The Top Three Stupid Things Publishers Do (According to an Independent Bookseller)

By • Feb 3rd, 2009 • Category: 26th Story, Books, Business

BookstoreI met Praveen Madan, owner of Booksmith in San Francisco, and asked him for his “top three stupid things publishers do.” Here’s his response:

1. Publish too many bad books, get your sales reps to stuff the channel with too many bad books, and then complain that returns are too high
2. Not realize that, like other intermediaries, publishers are heading to extinction unless they learn to add value
3. Suffer from the illusion that after being in the publishing business for decades without a consumer brand, they can suddenly wake up and become meaningful brands in consumers’ minds

Praveen asked for our “top three stupid things independent booksellers do” in exchange; so here’s a list from our senior editor, Julia Cheiffetz:

1. Assume their customers wouldn’t transfer their store loyalty to a store website

2. Underutilize the expertise of their staff to curate selections and develop robust areas of expertise for which they are known locally

3. Fail to stay connected to their customers via a store blog


We’d love to hear from other booksellers (and publishers) with their “top three” lists in response…

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  • Rich Rennicks

    Amen to each of Julia’s bookseller don’ts.

    My three things for pubs are:
    1. Publish too many mediocre books. If you don’t do certain categories/genres well, just don’t do them.
    2. Stop publicizing their books too soon.
    3. Don’t fully engage their authors in the publicity process. (Yes, there are shining exceptions, and yes, the authors are probably as much to blame as pubs.)

  • Jon F. Merz

    Hi Bob,

    Here are my lists.

    For publishers:

    1. Use an antiquated business model that is no longer relevant in the 21st century (i.e., returns, reserves against returns, etc.).
    2. Enable people in sales & marketing to make decisions about editorial acquisitions rather than relying on an editor’s judgment.
    3. Not form partnerships with authors and explore extended relationships that are profitable to both publisher and creator.

    For stores:

    1. Not embrace the power of social media to extend the relationship beyond the borders of a brick-and-mortar store.
    2. Not utilize new technology to enhance customer experience in the store.
    3. Maintain ridiculously minimal store hours when their customer base obviously no longer works the 9-5, 40 hr. workweek.

  • Mark

    For publishers:

    1. Please budget beyond the sales cycle. Marketing and publicity is required over the book’s lifetime.
    2. Please collaborate, don’t compete (aka be everywhere) The competition for the reader’s attention is not between publishers. It is between different forms of media.
    3. Please read The Innovator’s Dilemma.

    For book stores:

    1. Get email. I mean seriously.
    2. Stop worrying and learn to love the chain stores.
    3. Please read The Innovator’s Dilemma.

  • Debbie

    @Mark — I just ordered the Innovator’s Dilemma. Txs

  • Tammy R. Lynn

    1. Multi-million dollar advances for celebrity books that are seldom supported by actual sales (after returns are counted!).
    2. Debut more books in trade paperback form. The price of hardbacks combined with the slowing economy would certainly enable those who are feeling the financial pinch to continue to feed their reading habit.
    3. Spend more advertising dollars on new and mid-list authors. Let’s face it, James Patterson, Nora Roberts and Dean Koontz don’t need television ads. Even their grocery lists would sell oodles of copies.

    One more thing…the idea of a totally non-returnable structure would cripple many small independent stores, where your mid-list and debut authors thrive, and force them to stock mostly “sure thing” titles (the same ones that you see in Wal-Mart, Target, Sam’s Club, Costco, etc.). Mid-list and debut authors will be slowly obliterated.

    I would love to see a focus group on this very issue. It should include publishers, wholesalers, and booksellers. The bookseller mix should truly represent all segments of the market (new store, small rural store, small city store, large city store, chain stores). This would need to be a carefully selected group of folks who would be willing to look at all sides of the issue.

  • Julia Cheiffetz

    @Tammy: We haven’t held official “focus groups” but we have hosted brainstorming breakfasts with people who occupy very different spaces in the publishing community. We will continue to do this and are grateful for your ideas and honest feedback.

  • Roxanne

    So far I agree with both Praveen and Carole

    My list would be:
    –not doing enough to promote reading and/or doing research and development to understand what readers of each age want-material and format
    –compete with their own distribution channels-to the point of bidding for a large order when we are already in contact with a customer
    –publishing too many books–more than can be published properly and thereby creating waste and cost inefficiencies and disappointed authors and booksellers and publishers

    I could come up with a longer list but this is it for now — Rox

  • Bob

    Kelly Justice from The Fountain Bookstore emailed me her top three:

    1. Praveen’s first point is on the money. I can’t put it more succinctly.

    2. I only have a staff of five people. Currently I am staring at about 400 galleys arranged by month. We cull monthly. I have more than five copies of some galleys. Tell me how this makes sense.

