New Star Blogs

My Careen as a Bookseller (8) :: Culture Clash

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In my pre­vi­ous post, I described Plan A, New Star’s con­sign­ment dis­tri­b­u­tion pro­gram that ran for four­teen years after Ray Viaud offered the People’s Co-op Book­store as a launch site for it in 1997. Before we get back to the Co-op and its own adven­tures in the mod­ern book trade, I want to take a moment to explain what hap­pened to Plan A, and why we even­tu­al­ly had to aban­don it.

Under Plan A, the part­ner­ing book­seller grant­ed New Star a lot of lee­way in plac­ing, and restock­ing, our titles in the store. Once a month, or once a quar­ter (Plan A was very flex­i­ble, scal­able, cus­tomiz­able), the book­store would report sales activ­i­ty to us. We would mon­i­tor stock lev­els, invoice the store for the pre­vi­ous month’s sales, and make replen­ish­ment deci­sions based on what the store had been report­ing to us.

Some of the stores that adopt­ed Plan A include Duthie Books, Black­ber­ry Books, 32 Books in North Van­cou­ver, the old Black Sheep on West 4th Avenue, George Sipos’s Mos­qui­to Books in Prince George, Cad­boro Bay Books, Crown Pub­li­ca­tions, Min­ers Bay Books, even a cou­ple of “non-trad” out­lets for books such as Pollen Sweaters in Pow­ell Riv­er. The book­seller would use the report­ing tools pro­vid­ed by Book­man­ag­er, or Word­stock, to gen­er­ate the reports that we would use at New Star to fig­ure out sales and restock­ing deci­sions. Typ­i­cal­ly, a store would car­ry any­where from 20 to 30 or 40 titles. Duthie Books and the People’s Co-op went a lit­tle broad­er, car­rry­ing almost all we had in print.

Mean­while, Plan A and our local adver­tis­ing were tied in togeth­er. We nev­er ran an ad with­out list­ing some of the (Plan A) stores where the adver­tised book could be browed and pur­chased. And when­ev­er any­body local called look­ing for one of our books, we would refer them to the clos­est Plan A store, whether it was Duthie’s on the west side, the People’s Co-op on the east side, or wher­ev­er, know­ing that they would find the book.

At its peak, Plan A oper­at­ed in 15 or 16 stores. Over its exis­tence, it moved at least 4,000 and pos­si­bly as many as 6,000 books that would not have found their read­ers under our high­ly cen­tral­ized, cost­ly, and remark­ably inef­fi­cient mod­ern book sup­ply chain. The cash flow from Plan A saved New Star when Gen­er­al Dis­tri­b­u­tion Ser­vices was put out of busi­ness in 2002.

Plan A was also balm for the publisher’s soul in an era where we were told that prac­ti­cal­ly any­thing New Star pub­lished was “not the sort of thing the mar­ket is inter­est­ed in”. The Cedar Surf by Grant Shilling, which reps & book­sellers assured us was a region­al, “niche” title, pos­si­bly of inter­est on the west coast of Van­cou­ver Island (with, you know, its major urban cen­tres and rich­ly stocked book­stores), man­aged to sell 59 copies at Black­ber­ry Books on Granville Island, 65 copies at Duthie Books, anoth­er 13 copies at 32 Books. We had a remark­ably tough time con­vinc­ing any book­seller to stock John Arm­strong’s bril­liant punk rock mem­oir, Guilty of Every­thing. But where Plan A give it a foot in the door, it did very well, sell­ing 28 copies at Black­ber­ry, 74 copies at the People’s Co-op, anoth­er 46 at Duthie’s. Fifty-sev­en copies of Matt Hern’s Field Day at the Co-op. The list goes on and on. Carellin Brooks’s cheeky Wreck Beach, too risque for many book­sellers (includ­ing, noto­ri­ous­ly, BC Fer­ries), sold 35 copies at Black­ber­ry, 43 at the Co-op, anoth­er dozen at 32 Books. Some­times a par­tic­u­lar title devel­oped a fol­low­ing at a par­tic­u­lar store, an inter­est which we were able to grat­i­fy: for exam­ple, the 32 copies of A Voice Great With­in Us pur­chased over the years from lit­tle Min­ers Bay Books on Mayne Island.

