Saturday, January 29, 2022

Bookstores doing badly? Huh?

Lots of articles about how badly bookstores are doing, which is crazy because I think all of the local, Central Oregon, bookstores are doing incredibly well. At least, that's how it appears to me.

Sales on books are up tremendously at my store. Part of this is the two years I've spent building the book part of the store, but at least part of it is a newfound appreciation for local bookstores. My feeling is, Barnes & Noble is no longer a "new" phenomenon compared to dusty old Indies: in fact, these days most Indies have much more life and flair to them than fuddy-duddy B & N. Again, that is only anecdotal and a guess, but that's the way it seems.

But I don't doubt that many bookstores aren't doing so hot. 

1.) For some reason, bookstores seem more severe in their Covid precautions than most businesses. I have no idea why this is, but closing the doors and doing only curbside and/or online for months on end isn't a winning strategy. 

Pegasus Books has been open every day that we've been legally allowed. (All but 54 days.) We have firm mask-wearing protocols, and that seems to have worked: Sabrina and I are both vaccinated and boosted and we haven't gotten sick and on most days we have a nice crowd of people coming into the store.

2.) Lots of bookstores have built a business model based on special events: signings, readings, panel discussion, book clubs, etc. etc. I've never been fond of these promotional efforts. This sort of proves the point: these bookstores were dependent on bread and circuses to survive, instead of everyday sales. If you can't survive on everyday sales, then it will catch up to you at some point.

3.) Begging for money. Well, I'm not a fan of this. I would do it if my store was in dire straights, but then again, without changing the business model, this is only throwing good money after bad. We've been doing so well, I can't see myself doing it. I have too much pride for that.

4.) Used bookstores seem to be doing terrible. (Again, anecdotally.) I'm really not sure why this is. It seems counter-intuitive. All I know is, with a new bookstore, I can carry exactly what I want, and if I'm any good at figuring out what others want, that works.

5.) Lack of backlist books. Most Indies depend on the latest bestsellers to make their money. Just to throw out some random numbers, I'm guessing the it's at least 60/40 new versus backlist for most stores. (My own guestimate is more like 75/25.) We're the exact opposite. I depend on the backlist for the majority of my sales. The sad thing is, Indies could really do a better job of carrying backlist--and at the same time, in my opinion, still make the same amount on new bestsellers. All it takes is a bit of attention. 

I realize that Bend is a unique place. We're growing, attracting well-heeled folks, and we have a growing and thriving tourism inflow. Especially downtown Bend. So we may be weathering the storm better than most bookstores, but...

I do think that a lot of bookstores are a "dream" and not run especially well. At least, from my observations on my travels. It's not an easy business, by any means, but I have to say: for the twenty or so years I hesitated in doing new books all I heard was how hard it was. But once I got into it, I found it ten times easier to order for than, say, comics. It's actually not a terribly difficult business--get books in stock that people want. Pretty simple. 

I've spent most of my 40 year career learning the hard way that the assumptions that people make about small business are mostly wrong. Unfortunately, may people still operate their businesses on those assumptions.

PS: Notice I don't mention Amazon. Hey, it's a fact of life and just has to be factored in. It doesn't preclude you from doing a good job on your own. 

Friday, January 28, 2022

Writing and reading.

Read through the reviews on some of my books, and they really were more positive than I remember. I think, during the moment, the negative reviews tend to stick out. Frankly, about half the negative reviews were weird--either way off base or petty. The other half were legit, and a few were spot on in identifying the weaknesses of a book. 

But overall, very positive results, and not just from friends and acquaintances.

Read the first Lois McMaster Bujold Penric novella and she's up to her old tricks. Which are good tricks. Something I've noticed with writers I really like is that I read so much of them that I start to notice their little techniques--their tricks--at being a satisfying read. I've often thought I should write all these tricks down and see if I can't reproduce them in my own writing, but then, when I'm actually in the midst of writing, I go my own way, which is probably for the best.

Bujold is the best write I know who fairly often writes clunkers. All but one of her early Vorkosigan books were great, but there was one definite clunker among them. Her first fantasy was pretty bad. Her later Vorkosigan books fell off in quality, the more she got away from Miles Vorkosigan. 

I really didn't care for the Sharing Knife series. Really, she shouldn't be trying to emulate YA fantasy series with all their tropes--those writers should be emulating HER.