    3. Publishers and booksellers both need to disabuse themselves of the concept that we are somehow more valuable than other entertainment industries. We can believe that all we want, but the consumer doesn’t see it that way. They just see limited free time.

    Instead of focusing on why people should feel bad if they don’t read, we should be concentrating on presenting reading as viable competition for movies, gaming, internet, etc as well as branching into blended entertainment formats.

    This goes back to promoting reading in general.

    What an exercise! I’m so used to trying to turn things to a positive that this actually hurt my brain.

  • Bob

    Carole Horne, the general manager of the Harvard Bookstore, emailed me her top three:

    I’d have to agree with Praveen’s first point.

    2. Compete with their distribution chain instead of directing business to it.

    3. Offer preferential arrangements to some distribution channels and then worry about some channels becoming too powerful—demanding lower pricing on ebooks, etc. (Ask manufacturers who sell to Walmart how this works).

    Only three? Oh, well.

  • Archie

    1. Publishers publish too many books.
    2. Publishers publish too many books in hardcover
    3. Publishers compete with the very bookstores with which they want to do business.

  • carla cohen

    This has been a terrific discussion, by which I mean that I would like to second and third many of the points made already. 1) Too many mediocre, copy cat books. Come on folks you’re the publishers. You ought to know if an idea or a book has been done to death; 2) need more editing to produce shorter more engaging books: you are putting customer off buying because the books are too fat and formidable; 3) More in paperback original, fiction, particularly. 4) (who said we had to be limited to 3) Stop with the blast of publicity on the first three days the book is published, followed by 51 weeks of silence.

    Top three things that bookstores need to do: 1) Find books and events that will bring 22-35 year olds into reading. Make reading fun and chic (kill all the high school English teachers); 2) Remember that the way we compete with Online stores is that we are part of the community fabric — host lots of community events, foster a sense of belonging through email and the internet as well as the physical store; 3) Partner with anybody you can in your community to provide authors and books — schools, universities, churches — don’t say you can’t do it; you don’t have time. Hire somebody to develop that business.

  • Kat Meyer

    For Publishers and Bookstores, alike:
    1.Put the reader first. What they want, how they want it — whatever you can do to make that happen and still make a living should be your guiding principle.

  • Sean

    1) Publishers simply don’t understand publishing in this century. Period. They think they do. They don’t.
    2) Publishers take too long to turn around a book, in times when things move so quickly.
    3) Publishers should take on fewer, better books and market the heck out of them, instead of spending mini-dollars marketing loads of books.

  • Katie Glasgow, Mitchell Books

    For Publishers:

    1. I absolutely agree with Tammy’s 2nd point: bestselling authors DO NOT need marketing money UNLESS they are going way out of their genre. Throw that money at the “Publisher Picks” or the Rep Picks of the season that are usually midlist authors that get lost.

    2. Seriously, almost every publisher’s customer service people have ZERO clue about what industry they work for (one company’s CSR didn’t know what a PO or NYP was!) or what other divisions of the company are doing. How are we supposed to get anything done or have a problem resolved if the right hand isn’t even attached to the body where the left hand resides?

    3. If there is a movie coming out, don’t wait to do the reprint until two weeks later when every teenage girl from here to Anchorage is trying to get a copy of said book and the rest of the series, and when the reprint is done, send the majority of them to the huge retailers on giant skids.

    For Booksellers:

    1. We need to stop whining and start trying to affect change. We are all in the same annoying boat so let’s stop being dead weight and start rowing. We’re all guilty . . . see above.

    2. Be in control of your accounts payable: help the publishers to help us. Know your info (account numbers especially) and get mistakes fixed so we don’t get screwed.

    3. Appreciate your staff. If you don’t care, they don’t care and no one sells books.

  • Wendy Hudson

    Love all the other comments, but since they’re taken I’ll go a little farther afield…

    Publishers should:
    1) Not let Amazon monopolize Kindle’s eBook format!!! Don’t give them the content unless they lighten up on digital rights. Period. (Why did they lock down just as Apple lightened up?)
    2) Work with newspapers and all other media streams to ensure that the people that create the content get paid fairly. Everyone on the supply side is threatened by the preponderance of free everything on the web.
    2 and a half) Stop flirting with net-pricing – it would put small stores at a catastrophic disadvantage
    2 and three quarters) (can you tell i’m a mom?!?) Use recycled everything because customers expect it now. The idea of “dumps” should be so over… instead work on re-useable, perhaps co-branded displays (Pub + IndieBound? Regional? Store specific?) that are flexible for common trim sizes.
    3) Regard co-op left on the table as lost sales – help booksellers maximize co-op so we all win. [The more instant "$50 bucks for a 10 book order"-type things the better, because they really work and they take no time. Hachette is great at this.]

