The Truth about the A.B.A
Sifton, Elisabeth, The Nation
Every year at the height of spring a strange tribal rite takes place at the heart of American culture, and most of us know nothing about it. A trade fair pulls together tens of thousands of booksellers and publishers--this year in Miami over the Memorial Day weekend--with their buyers, sales directors, rights managers, publicists, sales reps and big-time executives in attendance. Like every ritual that displays bizarre deformations of once meaningful human behavior, this meeting was once quite reasonable and effective, but now it has become almost unimaginably incoherent. Books are what draw the merrymakers together, but books all too often are precisely what is least on their minds.
The initial purpose was to enable buyers from bookshops all over the country to place orders for the next season's books with the publishers' salespeople. Faxes, computers and other important changes in the business have made this serious and lively commercial activity virtually obsolete, and it's been pushed to the sidelines. When the American Booksellers Association now convenes its disputatious members, and the rites center on displays and events organized and paid for by violently competitive publishers, especially poignant confusions lurk in every encounter--and this is beyond the intense, erotically charged hysteria that characterizes all big conventions. The participants affectionately acknowledge the mysteries, but they don't like to talk about them to the uninitiated; still, in 1993 they are no longer endearing, and in fact haven't been for seasons. The whole business is in a deep mess, and American readers and writers are suffering as a result.
Like other unexamined premises of the book business, the basic physical setup of the A.B.A. hasn't changed in years. Publishers still pay huge sums of money--a hefty percentage of their annual budgets, sometimes--to install a "booth" along one of the aisles of the convention floor to do their business in. University presses and smaller regional or specialty firms actually display real books, still believing in them as they do. (At the outer edges, some of the tiniest outfits are beguilingly loony, yet there are always impressive companies that you're embarrassed not to have known about before, doing fine work with very good books.) Salespeople stay "on the stand" and chat with visitors who come along by appointment or merely pass by--not only booksellers who want to go over forthcoming titles and place orders but book-review editors from newspapers and magazines, TV and radio people, agents, other publishers scoping out the competition, real writers.
At the mainstream houses, this model has been grotesquely inflated and transformed in the past ten or fifteen years. The booth will be an elaborately designed area as big as or bigger than a spacious New York City apartment, with huge illuminated signs (revolving, sometimes) showing the jackets of next autumn's Big Books, maybe a TV screen or two with promotional videos. Dozens of sales reps and managers, publicists and executives will be on hand for the hundreds of people who throng the place--doing what? No books are on display, and it's all but impossible to have a purposeful conversation or do real business in the midst of the hullabaloo; there are never enough tables and chairs. Occasionally piles of glossily jacketed advance proofs of some hyped best-seller-to-be will appear; during weird binges of acquisitive fervor, these, along with tote bags, T-shirts, posters and other freebies, are eagerly gobbled up. I've spent plenty of time myself rushing about the floor of an A.B.A. convention looking for goodies before the supply is exhausted, which happens in minutes, and I've done this in the company of some of America's most prominent publishers; they snicker about what they consider the infantile behavior of the booksellers, suckers, they think, for this kind of commercial nonsense, but they are indulging in it themselves. We all claim we're at the A.B.A. for the Good of the Book and To Promote Business, but we're also there to schmooze and flirt and mess around.
Meanwhile, the big-shot publishers are doing another kind of business: They are creating and adjusting images of power and intention about just four or five of their biggest books in the next year; they are making deals that they hope will safeguard these precious properties. At breakfasts and lunches (organized by the booksellers) their famous authors talk up their books; later the celebrities will sign copies by the hundreds; in the evening the publishers throw giant parties for themselves or for the celebs, and more image-mongering goes on. (For the cognoscenti, the agenda-free, well-situated New York Review party is always the toniest; the Crown bashes, often for books about parties, the most wizardly lavish. I can't forget a surreal moment in Las Vegas where I watched John Updike meet Donald Trump and Anne Rice at a Random House reception for the last two.)
The money spent on all this is quite out of hand, naturally. Yet the only senior member of the tribe to call it for what it is--Tom McCormack, president of St. Martin's Press, who withdrew his company from the A.B.A. convention several years ago, denouncing it as a shameful waste of money--was not followed or supported by his fraternal peers. It gets fancier and more intense every year.
And every year the publishers encourage their foreign colleagues to come by to grab a famous or potentially famous name, so that the carefully orchestrated sale of foreign rights can add to the hype about a title, possibly one they have won at auction. (They all seem to be interested in the same handful of titles, which is why their booths look alike and give off the same abstract glitzy air. But I can remember when you could instantly tell the difference between a Random House, Houghton Mifflin, Little Brown, Simon and Schuster or Viking booth, as you could between their books; they once had different styles, "house authors" and distinctive personalities.) This last development occurred over the strong opposition of the A.B.A. itself, which rightly thought it would help to obliterate the fundamental work of placing and taking orders on domestic sales. But it lost that battle, and the A.B.A. convention is now as much a rights fair (like the famous international one in Frankfurt every fall) as it is a booksellers' one.
The irresponsible giddiness of all this spending is stunning. The country is in a grave, long recession; book sales have been flat or worse for years, despite huge growth in certain sectors of the market; libraries are underfunded and underused; functional illiteracy is rising; and polls tell us that Americans spend only 5 to 6 percent of their "leisure time" reading (and 30 percent watching television). More and more books are published and go out of print; writers justifiably feel neglected, the best sellers rarely earn out and countless numbers of people in the business will tell you they hate the way it's going. Why is this?
Book people used to take comfort in the idea that like lawyers and liquor stores they could thrive during a depression, when books were appreciated as a means of inexpensive enjoyment and self-improvement. But in the 1930s the book had little competition in this regard; local, state and national funds supported all the structures of a print culture, and publishers believed in a reading public. None of this is true today.
Any sensible business person will tell you that when sales are flat it is axiomatic to "stay close to the source of supply and close to the customer." In the book trade, this would mean that publishers should stay close to writers and close to booksellers. Indeed, great publishers always have, and still do; it is the only possible way to survive, since the known truth is that income, nay profit, depends not just on the big sellers in the current season but steady sales of the older titles ("backlist" books, published more than a year ago, provide a huge proportion of most publishers' income). You must cultivate writers and readers for both.
But even the most superficial glance at the behavior of the principal trade-book companies in America will show you just the opposite: The business is dominated by people who rarely read books or hang out with writers, who spend their time with other executives and with agents, making deals and "running the numbers," who relegate the work of dealing with writers and with the marketplace to lower-echelon editors and salespeople whose expertise they frequently defy. Alfred Knopf himself observed this decades ago when he commented dryly on the purpose of editors: "When I started in this business, writers wrote books and publishers read them in order to choose which ones they wanted to publish. The rise of the editor has occurred because now publishers can't read and need editors to do it for them; writers can't write, and need them for the same reason."
The major media manipulators now rise, balloonlike, above and beyond the world where books are read and valued. Indeed, they seem almost not to value them at all, affirming a book's worth only in terms of its spinoff utility ("potential") in other media--the mini-series, the movie, the author's TV appearances, the audiotape, the electronic capabilities, etc. The only other validation of a book's worth that they recognize is not their own opinion of the text but someone else's; therefore if a book club, or another publisher, or a reader for a movie studio likes a book, they will like it too, but not before. They develop strong peripheral vision, watching everyone else's moves, yet they develop none of their own. "Let's see how it goes. . . . This one is review-driven. . . . The clubs had doubts. . . . The writer isn't telegenic." They lack the courage or good manners to be honest and acknowledge that they haven't read and don't care about the book. They want to be like Hollywood television and movie people. They aspire to deals.
These anxious publishing executives have their counterparts throughout the trade--indeed, throughout the media--and they all respond to the retail gloom at ground level with fearful and greedy hyperactivity, putting all their chips on one or two big items, masking their fundamental lack of trust in the true power of books to do well on their own (and their justifiable lack of trust in their own judgment). In short, they aren't book people, and when they go to the A.B.A., they seek out other non-book people with whom they cut the deals. In all the palaver, they are talking discount schedules like everyone else, but in very different accents.
How have the booksellers, meanwhile, responded to the recession, and what are they doing about it? There have never been so many good booksellers in our history--resourceful, socially active and committed, well-read and good at business. Many of them might in earlier times have been ministers or teachers: They have an all but evangelical fervor about increasing readership and literacy, they believe that Americans can and should read books (few publishers today hold to this once sacred dogma), they truly care about multi-culturalism, they want the United States to live up to its promises, they are astonished and pleased by the huge possibilities that its culture offers to writers and readers. They look on the horrifying statistics on the decline of reading--more than half of American households in a given year may never purchase a book, and so on--merely as indicators of what huge growth potential their business has; all those unconverted nonreaders to bring into the fold! There is nowhere to go but up!
One couldn't have better colleagues than these brave, shrewd independent booksellers, who reinvented the idea of the well-stocked cavernous bookstore which encourages browsing and unexpected purchases, which presents books as the physical and mental pleasure they are. These business people, some of whom have expanded their stores into mini-chains of their own, are the people who learned from, challenged and in some respects prevailed over the chains--Walden, Dalton, Crown--that shortsighted Cassandras claimed a decade ago would kill off the independents. With equal savvy about inventory control and marketing strategy, but a subtler, more responsible and community-based sense of how to develop and expand the customer pool, the independents soon forced the big chain companies to copy them, which they are now doing with the famous superstores.
Writers have been quick to appreciate that all this has changed the shape and nature of literary life in America. They happily. accept invitations (worked out jointly between publisher and bookshop) to give readings and talks at the stores, which function like community cultural centers, filling the vacuum left by the demise of town halls and local libraries and churches; they come to know the buyers, meet the retail purchasers, develop local audiences one by one across the country. These new encounters are mostly paid for by the publishers, but they were invented by the booksellers.
