Monday, March 10, 2008

Will supply solutions benefit the self publisher?

There seems to be much going on in the book world this week, and it is only Monday - loads of news pages to get through and comment on, and I hardly know where to begin. The stories that interest me the most though concern as always our two largest book chains, Waterstones and Borders.

Just as Waterstones are preparing to open their centralised distribution unit in June, Borders are closing theirs in Cornwall, in an effort they say, partly designed to boost the company's green credentials by cutting down on the amount of miles that the books they stock have to be trucked around the country. Chief executive Philip Downer stated on Friday that he believes the business will be better served by publishers and wholesalers delivering direct to stores.
Amen to that, as it may finally end the ridiculous situation I spoke of last week, where rather than building up sales slowly over several months and then being taken on as core stock, it works the other way around. You cannot of course though get the sales when stores are not prepared to stock you in the first place, or in my case it seems, even talk to you as a fellow human being. This may then mean that self publishers such as myself finally begin to have a voice and an opportunity to get stocked in more than their local store.

In the meantime, Waterstones are preparing to open their own centralised distribution centre in Burton upon Trent in June, which I must admit I had been concerned about, as this may have effectively shut the door to any books that were not already core stock, including my own. MD Gerry Johnson though has taken steps to reassure small presses, which I guess would include people such as myself, that those who deal with Waterstones branches on a store by store basis will still be able to do this.
He stated at the Publishers Guild annual conference in Brighton that the company would not keep the expertise in Waterstones if they did not allow staff at store level to make buying decisions. He went on to say that the company should aim to have a 50/50 balance between core stock and stock driven at local level. He added that this was essential if the company is to survive. Wise words indeed, that for me as least strike a sensible balance between the needs of big business and the smaller publishers, both commercial and self publishers.

Perhaps more interestingly, Johnson also said that he hopes to start collecting books directly from printers, cutting out the wholesalers and book miles at the same time. I wonder what this will mean then for print on demand titles such as mine printed by Lightning Source and whether they will be able to come to a suitable arrangement re this that suits both parties. This will be a very interesting one to watch I feel, as it could drastically change the way that print on demand books are dealt with by our largest and most influential book chain - hopefully in a way that will benefit their authors as well as the book stores.

The Bookseller also reports though a hostile reaction towards the idea of firm sale, with that old chestnut still being trotted out - it is unfair that the book sellers should have to take all the risk. This would be laughable were it not so serious, for all the reasons that I have stated so many times on this blog. The discussion, the book sellers argue, is really not about moves towards firm sale, but how they can cut down on returns to begin with. They just don't get it though - if you want to cut down on returns don't order so many books in the first place - it really is that simple.
They keep insisting also that firm sale should mean higher discount and more favourable terms to compensate for this - yet this will cause irreparable damage to the small publishers that firm sale would help the most, as many of them are struggling to accommodate the demands of the industry as it is. Book sellers traditionally buy at discount of around 40 percent, but it does not stop there, as the wholesaler also wants their cut. By the time you add this on top, you are looking in reality at publishers having to offer a minimum of 55 percent discount just to get through the door.

I am in theory all in favour of higher discount to compensate for firm sale, but this should be tempered with a decrease in discount for sale and return to help the publishers who take the biggest risk and protect their interests. At the moment terms are usually 25 percent discount for firm sale and 40 percent sale or return. It would in my opinion make much more sense if this were reversed. It would certainly be a lot fairer as well - to all concerned and give book sellers one hell of an incentive to embrace this nuch needed change.

The other day I received a regular newsletter from Jerry Simmons, co-founder of the Nothing Binding Project, in which he listed some interesting statistics re internet sales. Research suggests that more books are sold on the Internet than any other product, and the number is increasing year by year.

Nielsen Online surveyed 26,312 people in 48 countries and found that 41% of Internet users had bought books online. This compares with two years ago when just 34% of Internet users had done so. Interesting, much of this increase seems to be in the emerging markets of countries such as South Korea and India, with British consumers in 10th place. The survey found that more than eight out of ten Internet users had purchased something in the last three months, a 40 percent increase on two years ago, to about 875 million shoppers.

The league table for Internet book buyers is as follows:

1. South Korea - 58%
2. Germany - 55%
3. Austria - 54%
4. Vietnam - 54%
5. Brazil - 51%
6. Egypt - 49%
7. China - 48%
8. India - 46%
9. Taiwan - 45%
10. UK - 45%
Percentage of Internet users buying books online. Source: Nielsen

As can be seen, the largest percentage of people buying books in any country was South Korea at 58%. Nielsen estimate that this equated to some 18 milion people. In the US, 57.5 million customers were estimated to have bought books, equating to just 38 percent of Internet users. In the UK the number is 14.5 million people, or 45% of those online. I find this particuarly interesting given that American authors seem to promote their books so much more online that we do in this country. Could this be because the vastness of that country makes travel more expensive and difficult I wonder, with security issues also to be considered, or this just a cultural thing?
When my Conversations with POD blog site was featured in the January edition of Writers News, I had just one response, and I cannot be sure that this came via the magazine, as the author in question is also a member of the Talkback forum that I post on. Despite my best efforts, the majority of the books featured on that site are by American rather than British authors, something that I hoped would be much more the other way around. Not that I have anything against American authors you understand, but the idea of the blog was to help promote home grown talent. So, British print on demand authors, where are you?

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