Competing with Candy Crush

Earlier this week, Jeff Bezos was quoted as saying that what books “are really competing with is Candy Crush.”  Really?   Nothing against Candy Crush, which is obviously addictive and fun, but I have to say that as a reader and as a publisher, I just don’t see it this way.  Maybe there are people who are genuinely conflicted between spending their next hour playing Candy Crush or reading a book, but that doesn’t describe me and it doesn’t describe the people I think I’m publishing books for.  I publish the kinds of mysteries I love to read, books featuring strong, intelligent, committed and passionate protagonists, real people who are devoted to their friends, families and communities, and who are unable to stop searching for truth and justice.  Candy Crush is fine for what it is, but I suggest that there’s no way it’s competition for the kinds of books I’m talking about here.

Bezos thinks that because a book costs more than Candy Crush, that price differential creates “friction,” dissuading consumers from choosing a book over Candy Crush.  From a supplier standpoint, all I can say is that if Wall Street were subsidizing my every breath to the tune of billions of dollars, I could offer lower prices too.  It wouldn’t even take billions in my case; my publishing program would happily lower prices for a mere couple hundred thousand.

More importantly, from a reader’s perspective, I would agree with Bezos that there is friction between readers and books.  I just disagree about the nature of that friction.  Price has nothing to do with it.  Ok, maybe not nothing — who doesn’t want to pay less? — but the real issue when you’re searching for that next book to read isn’t necessarily how much the book costs but whether it’s a book you’re going to enjoy.  Of course readers are on a budget, but let’s also remember that readers share books, borrow from their local libraries, etc.  They find ways to read the books they want to read, once they know they want them.

So friction isn’t about price.  If overcoming friction is about helping readers identify books they’ll enjoy, then touting low prices isn’t the answer.  Posts on Facebook, Twitter or other forums that read — in their entirety — “TITLE TITLE on sale today for 99 cents on Amazon” are not the answer.  We read books because they’re good, not because they’re cheap.

My publishing program, Crum Creek Press/The Mystery Company, is a big part of my answer to the issue of helping mystery readers find books they’ll cherish.  We publish reference books that offer enthusiastic, knowledgeable and passionate essays about mysteries from a wide range of voices and perspectives.  Our two Organizing Crime volumes help you manage your reading and identify the books you’ll want next.  And I also publish novels that I’m excited to share with you.  John Billheimer, P.M. Carlson, Terence Faherty, Kate Flora and the others that I publish all write the kind of mysteries I describe above, books that I love and that you’ll love too.

Run over to www.crumcreekpress.com/catalog/ and take a look at what we have to offer. Use this coupon code — GOODBOOKS — and we’ll take 10% off your order, now through Christmas.  (Mixed message?  Me?)  It’s not the kind of discount that a heavily subsidized guy like Bezos can offer.  All I’m trying to do here is give you a reason to click on that link and take a look at our line today.

Unlike Bezos, I’m confident that you have no doubt about whether you want Candy Crush or another good book.  That’s what Crum Creek Press offers — good books plus references that help you find even more good books.

What the Amazon/Hachette dispute is really about

It wasn’t long ago that readers could walk into any bookstore anywhere in the country and have a reasonable expectation that they could get any book they wanted. The book might not be sitting on the shelves, but any bookseller — chain or independent — would without question take and fill a special order for anything published in the US. We booksellers could rely on wholesalers like Ingram and Baker & Taylor to help us fill those orders because they stocked books from wide range of companies. If a reader was looking for something that Ingram and B&T didn’t happen to have, we could go directly to publishers and be assured that they’d fill our order on equitable terms. Publishers even developed an easy, standard system — the Single Title Order Plan — to facilitate orders from stores with whom they may not have a regular relationship. STOP contacts and terms for all houses were a part of every company’s listing in the American Booksellers Association’s Book Buyer’s Handbook, so it was easy for booksellers to know how to get any book from any publisher.

Publishers and booksellers worked together because we all had the same expectation that readers did, that they would be able to get any book from any bookstore anywhere. We worked together this way not just because we had a common interest in serving the readers who are our mutual customers, but also because we understood that booksellers and publishers were fostering the free marketplace of ideas. We are among the vital institutions that make real the promise of the first amendment, a place where readers could access the free press that the framers held so dear. Selling books and, in particular, the filling of special orders — whether through wholesalers or STOP orders — has never been just about money. No one — not the publishers, not the booksellers — ever made real money from special orders, given the time and the shipping costs that go into them. But all publishers and all booksellers participated in this system.

That sense of common mission has frayed, and the policies and processes that enabled readers to obtain any book from any bookstore are in tatters. The reason is Amazon.

