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March 27, 2018 by Mike Shatzkin Originally appeared on The Shatzkin Files blog

Publishing and digital change consultant Bill Rosenblatt — always worth paying attention to — pointed his contacts last week to a podcast from NPR celebrating the current renaissance of independent bookstores. The history reported as part of what was really the celebration of very recent events is useful to ponder, even if it was sometimes a bit confused about the timing of mall stores and superstores and their impact on indies. But its memory wasn’t long enough to recall a critical development that is essential to understanding book retailing over the past half-century and what makes it possible to be a successful retailer of books today. And it elides the fact that indie bookstores have risen before, several decades ago.

The story the NPR report didn’t tell contains the kernal of a totally underappreciated fact of the book business. The first serious harnessing of the power of modern computing to improve the book supply ecosystem was by Ingram in the early 1970s. Ingram’s innovations over the past two decades, in what could be called the Amazon era, are critical elements of the modern book business infrastructure. Lightning’s print-on-demand capability and “third party fulfillment”, by which Ingram can turn any entity with a web address into an Internet bookseller, are the industry’s counterbalance to Amazon’s growth.

But the podcast, which focused on the recent rise of independent bookstores, would have benefited from an acknowledgment of the innovation by which Ingram dramatically changed book retailing nearly 50 years ago.

The central challenge of book retailing has always been to use the store’s limited shelf space and inventory investment dollars to have the best possible selection of books in the store. Before Ingram’s seminal innovation, publishers and retailers had a many-to-many supply chain with hundreds of publishers selling to thousands of stores. Wholesaling — stocking a warehouse that could provide books from many publishers — faced the same challenge. Wholesalers in those days were predominantly “local” — many of them had added a few trade books to their magazine and mass-market paperback selections.

But magazines and paperbacks were “forced out” — stocking decisions were made by the wholesaler not the customer — and then, after a while, just the covers of the magazines or paperbacks needed to be returned for credit. Inventory management wasn’t really an issue for the magazines and mass-market paperbacks. Trade books were really a different business.

The trade books were worth more to the wholesaler, unit for unit. When a title took off, the wholesaler could order a big shipment from the publisher and it got orders for the book quickly from local accounts. That’s where the money in book wholesaling was in those days, pumping the bestsellers, not “backing up” a store’s need for an additional copy here or there across the range of possible titles.

The fact that wholesalers stocked very few titles didn’t stop stores from trying to order what they needed from them. The net result was unsatisfactory for everybody. Wholesalers couldn’t fill most of the orders they got. Stores found resupply of anything except bestsellers from the local wholesaler to be time-consuming and inefficient. And the net result was that it was very hard to for most stores to match inventory to demand.

And that was a big part of the reason that independent bookstores had trouble competing with the mall store chains as they built out. They couldn’t compete with a better or more responsive selection of books because the supply chain inefficiencies, which included the fact that there were hardly any in-store stock tracking mechanisms in those days before personal computers, made that an insuperable challenge.

And then Ingram changed everything.

Harry Hoffman, who had been at tech company Bell & Howell before he came on board to run Ingram Book Company, clearly had a more tech-oriented management style than most book businesses did at that time. He built an efficient internal computer system to track Ingram’s inventory holdings and sales. This included an Ingram-generated “SKU” number (these were the days before every book reliably carried its own unique ISBN number) which they also used internally to “code” orders. But the big challenge to profitable wholesaling — the requirement to process more orders from customers that they could not fill than orders that they could fill — was not solved by that internal efficiency.

One day Hoffman entertained a former Bell & Howell colleague who showed him their new microfiche reader technology. The microfiche enabled the delivery of data on a piece of film that could be read by a projecting reader. Enormous amounts of data could be put delivered quickly and inexpensively by microfiche, if only the recipient had the “reader” machine to look at it. Hoffman and his team quickly grasped the potential benefits if a store placed its orders to Ingram with advance knowledge of what was in stock and what was not.

They hit on a formula. If the stores would pay the “rental” cost of having the reader (about $10 a month), then Ingram would deliver its complete inventory record to the stores weekly, including both the titles being stocked and the Ingram inventory as of when the microfiche was cut. The benefit to the store was that there was a high likelihood that their order would be filled (except for some titles whose stock had been depleted during the week.) That made Ingram their wholesaler of choice.

And to Ingram, the benefits were even greater than the increased volume of business. They no longer were processing reams of orders they couldn’t fill. And, as a bonus, they were able to put their internal SKU numbers into the microfiche as well, which meant the stores were able to do Ingram’s “order coding” when they created their orders. That cut costs for Ingram and increased the speed of fulfillment.

