Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

October 23, 2012

Book-Lover’s Guilt

In case you weren’t feeling glum enough about the imminent closure of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, last night we got the news that Canada’s largest independent publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, has filed for bankruptcy.

The news brought a chorus of astonished gasps and moans from Twitter. Nobody likes to see things like this. Good, experienced publishing people could lose their jobs. Writers could lose their publishers. Their books could go out of print. Oh, and something about the cultural contribution too. Canadian culture, supporting our own, something something.

Of course, if everyone who was so sad to see them in straits actually spent money on their books, they might not be so bad off. That was the first thing I thought, in any case. Oh man, when was the last time I bought a Douglas & McIntyre book, anyway? The summer of 2010, Darwin’s Bastards, Zsuzsi Gardner? July 2010. Cigar Box Banjo, Paul Quarrington, for my husband’s birthday. November 2011, Something Fierce, Carmen Aguirre, for Canada Reads. That’s $80 in two years. No wonder they’re going out of business! Why didn’t I pick up Daniel O’Thunder, Lightning, The Book of Marvels when I saw them? And why didn’t I buy them all at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore?!

The fact is I can barely feed myself and my children, let alone every writer, publisher and bookseller in Canada. But that doesn’t prevent the lingering guilty feeling that I somehow should have tried.

My coworkers and I sit here scratching our heads this morning, wondering how this could have happened to D&M. They have a phenomenal list. We bring in – and sell – almost every single book they publish. What more must a publisher provide? Great, well made books that people want to buy. Isn’t that the formula? How can that fail to pay the bills?

Admittedly, I live in a bubble. Our bookstore sells books nobody else can manage to move. My customers are heavy readers who – bless them – never ask about the prices, just pay them. My friends are heavily educated and literate, with a strong sense of social responsibility when it comes to supporting the local. My 276 Twitter followers seem to be 200 authors, 75 publicists and my mom. The millions of people who buy and read 50 Shades of Grey? I don’t know who they are.

So maybe out there in the real world, D&M’s excellent books are going unnoticed. Maybe all the “buzz” the journalists, bloggers, reviewers and publicists claim to be out there is being generated by review copies and good intentions. I’m a bookseller and a blogger, after all.  I have my share of books given to me, and what I buy I often buy at cost. Maybe I am to blame after all. Do we excuse ourselves from buying books because we feel our endorsement, our “word of mouth” is worth more than the $19.95 we’d spend on the book? I wonder sometimes. I don’t know how else to reconcile the contradiction I’m seeing. We all love and “support” these books, and yet the money isn’t there. Are the readers – the ones who don’t work for the publishing houses, who don’t get their copies for free – there? Are they reading our reviews and buying the books? Does buzz equal sales?

We’re troubled, this morning, about what this could all mean. If a Douglas & McIntyre can’t make it, I wonder if anyone can. Does a publisher need to be propped up by a mega-bestseller (and does a Canada Reads winner not suffice)?

7 thoughts on “Book-Lover’s Guilt”

  1. I think it’s a wake-up call for traditional publishers that’s unfortunately long overdue.

    The business model that the industry runs on is unsustainable in a world of digital information glut, where the real audience for books is increasingly online, and books are selling for free or so cheaply they’re less expensive than a coffee.

    Digital and print-on-demand publishers put more money per-copy into the hands of authors, they haven’t got the infrastructure support costs of traditional publishers, and they distribute hard copies to the larger book chains – in more carefully (analytics) managed quantities and avoiding some of the massive waste that occurs when traditional publishers have to write off unsold paperbacks, which are destroyed by the stores instead of being returned and re-distributed.

    Add to this the fact that in North America a few huge retailers have a virtual monopoly on retail distribution of anything that isn’t a bestseller, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Giant retailers are dictating terms to even large publishers, and the publishers have no choice but to accept those terms because there’s nowhere else to go to move books in volume.

    The advantage of insider press contacts and money spent on marketing campaigns is gradually being eroded by the power of social media and in-group recommendations online. Getting a post on a few blogs with thousands followers each will do as much or more for a book’s sales as a review in the New York Times, and blog reviews are a lot easier to snag.

    The myth of the columnist who submits press releases verbatim instead of doing their own research and writing is actually true for blogs – they just call it a “Guest Post” and put up whatever an author gives them, many without even bothering with basic editorial oversight.

    A scattering of guest posts, verbatim posts of press releases, and author interviews all over the web can generate buzz and bump search engine rankings enough to guarantee steady sales. Sales whose profits go mainly to the author, and not into the insatiable maws of publishing industry dinosaurs.

    A few 5-star reviews on Amazon are worth far more than any endorsement anywhere else, so what’s the value of traditional marketing? I’m not saying it’s ineffective, but there’s way more bang available for the buck online.

    So yeah, it’s a wake-up call.

    Traditional publishers must adapt their way of doing business to become more nimble, and they have to understand that they’re going to have to give away more of their per-copy margin, charge less for online versions of books, switch to a demand-driven printing model that’s responsive to real-world analytics, and take on far more authors in order to make up per-copy and digital losses in volume.

    It’s sad that we’ve lost a great publisher, but the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of management, not consumers.

