Friday, January 24, 2020

What kind of books sell in my store.

Been thinking about what's working at my bookstore.

First of all, I'm concentrating on quirky books. Because of my location, I'm selling books mostly on impulse. The locals will never come around to seeing me as a bookstore. It doesn't matter what I do. So I have to sell to people who walk in the door and see books and think, "Bookstore!"

But what are those types of people looking for?

Not the ABA (American Booksellers Association) style books, the New York Times bestsellers, the books reviewed by NPR. At least, not as often.

Instead, I'll sell a worthy book that been around for a long time but not everyone has read. My clientele for books is mostly tourists or locals who are wandering around downtown, and it seems they want something different--something they didn't know they wanted when they walked in the door.

I can see the difference when I hang out at Herringbone Books in Redmond. Brandon has a steady flow of people coming in the door with specific requests. That is, it appears the majority of customers there aren't there to browse, but to find a particular book. Often it's bestsellers, books they've heard in the media, or books that friends have recommended.

Whereas at Pegasus Books, if they are looking for anything specific, it's usually something offbeat. I don't know if this is because my bookstore already appears to them to be a strange place, but generally I don't get asked for the bestseller of the moment.

Which I don't mind.

I concentrate on the backlog of great authors that people have either heard of or once read. Vonnegut, P.K.Dick, Murikami, Bukowski. Or classics that they've always wanted to read. Or cult books that they have heard about but never seen before.

For me, the quirkier, the better.

Oh, I've decided to carry the mainstream bestsellers, at least some, but they sell rather pathetically compared to their reputation.

What's great about buying books that are just a little to the side of the books that most bookstores sell is that it makes my store unique. One of my criticisms of ABA model stores is that they are all pretty much alike in what they carry.

Anyway, once I identify a quirky book as a good seller, I keep it in stock. So my job is to keep adding to that list.

For instance, I stumbled upon a deluxe hardcover version of Edith Hamilton's "Mythology." (A book that's been around since 1942.) I'd carried the paperback almost from the beginning and sold it a couple of times. But damned if the much more expensive version hasn't sold a bunch of times.

Or the deluxe version of "The Princess Bride."

What I've concentrated on is buying the most interesting version of a book. For instance, some of the old classics are being reproduced in their original format. These versions are dripping with nostalgia.
Another trick is to look for classic books with cover art done by current indie artists. (Often the same artists whose graphic novels I've been carrying for years.) So, for instance, a funky cover of Jack Kerouac's "Dharma Bums" by 'Jason.'

Finally, I try to carry books that are offbeat. I was visiting Artifacts bookstore in Hood River and I asked my usual question. "What book is selling that I wouldn't know about?"

I was directed to, "How to Talk to Your Cat about Gun Safety."

OK. I was doubtful, but why ask the question if I'm not going to follow through? Amazingly, I've sold that book over and over again based on the title alone. Those are the kinds of books that I'm looking for. Ones that stand out on the shelf, either because of the title, the art, or the general weirdness of the idea.

So I started off with a general idea of what people might be looking for based on years of never having a used book version of that request. Over time the list of books that are quirky but sell has been steadily growing. I'm certain that there are still tons of titles that will fit this category, and I'll discover them little by little. All of which makes the store that much stronger.

Plus it's fun.

And finally, I make a real effort to carry more the usual amount of genre books--especially SF and Fantasy, Horror, Mystery and Suspense. I'm very knowledgeable about these genres, and have read a bunch of them that I can recommend.

I just like books. I've always had a wide range of interests--and I've always been interested about where certain authors and titles fit in the scheme of things. It a big puzzle that I'm trying to decipher and it's a fun challenge.

And so far, it's paying off.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Even though the BookBub promotion was in September of last year, I've encouraged my publisher to keep the reduced (.99 cent) price on "Deadfall Ridge." Meanwhile, its sequel, "Takeover," is at the regular $4.99 price.

It's a strange thing to see that a book at full price that sells 1/10th the numbers of a book at a reduced price, but earns a profit of 33% more overall.

In this case, the full-priced book probably wouldn't be selling as well as it is without the discounted book bringing attention to it. So I'm good with that. I've gone ahead and agreed to another promotion from a different site--not sure if will be as effective as BookBub, but since "Deadfall Ridge" is on a roll, as least as far as number of copies sold, I'd like to try to keep the momentum going.

I mean, the idea is to get more readers, who hopefully will buy some of my other books. But damn, getting 30% of a reduced price instead of 70% of a full price makes it hard to make money.

