In fall 2015, Third Place Books managing partner Robert Sindelar was looking to open a third location in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood. As he prepared his opening inventory orders, he reached out to large publishers asking what he believed to be a straightforward question: “What are your current opening order specials?”
Every publisher replied with the same answer: “We don’t have any.”
“It blew my mind,” Sindelar said, and he set out to make some changes. Four years later, as president of the board of the American Booksellers Association, he has ensured that every major publishing house has something to offer new stores. With independent bookstores opening at a steady rate nationwide and a number of prominent stores expanding to open second, third, and fourth locations, Sindelar and others say that progress is necessary and that publishers may need to go even further.
Opening order terms were once relatively common, but the 2008 financial collapse contributed to their disappearance. By the time Sindelar was planning the Seward Park opening, none remained. With support from the ABA, he initiated conversations with publishers to explain bookstore finances and to emphasize how opening terms can make or break new stores.
“It’s valuable for a store to have opening terms, because they don’t have a set customer base yet, so they don’t know what they’re going to need to replenish,” said Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, ABA’s senior program officer. “Reordering early on and figuring out who your customer is, and making sure you can be responsive, is critical to your success.”
In response to the ABA’s outreach, the country’s five largest publishers have introduced a range of new terms on opening orders. Though those terms are subject to approval on a case-by-case basis, they are on offer for new bookstores to apply.
HarperCollins introduced its new-bookstore program in 2016, in direct response to the growth of the independent bookstore market and outreach from booksellers. “Not too long ago, there was much concern that once the current generation of booksellers decided to retire, their stores would close,” said Mary Beth Thomas, v-p, deputy director of sales at Harper-
Collins. “Thankfully, that is not happening. There is an intense renewed interest among the next generation to open and manage bricks-and-mortar bookstores. We hope our policy helps this trend. There is definitely opportunity for more bookstores in America.”
Politics and Prose co-owner Bradley Graham points to HarperCollins as a leader among publishers in finding new ways to support the independent bookstore market, but he said that, industrywide, the existing new bookstore terms don’t go far enough.
Graham has opened two new stores in Washington, D.C., in the past two years and said that publishers are “missing out on what could be a profitable opportunity for them.” He argued that the presence of more independent bookstores gives publishers an increased marketing and sales footprint that they should not pass up, but that a new store requires support beyond its initial order.
“It takes several years for a new store to truly get established,” Graham said. “This varies widely from neighborhood to neighborhood, but the idea that more generous terms that only apply to the first orders or at most run six months—the idea that those kinds of terms are sufficient—is not realistic.”
Graham said that at a minimum, terms need to rise to 10 percentage points above regular discounts of 46% across the board. “We’re getting into game-changing territory when we talk about 10. We’re not talking about game-changing territory when you’re talking about two or three or four points.”
Overall, Graham would like to see an “incubation strategy” from publishers, focused on supporting stores over the course of their opening. He said that if publishers embrace such a strategy, more bookstores will open, which is better for booksellers and publishers alike.
Sindelar agreed that support is needed, citing an unnamed publisher that offers discounts over the first two months a store is open. “I thought that was really smart,” he said, noting that it’s beneficial in part because often new bookstores open in areas where customers are unaccustomed to having local independent stores and may have been shopping online for some time. “The customers who love physical bookstores and want physical bookstores—it’s going to take time to get those customers used to it again. You need a certain amount of selection to send the message to your customers that when they need a book, they should come here.”
For HarperCollins’s Thomas, that kind of feedback is welcome news, guiding the relationship between the publisher, bookstores, and readers. “Publishers benefit from having more places to sell our books, and the indies are extremely good at helping us get buzz going and spreading the word to their communities about what to read,” she said. “Independent bookstores have a vital role in the life of their communities and in promoting a diversity of ideas—something we all benefit from.”