Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Preliminary review of the year.

We are well ahead of last year. In fact, this looks to be a record month.

This increase is almost entirely due to new books. So next year's goal is to continue to expand new books as much as I can. There are a few more tricks up my sleeve. I can add a top row to the Young Adult books, and I can fit two book fixtures where the used books are now. I'll probably move a lot of the art books over there, clear away two book fixtures for new books. Also adding a new top shelf--a trip to Home Depot is in order. Move some of the offbeat books into the Indie graphic novel section.

Maybe more of a move into non-fiction books.

It's fun and it's challenging and it's what I know.

Comics have stabilized, though they are down a third from three years ago. Graphic novels have increased however. We've always had a good selection, and over the last year we've been displaying them better. We're maintaining the same level of space and investment. Sabrina is doing a fantastic job, reviving manga and Marvel graphic novels where I was falling down a bit.

I think we can maintain board games at about the same stock level, though I'll probably consolidate the space a little. We still sell the big three--Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Carcassonne more than anything else. D & D continues to do well. We were a little down for Christmas, but nowhere near as much as I feared.

I've found a way to sell magic that works--keep the older brands around at regular price for as long as possible.

I pick up toys whenever I can get them at a discount, except for rare exceptions, (Baby Yoda?), and this seems to be the best way.

Jigsaw puzzles were a moderate success, more than paying off for their inclusion. Don't know how well they'll sell outside the Christmas season, though.

All in all, I'm very satisfied with the trends. I'm hoping comics can make a bit of a comeback, but really, if you start including the new young adult graphic novels into the mix, the art form is in great shape and it looks promising for the future.

We've had increased competition from the mass market in graphic novels and board games. We are somewhat protected from this because we are in a busy downtown and tourists are in OUR store, not Walmart. Our selection is unique enough to work. That's what I'm constantly trying to do--make our store different.

I'm really glad to be back to working in the store two-and-a-half days a week. It's fun to talk to people--with the added bonus that I almost always sell one or more of my own books to people. I've gotten really good and timing; when to mention "my" books into the conversation.

Plan to get back to writing and walking next year.

As I've mentioned. Next year will be Pegasus Books' 40th anniversary. I'll brag about it a lot. Heh.

I'm very grateful for the ways things have turned out.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Downtown street closures.

An article in the Bulletin a week ago about downtown street closures. I thought about not saying anything. I've sort of opted out of the whole issue after years of feeling like I was the only one who seemed concerned. I've adjusted my business toward the mainstream and street closures no longer kill business. They still hurt a little, they still add to the workload, but I've made my peace with it all.

Ironically just as other downtown businesses are finally speaking up.

The compromises are apparently:

1.) Advertise the downtown businesses more.

2.) Hold the events toward the middle of the street instead of near the sidewalks.

3.) Have a full-time liaison who can address merchant issues.

These changes seem a little cosmetic to me. You all know how effective I think advertising is. (NOT.) I'm not sure moving the booths will make that much difference. A liaison is a good idea. One of my biggest gripes was how inconsiderate and unthoughtful the vendors were about how they affected the long-time businesses.

For instance, the year I came to the store to find a giant refrigerator blocking my door, while ten feet away, the street was empty.

At least there is an acknowledgment that street closures do cause problems.

As I said, I used to complain about this every year. I was never that demanding. I understood that many of these events were traditional. My position was that we didn't need to keep adding events and extending existing events.

Nevertheless, I got a reputation as a disgruntled guy. I realized that if I was only one who was going to speak up, that the lobby for the street closures was much more influential: the vendors, the event organizers, the Downtowner organization, the city government, the advertisers, and most of all, the people who enjoyed coming to these events.

The biggest roadblock to change was the leadership of the Downtowners. I believe the previous head of the organization saw the events as part of his portfolio. Apparently, this has finally changed. A survey revealed the truth, that a large majority of downtown businesses are harmed by the constant street closures.

Which I already knew from talking to merchants. I even had merchants who were closing their businesses come in and say, "You're right about how the street closures hurt sales."

But there was a vocal minority of merchants who benefited from the events, and they outweighed the rest of the merchants who didn't want to rock the boat. I also realized that if I wasn't going to be active in the Downtowners, that I wasn't going to have much influence.