Amazon is engaged in negotiations with Hachette, one of the few remaining large publishers in the US, over terms of sale. While the details of the talks are not public (at least they’re not anywhere I’ve seen), we can surmise that Amazon is asking for terms that Hachette does not offer to other retailers and that Hachette has not agreed to Amazon’s request. We know that they haven’t because Amazon has made it more difficult for readers to obtain Hachette titles — removing pre-order buttons, delaying shipments, reducing or eliminating discounts.

It’s easy to see the Amazon/Hachette dispute as a petty business disagreement, and Amazon partisans have likened it to situations where Barnes & Noble or independent bookstores have not stocked particular books. A member of the DorothyL mystery genre discussion list writes: “Barnes & Noble can and does refuse to carry books because it doesn’t like the cover. Most independent bookstores refuse to carry books by Amazon Publishing, because they don’t want to support their competitor.”

Of course any business is entitled to make decisions based on what it thinks is best for that business. For bookstores there is no more crucial calculation than weighing whether to commit inventory dollars, shelf space and other limited resources to a particular book. Retailers rise and fall based on these decisions. If Barnes & Noble thinks that a cover for a book isn’t going to work, then they’re right to pass on it, and use their resources to stock an alternative that their experience tells them is more likely to lead to a sale — a better return on their dollar.

But here’s the difference. Barnes & Noble might decide not to stock copies of a title on the shelves of its stores based on its cover. Some independent stores might decide not to stock books from Amazon Publishing because Amazon won’t make its titles available to independents on the same terms that Amazon expects others to sell to it. However, in either case, if a customer walks up to the store’s special order counter, the booksellers will take the time to locate and order in a copy of that book with the hideous cover or that book published by the company that is the store’s fiercest competitor. Booksellers will take the time, every time, and they’ll do it happily. No “real” bookseller — chain store or independent — would let a business disagreement stand in the way of a reader who’s looking for a book. That’s just not in a bookseller’s DNA. The fact that Amazon is doing otherwise tells you that they’re made of different stuff, that they’re willing to impede readers trying to buy the books they want instead of just making books freely available to the best of their abilities.

I realize that sounds like an odd thing to say about a company that has genuinely done an enormous amount of good in enabling folks in remote and rural and isolated places to have access to a wider selection of books than they’ve ever had in the past. Through its CreateSpace and Kindle platforms, Amazon also offers countless authors and independent publishers (my own small publishing program included) access to readers that they would not otherwise reach so easily. There’s no question that Amazon has triggered revolutions in bookselling and in publishing that have lead to many positive outcomes for readers, writers and publishers — and even for other booksellers who have had to become more efficient and effective as a result of the changed landscape.

But even as we recognize the good that Amazon does, it’s important to recognize that what they’re doing is contrary to the bookselling ethos that grew up with and supports our democracy. In seeking preferential terms from publishers like Hachette, Amazon is seeking to bolster a monopoly position that threatens every other bookseller, a threat that puts Amazon closer to the position of being the only bookseller. Democracy is not well served by a marketplace of ideas that consists of only a few retailers; democracy is stronger when a level playing field supports a diverse marketplace made up of many retailers.

Even on its Kindle platform — a system that allows many voices access to readers — Amazon is making an effort to restrict the market. Through its KDP Select program, Amazon offers significant incentives to encourage authors/publishers to sell exclusively on Amazon, not allowing any other retail sale of a digital text — not even on the author/publisher’s own website. I can’t think of any other example in the recent history of publishing where any one bookseller has ever tried to prevent publishers from offering books to other retailers. CreateSpace is no better. Much of what is produced on this platform is unavailable to the trade through Ingram or Baker & Taylor. There’s no listing for CreateSpace in the Book Buyers’ Handbook. CreateSpace titles might be offered direct to other stores on terms that Amazon itself would find laughable, an effort to achieve de facto exclusivity on these books.

These kinds of exclusive arrangements are prevalent in other categories of retail. It’s not unusual for large stores to have their own “house” brands that are not offered to competitors. But that can’t happen in the book business because books are different. Booksellers and publishers have always worked together so that readers could walk into any bookstore and have a reasonable expectation that they could get any book they wanted. Bookselling has never been about exclusivity. If a particular brand of toilet paper is sold only in one store, that’s ok because toilet paper — as necessary as it is — is just toilet paper. Books are different because they embody ideas. If ideas are available from only one store, then the free marketplace of ideas isn’t so free any more.

