Sunday, March 28, 2010

A New Face at Books & Books

When independent booksellers rant about Amazon, non-bookseller’s eyes tend to glaze over. Blah-blah-blah, the money you spend at the A-word doesn’t go back to your community, yada-yada-yada, the A-word uses bullying buying and pricing tactics, loddy-la, doddy-da, when’s the last time the A-word helped raise money for your daughter’s school?

Well then, let’s not dwell on how the A-word devalues books. Instead, let’s focus on the wrongs Amazon has done to me.

If you’re unfamiliar with how schools, churches, synagogues, and businesses approach Books & Books, it takes one of two forms. They’ll give us a list (often riddled with misspelled, incorrectly pluralized, or just plain wrong titles; misspelled, mismatched, or plain old wrong authors; out of print books, and a whole host of other fun quirks which amount to a time-consuming research project) of titles they’d like to order. We return these (corrected) lists with the prices we offer.

Take a look at the last book you bought. See the price on the corner, inside the dustjacket? How about above the barcode? The publisher set that price, not us.

Do cars come with prices painted inside the doors? Clothes with prices sewn into the seams? Electronics with prices etched into the corners? No. I’ve worked women’s retail. The mark up on jewelry, handbags, shoes, and dresses would make you sick. If you buy last season’s Donna Karen at 85% off, here’s the kicker: the store still makes a tidy profit off your purchase. Imagine how much the store made off those dresses at full retail.

Making so much money on other items is also why the A-Word can afford to sell books at a loss. But let me stop myself before I go into the other reasons Amazon has lower margins than bricks-and-mortar businesses and just say that our margins are razor thin. If someone balks at purchasing the titles on the list I’ve returned to them, the best I can do is discount them 20% (assuming we've gotten our full discount from the publisher; if the list is chock full of DVDs or technical books... ah, skip it).

Then, silence. When I follow up, I hear, “We got them cheaper on Amazon.” Thanks for your support.

Books & Books loses money paying me for the time I spent researching, without a sale to show for it. The multitude of other concerns on my plate suffer while I work for the possibility of sale. In five years, this has happened more than I care to admit. I even started a file on it, in case I ever waver in my hatred of Amazon.

Sometimes, hours of research isn’t necessary. Four hundred copies of a single title? Here’s our price. Oh, Amazon’s is better? Thanks for playing.

I’m called the Quartermaster. Used to be, if you ordered a book at Books & Books, I was the one who got it. Whether the order came through the internet, a school, a bookfair, an event, an author appearance, a customer in the store, a reading group, or a gap on the shelves created by a sale – the Quartermaster took care of it. As you can imagine, this kind of sweeping responsibility only allows for so much attention to detail. We have another buyer now for backlist and individual customer orders, but I still don’t have time to chase down sales.

Enter our newly-hired Corporate and Educational Sales Director. Don’t like my 20% discount? Why don’t you talk to LD; maybe she can help.

While it’s still a team effort, LD’s purpose is to schmooze clients and negotiate rates with publishers. In a few short months, she’s stopped several customers I’ve lost in the past from going with the dreaded A-Word. The margins are still thin as threads, but as she educates customers on the value of buying locally, we’ve begun re-capturing sales.

Talk about support all you want; the only real support is where your wallet goes.


  1. I stole a lot from Books & Books' large corporate competitors. How's THAT for support?

    Seriously though it wasn't until after I left Miami that i decided to stop shopping amazon for books ENTIRELY. I'm glad I did, and at the bookshop I go to the most, the booksellers know me by name. I like it that way.

  2. The northwest is chock-o-block with amazing bookstores. All that rain and cold weather.