(This aspect of things seemed small to most people, but not to me. In the summer of 1966, I had a job working for Random House. What I did was “code orders”. I got the orders from the stores and looked up the internal Random House code in a directory. That’s what every filler-of-book-orders, including every publisher and every wholesaler, had to do when they got hard-copy orders from their accounts. It was tedious and expensive work that Ingram eliminated for themselves!)

It was this innovation by Ingram that actually spawned the first big uptick in the number of large and successful independent bookstores. Before Ingram’s microfiche, Baker & Taylor was the only “national” wholesaler, but their bailiwick was libraries, not bookstores. Libraries would wait for the books and, indeed, B&T did not stock big quantities of bestsellers to fulfill bookstore demand. But after Ingram showed the way, B&T scrambled to catch up. Before long, they’d imitated Ingram’s microfiche, although somewhat less successfully because their core internal systems weren’t as good.

For the next twenty years, until the mid-1990s, successful book retailing increasingly depended on delivering “selection”: larger and larger title counts in the stores. Big selections were the signal to the consumer that they would find what they wanted. With increasingly sophisticated communication with Ingram and B&T, stores could get most high-demand books in a day or two if they weren’t in stock. The mall stores and smaller independents suffered because their smaller selections were less of a magnet to the book shopper.

Then Amazon changed everything again, becoming the first store that carried every book and would tell you exactly how long it would take for you to get it. Of course, they did that leaning primarily on Ingram’s inventory and reliable service to deliver. But that’s another story.

Today’s indies rely on wholesalers, primarily Ingram, without a second thought. You won’t find a bookstore today that doesn’t order from wholesalers daily and depend on them for most of its stock. Whatever stocking or community or events strategy any book retailer employs, it is made possible by the ready availability of whatever books are needed to be delivered within hours.

So what we are celebrating today is actually The Rise Of Independent Bookstores Redux. The first time indies grew in importance, starting more than four decades ago, the foundations were size and selection. This time the main pillars are community and creation. But both times there was one company without which the thriving community of indies could not have happened. And that company is Ingram.

Ingram has been a consulting client on and off for years and I’m still engaged with them. This particular tale has been worth telling before, most recently a bit over two years ago., once almost a decade ago in the early days of this blog and once more than two decades ago in a speech I gave when Amazon was barely a year old!

By Porter Anderson for Publishing Perspective April 24, 2018

International officials and media gather on World Book Day to open the 18th UNESCO World Book Capital in Athens, celebrating what Greece’s Prokopis Pavlopoulos calls ‘the powerful potential’ of books.

‘The Common Heritage of the World’

With quietly moving devotion, leaders of Greece, Guinea, the United Arab Emirates, UNESCO, and the International Publishers Association, have opened Athens’ year as World Book Capital.

On Monday evening, World Book Day (April 23), the magnificent Acropolis Museum was closed early so that Prokopis Pavlopoulos, president of Greece, could join George Kaminis, the mayor of Athens, in consecrating the country’s and the city’s unified intention to produce more than 240 events between now and this time next year—an international promotion of books and a nationwide engagement in reading.

The invited dignitaries, guests, and media members passed through security screenings into the eerily silent museum, with its patient treasures from the Parthenon and surrounding excavations. In this land of Homer, everyone smiled at the mayor’s first line: “The question is not why Athens has been chosen for this honor, but why it took so long for it to happen.”

Of course, “so long” has almost no meaning in the vast millennia of Greece’s history, luminous each night as the glassed top floor of the museum glows to life, answering the lit columns atop the Acropolis. The World Book Capital program’s concept is only some 22 years old, having been launched in 1996 at the suggestion of the International Publishers Association (IPA). In 2001, Madrid became the first city to call itself a World Book Capital.

And over the years, a symbolic handoff tradition has been growing in which each successive city passes the baton to the next, not unlike the ceremony seen annually at the Frankfurter Buchmesse, as one Guest of Honor country gives over to the next.

In Athens, Conakry’s chief of staff Moundjour Cherif was present, to hand off to Athens. And representing the “other side” of the transfer, the UAE’s Sheikha Bodour bint Al Qasimi was there to honor Athens—which on World Book Day 2019 will hand off to Sharjah, the first Arabian Gulf city named a World Book Capital.

Bodour was accompanied by Mohammed Meer Al Raesi, the UAE’s ambassador to Athens, recently apppointed.

Sharjah has helped support the restoration of Guinea’s Djibril Tamsir Niane Library, and also has contributed to textbook provision and distribution in the country, as well as participating in the donation of 2,000 much-needed books.

