Before the Internet deconstructed the publishing value chain and enabled new models, both publishers and booksellers benefited from a lot of what I’d call “secondary business”. Secondary business was not what they were set up or primarily intending to do, but which they easily could accommodate to earn easy margin that supported their primary operations.
Publishers controlled an apparatus that could make bound books out of manuscripts and put them on bookstore shelves for patrons to buy. These were not trivial capabilities and they were much in demand. Although the principal business model for a commercial publisher was to select what to publish, develop it editorially in collaboration with the author, and then take the risk of printing inventory and distributing it in hopes that it would sell, sometimes opportunities arose that were less risky ways to employ their skills.
I had my first experience with this kind of publishing in the late 1970s when my friend Caroline Latham was the writer-for-hire and then publishing consultant to a wealthy man named Jack Eisner. Eisner was a Warsaw Ghetto survivor with an exciting and moving story of his experiences on the run from the Nazis during World War II. After the war, he built a very successful import-export business so that by three decades after the war he had the time and resources to deliver his story to the broadest possible audience.
Caroline co-wrote his book, The Survivor. Eisner hired Abby Mann (the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Judgment at Nurenberg) to write the screenplay for the movie, and the play was written by Susan Nanus. Jack financed the production of the play on Broadway, where it had an extremely brief run.
Caroline engaged me to help her make the book deal. We were working with William Morrow, a fine and venerable publisher. They paid Eisner no advance. Eisner agreed to put up a substantial sum (I think it was $75,000) for advertising and promotion of the book. Morrow made all the decisions about printing and distribution. With a deal like that, they couldn’t lose. And they didn’t, although the book didn’t sell very well in relation to the investment made in it by Eisner. It is worth noting that there is a paperback edition of the book, renamedThe Survivor of The Holocaust, still available from Kensington.
The more common author of this kind for publishers would have written a business book that “paid off” for the author in ways other than trade store sales. Sometimes it just enhanced their reputation and improved their primary business. Some business book authors move large numbers of copies of their books themselves. In bygone days, “selling” your book to a trade publisher (for little or no advance) with contractually-stipulated author buy-backs was a deal that worked for both sides. I remember a very significant trade publisher telling me over a decade ago that “author sales” constituted one of their largest distribution channels.
Working with an established publisher has a couple of distinct advantages: the imprimateur of a brand name is one and their ability to move copies through commercial channels is another. But it also comes with definite drawbacks for the commercially-minded author. The profit on books the author moves is shared with the publisher. And the time schedules for trade publishing are traditionally glacial; virtually every author’s first disappointment is how long it takes from the time their book is completed until the time a publisher puts it out.
One stark example of an author who does better self-publishing than he could do with a trade house is Michael Durkin. Michael is a sales trainer and motivational speaker who sells his own self-published book, bundled together with audio CDs that are simply recordings of his speeches. The package of the book with about six of the CDs sells for $100 and he sells about 25,000 of these a year, mostly through the 100 or more speaking engagements he usually does, plus a few from his own web site. Durkin is so averse to sharing his margin that he doesn’t even try to sell his material through Amazon! Durkin also points out that his book is a fabulous prospecting tool; he uses it regularly as a door-opener. It gets people to hire him for the speaking engagements that fuel his product sales which, if you figure that his cost of goods leaves him with a margin of more than $80 per package sold, is producing a solid seven-figure profit for him annually.
Durkin agrees that 20 years ago he almost certainly would have worked through a publisher with a buy-back arrangement which would have meant a significant hit to his margin. And it would have constituted a very nice subsidy for a publisher.
Bookstores also have lost what is collectively a vast amount of secondary income to the Internet. My father briefly fought a battle in the 1950s to stop the practice of giving wholesalers more discount than bookstores got. Len wanted to force library supply to go through retailers so that library purchases were subsidizing the retail bookstore network, not warehouses that simply extended the publishers’ supply chain. It was a great insight (although both libraries and wholesalers, deeply cognizant of the value-added services wholesalers perform today for libraries, would argue persuasively against it today as, apparently, they did then.)
What often distinguished a successful independent store was its ability to do “back door” trade: serving local businesses, schools, and community groups. If a local reading group needed 10 copies of a book, they’d buy it from their local bookshop. Bulk business, and there is lots of it in every community in America, was most conveniently transacted through a local merchant. Now it is most conveniently transacted through the Internet. When a “back door” book business succeeds (like Jack Covert’s 800CEO-Read business based in Milwaukee and originally spawned by the independent Schwartz Bookstores), it is because it develops a far-flung following (served largely through the Net) rather than a local one.
It only works now if it is built on a vertical principle so it can appeal to a global audience. Being local doesn’t provide enough of a competitive edge for a local purchaser who is looking for wide selection, the ability to buy in bulk, the ability to ship to different recipients, and the ability to handle all that business online.
It is almost impossible to prove this with data, particularly retrospectively, but my intuitive hunch is that competitive independent stores in the 1980s and 1990s outdid their chain competition largely because of their ability to develop and serve secondary business — business above and beyond what is delivered by the traffic that comes in the front door, shops the displays, and walks out with the goods. If that were true, it would explain why independents seemed to be hit harder than the chains in the first decade and more of the Amazon-led online bookselling revolution.
But all publishers and all brick-and-mortar book retailers earned critical margin in bygone days from sources that have alternatives they didn’t have then, even though neither the publishers nor the booksellers would have identified this business as critical to their survival. That’s another manifestation of the permanent alterations occurring to the ecosystem that spawned and enabled the existence of a general publishing business.
BookExpo America is this week. I’m really sorry I’m missing the Self-Publishing Day on Monday. That’s clearly a movement that is rapidly growing in importance; one we’ll have to “cover” a bit at Digital Book World next January. It’s an increasingly potent commercial force that all elements of the trade community — authors, agents, publishers, wholesalers, and retailers — will want to understand. I can’t make it because I’ve got meetings elsewhere in the city all day Monday. I am planning to be on the floor all three days the exhibits are open. I know many big houses are off the floor in meeting rooms this year; I’ll be paying attention to how that changes the feel of the show.
I can already tell I’m glad to have Cader’s BEA LunchtoGo app; I don’t believe I’ve had such a simple stand number look-up device. (It has lots of other data and functionality as well, but that’s mainly what I’ll use it for.) I’ve got an iPhone now but I have had a handheld organizer since 1986. I remember a few years ago Frankfurt offered data of this kind for the Palm Pilot which you secured by having it “beamed” from one of the kiosks they set up around the Book Fair for the purpose. The process was klunky and, as I remember, so was the tool. I don’t think the experiment made it into a second year. But Lunch’s tool is much cooler, and it shows how a web site can work just like an app (as long as you’re connected; the data’s in the cloud, not in your hard drive) and dodge the restrictions of the Apple environment.