Tuesday, April 28, 2009

long and winding road

Every so often readers write in offering to sell copies of The Last Samurai and asking how to set this up. If they were professional booksellers, obviously, they wouldn't need to ask; these are people who run, as it might be, a yarn shop, or a pet supplies store, who nevertheless feel that the lives of their customers, denied the unguessed-at joys of the Eskimo Book of Knowledge and Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, are blighted and that Something Must Be Done.

Publishers love to complain about how hard it is to sell books; two particular areas of grievance are the decline of independent bookstores and the ruthlessness of the big chains. It's hard to get books into the big chains; once there, a book gets a couple of weeks' shelf-time, after which it is (if unsold) returned to the publisher at the publishers' expense. Another point often made is that books achieve success by word of mouth - people are likelier, it seems, to buy a book on the recommendation of a friend than they are after reading a good review. No one really knows how to orchestrate word of mouth, so it's haaaaaaaaaaaaaard, it's haaaaaaaaaaard, it's just so haaaaaaaaaaaaard. Mwaaaaaaaaaaah.

A couple of recent interviews on Poets & Writers revisited the themes (4 young editors, 4 literary agents; I passed them on to two writer friends. Response A: Fuck you pal. Response B: I can never read these things without wanting to kill myself.

Agents and editors alike talked about falling in love with a book, how important it was to fall in love with a book, how it was simply not possible to get books in stores unless everyone down the line had fallen in love with the book. Something about this called to mind Shaw's Arms and the Man: the play in which Shaw sets the notion of warfare as won by heroic gallant charges against the modern type of warfare, won by logistics, technical expertise, access to resources.

Suppose we imagine a system rather different from the one we have now. The sale of books is not confined to specialist outlets; if you walk into a hardware store, or a pet supplies store, or a hairdresser's, or a doctor's waiting room, if you check into a hotel, if you turn up at a restaurant, you will always find a few books on sale - books chosen, presumably, according to the taste of the proprietor. Or chosen, maybe, after urgent recommendation from the proprietor's friends.

A couple of points spring to mind:

First, precisely because this is not a bookstore, the lucky few are not in competition with a whole bookstore full of other books. They have the level of prominence that in a bookstore comes with display on a front table - something publishers generally have to pay to achieve.

Second, because this is not a bookstore, possible buyers are not drawn exclusively from the (I gather) small pool of people who go to bookstores. The books are seen by the very much larger pool of people who are (I gather) put off by bookstores, but happily go to, as it might be, yarn shops, pet supplies shops, hardware shops.

It seemed to me that I should do my bit to bring about this desirable world, so I bit the bullet. That is, I forced myself to do something I had been shirking for months, if not years: I called the Customer Service line of HarperCollins, who are the US distributor for The Last Samurai.

The number, for those who want to try it out for themselves, is 1-800-242-7737. You call and get a recorded menu (the sort of thing that leaves my mother in tears). If you pick 2, which I think was new orders, you get put through to a human being. I got Lauren. I explained that I was trying to streamline the process for readers who might like to sell the book in non-bookselling outlets; what sort of price would they have to pay? How many books would they be expected to order? Well, says L, it all depends; the would-be customers would all need to call separately and talk to a service rep who would determine etc. etc.

I say: Well, but look, I'm just trying to remove obstacles. It's absurdly inefficient to make every single person call up and play phone tag; I just want to give people a fixed deal that they can put in place without a lot of hassle.

I say: Look, everyone is talking about how publishing is going into freefall, the big publishers are laying off staff right and left, Bob Miller left Hyperion to go to HarperStudio to try to fix the system and one of the major problems is that the chains all insist on returns. A retailer who just wants to make a book available to customers isn't going to care about returns, so we should all want to make this easier, I'm just trying to facilitate

Lauren says she will put me through to Stan at Hyperion. There's a short pause. I get Stan. I explain what I'm trying to do.

Stan is willing to reveal that the normal discount given booksellers is 45% off the cover price. I say, And what would someone need to do to place an order? Do they really have to call and go through this hassle? Isn't there a way to place an order online or a form they can send in or something?

He says: They can send an e-mail to orders@harpercollins.com, if they don't mind giving credit card details in an e-mail. Or they can fax an order, the fax number is 1-800-822-4090.

I say: OK, and is there some minimum number of copies someone would need to order? How does this work, exactly?

Stan says: These are not booksellers?

HD: No.

Stan: Well, to open an account they'd have to make an initial payment of $450.

HD: [I'm going mad. I'm going mad. Can they be serious? Can they possibly be serious? You think some guy who runs a hardware store, who out of the goodness of his heart has agreed to stock 10 copies of my book, is going to make an initial payment of $450!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! to set up the account?]

But the thing is, though I'm going berserk, I realize that Stan did not set up this policy. It's not his fault. It would be unfair to start raving at Stan. I say again that everyone says publishing is in freefall, no one knows what to do, the big problem is that independents are closing and the big chains are ruthless about returns so we should look for other solutions, and that this seems like a big obstacle in the path of people who would happily stock a book, but I realize he did not make the policy so I will just write about it on my blog.

