Monday, May 3, 2010

Bookselling in the modern age.

"So if a guy comes in with 30.00 worth of books, and you only really want and need 5.00 worth of those books, what do you do with the other 25.00 worth of books?"

I sigh. This is the third time, in different words, that the fellow has asked me this.

"The 5.00 worth of worthwhile books isn't the point," I say. "The 30.00 worth of CREDIT is the point. If you give the customer only 5.00 worth of credit to use in your store, then -- if you have a policy of 1.00 cash/1.00 trade, it is likely the customer will only spend 5.00. Whereas if you take all the books, you have the potential of 30.00 worth of sales."

I see a glimmer of understanding in his eyes -- yes, it's almost there. No! It's fading! He's shutting down! Does not compute!

"I just don't think I could DO that...." he mutters.

Let me backtrack a little.

When Linda and I go on trips, we visit every bookstore we can find. A couple of years ago, we found a gorgeous bookstore in Rogue River, of all places, that had the kind of books that I would probably pick if I had an unlimited budget and no concern over saleability.

As we drove away, I said to Linda, "They are so doomed." (We heard rumors that the owner had literally won the lottery.)

We tried to find the store on our last trip, and sure enough it was closed down. There were boxes of books on the floor, and we were peering in when a guy in a parked car in front leaned out the window and said, "Are you interested in books?, yeah.

His wife came out of the store, and it turned out they were renting the space and selling online. We got a pretty good conversation going, and it turned out he was an old "book scout" who was thinking about opening his own used bookstore.

"But everywhere we go, used bookstores are closing down," he said. "Even bookstores that were doing really well a few years ago...."

"I believe it's because they're doing it wrong," I said. "They aren't adjusting to the new world where books are sold - in volume -- at Costco and Walmart and Borders and Barnes/Nobles and Amazon and a million other venues.

"They aren't treating books as if they are plentiful, but as if they are rare." I started to tell him our policies and philosophies, and he seemed really interested.

We ended up at the park across the river, both couples, eating lunch,
as Linda and I explained the Bookmark. They seemed to be listening; Linda showed them pictures of her store, which really caught their interest.

"But what do you do with all the books?" he asked.

"You'll get lots of books, it's true," I said. "But most of them you end up selling eventually. Some, like the Grishems and the Clancys and the Roberts and the Steels, you end up with too many copies, but you can have a cheap section for those, or give them as donations to the library, or whatever. What you don't want to do is turn down a customer -- not give him or her credit -- just because they read the most popular books. Why would you turn away the biggest readers?"

"But I got to say," I continue, "you end up selling most of the books you get in ... amazingly. You get temporary overstocks, but eventually they trickle back out into the store."

"But what if they use their credit for those books for a 1st edition Hemingway?"

"First of all, why would you sell that book in your store instead of online? If I were you, I'd buy that book fairly from the customer and sell it online and keep your store as a trade only business....Besides, it's not a problem. If people have to spend a dollar for every dollar of credit, people really can't cherry pick you."

"What if they only bring you only their junk?"

"That just doesn't happen," I said. "People who want to trade in their books won't take the time to filter them -- they'll just bring the books they want to trade, period. Besides -- all kinds of books sell -- and by taking them all in, you find that. Taking in only the preconceived and biased choices just limits the possibilities. I'm always amazed by what sells...."

Again, I see a little light of, there it goes.

"But why would you give them credit for books you don't really need?"

Big sigh.

It sounds like I'm putting this guy down, but I'm not. This is the same conversation I've had with every single solitary bookstore I've ever talked to. It goes against tradition, the way it's always been done! They simply can't adjust to the new world of books. Whenever I read an article about a store closing, it's clear to me that they did not make any significant changes, and were resolved to go about bookselling the same way as ever, even if it meant going out of business.

This is true of both ends of the spectrum. The big time, big name stores who cling to the rarity and collectible value of their books; as well as the small 'book exchange' type business who either has confusing and/or inadequate cash transaction elements.

The common denominator is not changing with the times.


RDC said...

The ironic aspect is in some ways your concept with used books, is similar to how big box stores operate. They run based upon volume and turn over, that it is better to make a small amount on lots of transactions then it is to make a larger amount on a small number of transactions.

Now if you take your approach with used books, it comes down to that it is better to accept all product, because it drives a much higher volume of transactions and that trying to filter that volume reduces the number of transactions more then it increases margins.

BENDBUST said...

Like it or NOT, the used-book is becoming a dinosaur.

I'm saying this as someone who has 1,000's of books in various houses.

More & more we read online, and on our laptops.

So every major city has a used-book store, but I fear MORE people will be wanting to SELL their book, than there buyers for these used books.

I know from going online that powells will now not even pay for a used book, what it costs to ship the book.

It used to be 20+ years ago we all went to Powells with our used books, many a box, and got $300 credit every year. I generally spent $1,000's a year every year forever going to all the Powells stores.

In the last 5 years taking in 10 boxes of books they have refused to BUY 99%. I have completely GIVEN up selling my used books. Now I just take them to POWELLS when I'm in PDX and DUMP the boxes on the front door-step, knowing the homeless know this is their library.

So go ahead and BUY all those used books and have an enormous volume, but at the very least ONLY pay penny's for these books, and I fear the humidifier cost to protect them over time will exceed their return.

Sure an old rare book will always be valuable.

Be honest with the customer Dunc, I think the only model that works these days is to pay less than a dollar for a used book, and charge a flat few dollars on all used-books, and keep the collector-books that are actually worth more than $5 in a separate room.

Too many people think their used-books are worth something, but the fact is today they are WORTHLESS.