The Long Game, Revisited

Victoria Strauss, SF and fantasy writer and co-founder of the vital resource Writer Beware, offered up a link on her Twitter feed the other day about Canadian bookseller, Indigo Books and Music (née Chapters) new strategy. From the article:

Indigo has made clear it intends to transition to a new product mix that includes more giftware, toys, and lifestyle products, with less shelf space reserved for books. At a vendor-relations meeting last week, the chain also informed suppliers that it is evaluating returns on a shorter timeframe, meaning some books are likely to spend less time in stores.

I blogged about my suspicions last year around this time, in my Short Game, Long Game post. While I had railed years ago about the intrusion of lifestyle products into one of the few shopping experiences that I enjoyed, I came to the resigned understanding that a store has to sell things. And if that store isn’t selling enough things, it can either close its doors or sell other things. And Chapters, and likely other book chains still treading water, have been doing the same, experimenting with lifestyle products, seeing what appealed to their initial audience and what didn’t as well as what drove new traffic, and started making plans.

Part of those plans, in order to conserve valuable, expensive floor space, is changing how long they hold on to titles. Normally publishers will not accept returns before 90 days, but Indigo plans to review a book’s performance after 45 days and evaluate whether or not they will keep the title.

Wow. Kind of huge. Lots of concern from publishers that slower-selling titles will not be on shelves long enough to gain the traction they need to start selling. But if their plan is to only assign 50% of the overall floor space to books, the rest given over to lifestyle, there has to be some way to manage the inventory effectively, profitably.

Because their business isn’t literature, don’t forget. It’s not about communicating and enriching our lives. It’s about moving product, whatever that product might be.

But you have to wonder. Are retailers like Chapters trying to change the way we view and value books themselves, the experience of them? If they focus mostly on selling titles that are moving now, moving away from the literary continuity of a backlist, are they trying to make book buying like the movies? Unless a movie is terrifically popular, it doesn’t stay in theatres for long. If you want to see and talk about it when everyone else is seeing and talking about it, you get your ass in the theatre before it’s too late.

Books, being perennially available (dwindling mid-list aside), don’t usually have the same push to consume upon release date. A few notable and recent exceptions like George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons and Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear are just that — exceptions. The wait between books coupled with the large audience make this reaction understandable but it’s not typical in genre or out of it, I think. Perhaps as the new generation of Harry Potter/Twilight readers continue reading, this level of excitement across the industry will naturally evolve, but I can’t help but wonder if retailers like Chapters are actively cultivating this trend. Problem is, the second half of the equation, removing the titles that don’t sell well after a shorter turnaround time, makes it feel like an even more punitive version of the (abominable) Disney practice of “vaulting” titles, manufacturing scarcity. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. And what then?

That said, publisher fears about mid-list books not getting enough shelf-time to gain readers smacks me as slightly humourous. It’s well known how little is spent on promotion on the vast majority of titles. Expecting that the mere presence of a book on a shelf for long enough time that somebody picks it up isn’t much of a strategy. And unless you live in a large city, any bookstore you have access to is already filtered, constrained, and showing you the bias of the system.

Thank god for the Internet, which I think has done more for readers than most bookstores ever have. While I might at times be overwhelmed with the choice offered to me, I have access to and knowledge of titles and writers that would otherwise have remained utterly invisible to me. We, as both readers and writers, have become curators of knowledge and ideas in an egalitarian, post-commercial experience. It wasn’t just the e-book or the iPad that heralded the end of the conventional bookstore; buying physical books online, having access to a wider selection of titles and getting connected to other readers is what moved the experience away from the local brick and mortar store. (Price points help, don’t get me wrong, but selection is paramount.)

The bookstores may succeed in manufacturing a kind of profitable experience based in part on books. Or they might not. I like to browse. I like to discover things by happenstance as I wander the aisles. I like discovering something, buying it then and there, and taking it home. But as the years have passed, that experience happens less and less often. I can’t find what I’m looking for, and the accidental discoveries are drying up because the books are, too.

Candles, though. Candles I can get. And tea. And blankets. And coasters. And stuffed animals. And greeting cards. And chocolates. And gardening tools. And … and … and …

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