by Pat Holt
Friday, May 4, 2001
THE INDIE MESSAGE: NOT LOST IN THE SETTLEMENT, AFTER ALL
Gee, here I was worrying that the American Booksellers Association wasn't aggressive enough showing the press that independent bookstores really did get the goods on those (allegedly) thieving chain bookstores before the recent lawsuit (see #231) was settled.
But then this week a wonderfully spirited discussion about the indie-vs.-chain battle took place on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation."
The booksellers (Ann Christopherson of Women and Children First in Chicago; Andrew Graves of The Happy Bookseller in Columbia, South Carolina) AND the callers AND the one media representative (PW editor John Mutter) were so articulate about each of the issues that I wondered if maybe I had been -- well "wrong" is not a word I often use about this column but perhaps "ripe for redirection," might be a better term.
For example, I said that when the case was turning sour, the ABA might have considered sending its message to the public with a baseball bat approach that would at least show they weren't afraid of slugging it out.
(Suggested headlines were as follows:
AMERICAN BOOKSELLERS 'SHOCKED' AT SECRET BARNES AND NOBLE MEMO
CHAIN STORES RECEIVING ILLEGAL DISCOUNTS, INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS SAY
BORDERS EMPLOYEE: 'ONLY A FEW PLAYERS [WILL BE] LEFT' AFTER INDEPENDENTS DRIVEN OUT OF BUSINESS )
Such headlines might get people's attention, but after listening to "Talk of the Nation," I wondered, to what end?
Perhaps the more important question is this: Against the cruelly simplistic and UNTRUE characterization by the New York Times and other media that the settlement was a "major defeat" for the ABA, is there any way for independents to send back an equally powerful yet TRUE message that would get the more complicated points across?
That's what seemed to surface on the NPR show. Perhaps it takes a conversation, rather than a fat headline and a noisy story, to show listeners that what happened with the antitrust suit settlement was a matter of finding a way for independents to continue on.
That's all: To demonstrate that just keeping the door open day after day in the life of an independent bookstore is both a huge, huge effort in terms of freedom of speech and quality of literature - and a routine, everyday, retail practice that is essential to the local neighborhood.
What that means on a personal level was perhaps best expressed by a caller who identified himself as an African American novelist from Southern California (forgive the slight paraphrasing as I was typing like mad before I could get a tape on the deck to record the dang thing):
Pointing out that Marcus Bookstore in Oakland, where owner Blanche Richardson "has been such a champion of my work throughout my career that I feel I have a second home at her bookstore," the caller noted that "independents offer a level of involvement you never see at Borders and Barnes & Noble.
"For example, Vroman's in Pasadena goes so far as to give birthday presents to my kids. What chains really offer is a restroom [that's bigger than you usually see in other stores]."
But don't you want your books to be sold in chain bookstores? he was asked.
"Yes, but the chances of my books hanging around in chains [is pretty remote]," he said, "since books in a chain store have the shelf life of butter. You go in there and see your book, and then it's gone. I can't find my books often in a Borders store anyway because they put them in the African American section.
"The message is that any novel I write can't sit on the shelf of books of a novel of any other ethnicity. It's sort of bizarre and absurd, but that's the kind of thing you have to deal with in the chains sometimes."
WHO'S COPYING WHO?
Also, remember when the New York Times tried to make it look as though the independents were copying the chains? The point that's hard to get across - hey! it's the other way around! - came out simply and honestly as John Mutter recounted a bit of recent publishing history:
"If you look at superstore growth in the '90s, the key things the chains borrowed from independents like Powell's and Tattered Cover were the idea of the large store with a large selection - much larger than the old chain stores, such as Walden and B Dalton.
"[Barnes & Noble and Borders also copied] author signings, which the chains didn't have 10 years ago; coffee bars, for which they're famous now but were pioneered by independents; and the whole idea of being the center of the community that independent stores developed in the '80s."
"Do you resent the fact that Barnes & Noble is trying to become a bigger, more corporate copy of the things you have done?" Ann Christopherson was asked.
"I don't resent it because I don't really think they can do it," she said. "In my town we've got 22 Borders and Barnes & Noble, and frankly we've competed very successfully with those stores. The fact that independent stores come out of our communities [shows that] we are committed to them.