It's hard to be sane. The reason I put off calling the Customer Service number was that I was sure the business of selling books would face stiff opposition from an unhelpful publisher. And it's boring, yes; Jenny Turner said the other day that most people aren't interested in these things. But wotthehell wotthehell.


Jenny Davidson said...

As I came to the paragraph beginning "It seemed to me..." I was inwardly saying "Oh NOOooooooooo....."

papalazarou said...

Do these people just not want to sell books? They will kill their own industry at this rate. Their business model is broken and all they can do is make it worse!


NV said...

If the hardware store will pay cash up front for the book, the $450 thing probably won't apply. It's a way of establishing credit-worthiness I would guess, for 30-day payment terms. Seller does need some way to know buyer will pay. None of this is an excuse for giving you the runaround. Publishers do sell to small nonbook accounts all the time. It sucks for an author not to have a personal relationship with someone at the house who can make things happen.

Helen DeWitt said...

NV, It may be that I did not fully grasp the ins and outs - I hate doing business by phone, and only called in the first place because my contact at Hyperion (who was not in sales) told me the phone number was the only way to get an answer. Now that I have the orders e-mail address, though, I can find out more. I would have thought if someone was willing to pay by credit card HarperCollins would have all the creditworthiness it needed to be getting on with.

I guess the larger point is just the thing Nielsen talks about constantly in his work on usability. You want to make closing a sale as easy as possible.

Anonymous said...

Wait, was the initial payment an account set-up fee lost in the wallet of the publisher or does it get applied towards the purchase of books?

Colin said...

Indeed. Sadly, it seems that those who really care about removing obstacles are always in the minority.

Large organizations have grown up around their policies, and The Way Things Are Done never change until someone pushing from the very top decides to make that change a key priority.

Even then, the high priests of the Way Things Are Done tend to push back quite a great deal. And the person at the top moves on in a few years, and the high priests remain.

Helen DeWitt said...

Anon, I don't think the $450 is some kind of membership fee, sounds more like a deposit. This struck me as unrealistic, though, as a payment upfront from someone who had obligingly agreed to stock 5 books or so in an outlet whose primary business was something completely different.

SoftSilverTain said...

I'm wondering if you could put these people in touch with each other, maybe set up some sort of cooperative to put up that $450, then distribute the books amongst themselves. This doesn't really solve the problem, of course. It does add needless complexity. But a possible solution, maybe one that could be used as an example to the publishing industry.

Anonymous said...

When the supermarkets were selling the latest Harry Potter for thruppence hapenny a lot of the independents bought their stock at the supermarkets - maybe these people could just buy a few copies from a store (maybe on a 3 for 2) and sell them on.

The Seven Stars pub in Carey Street London has a book shop consisting of 3 books perteninent to this ancient hostelry,

Helen DeWitt said...

Well, if somebody just wanted a supply on hand to sell their best bet would probably be to buy some As New copies for $0.28 on Amazon Marketplace and then slip me a few bob as a goodwill gesture.

The thing that struck me, though, was that agents and editors these days are all keen for writers to get out and plug their books (rather than selfishly staying at home and writing new ones). The model they seem to have in mind, though, is rather embarrassingly ineffectual. If a writer goes out and gives a reading, for instance, one possibility is, of course, to encourage everyone to buy one copy per person to take away and read; a smarter move, one might think, would be to encourage everyone to find at least one friendly retailer who'd be willing to stock, as it might be, 5. One could have sheafs of promotional fliers to hand out, sparing people the embarrassment of personally buttonholing, as it might be, their hairdresser or barista. But this depends, obviously, on having the logistics sorted out ahead of time by the publisher.

I feel a bit silly agitating on my own behalf - if I were going to go out knocking on doors I'd rather do it for Calvino's Invisible Cities, a book no home should be without, or Borges' Ficciones, or Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Renaud Camus's Tricks - a wonderful book. (In fact, come to think of it, maybe I'll go out and twist arms at some of my local gay-friendly cafés on behalf of the unimprovable Tricks.) As the author of The Last Samurai, though, I feel I have some sort of right to make a nuisance of myself.

nsiqueiros said...

Many bookstores have a recommended reading shelf/shelves. At least, many bookstores that I frequented (when I lived in the city) have these recommended reading shelves. One bookstore, Borders, even has specific shelves with recommended reading by the store staff themselves. And I think, Why can't customers recommend books to other customers without actually having to go up to a stranger and say 'Read this book!'? I took matters into my own hands. I started slyly switching books on the recommended reading shelves with books I thought more deserved of the spotlight. Hint hint.

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

These are the best two sentances I have read in ages: "No one really knows how to orchestrate word of mouth, so it's haaaaaaaaaaaaaard, it's haaaaaaaaaaard, it's just so haaaaaaaaaaaaard. Mwaaaaaaaaaaah."