Anyway, change like this is slow and uncertain, but at least the trend is moving in a different direction.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas to All.

Feeling that wonderful Christmas release that my retail worries are over and all is well.

It's very hard to get in the Christmas spirit when you work in a store. I was slammed on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday--very, very stressful, and yet considering the alternatives, happy to have it so. The health of the store rides on Christmas to a large extent, and we never know until the final week if it's going to work out. But so far, no one has canceled Christmas.

But what happens is, the moment I turn the Closed sign on Christmas Eve, a total relaxation overcomes me. I'm filled with good feelings--a true Christmas cheer. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. I wake up the next morning still feeling that wonderful lassitude. A lazy Sunday feeling times ten.

Maybe you have to go through the fire before you can come out the other side and truly relax.

I pick through the store for presents for the family--and a couple of books for myself. Calendars, puzzles, D & D books for Todd, books, books, and more books. Todd home with dog Walt. New cat Jasper excited for the company (and actually approaching Walt for friendship, though he's a little leery.)

Linda wonderful, always.

Loved ones watching His Dark Materials while I write this.

Looking forward to the New Year. Back to writing and walking and enjoying books, both writing and reading, and the wonderful entertainment options. (The world has finally caught up to me. Heh.)

Going to start reading my new Michael Connelly mystery and just enjoy the day.

Friday, December 20, 2019

It ain't easy for anyone.

When I first started writing again, in 2013 or so, there were rabid proponents of indie publishing and equally rabid proponents of traditional publishing. That seems to have faded a bit--at least, from what I can see.

Partly this is because I'm pretty sure most writers have figured out that it doesn't make sense to choose one side--but to see what options are available.

I think the traditional publishers have decided that the best way to deal with ebooks is to basically ignore them. They've pushed the prices pretty high and that has hurt sales. I think this was totally on purpose.

Meanwhile, the proponents of indie publishing have quieted down because it's become harder and harder to make any headway self-publishing. Tricks that used to work have ceased working either because Amazon closed loopholes or because they were buried under the avalanche of new titles.

In other words, it ain't easy for anyone.

From the start, I've tried to keep an open mind. My first reaction to self-publishing came from my earlier career when it was called "vanity press." However, I listened when it was explained how the current market works. It made sense, and it ignited my urge to write again. (No more waiting months and years to hear back from publishers--that was the biggest plus.)

I can see some advantages to both sides. In the end, I chose a path more or less down the middle. Most of my books are published by publishers who aren't owned by the Big Five. (Five mega-conglomerates that have scooped up most of the major traditional publishers and imprints.) This has worked out well for me. They can do promotion that I can't. Just signing up for BookBub has been the biggest impact on my sales--and I don't know if that would have happened on my own.

I've been in a weird spot from the beginning because:

1.) I own a bookstore and therefore Amazon is a big competitor of mine.

2.) Most of my sales have been ebooks, made easy by Amazon.

3.) I personally don't read ebooks. Just more comfortable laying down and reading a physical copy, though I could see that perhaps changing in the future. Open mind, and all.

4.) Big publishers are arrogant, but lend credibility to a writer.

5.) Small publishers have made real inroads into credibility. Plus--bookstores, if they wanted, could actually buy my books from Ingrams--if at a lower discount.

I'm trying to keep all the pluses and minuses in my head without coming down too strongly on any conclusions.Obviously, these are big changes that are still shaking out.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Are Indie bookstores making a comeback?

There's been a spate of mainstream news articles about how indie bookstores are making a big comeback.

Well...yes and no?

About 5 or 6 years ago, all the talk was about how ebooks were going to extinguish physical books. I never believed that. I always felt that there would be space for books. I figured that many ebook readers would come back. I think that's what happened. There is room for book platforms, and most readers will probably combine the two.

However, the publishers are a little disingenuous about this. They talk about how ebook sales have dropped, without mentioning the ebooks are still selling well through non-traditional platforms. If ebooks aren't selling as well for the Big Five, it's because they've priced those ebooks too high.

