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What we’re not allowed to talk about

I’m in Kansas City for American Booksellers Association and the National Association of College Store events, which have been great so far.  Lots of great energy, and great ideas that I can bring back to my store.  Looking at today's session information, I’m pleased to see an opportunity for a Publisher/Bookseller focus group. But then there’s this sentence from the session description:

These Focus Group meetings are an opportunity to dialogue about ways in which booksellers and publishers can better communicate and work together in the mutual interest of selling more books — they are not intended to talk about specifics regarding the publisher's terms of sale, operational practices, or backroom issues.

Leave aside using “dialogue” as a verb and look at what we’re “not intended” to talk about. The thing about “terms of sale” is that they’re more than just numbers – 25 copies earns a 46% discount. Terms are a statement of values, a manifestation of how publishers view the relationship between their companies and booksellers. Ultimately, it’s really about supporting the relationship that stores have with readers.

The fact is that we get the top-line stuff in this business right. Lot of great books are being published, more than enough to allow booksellers to fill their shelves and allow readers to find something that will suit their preference. In other words, there’s a more than adequate supply of great product to satisfy consumer demand. The passionate book lovers in the industry – and there are lots of us – might even argue that the best thing about the business is that we don’t usually think of what we’re peddling as “product.”

The problems we encounter as publishers, as booksellers and even as readers tend to flow from publisher’s terms of sale, operational practices and backroom issues. Usually, that's what stands in the way of getting the right book into the hands of the right reader and the right time. Minimum order requirements are too high. Publishers and wholesalers don’t work well together. Shipping times are too long. The flow of information overwhelms store buyers. Some firms (publishers and wholesalers) are clearly offering better terms to select retailers, making it hard for the rest of us to compete. Some publishing companies are seeking to bypass stores altogether, offering incentives for readers to buy direct.

I realize that there might be legal implications to discussing things like terms of sale in a group setting (especially after the federal government’s ridiculous action on ebooks). I also realize that it’s a lot less fun to talk about operational issues than good books. But as an industry, we need to find more ways to have these conversations, instead of suggesting that these questions are off limits.

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  1. Well said. I was pleased that Bagwyn books (part of Arizona Stste) decided to give a higher discount to independent bookstores than Amazon, thus making the playing field a bit less rocky. I wonder if more small publishers would consider that.

  2. Transparency around terms of sale would be a good thing for small businesses and for consumers, no? In academic libraries, we have vendors of incredibly expensive licensed databases insisting librarians sign non-disclosure agreements and (in one case) even going to court when a scholar researching prices filed a FOIA request for the records of costs at public institutions. The judge, fortunately, found the publisher’s objection to disclosing public costs pretty laughable. And more and more librarians are refusing to agree to shoot themselves in the foot.
    What’s discouraging about putting these issues off limits is that we can’t solve them. And that’s just going to put some poison into the relationship you’re trying to build.
    Though I can see some gun-shy feelings about DOJ conspiracy theories, transparency can’t be a problem unless it’s only for a few and behind closed doors. Bring it on, I say.