Adventures in bookselling: Values

On September 2, four days after the start of the Fall semester, the Kenyon College Bookstore still had two copies of RITOS DE INICIACION by Grinor Rojo and Cynthia Steele in stock. First published in 1986, this book is still required for Spanish 321, as it has been at Kenyon for several years in one Spanish class or another. What’s changed is that the book has been out of print for the last two years or so. Increasingly, for cost and pedagogic reasons, faculty are using old editions and out of print titles, but this can create sourcing challenges. The big used text suppliers usually don’t stock old editions and out of print titles; by definition, these aren’t available new from publishers either. We end up searching high and low throughout the internet to meet the needs of our students.

For Fall 2013, the bookstore was able to find a reasonable number of copies at reasonable prices, though our stock was on the low end of our expected sales range. So we were trying to keep an eye on sales and enrollment, and on our options should more students ask for the book. On September 2, we felt there was a good chance that we would need more than the two copies still on our shelves. Our retail price for the used copies we found was $29.00. When we checked online, the least expensive copy available on that day was being offered on Amazon for $225.45.

Welcome to the brave new world of textbooks, where dynamic pricing is fast becoming the new normal.

When folks ask why books sometimes cost less online than they do in the bookstore, they’re comparing apples and oranges. If you’re looking at a class of, say, 35 students and you’re looking at a book that we have priced at $100 and it’s a book that’s been in use here and elsewhere for a couple of years already, then it’s very likely that you’ll be able to find a copy priced at well under $100. But take a close look at the listings, on Amazon, half.com, abebooks.com, alibris or any of the other sites that represent our competition. The first listing might be $30.00. The next listing might be $33.15. The third listing might be $41.69. By the time you get to the 35th listing – the number of books that we need to cover expected sales – you might perhaps see a price of $222.48. Copy number one is apples; 35 copies is oranges.  If you’re student #35, the bookstore’s $100 price – a midpoint price based on our sourcing costs and a standard markup – might be looking pretty attractive.

The least expensive copy of RITOS that we found cost $4.99, sourced through the internet, and the most we paid was $42.00 to a traditional used text vendor who happened to still have one copy left in its warehouse. We set our retail price at $29.00 based on our overall average cost and our usual target margin. Once we set that price, we held to that price, even when the market went crazy and pushed the price up beyond what most anyone would find reasonable. It’s been the policy of this store to set a price for the semester and then hold it for the semester. In other words, we would not penalize a student who came in late still needing copy of a book, even if we ran out and it cost more to restock. (It always costs most to restock, if for no other reason than freight charges.) But the increasingly dynamic marketplace and the increasing use of out of print titles are making it harder and harder to maintain this policy. When a student came in on September 25 looking for a copy of RITOS, we quoted a price in the mid-$40s, the lowest price we could find. We did not add in a markup for the bookstore.

For decades, the used text industry followed a rigid pricing model. For a book with a publisher’s suggested retail price of $100.00 for a new copy, the used copy would retail for 25% off — $75.00 — and the used text wholesalers would sell it to college bookstores for 50% to 67% off — $33.00 to $50.00. If a book went out of print, the industry moved on to a new edition or to another title. All of the wholesalers and most all college bookstores (including Kenyon’s) followed this model. But when we’re using old editions and out of print titles, a percent off from the new price model makes no sense, and our new economy competition, led by Amazon, isn’t bound by traditional pricing practices. These folks are treating texts like commodities, adjusting prices constantly – down and up.  Today, February 7, the least expensive copy of RITOS on Amazon is $49.20 plus shipping; copy #10 is going for $101.79.

No one has suggested that the Kenyon College Bookstore start pricing the way our online competition is pricing – copy by copy. But as I’ve noted, we’ve already abrogated our previous policy of holding the price steady through the semester, charging more for the more expensive copy we brought in a month after the semester started. We didn’t like it, but the options aren’t good: 1) stick to the original price and lose money on this transaction, 2) help the student get the book she needed and only recover our cost, or 3) apply our usual markup and charge the student what would have been a stiff premium over our start-of-semester price.

We chose the middle option, and we are likely to continue this strategy in the future – set a start-of-semester price, hold this price through rush into the first couple weeks of the semester, and then move to market pricing. But this begs the question. Why shouldn’t the bookstore price all copies of all titles individually all the time? If the first copy of RITOS cost about $5.00 and our target margin is 30%, then the retail price of that copy could be $7.14. If the second copy cost $8.00, the same calculation leads to a selling price of $11.43 for that copy. And so on. The last copy of RITOS cost $42.00; we’d price that copy at $60.00. The first student to shop for that book might feel pretty good about the price. The last student, not so much.