But her Chalion series is absolutely great stuff. I wanted more of that, but she seemed to disappear for awhile. Turns out, she was producing her own novellas set in the Chalion world, starring a character named Penric. The only way to get them was expensive editions, which I might have done if they were all available at the time.

Anyway, she's finally released the first six of the Penric novellas in two volumes, and I read the first of them last night and it was great. Very satisfying. 

I liked writing. I was satisfied with what I produced. 

So why aren't I writing?

Basically, it's a huge investment of time and energy. For me to accomplish anything, I have to totally focus on the story. It doesn't leave much room for anything else.

Conversely, if I'm doing something else, I can't do the writing.

I dedicated these last two years to getting the store ready for sale, for making a last bit of money. I also wanted to relax; not expect anything of myself in the creative realm. 

I'm also seeing that there might be some creative benefits in taking a break. My creative energy is obviously reviving--waking up with entire plots to books is a sign of that. I suspect that when I get back to writing, I'll have renewed inspiration.

And it gives me time to think about the process. What I was doing wrong, what I was doing right, what goals I'm trying to achieve.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Books I love that I can never seem to sell to customers.

 Books I love that I can never seem to sell to customers.

1.) Any and all Lois McMasters Bujold. Never mind that she'd maybe won more industry honors than just about any other writer, nothing I do will convince people to try her.

2.) Armor, by John Steakley. One of the best standalone SF novels I've ever read. Even though the author only wrote two books in his life (the other, Vampire$, is almost as good) no one will try him. His books have never gone out of print, which is an accomplishment for standalone books.

3.) Thomas Perry thrillers. To my mind, he's the best out there. Compulsively readable. Great characters. But I guess he ain't no Lee Child...

4.) Anubis Gates, Tim Powers. This to me is the precursor and still one of the best urban/goth/steampunk fantasies. Lost in time, I guess. 

5.) Stephen Hunter: another great thriller writer, even if I don't much like his politics. (Seems to be a a lot of right wing stuff in thrillers.)

6.) Heinlein young adult books. Everyone seems to want to read his later, "dirty old man" novels: basically everything after Stranger in a Strange Land. But his YA stuff is the cat's meow. My favorite is Tunnel in the Sky, which is out of print. Most of his YA is out of print. I actually had a kid return a Heinlein because it was too slow. This is not an something I would have ever thought possible. 

7.) The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. Apparently too old school for the new generation. But came long before most YA fantasy. 

8.) Watership Down. Yes, it's about bunnies. But these are some honcho bunnies. 

9.) The Once and Future King. Actually, I do have some luck selling this, but I'm always afraid it is going to be too dense for modern fantasy readers, so I sometimes talk them out of it. 

10,) Chronicles of Narnia. Yes, even this, but only because I think most people think they already know the story. But knowing and experiencing it are two different things.

 I could go on, but these are a good start.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Random thoughts.

So many beautiful songs of love written by people who eventually split from the one for whom the song was sung.  It's sad.
Cowboy Take Me Away
Uptown Girl

But the songs still work if you are still in love with the one you love. 
The speakers to the cheap $100 Victrola I just bought are better than the expensive set I bought in 1968. The record player, on the other hand, absolutely sucks.
The Bulletin is having a really hard time delivering to me in Redmond. Got three days worth this morning. Sometimes I don't get them at all. I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. 
But, really, I wonder if our society has gotten away with underpaying most workers for so long and the inevitable passive/aggressive rebellion had finally happened. 
I used to think the parallels between the fall of the Roman republic and the US were a stretch. But the last few years have brought them totally in alignment. The reformers were stymied again and again by the rich and powerful until it blew up in their faces.
I swear I came up with this before I read it was a real theory, but if there are infinite parallel universes then consciousness travels between them. In other words, I'm conscious in the universes where I'm still alive. 

But I'm pretty sure I've veered far from the original, especially in the last few years. 

I've stated my preference for SF that cleaves the genre conventions. I normally don't like "literary" SF. It usually bores me. 

We're up to episode 8 on Station Eleven and it's getting intense. I like it quite a bit. So maybe it's not that I'm against "literary" SF, just bad "literary" SF.
I've definitely got too much time on my hands. (Random thoughts? Really?) I shudder to think what might happen when I fully retire.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Giving up percentage discount to control cost.

Once again, I'm giving up discount percentage points to retain some semblance of control over when and how much I'm shipped. 

