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