Once & Future

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

October 1, 2010

It’s Raining Deluxe Editions!

I (and others) have observed over the last few years that the rise of the eBook might be a Good Thing ™ for those of us who love and value the art of the book.  Relegating most of the drivel published to an appropriately temporary medium might free up print resources for those things which benefit from a tactile existence – that is to say, it might widen and clarify the difference between works read unthinkingly to pass the time, and works owned to preserve and venerate the quality contents.  The books one wants to own and the books one wants to read are not always the same.  Perhaps the Reader would spend more on the former if they could spend less on the latter (insert snarky comment about the long-standing existence of libraries here).

I have absolutely no data to back up this claim, but I am starting to detect actual evidence of this trend.  Not that the flow of cheaply printed works of drivel has lessened any (maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t – I like to think we don’t stock or sell these things, so as a bookseller I’m pretty oblivious to them), but the availability of premium editions from mainstream publishers – that is, not from small and private presses who’ve been producing these all along – has really increased.  These books might not be exactly to the standard of an artisan private press work, but they certainly are striving to appeal to the sensibilities of collectors.

Harvard University Press’s new release Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition (annotated by Patricia Meyer Spacks) is a beautiful example.  The book is bound in ochre cloth with the most lovely wood-grained endpapers, and is lavishly illustrated throughout with historical references, diagrams and portraits.  It’s a non-standard 9 x 9 1/2″, and weighs a tonne because of the excellent paper stock.  Best of all, it’s fantastically affordable at $35US.

“Dover Publications” doesn’t bring to mind “quality editions”, so they wisely launched their latest enveavor under the imprint Calla Editions.  These hardcover editions are mainly reprints (as is most of Dover’s catalogue) of classic illustrated editions from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  But oh my goodness, who cares?  These are stunning reproductions of iconic editions illustrated by Golden Age artists like Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen and Harry Clarke.  The list keeps expanding, too – I’m giddy at the possibility that I might someday get a big, beautiful edition of one of my favourites from Dover – E.R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros, illustrated by Keith Henderson.  Once again, the price is right – the backlist thus far has come in at $50-$54 CDN per volume.

In honour of Puffin’s 70th anniversary, they have released these Puffin Designer Classics. These limited-edition runs of classic children’s books are drop-dead gorgeous in jpg form – I’ve yet to see one in person, though! I’ve pictured their edition of The Secret Garden because it is probably the most stunning – but unsurprisingly, I’d line up for their Treasure Island in glass-bottle slipcase!

Both Barnes & Noble and Penguin Classics are onboard, of course. I saw my first Penguin Hardcover Classic (left) in the wild at Type on Queen St. the other day, and it exceeded my expectations. Generally I’ve found Penguin Classics to be cheaply made, overpriced- and subjected to Pearson’s insane book packaging and shipping methods, which frequently end in bent and damaged books. But they weren’t messing about with these editions- the paper is more forgiving, the bindings are tight and of course, they look wonderful. Barnes and Nobles’ Leatherbound Classics (right) I can’t attest to – but they give a mean photograph.

In administrative news, I’m back! Apologies for the extended summer vacation – the bookstore has been a zoo busy lately, only now settling down to our usual, sit-and-read pace. I have a backlog of reviews, interviews and reports to kick out, so I hope you’ll be back. Happy autumn!

August 26, 2010

Distribution, Technology & Small Bookstores

I’m going to surface for a few moments here, take a few gasps of air before I dive back down under the apparently infinite shipments of books currently flooding into my bookstore. Though my brains have been near-fried by fatigue and repetition, my outrage gland is apparently unharmed. I’ve let bile build up there long enough, and I’m looking at you, distributors. I’ve had just about enough of your shenanigans.

I am not a machine. It’s true that I work like a machine, and I have a encyclopedic knowledge of my product that rivals at least some databases. I can do some pretty impressive mental math too, but the analogy pretty much runs out there. I am a mere, fallible human being who works with other human beings, interfacing only with human customers who, anachronistically, enter the store and speak with us to obtain the books they want. We do, yes, have a computer in the store. For nearly four years now, it even provides us with internet access. But we do not run industry-specific software and we don’t have an electronic inventory system. We don’t “scan” books (unless we’re trying to read them very quickly) and when we “look things up”, we’re doing so in reference books. Nevertheless we’re a vibrant, healthy and extremely viable independent bookstore.

