This Week's Fish-Wrap №45: This Daft Publishing Life (A Primer)

Early last week, the Canadian Distributor of Atomic Fez titles – Author’s Choice – received an order from Chapters /​ Indigo /​ Coles for a substantial number of copies of Terribilis and Dirk Danger Loves Life. Huzzah! Exposure in shops at last!

Metrotown location of Chapters/Indigo
Metrotown location of Chapters/​Indigo

Well, actually, possibly not; plus it might not be the best time to break out the champagne and caviar and dispense with the beer and hot dog budget either. You see, this isn’t anything quite like a “guaranteed river of money” situation. In years past I’ve sometimes been surprised at the seniority and years of experience which authors and readers alike might possess, yet they’ve not much idea of the business specifics of the retail selling of books. So as to further the understanding of all, here’s how things come top play in this daft publishing life thing. Besides, it’s something that I have to remind myself of in order to keep in mind how insane this whole notion is to begin with.

Also, please note that all Atomic Fez books have been in the Chapters/Indigo/Cole’s catalogue since the agreement with Author’s Choice about a year ago (click here to see the titles). Due to the same agreement, you can also locate Atomic Fez books in the Amazon.ca (click here to see the titles) and Amazon.com catalogues (click here to see the titles). So, this isn’t a change, except for the actual quantity of copies ordered.

Here’s how these things work: Chapters calls the distributor in Ontario with orders for books they’d like in the warehouse, and then either the distributor tells me to ship them a big shed-​​load of boxes like last week, or – more frequently – the distributor parcels-​​up the four copies of some title and those get sent to Chapters’ warehouse. Typically Author’s Choice has no more than one box of anyone’s book in stock, as they are only a small distributor, and not a warehousing or storage firm. Once the books head to the warehouse of Chapters/Indigo/Cole’s for their inventory, anything can happen and I’ll not know a thing about it. Yes, copies could be sent to some of the 247 Indigo, Chapters and Cole’s stores across Canada, or they could merely hang-​​on to them in the warehouse to supply their on-​​line orders through Chapters.Indigo.com (the same as I do through this site’s ordering), or they could do a little of both. Again, I have no idea what they’re doing, and I won’t ever know until either someone stumbles across copies on a shelf and tells someone, or I stumble across an inventory entry on their web-​​site (and that would take a concerted effort of experimentation with searching through the item’s status using major population centres). So, basically, if someone sees some copies, they really ought to take a picture of them, then send me a copy.

This is the first time – as far as I know – that a shop has ordered copies ‘on spec’ of an Atomic Fez title. I’ve sent occasional copies to wholesalers and shops both in the UK and in North America, but as they’ve been very small amounts, they’ve probably been ordered by customers. I’ve never, never seen any book I’ve published on a store shelf, either in person or even in a photo, with both outfits I’ve worked with. So this is an excellent thing.

WH Smith Train Station shop (c. 1933)
WH Smith Train Station shop (c. 1933)

But.

Here’s where things get stupid with this publishing industry thing.

All 268 books that were just sent to Ontario could very well be returned to me come April. Because all Atomic Fez books are “returnable” by retailers (as most publishers do), shops are more interested in carrying them, because their risk having them is eliminated. Likewise, their costs are further reduced by the fact that I pay for the shipping there and back, plus they get charged 40% or so less than the RRP so that they can sell at a profit (which is a business-​​like idea, obviously). Likewise, shops pay when they’ve actually sold the books; although not by design, but due to the delay in paying happening to fall outside the point at which they’ve returned the un-​​sold ones.

now keep in mind that I’ve not only paid for those books to be printed months ago, plus get them shipped from the printers to the house here, I’ve also just paid about $300 to ship a bunch of them to Ontario to the distributor. the distributor will now get those boxes to Chapters/Indigo’s Distribution Centre, at a cost which will be deducted from any sales earnings. Once the books are decided to be “too old” and the remaining amount is sent back, once again the cost of transport is borne by the Distributor and Publisher. Yes, I get to pay for shipping in both directions, and that’s an industry standard arrangement for a large chain. You should hear the sorts of things that Amazon.com fully expect to be done at a minimum for them by the bog houses like Random House, Simon & Shuster, and so on. It’s a wonder there’s not sacrificing of pets and virgins involved sometimes, given the lengths of demands.

