PubTech Connect’s Tuesday morning panel, Retail and Beyond: How to Sell Books in 2021 featured indie bookseller Hannah Oliver Depp, the owner of Loyalty Bookstores in Washington, D.C. and Bethesda, Md.; Uli Beutter Cohen, creator and editor, Subway Book Review; Jackie De Leo, v-p, general merchandise manager, Barnes & Noble; and Andy Hunter, the CEO of Bookshop.org discussing—often with brutal honesty—what the industry needs to do to become more sustainable, not just in the short-term, but also after the current pandemic subsides. The half-day Pub Tech program was cohosted by PW and NYU School of Professional Studies Center for Publishing and was held virtually on November 17, t
The program was moderated by PW’s Ed Nawotka who introduced the panel by pointing to the difficulties bricks-and-mortar booksellers have experienced these past nine months with sales declines ranging from 20% to 80%, with several legendary bookstores asking their customers for support and and many others setting up fundraising campaigns. “There’s a sense not only of urgency, but of desperation,” Nawotka added, noting that the American Booksellers Association has stated that “unless something radical happens,” 20% of all bricks-and-mortar bookstores will close their doors within the year.
Depp pointed out that part of the problem lies with publishers who pitch books to stores assuming that “everyone is the same kind of reader, or there is one kind of YA reader or one kind of mystery reader, etc.” Depp’s assertion was confirmed in Cohen’s experience. Noting that she has been documenting her observations of what people are reading for the past six years, Cohen maintained that publishers don’t always comprehend the “multidimensional, intersectional human being who isn’t just reading bestsellers, but is looking to books to inform their point of view on the world.”
De Leo noted that B&N, which operates 627 bookstores around the country, with its headquarters in New York City, is paying more attention to regional preferences to build sales. “We spent this year trying to concentrate on the fact that our bestsellers are different in every single one of our stores,” she said. With the hiring of 130 new regional buyers, the home office, she added, is taking regional recommendations more into account. “That ground surge from booksellers in the community has, hopefully, started that change” in sales, she said, noting that B&N has begun stocking books that may have been passed over in the past..
Maintaining the Industry's Ecosystem
Hunter, a publisher and founder of Bookshop.org, argued that some publishers don’t understand “how everything fits together” in the publishing eco-system. Hunter noted that the Big Five especially are spending marketing dollars with Amazon Marketing Services, Facebook, and Twitter that used to go to pay for advertising in magazines, newspapers, and blogs, “all these grassroots supporters of culture around books.” Publishers also want to sell directly to consumers, he pointed out, thus cutting bookstores out of the supply chain. “What does this do in the long run to the grassroots that they need if the grassroots doesn’t exist?” he asked, “That cultural conversation is going to ebb. You are going to have less conversation and advocacy, and without advocacy books are going to become less of an important part of our culture. And then sales are going to go down” in the long term.
“Publishers should be supporting independent bookstores,” he added, “And saying to every customer, support independent bookstores this holiday season when you buy books.” Hunter also insisted that publishers should provide bookstores with better terms and financial support, and do everything they can to help bookstores weather the current crisis and “to maintain the overall eco-system.”
Depp pointed out that, in order to succeed in today’s world, indie bookstores must have an online presence and engage in social media activity, especially with local book bloggers and their fans. "That is our local readership. We have incredible support from that community because we recognize that they are an integral part of our local base."
Cohen emphasized that, like the fashion industry does, publishers should observe “on the ground” human beings in order to more effectively forecast trends, rather than depend on algorithms. She said that she once proposed to the Big Five publishers that she would watch readers in New York City and prepare a report for each, forecasting trends. “The answer I got from all five was exactly the same,” she said, “’We wouldn’t know what to do with them.’ It was sad, it was incredibly upsetting, it was absurd.”
A Time for Reinvention
Depp agreed, saying that “we do everything backwards in this industry.” She pointed out that the run on books relating to race and racism following George Floyd’s death caught publishers by surprise when it should not have, if they were paying attention. “That cost us all a lot of money this summer when we did not have books ready to meet the moment of Black Lives Matter,” she said, “If you had talked to a Black bookseller over the past three years, we could have told you it was like a freight train.”
She added that “the whole industry was whiplashed by this” over the summer because publishers had not listened to Black booksellers predicting that such books would trend and repeatedly telling publishers that they should up their print runs.
De Leo noted that B&N stores are replenishing stock daily, based on sales and in anticipation of trends. “We’re trying to make a system to give them what [B&N bookstores] need so that they don’t need to ‘hoard’ the books. It’s finding a trend, getting ahead of it, and convincing the publisher that they should print to it, bringing it into our distribution centers so that it’s ready for the stores to bring in at the quantity that they think works for their local community.”
Looking to 2021, Depp’s “number one goal” is to be more transparent with her staff as well as with customers, publishers, and visiting authors. “We’re going to be as honest as possible about what we need, We’re going to be as honest as possible about how we’re going to do it, and we’re going to be as honest as possible about why that matters. The number one thing I am focusing on to be financially successful is to tell people why the bookstore matters. That’s always been the case. But we’re going to deal with numbers. There is a time for radical honesty. Now is the time. Now is the time for us to reinvent things.”