So look, I get that maybe you need to use all of these things – databases, scanners, computers and Cylons – to run your business, but something is going on here that goes beyond mechanization of tasks. Technology has to interface with people somewhere along the chain. It is meant to serve us, after all, it ought to be decipherable. But we’ve grown lazy, or maybe we’ve lost some skills, and it seems to me that increasingly, technology does not interface with real humans anywhere along the line. The system is made, instead, to interface with other machines. This is highly irritating if one happens to be a human.

Let me be specific. I received an order the other day – a smallish one – of about 60 boxes, 1300 lbs. This order contained between 20-300 copies each of a few dozen titles. Now, a human would expect if one had ordered 20 copies of, say, Don Quixote, that they might be found in one box, stacked together.  Maybe two boxes if they fit more nicely that way.  A human does not expect that the quantity would be split up over six boxes, interwoven with dozens of other titles similarly dispersed.  In order to find a complete quantity, the human has to open nearly all of the 60 boxes uncovering one copy here, two copies there, all the time sorting the books into dozens of incomplete piles.

How does this even happen?  The only explanation I can come up with is that the books are spread haphazardly over a conveyor belt which winds its way around the warehouse.  Specially trained packing monkeys grab books they recognize as they rattle by.  I’m sure this is no problem at all if the bookstore is scanning each book as it comes out of the box.  A computer keeps track of quantities as they arrive, yup, fifteen down, only eighty-five more to locate of title 4 of 109.  If it shows up tomorrow, in another shipment, no biggie.  The inventory system has got your back.

The human, simple being that I am, is angry and frustrated.  We didn’t need an inventory system until the books started being packed by monkeys and itemized by an inventory system on the other end!  I fail to see whose job got easier: instead we’re both saddled with expensive (and fallible) infrastructure to encode and decode needlessly.

Another example. Much like the bank or the cable company, the publisher and distributor is now a slave to “the system”. I’m sure you’ve heard this one: “I’m sorry ma’am, the system won’t let me override the hold on your cheque.” “I’m sorry sir, the system bills you for the whole billing cycle even if the service was cancelled a day in. The system will credit you next month.”

We order thousands of trade titles into our trade bookstore this time of year, every year. This year, an unscrupulous sales rep sold one of our professors on the idea of a “pack” instead of individual books – several trade books packaged together for meager savings to the student. The ISBN generated for said “pack” came from the college division. Suddenly the books – the same trade books we carry every year – have become college books, with a college discount. Saving to the student? $4.85. Cost to the bookstore? $3000. Outraged, we call the publisher to ask what on earth they were thinking. “Sorry,” we were told, “The system gives short discount on college books.” But we could just return these packages and reorder the books separately and save the money, we cry. To fill the second order, they’ll probably actually have to unwrap those stupid packages. Why not just give us the trade discount and save everyone some trouble? “The system.”

I’ll addend to these two issues my ongoing complaint that Indigo/Amazon has trained customers to think like machines too. “I need a book. Can I give you the ISBN?” No, you can not give me the ISBN. How about a title? Author? You’d cry if you knew just how many of these customers don’t have the title and author. They didn’t write it down, see. They just took the ISBN. And if that ISBN is old, out of print, or doesn’t have Canadian rights? Too bad. If we were Chapters, I suppose we’d just tell you we don’t have the book and move on. Silly humans that we are, we go to the trouble of sussing out what you’re actually looking for. And how much easier that would be if we weren’t all expected to be machines.

I wonder if, as in agriculture, smaller bookstores are starting to suffer under this pressure to mechanize. I know booksellers are supposed to “get with the times”, but thus far I’ve heard this in the context of selling online, competing with ebooks, and providing services in addition to just selling books. But that’s the difference between telling a farmer he has to open a petting zoo and telling him he has to buy a $1.5 million dollar thresher. You don’t need the petting zoo to grow carrots. You don’t need a cafe to sell books. And the thresher?

June 24, 2010

The University Press

The very best job in all of bookselling is looking at new catalogues.  Remember that feeling, months before Christmas when you were seven or eight years old, browsing through the Sears Christmas catalogue and picking all the toys you wanted Santa to bring you?  Going through publisher’s catalogues is exactly like that, except you actually get to order every last book you want.

