In Praise of Our Peculiar Systems; Or, Why Book Retailing Used to Work Better

May 2005
by Betsy Burton

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Even considering the unlevel playing field that the chains and dot-coms have forced independent booksellers onto these past few years, the erosion of the independents’ market share has been surprisingly dramatic. The reason, I submit, is that chains and dot-coms have stumbled across an industry that is odd, yes, but only because its bottom line has never been solely about profit. And chains have taken those very systems meant to foster book publishing–peculiar but workable systems–and subverted them, using the book business in ways it was never meant to be used in the process.

Without doubt, the returns policy in the book industry is peculiar. But it exists because otherwise booksellers would be far less likely to risk their money on unknown authors. And if there is one characteristic of the book business that is constant, it is change. Public taste changes; authorial styles go in and out of vogue as fast as does subject matter; fads disappear, reappear (how I wish I could forget Feng Shui, angels, and the ubiquitous G spot); authors often change focus in midcareer; some have one good book, 20 lousy ones, another good one; some only write one book (like Harper Lee), while others write something wonderful every third effort.

Stack ’em Deep; Discount ’em Steep

The downside to returns is this: In the good old (prechain) days, returns held at about 10 to 15 percent. Which made the entire system workable. We independent bookstor…IBPA Members – Click here to view the full article (login required).

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