I am lucky enough to have a friend that works with me that has worked in bookstores and specifically Barnes and Noble in both South Carolina and Illinois as a manager. I presented this dilemma to him and asked for his thoughts. With that in mind, everyone meet Tom’s friend who shall remain nameless to protect him from the evil Big Box stores and the POD publishers he also makes fun of. Hope you all enjoy it!
I can honestly say that this is the first I’ve heard of this particular issue, but it is no surprise that die-hard buffs of any subject would be vocal about their interest’s representation in a bookstore. We usually had around 2 bays of Civil War books in one of the Charleston store’s, and I’d never heard anyone complain in the 2½ years I was the Customer Relations Manager there. Keep in mind that that store also had 4 or 5 bays of local books and, this being Charleston, a good many of those were Civil War books. The only complaint I ever got personally about the selection at the store was from a woman who was appalled that we only had 1½ bays of Native American Studies books. I explained that the topic wasn’t hugely popular here (like the Civil War is) and she accused me of suggesting that there were no Native Americans in Charleston. Truth be told, I’ve not met one here yet . . .
What’s funniest about the links (editors note – I showed him the different blogs that was discussing the issue) you sent is that there is an undercurrent of distrust and annoyance at big chain stores for the CW selections they have, and so the CW buffs prefer to buy their books online. Would B&N or Borders or BAM, the top 3 biggies, make $2-$5Billion a year carrying books people are not visiting their store to buy? Would a Toyota dealership carry a huge selection of Fords? The only conspiracy I’m aware of is the one they call Capitalism.
The top selling book subjects are children’s’ books, fiction (including sub-genres like mystery and romance), self help, cooking, religion and then maybe history. Factor in the popularity of WW2 books, especially Nazis and Hitler (we’re morbidly human), and the Civil War starts to shrink in monetary value to any giant store like B&N, even in Charleston. Trust me, the BAMs I’ve been to in the Midwest have maybe ½ a bay of CW books on hand. I also worked for Borders in Chicago, and we never had enough Spanish-language books for Latinos or African-American books for African-Americans. Bottom line: you can please some of the people all of the time, blah blah blah.
This reminds me of something I did see/hear quite often: people floored that we didn’t have that one book they wanted in stock. As if each retail bookstore could house the Library of Congress . . .
I think this is one of those situations where a particular interest just does not carry the weight needed to fund a large section of a retail store’s real estate (I am into woodworking, but at any given time my store had ½ a bay of woodworking books on hand). Under my short regime, I brought in a few local and national Civil War authors (Chris W. Phelps, Gordon Rhea, James L. Nelson, even Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf of the Hunley book fame), and the attendance for these guys was pitiful. The same went for all the History authors I brought in. I had one author (Hew Strachan) that was floored that he was 20 minutes from Fort Sumter and a Naval Base and an Air Force Base and had two people stop to talk to him about his WWI book. From an event standpoint, it’s a wonder big bookstores don’t just have children’s authors and self-help authors in for signings!
If you can’t get a good turnout for a CW author in Charleston, what makes people think the subject will be well-stocked anywhere else? B&N is at the top because its business sense is ruthlessly brilliant. Its retail accounting is nothing but model preciseness: if any new book of any subject sells 5 to 6 copies in the first 90 days and then nothing for 6 months, then the shelf life of a new book of that subject is 90 days. If the subject only sees 50 new “traditionally” published books a year or less, then there only needs to be 1 or 2 bays dedicated to that subject. And to be quite honest, of every 100,000 people who are interested enough in the CW to read Foote’s trilogy, or McPherson’s books, how many of them are going to repeatedly read about the same battles and events? Maybe 10%? I read McCullough’s John Adams, and as much as I loved every word of it, I can safely say that I will never read another biography of John Adams again.
On another note, B&N saw that BAM has a very poorly managed policy when it comes to small press or self-published books. We never once worried about competition from BAM. Because they have little control over how their chains take in local books, they tend to accept POD authors’ books by the handful, and are then stuck with them if they don’t sell. What you are seeing (and I have seen this too) when you go to the BAMs here are CW and local section that is 50% unreturnable! They are literally stuck with merchandise that has accumulated over the years, giving the appearance of a “good selection.”
By nature, a POD book only serves the POD company: they tap the author for hundreds of dollars, print a medium-quality trade paperback, and put little to no effort in trying to promote the book (unless the author shells out more money). POD books are fun for the author because anyone can turn a manuscript into a book, but those books are an absolute liability to retail outfits (despite the fact that they might contain brilliant material or good writing). A POD makes the bulk of its money from the author’s wallet, not their book sales. B&N is at the top of its game because its retail business sense when it comes to things like the POD issue is ruthlessly brilliant (they do carry some POD titles at bn.com). My old job there required a lot of me politely telling people “no” when it came to shelving their books. With POD companies or even Kinko’s, anyone can “publish.” It is sad to see people being led to believe that they are published and will be in bookstores everywhere for some nominal fee, only to be told their book is a pariah to retail booksellers everywhere. I know this from 2 angles because at one time I also worked for one of the worst POD companies out there . . .
If the subject a reader is most interested in is one that is not traditionally published en masse, then to the Internet they must go. But don’t get me wrong: I hardly ever buy books at the big chains. Only bargains. I like Half.com and good ol’ Boomer’s downtown. B&N was a fun place to work, and a paycheck, but it is at the core a deftly run business. If they sold nothing but toasters, they’d be good at that too. If CW books sold at the volume that even science books sell, you’d see more of them there. Simple as that.
Whew! I hope that helps. It’s not that no one cares, it’s that B&N cares VERY much—about the bottom line. I hate to play devil’s advocate, as on one hand I wish every bookstore was able to fully cater to all interests and philosophies, but on the other I do admire shrewd business practice. This is why I never label myself a Republican or a Democrat. Nor do I buy their books . . .
Thanks for letting me soapbox!