Of course, no one would really be happy with this system.  In a store like ours, students expect each copy of each required text to cost the same. Actually, we already accept that the new copies will cost more than the used copies, but otherwise, we all believe that store prices are supposed to be the same. But why? Our competition online is charging different prices based on different costs or on different assessments of what marketplace sellers need to get for the product. Sometimes those outfits are just changing prices for the sake of changing prices; a recent analysis showed that Amazon changes 2.5 million prices each day. If this is how our competition is behaving, does our fixed price model still make sense? If faculty and students alike are asking us why a book is so much cheaper online than it is in the bookstore, aren’t they really asking us to be more like those other sellers?

Actually, they’re not. In his 2012 book WHAT MONEY CAN’T BUY, Michael Sandel challenges us to think about situations where “market values have crowded out nonmarket norms.” For example, the market may be efficient, but is it the right way to decide who should receive a donated liver or other organ? Sandel argues that there are moral limits to markets, that sometimes other values should take precedence over market values.

That’s why no one would be happy if the bookstore started dynamically pricing each copy of each book. Providing textbooks to the students who need them is one of those nonmarket situations, especially in the context of a nonprofit college store owned by the institution. We believe that it’s more important to treat all students equitably, to set a reasonable price based on our costs and to charge that same price to all. The market creates winners and losers, but we are about something more. Even if the value of a book happens to skyrocket in the marketplace, we continue to make our stock available to our students at our original price, instead of offering it for sale online to the rest of the world at the prevailing market price. We might have made more money on RITOS if we sold it online — the store might be said to “win” in this situation — but our students would lose out. Like any retailer, we get the whole maximizing profit thing. But other values take precedence, for us and for the community we serve.

Adventures in bookselling: One author event order

Yesterday, I worked on ordering books for an author visit two and half weeks away, in mid-February.  The book is published by a good-sized university press — no little Mickey Mouse operation — so you’d think that their policies and procedures would be established and well-considered, and that bringing in this title would be simple and straightforward.  Not so much, as it turns out.

I looked first at Ingram and Baker & Taylor, the two major wholesalers we work with regularly.  The wholesalers are easy, and we’re already ordering from one or the other or both every week for fast re-stocking and for special orders.  At Ingram, the title is net priced — i.e. no discount from suggested retail.  Bookstores work on a discount from suggested retail price, giving us margin that allows us to cover our costs.  Traditionally, the discount on a regular trade title is 40% or better (the major New York companies are at 46%), and a lot of university press titles are normally 20%, though more and more university presses are selling their more popular titles to general bookstores for 40%.

Ingram’s net price means we’d have to mark up from suggested retail, never a good competitive strategy.  The only good thing here is that Ingram can get books to us swiftly and levies a low flat ship charge (when order minimums are reached).  This print on demand title would arrive in store three days after we ordered from Ingram.  At B&T, the title is listed as “available to backorder” with a 5% discount.  We’re set up with B&T for “no backorders” and the system does not appear to be able to distinguish between regular print titles (which we normally don’t backorder from a wholesaler) and print on demand (which aren’t really “backorders,” right?, they’re “demands”).

Still 5% isn’t enough of a discount to make this work.  That margin would be more than eaten up by return shipping, in case we had any unsold copies to send back.  I should say that while the store absolutely wants to support this author visit by bringing in books and displaying them prominently at the front of the store, our expectations aren’t all that high.  If we sell 6 copies we’ll be doing very well.  We’re looking to order 8, enough to have a good display and just in case the author surprises us with an especially engaging performance.  (Yes, this happens.)

I check Amazon, where I find a 7% discount, a better discount than either Ingram or B&T.  Is it weird that a retailer is undercutting the wholesalers?  Yes, I think it is.  But we’re seeing this more and more, and are increasingly worried about our ability to serve our customers well when the wholesalers aren’t helpful.

But no time to worry about that now.  I move on to the publisher.  The Book Buyer’s Handbook (a useful resource provided by the American Booksellers Association) offers no help for this press: contact info only, no info on terms of sale.  I see the name of the commission sales rep group that covers this territory, but they don’t call on our store, so no help there either.

At the publisher’s website, I am surprised to see that the book is being offered for 33% off their own suggested list price — 33% website discount, available to anyone on “most” titles, undercutting every other vendor, wholesale or retail.  I don’t get this strategy.  Don’t they want others to be able to successfully sell their titles, or are they expecting to sell only through their own site?

I’m tempted to just place the store’s order online, but I figure that if they’re offering 33% off to everyone, perhaps there are even better terms available for stores.  So I pick up the phone and reach a pleasant woman who tells me that the discount will be 20%.  I think “so there’s a 13% surcharge for picking up the phone?”  I don’t say that, but I do point out that I know about the 33% offer on their site.  She says that I could place the order online and get 33%, but I’d need to prepay via credit card.  I then say that the eight copies I need are for an author event.  She says that since the order is for an event, the discount is 45%.  Ok, now we’re talking!  But then she asks for the date and says in order to assure that we get books on time — for an event two and a half weeks away — we should pay a $5 rush processing charge.  So what she’s telling me is that the publisher itself can’t produce and ship books as swiftly as Ingram can.