    Booksellers should:
    1) Encourage ABA to: A) spearhead development of an electronic delivery system to keep us in the new media loop – perhaps kiosks or at least software for customer-access computers for downloads (audio, ebook, etc) to their devices in our stores; and B) look into P.O.D. solutions that are extremely fast.
    2) Get over the stigma and bring in a lot more sidelines! Cha-ching.
    3) Have the discipline and structure in place to train staff exceptionally well–they need to be as educated and knowledgable as possible about books (and by booksellers here i most certainly mean me!). If we’re promising a superior customer service experience, we need to deliver it.
    3 and a half) Actually do the work and make the changes we talk about semi-annually at WiX and BEA. [Note to self: using the excel budget sheets on just might do more for my bottom line than a Twitter post, no matter how much fun i've been having with the latter!]

    Thanks everyone for the great discussion.

  • lucy kogler

    1.) Stop publishing memoirs by everyone who ever had a hangnail that gave them an epiphany…Nearly all the people I know have had some traumatic, brilliantly illuminating and “whatever” experiences. IT”S CALLED LIVING. Giving a forum to most of these folks reinforces the last eight years of selfish indulgence.
    2.) Let us use coop in clever ways. For promoting backlist, to buy a title for donation to our underfunded schools, for a fixture that would have whatever publisher’s name that shelled out the bucks…Shouldn’t just have to be for specific media–newspapers, newsletters, web, blog…there is so much we could do for our communities in the name of the publishers with the money.
    3.) recognize that we are supposed to be partners in this relationship and while like most relationships there are moments of misunderstanding and confusion we are not adversaries. In some communities the independent bookstore is it. No chains, etc…not enough to warrant moving in. Publishers need to remember that when they say we aren’t a big enough piece, sometimes we’re the only piece! We are representing them so they should be representing us on their websites and not competing.

    1.) A modified Malcolm X–by (almost) any means necessary. We need to force ourselves into the conversations and stay put. We cannot let our size, location, perceived lack of clout stop us from engaging.
    2.) be more agressive about chomping on the leg of injustice
    3.) we need to not lose our senses of humor….nothing worse than weepy, cranky, booksellers………………..

  • Andrew Malkin

    1) I agree that trade paperback first should be utilized more often but also houses should do more works for hire as opposed to paying enormous advances on risky titles. Too many books–houses should focus on particular categories and punch their own weight. I have seen too many houses not buy sensibly for their pipeline and have too many books in one category, all of which are midlist with no platform. How can you support those with miniscule marketing $? You ultimately want a robust backlist to amortize your investment right? Look at Workman’s model (of course with wonderful nontraditional/spec sales inroads). I have also seen houses that needed to fill a pipeline quickly and couldn’t find much that was high quality or fit their list so they would be forced to pay up for anything that was decent (even if not stupendous and must-have).
    2) Don’t count on publicity only to sell books and find more innovative ways to market books. I also agree that a full-court press and then nothing is not a wise strategy but more publishers need to stick with a book and have a long-term view if possible.
    3) Not everyone will agree with this but bring in outsiders from other industries. If you look at eBay, Yahoo or many other companies, their cultures change (often for the worse) but they bring in broader talent from consulting, packaged goods, etc and the companies mature, grow in new directions and hopefully become stronger and poised for the future.
    Of course, I have seen ex-McKinsey types come into the industry and find the biz too idiosyncratic or just not fit in…
    Do we really have the right people in the right jobs? Hard personnel decisions to make but with the business contracting, maybe the bench should be questioned too. This industry has a bad rep too for not cultivating talent and losing many promising folks well before they hit their stride.

    I think the best indie booksellers have gotten smarter each year and continue to band together and share best practices, Also, the Winter Institute from the ABA is a great initiative.

