Saturday, October 7, 2017

A History of Book Distribution Channels

In one of my alternate fantasy lives, I am running a bookstore. There's a reason why it's only a fantasy, of course, since I know nothing about how the business works.

Don Blyly, owner of Uncle Hugo's, the oldest independent science fiction and fantasy bookstore in the U.S., recently published his thoughts on how books have been distributed over his 43 years in business. I learned a lot from it, and recommend a full read, but here are some of the key points.

Oh wait, first we need some background, which Blyly doesn't give in his piece because he assumes everyone knows this. There are three kinds of books: hardcover, mass-market paperback (the small, fat ones), and trade paperback (the almost-hard-cover-size, sometimes less fat ones). Anyone who reads s.f. probably has a sense that more books are coming out in trade paperback and fewer in mass market. I personally dislike mass market books because they're printed on crappy paper, with the text running too far into the center gutter for comfortable reading. Their spines get cracked, therefore, when you read them and if you try to keep the book (as is my habit), in a decade or two you'll find the pages not just yellowed, but falling out of the cheap glue binding.

Lately, a lot of high-quality s.f. writing has been published direct to trade format, with no hardcover edition at all. (Examples are Ann Leckie's Ancillary series and N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series, both Hugo Award winners.) I find this frustrating, because I would prefer them in hardcover. But I assume they sell better in trade because they're cheaper, and it's a better quality book than if they were mass-market only.

Anyway, here's what I learned from Blyly's thoughts:

  • Historically and through the mid-20th century at least, hardcover publishers distributed their books directly to bookstores, which were usually part of department stores, rather than free-standing, independently owned retail outlets.
  • There were no mass-market paperbacks much before the 1930s when Penguin Books launched. It was quickly copied by other companies, including Pocket Books in 1939.
  • These mass-market paperbacks were sold through a completely separate distribution channel to newsstands, tobacco shops, drug stores, and dime stores, not to bookstores.
  • The mass-market channel was run by people called "rack jobbers" (I keep reading that as "jack robbers"), who were already in business supplying magazines. Their unique selling proposition was that they gave stores free metal racks from which to sell the books and magazines. By supplying the racks, they were trying to extract an exclusive relationship with each retail outlet.
  • The book buyers for bookstores had to understand their audience's interests, but the newsstand and tobacco shop owners didn't have to because the rack jobbers dictated what was delivered. 
  • Returning unsold books to the publishers was also handled by the rack jobbers, and that's where the "send the cover back but not the whole book" tradition came from. It made sense with out-of-date magazines, but they forced it onto the printers/publishers of paperbacks as well. There is no such tradition with hardcover publishers.
  • The rack jobbers were dominated by one publicly traded, national company until the 1950s. It controlled half of the market, while the other half was extremely distributed among one or more small companies in each major market. Most magazine and mass-market book sellers had racks from both the big company and from one of the local companies; they might get Time and Life from one and Newsweek and Look from the other, for instance.
  • Warehousing for all those books and magazines was a major part of the rack jobber business, of course. The big national company had warehouses everywhere, and by the 1950s some smart Wall Street jerk realized the company's buildings were worth more than the company itself, and so bought it and liquidated its assets for a huge profit. 
Blyly explains the effects of this move:
Suddenly, half the magazines and half the mass market paperbacks had no distribution. The [independent distributors] suddenly were in a stronger negotiating position, but could not double the size of their warehouses to take on all of the new potential business. So each I.D. decided which weak magazines to stop carrying so that they could add on much stronger titles.... (When almost half of the magazines in the country suddenly went out of business due to lack of distribution, it resulted in hard times for huge numbers of editors, writers, artists, and production people.)
I wonder if anyone has written a dissertation on that big moment of change?

He also includes a section on the effect of B. Dalton, which started as part of our local, innovative Dayton's department store chain (which was also the creator of Target). It sounds like B. Dalton was one of the first to sell both hardcovers and mass market paperbacks, and was responsible for breaking the power of the independent distributors through its monopsony power. All of this paved the way for the nationalization of big-box book sellers like Barnes & Noble and the late Borders chain.

In time the industry changed so that publishers consolidated production, making both a hardcover and softcover (whether trade or mass market format) version of most titles, usually with a six to 12-month time lag. The trade format has since become more popular with publishers because they can "charge at least double the price per book with only a slightly larger printing cost than for a mass market paperback." And now we are experiencing the trade-only moment, as I said at the beginning.

Don Blyly continues to believe in the smaller, cheaper mass-market format, and claims he can sell five times as many copies of a cheaper paperback than a more expensive, larger one. He says the salespeople tell him Uncle Hugo's must be the only bookstore where that's true. 

He doesn't believe them, and ends his article with a crack about "the home office in New York City" telling them that.

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