"In my case I've [been co-owner of Women and Children First] for 21 years, so there are 21-year-olds coming into my store who were infants when they first attended story hours in the store with their parents. They grew up here. So I don't feel threatened that this part of our business has been challenged."
It always amazes me that independent bookstores, surrounded by Home Depot, Office Max, Ace Hardware, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Target and all the other retail chains that have murdered independents in each field, are essentially the only independents left standing. And with or without lawsuits, they've done it with integrity, of all things.
Could independents think of "any new law" that would make things easier on them in their battle with chain bookstores?. "No," Andy Graves said, "we ask that people abide by the laws that are in place.
"We believe in competition as long as it is fair. As a result of past litigation, we're seeing publishers treating us more fairly than they did before." In that way, he said, "we can continue."
Thus was the independent bookstore point of view voiced - quietly, clearly, solidly. I guess this approach is better than a headline that might read EAT DIRT, YOU LYING THUGS. Then again, that one has a certain ring to it.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Sorry to Gayle Gribble [who wrote in #232 that Amazon.com may be marking UP the price of books), but $29.95 is the price of the book because I called the publisher. B&N was discounting it, or they simply had the wrong price. I'm not an Amazon apologist but just because they have something different doesn't mean it's wrong.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I've been monitoring prices reported by online stores, Books In Print, and distributors since about 1996 in both professional and hobby capacity, and it's clear that retail price is yet another detail that the publisher sets before a book goes into print and may change later - and that all the information sources may get wrong.
Amazon.com may very well have chosen to charge more than retail for any given title, but it's much more likely in my experience that a price change was made to the higher price before shipping the book. (It's rare to see the other direction - often books cost more in production, etc., than anticipated when the initial parameters were set.)
I worked at Amazon.com years ago, consulted for other online stores, and run isbn.nu, a price-comparison service, and have found that price is often wildly inaccurate and there appears to be no will among publishers - especially in current economic conditions - to develop their own, in-house, superior source of definitive information on pricing, titles, authors, etc.
Dear Holt Uncensored, The ABA settlement leaves independent booksellers back at square one only if they choose to remain there. In David vs. Goliath situations, the law usually vindicates Goliath. Hence, David must exploit Goliath's one great weakness. Independent booksellers can and should retake the high ground by doing the one thing that the chains cannot abide: collectively they should renounce the returns policy and, in exchange, demand better terms from publishers. Most publishers large and small would gladly accept such a reformed bookselling marketplace. It would encourage better books from publishers, more intelligent and personalized selling by booksellers, and in time a greater appreciation of publishers and booksellers by the reading public.
The chains were enabled to grow at tremendous rates partly by not having to purchase stock outright. Only the huge publishers were able to benefit from the antique system of defacto consignment sales to chains. Independent booksellers must rethink their merchandising methods in order to beat the chains at their own game. Over-ordering and returning stock are wasteful, expensive, and lazy practices. Many of the chain stores exploit the practice to present an illusion of choice, despite making their main business the pushing of bestsellers. Some observers may think that the returns policy encourages booksellers to be more adventurous in their stock selection, but the experience of most independent literary publishers belies this claim. Independent publishers are as beleaguered by the manner in which huge publishing conglomerates exploit the returns policy, as independent booksellers are disadvantaged by the market capitalization of bigbox mass merchandisers. It is time for independent publisher and independent booksellers to make common cause, but nothing will happen until booksellers employ the only real lever they have in their possession.
Under certain circumstances - large quantities sold for author events or special promotions - immediate returns of excess stock would be a rational exception to the rule. Nonetheless, the elimination of returns would enable booksellers to better engage their competitors in a retail marketplace. The implementation of so dramatic a change would not take place without a fight, and it would require strong leadership from the ABA. The sea change would not occur overnight, but eventually chains would have to follow what would become industry-standard terms, or face discount penalties from wholesalers and publishers.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
...One quibble about the ABA not doing a better job of publicizing the dirty deeds of the chains (during the antitrust lawsuit). In the Litigation updates that were offered as free daily emails, posted on their site and reprinted in Bookselling This Week, a great deal of effort was made to include all mentions of secret deals and special terms. Also, the ABA is sending out a recap of the trial, with the updates and lists of wrongdoings, to all members.
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.
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