We have a pretty carefully curated collection at my bookstore.  We don’t sell a lot of “bestsellers”, period.  From the mainstream trade catalogues we buy the very best of the literary fiction, poetry, and a lot of non-fiction, but compared to our purchases on the whole, these amount to a middling percentage.  The catalogues we get most excited about, invariably, are those most other bookstores don’t look at: the University Presses.

It isn’t that University Press books are only of interest if you are a specialty bookstore.  They contain lots of exciting, widely appealing titles.  But ordering from them isn’t the easiest thing if you aren’t used to it, and so most conventional bookstores don’t bother.

For starters, many University Press books are what we call “short discount” books, meaning the bookstore gets much less of a discount than the norm for a frontlist trade title.  This has led to a policy at Chapters/Indigo of not ordering short discount books for stock – they will, I believe, special order them if you beg really hard.  A short discount on an expensive book can be hard for many bookstores to swallow, which leads me to the second issue, which is that University Press books can often be quite expensive.  Not unreasonably so, but you’re not likely going to ever see a “mass market” edition from a University Press.  Hardcovers range from $29.95-$60+, with paperbacks in the $19.95-$34.95 range.  Sometimes more.

Many University Press books are print-on-demand.  That means they don’t have a warehouse full of stock (though wholesalers might), they simply print to order.  The backlists of presses like the Fordham University PressCornell University Press, and the State University of New York Press have gone largely to a print-on-demand model.  Print-on-demand is a useful technology that allows thousands of titles to remain in print over a long period of time, but is troubling for some bookstores.  It complicates returns as many POD titles aren’t returnable, and the books often aren’t very attractive.  Chapters/Indigo has a chain-wide policy of never ordering print-on-demand titles, to simplify things for them.

Lastly, many of the best University Presses are American, without Canadian distribution.  Not only does this mean they need to be imported, but they will have to be exported too, when returns time comes.  Importation is not without its costs.  Customs brokerage can be 15-20% of the cost of a shipment – or more.  This is not always the case, of course – the University of Toronto Press distributes many excellent presses, as does Unipresses (McGill-Queens, University of Alberta, etc.)

But this isn’t meant to be a litany of reasons not to get University Press books – what I have instead are five reasons why all the trouble is absolutely worthwhile to me.

A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel – Yale University Press

I’d argue that Alberto Manguel is one of Canada’s very best literary critics.  His books on reading and readership should be required for anyone who thinks or comments on book culture from any angle – his classic A History of Reading has become a one of my most frequently consulted reference books.  And speaking of well read individuals – this guy.  He has lived on four continents and counts having once been a reader to a blind Jorge Luis Borges among his qualifications.  Most of Manguel’s best-known works are published in Canada by Random House, but this collection of essays drawn from a variety of publications has just been published by Yale University Press.

Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain – University of California Press

You have to have been living in a hole to have missed the announcement of this one: Mark Twain left instructions that his final œvre – the autobiography he spent the final four years of his life writing – would not be published until 100 years after his death.  And guess what?  The time has come, the vaults have been unsealed, the manuscript has presumably been thawed and released from stasis or whatever else they did to it, and here it is, the first volume from the University of California Press. Or, here it will be, come November.

Duel at Dawn: Heroes, Martyrs, and the Rise of Modern Mathematics by Amir Alexander – Harvard University Press

I have a secret love of books with elaborate and unlikely titles. Especially ones which involve duels at dawn. From the blurb: “In the fog of a Paris dawn in 1832, Évariste Galois, the twenty-year-old founder of modern algebra, was shot and killed in a duel… in the nineteenth century, brilliant mathematicians like Galois became Romantic heroes like poets, artists, and musicians. The ideal mathematician was now an alienated loner, driven to despondency by an uncomprehending world.” There’s a novel in there, somewhere. In the meantime, Alexander’s book is supposed to be excellent. It’s also beautiful: Harvard produces some of the nicest, most pleasant to hold books on the market.

Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books and Publishing by Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman – University of Toronto Press

This isn’t just token Canadian Content. I think this is a really important book, even if you aren’t a student of Canadian Book History. Canada has come to be a world leader in children’s publishing, and that is in no small part due to the very hard work on the part of certain pioneers in the field including Janet Lunn and Oxford Canada’s Bill Toye.  The book is thorough – for an academic, utterly complete – and beautiful, and I dare say -for the non-academic – readable.

Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture by Jim Collins – Duke University Press

Indeed! I haven’t looked too closely at this one because it only arrived the day before yesterday. But I’m intrigued! Collins talks extensively about the rise of literary adaptations in film and television, and of literary adaptations of film and television; of fandom and increasingly hands-on readers. He discusses past and current responses to bestsellers and the bestseller phenomenon itself. Okay, it might sound a little egg-headed, but we’re all smart folks here. This might be the reflective survey of your life’s passion that you were looking for.

June 8, 2010

A Tale of Two Editions

For a year or so we have been importing an edition of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah from the US. It’s a new Anchor edition, lovely design and reasonable price.  It looks like this:


After converting to the Canadian dollar (a year ago), and accounting for the cost to import, it cost $16.95 CDN.

In March of this year we finally received the Anchor Canada edition of Anthills.  It looks like this:


Don’t be entirely fooled, the back covers are different. For starters, the Canadian edition has a Canadian price printed on the back: $19.95 CDN.

The title and copyright pages are different (they appear to constitute preliminaries) but the text block is identical.  The paper stock is similar, if not the same.  The cover of the American edition is printed on a nice textured stock, compared to a smoother, glossier stock used for the Canadian cover (more prone, evidently, to bulking from humidity).  The back covers, as I say, contain differences:  The lead review on the American edition is from the Washington Post Book World, while the Canadian edition features a quote by M.G. Vassanji (the Washington Post quote can be found in smaller type after the blurb).  The ISBNs and imprints (Anchor vs Anchor Canada) are different.  The Canadian edition specifies that it has been “Printed and bound in the USA” while, mysteriously, the American edition does not.  And, of course, there’s the higher Canadian price.

A few years ago when the Canadian dollar hit par there was a positive rebellion in the bookselling world as Canadian consumers seized on book prices in particular as evidence that they were being ripped off.  Though our customers here weren’t as violent and rude as they appeared to be in some of the bigger bookstores, we certainly had our share of customers smugly asking if they paid in US dollars if they could pay the US price.  I tried, a few times, to explain why the US price meant nothing to a Canadian retailer but generally speaking nobody was listening.  The publishers panicked, and in a bizarre attempt to recoup some PR, abruptly dropped their prices to par and issued booksellers seemingly arbitrary credits to make up for the price discrepancy.  It only lasted as long as the public furor did: a few months later prices started creeping back up to the real cost.

These days the dollar is more or less at par again but Canadian frontlist trade books continue to cost about 15% more than they do in the ‘States.  Don’t take that number as gospel either, some books still come in 30%+ more expensive than the American list price.  There’s no real consistency within a publisher or distributor either.  Take Oxford University Press as an example.  Their Very Short Introduction series comes in at par every time ($11.95 here or in the ‘States).  Meanwhile Oxford World’s Classics often come in about 25% higher than the American ($14.95 compared to $11.95).  I hope I don’t need to tell my readers that the price of a book isn’t, generally, set by the bookseller.  These are the prices charged, less discount, by the publishers.

The great mystery is why this happens.  We have been told by economic and business Powers That Be that the cost of doing business in Canada is higher than in the ‘States.  These higher costs need to be recouped with higher prices.  I find this a little hard to follow: given that logic, wouldn’t goods be supremely cheap in countries where the “minimum wage”, should there be one, is measured in cents rather than dollars?  Couldn’t we just import Penguin India editions for a fraction of the North American price?

There are other mysteries, too.  Most of the work on this Achebe edition was done already for the American edition by the time it got to Canada.  New covers needed to be printed (though not, to a huge extent, designed).  So to did new preliminaries.  The book block is probably the same one as the American edition.  The design, editing, promotion and strategising was already done.  There will be some local warehousing costs, local shipping costs, and local advertising costs.  Do these costs constitute 18% of the cost of the book?  (Actually, it’s more like 30% when you consider the US price on the book is actually only $14.00 US.)

I was sympathetic to the publishers’ non-par pricing when the poop hit the fan three years ago.  Books take longer to produce than markets take to zigzag, and costs would have been accrued long before the market hit par.  Further, many books were published back when the dollar was not par, and slicing the price on backlist titles can be painful.  It wasn’t reasonable to expect them to take that loss.