I agree to the $5 surcharge and place the order for eight copies at 45%.  We’ll pay freight in, much more than either Ingram or Baker & Taylor charge for freight.  And we’ll pay freight out, if we have unsold copies that we don’t want to keep for stock.  It’s not likely that the store will make much on this event.  But we’ll have done what we can to support this author’s visit to campus.

And we’re happy to do it.  It’s what we’re here for, what we enjoy doing.  It’s just hard to know whether to laugh or cry at all this confusion, hard to understand why the same book coming from the same warehouse to the same shipping address might cost 20%, 33% or 45% off suggested retail, depending on how and why we place the order.

POD machines and the bookstore of the future

On a discussion list, a writer who publishes digitally on the Kindle platform suggests that the bookstore of the future will consist of an on-site print on demand machine that produces books to order.  The “day of publishers printing up a quantity of books will be gone,” he suggests.

I'd love to have a print-on-demand book machine in store, and I work at an institution that could probably find the money for it — if I recommended that we go that route.  But I haven't given the Espresso a thumbs up yet because the library of content available through the platform is not yet sufficiently robust.  In other words, I can't get enough of the titles that I need out of this box.  As usual in this business, it's not a technical issue or even really an economic issue.  The problem is content providers not playing well with others, not making the effort to make their titles available for printing on POD machines everywhere.  Too many people and too many firms are too happy to be on one platform only, without worrying about other possibilities.

I've tried to get some of my publishing program’s titles onto Espresso via Lightning Source, and I've been tangled in Lightning Source bureaucracy. You would not believe the strings of emails that have gone nowhere.  Lightning Source is, I think, too content to be its own entity and does not feel the need to engage others — come to us only or go nowhere.  That's often true among firms across the board, so it's not just a Lightning Source thing.  In this era, that attitude is enormously frustrating.

But this discussion list thread reminds me that I need to take another run at this, probably trying a different route next time.  On the list, I asked two questions. “How many of you have tried to put your titles onto the Espresso system?  How many of you have succeeded?”  Not one person answered the questions.  Lack of interest or lack of success?  Impossible to say.  I'd love to hear some success stories in this area.

As for what POD machines mean for bookstores, I don't think it's either the salvation or the death of stores.  I don’t even think that the machines will change stores much.  I’ve visited Espresso machines at Powell’s in Portland and Politics & Prose in D.C., and in both cases these bookstores are still bookstores.  Great bookstores, in fact.  There’s a big price advantage to big printings — the unit cost for a 1000 copy offset run is much less than a single copy printed on demand — and the books produced through big printings need to be housed and showcased somewhere.

But more importantly  I still think that a roomful of books means something.  We are excited by and comforted by rooms full of books.  We crave what a roomful of books holds in store for us, in ways that a being in the presence of a print on demand machine can never hope to satisfy.  Not that the machines aren’t cool — they are.  But it’s just not the same thing.

The challenge for stores is finding people to sustain those rooms.  Technology allows folks to separate reading from the roomful of books. Writers and readers have options now, and that's fine.  Better than fine if it means that texts reach more readers.  But I think it's too much to expect the two approaches to mix much.  POD machines help print-leaning people and institutions sustain that preference (in personal and in business terms) but only on the margins.  They’re not game-changers by themselves.  The production of a book via POD or large-quantity offset isn't what matters.  You have to want real books in the first place, and to be willing to pay for them and for the spaces in which we encounter them.

Where the devil lies

The book world is buzzing about Amazon's interest in seeing independent stores sell Kindles.  On one group, a bookseller writes that Amazon is the Devil.  On another, an author equates saying no to Amazon to saying no to the future.  The author doesn't say it in so many words, but her point is clear: Amazon = Future.  It's a common — and dangerous — misperception, equating Kindle with all ebooks.

Now I'm no luddite and I'm not opposed to progress.  But I am unabashedly a book lover — books on paper, with covers and pages and dust jackets and crisp type and elegant design.  I'm really high right now on the Penguin horror hardcovers, which we're displaying prominently in the store because they look so good.  But we also feature day to day stuff like Penguin classics because folks (students especially) can build a library out of these books that are a pleasure to own.  We've sold a ton of copies of Matt Kish's MOBY DICK because it is such a cool, cool physical book.

It's easy to know what to do with cool books.  The dilemma right now is how to handle ebooks.  Obviously, we don't associate with Kindle.  There are other platforms out there, ones that don't tie us to a major competitor.  In the real world, no one would expect Target to carry a Walmart product, so it's kind of comical that anyone would suggest that an independent bookstore should feature an Amazon product.

