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Adventures in bookselling: One author event order

Yesterday, I worked on ordering books for an author visit two and half weeks away, in mid-February.  The book is published by a good-sized university press — no little Mickey Mouse operation — so you’d think that their policies and procedures would be established and well-considered, and that bringing in this title would be simple and straightforward.  Not so much, as it turns out.

I looked first at Ingram and Baker & Taylor, the two major wholesalers we work with regularly.  The wholesalers are easy, and we’re already ordering from one or the other or both every week for fast re-stocking and for special orders.  At Ingram, the title is net priced — i.e. no discount from suggested retail.  Bookstores work on a discount from suggested retail price, giving us margin that allows us to cover our costs.  Traditionally, the discount on a regular trade title is 40% or better (the major New York companies are at 46%), and a lot of university press titles are normally 20%, though more and more university presses are selling their more popular titles to general bookstores for 40%.

Ingram’s net price means we’d have to mark up from suggested retail, never a good competitive strategy.  The only good thing here is that Ingram can get books to us swiftly and levies a low flat ship charge (when order minimums are reached).  This print on demand title would arrive in store three days after we ordered from Ingram.  At B&T, the title is listed as “available to backorder” with a 5% discount.  We’re set up with B&T for “no backorders” and the system does not appear to be able to distinguish between regular print titles (which we normally don’t backorder from a wholesaler) and print on demand (which aren’t really “backorders,” right?, they’re “demands”).

Still 5% isn’t enough of a discount to make this work.  That margin would be more than eaten up by return shipping, in case we had any unsold copies to send back.  I should say that while the store absolutely wants to support this author visit by bringing in books and displaying them prominently at the front of the store, our expectations aren’t all that high.  If we sell 6 copies we’ll be doing very well.  We’re looking to order 8, enough to have a good display and just in case the author surprises us with an especially engaging performance.  (Yes, this happens.)

I check Amazon, where I find a 7% discount, a better discount than either Ingram or B&T.  Is it weird that a retailer is undercutting the wholesalers?  Yes, I think it is.  But we’re seeing this more and more, and are increasingly worried about our ability to serve our customers well when the wholesalers aren’t helpful.

But no time to worry about that now.  I move on to the publisher.  The Book Buyer’s Handbook (a useful resource provided by the American Booksellers Association) offers no help for this press: contact info only, no info on terms of sale.  I see the name of the commission sales rep group that covers this territory, but they don’t call on our store, so no help there either.

At the publisher’s website, I am surprised to see that the book is being offered for 33% off their own suggested list price — 33% website discount, available to anyone on “most” titles, undercutting every other vendor, wholesale or retail.  I don’t get this strategy.  Don’t they want others to be able to successfully sell their titles, or are they expecting to sell only through their own site?

I’m tempted to just place the store’s order online, but I figure that if they’re offering 33% off to everyone, perhaps there are even better terms available for stores.  So I pick up the phone and reach a pleasant woman who tells me that the discount will be 20%.  I think “so there’s a 13% surcharge for picking up the phone?”  I don’t say that, but I do point out that I know about the 33% offer on their site.  She says that I could place the order online and get 33%, but I’d need to prepay via credit card.  I then say that the eight copies I need are for an author event.  She says that since the order is for an event, the discount is 45%.  Ok, now we’re talking!  But then she asks for the date and says in order to assure that we get books on time — for an event two and a half weeks away — we should pay a $5 rush processing charge.  So what she’s telling me is that the publisher itself can’t produce and ship books as swiftly as Ingram can.

I agree to the $5 surcharge and place the order for eight copies at 45%.  We’ll pay freight in, much more than either Ingram or Baker & Taylor charge for freight.  And we’ll pay freight out, if we have unsold copies that we don’t want to keep for stock.  It’s not likely that the store will make much on this event.  But we’ll have done what we can to support this author’s visit to campus.

And we’re happy to do it.  It’s what we’re here for, what we enjoy doing.  It’s just hard to know whether to laugh or cry at all this confusion, hard to understand why the same book coming from the same warehouse to the same shipping address might cost 20%, 33% or 45% off suggested retail, depending on how and why we place the order.

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  1. Egads! Doesn’t the publisher talk to the vendors? More to the point, doesn’t the publisher understand the need for a pricing strategy that will help, not hurt, booksellers? No wonder the industry is going down the drain. I hope your author makes a good impression and that people actually come out to listen to the presentation. Good luck!

  2. No and no, which is exactly the point. Many publishers no longer believe that they need bookstores, that we’re more trouble than we’re worth. This case is a little more extreme than most — we usually see publishers undercutting retail stores but still making it possible for Amazon to be competitive.