Bookstore Idiocy

Last weekend, I attended a fantasy and science fiction literary symposium in northern Utah, called LTUE (or, after a noteworthy writer, Life, The Universe, and Everything). As more of a literary symposium than a standard convention, LTUE attracts a great number of writers and editors, and an even greater number of would-be or beginning F&SF writers. Over the years, the guests of honor have included best-selling authors, F&SF publishers, and noted editors in the field (and, yes, I’ve been a GOH twice).

One of the highlight events of LTUE is a “mass signing” of all attending authors on Friday night, and this is facilitated by a book-selling site in the same enormous room as the mass signing, which means that those who are attending can run over and buy a book for an author to sign if they attended panels or discussions and realized that they really wanted to try an author’s work.

For over twenty years, the Barnes & Noble in Orem operated this on-site temporary book-selling venue, and, from what I’ve observed in the years I’ve attended, they seemed to do very well indeed. I know that my books have always sold moderately well at LTUE, and often the works of bigger name authors sold in the hundreds of copies over three days.

This year, however, the B&N store was unable to continue this activity, not because it didn’t sell books and make money, but because B&N recently adopted a chain-wide policy that banned “satellite events.”

To me, such a blanket policy makes no sense. I could understand a policy that declared that satellite events must cover their costs or come close, but a blanket ban? This reeks of accounting bean-counting. The business of a bookstore is, at least ostensibly, to sell books. If LTUE gets readers to try reading authors new to them, at least a proportion of those readers will buy more books by those authors. This increases sales, and since B&N is the only large set of bookstores in Utah, at least some of those sales will come from B&N. What’s not to like about making a bit of money at the symposium and increasing overall sales?

Tom Doherty, the publisher of Tor, came up through the sales ranks, and he’s told me more than a few times about the role the small mall stores – Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, now both defunct – played in developing readers, because they were convenient places for people to pick up books, not destination stores like the current B&N megastores, or the vanished Borders stores. Now, most of those convenient places are gone, whether it’s the vanished rack in the drugstore, the small mall bookstore, or the like, and those bookselling venues that are left are stocked by computer on based on national sales that often have little to do with the community where the sales outlet is located. Along that line, the ability of B&N store managers to customize their inventory has been reduced, if not eliminated.

I know B&N is having financial problems, but focusing on almost mindless cost-cutting when the effect of cost-cutting is to reduce sales is counter-productive. Success is measured by increasing sales in a cost-effective manner, not by cutting costs and doing less. You don’t turn around a financial down-turn just by cutting costs; you also have to increase sales, and doing things like a blanket ban on satellite events cuts down on sales. It also leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the symposium regulars and organizers, as far as B&N is concerned – and those people are all heavy readers. Does this really make sense, economically or in PR terms?

By the way, a small book vendor did step up at the last moment and set up an on-site book store, and she certainly sold a number of my books, as well as those of quite a few other authors.

2 thoughts on “Bookstore Idiocy”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    I’ve heard complaints before by fellow F&SF readers about the selection in stores that depended on a distributor to supply them, without having their own familiarity with the genre (or perhaps any genre). The distributor would often dump on them the books that weren’t moving anywhere else. Needless to say, that didn’t improve sales, but I guess that if the distributor was concerned about that at all, it was only when supplying certain retailers.

    The whole bookselling business seems a bit strange to me, esp. “returns” of unsold books from a retailer. That means the retailers can afford to be clueless, as long as they’re moving enough to get by. Maybe it made some kind of sense during the Great Depression, but it makes little enough sense now. Given a retailer computer system, it should be easy enough to track what sells in what locations, what books are part of a series, etc.

    On a possible positive note from abroad (wondering if B&N or Books a Million will catch on),

  2. Jim S says:

    Seems like an unwise move to issue a blanket rule banning the events. Events like that not only can generate sales at the event, but add to your visibility and customer good will. Sure, “everyone” knows about B&N — but not everyone thinks they give a darn about a particular genre or style. Why not at least create that impression, so that the fan base may remember, and decide it’s worth stopping by when they get home? Not everyone is even going to be a moneymaker — but imagine the good will generated by doing a satellite event supporting an appropriate good cause…

    Have an approval process. Make sure that the satellite event is going to be good for the business and the store, not just cater to a manager’s interests. But take advantage of the opportunity to make some sales and build that customer and community good will.

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