Last year, the American Booksellers Association put together a nice program that allowed stores to sell Kobo readers and to earn a commission on the sale of Kobo ebooks. The association made it essentially risk free to get started.  We're glad we did, not because of profits — which are minimal so far — but because it allowed us to show our customers that we are participating in the future.

But here we are beginning year two of the program, and the we're trying to figure out where we go from here.  The tune from the end of the Buffy musical runs through my head a lot these days — "Why is the path unclear / When we know home is near?"  Is the problem simply the weirdness of selling a digital product in a physical space?  Or is there more going on here?  Year two ABA program terms aren't as favorable, so it's not as obvious what we should be doing on the device side.  I do think it's vital that we help keep Kobo visible, otherwise we're helping to foster the impression that Kindle is the whole ball game.  But beyond maintaining the Kobo presence in the store and on our website, the path is really unclear.

It's hard enough to figure out what to do on the bookselling side.  I'm also confronting all these issues on the publishing side too.  We've gone to some effort to produce a pretty nice physical book for Terence Faherty's EASTWARD IN EDEN, which we just published last month.  This is something we do because we love books, and it's important to us to design something that you'll be happy to have and to hold.  This matters to us.  The packaging works in physical spaces.

But these days, we also have to sell digitally, and it's a struggle.  We publish on the Kindle platform but we've resisted all of Amazon's efforts to get us to commit to it exclusively.  So we also publish on Kobo, Nook, iTunes and Smashwords.  Our ebooks are selling, little by little, mostly on Kindle but on the other platforms too.  Overall, though, we're not selling in quantities that we'd really like to see. The main challenge here, I think, is figuring out how to enlist the help of booksellers in promoting these books.  The two series that we're working on this year — Carlson's Maggie Ryans and Faherty's Owen Keanes — are the kind of series that really benefit from recommendations and handselling. 

Publishers get how that works in physical stores.  We send out reading copies, booksellers get excited, that excitement gets stores to put copies on their shelves and into the hands of their customers — literally.  But how does a small press make that work in the digital space?  As a publisher, I am enormously grateful for the support that independent stores have provided for the physical books that I've worked on.  You all make these titles possible, and it's obvious how this is a mutually beneficial relationship.  The books that I publish make money for you too, and help bind customers to your stores because they're appealing and "unique" titles that folks won't find elsewhere.  But that connection is less clear in the digital realm, where most promotional efforts bypass stores.  Authors and publishers sell direct-to-consumers/readers.  Or we see lots of platform-based marketing: I get a ton of emails from Kobo about new releases with percent-off offers.  All this bypasses independent stores, right down to the very concept of a "unique" product.  On the internet, nothing is unique.

At some level, the real question for physical bookstores, it seems to me, is whether the devil is Amazon or whether the devil is digital itself. Folks have enormous affection for the physical space that is a real bookstore. We just love being in a bookstore, and we know that the smart and friendly and knowledgeable people who inhabit that space will put the right books onto their shelves and into our hands.  We all understand how that process works, and I think we're seeing that today the bookstore experience is more valued than ever.  The plusses and minuses of reading digitally are also more or less clear these days.  But when you think about the fact that what you read is more or less determined by your route to text — whether you're talking about print or digital — the implications are not at all clear.  This isn't just about stores, it's about text itself.  Revolutions in publishing aren't just about publishers and booksellers, they're about what kinds of texts the marketplace supports.  Think about how the rise of the mass market paperback fostered writers like Mickey Spillane and you'll see what I mean.

Michael Pollan writes that "most of what presents itself to us in the marketplace as a product is in truth a web of relationships."  We understand those relationships in the physical world.  But we don't yet online, and until we do, it's going to be hard to know where the devil lies.

No guns, no gore, but plenty of intellectual guts

When Terence Faherty published DEADSTICK, his first novel, in 1991, this is what Marilyn Stasio had to say about it, in part, in The New York Times Book Review:

“… the answer to the mystery is a sad one, but worth the pursuit for the existential lesson he takes from it — to keep searching for the tiny bits of mental order that keep at bay that 'archenemy' of the thinking man, 'the idea that the universe is godless and capricious, without pattern or meaning.'

"No guns, no gore, but plenty of intellectual guts."

Stasio's review might give you a hint of why this series is so hard to describe and sell — the words "existential lesson" are a pretty clear signal that you're a little outside the mainstream — but it also hints at why this series is so amazing, challenging and, ultimately, endearing.

