The nightmare before Christmas

Having stumbled through all our novice bookshop owning beginner mistakes, here we are plunged headlong already into our novice bookshop owning Christmas mistakes. We started off with a pretty good outline of the sorts of books we wanted to stock to create a welcoming feel and lots of reasons for people to stay and browse. So, really, our opening stock selection was relatively easy (although several weeks of ISBN hell to actually produce meaningful lists for our very patient wholesaler). Then of course, you have to keep things fresh and give people something new to look at. So since then we have been swimming with all the others, trying to choose things from catalogues, before books have even been published, let alone read or reviewed, trying to spot things that look fantastic, but, hopefully, not the sort of things that every other (ie big chain) bookshop is likely to be selling in huge, highly promoted piles right by the door. We don't want to look like all the others. We are less than ten miles from Oxford, which offers fantastic choice when it comes to book buying, so we have to give people a big incentive to shop locally and it has always been extremely gratifying when people come to us and comment that they found more things in our shop they wanted to buy than on book-buying trips into Oxford. Christmas so far has been a nail-biting time. Trying to avoid the sorts of books that will be everywhere, yet making sure you have the Christmas 'essentials' that people are going to want to see, is a tricky path to tread. We've tried to stick to our own ideas about what are good books to stock. By and large we decided at the outset that if you start worrying what every other bookseller is doing you will not do yourself any favours (and possibly go slightly mad). Yet I couldn't resist a sneak peak at the display of a favourite (until recently) Ottakers (now Waterstones), in a town I know very well. I have to say, it did set me thinking. They are directly opposite a WH Smith, with no independent bookseller in the town. Yet both shops really look like they are already into panic January sale territory, with huge red banners announcing price cuts. Aside from a few selected 3 for 2 offers, most other shops in the town seemed to be promoting positively their fantastic Christmas goodies and had beautiful windows to tempt people into the shop to buy rather than shouting at people how cheaply they are selling. I was at a bit of a loss to work out who these bookshops were competing against to battle so hard on price - apart from each other. The Waterstones and WH Smith offered a bewlidering range of different prices on the same promoted books, so hadn't even managed to agree on the deals to offer (aren't they the same company?). Supermarkets can't stock anything like the range a bookshop can manage. And not everyone wants to buy on the internet. Browsing is still pretty big in the book buying business, particularly at Christmas when people are choosing for others. Books are wonderful to hear about, talk about, pick up and dip into before you buy and feel you've made wonderful discoveries, aren't they? You'd think there must be something more tempting these shops could find to say about their books to woo people in other than that a few highlighted titles are half price. A bit mad and a bit sad?


  1. Those sale prices are in some cases actually being subsidized and "paid for" by the publishers. That is: a publisher's marketing dept feels that if a book is marked On Sale when it's sitting in the bookshop, this will increase the likelihood that a customer will notice it amid the masses of other books. So -- the bookseller-corporation, knowing that the foolish publisher is inclined to believe this -- has an offer the publisher cannot refuse. The bookseller offers to the publisher that If the publisher pays the bookseller a gajillion bucks (quid, excuse me, yes?) a gajillion quid, then the bookseller will put the book on sale, on a sale table.

    The book may or may not sell. The bookseller can send the book back in 4 weeks if it turns out that even a deep "sale" doesn't cause people to buy the book. The bookseller gets to KEEP the gajillion quid, however. Many corporate bookstores make their profits off of these marketing payments which they've extracted via this corporate blackmail scheme. (Blackmail because the publishers are essentially being pitted against one another. If I don't pay to have my book put on sale, some other book WILL have the bill footed on ITS behalf and my poor book will be sitting spine out back in the category display, offered at full price.

    So -- yes, the sale prices are indeed nonsensical from the standpoint of enticing customers to buy books. But they make a lot of sense from the standpoint of booksellers using publishers' fear and weakness to extort non-refundable cash payment for placement at the front of shops, with big "discount" signs hanging overhead.

    As to your strategic response to this malarkey -- as you say, you must develop a knack for psyching out your customers. If you can smell out an irresistable book, your customers will turn out to have no price-sensitivity or price-resistance to it. They'll just HAVE to buy it because they NEED it immediately.

    For instance, today I sold a copy of GRIMM'S GRIMMEST -- the gruesome fairy tale book. Now -- this book does not need to be marked down. It sells itself. Most chain stores will not dare to display a stack of this yucky book. My customers really like it, though.

  2. This is very interesting Andy (yep, quid is correct). Would you say that the booksellers have so much power, that the publishers can't afford *not* to play this game? Would the hit taken by any publisher refusing to play the game (i.e. initial significant drop in unit sales) be too much in the short term?

    This sounds a bit like the 'boiling frog' analogy used a lot in environmental circles. This is where everyone knows there's a problem, but the short-term pain involved in solving said problem is too much to bear for individuals. So everyone marches on towards oblivion...

  3. Good point. The publishers playing the game are hurting themselves. But -- there's also the issue of there being no such thing as a "publisher". There are only the individuals, with their job descriptions and their salaries and bonuses. These workers make decisions that benefit them in the very short run, but which hurt their company in the longer run. The publishing company may end up acquired by a multinational conglomerate because of failure by its own workers to address and ameliorate the problems faced by the company -- but those workers may have been under pressure by their own bosses to act in accordance with the guidelines set down by the retailers.

    It IS possible for bosses and workers in publishing companies to develop alternate distribution strategies -- strategies that result in profitable book distribution and in future autonomy (no takeovers) for the publishing house. But for most companies, the nature of the hierarchical decision-making process, and the fact that the workers are constantly hopping from company to company, and have no long-term allegiance to any given house, lead to stupid decision-making.

    Frogs do boil. As small retailers, we better learn to enjoy eating frog's legs. (We may have to learn how to join with the big retailers in abusing the publishers, in other words. If we do NOT embrace this love of Boiling The Frogs, we need another strategy. Best not to simply follow the publishers' official rules however. Then we may end up in the soup keeping the frogs company, getting boiled ourselves.

  4. Anonymous5:10 pm

    Hi there Mark

    I love your Blog, especially as I used to work for the dreaded Waterstone's. Yes, they were owned by WHS which was actually quite a good period in the company's very chequered history, for the last 7/8 or so years they have been owned by HMV that well known Bookseller, oh sorry musuc seller. They just THINK they know about books. The whole boig bookshop/big publisher thing is very, very frightening to me and I am forever glad I got our both for my health's sake and my sanity. I LOVE independent bookshops and small publishers and I honestlydo think they are back on the rise again! Good luck, hope to come and visit (and purchase!) one day.