    It’s industry’s job to figure out what we want, get it to us how we want at a price we’re willing to pay, and find profitable ways to do so.

    Those who do, thrive. Those who don’t, die.

    The Darwinian world of the marketplace is perhaps not the best environment to promote and preserve culture – I’m not saying that this state of affairs is good and right in all instances – but it’s what we’ve got.

    1. LOL I should have done an edit before posting this. There are a few painful turns of phrase that wouldn’t normally make it past my filters. Oh well. You get the gist.

    2. Charlotte says:

      I think you make some good points, but some of the problems I see with the current publishing model are simply replicated or made worse in the self-publishing and digital publishing world. D&M’s books are getting exactly the kind of blog/Amazon/buzz coverage you speak of, but I suspect it doesn’t translate into sales. Why would the same type of buzz sell a cheap ebook?

      The scenario: Jenny the Reader sees all her friends are talking about a book. Her favourite bloggers gave it fabulous reviews, and it’s GoodReads/Amazon rating is high. She goes to buy it at the bookstore where it is $19.95.

      Are you suggesting she balks at the price, goes home, pulls up Amazon and buys some other self-published title simply because it costs $5.99 instead? I don’t know who this hypothetical literary fiction reader could be who will pass up a book recommended by friends and trusted sources in favour of an unknown (or even popular) self published title simply because it saves her $10. I don’t buy hamburger when I want steak just because it’s cheaper. If I want steak, I buy the freaking steak.

      Now it’s true that some good material might be being self-published online. But it still needs the same factors: the buzz, the reviews, the recommendations. The price strikes me as being a tertiary requirement. GETTING that buzz as a self-published author, on the other hand, is nearly impossible. I don’t review self-published titles. Not as a policy, but simply because in a world where I have limited reading time, dipping into something unknown without a very good reason (an award, a trusted recommendation, a previously-loved book by the same author) is just not going to happen, at any cost. A new writer published by an established publishing house comes with a warrantee, and I don’t think that can be overstated. A self-published book cast into the digital ether is likely to be entirely overlooked. You don’t even get something as minimal as shelf space, a mention in the catalogue, a Tweet from the publicist.

      I guess I just doubt that the problem is digital competitiveness. I don’t see a lot of online competition for literary non/fiction. The customer who wants a steak isn’t the same customer who is counting pennies.

  2. Do you feel guilty if the restaurant whose food you don’t like goes out of business?

    Look, I love books but book people have this notion that books are somehow different than cars or soda or widgets and they aren’t. D&M was either producing books people didn’t want, paying too much in salary and facilities costs, pricing them too high or otherwise running in a way that wasn’t efficient in 2012 and are going to fail as a result.

    It is not the job of the consumer to buy products they don’t want to keep a dinosaur around, it’s the job of the publisher to provide product that is successful in a competitive marketplace.

    I am sad that people are going to lose their jobs but the market is the market. People buy X number of books with their disposable income and D&M just could not compete.

    Some companies adapt to changing markets and others die. I don’t feel guilty and nor should you. Buy the books you are interested in and that fit your budget. It’s the publisher’s job to make sure those purchases are from their library not yours to feel bad because you didn’t want to buy their books.

  3. Excellent post, Charlotte. Great thoughts, fantastic questions. I feel the same.

    It’s an interesting point you raise about digital competition. As an indie bookseller in my town, our greatest competition is Chapters about ten minutes away, the library a block over, and a second-hand shop across the street. But it is also Shopper’s, our grocery stores, Amazon, Costco, etc. I don’t know how much digital competition we have, although we have had people come in to ask about ebooks and those who want to check out books before downloading them.

    I hear many publishers talk about the changing world of publishing and I usually assume that to mean self-publishing, digitization, corps like Amazon, etc. I suppose there are many factors in their struggling, needing to restructure, and sometimes disbanding. I don’t know enough about all this.

    Is the problem the same for all these publishers? While I don’t feel they are, are D&M publishing the “wrong books”? Why would companies be unable to adapt to changing markets? Is it really up to the companies or is the struggle that the consumers are fickle and thus constantly demanding more, better, different, and cheaper and it’s becoming impossible for some reason to keep up?

    I have so many questions myself, and while I feel the same frustration and guilt as you do for not supporting a company even more than I already have, I also know the answer doesn’t just lie in how many books I buy and promote. There are thousands of us book bloggers, publicists, booksellers, book buyers. What to do? What else can we do? The success of a company all comes down to profit. If we’re still buying, and they’re making enough to publish such quantity and quality, perhaps they’re not running efficiently? (This was mentioned above.)

    Whatever the case, I remain saddened and rather panicky as more and more businesses fold, and significant ones like D&M show signs of cracking and worse. Admittedly, I feel helpless; as though no matter what I do to keep it, what I love is going to disappear.

    1. I just read a comment by Buffy Cram on why D&M was folding. It’s on my post. Perhaps we are not buying enough, as we’ve both suggested (though I said I wasn’t sure that was the only problem) and that’s the simple answer? I don’t know. What’s behind the CEO stepping down at the beginning of the year? Management needing to refresh or improper management?

      There are probably several factors at work. But I do feel Buffy’s comment keenly.

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