Over 20 years since that first appearance, the Owen Keane novels are still pretty cool.  I've been spending a lot of time this year with Owen Keane, working on reprinting the early Keane novels and prepping Keane's new adventure for its first publication in October.  This time through the books, I'm even more in awe of Faherty's elegant writing and plotting.  I'm especially struck by the way he's playing with time, perspective and memory in these narratives.

I'm also seeing more of the humor, such as this bit from the second in the series, LIVE TO REGRET: "I had looked for clues in poems before in my checkered career, and I found them to be unreliable. It wasn't that I couldn't find what I was looking for; it was that I almost always found it, a circumstance that made me think that poems might be the police informants of literature, telling me anything I wanted to hear." Practically nothing happens in LIVE TO REGRET.  The book is all dialogue and contemplation — not for nothing did Kirkus label it "a heady read" — but it's pretty mesmerizing anyway.

Eden250In October, I'll be publishing EASTWARD IN EDEN.  I'm thrilled by this opportunity.  It's a terrific book, and it's a privilege to be to able to continue the run of a series that's already been nominated for two Edgars, an Anthony, a Macavity, a Shamus and a Derringer.  That Shamus nomination is a new one, just announced in June for "After Cana," a short story published last year in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

EASTWARD IN EDEN takes the series in a new direction, sending Keane to rural Kenya, where he hopes to lose himself where no one will think to look for him. Instead, Keane finds another mystery: the murder of charismatic stranger who claimed to be the reincarnation of a long dead warrior hero.

EASTWARD IN EDEN can be pre-ordered now from any independent bookstore (your friendly local store or online via http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781932325492) or from most of the usual other online sources (powells.com, booksamillion.com or amazon.com).

Find out more about our Owen Keane reissues at www.crumcreekpress.com.

What we’re not allowed to talk about

I’m in Kansas City for American Booksellers Association and the National Association of College Store events, which have been great so far.  Lots of great energy, and great ideas that I can bring back to my store.  Looking at today's session information, I’m pleased to see an opportunity for a Publisher/Bookseller focus group. But then there’s this sentence from the session description:

These Focus Group meetings are an opportunity to dialogue about ways in which booksellers and publishers can better communicate and work together in the mutual interest of selling more books — they are not intended to talk about specifics regarding the publisher's terms of sale, operational practices, or backroom issues.

Leave aside using “dialogue” as a verb and look at what we’re “not intended” to talk about. The thing about “terms of sale” is that they’re more than just numbers – 25 copies earns a 46% discount. Terms are a statement of values, a manifestation of how publishers view the relationship between their companies and booksellers. Ultimately, it’s really about supporting the relationship that stores have with readers.

The fact is that we get the top-line stuff in this business right. Lot of great books are being published, more than enough to allow booksellers to fill their shelves and allow readers to find something that will suit their preference. In other words, there’s a more than adequate supply of great product to satisfy consumer demand. The passionate book lovers in the industry – and there are lots of us – might even argue that the best thing about the business is that we don’t usually think of what we’re peddling as “product.”

The problems we encounter as publishers, as booksellers and even as readers tend to flow from publisher’s terms of sale, operational practices and backroom issues. Usually, that's what stands in the way of getting the right book into the hands of the right reader and the right time. Minimum order requirements are too high. Publishers and wholesalers don’t work well together. Shipping times are too long. The flow of information overwhelms store buyers. Some firms (publishers and wholesalers) are clearly offering better terms to select retailers, making it hard for the rest of us to compete. Some publishing companies are seeking to bypass stores altogether, offering incentives for readers to buy direct.

I realize that there might be legal implications to discussing things like terms of sale in a group setting (especially after the federal government’s ridiculous action on ebooks). I also realize that it’s a lot less fun to talk about operational issues than good books. But as an industry, we need to find more ways to have these conversations, instead of suggesting that these questions are off limits.

People who set prices don’t like me

Three lines in three different posts in this morning's Sisters in Crime listserv stuck me:

"So I suspect that the designers who charge orbit-high rates for work with InDesign may be trying to recoup the cost of the program."

"I think this shows that publishers don't like/appreciate libraries."

"I think the risk (and the reward of jacking up prices) is being miscalculated … publishers that make it hard for people to try out books are the ones who are risking irrelevance."

I think we are all struggling with assessing value in a dynamic environment, and I think it's especially interesting to look not just at the ideas expressed here but also the words that we're using.

"Suspect" has at least a connotation of something inappropriate.  That connotation is reinforced by "orbit-high."  But is there anything wrong with a professional trying to recoup costs?

It's always difficult to ascribe motive, but do we really believe that publishers don't "like" libraries?

When we're talking about risk and reward, we're using terms that put us into the right realm — commerce.  But are we imputing a duty — trying out books — that publisher should not have to bear?  Not that I don't agree with the trying-out goal.  I just don't know how we pay for it.

