On the surface, there may seem to be little new about booksellers facing a credit crunch. But what has changed over the past six months is a further clamping down by publishers. Credit reps have started calling to demand check information days before payments are due. Booksellers like Susan Weis-Bohlen, owner of breathe books in Baltimore, who hasn’t missed a payment in seven years, but accidentally skipped an invoice for $248, are put on credit hold or threatened with it. And a New York bookseller who asked for another week to pay off an invoice for a couple hundred dollars was advised to pull returns. With publishers acting more aggressively plus a difficult first quarter along with a dip in frontlist hardcover sales attributable to e-books, credit has emerged as a serious concern for independent booksellers.
“It’s discouraging to meet with your sales rep and then get a call from the billing department. So it’s really affected our buying this year,” said Amy Thomas, owner of Pegasus Books with three stores in the Bay Area. Even with buying new books nonreturnable for discount, the drop-off in hardcover sales is having an impact at Pegasus. And inventory isn’t the only expense that has Thomas juggling publisher payments. Her health insurance recently went up 15%, and has gone from $49,000 in 2006 to $86,000 today. “Right now,” said Thomas, “we’re feeling so fatalistic—okay, put us on hold.”
Jon Platt, owner of Nonesuch Books & Cards in South Portland and Bidde-ford, Maine, regards some credit departments as beyond aggressive, including two of the big six, which he seldom buys from direct for that reason. “There are some companies that are abrupt, rude, and treat us like criminals,” said Platt. “Everybody wants to get paid faster. We’ve always pushed sidelines to 45. Some of them are worried. If Borders goes down, how can Jon Platt pay me?”
He would like to see publisher terms that reflect the fact that backlist may only turn three times a year. “Give me net 90 or net 120 on big orders,” said Platt, who is concerned about e-books eroding backlist sales, too. “We’ve cut back quantities on bestsellers because of e-books. I’ve dropped those numbers by 30% to 40%. This is the problem. Let’s say the new Ann Patchett is coming out. If customers are loading it up on their e-reader, there are not tons of other books in front of them. It’s losing the incremental sales.”
New stores are feeling a different kind of pinch. “We started off knowing we’d have very tight credit,” said Daniel Goldin, who opened Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee in April 2009. “We have one publisher where it’s been a tricky thing. They had faith in us to give us events, but we kept hitting our [credit] ceiling. And they’re not very accommodating at increasing it.” The publisher cut back Goldin’s stock shipments to make up the difference. Like Platt, Goldin would like to see terms extended. “With the rise of other formats, you need longer terms,” he said, noting he has skipped some titles that he would have ordered in the past. Still there are some books he can’t do without. “Titles that are selling in the region I have to have,” Goldin said. “I can’t run out of Bossypants or David Foster Wallace or Tiger’s Wife.”
For Chuck Robinson, co-owner of Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., extended billing helps a lot, but so has scan and pay, sometimes referred to as consignment [see Soapbox, p. 56]. “Scan and pay makes a big difference,” he said. “We’ve been able to triple our sales of Chelsea Green books by paying for books we’ve sold. It has cut down on returns as well. Books on store shelves beats books on warehouse shelves.” He, too, has noticed that credit has gotten a lot tighter, but not only from publishers. “Our bank has continued to work with us on our line of credit,” he said. “However, they want more frequent documentation of our financial situation.”
“You can’t have this huge shift in e-books and expect it’s going to work out fine,” observed Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., who has also had to reduce her frontlist hardcover orders. Although her ticket is stable—customers are spending the same amount of money or more—transactions are down. Like many booksellers, Coady is sympathetic to publishers’ plight. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve been in business 21 years and pay my bills. They can’t distinguish between me and Joseph-Beth,” she said. “There’s got to be another way to think about it. We cannot stay deeply invested in inventory in these choppy waters. We need some kind of scan and pay or some kind of dating that allows us to pay our bills.”
As Platt pointed out, “With good sales, credit problems go away. Let us put some good stock in our stores and support us.” And please wait to call until after the payment is due.