Read the above article, and then let me put some things into perspective for those not familiar with bookselling.
In St. Louis, Left Bank Books hosts 200+ author events each year, most of which are free and open to the public. For one such event last month we ordered 36 copies of the book, hoping to attract at least 100 people and sell to somewhere around 25% of the crowd. The book in question is a very popular new nonfiction title, so we thought the chances of doing well were pretty good.
Our events coordinator, Danielle, talked repeatedly to the publicist to set up the event. Sara, our special orders/assistant buyer/assistant manager/bookseller placed the order. Bill, our receiving person, checked in, counted and tagged the books. We publicized the event by creating a newsletter, window displays, email blast, multiple website postings, Facebook and Twitter mentions. Our booksellers made displays, took phone calls, answered emails and talked up the book to our customers. One bookseller wrote and gave an introduction, another set up the chairs at our Central West End store, closing 1/3 of our store’s browsing space for the event.
The night of the event we sold 22 copies of a book that retails at $28.95. We kept some copies to sell later and returned 7 to the publisher. So here’s the math:
We brought in $636.90 in sales. We paid the publisher $453.27. We paid Fedex about $20 to deliver the returned books. That leaves $163.63 with which to pay for advertising, rent, utilities Bill, Sara, Danielle, other booksellers who handled the book, the lost income from closing 1/3 of our store, insurance and office supplies used to promote and manage the event.
Attendance for that event was good. The author loved the introduction. The publisher was happy with the crowd. The only loser here was the bookstore. No, I’m not trying to guilt anyone into buying their books from us. My message is simple – you get what you pay for. If the bookstore (which by the way is not a government program or nonprofit entity) cannot pay its bills or its staff, there are no author events. There is no place to go and, by serendipity or other means, stumble upon a new author or book you would have never thought about before. There are no staff picks. There’s just your computer.
If you take the above example and multiply it by 200, you see our budget. Except it’s more complicated than that. The example above was a free event in our store that actually did well. Many times we host or sell books for events that aren’t in our store, like the River Styx events at Duff’s or events at the Library, Ethical Society or Christ Church Cathedral. For many of those, we have to give the venue a cut of our book sales, meaning that of the $636.90 mentioned above, we’d also have to pay between $60 and $65 to the venue leaving only $100 to pay our other bills.
And what if we have a big crowd at the Cathedral, for instance – hundreds of people – half of whom bought their book on Amazon, the other half reluctant to buy the book? What happens then?
The reality is that bookstores like mine are important parts of literary culture. We offer a service that is impossible to replicate. Historically, this service has been underwritten by inevitable book sales. But we’re in different times. Historical sales don’t matter anymore if you can’t pay your rent. Independent booksellers have had to face this reality head-on for many years beginning with the giant real estate suck of Borders and Barnes & Noble and most recently with the monopoly of Amazon. We’re flexible and smart, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived this long. We know, that to survive into the future, we have to adapt. We sell e-books on our website, we ship books worldwide, we host author events, we raise money for local charities and schools, we reach out to others in our neighborhoods and communities.
The article at the beginning of this post is odd because it insinuates that free literary programming is a right not a privilege, and that independent bookstores are trying to cheat our customers and the authors out of something. Well, that just hurts.
Charging for our services isn’t greedy or unseemly, it’s necessary and fair. After all, we’re worth something, right?