Pavlopoulos: ‘Sacred Space’

Hosted by the Greek journalist and anchorwoman Maria Houkli, the official program was a simple one, set in the nine-year-old museum’s auditorium. The session would end with the music of a flute quartet, but it was memorable chiefly for Pavlopoulos’ impressive, forceful commentary.

“Athens actually merits this honor and we will vindicate the choice of Greece because it is here that the largest library was established, and we should remember that even the Library at Alexandria was a Greek library.”Prokpois Pavlopoulos

Speaking without notes, the Greek president referred to the “sacred space” of the museum, which stands over an excavation of Byzantine-era Athens. He referred us to specific pieces in the museum collection, including a sculpture of Athena from around 468 BC.

“I don’t think there is any work of art,” Pavlopoulos said, “that can represent better what Athens was then and what it aspires to be today.”

The subtext, of course, as the 200 or so invitees in the room knew, was about the Greek government debt crisis that started about the time the new museum was being dedicated and led to 12 wrenching rounds of reforms and international bailouts through 2016.

Today, Athens bustles again with new energy and the ebullient crackle of its famous municiple personality, but the price has been heavy. And it’s easy to see that being selected as World Book Capital is a fine signal of Greece’s return to world society and its rightful cultural leadership.

Pavlopoulos referred to how “It is here that ‘the citizen’ was born”—the concept of democracy’s essential player—and how “the common heritage of the world” is carried forward by each an educated member of a culture, a reader.

“Athens actually merits this honor,” Pavlopoulos said in his resonant basso, “and we will vindicate the choice of Greece because it is here that the largest library was established, and we should remember that even the Library at Alexandria was a Greek library.”

In the digital age, Pavlopoulos said, Greece can do no less than find her footing in delivering to the country’s population and visitors in the next year “the powerful potential that books do possess.”

Borghino and Denison: ‘The Grid’

During the ceremony’s reception on the museum’s terrace in the shadow of the Acropolis and amid late-day breezes from Piraeus, Publishing Perspectives spoke with Ian Denison, UNESCO’s chief of publishing and branding, and José Borghino, IPA’s executive director, about how a World Book Capital is chosen.

The program has moved over the years from Beirut to Ljubljana, from Port Harcourt to Incheon, from Wroclaw to Conackry.

“We have a grid of criteria,” Denison said, “and within the grid, we have sub-criteria. And what we’ve done is make sure that freedom of expression is the highest-rated criterion.” As Borghino explained, the IPA’s leadership in the freedom to publish, with its annual Prix Voltaire for the most courageous champions of expressive rights, is represented in the selection of Greece by a major component of Athens’ program which will address the reading needs of the country’s many refugees.

“In terms of the honor, every country named a World Book Capital appreciates it in a different way and needs different things” from UNESCO, Denison said. “A place like Conakry, for example,” he said, “needs more infrastructure support,” as in the library-rebuilding efforts that Sharjah has assisted Guinea with.

“We felt that in economic times that were so difficult” in Greece, “to be focusing as they were on migrant children and refugees was something quite amazing.”Ian Denison

“While a place like Athens,” Denison said, “doesn’t need that kind of support, it needs recognition of what it’s been through” in the past decade, and that a corner has now been turned.

“We felt that in economic times that were so difficult” in Greece, he said, “to be focusing as they were on migrant children and refugees was something quite amazing.”

“And then Sharjah, of course, is a different story,” Borghino said, with its generation of effort led by its royal family to found a knowledge-based culture on reading and books.

“The story for each World Book Capital,” Borghino said, “is positive. But each is positive in a different way.”

The IPA and UNESCO are joined by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and the International Booksellers Federation in assessing and selecting each year’s World Book Capital, evaluating proposals on the criteria of that grid of considerations.

“It’s actually a very joyous thing,” Denison said. “We’re now about to see what new stories the Athenians are going to come up with in the next year.”

 

by Olivia Snaije Originally published in Perspective Publishing April 19, 2018

In a tightening market for fiction and especially for debut authors looking for that big break, editors can be choosier—and many are more dependent than ever on literary agents to find their next debuts.

Two trends gave a session on debut acquisitions at last week’s London Book Fair special interest. First, the fair’s Author HQ program is smartly including trade authors’ interests, such as placing a first novel. Second, as Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch has pointed out, not only did significant nonfiction deals at LBF this year, but debuts were way down. By Cader’s count, there were 34 debut fiction sales in 2016; 37 in 2017; and only 27 debut fiction deals this year. —Porter Anderson

‘I’ve Pre-Empted Two Books This Year’

A room filled with aspiring writers awaited three editors and a debut author last week at London Book Fair’s session “Why We Commissioned These Debuts.” Speakers included:

• Penguin Random House UK editor Jade Chandler, who handles crime and thrillers for Harvill Secker and Vintage

• Nick Wells, the founding publisher at independent house Flame Tree Publishing, which is to launch an imprint for horror, crime, and science fiction/fantasy in September

• HarperCollins UK editorial director Martha Ashby

• HarperCollins author Sarah J. Harris was on hand to provide the debut writer’s viewpoint

Harris is also published in the States by Simon & Schuster, and she’s written three YA novels under a pseudonym. And she described the comparatively dreamy experience she had in entering the market with The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder.