But that was three years ago, and this is now.  The current status of the Canadian dollar is not a surprise to anyone.  Barring major strange shifts in world events or international relations, the Canadian dollar is probably going to stay more or less where it is for the foreseeable future.  So why are Canadian books still coming in so much more expensive than American ones?

I don’t have an answer, but I can’t help but think it’s a matter of habit.  Canadians are used to paying $19.95 for a trade paperback, and so the cost of a trade paperback will remain $19.95.  But come on people, we know how to use the internet here.  To the best of my knowledge, I can still import (as an individual) an American edition, even if a Canadian is available.  How can they expect to sell these Canadian editions when you can so easily get an identical American one for less?

April 15, 2010

The Ecology of Ideas: An Interview with Of Swallow’s Jason Rovito

The media’s narrative goes like this: Toronto booksellers are dropping like flies, with venerable institutions like Pages and David Mirvish Books on Art as well as newer enterprises like McNally Robinson and TYPE on the Danforth shutting their doors.  But not to worry, new bookstores are cropping up all over town; plucky startups like ReReadingGood Egg and Zoinks! are going to try their luck in the strange new world of the internet, ebook and big box retail.

Into this narrative enter Of Swallows, their deeds, & the winter below.  Jason Rovito has become Of Swallow’s figurehead, the latest young entrepreneur to try his hand at redefining bookselling for the 21st century.  But Rovito’s vision of a center for knowledge exchange and an experiment in community idea building is a far cry from the usual bookseller line, and indeed neither the man nor the space fit into the usual roles of proprietor and property.  Traditional and innovative booksellers alike are trying to sell a product; Of Swallows is going to try to become a location of intellectual exchange.

But jargony idealism aside, Rovito’s collective seems to have a sound foundation:  the bookstore sells second-hand scholarly books while the location at 283 College Street (at Spadina) is also home to the Toronto New School of Writingand a 3rd floor office and boardroom are available for rent on an hourly basis to interested parties.  This helps pay the bills but more importantly, drives like-minded users into the space.  For Rovito, whose academic background includes work on urban Marxism and the history of the medieval university, locality, community, and exchange are completely the point of bookselling.  “If you take care of the cultural ecology,” he told me, “the political economy takes care of itself.”  That is to say, if you have a healthy community of eager minds converging on a place, books are bound to sell.

I was intrigued by Of Swallows right off the bat for a number of reasons:  For starters, it is a used, not a new, bookstore.  If the current economy can be said to be unfriendly to independent new booksellers, it is certainly even more so to used sellers who don’t have the benefit of publishers’ marketing budgets and distributors’ returns policies.  Of Swallows’ intellectual predecessor, Atticus Books formerly of Harbord St., recently “went digital”, leaving behind the question of if a second-hand scholarly bookstore is economically viable.  And how could anyone compete with Amazon’s used-book subsidiary, Abebooks.com?

Rovito’s answer to the potential pitfalls of bookselling seems to be to focus on the space of bookselling, not the books themselves, a refocusing he described as getting away from the “fetishization of the object” and moving towards a “life cycle of ideas” instead.  And he’s quite right to do so.  Bookselling, unlike other forms of retail, has traditionally been as much about the bookseller as about the product.  Customers come to browse, relying on a particular seller’s taste in acquiring stock.  They come for advice as well, for recommendations and discussions.  Readers will frequently ask a seller, “Have you read this?”  where a clothing shopper will not ask “Have you worn this?”  There is, as Rovito points out, a “ritualistic aspect to bookselling” which recognizes that the act of going into a bookshop is something many people engage in without, necessarily, a thought about the commodity within.  They’ve come for ideas, the possibility of knowing.

Of Swallows is situated barely a block from the University of Toronto’s St. George campus, a location not chosen by accident.  In fact, Rovito had originally planned to move into a space even closer to the heart of the university, a stone’s throw from the monumental Robart’s Library.  That his customer base would be taken from the academic community is obvious, but Rovito is not trying to become “a University bookstore”.  Rovito, a university lecturer and PhD candidate, has spent enough time within the ivory towers to recognize that the university experience, for many, has become commodified, especially for undergraduates.  It isn’t about learning or edification anymore as much as it is about gaining a degree which (in theory) will get you a better job.  But amongst the hordes of accreditation-seekers are still those people who would have, in the 15th century, flocked to Oxford or Bologna for nothing more than a chance to read books and talk to their peers.  Knowledge doesn’t have to be the product or sole property of the ivory tower, he reasons.  For those people who want to learn, and to explore ideas, and make use of the minds of others, there must be an outlet.

