Much chatter has been generated by the recent announcement that Penguin and Random House will soon be joining corporate forces. I don't know enough about the details or what will become of it to say anything other than it is another(big) symptom of the book industry being very ill. Another(smaller) point to illustrate this fact has popped up for us in the past month.
Sometimes a publisher will offer signed copies to stores if they pre-order in carton quantity. This works for the publisher because stores will order a larger number than they normally would and it works for stores in offering their customers a bonus of sorts. We've sold more copies of Michael Chabon's new novel because we participated in this type of offer. When we bought copies of Louise Erdrich's "Round House" we bought cartons of signed copies. When the release date came we didn't have our copies and had several customers in the store/calling us to purchase the book. We called HarperCollins, the publisher, and were told that they had over-sold the signed copies. Our order, in industry terms, had been cut. We weren't notified and were left with no copies the first few days the book was available.
Last week a customer inquired about a book entitled "The Where, The Why, and the How." Tom had bought seven copies of the book based on the catalog and what our sales rep told him about the book. It was well-priced and seemed like the type of book we could sell pretty well through the holidays and end of year. When Karen checked Ingram's Ipage all the warehouses were out of stock. I guessed, incorrectly, that the book had been delayed. That happens, from time to time, with books that have a lot of production and color and, frequently, come from Korea or China. The very next day I found myself at the Mall of America and wandered into Urban Outfitters. Among their great stacks of books were copies of the book. I resisted the urge to grab five copies and run. We, again, checked with our sales rep and the publisher and were told that the book had been over-sold.
Our seven copy order had been cut and, again, we were not told of this. Seven copies, for us as a small store, signifies some kind of optimism and support for a book. It means we will display it and, most likely, actively try to sell it. In the larger scheme of things it is a small order. Chronicle Books saw it in another way. They took orders from a lot of other places(Anthropologie? Urban Outfitters? Other gift-type stores) and had placed copies with places that ordered larger numbers.
The problems regarding this are numerous. First, we didn't have the copies we had ordered and potentially could have sold. The second is akin to airline seating--meaning things get sold not always in line with what is available. And I understand the need for publishers to sell as much as they can to whomever they can. More upsetting to me is the fact that, in both cases, they saw no need to notify us of this fact. Intended or not the effect is that our orders don't matter. The reality is that if they hadn't pre-sold books in huge numbers we would have gotten our expected orders.
It leaves me to wonder: how many other stores had orders cut? Why should we trust that orders from these publishers, in similar situations, will actually arrive? All too often small stores are told that the overall numbers of their sales are dropping. Part of that is the availability of books in other stores and in various(and often cheaper) formats. But how can we attempt to compete when we aren't given the opportunity to sell what we ordered? The simple fact is that many customers who don't find what they're looking for at a store will turn to Amazon(who, I've been told, is also out of stock on "The Where, the Why, and the How) to get a copy.