I thought the difficulties bookstores were having had more to do with how they were being run. On my travels, many of the bookstores I've visited were lacking in inventory. They appeared overstaffed, with too much money spent on appearances and "image" and not enough on inventory. They carried the same "bestseller" books, which were also available at large discounts at the chainstores and on Amazon. There wasn't enough individual personality and idiosyncratic selection.

Most of all, I felt that too much space was devoted to things other than books. Coffee shops and restaurants and no end of tchotchkies and knickknacks. Both trends are still in full force and I'm still not convinced it's the right path.

Basically, it's a grand experiment that won't be proven for a decade or more. Meanwhile, there are books they can sell. Lots and lots of books.

My own store is the way it is because of circumstance. I'm in a busy downtown, with lots of foot-traffic and a good amount of tourism. Because of that, the more quirky my books, the better. Customers aren't in my store to buy the latest bestseller. More likely, they'll pick up that cult book they've heard about or that classic they've always intended to read.

Because of my limited space, I don't have room for lots of odd-sized tchoitchkies. Books are stackable and I can pile them up. I have no space for people to sit, and certainly not for people to drink coffee and browse. I have also diligently striven to diversify my product. Books, yes. But also games, toys, and most of all, comics and graphic novels. None of these product lines are viable in Bend by themselves, in my opinion.

What I have learned is very simple--the more and the better the books I carry, the more I sell.

As far as the numbers of new bookstores are concerned--I'm not sure that proves anything but the willingness and the desire of people start up bookstores. Not enough time has passed to prove that these are going concerns--and there seems to be a fair amount of evidence based on turnover that many of them are not.

Book sales really haven't risen all that much over the last decade--so the pie is being sliced pretty thin.

So yeah, it's true that new bookstores are opening. It remains to be seen if that is going to work.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Keeping it simple, stupid. Part 2 (x100).

I rarely base my ordering on increased discounts of less than 5%.

I'm not saying this is the right thing to do, but it's worth explaining. My approach has a lot to do with the history of the store.

First of all, I should admit that 5% is a significant difference. If I end up the year at 55% cost-of-goods instead of 60%, it amounts to a good chunk of money.

So why don't I do everything I can to reach the better discount?

Well, I do and I don't.

Basically, the higher discounts are almost always predicated on volume. For instance, my discount for DC comics is 4% less than Marvel, 3% less than Image, IDW, and Dark Horse. For DC comics, we hover just below the level we need to order to get a 3% better discount. It can be done if we're aggressive in our toy and graphic novel ordering, and if we take some chances on pre-orders.

So over the years, we've done that. And we almost always end up with a lot of unsold product. This isn't as worrying as the amount of extra work it takes to get that extra 3%. It requires constant monitoring.  (More about the "extra work" later.)

Eventually, I always throw up my hand and say, "So be it." I accept the 3% less discount.

On the other hand, I used to do direct ordering from my comic distributor, which allowed me to get reorders in 3 days. It was wonderful to tell people, "We can have that for you in a few days."

Unfortunately, every time I special ordered, I had to pay $50 in postage, or $200 a month. That equates to probably 15 - 20 graphic novels. I had to ask myself--am I selling an extra $200 a month in graphic novels, and wouldn't I eventually make just as much by having an extra $200 a month worth of extra graphic novels in stock?

It was painful, but I went to regular shipping, and I haven't looked back. It also eliminated the extra work it took to order and stock the weekly shipments.

On the other hand, every time my comic distributor offers extra discounts of 10% or better, I jump all over it. The higher the extra discount, the more aggressive I am. Over the years, this type of ordering has brought our overall cost-of-goods to a level I would have been getting by ordering more in advance to qualify for higher regular discounts.

Monitoring extra sales discount isn't all that difficult--and can be fun. Monitoring the every day product constantly is much harder work. As I predicated, I'm not saying I'm right to avoid the "extra work," but I do know I've managed not to burn myself out. I still enjoy the store, and I'm pretty sure if I was counting pennies on a constant basis, I wouldn't be having as much fun.

With both books and games, I order from a middle-man distributor--instead of direct from the game manufacturers and book publishers. In both cases, I could probably save at least 5% by ordering direct. Not sure if our volume in games is enough to really make that work with game manufacturers, but because of the collapse of the distribution networks in books, and because of the consolidation of most books into the "Big Five" publishers, it is now at least possible to order product from publishers direct.

