Going from paper to electronic catalogues has become one of the biggest upheavals in the way independent bookstores buy, on a par with cutbacks in field sales reps. “I don’t think our choice is between paper and electronic catalogues,” says Carole Horne, general manager of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., who views digital catalogues as a given. “Frankly, I like electronic catalogues. They save me time, and they save paper.” More importantly, they save publishers on printing and mailing costs.
Since HarperCollins first took the plunge in 2009 to go all digital, other publishers have followed suit, with Random House the latest of the big six houses to announce that it will be all digital by summer 2012. Still, even though Edelweiss founder John Rubin estimates that as many as 1,200 imprints are using his product to get digital catalogues into the hands of booksellers—the latest being Greenleaf Book Group and Minted Prose—a number of book buyers aren’t ready to make the switch. And even those who have harbor some reservations.
Darielle Linehan, who put the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore up for sale in August so that she can retire at year’s end, says that Edelweiss is for the next owner. Other longtime bookstore owners, like Peter Glassman of Books of Wonder in New York City, refuse to go digital. “If you looked at my catalogues, you’d see they have copious notes and flags in different colors, and my buyer will put in notes. My business is buying and selling printed material. Their business is providing information on paper, and they tell me they won’t give me a paper catalogue? It’s emblematic of publishers’ thinking what’s good for them, and not any thought of the long-term repercussions. It’s very frustrating.” However, he has found a work-around. Harper and Simon & Schuster send him printouts of their digital catalogues. The only drawback is that they occasionally cut off the information at the bottom of the page.
“I’m an old guy,” says buyer Paul Ingram at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa, who turned 65 last month. “I grew up with [paper] catalogues. It’s something that’s not broke, so why fix it? For me, buying is about having a conversation with the publisher’s rep. You have this relationship, and if anything goes wrong, the rep will remember and deal with it.” Ingram’s other complaint is that it takes time to order from digital catalogues and ties up one of the store’s three computers.
Nor is Kenny Sarfin, who has been in the business for half a century and owns Books & Greetings in Northvale, N.J., a fan of e-catalogues. “I find so many things in our industry discouraging. Publishers are all trying to cut costs. Random House put us on telephone sales; we used to see three reps—two for adult books and one for children’s. If you want the little guy to survive, you have to give a little bit. I prefer paper catalogues to a screen. The interaction with a rep over a catalogue is so important.” Then there are booksellers like Mary Emerick at Turning Pages Books and More in Natchez, Miss., and Liz Murphy of Learned Owl in Hudson, Ohio, who miss going over paper catalogues at home. “I’m not going to sit in my den with a computer on my lap,” says Emerick.
However, many newer and seasoned booksellers are glad that publishers have gone digital, especially now that both Edelweiss and S&S, which has its own digital ordering system, have begun addressing complaints that it’s hard to tell which titles are important. Reps can add notes and comparable books to help booksellers decide what to order. Even better, booksellers who use Above the Treeline can look up sales of comp books without additional key strokes.
“I like digital catalogues because they streamline our marketing and p.o. process. Yesterday I entered a p.o. for Random House that would have taken four hours to enter by hand. It took me five minutes,” says Arsen Kashkashian, head buyer at Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Colo. Both Edelweiss and S&S enable him to automatically download purchase orders. Marketing is faster, too, because instead of the marketing manager having to spend an hour with him and the sales rep taking notes on 30 to 40 titles, she can download a list of titles that Kashkashian has tagged for promotion directly to an Excel spreadsheet.
Although illustrated books can still be problematic, Sarah Hutton, children’s book buyer at Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., notes that reps continue to bring f&gs so that she can see the books up close. “I really like digital catalogues,” says Hutton. “They’re more current and have the correct information in them. It’s also great that they make data entry so much easier and faster. With paper catalogues, it used to take me two hours to do the data entry on my Scholastic order. Now it takes about 20 minutes. Digital catalogues free up my time with the reps to focus more on marketing ideas and display options.”
Pro or con, as Emerick of Turning Pages notes, “I know it’s something I’m going to have to accept or else change businesses.”