by Pat Holt
Friday, August 25, 2000
THE POISONED PEN AND PRINT-ON-DEMAND
Well, there's good news and bad news on the POD (print-on-demand) front, so let's pokey on down to The Poisoned Pen, that great mystery bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona, and see how one independent bookseller-turned-publisher is pursuing this once-impossible dream.
I use the word "pokey" because it's great to slow down and consider how very big problems on the mainstream publishing scene are being resolved in very small ways on the independent bookselling scene - whether or not Lightning Source, a key print-on-demand press, fulfills its many promises.
The Poisoned Pen, A Mystery Bookstore and More, was founded in Scottsdale a decade ago by Barbara Peters, an ex-lawyer, and her husband, Robert Rosenwald, a software publisher. Barbara grew concerned about "the shrinking midlist," as Robert puts it, when she noticed that "more and more books were dropping out of print long before their time."
Both regarded "consolidations in the pubishing industry as a terrible threat to cultural diversity and to the survival of the independent bookstore - ultimately becoming a subtle form of censorship," says Robert. But the question was, what could a sole bookseller do about it?
In what may be a common story for many independent booksellers one day, Barbara decided to act. As her customers continued to ask for books that were no longer available, and mainstream publishing kept refusing to keep popular mystery writers in print, she gave Robert the names of books she knew the store could sell. He, in turn, began to investigate Print On Demand.
POD is the very simple means of re-coding a book and reprinting it electronically, usually as a trade paperback, complete with full-color cover. Because very short runs of POD books can be printed at very low costs compared to traditional printing press methods, it takes little investment for an individual or small company to publish, warehouse and distribute POD books.
Robert discovered that scanning the text of books into a computer was far too time consuming because "the optical reader mistakes l's for 1's, commas for periods, and introduces more errors than you will ever find." So he had the books completely rekeyed and today employs a company in India for this purpose.
Using Lightning Source, the POD division of Ingram Book Company, Robert successfully brought the once-discontued books back into print, selling them not only through The Poisoned Pen but through other mystery bookstores as well.
"Lightning manufactures as few as 25 copies at a time," says Robert. "Typically we order 100 to 150. At first we did a little better than break even, but we were happy not to be particularly profitable. That's part of the mission of a specialty store, improving the depth and breadth of your stock." Keeping the average price of trade paperbacks around $12.95-$14.95 brought in enough of a profit to keep the line going.
But that was just the beginning. To make a deliciously long story short, Robert and Barbara founded Poisoned Pen Press in 1996 (see http://poisonedpenpress.com ) and have sold titles not only to other bookstores but to wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor and, even - remember they're a publisher and they don't judge where customers buy books - Borders and Amazon.com.
The astounding part is how fast this kind of niche publishing can grow: As Robert began selling many more than 150 copies of POD titles, he found that sales of 500-750 were not uncommon, nor were over a thousand. In time, he learned to predict the sale of a book so well that when he knew it would sell over a thousand copies, he switched over to conventional printing. Today his average print run for a nonPOD book is about 1500.
He's also become something of an expert in purchasing paperback rights, foreign rights and other licenses from publishers. He began advertising in trade publications. He's hired commissioned sales reps. He's accepted original manuscripts and published new works by unknown writers (two retired librarians from Yale sit on his editorial acquisitions committee).
For mystery readers, Poisoned Pen authors are hardly obscure - the list includes Robert Barnard, H.R.F. Keating, Val McDermid, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Dorothy Simpson, Steven Havill, Nora Kelly, John Franklin Bardin and many others.
Today Poisoned Pen Press has about 50 titles in its backlist and aims to publish another 30 this year. In its own way, the company is doing what its founders hoped -- bringing midlist and out-of-print authors back to the shelves, opening the way for new authors, and adding a range and diversity to their field of specialty. They're also helping to remove that vague feeling of censorship that sets in when fewer and fewer publishers make the decisions about what gets published.
But as the company has grown very quickly while remaining very small (three employees), Lightning Source has grown even faster while growing very big.
Only this week, for example, Lightning announced that it will digitize all of Penguin Putnam's books, a huge undertaking, and "provide digital rights management and e-book fulfillment in a variety of formats," according to PW Daily.
Meanwhile, Lightning's business grows in a smaller but accelerated way with Poisoned Pen Press. "Over the last three years, we've reprinted 15 or 16 books with Lightning Source," Robert notes. "In 1999 we did nearly $12,000 of business with them and are on a path to double that this year." Problems have increased as well, however.
From the start, the company was "in constant upgrade mode," says Robert, "so there were many delays - their promise of a three-week turnaround in reality was more like five weeks, for example. Well, we could live with that. Occasional glitches you understand.
