off on the book or the book (already purchased by the publishing company) tanked.
This became an insidious loop. In recent years, a friend of mine took two different projects to traditional publishers—one that had guaranteed sales to museums all over the country, and another that had guaranteed sales at rock concerts in sold-out arenas filled with tens of thousands of fans per venue. The publishers refused to take the books, because the publishers didn’t believe those books could sell to the bookstores.
Several similar things happened to other friends. Dean got hired to ghostwrite a book for a very famous person—a person whose name you’d all recognize—who not only had a wide following on television and in music, but also toured every year and owned two gigantic theaters (named after him) where he performed. These books would have sold hundreds of thousands of copies outside of bookstores—at each tour stop and every day in the theaters.
Bookstores, the sales forces, and New York book people believed this person uncool. One asked the agent handling the deal “if anyone even knows who [famous person] is any more.” At that point, this famous person was on television every night, as well as performing live in Vegas.
The promised book deal had guaranteed numbers from the famous person’s theaters, guaranteed sales in the hundreds of thousands (if not millions), but no traditional publishing company would touch the project—thinking it “impossible to market”—and so the project died.
I suppose, if Dean and I were interested, we could start it up again. We’re not; we have too many other things to do.
The point here, though, is that these three projects—Dean’s with the famous person, and our friend’s two projects—had guaranteed sales built in, but those sales weren’t at bookstores. In both cases, the projects were turned down by traditional publishers as unmarketable.
Does your head hurt yet?
I couldn’t figure out why any of that happened until I read The Guardian piece. And then it all coalesced for me: For the past twenty years, publishers—and the people running the sales departments of publishing companies—have had no experience with actual sales at all.
Sales to them meant running to their standard accounts, asking the accounts what they thought of the project, and then if the accounts didn’t like it, turning the project down. If you want to know why traditional publishing has seemed stale for the most part, this is why. It formed an echo chamber—professional book people talking to professional book people—and not understanding that truck drivers, waitresses, construction workers, music fans, and other non-book people buy books.
And here’s the delicious irony: If you look at Stephen Page’s Guardian piece, at the very quote I highlighted, you’ll see that he doesn’t get it either. He writes:
“Expertise in consumer marketing that contends for attention in all digital spaces, alongside strength in working with both bricks and mortar and online booksellers, will be vital.”
What this means is simple: He thinks publishers should sell books directly off their websites in addition to selling in brick-and-mortar bookstores and in online bookstores. That’s all. And weirdly, that’s considered radical these days.
Fully 80% of readers still read paper books. I suspect it’s higher than that, since studies that just came out in January show that readers who have reading devices still read paper books as well. So how about this for a radical concept:
Traditional publishers, hire a sales force. A real sales force. The kind of folks who get in their cars, stop at a gas station/mini mart and hand-sell them a book. Sell books in casino and hotel shops. Sell regional titles in tourist shops.
In my little town, our wonderful local bakery, Captain Dan’s Pirate Pastry Shop, has books along one wall—all by local writers, all indie or published by regional presses.
Traditional publishers: send your staff to these places. Use the old-fashioned way of doing this. Have the staff get a small salary and pay the rest on commission. Bring back the young competitive hotshots with cajones of steel. Have them hand-sell books.
When did sales become about the book trade only? Traditional publishers have made their box so narrow that thinking inside it is squeezing their brains.
Remember the first rule of sales: Make the product available. No one can buy a book if it’s not for sale.
It’s that simple.
And that hard.
This blog is a prime example of using digital services to go directly to the consumer—um, I mean, interacting directly with the readers. Something like this really couldn’t exist anywhere except online.
So thank you for making it possible. I couldn’t do it without the comments, links, and e-mails, and I couldn’t afford the time to do it without the donations. Thank you! I wouldn’t be able to do this at all without reader participation.
“The Business Rusch: The Book Trade” copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.