It used to be that books could prove themselves on the shelvesas being “something that sells” through a three-​​month period or longer, which would permit reviews as well as ‘word-​​of-​​mouth’ to drive sales, plus the staff would get to know the book at least by reputation. Early this year Chapters/​Indigo changed their period to only 46 days, which doesn’t even give books a chance to actually gather dust. Honestly, the notion that this is enough time for someone to read a review, decide they want a copy for their birthday/​Christmas, tell a relative, the relative then gets time to go to the store, then remembers the name of the book… it can easily be out of stock in the store. This is another reason why the on-​​line reviews excellent people do works wonders, as the text on various web-​​sites – Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, and many of the new Canadian public library sites – acts as further advertising and proof that ‘someone actually read this book’, thus encouraging others to try them out.

Bottomless pit of books
Bottomless pit of books

The reason Chapters/​Indigo changed the length of the shelf-​​life for titles, in my opinion anyway, was due to reduced floor space for books when they switched to being a Home Design Shop as well as a book store. Thus, inventory they haven’t invested money in building themselves (as all the rugs, clocks, pillows, candles, etc. are designed and created by Indigo) needs to work harder to keep their space, or ‘earn their space’, if you will.

And therein lies the under-​​pinning problem of the whole thing that really needs a re-​​think in not just publishing, but just about any manufacturing industry. Publishers pay authors, artists, printers, distributors, shippers, eBook formatting people, and everyone else in advance of even taking a single order, never mind making a sale. The best comparison here is the lottery: you buy some quantity of tickets and hope that one will return more than the amount you spent, but there is no guarantee of any return. I publish books with the hope they will sell, but I front the cost of printing as many copies as I can spend money to get, and then do what I can to ensure people will part with their cash so that I can then publish some new titles, with exactly the same principle guiding the manifestation. That’s fine, really, and it’s the same as if you were paying the ante for a poker game, and that is another good comparison to this. 

But, when the big retail stores get involved, it’s even more serious an ante, as the combination of shipping charges and wholesale discounts on large orders (which may not ever sell a single copy) mean that I not only pay for the production of the books that never sell, I get to pay for moving them all over the place because they didn’t sell, thus losing even more money than just the cost of manufacturing. Remember, once a massive order is placed by Bob’s Big Book Box, say 1,000 copies (which is insane compared to my situation), then those thousand are tied-​​up in the warehouse of the store, leaving me with whatever I got printed over and above the thousand I just sent to Bob’s. So, do I run another 250 or 500 copies of the books, and gamble the thousand at Bob’s won’t all return to me in a few months’ time so I then have 1,500 books filling the basement, or do I run the risk that a bunch of people will order copies from me direct and I’ll not have any more left because I didn’t order a new run of copies? Besides, those thousand copies  Bob’s won’t pay me for any sooner than about four months from the day they take delivery, and even if they did pay me for the whole lot immediately, if they all get returned un-​​sold, then I have to return those funds as they were for “books sold” which didn’t happen in the end. See?

Books heading for the trimmer at MPG Biddles
Books heading for the trimmer at MPG Biddles

The entire thing is a daft notion. Lord knows why anyone would want to even try this, never mind keep at it, which is obviously why I need to get a day-​​job. The ‘cost of doing business’ is always something that makes or breaks a business, but it really feels like the book trade has it staked against itself even more than others do.

This is another reason that the entire supply-​​chain of books needs a complete re-​​think, as well as who knows how many other manufacturing cycles for goods. As far as I’m concerned, the eBook is perfect to replace the obscenely wasteful production standards of the Mass-​​Market Paperback, for which many publishers pre-​​determine the amount of copies in a run which will be pulped at numbers typically around 33% and 45%. Yes, they actually budget throwing away nearly half the run, knowing that they’ll be damaged on shelves, and then not be bought, or they’ll get dinged in transport to and from various distribution centres and warehouses. the additional reason is that the price for running ten-​​thousand copies of a title can actually sometimes be less than printing 7,500 copies (or at least it’s often a good third or more per unit to run the larger figure), thus making the throwing away of part of the run actually cheaper than printing less of them in the first place.

There’s so much in this industry which works on the basis of the economics of supply and demand of the late-​​1800s, as well as the levels of available resources of that period, it’s a wonder that books are even still available in the same form as that time.

But, we continue. Onwards!

“This Week’s Fish Wrap” is an on-​​​​​​going series of posts summing up the news of the previous seven days in the publishing industry, and/​or announce the latest news Atomic Fez has about the publishing house, and appears here each Monday. It’s also quite possible that the posts merely serve as a dumping ground of links so that Atomic Fez Proprietor Ian Alexander Martin can find articles later to include in his occasional rants about how ‘EVERYONE ELSE IS ENTIRELY WRONG’ about various things.

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