Who is to Blame? Part Two

Another voice weighs in on the death throes of the mass market paperback. Agent Richard Curtis, in a fascinating series of articles at Backspace (and excerpted this month in the Authors Guild newsletter), lays the blame at the "implosion of the wholesale book distribution business" in 1996, which:

…transformed the way business was done throughout the industry. It was a traum from which the book industry never recovered.

…although a growing number of traditional bookstores stocked mass-market paperbacks, it was the wholesale distribution network that fueled the huge growth of the book business in the last quarter of the twentieth century, spawning a thriving industry and a generation of bestselling authors. Even when those authors graduated to hardbacks, paperback reprints of their books drove sales overall. In the late 1980s
mass-market paperback revenue made the difference between feast and famine for hardcover publishers. Income from romance fiction alone contributed 25% of the cash flowing into the trade book industry..

He says the rise of bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders (as well as the power of Amazon) took business away from wholesalers. Computerized sales info allowed publishers, retailers and wholesalers to better track what was selling.

Assessing these patterns, paperback distributors began asking themselves why they needed to employ human labor when they could more efficiently and economically service bookstores and other outlets by shipping books directly to the retailers. Yes, it would mean that the human element — the guy in the station wagon who knew which towns loved historical romances and which preferred contemporary ones, which adored westerns and which were big on science fiction – would be removed from the equation. But — well, that was progress!

The big agencies pulled the plug in that summer of 1996 when whole fleets of drivers were discharged, and in the following years the wholesale distribution workforce was reduced to a fraction of what it had been in its heyday.

In fact, the consequences were nothing short of calamitous. The impact was felt in every sector of the publishing business, from what got written to what got published to what got read. It wasn’t
long before customers in west Texas or Nebraska or South Carolina discovered that many books by their favorite authors were no longer being stocked in their local stores.

As paperback publishers awoke to the new buying patterns, they were forced to choose between star authors and those whose sales performance fell below a minimum level. At first the triaging was restricted to marginal genres like westerns, but as the last decade of the twentieth century progressed the definition of “marginal” broadened to embrace every category of book that fell below an ever-stricter definition of commerciality, a process akin to the lowering of the bar in a limbo dance. Limbo indeed: authors who had made a living for years from sales of ten or fifteen thousand copies of their paperbacks were now being dropped by their publishers as the minimum sales quota increased to twenty or thirty thousand copies or more.

As much as authors would dearly love to bring back the robust mass-market paperback erak, it’s no likelier than a return to steam locomotives.

In his view, the future lies with print-on-demand and e-books, though neither format has yet reached its potential.
Richard S. Wheeler blames writers. Richard Curtis blames distrubtion. What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Who is to Blame? Part Two”

  1. I think they’re looking for simple answers to a complex question. Saying “It’s the writers’ fault because they’re not as good” is about like saying no one makes good movies anymore. Both statements smack of an overabundance of cynicism.
    The other thing is that neither blogger notices, let alone mentions, the glaringly obvious: Books have to compete with 500 channels of TV, the Web, movies at home and in theatres, music in a half dozen formats, and video games.
    And finally, I’ve been hearing the sky is falling for fiction writers since the 1970’s. I suspect it will still be in mid-plunge in some people’s minds long after my grandchildren’s funerals. (And I don’t have kids yet.)
    Change happens. Deal with it or get out of the business.

  2. Everyone loves the good ole days, don’t they?
    For me, there are many great and upcoming authors that I read and look forward to reading now. There are many old pulp authors that I am either rediscovering or just finding out about that I enjoy reading. There are only a handful that I would choose to read again.
    As to Wheeler et al, Jim makes a good point, pople have lots of options. Technology was supposed to improve our lives, but it seems to have made our lives more harried. So there are simple solutions for complex problems, fast food – people can eat, but they don’t have to sit down together at the table for home cook meal and have family conversations. Your agenda is so tighly packed that you have to set up date night to go out with your wife. In some case you have to schedule sex too. Computers have increased our work load. and who reads the news when you can have 24 hour CNN at the flick of a switch?

  3. _In Canada, we had a big box explosion of retailing. Major bookchains merged, eased out of traditional high traffic mall locations, constructing excessive numbers of standalone mega outlets (to thwart competitors), and stocked their new stores immediately with fully returnable products. Plus the main retailer (without an adequate inventory system) tried to become a wholesaler as well.
    _Of course, customers came in, bought their kiosk coffee, found a comfy chair, and proceeded to skim books in-store without buying them.
    _Few ever asked why reading (gross sales) was increasing so rapidly – it wasn’t. The returns then swamped all of the publishers.

  4. I’m no expert on the Canadian publishing biz… but how can it possibly flourish when the entire retail end is run by one chain? I was stunned to discover that just about every bookstore — Chapters, Indigo, Coles — is owned by the same company. There’s no competition. Imagine in the U.S. if Barnes & Noble, Borders, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton were all owned by one company. I bet the buyer at Chapters et. al. basically dictates what will be published in Canada and what won’t…

  5. You’re close already. Those four are really only two stores. If I remember right, it’s Waldenbooks and Borders and B. Dalton and Barnes and Nobel.

  6. Indigo was a local big box startup (owned by the wife of a respected merger expert) which finally bought Coles /W.D.Smith (mergely known as Chapters) – yet had never earned a yearly profit at that time. Generally, there is a foreign ownership restriction on culture related companies.


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