Having spent nine months writing the book, she said she researched agents and picked out the ones she thought would suit her best. Among them was Jemima Forrester who was starting a new list at David Higham’s agency.

Harris wrote a cover letter, targeted her agents’ list, met Forrester first and signed with her. Once the book was edited, Harris said, Forrester submitted it and the manuscript drew overnight interest from publishers.

Within less than a week, HarperCollins made a bid, which Harris said she knows is unusually fast action.

From an editor’s viewpoint, Harvill Secker’s Chandler said that in a pre-empt, a publisher may “offer quite a lot to the agent because you want the book” to be taken off the table. “But sometimes the agent will have it go to auction. I’ve pre-empted two books this year,” Chandler said, “and it usually involves reading the book overnight. It’s very dramatic and exciting and involves sleepless nights.”

Chandler said that like most editors, she finds authors through literary agents who filter submissions. “It’s quite an old fashioned process,” she said, “but in reality, I’m just one woman and I can only read so much.” Not surprisingly, she said that good relationships with agents become important if an editor is to find the best material.

‘You Know Within a Few Pages If the Writer Can Write’ - Martha Ashby

Martha Ashby is the editor who pre-empted Harris’ book—shutting down all competing offers by striking a deal with the agent. Ashby said she meets with agents and tells them what she’s looking for. She doesn’t read submission letters, she said.

“I want to read the book as someone who doesn’t know what it’s going to be like,” Ashby said. “I want to come at it as a reader would. I think about who the audience is. Is it different from other books in the market? What would the elevator pitch be? If I’m really excited about the book I’ll flag my publisher.

“You know within a few pages if the writer can write. If the voice is great but I don’t know where the story’s going, I’ll still keep reading, bearing in mind that the manuscript has been roughly edited.

“Sometimes an author will need to cut the first few chapters. Once we’re excited about a book we’ll circulate it to sales and marketing and publishers.

“If I can, I tell the publicity and marketing and sales teams about where the book sits in the market because they need to know who the readers are. Are they reading Elle or the Daily Express? Are they on Facebook or on Twitter? Everyone is thinking about how we’d publish the book from their own perspective and from their area.”

While all this is happening, said Ashby, five or 15 other editors are doing the same thing. A book can then go to auction, or be pre-empted, and the process can take between one day to one month, or longer.

“Sometimes agents will want to see a publication pitch,” she said. “How we’ll present the book. The most important thing for an author is to feel like they’ve found the best home for their book.”

For her part as the writer in question, Harris confirmed that the experience at HarperCollins made her feel “like the whole team was onboard with my book from Day One. I had contact with them all.”

‘Headaches and Sleepless Nights’ - Nick Wells

Running a much smaller, independent house, Nick Wells said he goes about things differently at Flame Tree. Editors there feel, he said, that it’s important to engage directly with writers and readers. For this reason, he said he doesn’t rely on literary agents and is open to submissions for periods of time—“which causes headaches and sleepless nights,” he conceded.

“We have short windows for submissions,” he said. And yet, “We [recently] had submissions from 12,000 people and an editorial board of six with some outside readers.” All of which confirmed for him that “there’s no question that the agent route is very helpful.”

As far as submissions go, Wells said that if writers are hungry and know their market, they’d find a way to send him their manuscript.

Searching Out Better Work - Jade Chandler

A relatively new element of the business is the digital visibility authors may have, even if they’re not thinking of it.

Some editors go to blog sites and various social media to look for authors, and many like to see how influential those writers are in the social realm. “If someone isn’t on social media at all,” Chandler said, however, ‘that wouldn’t discourage me.”

The editors agreed that they’re open to the idea of working with self-published authors and that remaining flexible in the industry is important.

And while all the session’s panelists hadn’t directly addressed the title of the session with rationales for precise acquisitions, they did say they’re also trying to get more submissions from a range of writers for diversity. Chandler mentioned Random House’s Write Now program, and Wells said that a more diverse staff is needed if a house is to connect with diverse writers. At HarperCollins, an inclusive hiring scheme has been in place for some time.

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about the Middle East, multiculturalism, translation, literature, and graphic novels. She is a contributor to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar Art, The Global Post, The New York Times and CNN.