THINK LIKE A SMALL PRESS PUBLISHER

Some years ago, Connie Shelton wrote an article “Think Like a Bookseller,” [SPAN Connection, Volume 6, Issue 1/58], in which she advised us small press publishers to give more breaks to independent bookstores if we want them to carry our titles. She asked that we give bigger discounts, throw in free postage, and make sure that our books can be purchased quickly and at maximum discounts from the big book distributors. I appreciate some of what she said, and I think I understand her point of view. (My son was trying to make a living owning and operating a small independent bookstore at the time.) However, I think her advice is much more appropriate for large-scale, mainstream publishers than it is for us “little guys.” Everything she points up as a problem for independent booksellers is doubly a problem for small press publishers.

   Symbios Books has been in and out of business several times over the years, with the booms and busts (mostly the latter) of independent businesses. We have five soft cover titles in print, one fiction and four non-fiction. In the early days, we regularly filled orders through Ingram, Amazon.com, library distributors, etc., but we have always done most of our business direct with libraries and from our own website. We have tried working with the chains, and with both large and small independent booksellers, but have pretty much given up on them as a waste of our time. Here are some of the reasons.

  1. Getting our titles carried by distributors. First off, most of the distributors will not carry the books of small publishers, even with good reviews and even if we could afford to give them the big discounts they demand. Like the chain bookstores, the distributors appear to decide ahead of time what their customers will like, and seldom offer them anything that isn’t from a big publishing house. [It’s been revealing to me that library distributors have told us our books would not be of interest to libraries, yet our direct marketing to libraries has been extremely successful.].

 2. Dealing with the chains. While companies like (the former) Borders have made bulk purchases from us and have accepted our smaller discounts, we’d just as soon not deal with them. Our experiences with them have included: waiting six months or more for payment; having books returned before the stipulated minimum time period, and in condition unfit for sale; canceling the book signing of one of our authors when a “celebrity” showed up who wanted to have a signing that same day; and even having Borders turn our account over to a bill collector for our alleged non-reimbursement for returned books [which turned out to be their bookkeeping error that we had pointed out to them on several previous occasions]. No thanks.

 3. Offering better discounts. In her article, Shelton said “a small bookstore needs to make 40% on virtually everything they sell.” If the small publisher can’t offer that, she said, don’t bother trying to sell to an independent bookstore. Actually, we do find small bookstores who are quite willing to accept 20% and 30% discounts on small lots of books. Even if they wouldn’t, it would be very difficult for us to offer more. Look at it from our viewpoint: Before we started Symbios Books, I had two books published by a prestigious university press. The publisher did a wonderful job producing the books, and publicized them heavily in logical markets. Both books got very good reviews, and both sold “pretty well.” Yet, even with the resources of a large, established publisher and advertising machine behind them, neither book sold out its first printing. I suspect the publisher felt it was worthwhile to have had the titles as part of their overall catalog, even if I didn’t make them [or me] rich. But if they couldn’t sell out a first printing, where does that leave publishers the size of Symbios Books?

  All the funds we have to run our operation are what we put into it up front, and what we make from our business ventures. We can’t purchase 5,000 copies of a book in order to significantly reduce the cost per book, when we know it is highly unlikely that we will sell more than a couple thousand copies of even a highly “successful” publication. [Dream about that “million seller” all you want, but it’s almost unheard of for a small publisher to strike it rich, particularly the first, second or third time around.] Consequently, it is probable that attractive, perfect-bound, soft-cover books will end up costing the small publisher $6 to $8 apiece. Selling even the most desirable “paperback” for as much as $20 is pretty tough, and if the paperback is fiction, $12 is probably a stretch.

   So, putting a reasonable retail price of say $18 on a non-fiction book that cost $6 to produce, and allowing for even a minimum amount of well-targeted advertising, the small publisher will likely have to sell at least half of his first printing AT FULL PRICE before there will be any “profit.” Start adding even a 20% discount, and funds to print the next book are even farther in the future. Give every re-seller 40% or 50% on every book, or start throwing in free postage, and that next book will never be printed.

 As I said at the start, I am not unsympathetic toward the independent book dealer. Any who make it in competition with the chains Wal-mart, and the giant on-line stores obviously have the right stuff. But the bookseller who deals in small volume of many titles has much more leeway than the publisher who deals in small volume of only a few titles. Some small independents have found they can deal with us, as long as we are offering good titles that have a chance to sell in their areas. It would be nice to feel that the “little guy” dealers were willing to try a little harder to work with the “little guy” suppliers.


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