If you've ever wondered about discounting, this should tell you everything you want to know. I spent years, decades really, having to reduce prices at the store in order to pay the bills. I rarely if ever had an official "Sale;" it was more a one-on-one situation where I'd try to sell an item to a customer on a customized basis: a good customer who I wanted to keep happy, or a one-time customer eyeing a one-of-a-kind item that I might never sell to anyone else, or any oversupply that needed to be weeded down.

 That kind of thing. There were a couple of lean years where I was hand-selling just about everything at a reduced price. Makes it very hard to earn enough to restock the store

Someone gave me the advice early on that you can tell the health of a store by how well they can stick to regular prices.

About 2002 or so, not long after I finally got out from under a huge debt, I decided that I would sell everything in my store at regular price. This mean not discounting anything, but it also meant not raising any prices because of the "collector" thing--with a few exceptions.  It also meant not buying anything off the street.

Everything is strictly wholesale/retail.

That doesn't mean that I don't occasionally sell stuff at reduced prices--again, at the "customized" level, but it's much rarer now.

I think it's a fair policy, and I'm very glad I made that choice. I never felt comfortable raising prices because of "collectability," but as as long as I was in that game, it was necessary. Now I let the customers decide whether something is collectable or not. I may be leaving money on the table, but it feels like the moral high ground, and it makes life so much easier.

As I say, "Collectability is what happens once it leaves the store."

That's not to say that I don't bump prices on toys or comics a little bit if the supply chain somehow demands it--like qualifying for certain incentives and/or exclusives, but I try to keep the price increases to a minimum--just enough to cover the risk.

We're sometimes confronted with a comic going way up in price--when that happens, we sell that comic for far below whatever ebay is selling it for.  There are many times when I know for a fact that I'm selling below market price, but a policy is a policy. (A policy that isn't followed isn't a policy at all.)

Fortunately, this situation is becoming much rarer. 99% of the time, I'm buying an item at wholesale and selling at Suggested Retail Price. It's nice predictable formula, but only possible because the store has reached a sustainable level.

In other words, the store is healthy, and the level of stock fully justifies the asking prices. (Not to mention the downtown location, trying to pay an engaged manager a fair wage, the taking chances on more obscure items, and so on.)

Surprisingly, few customers question it. Oh, I occasionally get someone who won't buy unless it's discounted, but I let them go their way. Sometimes I understand and sometimes I just shake my head. One of the reasons the store is interesting at all is because I'm earning enough of a profit to stock harder to sell items, to take chances, to buy stuff that a Walmart wouldn't bother to carry.

It took a long to get here. I'm hoping I can keep it going. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

They're waiting for my next book! ....aren't they...?

You may have noticed I'm not talking about writing as much.

That's because I'm not writing, except snippets here and there.

Apparently, after 7 years and 30 books, I've indulged my little whim to be a writer. Rather astounding to look back at. Somehow I kept that momentum going far longer than I ever would have ever thought possible.

In fact, I just wanted to finish one book. You know, just to prove to myself that I could do it. Finish, but not necessarily publish.

For 7 years I convinced myself that it was imperative that I finish the next book. I basically imposed a fake urgency to it all. I had all kinds of reasons--keeping momentum by releasing a book every 4 to 5 months, following up on success, convincing myself that publishers were eagerly awaiting my next effort (they weren't...), fitting into the schedule of my cover artists and editors, and so on.

Even as I was letting the pressure of these faux imperatives motivate me, I knew inside that most of it wasn't true. I kept wondering when it would fade, when I'd want to take a break, when I'd be called back to save the store or some other emergency.

I had a heart attack. That was the break point. Not sure why. I'm pretty healthy now, there really isn't an excuse. But once I took a break, the fever started fading.

I'm not going to stop writing, but the urgency isn't there anymore. I have a number of books that just need to be polished. Probably several years worth if I want to keep up the old schedule of publishing every 5 months. Polishing probably takes a month or less. So the other 4 months are free.

If I was thinking about money, I'd be writing sequels to Deadfall Ridge. I have a couple of plots already in my head. But the truth is, it's never been about the money. Working at the store would earn me far more.

(I'm also wondering when my ghostwritten book will be published. When it is, I'll be a Top Ten New York Times author--and I won't be able to tell a soul about it...)

Still, if something takes off, maybe that will spur me to try to follow up.
Meanwhile, I'm planning my big epic fantasy. Doing the research, thinking about it, starting some planning.

I suspect that what will happen is that I'll have to concoct some urgent reason that the trilogy needs to be finished. (Mortality?)