"But in the last year, Lightning Source has made a tremendous push at moving all its business to the web. Their customer service representatives are rarely available to talk on the phone, and they strongly prefer to communicate via email. This would be fine IF Lightning had proper systems to make sure that responses are made quickly. They don't."
According to Robert, over time, faxes were not acknowledged, calls not returned, orders lost, books damaged, website information mishandled. "When I requested a complete list of everything Poisoned Pen had on order," he says, "I was told they couldn't get into the system to get me that information. My customer service representative told me she'd get it for me -- last week. I'm still waiting.
"It would be comical if it weren't so maddening," he says. "It's particularly frustrating because one of the precepts of Print on Demand is . . . Demand! For the last week I have been trying to find out when I can expect to receive the two different sets of 100 books that were ordered on July 13. I don't seem to be able to get any other answer than what I was told last week, when they said the books had been moved to the 'top of the queue' (this was the same thing I had been told two weeks ago.)"
I asked Robert if he thinks many POD companies will be hired to digitize mainstream publishers lists, and if this means smaller companies like Poisoned Pen will be given back-seat treatment. "I don't know," he said. "Right now there are other POD printers who welcome our business.
"Oddly, we've found a larger audience for many more titles than we thought, so the ironic thing is that we need POD less and less."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Two years ago, I tried browsing Amazon.com to see what the fuss was all about, and my curiosity (or maybe just my ego) prompted me to see if they listed any or all of the books I wrote.
Lo! and behold -- they listed something called "What If? Volume 3."
Why was this odd? Well, the "What If?" books were a series of anthologies I'd been editing for the Timescape imprint, a science fiction line operated by Simon & Shuster and Pocket Books. My contract at the time called for at least four volumes. Two had been published and the third was on press when Timescape suffered first a drastic cutback and was then cancelled outright.
Only the first two "What If?" volumes were ever published. As far as I knew, that is. But here was Amazon.com offering Volume 3 for sale. If the book had been published after all, then S&S/PB had some tall explaining to do, and they also owed me some money. Or maybe somebody had got hold of a set of galleys (the book was that far along when it was cancelled) and published a bootleg edition. If this was the case I also wanted to know about it -- to put it mildly.
Alas, my "order" to Amazon.com produced only a form reply that the book was out of stock, but they would look for a copy if I wished.
I wrote to Amazon.com and explained the situation, told them that I was the "author of record" of the book (in my role as anthologist), and asked what was going on.
Back came another form letter thanking me for my interest.
Well, we battled like that for a while. I kept raising the pitch of my requests/demands for information; they kept sending back polite but utterly useless form letters, until finally one of my letters must have reached somebody who actually looked into the situation and decided to do something about it.
As a result, I next got a letter from Amazon.com saying that they had deleted the book from their inventory. They never did explain how they had come to list it in the first place, or what the ridiculous charade was all about. But I figured, this was about as good a result as I was ever going to get out of Amazon.com.
Until today, when I received this letter (excerpted) from Amazon.com:
"Dear Amazon customer:
Gosh, a ten-dollar gift certificate that I can apply against any purchase of $25 or more from any Amazon.com "store" *except* certain Amazon.com "stores" including their "bookstore."
Thanks a whole lot, fellas, but I think, No Thanks.
Holt responds: I assume you never made a purchase at Amazon.com? And do you plan to ever use the $10 gift certificate?
Dick Lupoff replies: Never bought anything from them. Never will. And no, I didn't use the ten bucks and almost certainly won't. After all, I'd have to make at least a $25 purchase from one of Amazon.com's "stores," and there's nothing that they sell that I need, that I couldn't buy from a real store. Yeah, I'll even pay the sales tax.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
...Until, oh, six months ago, I would have been an unflinching defender of the independents and the Powells' of this country. The event that has made me reconsider this position is the publication of my first book, a collection of short stories called "Travel Advisory" by William Morrow last February.
While the publisher was about as committed as could be expected to a collection of stories by an unknown - hardly at all - lo and behold, "Travel Advisory" was selected by Barnes & Noble in their "Discover Great New Writers" program, and hence assured prominent space in each of their stores. At the same time I found that many of my heretofore beloved independent bookstores were not stocking the book at all. When I asked the managers why not, they tended to be either patronizing or impolite with me. Suddenly, I started to like Barnes & Noble a lot more than I had previously.
On the Amazon website there's a page devoted to "Travel Advisory" that includes a detailed description of the book, and excerpts from various of the excellent reviews it received. Meanwhile, the "Travel Advisory" page on Powells' website has a cursory misleading description and one excerpt from the book's least generous review. I emailed Powell's with the appropriate materials, asking them to amend the page - twice - and no one even deigned to answer me.
Of course I realize that the dire issues of the way books are published and sold are far larger than is reflected by the prism of my own experience. However, through that prism, who do you think has been more considerate to the writer? Who has been more committed to selling my book? In my shoes, whose side would you be on?