Perhaps because I've just completed another text rush season at my day job, I'm feeling bruised on price issues. It's easy for a consumer to decide that he or she is being overcharged, something that students seem to have little hesitation to say to us.  I actually prefer that our customers vocalize the thought, because at least it gives me an opportunity to have the conversation, to explain how we set prices, why our prices are different from what they see at Amazon, what our costs are, and that we're a nonprofit trying only to recoup our costs — primarily wages, which in some cases are shockingly low at our store.  I don't tell students the last part; I don't think they need to know specific hourly wages.  But otherwise, we are willing to share all of our financials with students and everyone else in the community.

Of course I turn around at do it myself every time I fill up at the gas station.  I think I know what's wrong with gas prices — that they're manipulated by speculators, and not driven by pure supply/demand considerations.  But who am I to say?

I don't like how much Adobe charges for InDesign, but I pay the price because I like the results I get out of it when I lay out pages.  I wish that the designers I work with cost less, but I know that they've studied hard to get to where they are, that they're proficient both technically and aesthetically, that they haven't skimped on the tools of the trade, and that their files will be trouble-free at all the vendors who'll be processing them.  It always seems that Lightning Source is charging a lot just to set up a title and accept files, but I also know that they've made a huge investment in their digital infrastructure and that the people who support those systems get paid well (as they should for their expertise and education).

There's lots wrong with the book business — including the prices of various services, and the prices of our products.  But I think we could all be more careful about how we think about and talk about these questions.  I don't think we can suggest that it's wrong for a service provider to try to recoup the cost of the tools of the trade.  If the terms of an arrangement aren't favorable for users, it's probably not because the seller doesn't "like" them.

Except, of course, the gas companies.  They obviously don't like me.

Reintroducting P.M. Carlson

After our move to Ohio a couple of years ago, we faced the daunting task of dealing with all our books. We still don't have all the shelving we want in our house here.  It's a slow process getting that all figured out, especially with an old house where nothing is standard.  Those nice six foot tall bookcases that we brought from our previous homes, don't work as well in rooms with 11 and 13 foot ceilings!   So a lot of our books are still in boxes, slowly getting unpacked as we find time and shelf space.

It's been a lot of fun to rediscover books in our collection, and one of those rediscoveries was P.M. Carlson's AUDITION FOR MURDER. I had fond memories of this book, and of an entire series that I adored. As I pulled AUDITION out of the box, I opened the cover.  I didn't put it down until I was something like a hundred pages into it. Finished it the next day.

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I like everything about AUDITION FOR MURDER. Carlson's characters are wonderful, real people with real emotions and real problems. They're joyful, passionate and committed — just take a look at how Nick O'Connor describes his work as an actor in chapter four, for example. And without flinching from tough realities — war, justice and the personal demons (the book is set in 1967) — they're also positive, upbeat and capable, ready to face anything, from a supercilious French restaurant waiter to the challenge of staging one of Shakespeare's greatest works, HAMLET. The HAMLET stuff in this book is great; you'll learn a lot about the play from Carlson — and you'll enjoy learning it.

Because these books were originally published as paperback originals, and because they were first published in the pre-internet dark ages, you won't find much about them online. But if you look back through mystery bookstore newsletters and mystery fanzines, you'll find folks raving about Carlson's books. Tom & Enid Schantz in The Rue Morgue newsletter: "terrific characters, funny incidents, genuine suspense, and an absolutely right sense of period and place." Kate's Mystery Books newsletter: "this is an inspiring book, a joy to read and, except for the murderer and murderee, it seems that just about everybody is set to live happily ever after, just as in the favorite fairy tales of my childhood." Phyllis Brown in the Grounds for Murder newsletter: "Carlson is one of those writers who demonstrate an amazing degree of wisdom and knowledge about human nature and an equal degree of compassion and sensitivity. The characters and their interactions alone would make this a deeply satisfying novel. In addition, the reader is treated to skillful, literate writing and an engrossing, suspenseful mystery story. This is one of my favorite mysteries of all time."

Pat's books are just too good to be out of print. It's a privilege and a pleasure to make them available again.

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AUDITION FOR MURDER and MURDER IS ACADEMIC are out now. They're in print, and you can get them through bookstores everywhere (independent, chain, online, US, UK and EU). We're also doing digital editions, which you can find on Kindle, iTunes/iBooks and Smashwords (epub for Nook, Kobo, etc). MURDER IS PATHOLOGICAL will be out in December, and we'll have the rest of the series available in early 2013.

Find more info at www.crumcreekpress.com, where we've posted a note from the author about these reissues.