L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

19 April 2007 Blog Home : April 2007 : Permalink

The Broken Book Market - Exhibit 52a

In the comments to my previous rant on this subject, there was a comment by Dave which explained that I was not competely correct when I said that "It is well known that most publishers lose money or barely break even on most of the books the publish". Dave's comment points out that publishers have a reasonable amount of fixed costs no matter how many books they sell and that therefore if the bestseller pays those bills then any income they get from other books they publish is gravy that can be used to promote the block busters so long as the book covers its raw costs (i.e. paper, typesetting, printing etc.).

This is a valid point and one that I believe I have heard described as the Patrick Nielsen Hayden "jars of mustard" analogy. One recent recounting of it at Baen's bar goes like this:

[T]he publishers, now big New York corporations with hefty bills to pay, began to see that the big money was in the blockbusters. The midlist books were, in PNH's famous phrase, "jars of mustard"; interchangeable and therefore something to be purchased as cheaply as possible. Anyone with a taste for mustard will buy the stuff; it's an income stream that requires very little in the way of support. And the income from that stream could then be used to purchase Important Books and mega-advertising campaigns geared toward making the publishers Big Buck$.

This also explains why the big publishers mostly don't bother to promote their "jars of mustard". If an author is lucky and hits it big then the big publisher isn't going to complain but it sees no point in spending more than the minimum to get the book selling because its return on investment is so much better plugging the blockbusters.

However it isn't just the publishers who think this way, the large bookstore chains do too. On another bit of Baen's bar one of the Baen's newest authors, Stoney Compton, noted that his book, which is jolly good IMO, was not being taken up by his local store.

This is somewhat frustrating. I went into a Barnes & Noble, which is all of a half block from where I work in Bellevue, WA to "see" the novel on a bookstore shelf. (Hey, it's my first novel - you'd do the same thing!)

It wasn't there.

So I went to the little reference desk and asked the young woman if they were going to carry the novel. She tapped on her keyboard, stared into the screen and said: "Not we're not going to carry that. We've had a lot of people ask about it."

I'm usually not at a loss for words.

Finally I said, "Well, I wrote that novel. I work less than a block from here. In my office are over 130 people who will probably buy the book simply because they like me. If they can't find it here, they will buy it online at Amazon.com, not Barnes & Noble.com."

She looked at me and said, "Yeah?"

Then I had to leave so I wouldn't break any laws or necks. [...]

I would appreciate any insight as to B&N's strange take on deferred guarenteed sales.

Good luck in finding my book anywhere other than online.

And thank you for looking!

From the responses from others (including author Dave Freer) to his rant this seems to be not uncommon. The chain bookstores do indeed treat books like mustard and don't care much about local tastes or desires. I'm not sure what the fix is, other than taking my approach and buying ebooks or via Amazon, but it seems to be pretty stupid. The fact that pundits then complain that people (children) are reading less or nothing more than bestsellers now looks like less of a shock than it might otherwise seem.

If it takes effort to do something then many people won't bother. If you want people to read books then it would help if you helped make books available in easy to buy forms at convenient locations; otherwise guess what? people won't buy them. They'll buy magazines or DVDs or something instead. Those of us who care can keep our favourite authors going by ordering their books in shops or buying them on line but neither of these activities helps get the word out properly. Interestingly, as Stoney's comment shows, even the trick that many authors ask their fans to do, namely preordering the book, doesn't seem to always do the job.

I don't know what the future of books and particularly the future of genre fiction is going to be, but I am certain that the book trade as it is currently formed is going to collapse. Treating your customers like dirt and your product with cynical disdain has hurt any number of retailers (British readers may recall the accidental frankness of Gerald Ratner) and when almost the whole chain from production to distribution gets that way, which seems to be the case with the book trade, then it is unlikely that it can recover.

On the other hand though the entrepreneurial side of me is convinced that somewhere in the wreckage there must be a major opportunity. Some of the biggest selling books (e.g. Harry Potter) are classic genre fiction so there is clearly demand for the product when it is made available and marketed properly. Anyone with a few million to invest should contact me and I'll come up with a business plan to turn the industry around.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin