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 email@example.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?
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.