Most books industry experts agree that the publisher-bookseller model needs fixing. The only question is, how? Up until now most of the dialogue has focused on selling nonreturnable. “It doesn't seem healthy to get 40% returns,” says HarperStudio president and publisher Bob Miller, a vocal advocate for nonreturnable. Not everyone is buying. And, in fact, HarperStudio ended up offering retailers a choice, because both the largest and smallest accounts were uncomfortable with the change. However, a potentially more viable option for getting books into the marketplace and lowering returns is starting to gain traction: consignment.
In December 2008, high-end art book publisher Assouline began testing the consignment bookselling waters at two bookstores in South Florida. In partnership with Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan, director Ausbert de Arce installed “book corners,” or branded Shops-in-Shops boutiques, devoted to Assouline titles in Kaplan's Coral Gables and Miami Beach stores. One year later, Kaplan says that sales of Assouline titles increased so much, roughly 20 times, that when he moved his store in Bal Harbour to a larger space last month, he added a third Assouline corner.
“Publishers are looking for new ways of doing business,” says Kaplan, who first began looking into consignment after a trip to Argentina, where bookstores routinely sell new books that way. “Everybody has a computer system. You do a scan and pay at the end of the month on what you've sold,” says Kaplan. “Assouline has worked beautifully, because it's truly what the bookseller/publisher relationship should be, a partnership.”
De Arce agrees that consignment could be the paradigm shift publishing needs. “A partnership is more dynamic and creative,” says de Arce, adding that it also minimizes the risk for both publisher and retailer. “For me, it's much more personally satisfying. After I make the choice of titles, I sit down with Mitch and make sure he knows what I'm doing.”
That's not to say that consignment isn't without challenges. In Assouline's case, one involves creating a consistent look for the brand to be displayed, since that's key to increasing sales. In broad terms, in a consignment model, booksellers still receive some discount, plus the right of return, though returns would be for no credit.
Some publishers argue that by accepting payment over 30 or 60 days they already sell books on consignment; booksellers disagree. As Praveen Madan, co-owner of the Booksmith in San Francisco points out, “In most cases publishers get paid before we get paid. A good bookstore turns inventory four times a year, which means on average it takes three months to sell a book. Most bookstores have one or two turns. It really is not pure consignment.”
Madan's not ready to dedicate a part of his store to a large brand like Random House, but, he says, it makes sense for small publishers in niche categories. “I'm open to it,” he says, “because a lot of times, these are books that get lost in the noise and don't have as many resources.” One of the few categories that he and most booksellers stock is books from self-publishers. Although it's only 2% of his business, it's growing enough that he's considering making a separate section to display some of the store's self-published gems, such as books on Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love.
Like Madan, Jon Platt, co-owner of Nonesuch Books & Cards in Saco and South Portland, Maine, wants more than net 30 or 60, especially for backlist. He would be happy with a hybrid model, where the terms of payment would match the velocity of sales. “A good backlist title might sell every four or six months,” Platt says. “We need time to have the books in the store to sell.” He praises Sterling's backlist program that enables him to order 100 books or more twice a year and pay December 1. “The first year,” he says, “I bought $2,000 or $3,000 per store and my Sterling sales jumped 30%. What Sterling is doing is a partnership. They're investing in us, and we're investing in them and reordering.”
Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., agrees that 30 days doesn't work for backlist, much less many frontlist titles. “As it is now,” she says, “it doesn't give the books a chance to get legs or for the store to market them.” Although she acknowledges that there are still big questions to be answered regarding the intersection of cost and profit for both booksellers and publishers, she comes back to the reason that consignment is so intriguing: “Does it make any sense for books to sit in publishers' warehouses when they could be sitting on a bookstore's shelves on consignment?”