Over the past five years several bargain book wholesalers have closed their doors, along with one of their largest customers: Borders. “It seems odd,” said Brad Jonas, cofounder of the Chicago International Remainder and Overstock Book Exposition (which runs October 29–November 1) and managing co-owner of Powell’s Bookstores, Chicago. “There are fewer players [today] but the total health [of the industry] is good. We see fewer bodies, but our sales have been sustained if not improved.” Jonas noted that all bargain firms now dabble in selling directly to consumers. But no one, arguably, has integrated traditional bargain book wholesaling with a direct-to-consumer operation as seamlessly, and with as coherent a voice, as 33-year-old Daedalus Books in Columbia, Md., the oldest independent bargain book wholesaler in the country. That integration has enabled it to grow amid a challenging economy for both wholesalers and retailers.
When Borders closed in 2011, Daedalus had a “great” year, according to senior v-p Helaine Harris, in part because indies picked up some of the bargain slack, but also because it already had a sizable consumer base. “Both sides [of our business] are really healthy,” said Harris, adding that direct-to-consumer is the company’s fastest-growing segment and represents 65% of sales. In 2012, Daedalus’s consumer division shipped out close to a half million orders. “Consumers are looking for independent places to buy good books,” Harris said. Sidelines are also growing. Last year, Daedalus began producing its own journals, watches, reading glasses, and greeting cards.
Despite industry speculation a decade ago that books would disappear from the bargain pipeline or be harder to come by because of the rise of e-books and just-in-time inventory, that hasn’t been the case. Daedalus has been helped by the ready availability of its kind of books—midlist titles in history, literary fiction, spirituality, and memoir. The company’s annual survey shows that although its customers own iPads and e-readers, they prefer print and are avid readers. They discover many of Daedalus’s titles through its extensive mail-order program: the company mails out nine million catalogues per year, a number expected to increase in 2014.
In 2013, Daedalus will have mailed 13 general book catalogues, which include CDs, DVDs, and some other nonbook products; two music catalogues; four DVD catalogues; and two children’s book catalogues. Although it also has a 10,000 sq. ft. warehouse store, the bulk of its consumer sales are driven by its catalogues. But Daedalus’s mail-order operation doesn’t come cheap. The staff of 150 writes blurbs for and takes photos of every book and item catalogued, so that the entries are consistent and have the same Daedalus tone.
Although Daedalus’s outreach to consumers is working, Harris is concerned about the fact that the majority of its customers are 55 and up. To reach younger readers, Daedalus introduced a series of online forums this year, starting with one on Downton Abbey in January; followed by “Healthy Brain–Healthy Life” this summer; and “Hidden in Plain Sight,” on espionage, which will be up through November. The forums, which attempt to create online communities around certain topics and feature discussion groups, news, and videos, allow the company to promote a wide swath of backlist, new titles, and British imports. A fourth forum will run sometime during the first quarter of next year, after which Daedalus will evaluate the program and decide whether or not to continue with further installments.