Wisden redux - the level playing fields of England
Life Interrupted

Expensive Wallpaper

0975276344Most of my reading time this week has been taken up with a copy of Rebel Bookseller, by American bookseller Andrew Laties. The book is made up of two distinct strands, one, a history of his own involvement with the last twenty five or so years of American bookselling, and the second a series of rants, which are no more or less than, excellent pieces of common sense advice for anybody mad enough to want to open a bookshop.

The first of these is entitled Death Energy – a Buddhist term – every moment, you think about your possibly imminent death. This gives you the courage to take chances.

Frankly anybody who is involved in the book trade   particularly in Britain needs to read this book. As Laties tells it, there are so many parallels between the American book trade of the early 1990s and the UK book trade of today, that having read it,quite a few people could end up locking themselves in to their ivory towers and not coming out again for a year or two.

Take this quote for example.

But during the late 80s and early 90s, under pressure from rapaciously expanding chain stores demanding higher retail profit margins and more dollars to spend on advertising so as to capture customers from other bookstores, tradebook publishers found themselves forced to raise their suggested retail prices much faster than the general inflation rate.

He goes on

Only in this way could the publishers – forced to offer new deep wholesale discounts and add extra ad dollars to the chains – continue to produce enough cash income to provide any hope of covering their operating expenses.

Does this sound familiar in a week when I learnt a new phrase in the Bookseller Magazine? To whit, Ceiling prices.

He also has some very interesting, to say the least, things to say about stock investment.

The bookstore industry’s most commonly sited 80/20 rule of thumb says that 80 percent of revenues come from 20 percent of titles; most people buy mostly the same books as their neighbors.

            …We consistently observed that the 80/20 rule was true. We also observed a 50/5 rule. That is, fifty percent of sales came from five percent of titles. During a $500k sales year, 250k came from fifteen hundred titles. The next $150k came from forty-five hundred additional titles. The last $100k came from the last twenty-four thousand titles.

In other words, out of thirty thousand titles, twenty four thousand of those titles accounted for only a fifth of the sales.

Now, every accountant that I have ever known who has ever had any responsibility for a bookshop has attempted to square this circle, and each last one of them has eventually had to be led away weeping.

Extrapolate those figures out for a shop of say, Borders size, and you can understand why some publishing people in America refer to the shelves in such stores as wallpaper.

On a personal note, much that Laties describes is eerily similar to the stuff that we are experiencing right now. I have a particular empathy for his description of running the till single-handedly for 80 hours a week, whilst pretending not to be the boss.


074323930x_1 ABIDE WITH ME

Elizabeth Strout.

Still, the pleasure of doing this job is the one where you discover a new writer and connect with them straight away. Call it a bookseller’s sixth sense, but you don’t actually have to read the book to know that you are going to like it.

This week I read the opening paragraph of Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout and was blown away by its Cheeveresque story telling. I just know that Ms Strout and I are going to get along fine.


Andy Laties

Thanks so much for this alarming analysis. I'd been puzzling over what's going on in Britain: viewing the situation from the States, via the conventional media, it's impossible to assess. No surprise that the industry is being incorrectly reported by its own specialty media observers of course: they're in thrall to the publicity flaks in the publishing houses, who themselves are simply insecure corporate employees wondering if the next pay-envelope will be the last.

If only all those tens of thousand of underpaid employees of corporate publishing conglomerates would quit their jobs and head into the field of independent bookselling! They could publish books out of all those new bookstores. The world would be transformed. (Admittedly this fantasy of instant decentralization is on par with George Harrison's 1969 plan to dump LSD into the London water-supply.)



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