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Poor, poor mainstream publishers.

Reading the website, Passive Voice, about the problems mainstream publishers are having.

It appears that 30 years ago they could pretty much count on selling a couple thousand copies of just about any hardcover they put out there. Between B Daltons,  Waldenbooks, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and the 12,000 or so independent bookstores, they could count on selling enough to make a small profit on most "mid-list" books.

It helped that they had (pre-internet) readier access to more venues than small publishers, and that most bookstores relied on the bigger publishers. The yearly BOOKS IN PRINT had about 500,000 titles available.

When indie bookstores started dropping like flies, and Daltons and Waldens went the way of the Dodo, and Amazon entered the scene, the publishers started buying each other up to maintain their thresholds.

There are now basically 5 big corporate publishers who between them own almost every publisher you've ever heard of.

There are also now 15 million titles available--not counting innumerable Print-on-Demand books.

But most of their mid-list books started losing money.

So they naturally gravitated toward "best-sellers." If a book doesn't have the potential to become big, they won't publish it. They handed that choice over to agents, basically. (It's more or less impossible to get a Big Five publisher to look at a non-represented manuscript.)

The market started going around these roadblocks, as tends to happen. Smaller publishers rushed into the bridge the void, and other authors just went ahead and published themselves. Admittedly, along with the good, there's plenty of bad.

But the Big Five publishers narrowed their focus just as the markets were expanding. They forced the ebook prices up--and then announced the ebooks sales were dropping. Meanwhile, most indie writers have found a sweet spot price of $2.99 to 5.99, of which the writer can get 70%.

Anyway, this is long lead-in to my point.

The publishers killed the indie bookstores by giving preferential treatment to Barnes & Noble and Borders. Most of the damage was done before Amazon even entered the picture. It wasn't so much that the smaller bookstores couldn't compete but that they weren't really allowed to compete. Exclusives, earlier shipping, greater return privileges, and higher discounts made it impossible for most small bookstores to compete.

Of the four indie bookstore that were here in Bend when Barnes and Noble came to town, none survive. We have had several new bookstores pop up since then that have also failed. Right now we have Roundabout Books, and downtown, Dudleys and Pegasus Books are carrying larger and larger selections of new books.

There are roughly 2500 indie bookstores nowadays. Not enough for mainstream publishers to depend upon. God help the Big Five if Barnes & Noble ever goes belly-up. Small bookstores are making a bit of a comeback, but I doubt they'll ever reach their previous numbers.

Thing is--none of this was necessary. The publishers could have supplied the big chainstores in such a way that they didn't kill the indie bookstores. But they chose the easy path, the short-term path--the greedy path.

After 40 years in business, it's agonizing to watch the game industry currently making the same bad choices. The chainstores are being given "exclusives, earlier shipping, greater return privileges, and higher discounts." (The sports card market killed off the small card shops the same way years ago--and killed their own industry while they were at it.) I think the only reason comics didn't do the same thing is that comics have never been big enough for the chainstores to risk selling them for long.

This won't end well for the board game companies. They'll have a few glory years, which will seem to validate their choice to go to Target and Walmart, and then--without the smaller stores supporting the actual playing of games--their sales will drop to nothing.

Oh, I'm sure that Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride,  Carcassone and a few others will join the iconic ranks of Monopoly and Risk--but woe to any mid-list or smaller game.

I used to get the comment--"Oh, you carry the stuff the big guys don't." To which I answered, "Why do you think they don't carry them?" So telling me to carry the 80% of low selling games, but making it impossible to make money on the 20% that used to make most of the money, isn't the answer.

It's interesting to see the same mistakes made by the larger players over and over again. I tell you--it's tough to be a long-term business in a short-term world.

A solution in search of a problem.

It sounds like the power-that-be are planning to shut off the entrances into downtown from the Parkway.

Well, that could be a disaster.

But more so--why?

I have a straightshot into Bend from Redmond. Takes about 30 minutes. I have never see the slightest problem with the exits. No congestion, no close calls, no backed-up traffic. Nothing. From all appearances it appears the flow is perfectly smooth.

So why?

It seems like a solution in search of a problem.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

I get a lot of random thoughts that the world probably doesn't need to hear, but which I want to say aloud. Saying it on Facebook or Twitter highlights the thoughts a little too much. A blog probably isn't the way to go either, unless I gather them little by little and simply dump them on the world.

I suppose if a thought isn't worth highlighting it isn't worth expressing, but damn, isn't that most of life?

Anyway, here's a collection of such random thoughts, for what they're worth.

***Bob Dylan often comes close to self-parody, and then he'll sing something so brilliant that I can forgive anything. Maybe genius is coming that close to making a fool of yourself. He truly is a poet in that every line can be understood differently each time you hear it.

I made the mistake of listening to an explanation of one of my favorite songs: "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts."  The explanation made sense and took all the mystery out of the story, dammit.

Anyway, I've been listening to Dylan daily for months now, and I still haven't lost interest.

***7486 games of Klondike played and I'm exactly even at the bank, with a 9% win rate. Yes--that's what a writer does all day. This writer.

***Someone on Facebook posted a quote from Hunter S. Thompson about (to paraphrase) how you should seek out adventure instead sitting by the sidelines. Oh, and how did that work out? A burned-out husk of a writer who put a bullet in his brain?

There is nothing wrong with the quiet contemplative life--there is a lot to say for such a life. Besides, I think that adventure (danger) finds everyone whether they seek it out or not.

But most importantly, the young can be led astray by YOLO danger-seeking--and I need only look at my own risk-taking in my teens. Just saying. Introverts unite! Quit letting extroverts make you feel guilty about wanting peace and quiet!

***Jasper is the first male cat we've had and it's a different experience. He's a real extrovert, a talker. He stomps around the house (so that his nickname is Thumper.) He's a sweet cat, likes to cuddle and sit on laps--when he wants to. He's also the most intelligent cat we've had--(Don't tell Linda that: she thinks all our cats were smart, and pretty, and sweet, and...) He understands pointing and verbal commands, though he doesn't always obey, of course. He's fully adult, so he came with his own set of behaviors and we're still adjusting to each other.

Monday, January 13, 2020

A writer whether I want to be or not.

Woke up at 6:00 this morning with the words, "John is planning to kill you," running through my head.

I tried to get back to sleep, but the scene kept going.

"She spoke softly, but I never doubted what she said. I didn't ask why or how or when. I went to my room, opened the top drawer of the dresser, and pulled out the Beretta 92. I put on my lab coat, which was as white as the snow outside and still wrinkled from shipping. I slipped the gun into the right front pocket. The bulge was barely noticeable."

Come back later, I told myself. But the words kept coming.

"When I returned the kitchen, Karen was standing in front of the Keurig machine, still pumping out dark coffee in soft spurts. She didn't look at me. The windows were iced over, reflecting the harsh florescent lights, which had the opposite effect of softening her sharp features, making her dark eyes softer.

It was early Thursday morning, February 15th. Last flight out had been Tuesday."

What the fuck is this? If you're going to write something, make it a Hart Davis story!

"John came into the kitchen a half hour later. In a trance, he went to the coffee machine, not even replacing the pod. He gulped down a quick six ounces, groaning softly. "Damn, I love this machine."
He slipped his cup back in, put in a fresh pod, added some creamer. He sat down across from me at the long table, which was big enough to service a fully staffed station. There was just the three of us for the next nine months.

"Weird how it never snows," he said, glancing at the windows. "Two kilometers of ice and it never fucking snows."  

I give up. I throw on my bathrobe, grab my laptop and start writing.

Karen was leaning against the counter, still not looking at either of us. Neither of us answered. My hand was in my pocket. I hesitated for a moment, then left the safety on.

"What the hell?" John asked. "This is going to be a long winter if you two aren't going to talk."

Karen snorted and poured her coffee into the sink. She rinsed her mug and hung it from one of the hooks. There were twenty-five other mugs lined up, waiting for their owners to return. She turned and left without saying another word.

John glanced over at me, his eyebrows raised. "You guys have a fight?"

I almost answered. Karen and I never fight. We just get even.

She's just grumpy in the morning. As you well know."

Linda wakes up, I read to her what I've written.

John looked toward the door, then suddenly hunched forward, hugging his coffee mug. "She's going to kill you, Iain."

Karen's words hadn't surprised me, but this did. John wasn't the confiding type. You two need to get your plans straight. "Literally or figuratively?" I asked.  

"I mean it, man. Watch your back. I'll be watching mine."

"Cool," Linda says. "Where are they?"

"Hell if I know. Antarctica?"

John stared at me as if he knew my right hand was on the butt of the Beretta. I took a deep breath, then put both hands on the table. It wasn't going to happen this moment. These were just the preliminaries. We'd all been thinking about it ever since Jennifer Maslow had left with the others, diagnosed with the first signs of Multiple Sclerosis. We'd all been expecting her to keep the peace.

What the hell is this?