There is still a bit of a volume discount problem. For some publishers I might have to order multiple copies and/or marginal titles in order to qualify for direct shipments. It would probably mean constant monitoring to be aware of when we reached a large enough order to pull the trigger. The extra work? I'd have to set up accounts with each of the publishers I want to deal with, and I'd have to constantly assemble reasonable orders, and I'd have to wait until the orders are ready to ship.

On the other hand, by ordering from my book distributor, I need a relatively small volume to get free shipping, and I get the product one to two days later.

So, yeah, I'm giving up 5 - 10% extra discount, but I'm ordering exactly what I want, when I want it.

I will admit, I'm questioning myself on this. If by doing some extra work I can save 10%, it probably would be worth it.

This is where the history of the store comes into play.

The middle-man is a bulwark against the rising and failing trends of product. When I first started ordering, I was often ordering directly from the sources--but almost always I had to take what was offered. The restrictions are removed when you deal with a middle-man. You can get as little or as much as you want, and you can get it quicker. For that service, you may pay an extra 5%, even 10%.

I'm convinced I survived the collapse of several markets because I went through middle-men. Comics, sports cards, beanie babies, pogs, Pokemon, etc. etc. I'm convinced that having the safety of a middle-man to deal with the sources, instead of being aggressive on margins, has saved the store more than once.

Not to mention, it's much less time consuming and aggravating to deal with one middle-man instead of multiple publishers and manufactures.

I'm equally convinced that has saved tons of work, and may be the difference in my not being burned out after 40 years of doing this.

Anyway, this is the way I do it. I will tell you that almost every other store I've ever talked to has preferred to order direct from the manufacturers--but then, I'm still here and most of them are gone. 

Friday, December 6, 2019

Screenplay vs a book.

When I wrote my first books, back in the late 70s, I sort of avoided dialogue, except where needed. The dialogue was serviceable, I think, but I mostly relied on narrative. They were fantasy books, so the setting and mood were more important, or so I thought.

When I came back to writing in the 10s, I found myself doing dialogue more and more often. I'm older, and I've had more conversations in my life, you know? But I've never tried to have the memorable lines--unless they came naturally.

Yesterday I had an idea for a store, as I related on Facebook.

"Dreamed an entire Kafkaesque story set in a gigantic nursing home, with an evil security guard (Ian McKellen-like) victimizing a new resident (me) and no one will believe me because they all love McKellen and think I have dementia, so I escape and I'm finding places to hide in the huge building and McKellen is chasing me down.

"And the nursing home is like a slice of American life, with the rich living in huge luxurious apartments on top and the poor living in tiny cells at the bottom."

Here's the thing. I see this more as a screenplay than as a book. But a screenplay relies much more on dialogue, and I'm still not sure that is my strong suit. I can see this whole movie in my head, but it would be driven by what is said as much as by the action. I mean, it's important to know your strengths and weaknesses. 

What it would take is a lot of thought for each line of dialogue. It would definitely be a new experience.  

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Ignore the hype.

I don't think I'm a very good prospect for retirement. If I'm not writing, I just don't have enough to do. So I'm glad to be back at the store. It's officially 2 days a week, but it turns into 3 days a week because I go back in to put the books away.

On my way yesterday, I stopped into Herringbone Books in Redmond. Brandon was talking about going to the Bend library for an author event to sell some books. In the course of the conversation we talked about the potential for burnout.

I found myself saying, "What I learned was to eliminate everything extra. For instance, going to the library to sell books for an event. Anything other than the basic showing up for work, having diligence and ethical standards, stocking the store with the best books I can. Doing the basics."

Of course, everyone gets the opposite advice. It is pretty much the standard myth that you should try everything you can to make the customer happy, by going that extra mile, by being better than everyone else, by bending over backward to please them. Extra customer service, that's the ticket.

Of course, there is no end of that. I found that just doing the basic job was enough--that my energy level almost exactly matched doing the basic job. That I'd be tired at the end of the day just doing the the regular stuff.

