The Industry’s Real Challenge

I don’t know if business is good or bad right now. I do know that the publishing landscape has changed dramatically over the last five years and we will continue to go through a wrenching adjustment to these changes. I hope after reading this short article you will better understand the nature of your readership and the impact of the changes that have occurred.

As a general rule, there are two kinds of book readers. The first is the fan or avid book reader. This person is committed to reading books. This person visits bookstores, borrows books from friends, asks for books as gifts, and stops when they see books exhibited in airports or discount stores.

The second book reader is the impulsive book reader. This person is not committed to reading. It’s not that they don’t like to read; it’s just reading, like a lot of other pleasurable activities, is a catch-as-catch can experience. This person doesn’t visit bookstores and doesn’t have a mental list of books that they are just waiting to buy. But, if cruising by an airport newsstand or stuck in the mall for an hour or two, they will wander into a store, get hit by lightning and buy a book. And they will read and enjoy that book.

I recommend you always keep these two readers in mind. They are your audience. They represent all that’s gone right and all that’s gone wrong in the last 5 years.

For the committed book reader, paradise has landed. The committed book reader has watched deep discounting by competitive book chains drive down the prices of top selling books. The committed book reader can go to mega-stores that stock fifty or even sixty thousand titles, including lots of bargains and hard to get books. The committed book buyer can go on-line and shop 24/7/365 and have books delivered right to the door. The industry has done a masterful job of creating a book selling environment for the committed book reader that is almost unrivaled by any other industry.

Unfortunately, the impulsive book buyer has not shared in this bounty. What the impulsive book buyer needs most is a good mix of books that are appealing to every interest and every pocket book and are available at many and diverse locations, so that the impulses we all pray for can happen. The odds of this happening have decreased dramatically. Let me try to explain why.

There used to be hundreds of small book wholesalers in this country. Their main business was distributing magazines and newspapers, but they also carried books. They were often locally based and, because they were servicing many small retail establishments (think where you buy a newspaper or a magazine), they also put books at all these small retail locations. A short time ago, a large chain store with many stores in many states decided it no longer wanted to work with this host of small wholesalers that were feeding its many stores. It consolidated the business, turned to the largest wholesalers and demanded they bid for the whole thing. Someone did bid and this launched a massive consolidation that wiped out scores, even hundreds, of small wholesalers as many large chains followed suit. From a business point of view, over night the small local wholesalers interested in maintaining these small retailers of books were gone and were replaced by large wholesalers working across tremendous territories, who were mainly interested in only the largest accounts.

Some people estimate that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 “pockets” capable of holding a mass market book were lost. Whole racks of books that used to sit at a Rexall’s or a small supermarket or a country store simply disappeared. You’ve heard the expression an accident waiting to happen, well, for the impulsive book buyer, this was a case of an accident that could no longer possibly happen.

To compound the problem, both selection and price worsened for the consumer. With large companies focusing on making the pocket stuffing process “simpler” for low level employees putting books out in far off locations, the selection of titles shrunk. Why work with 300 titles, when you can work with 200? Why work with a $5.99 paperback by some newcomer when you can sell the backlist from a bestselling author with a cover price of $7.99? The entire mass market paperback business became bestsellers and romance – marginalized were westerns, war books, mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, et cetera.

To complete the picture, let me share with you an old rule of thumb that you can only learn from the few gray haired paperback veterans that are still around: one out of every two paperback books sold is an “impulse” buy. The impulsive book buyer is like Pavlov’s dogs before the training. He needs to see the meat to start salivating. Take away the meat and forget the salivation.

This is the real, essential problem of the book business today, especially the mass market paperback book business. We’ve lost our pockets. We’ve lost our racks. We’ve lost our physical presence in the marketplace that remains the fundamental, number one secret of retailing. We need to focus on getting it back through fair means or foul.

It infuriates me to hear that “people don’t want to read anymore” or that “there are so many other things people would rather do.” The impulsive book reader does like to read. But, he or she acts on impulse and you are not going to capture those impulses without the proper stimulation: a book, up close and personal.

The single biggest criticism I would level at the industry as a whole right now is that instead of addressing the fundamental issues of rebuilding distribution networks, finding new venues, retaining old accounts and reviewing the mix of discounts and terms to maintain its reach to the impulsive book buyer, it is focusing on the emerald city of electronic distribution. They may be adding another course to the feast for the committed book buyer, but the impulsive book buyer won’t be able to buy a frankfurter soon. If impulse buys do account for half our business, what kind of strategy is that. This may come as a shock to many people, but not everyone comes home from work and spends the night surfing the net for new exotic books at attractive prices.

I only hope a house doesn’t have to land on anyone before we take this issue more seriously. If it does, it’ll probably be a publishing house.

This article originally appeared in RWR, January 2002

Copyright 2021, The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency