Now that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has set new sales records and readers are racing to finish it, the fan in me hopes that the seventh installment in the series arrives soon, while the bookseller in me prays J.K. Rowling takes her time.
Why the dread? It comes from the expectation, cultivated by Scholastic, book reviewers, entertainment reporters and a few customers who walk in off the street, that independent retailers will sell the books for 40% off, incur the expense of hosting a midnight party and be satisfied with modest sales.
As a children's-only retailer with 25 years of experience, I find that little about the marketing and sale of recent Harry Potter titles makes good business sense. But even though my numbers pale next to Wal-Mart's, and my less-is-more marketing approach has been called "Bah, humbug" by some reporters, I've found a way to give the book good exposure, create a pleasant retail experience and still make money.
As is the case for many independent booksellers, my initial orders on Harry Potter books have been reduced to half of what I sold on the first four books, and reorders have dwindled to a fraction of what they were, now that the new novel is available at steep discounts at more than 20 locations within a five-mile radius, not to mention online sources. So we began by offering to put copies on "hold" at a 20% discount for our regular customers, without requiring pre-payment, when the release date was first announced. All reserved books were purchased within two weeks of publication, the period within which we extended the discount.
But unlike most children's independents, I did not host a midnight party on July 16. It wouldn't have made sense at my store, where most of the books were earmarked for readers under the age of 10. As it happened, we had very few inquiries about party plans. Many parents were relieved that my staff wasn't working their children into a frenzy. To those who asked about a party, I explained that we would open at 8 a.m. with juice and doughnuts on hand, and eagerly await their child's response to the book. We were delighted when one mother, who had ridden her bike down to pick up the book when the store opened, returned at 12:30 p.m. with her daughter, who announced that she was on page 230 and loving it.
Another reason for not throwing a party is that I just don't buy the idea that 80% of the book's sales must be collapsed into a 48-hour period. It leaves consumers with the idea that demand will outstrip supply and stores will be caught short when, in fact, Scholastic worked closely with HarperCollins on the distribution, to insure that stores had inventory on time. It also manipulates the young consumer, transforming what should be a satisfying book-buying experience for the whole family into a very stressful one. "You mean I can pick it up anytime next week?" parents frequently responded when we reassured them that we had plenty of books and would continue to hold their copy.
Finally, I refuse to give up all of my profit to sell this book, when Rowling gets all of her royalties, Scholastic makes all of its share, and the wholesalers get their piece. Why should the retailer give it away, for a few minutes of local news coverage or a few dollars in co-op money from the publisher? I refuse to lay out big bucks for a party only to hear the sucking sound of sales going to grocery stores, chains and price clubs.
Though I'm fully aware of the concept of a loss leader, as an independent retailer, I can't forget that the difference between profit and loss is a mere 3%—4% of the book's retail price. We have done a disservice to many wonderful books by implying that the only way to have great sales numbers is to give them away.
I truly enjoy seeing the excitement with which each new Harry Potter book is welcomed, but I don't see the point of adding to the mania about getting it fast and cheap. Plenty of book buyers are better served by keeping the focus where it belongs: on the pleasure of reading.
Sally Oddi is the owner of Cover to Cover Bookstore, a children's-only store in Columbus, Ohio.