None of this work could be done without the computerized technologies that make it feasible to control vast and complex inventories of hardcover, paperback, old and new books. The entire trade can develop and sustain an accurate, nuanced picture of sales and stock--this was never possible before. And computers also allow it to attack with much sharper and more flexible instruments the issue of "the numbers." At the A.B.A., the talk is all about numbers, about discounts, about price, about advertising dollars.
Among booksellers, disputes rage on many fronts. The independents and chains must both develop strategies to counter the new clout of "price clubs," the wholesalelike outfits pushing deeply discounted best sellers and other popular merchandise. The chains, regrouping in the post-Reagan years, their overly confident spread into the overly implausible malls having been arrested, build their brazenly aggressive superstores; but the long-term success of their huge national purchasing policies may not be assured, since in the end the local merchants, with well-trained staff and local knowledge, are unbeatable. Still, if they go down they'll take out good small stores with them. And independents are exploring how, or whether and which of them might band together in groups to match, as single units buying for their members, the commercial power of the biggies--allowing them to sweep up quantities of remainders, say, or other offerings from the publishers that now they may be last in line to get. And in all these cases, as never before, the disputes show total confusion as to how much books are worth--literally, confusion as to what price to put on them.
Writers know they get a royalty calculated as a percentage of the retail price of their book. Few of them notice that their contracts specify that if the discount at which the publisher sells a book goes above 49 or 50 or 52 percent (significant variants, these), the royalty will be halved--i.e., the royalty is cut in half when the book is sold at essentially a wholesale discount, not a regular trade one, which hovers in the 40 to 48 percent range. This ancient boilerplate, like so much of the book-business infrastructure, was devised a half-century ago, when only a handful of accounts merited unusually steep trade discounts. Now half or more of a commercial book's initial orders may go to wholesale or quasi-retail accounts that merit discounts of 50 percent or higher. Unless a savvy agent has negotiated the author's contract with this possibility in mind, the writer will, ironically, earn only half of what should be her income for these sales betokening her widespread popularity. Brand-name bestseller writers have contracts that make sure this doesn't happen; but as in so many other dark corners of the book business, the less-known surprise writer will not only have less chance of these big sales but a smaller piece of the action if she's lucky enough to land them.
Meanwhile, other books will be sold at lower discounts, other publishers will focus on short-discounted books for the institutional market, small stores will try to consolidate their orders over a range of titles in order to get better discounts (weighing, too, the advantages of buying from wholesalers rather than from the publisher directly). An amazingly high proportion of the total dollars, though, will be paid for those few titles that the auto-intoxicated trade chooses to believe will dominate the best-seller list, titles sold in the largest quantities. Certain books will be offered at their printed retail price of, say, $20 and elsewhere at $18 or $16 or even $10, and it will be clear that no one knows, actually, what the book is worth.
The resulting chaos is so extreme that the A.B.A. members cannot agree as to how it might be straightened out. Some of them argue for an abolition of the printed retail price as the base line, favoring instead a "net price agreement" such as prevails in a number of other countries. This would, they believe, level the playing field both when everyone buys from the publishers at the same net price and when everyone sells to the readers at differing retail prices, since the prices will vary according to what kind of "value added" service, custom and availability they are offering the customers in their stores. Others vehemently oppose this. The publishers warily avoid discussing the issue among themselves--such a seminar would probably violate Sherman antitrust regulations--and mostly they just look for the angles, trying to sink as many balls as they can in this zany pool game. Sharp practices abound at all levels: There is so much stock flowing around the country, in and out of warehouses, trucks and storage rooms--and there is so much money to be made!
Naturally the competition is even more murderously greedy when outlets placing the biggest orders also heavily discount the retail price paid by the retail customer for a book that the publisher wants to have land, and therefore probably will land or already has landed, on the New York Times best-seller list. Thus does the scorpion swallow its tail, and thus is the business deformed around a purposefully self-fulfilling prophecy. In the ensuing blizzard of competition, the retail price becomes a fiction--the least respected and most contested figure in the arithmetic. This has been called inevitable retail development, the well-known phenomenon of standardized chains (K Mart Toys 'R' Us, Staples) driving out local custom. But the commodities sold in those other chains don't have writers or intellectual property at issue, which requires a still point somewhere, on which the author's income may be calculated. And they don't involve the culture in anything like the same way.
In the noise of the A.B.A. convention--where sensory overload taxes the body and wearies the soul--sensible, wise men and women can be heard, doing honorable work against great odds. Lively writers, vivacious booksellers and canny publishers raise glasses together and collaborate as best they can. Stupendous wastage despoils the landscape--slagheaps of dreadful books, vulgar displays, unethical deals, pretentious pseudo-publishing. The odds are, as ever, against the brave, the plucky and the kind. Readers and writers will feel temporarily abandoned there, forgotten. But if we are lucky, and if the economy improves, and if reason occasionally prevails, the chances of our intellectual and literary life continuing into the next century will not be wholly lost.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Truth about the A.B.A. Contributors: Sifton, Elisabeth - Author. Magazine title: The Nation. Volume: 256. Issue: 22 Publication date: June 7, 1993. Page number: 763+. © 1999 The Nation Company L.P. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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