April 30, 2016

Why we like Amazon and generally don’t work with independent bookstores

In the early 2000s, as Amazon was emerging as a major player in the book world, I understood them as the faceless evil that was killing off the independent bookstore, which by contrast represented (along with libraries) the individuality of human understanding, the knowledge of literature, independence of spirit, and the flickering candle of enlightenment; in short, everything that was good. Publishing was said to need independent bookstores to survive. It was good to be motivated by such a drama.

Considering this context, you can imagine how surprised I was to discover, as a new participant in the world of alternative press publishing in 2006, that Amazon would be our best outlet for books, and independent bookstores, with a few exceptions (most notably Bluestockings in New York) would be almost impossible to work with.

Let me explain by sharing some facts about the book trade and how our press fits into it.

The book trade has different segments; the ones we’re concerned with here are trade publishing and scholarly and professional publishing. Trade publishing is what most people think of when they think of the book trade. It’s the books that you find in bookstores and the public library, that authors talk about in radio interviews, and that get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. To make money in trade publishing, publishers do a lot of advertising and marketing to achieve high sales figures, and compete on price. Profit margins are small, and publishers depend on big hits in order to be profitable. Bookstore sales are essential, and books reach bookstores through distributors. In order to make their money in all of this, bookstores expect a certain discount, and the distributors expect a cut as well. Bookstores also expect distributors to accept returns of all unsold copies. Typically, bookstores take a 45% cut of the retail price, with distributors taking an additional 15%. With the competition on price, that leaves just a sliver for the publisher on each copy sold. If that sliver is extended to 200,000 copies sold, it is significant money, making trade publishing a big business.

Scholarly and professional publishers, on the other hand, do not sell in high volumes. The market is mainly academic libraries, and in some cases university bookstores. A typical scholarly book that is sold to research libraries will sell 200 copies. As a rule of thumb, sales of 500 are necessary for a book to be profitable, and that is not always reached. Consequently, cover prices are much higher. Also, since this part of the industry doesn’t need to support brick and mortar outlets, vendors to libraries are willing to take a much smaller cut, generally 20 to 25% of the retail price. University bookstores have a captive audience and are willing to accept these kinds of discounts as well. And although they usually expect to be able to return unsold copies, they accept it when they can’t.

Enter Amazon. You have probably read about Amazon’s battles with major publishing conglomerates over pricing and discounts, and these stories make them appear to be the enemy of the publishing industry, squeezing profits and making things generally difficult (even as they give these publishers much of their sales). But that is a story about the trade segment of the industry. At the same time, Amazon gets a lot of its power though being a place where you can buy just about any book, including books coming from scholarly and professional publishing houses. In that market, Amazon participates according to the prevailing terms, meaning they accept a 25% discount and are okay with not being able to return unsold copies.

Library Juice Press and Litwin Books, being niche publishing imprints in scholarly and professional fields, have a business model that is based on low sales volume, small discounts, and generally a lack of interest from bookstores, which have a more general readership. On those rare occasions when an independent bookstore is interested in our books, usually to meet an individual customer’s request, they are likely unwilling to accept our terms, and there is no sale. “What should I tell the customer?” they sometimes ask. “They can buy it on Amazon.”

The implications of this state of affairs might be a bit sad, because independent bookstores are a unique sort of institution that represents important values. Independent booksellers actually know what they are selling, have read the books, have had the authors visit to read from them. They are knowledgable about books and literature and impart that knowledge to their book-loving clientele. Amazon, of course, is a powerful machine with no heart and no soul and no human understanding. At any rate, that is one way to think about it.

I would like to propose another way of thinking about the ecology of books and reading of which Amazon is a part. What independent bookstores offer, and represent, is connection to the readers in a local community. Communities now, however, can be geographically dispersed and bound together by shared interests, niche interests like library studies. A local community may have only a couple of people with those interests, not enough for the local bookstore to serve them profitably. Librarians who buy our books may find their local communities very important; they may buy locally, they may want their foods to be grown within a 50 mile radius, they may cultivate relationships in their neighborhoods, and they may patronize their local independent bookstores for that reason. But they continue to participate in geographically dispersed communities based on niche interests. Their love of what is local is generally not inspiring them to get rid of their internet connections. And if they want books related to their niche interests, Amazon is the soulless machine that serves them. It is the logistical source for buying books. Part of the function of an independent bookstore in this equation, however, is not logistical but knowledgable. That factor is replaced by another participant, one in which a lot of soul is present – the niche network of knowledgable people linked by social media. Where the independent bookseller helps customers find the right book, niche customers using Amazon already know what they want when they go to the site, because they have found out about it from peers, mentors, and mavens. So, independent bookstores are not being replaced only by Amazon in that context, but by soulful people as well, albeit ones who don’t get to talk face-to-face all that often. We are happy to let Amazon be their source because we exist in a geographically-dispersed niche that local independent bookstores are not a natural part of.

So that is where we stand.

There have been occasions, however, when we have produced a book that has a potential wider interest, like Chris Roth’s fantastic book on secessionist movements around the world. These experiences have been frustrating, because our position as a scholarly and professional publisher makes it impossible to give those books the marketing they deserve. Chris’s book in particular is one that people really want when they get a chance to see and touch it, so not having a good avenue to get it into bookstores has been a real hindrance to sales. Since that book is outside the niche network that we are connected to as a publisher, social media is less effective for us in marketing it. Distributors generally want the exclusive right to sell all the books in a given ISBN range, so we can’t give them just the one book to work with. Consequently, I feel pain over not being able to generate the sales that Chris’s book deserves. I feel good about bringing the book to publication (we developed the idea for it together), but in the future I will probably avoid getting involved in projects that really belong in the trade book marketplace. The idea of entering the cut-throat trade publishing market in earnest is not appealing.

If you have been reluctant to buy our books on Amazon, I hope what I’ve said might change your mind. If not, feel free to hate on Amazon and request our books at your library through inter-library loan. (Although that means one fewer sale, we feel that supporting libraries supports us by extension.)