Holt responds: Remembering that B&N's "Discover" program is paid for by publishers, I wouldn't put all that much stock in the chain believing in your book. It's great that somebody in the B&N program picked it, but many observers see the Discover program as another way for Barnes & Noble to get the publisher to pay for in-store promotions the chain should be doing on its own. Meanwhile, though, the uphill battle you face as an author might have started 6 months earlier. It's not fair, but the reality is that authors can get an edge on promotion when they begin very early to create a relationship with independents. If your neighborhood independent knew about your book months ago, perhaps the staff might have helped you find a way to distinguish your collection from others so that booksellers would get a handle on it and begin recommending and hand-selling copies. Then as soon as you received a good review, you'd copy and send to a growing list of supporters. This kind of spadework is invaluable and of course the publisher should do it and I know that many sales reps want to; but given today's mainstream system, the burden is on you. So yes, in your shoes, I'd side with the independents: Once B&N stops "discovering" you, that chain is done. However, independent booksellers who discover you in that time-honored way of falling in love with the book will keep recommending it until the book goes out of print (even after).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Michael Moore's comments about independent booksellers with invisible "keep out" signs on their doors and "snooty" attitudes identifies another facet of the B&N/Starbucks situation.
Wherever my wife and I travel, we always make it a point to hit the used-book stores in the area. During one trip, we were wandering through a promising-looking shop being tended by two young people. At no apparent provocation, one loudly announced: "The more I have to deal with customers the more I like my horses." With that, she snatched up a stack of books from the desk and -- while pointedly ignoring everyone in the shop -- jammed books onto the shelves. The other employee busied himself staring out the window. We opted to find another book store.
We also like little hole-in-the-wall coffee shops, and just down the row from this book store was a little place that had a huge selection of magazines as well as a menu offering a variety of drinks. It could have been a fun place to spend some time (and money), but the tables were dirty and littered with wadded napkins and empty cups. The person behind the counter wore a soiled t-shirt and was arguing with a customer who was unhappy with what was supposed to be a latte, but evidently wasn't.
Fast forward a few years to a repeat trip to the area. The book store was gone. The coffee shop had been replaced by -- you guessed it -- a Starbucks. (No magazines, but the place was clean and pleasant, and customers received just what they ordered.)
While I recognize the arguments about the problems the big chains create for small bookstores and coffee shops, I believe that in more than a few instances the blame for failure can be placed elsewhere. I have worked behind a counter before, and know what a challenge it can be some days. Regardless, the bottom line is that the person walking through the door must be made to feel welcome and important, or they will go somewhere else.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I don't know which I appreciated more, Pat, your bringing forth the insensitivity of supposedly sympathetic organizations that are Amazon Associates, or Michael Moore's response. In fact I could accuse you of equal insensitivity by offering a non-soulution to Moore, i.e., "just wait for Booksense.com," instead of "sign up now as an Associate with one of the 200 good independent bookstores on the BookSite network." It is that kind of thinking and oversight by our industry over the last three years, not Mr. Moore, that has made Amazon what it is today.
Authors can have links to separate books, like Amazon, or they can talk to the bookstores about listing all their books as a feature page, and linking to their own special page on their site. You as author can even add your own comments about your books and have them show up on that site and every other store site too. The point is, the store is probably just down the road and you can work all of this out face to face and have a place to go if customer service issues come up.
It would be nice to think that one of the nearby independent stores capable of doing so offered Moore the same Associate service and was turned down. But I suspect otherwise, that only Amazon and B&N.com really tried to provide Mr. Moore the service he wanted, when he wanted. Instead of us all focusing on why he shouldn't do business with Amazon, why not spend some of that effort making it possible for him to do business with us.
The retailing business is pretty simple, either we put up or we shut up. And Independent Bookselling is about the number-one consumer motivation: convenience, not causes. Our customers and friends don't owe us anything beyond the loyalty we earn through good service. It is not their job to find out about us. It is our job to make sure we have what they need, and they know it.
I wonder how many authors and organizations if given half a chance would love to hitch their wagon to a good independent online bookstore down the street, instead of Amazon. Rather than trying to attract company to our misery, let's put on a smile and join their merry party instead.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re: Your article about the San Fernando City Council approving a new Starbucks while turning down Espresso Mi Cultura, a combined coffee house/theater/cultural center that the city council had asked to open a second location in San Fernando:
Did you or anyone else ask anyone on the city council how much Starbucks donated to various reelection campaigns just prior to making its request and having it approved? Local businesses are nice but if they are not politically active, that is, donors, they are not very interesting to politicians. The local business will do as a standby until someone with deep pockets comes along and clarifies the situation with some cash.
Cynical, you say? Realistic, I reply.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.