Discounts and dealing with booksellers

Another email discussion list that I've been reading is Murder Must Advertise ( Here are a pair of posts that I contributed recently, on the issues of discounting and the relationships between stores, authors and publishers"

On Jan 10, 2006, at 4:02 PM, wrote:

"The reason I have my books linked to amazon is because they are almost always on sale there (at 32% off) so it is a better buy for my readers."

Janet's comment something I hear a lot, and it's among the more disheartening things that I hear.

I address this in part in something that I've posted on my (very intermittent) blog, and it's an issue that I talk about whenever I have the opportunity to reach a group of committed readers. Here's a link to the blog entries; scroll down towards the end for the part that directly addresses discounting:

The main point is this: low prices come from somewhere, and they have consequences (to quote John Dicker, the author of THE UNITED STATES OF WAL-MART).

If all you're interested in is a low price, then you can't at the same time expect authors to be paid reasonable royalties, publishers to spend reasonable amounts of money to promote books and neighborhood independent bookstores (and even big box chain stores) to carry any midlist books. Where do low prices come from? The come out of the margin necessary to do all of these things.

The consequences are even more severe. If all you're interested in is a low price, they you can't expect midlist books to be published and distributed in any sensible fashion. Before long, these books won't be published in the first place, and the stores that depend on being able to sell these sorts of titles won't be able to stay in business. All we'll have left, in terms of publishing for a "mass market," is bestsellers.

Think that's too apocalyptic? Think about why most of the big mass market publishing companies have in varying degrees walked away from the genre. Why doesn't Pocket Books have a mass market mystery publishing program? Discounting isn't all of the reason, but I believe that it's a very significant part, more significant than most people realize.

Two other things:

It's interesting to see how titles that should be published as traditional mass market paperbacks (with a suggested retail price of $6.99 or so) are being published instead as trade paperbacks for $13.95 or so. As far as I can tell, Amazon doesn't discount mass market pbs, so readers pay full price for these books -- reluctantly, since there's an appearance of a better deal on other titles. Amazon does discount the trade pbs, creating an impression of getting a bargain -- 32% off sounds like a good deal. Until you realize that 32% off $13.95 is $9.48 or, in other words, $2.49 more than you would have paid had the book been published in the right format to begin with. (Incidentally, in my store's discount program, the discount applies to all books, regardless of format.)

Finally, while it's true that Amazon discounts some titles, bear in mind that many more are sold without a discount and Amazon also imposes a surcharge on many small press titles (and even older titles from big companies. Amazon gives, but it takes away as well. (And I won't even get into the whole issue of the Amazon Advantage program, and the competitive issues that program raises....)

If you'd like to see a particularly weird example of how Amazon discounts/fails to discount/imposes a surcharge on books, take a look at how it sells Alan Gordon's Fool's Guild series of medieval mysteries -- THIRTEENTH NIGHT, JESTER LEAPS IN, WIDOW OF JERUSALEM and ANTIC DISPOSITION. (The middle book in series, #3, DEATH IN THE VENTIAN QUARTER, is out of print at the moment.) How well is Amazon serving buyers interested in Alan's work?


"At one point, I went down the IMBA list and I sent out promo copies of one of our books...THREE STRIKES YOU'RE DEAD by Robert Goldsborough. I then called the stores to follow up. I offered promo materials, reinforced my terms and had three stores take me up on it. I actually had a couple stores tell me they don't deal with small press pubs. Now I don't consider us small press, we have published over 100 titles now and we have bent over backwards to accommodate the Indy stores. How do
we get them to acknowledge us?"

I'm one of booksellers who ordered this title. Took me five, six months to do it, but we now have this book displayed in the store in a way that the author and the publisher should be happy with. We've made it our reading group selection for February, and I'm looking forward to hearing what my customers have to say about it.

There's far more to say on this topic than I could possibly cover this morning and still do my job, but here are a few quick points:

Be persistent, patient and polite. The latter really matters. You'd be surprised by how few pitches are polite and respectful.

Don't ask for support from a store if at the same time you're working to undercut the store -- that's why the Amazon-only linked websites are so problematic, and may even extend to the Amazon Advantage program (about which I'm more than a little conflicted). If you're an author, are you supporting your local store when you're asking for that store's help?

Karen writes that she doesn't consider herself a small press. Bear in mind that your competition isn't any random other small company, it's Random House, a company I've been dealing with directly for 18 years. It's not just that RH is larger, but because I have a long relationship with RH, it's a little easier for me to be confident about every aspect of dealing with them.

I know how to order Random House books, I know the discount schedule, I know what the books are going to be like (both in terms of literary quality and physical quality), I know what the company is likely to do (and not do) to help me sell their titles, I know how to return their books (they're already set up in my shipping system), I know how to send payments to them (they're already set up in my accounting system), etc. That's a lot of "I knows" that I probably don't know about most small presses.

This is why persistence matters. Your message may not get through the first or even the fourth time, but if you have a strong message, it will get through. Sooner or later, all those "I don't knows" will get turned into "I knows."

It's remarkable how few pitches I get from small presses help me with this kind of information. Are your books sold on competitive terms? If they are, why isn't that obvious? Can I easily find your company's terms? Are they listed in the American Booksellers Association handbook?

What are competitive terms? For trade books -- hardcovers and trade paperbacks -- Random House sells at 46% off with free freight.

Bob says his publisher is difficult to deal with. I hate to put it this simply, but that's pretty much an automatic case: I don't deal with publishers that are hard to deal with. Why should I? There are plenty of companies whose policies, practices and terms indicate they might actually want my business. A company with un-competitive terms or that throws up roadblocks is telling me that they don't want my order. You don't have to be at 46% and free freight, but you'd better be close.

This isn't rocket science. Where most publishers (big and small) fail is in the basics. Providing clear and complete information in a timely fashion, making it easy to order, selling on competitive terms, packing carefully, shipping in a timely manner, sending statements predictably, making returns straightforward, making it worthwhile to receive and use credit received, etc.

Booksellers aren't as hard to work with as you think. You just have to be willing to work at it.