  • Carl Lennertz

    My head is spinning, in a mostly good way, due to this good debate. Lots I want to jump in on, but I’m going to go one topic at a time. For now: Too many books being published? I would argue that we can never have too many (save the hangnail inflicted memoirs). Who wants to be the one to say no to the next Toni Morrison or Michael Chabon? The bestseller list is loaded with brand names who started small and built a following. You know the stories about James Patterson’s rejection letters? (And where would the book biz be right now w/o him and Stephanie Meyer?) About Grisham’s first visit to those 5 indies? Richard Russo’s readings to 1,2, 5 people for Mohawk, his tremendous first novel. And the list is full of debut books – fiction and non – that started small and have taken off, due to word-of-mouth and, yes,that dirty word, marketing. (Another time for that.) And it’s not as if the floodgates are open; editors say no to 100+ books to every one they acquire. (It really sucks to tell a Vietnam vet that his story isn’t ‘big’ enough.) And self-publishing? Thank goodness people want to write their memoir or great novel, because they are also likely big readers. Let’s be thankful books are still part of the debate, part of the society, available in libraries and bookstores everywhere.

  • Drew Goodman

    1. Too many bad books. Carl said that there can’t be too many books published- and I would agree to a point. The problem is that when as booksellers and readers we pick up an ARC and put it down after the first 10, 20 or 50 pages because the writing is terrible, there is a problem. When this happens over and over, there is a big problem. I understand that we don’t want to miss the next great author, but can’t you see the difference between Chabon and real dreck before it gets returned by the bookstores?

    2. The insistence that books must be published in hardcover before going to paper. Is this to ensure that you can pay an author a higher advance, or to make sure that the publisher gets more return in the beginning? Find good books (see #1 above), then place them at a price point that will move lots of copies (trade paper). If you are going to insist that hardcover be available, print a smaller run of hardcovers simultaneously along with the trade paper for those who want hardcover.

    3. Quit sending us 19th century promotion materials. I don’t want a poster or counter stand. Bookmarks? Don’t need them. I want to blog, use Facebook, send email newsletter campaigns, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Give me the stuff I want and can use to promote the author and their book. Give me video I can embed, author photos and bookjackets so I can make my own posters and website ads, interviews with authors I can put on my blog, if you don’t want to send authors, then give me live Web visits. I am 21st in my approach- you should be too.

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  • tone Blevins


    not listening to customers. they speak by what, when and how many they buy. it is not for the booksller to tell customers what they should buy; they know what they like. it;s our job to give them what they want.

    not using proven business models. books are merchandise, like rivets or soda. ignoring what works for a hardware or grocery store is nonsence.

    not paying enough attention to the visual element in bookselling. ie. book jackets; displays, eye-catching features. (publishers pay a lot of money for book jackets which are seldom seen in most shops)

  • Pingback: Books Are People, Too » “Top 3 Stupid Things Publishers Do”

  • Rap Music

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  • Denise Waddington

    The Harperstudio Guide to being a smart publisher and bookseller! These comments are all spot-on. Great initiative.

  • Carl Lennertz

    3 things publishers need to understand about booksellers:
    1 – They are on their feet much of the day; it is a physically demanding job. And they do email at the beginning or end of the day, time and energy allowing, and sometimes, the big picture is something that will have to wait.
    2 – Their life savings are tied up in the store. Second mortgages, their kids’ college, retirement. Tout. That’s why it can get emotional, and why their stress is high.
    3 – We do seem big, far away and uncaring, and we have to do all we can every day to close that gap.

    3 things booksellers need to understand about publishers:
    1 – We are eager and anxious to hear about our books, and we LOVE emails from booksellers who like our books. We never forget who sent in a blurb …. ever.
    2 – We see Indie Next as the essential measuring tool of your power, from the nat’l and reg’l bestseller lists to displays of Indie Next picks. We don’t understand why you don’t display all 20 picks prominently. We make a direct connection from Indie Next displays to your importance in the eyes of authors, agents, and everyone in publishing.
    1 – We do seem far away, and big, but we are people, too, working like you to sell books, and paying bills and raising families, and we see you as partners and friends. That’s why # 1 and #2 above, or the lack thereof, concern us.

  • Emily Pullen @ Skylight Books

    Fabulous discussion — thanks to contributors on both sides!
    From the perspective of a frontline bookseller (at Skylight Books in Los Angeles):

    3 (+1) things for publishers:

    1. Consider more paperback originals (but with national promos, reviews, etc.) and innovative options like Bolano’s 2666 hc/pb simultaneous release from FSG.

    2. Revamp marketing materials. Don’t send multiple galleys to bookstores unless requested, we don’t need posters and bookmarks, and most indie bookstores don’t have space for clunky cardboard displays.

    3. Capitalize on visual production of book. NO DICUT COVERS: they arrive damaged, tear in the store, and don’t look better than standard covers. It is difficult to sell a book with a poorly designed cover, no matter how great it is. In our “Economy of Attention,” the biggest challenge is getting someone (bookseller or customer) to pick up your book.