But what will they sell?  Though Rovito is prepared to let the demands of his customers shape the stock, he has some foundational ideas.  Much of his initial stock has been acquired from Atticus from amongst their non-rare books.  Rovito has an interesting (though, he admits, perhaps not viable) idea of a store divided by the medieval divisions of knowledge: the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). More esoteric subjects already emerge from amongst the interests of Rovito himself and his early customer base, such as the “Metropolis” (think Georg Simmel and Fritz Lang rather than Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida).  In my two-second walk through the space long before the doors were to open, I spied Latin Classics and continental Philosophy amongst the paint cans and new lighting fixtures.  Not your usual bookstore fare, for sure.

Of Swallows is slated to open their doors to the public Thursday April 22nd 2010, at noon.  I will certainly be there, and wish the best of luck to a great idea!

March 19, 2010

On Reviewing, and Reviews

The latest Quill & Quire (probably the best issue in years, and worth a read if you can find one) features an essay from Richard Bachmann, recently retired bookseller, in which he says the following:

The other…concern is the disappearance of avenues to tell people about books.  Superficially, it might seem that the new media have made available more channels of information than ever before.  I don’t believe this is an advantage.  Having a multitude of un-vetted book blogs is not quite the same thing as real discourse.”

He is lamenting, as most of us are, the death of newspaper book sections in particular, but more central, “legitimate” literary reviews in general.  I agree with his sentiment and maybe even his statement.

There are a lot of book blogs out there.  Even in the small sub-category of Canadian Book Blogs By Readers there are seemingly endless choices.  It’s easy and fun to read and review books and most of us do it.  But how does this add to the literary or publishing ecosystem?  I am absolutely guilty of talking more than I listen – I write reviews as if anyone might care, but I actually tend not to read blogs which simply review books.  Maybe this reflects my own interest, but I tend more towards blogs which provide “original content” in the form of essays and analysis rather than reviews or links elsewhere.  Where I do read reviews, shamefully, it tends to be to compare that reader’s thoughts to my own on books I have already read, rather than to evaluate a book for potential future purchase.

It isn’t that I don’t read reviews elsewhere either.  I am a fanatic reader of the TLS and frequently order books I have seen covered there.  Why should a book blog review be any different?

But it is different.  Bachmann is quite right – though a few comments to a blog post might constitute a very limited dialogue, this is nothing compared to the edifying and influential exchanges that occur through the TLS’s (or NYRB‘s) letters pages.  There’s a certain feeling of witnessing cultural formation before your eyes that you get from a “legitimate” source that feels lacking in blogs.  The conversation is too, to use Bachmann’s word, “diffuse”.  While this allows for wider coverage, it also pulls the conversation apart into disparate, self-selecting pieces.  Do writers Google themselves to see which blogs have reviewed them?  Do they care?  Would they respond to criticism?  Will anyone defend or contradict them?

What do we provide here?  I have a sneaking suspicion that the majority of my readers are either book bloggers themselves, or else publicists.  We’re people on the production, rather than purchasing, end.  Are we capable of reaching a wider public?  Do we help?  Publicists are certainly betting that we will – there’s a real upswing in promo copies going out to bloggers I’d reckon.  Whether this is speculation on the publishers’ part or if they have data to confirm that our special form of word-of-mouth actually translates into sales, I don’t know.

A suspect there’s a benefit to our coverage of small releases, based on my own limited data.  Publicists – take note!  My review of Frank Newfeld’s Drawing on Type is one of my most-viewed reviews, and certainly one of the most searched reviews.  That is to say, people search for “Frank Newfeld” or “Drawing on Type” and find my review.  On the other hand, my review of Val Ross’s Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic has been viewed three times as many times, but almost never because someone was actually searching for “Val Ross”, “Robertson Davies” or anything that might actually suggest this book.  So my review of Drawing on Type was probably more effective, from a publicity standpoint, than was my review of Robertson Davies.  This is probably because very few “big” reviews were out there, and my limited contribution was all that could be found.

