Sunday, March 24, 2013

When Dinosaurs Dance

Barnes & Noble is in a conflict with Simon & Schuster over terms. According to an article in the New York Times (, Barnes & Noble essentially wants to pay less for books and receive more for displaying books in prominent positions in their stores.

This is bad news for the industry as a whole, and particularly bad for authors, especially those whose books do not achieve best-seller status. While remembering an independent bookseller once telling me, during a discussion about disputes between chains and publishers back in the 90s, "stay out of the way when dinosaurs dance," this might be time to consider again the advantages you have, as an independent, over the chains.

You have neither the time nor the money to waste on schemes involving threats and payback. But you do carry far more titles, authors, and publishers than the chains. I have made this point here before, but only regarding bargain books. In buying bargain, the chains buy a few of the best selling authors and only if there are heavy quantities available per ISBN. This means that the best books are left behind and available to you. If you buy ones and twos and 5s and 10s of the best stuff, you quickly create a dense, awesome bargain section and your customers will wonder what the heck is wrong with the chains when they stop there for a cup of coffee.

Now it seems you can apply the same logic to everything. Even without tussles over prices and discounts, the chains have trimmed the number of titles they carry. They focus on sales volume when selecting and eliminating titles, publishers, even categories. You know that the best selling authors at your location, in your store, usually do not come close to the best seller lists. Think about what this means.

Independents will become more important to the publishers and authors as this struggle plays out. The publishers will discover that there are markets for their authors everywhere, even across the street from the chains that have counted the beans and found them lacking. While this particular dispute will be resolved rather sooner than later, it will not be the last of its kind, and it illustrates a dynamic that can work in your favor.

Many years ago when the chains were rapidly expanding at the expense of independents, booksellers lamented that after they had, through their decades of purchases and author events, built the publishers into the successes they had become, they were being shut out by those same publishers in favor of the bigger sales volume of the chains. I never thought much of the argument that they should go to the publishers and point this out, but now that the chains are struggling and regional and local markets have become viable again, maybe it is time to tell the publishers to stop wasting their money and time on diminishing returns, put their efforts where their customers are, and sell some books.

Follow up note, 6/4/13: S&S had a strong first quarter this year, despite this protracted struggle with B&N.

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