I can get an extra 10% from both Scholastic and PenguinRandomHouse, but they are so bad about shipping that it drives me crazy.

I lose 10% with Ingram but I can control when and how the product arrives. The minimums are easily achievable.

I made a last couple of orders from PRH and they are arriving in bits and and pieces every day. Sabrina can file them, and it's probably good for her to do so as a learning experience. 

But it drives me crazy. It plays havoc with the cash flow.

I'm working Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays now. If I order from Ingrams I can make sure that all the books arrive on Monday and Tuesday. For one thing, it gives me something to do. Sabrina is already dealing with games and comics, so she has her part of the store to take care of.

This giving up on discounts with the goal of controlling costs isn't new. A long time ago, I gave up on buying sports cards directly from the manufacturers because they came in too large of minimum quantities and costs. By buying through the middle-man I could could buy exactly how much product I wanted--but I had to pay about 15% more. 

I don't think it's an accident that Pegasus Books survived the collapse of sports cards and most other shops didn't. (At the peak, 85% of our sales were cards!!)

I used that control over costs by using middlemen during the Beanie Baby, pogs, and first Pokemon surge, to my advantage. I never had to overspend and I could cut orders in a timely manner.

Recently, I chose to go back to Diamond Comics even though I lost about seven percentage points--for the same reasons. Again, it is all about control over costs and shipping.

This also gives me an advantage in book keeping. Instead of ordering from multiple manufacturers, I can order through a few distributors and keep track of what is happening. 

Believe me, I love higher discounts and I order product at lower discounts every chance I get.

But not when it means losing control over quantity and cost.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Weird Apocalyptic Euphoria.

To what do I attribute the surge in business over the last couple of years?

I don't know...has anything unusual happened in the last two years? Hmm? 

So I've been coming up with all kinds of likely reasons.

1.) Books, books, books. This is the most likely explanation. We've increased the quantity and quality of our new books rather dramatically, and I think it finally kicked in, especially with tourists who walk in the door and think, "Oh, a bookstore!"

2.) Pokemon and Magic. This too is a likely explanations. I went out of my way to carry a good inventory of both brands at a time when they were popular, especially Pokemon. 

3.) The desire on the part of the consumer for the human, not corporate touch. I'd like to believe this, and I do think that tourists are more interested in idiosyncratic, funky businesses than in going to the same corporate big boxes that exist where they came from.  

The "Shop Local" mantra might be finally kicking in. It's sweet to think so, but I think the Internet and big boxes are doing just fine. 

4.) Free money. Sure, lots of money was pumped into the economy. How much of that propped up sales is open for debate. At the very least, it kept spending from cratering. 

This morning, it occurred to me that all of these explanations are insufficient. It occurred to me that the real reason we had such a surge was simple.

Weird Apocalyptic Euphoria. 

I won't try to define it. You know what I mean...

Live, eat, and be merry--and spend money--for tomorrow we may die. People came into the store like they'd been released from prison and just had to get a book, or comic, or game, or card. 

"Damn it, I deserve it! I'm tired of all the bad news! I'm doing it!"

Only problem is, that feeling is going to wear off eventually. The new, normal is that masks and Covid and all that comes with it are here to stay. 

It's a slow apocalypse.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

"Stay small? How unAmerican!"

Imagine, if you will, that you've had a very successful year in business. You see an opportunity to expand. You seize it.

That's the great American way, you know. 

But stretch your imagination a little further. You've had a very successful year in business. What if you know...took the profits and did nothing? What if you continued doing the things that had made the year successful? 

Believe me, I understand the urge to grow. I had four stores at one point. It seemed like a natural progression at the time. 

Here's the thing: You never, ever, hear anyone say, "Stay small." 

When my four stores crashed, I was forced to consider what my goals really were. Basically, I only bought the store to have a place of my own. It hadn't been my goal to be a tycoon. I'd seen my former boss go that route and while I was impressed, it didn't look like something I wanted to do. And yet I was seduced by the myth. 

I came up with my ancillary to the Peter Principle: A business owner will expand to their level of incompetence. 

About ten years ago, before Dudley's really got going with new books, I looked around downtown and realized it could support a bookstore, and that I had the knowledge and resources to pull it off. I would have needed some new management skills, but I'd identified them and could have tried to learn them.

But I was 60 years old, my business was doing well, and...well...I'd done that sort of thing before and I know that:

1.) It would take away from my current business which was doing well.

