Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ditch the fat cats !

Job cuts seem to be being spoken of everywhere though, across all sectors of retailing. We often forget that publishing is retail as well, as it is ultimately not about printing, but selling books. It seems that all over the world, in both Britain and the United States, companies are struggling to come to terms with an extremely awkward and challenging environment, one that with a bit of foresight could have been foreseen and quite possibly prevented.

The regular Bookhitch newsletter that I receive says that there is an interesting story floating around that 50 or so years ago a mechanic somewhere in the western United States designed a carburetor that could get 60 miles to the half gallon while powering an 8 cylinder car. Rumour has it that a large oil company found out about this, bought the rights and paid to not only silence the mechanic but also made him sign a piece of paper stating that he would never design anything like this again, for the rest of his life. It wouldn't surprise me, as I have heard similar rumours about drug companies when cures for diseases are found.

This though just goes to underline the point that the solutions have been there all along, the problem is as Bookhitch put it, fat cats with chubby hands in the cookie jar.

The motor industry may on the surface look different to publishing, or for that matter the market that I work in, yet retail when it comes down to it, is retail, and no matter what you are selling, the problems and therefore the solutions, are the same. The problems though start at the top and trickle down. It is inevitably the case that those at the bottom who did not make the mistakes that led to the dire situation that so many retailers now find themselves in, are the first to lose their jobs. We are the ones who pay for our company's mistakes, and not those who actually made those mistakes, meaning that they do not learn from these mistakes.

Every year tens of thousands of books are wasted and pulped. Even though the technology is there to prevent this from happening (print on demand) it both abused and underused. Companies continue to use wasteful and outdated methods, paying lip service to the environment, until they are forced to make changes. This to me is pure nonsense and just does not make sense. Print costs are rising to such an extent that is now almost cheaper to use print on demand, and when it comes to quality the differences are negligible. Yet the publishing industry continues to rubbish this method, concentrating on the negatives instead of the positives.

It seems that in many cases, companies are unwilling to act until they are forced to do so. This would be after all be far too difficult, as it would entail the fat cat CEO's actually doing some work, to earn their obscene salaries. This would never do, as they would miss their round of golf and champagne breakfasts. I acknowledge though that not all companies are like this, and pressure from the public is making changes. I cannot speak for the company I work for, since I do not read the city news (far too depressing) and know what the CEO or MD earns, I do know though that my Store Manager has not had a pay rise that is actually worth anything in 3 years, and that the rise I have been awarded (3 percent, and bear in mind that we earn only 1 penny more than the minimum wage, although this is also set to change, no doubt after I have left) is less than the rate of inflation.

What is the solution? I cannot speak for my sector, which I fear is doomed, unless you work in a superstore, but publishers have to stop printing such high runs and remember that it is only the minority of books that become best sellers. Some books written by well known authors may well need high print runs and even second and third runs, but the majority do not. When you see the amount of books on sale in the bargain bins and in remainder shops such as the Speaking Tree, how much did these cost the publisher and author in terms of lost revenue? How much money, ink and paper has been wasted in the last year that could have been put to better use in actually promoting the books and helping them to sell, and also in paying staff and authors decent royalties, not to mention supporting new authors and giving their work a voice. Could those savings have saved or even created jobs? Maybe it is time to re-think what Bookhitch refer to as the three letter word - print on demand. Maybe it is also time to re-think the absurdly outdated notion that books must be returnable.

People in positions of power think that they are invincible (think Amazon) and resist resolutely anything that they perceive as challenging their position, keeping everyone else down. It is though in times of hardship that those who are at the bottom have the chance to excel and show their mettle, as when the going gets tough, the tough get going. I have proven this ten times over with my own attitude these last 12 months. We should then look to the bottom rather than the top as to how to improve things, going back to the floor, as this is where the action takes place. We are the ones who do the jobs and the real work, so we are the ones whose ideas should be implemented and put into place, or at the very least, looked at. We cannot do a worse job than those who are already in charge.

Perhaps we should also take a leaf from Michael Garibaldi's book, a character from Babylon Five. When he inherited a large research company and sacked the Board of Directors for plotting to kill both him and his wife, and embezzling the company, he replaced them with a team of individuals who had done nothing but complain about how awful the company was, figuring that they were the ones who should be listened to. Mr Garibaldi sounds like my kind of boss, and if some of mine had been more like this, then by now I would be one very happy and fat cat!

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