I learned this the hard way. In the beginning I stayed until midnight much of the time. (The first 15 years or so.) I went to conventions, I promoted as much as possible, I held sales, I made newsletters and created advertising campaigns, I spent a lot of time learning everything I could about every product line, I special ordered product, took preorders, took on consignments, bought and sold collections from off the street, and on and on and on.

Of course, I did the thing that every red-blooded American business owner is supposed to do. I expanded and replicated. At one point I had four stores in Bend, Redmond, and Sisters, with close to a dozen employees.

I found myself being the little Dutch boy, running around trying to plug the leaks in the dikes.

It all collapsed around me. I managed to save the main store by working seven days a week and being very active.

I was exhausted and burned out. I only stuck with it because I didn't feel like I had any options.

But when we finally did get out of debt, I decided that I would do the basic job of a store owner and eschew everything else. I expected it to cost me, but I didn't feel like I had any choice.

And it may have cost me, in the short run. But little by little, I built the store back up on my own terms. No promotions, no sales, no special events, not staying until midnight, no buying off the street, and so on and so on. For the last 20 years of so, I've stuck to the mantra of "keep it simple."

Just buying and selling product. Being open during the hours posted, having relatively good knowledge of the product,  buying wholesale and selling retail, and just trying to have the best mix of product I could. (Keeping the store neat and tidy and organized, etc. etc. The basics.)

And the store started to be fun again. I made Sabrina the manager and gave her more and more responsibility. I kept the book ordering to myself because that the part I like the most and am the most knowledgeable. Managed to keep the store simple and functional.

I know I talk about this a lot, because I think that it is the biggest untalked about danger to being a small business.

So there it is. Keep it simple. Do your job. Have the courage to say no to anything that isn't part of the basic job. Ignore the hype.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Short reviews.

Reviews done right are hard work, so I end up not doing them.

But I've decided it's silly not to say something. So...yes, I revert to cliches when doing reviews off the cuff. Please forgive me. ("off the cuff;" "out of bounds;" "letting the air out of the tire.")

I'm not sure what to make of "Redshirts." On one hand, I always like riffs on Star Trek. On the other hand it's a little too meta for me. I mean, it's kind of silly. If this can be done, then nothing I can think of to write is out of bounds, right?

Trying different shows on for size. Gave up on Jack Ryan after a few episodes. Also Stumptown. They are a little too by the book, so to speak. I've lost all interest in network programming. Linda will still watch Stumptown for the Portland connection. I watch The Rookie with her even though it's a pretty bad show. Other than that, I am done I think, with the formulaic drivel.

Decided not to watch Walking Dead this year. The vague dissatisfaction of the last few years finally accumulated to discomfort.

Watched the first season of Fargo and loved it. It's cool that I have three more seasons to watch.

The Mandalorian is great. It's perfect for what it is.

Castle Rock was pretty good, but not so good that I feel impelled to watch season 2. Maybe when I've run out of options.

I have a whole list of shows I want to try. The Boys, Man in the High Castle, Good Omens, the Watchmen.

Watched the first couple of episodes of Good Omens and for some reason it just didn't catch. I've often mentioned that I like my fantasy, SF, (and thrillers, come to think of it) as straight drama. (Part of my problem with Redshirts above.) But Good Omens the book was an exception to the rule. I remember really liking it. I'm sure we'll finish the show. (Part of it is that sometimes I can tell Linda doesn't like something...which lets the air out of the tire.)

Watched the Nightingale movie. One of those UK/Australian/NZ/Canada low budget movies that make the most of what they got. Vaguely unsatisfying though. I have the same problem with most of the clever low budget horror movies. Finally saw A Quiet Place. It was well done for what it was, but I also thought it was a little thin in plot.

I wanted to watch the new 4th season of Veronica Mars, but got caught by the first season again. It's as good as I remember, but I just don't like watching things twice. Linda on the other hand can watch things over and over again.

Waiting for The Good Fight to come back. Best written show on TV, I think. Politically right up my alley. Waiting for the Orville (or it may be ready.) The Witcher. (Tried the books, didn't do it for me.) Picard (love me well-done Star Trek.)

Lots more. We have almost all the premium and streaming channels now.