I go into this detail because under nor­mal trade stric­tures we would have been lucky to get an ini­tial trade order of 3 to 5 copies for any of these titles, and even more for­tu­nate to have the books re-ordered more than once or twice, or even at all. It’s not like we plant­ed pyra­mids of books into the Plan A stores. In none of these instances were there ever more than two or three copies of the book in stock, even when it was brand new. The num­bers were achieved sim­ply by mon­i­tor­ing sales and replac­ing copies that walked out the door.

I dis­cov­ered along the way that I had not invent­ed Plan A, as I imag­ined. Back in the 1960s the same light­bulb went off inside the head of a man named Leonard Shatzkin, then a Dou­ble­day exec­u­tive. Shatzkin writes about this in his book In Cold Type; he passed along a con­sid­er­able amount of intel­li­gence and pas­sion for the book­trade to his son Mike Shatzkin, who has had the wis­dom to make his own liv­ing not in pub­lish­ing per se, but as an expert on it. (In fact, Mike has just recent­ly writ­ten about ven­dor man­aged inven­to­ry). Leonard Shatzkin had the mus­cle of one of the big pub­lish­ing hous­es behind him. Even he couldn’t make it work.

The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem with Plan A is that it goes against the grain of book­selling cul­ture. This is because it’s what is known as a “ven­dor man­aged inven­to­ry” sys­tem, which is anath­e­ma to the inde­pen­dent entre­pre­neurs who want their book­shop to bear their own stamp, not any­body else’s. “Ven­dor man­aged inven­to­ry” is high-end con­sign­ment, and con­sign­ment is a dirty word among book­sellers — nev­er mind that, effec­tive­ly, the entire book sup­ply chain is an inef­fi­cient con­sign­ment mod­el writ large.

Plan A, in short, pre­sent­ed a cul­ture clash. In the end, the prob­lem was that Plan A — “ven­dor man­aged inven­to­ry” — intrud­ed in the bookseller’s space, by tak­ing away from them one of the few perquisites of the book­seller: the pow­er to decide which books to dis­play in their shops. Inde­pen­dent book­sellers find them­selves in a very unequal strug­gle with their sup­pli­ers, and sub­ject­ed to the gen­tle bul­ly­ing and manip­u­la­tion by the reps for the biggest pub­lish­ers. The bookseller’s lim­it­ed range of options for shap­ing her shop are crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant, not mere­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, but mate­ri­al­ly — their sur­vival depends upon it.

So while the Plan A book­sellers were by and large hap­py to stock our titles, hap­py to do us a favour, they might be con­ster­nat­ed by the num­ber of titles, stocked in 1’s or 2’s, that we were ask­ing them to put back onto their shelves. It’s just as much work to receive one book as it is ten, or twen­ty copies.

Mean­while, inde­pen­dents con­tin­ued to be scythed down by the new book retail­ing land­scape — or, to be more spe­cif­ic, by the com­pact made between the major­i­ty of pub­lish­ers and the new retail­ing giants — and the toll includ­ed many of the small­er, more inde­pen­dent-mind­ed book­shops New Star dealt with. After a high-water mark in 2005-06, when I went so far as to believe that Plan A could be extend­ed across the coun­try, could even be extend­ed to include a pas­sel of press (my fel­low mem­bers of the Lit­er­ary Press Group, for instance), Plan A went into decline. By 2010 it was plain even to me, a hope­less opti­mist, that Plan A was nev­er going to be tak­en up in any form by the trade. I decid­ed to call it a day, and resigned myself to the preva­lent terms of trade.

Our sales declined.

Con­tin­ue read­ing My Careen as a Book­seller (9) :: The People’s Co-op heads for the exit

Start from the begin­ning: My Careen as a Book­sellers (1) :: Before It All Began