This does not, however, suggest that small press publishing benefits from the bloggosphere.  We’re still talking about tiny numbers, and no conversation.  My review, after all, was not especially flattering.  Where’s the rebuttal?  I have been debateably harmful to Porcupine’s Quills’s sales.  This is not a healthy literary ecosystem.

But these are my limited numbers.  Perhaps some of you have had different experiences?  Do you read reviews online?  Do they make a difference to you?  Do we render a valuable service or a poor replacement?

March 17, 2010

The B-Team

It has just come to my attention that Oxford University Press is going to be outsourcing all of its independent bookstore distribution to H.B. Fenn & Co.  An understandable maneuver, I suppose, but one which saddens me anyway, as I’ll explain below.

First, a little Bookselling 101 for those of you who’ve never been on the supply side of things.  Books are sold, generally, along a publisher -> distributor -> bookstore chain.  While many publishers often have their own distribution division (Random House, Penguin, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, etc.) this is generally a cost-saving measure provided by a big publisher who can afford to diversify like this.  Smaller presses usually opt to have a bigger company do their distribution (Anansi, for example, is distributed by Harper Collins).

In the strictest technical sense distribution and publishing are two different businesses – one side creates and markets a book, while the other physically gets it into bookstores (and back again, if the case may be).  In cases where the publisher is not owned by the distributor, there is generally some arrangement between them to ensure that the distributor gets a cut of the books they distribute.   In some cases, this is an additional discount offered to the distributor and in others, the distributor limits the discount given to the bookseller.  In any case, the distributor is another actor in the “book chain”  who needs to be paid.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that distributors who are also publishers tend to offer bookstores bigger discounts than than distributors who have to get their books from an out-of-house publisher.  For a big publisher-distributor the cost of distribution is just a flat cost spread out over their entire publishing effort (which, in the case of a huge company like Random House, is a lot of books).  Outside distribution on the other hand costs the publishers a bigger discount than if they can sell straight to a bookstore, or costs the bookstore more in the form of a smaller discount.  The extra step is paid for by someone.

Oxford is a big enough publisher that they do generally handle their own distribution.  They own a warehouse in Toronto and have books shipped here from the US or the UK or whatever they’ve been published.  They will continue carrying these costs in the future because they are going to continue distributing to large customers.  H.B. Fenn will, it seems, only be taking over their small accounts, which means all Oxford is saving is the man hours and shipping costs of a portion of their distribution.  This is Disturbing News Part One.  This means that Oxford thinks they will lose more m0ney on a dude packing up boxes, some cardboard and some CanPar shipments than they will lose by discounting all their independent Canadian sales to Fenn.

Oxford isn’t some tiny small press.  Among other things, they sell dictionaries.  Everyone carries dictionaries.  By cutting distribution to small bookstores it looks to me as if they are saying they were making less money in a year selling dictionaries to every independent bookstore in the country than they were paying a guy to pack them up and ship them out.

Now, there’s another, more sinister option which is that Oxford isn’t going to be cutting Fenn an extra discount at all, and instead Fenn will be selling the books at a lesser discount to independents, which is terrifying.  But I don’t think Oxford could get away with this and so I don’t think this is the case.  Their discount isn’t fantastic to begin with, and Fenn generally has a decent discount on both their own and their distributed titles, so the idea that indies will suddenly have to pay another 8-10% on Oxford titles seems improbable.

No, what this means is that independent bookstores aren’t selling books, or, at least, aren’t selling Oxford books.  This is annoying to me; I know many people who split their book shopping in arcane ways to justify a “supporting the little guy” stance while still getting those nice Chapters/Amazon discounts on big purchases.  But if it’s going to encourage moves like this one, this is only a bad thing.  Splitting “big” from “little” distribution won’t benefit bookstores at all.  Because the outside distributor needs their cut the extra cost is more likely to be passed on to the store, a pressure the in-house distribution won’t feel.  Not to mention other annoyances like the extra time it will take to process an order from a third party compared to ordering it from the source.  As if the bookselling world isn’t a hazardous enough place for independents these days – two-tiered distribution like this is just another straw on the camel.

