Anyone who has been in the book business for more than two weeks knows that the Christmas selling season is absolutely crucial to a retail store’s success. Most bookstores do three or four times the business in December compared with any other single month of the year. It’s not even close.
Anyone who has been in a bookstore for more than five minutes, or who has any common sense, also knows that you have to have books on the shelves in order to sell them. And any sentient being with a consciousness above that of a meatloaf must also realize that if you don’t ship books to bookstores at Christmas, they can’t sell them for you. You might as well just sign over the mortgage to Amazon and be done with it.
Why, then, do some publishers allow draconian credit policies to overrule common sense by tightening the credit noose on stores at the worst possible time of year? Some of our publishing colleagues seem to have forgotten the necessity of having actual books available for actual live customers. In all the giddy rapture about digital content, publishers seem to ignore the fact that three-quarters of all the books sold this season will still be the old-fashioned kind, the kind people have been buying for centuries, the physical objects printed on paper. Yet credit terms have never been tighter, constricting the flow of merchandise, causing sales to be lost.
Punitive credit policies can have a direct effect on holiday sales. By imposing tougher credit limits and enforcing stricter payment terms, publishers can virtually guarantee that many books will never sit on a bookshelf or sales table during the busiest book-buying season of the year. Publishers themselves increase their output in the fall, yet often fail to increase credit limits that would allow retailers to carry all of these new releases. The result is often massive returns, as booksellers must choose between keeping titles they know they can sell at Christmas or risk being put “on hold” and not getting the newest books for the fall.
In better times, publishers and booksellers worked together, in partnership, to promote authors, to increase sales, and to expand the book business as a whole. In those halcyon days, every publisher offered extended holiday terms, like “Christmas dating,” a tacit acknowledgment that it was in everyone’s interest to get more books into more customers’ hands, especially during the critical shopping season. American shoppers are accustomed to immediate gratification. If a book they want to buy for a gift isn’t in the store when they want it, they will very likely spend their money on a pair of slippers instead.
Publishers have their own problems, to be sure, but putting the squeeze on retail bookstores is unlikely to solve many of them. Booksellers are the unsung foot soldiers of a complex distribution system, which, after all, was invented by publishers, decades ago, and hasn’t improved much over the years. But that distribution system, however antiquated, is not going to go away overnight. And it may not be quite as broken as some people think. There will always be a need for places where customers can browse, shop, and leaf through a real book. And that means shipping more books into stores, especially during the busiest season, so that they can be seen and purchased as gifts by mighty throngs of holiday shoppers.
Bookstores still need books. And publishers still need bookstores. This Christmas shopping season, for the sake of the industry, the Credit Grinch needs to take a holiday.
David Didriksen has been a retail bookseller for 35 years. He held executive positions with a number of regional chains, including Lauriat’s, Paperback Booksmith, and Kroch’s and Brentano’s. As senior vice president for Hudson News, he ran the Book Corner chain and opened Hudson’s first airport bookstores. Currently, he is the owner of Willow Books & Cafe, one of the largest independent bookstores in the northeast, located in Acton, Mass. This month marks the 15th anniversary of Willow Books & Cafe.