    +1. Hold a certain (if small) percentage of hot reprint titles for independent booksellers. There is little that is more frustrating than telling a customer that a book is reprinting and we don’t know when we’ll be able to get it. Having to wait 2-4 weeks does NOT stimulate demand, and giving the whole reprint run to Walmart/Costco/B&N may not be the most beneficial way to get books to readers.

    3 things for booksellers:

    1. Technology is your friend. As filmmaker Alex Beckstead said at WI4, you can’t just occupy your allotted space online, you have to claim it and make sure your customers know you’re there.

    2. Business-to-business connections are crucial, and publisher publicity people can work with independent booksellers to make this happen on author tour stops that aren’t in bookstores.

    3. Be sure to identify and support emerging leaders in our stores — people with ideas who will be the future of our industry. Provide tools to channel passion and to address practical needs of pursuing a career in bookselling.

  • Mike in MN

    IMO, publishers can do one basic, fundamental thing better: produce books that don’t suck. I realize that everyone’s tastes differ, but stop coddling authors once they – and you! – have produced a reasonably successful title! Treat every title, regardless of who it’s from or what it’s about, like a first novel; you’re shooting yourselves – you’re shooting *everyone* – in the foot by allowing an endless series of second, third, and subsequent books out the door by authors who can, and have, done better. If it’s not economically practical to more thoroughly edit every book you print, then it’s time to cull the herd – surely it’s better to offer fifty good or great books a quarter, rather than ten good or great books and eighty that are appalling?

    Also, particularly for genre and specialty publishers, leverage your authors’ backlists! I’m continually amazed how many publishers promote the hell out of “the nineteenth so-and-so mystery” when books one through twelve in the series are out of print. (Heck, in SF I keep running across the third books in trilogies where the first is already OOP. WTF?) Four words: trade paperback omnibus editions.

    On a related thought, if you’re trying to hook the younger generations on reading, look long and hard at reprinting OOP bestsellers from before today’s college kids were born. Hell, even if it has aged badly or kind of sucks, a “thirtieth anniversary edition of the NYT-bestselling classic” probably has more going for it than a lot of what gets published – and instantly forgotten about – these days…

  • Bob Miller

    In response to Wendy Hudson’s comment above about booksellers getting into the digital format business: I’m pinning my hopes on Symtio, a division of Newscorp (a corporate sibling) that has already started working with booksellers in the CBA market to sell cards in stores that activate e-book and/or audiobook downloads for various titles. Symtio is currently talking to the ABA and all the other major booksellers, and I think that the bookselling community should run, not walk, to get this system up and running in all stores asap. This would put digital formats into bookstores where readers are, and also put booksellers into the digital business. I think that these cards should be available for all titles, and I’m also interested in seeing the codes on the books themselves (so that a customer can buy the digital formats at the same time as they buy the book in a bookstore, if they so choose).

  • Hoss

    And if I might, add just one short comment. I have no where near the experience that has spoken in these posts; I offer this only as a humble observation. I would like both publishers and booksellers to allow the book itself to evolve and change, and then to support those new forms. I feel there is a stubbornness to what a book can and can’t be that makes us all cling to traditional ways of book publishing and selling, insisting at times that if it was good enough for my daddy, then it’s good enough for you. It’s almost as if we fear that the concept of the word on page is too frail in today’s age to allow it to switch from using a horse to using a car.

    There will always be room for the traditional form of the book, but I have come to believe that the book can become so much more. I see a time where I’m reading a chapter on the beach using the method of ink on paper, and then with the light of day fading, I move back to my bedroom and decide to experience the rest of the chapter with images and sounds.

    All these posts seem to point to a lack of movement in the face of change. And maybe the change has to start with letting ‘the book’ run free. Just a thought.

  • Debbie

    I agree 100% and am attempting to move this forward a little bit ever day. If you know of any really creative ebook developers, please have them contact me. I’m on the hunt!

  • Hoss

    Hi Debbie;

    Ah well…

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    There will always be room for the traditional form of the book, but I have come to believe that the book can become so much more. I see a time where I’m reading a chapter on the beach using the method of ink on paper, and then with the light of day fading, I move back to my bedroom and decide to experience the rest of the chapter with images and sounds.

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  • Athena Hilton

    I so like this, 100% agree on this article. I'am glad cause i've given the opportunity to read and absorb the lesson.  One of the keys to helping your customers buy is creating an
    positive customer buying experience.  I recently read an interesting post
    by Codebaby about “Your Competitive Advantage Is Your Customers Buying
    Experience” (… 
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