February 5, 2010

The New Canadian Library Experiment

I’m fond here at Inklings of reporting on uncontrolled bookselling research I’ve engaged in.  It makes me feel as if I’m contributing something – data – to the debate while hiding my sometimes abrasive opinions behind lightly biased but more or less substantiated findings.  And this, certainly, is a subject I’ve had passionate opinions about in the past which I seek to see vindicated in numbers.

The New Canadian Library (hereafter, NCL) was founded in 1958 at McClelland & Stewart during Jack McClelland’s famous (infamous) regime as a response of sorts to the cheap and portable classics serieses available of American and British backlists.  The idea was to provide cheap reprints for, largely, the college market, in order to support and further the study (and therefore legitimacy) of Canadian literature.  I won’t give you too thorough a history; an excellent history of the series’s early years is available from Janet Friskey, New Canadian Library: The Ross-McClelland Years, 1952-1978, while Roy MacSkimming’s Perilous Trade also contains a good account.

What concerns me is the recent history.  In 2009, McClelland & Stewart relaunched NCL, putting the old pocket-sized and inexpensive editions out of print and replacing them with fancy new trade paperbacks at a significantly higher price point.

Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising - $12.95

The launch was celebrated as a Very Good Thing in honour of NCL’s 50th birthday, but I can tell you that from this corner of the world at least, the transition was a source of a great deal of anxiety.  It wasn’t clear right from the beginning what would be kept in print and what would be vanishing, and for a period of about a year it became difficult to get any kind of quantity of some very important titles as they had been put out of print in the old edition but hadn’t yet made it to the new one.  The increased price on the edition was also not something the academic community wanted to hear about.  These editions were intended right from the beginning to serve university students who don’t want to pay 50% for a fancy redesign.  Over a flurry of emails and phone calls we gathered that someone felt that a redesigned prestige book would get better face time at the big book chains, and would add to its saleability in the general trade market.  We academic types would have to just suck it up because the people wanted prettier books.

Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising - $19.95

These titles have been on the shelf now for roughly two years.  We dutifully stock every single title available.  Let me tell you how the new adventure is working out for us.

We have only sold two copies of any NCL title outside of the context of a university course:  Two Solitudes, and Wild Geese.  The Wild Geese, by the way, was sold to me for my Canada Reads Independently reading.  You read that right.  One “real” sale in two years.

The books are, however, still stocked to supply Canadian Lit course lists.  These are unquestionably the bulk of our NCL sales.  I am looking right now, in fact, at 45 copies of the giant new Diviners by Margaret Laurence which have been sitting unsold since September.  Our sales of this book this year have been abysmal.  In 2007, we sold about 150 copies of the old, $12.95 edition to classes totaling 290 students.  That’s about 52% of the students – a typical number for a book which is widely available in used book stores.

This year?  We’ve sold 30 copies of the new $22.95 edition to a class of 120.  That’s 25%.  Now, there’s no way to know why the students are so shy this year – it could be any number of things.  But I know they take one look at that big purple tome and turn ashen.  Students have breaking points when it comes to buying books – how hard they look for another way to find a text is directly related to the price & weight of what they’ve been told to get.  A little, cheap book they’ll buy without too much thought, but throw a big fat expensive book at them and they balk, pull up their socks and get out there to find an alternative.

Who wins under this scenario?  My impression is nobody does.  The very admirable aims of Roughing It In The Books not withstanding, I don’t see an NCL trade paperback able to compete with the trade front lists of McClelland & Stewart’s parent company, Random House of Canada.  They are more expensive, the print quality is lower (they look good in .jpg, but they’re printed on the same cheap newsprint paper that Penguin’s cheaper classics are on), and they get basically no advertising whatsoever.  I can’t believe the publishers don’t know this, which leaves the possibility that they’re just trying to milk more money out of the market they did have, the universities.  But they’re kidding themselves if they think both the professors and the students aren’t counting pennies.  They can just assign fewer books, or use the libraries.  There’s a sweet spot in academic pricing and “in line with frontlists” isn’t it.

This is on my mind with our year end (and returns season) in sight.  I find myself wondering how things look to McClelland and Stewart.  Are Chapters, Borders, Indigo and Amazon carrying more copies of the series?  Are they selling them?  At the mouth of Canada’s largest university serving a large percentage of the Canadian literature students in the country, I feel confident saying they’ve hurt their college sales.  Was it worth it, guys?  And Canadian Literature, that beleaguered old underdog, is it stronger or weaker for it?

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