2.) It would cost twice as much, take twice as long, and be four times the work as one store. 

Now, ten years later, I've created a new bookstore within the perimeters of my own store. It works--and it doesn't need the extras that a brand new store would have needed. Admittedly, I didn't know that I'd take it this far or that it would work out so well, but it does sort of prove my point.

Stick to what you're doing and try to do it even better 

Monday, January 10, 2022

The new, normal.

First wave, second wave, endless wave. 

This feels permanent; a new, normal. Take it in stride, mask up, make sure we have the latest booster.

I called Sabrina a few days ago and told that I thought we needed to communicate only by phone from now on, because if we were associating and one of us got sick, we'd both have to quarantine for the 5 to 10 days necessary and that would be extremely costly.

"Oh, my God," she said, "I didn't even think of that. Wow...Christmas."

"I had it in the back of my mind, but I thought the boosters would take care of things. But now...?"

From what I've read the Omicron surge should peak in March; and that some more of the new medications should be available by then too. We need to be extra careful for the next three months. Then, hopefully, things won't be so dire. 

I've moved to wearing N95 masks now. They are not as comfortable, and they are much more difficult to remove in order to drink or eat something. But I do believe that Sabrina and I having made it through months of hundreds of people coming in the store has shown the value of masks. 

But it is so easy to slip. Scratching my nose, rubbing my eye, whatever. A slip-up can happen at any time. I'm sort of half expecting it. Also, it's very wearying to remind people to wear their masks properly, and some times I just don't have the energy anymore. Stupidity wins.

Meanwhile, it's been slow at the store. Normal January business, not the kind of boom that we saw through most of 2021. Again, I wonder if we're setting into a new, normal. I can hardly be disappointed: We had a spectacular year.

I ordered a ton of books. 18 boxes came in today. Literally a ton of books. It was most of the books that were depleted during the Christmas rush. But I've blown two weeks worth of budget in one week, so I need to step back. Considering how slow it's been, it shouldn't hurt. I have to fight my tendency to borrow from the future.

It just is starting to feel routine somehow, at the same time as conditions have changed yet again. 

It's new and it's normal.


Saturday, January 1, 2022

The math of art.

 Lord knows, I'm no mathematician. I failed Algebra in high school, quickly followed by failing Astronomy in college. 

But I use basic math, addition, subtraction, division, multiplication fairly well; and it applies to all things business.

I was listening to a podcast about the 18th century mathematician, Pierre-Simon Laplace, and I realized that I was basically using some of his ideas in running my business--in the most elementary form. One of the commenters used the phrase, "intuitive math," and that really sounded about right. 

Reminds me of when I went up to see a business adviser at COCC and he described my processes as being "a primitive sophistication." I'm still not totally sure if he was complimenting me or insulting me. 

I've gotten better at business because I now have much more data to work with. When I started, I did my research, as I always try to do when starting a new venture, but there was almost no information, either specifically--about comics shops--or more generally, for small business, that was useful.

Most of the information that would have useful about comics was privileged information, available only to the publishers and the wholesalers, and they weren't sharing. 

I realized after making some rather drastic mistakes following the advice of "small business" books that most of the information contained there-in were for operations much bigger than mine. There were--and are--very few books about Mom and Pop sized businesses. I suppose there is no money in writing such a thing. (I wrote an ebook about my experiences called, "Small Business Survivalist Handbook," which almost no one has read. Heh.)

Anyway, in a sense I use this data to make predictions, "probabilities" if you will. I usually construct three possible outcomes: a low, a middle, and a high. Usually, about halfway through the time-period I can make a pretty accurate estimate of which outcome is most probable and make more adjustments.

I'm also aware that humans can't be predicted, that they are the ultimate chaos factor, so all such predictions can be radically wrong.

However, I also tend to think that things settle into a normal range, and I'm always aware when outcomes are way outside that range and plan accordingly. Things always trend back to "norm," and it's the safest way to proceed. 

I can't really use formulas, so to speak, because the smaller a business is, the more idiosyncratic it is going to be; the more individual choices influence the outcome. The larger a business, the more uniform it is likely to be, and therefore broader formulas more likely to be accurate. 

And so on. It's impossible to know outcomes, so you basically use "intuitive math" to try to negotiate your way into the future. A Mom and Pop business is probably more an art than a science, but that doesn't mean you can't use math in your art.