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One Book Good, Two Books Bad?

2005-05-24 12:41:49.760484+00 by petronius 8 comments

In today's Guardian a book critic looks at the 70th anniversary of Penquin's bringing high class paperbacks to the masses, and then at the phenomonen of highly discounted books appearing at mass retailers. Like any good snob he's against anybody reading anything he doesn't like, but maybe it is time to look again at what mass marketing has done to or for literature. Today small, selective booksellers are being crowded out by retailers like Borders or Barnes & Noble. We seem to be loosing small stores and gaining more stores in more locations with larger stocks. Is this good, bad, or just different? A wider variety of books of all types are now available, yet potboilers like The DaVinci Code dominate sales, just like Payton Place and Gone With The Wind dominated their own eras. I suspect every literary period has seen the same sorts of controversies arise.

[ related topics: Books Current Events Consumerism and advertising Marketing Economics ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2005-05-24 15:23:57.507108+00 by: Dan Lyke [edit history]

From the last line:

DJ Taylor is a novelist and critic

which means that when he says:

What real "choice" is offered to the customers ranged before the Tesco shelf? What exactly is "democratic" in bringing the punter Jamie Oliver's latest for [unknown char]2 less than it might cost him in Waterstones? No one minds the retailing giants making a profit. It is when the process comes dressed up as a public service that it sticks in your throat.

He's really whining that he can't get shelf space.

If we look for a legitimate complaint in his rant, it's that the supermarket checkout rack, or whatever the small choice discounted section in "Waterstones" is, is cherry picking the high profit low inventory cost books. This is an issue in every aspect of retailing right now: hardware stores used to subsidize the obscure stuff you just had to have but that stayed on the shelves for forever with the things that moved, now Home Despot has discounted all of the high margin high flow goods; similar things have happened in office supplies and even grocery stores.

Now that the genie's out of the bottle, there's no stuffing it back in. Everyone can see that some products move more quickly than others, and consumers will go for price over selection. The only thing that's going to change it is a change in manufacturing. If I had to look to the place where dramatic shifts are going to have to happen in the rest of my lifetime, it's there. Once the developing nations start to have real labor costs, we'll no longer have the huge economies of scale over inventory costs that we have now, and manufacturing will have to change.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-05-24 17:02:09.104094+00 by: petronius

I guess one point is to know what is the most expensive part of publishing? Promotion, printing, or just plain storage? I see the New Fiction table at Borders and its covered by books, but I don't have a clear idea of how many of them are actually moving. Since I can get just about anything from Amazon, what the bookstore is really offering me isn't selection per se but selection before decision; that is, I don't know what I want, but gee doesn't this one look interesting? I've never bought anything from Amazon that I didn't already have in mind, yet I love prowling bookstores.

So, would an Amazon bookstore with one copy of each book work out? Say, you look at it, like it, and order it on the spot to be delivered in 2 days to your home. Hmm...I dought it. Unless its a technical manual or something I need for work, books are still something of an impulse purchase.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-05-24 18:26:28.345784+00 by: Dan Lyke

Nowadays my browsing is of the "what have you seen that I might be interested in?" variety. My tastes have become niche enough that I either read about something I'd like on the net somehow, often on a weblog, or the proprietor of the store sees what I'm ordering and says "I ordered this for you too, because I thought you'd like it."

I think I'd enjoy the browsing experience, but I'm not much on the "wander lost through a warehouse like Borders hoping to find the needle" experience. We did it while looking for Alaska books for the trip, and everything we bought because they had it in stock was a compromise that got replaced by something better that we ordered later. So the only way to make the browsing experience work for me would be for me to stumble into a small bookseller that sells books that I'd like, not just providing me with a broader array in a larger setting.

As for a "one copy of each book" situation, I don't think two days would work for your average Borders or B&N customer, but "have a complimentary coffee and we'll bring your books to your table", or, in urban settings, "your books will be waiting for you when you get home", probably would.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-05-25 14:06:52.81066+00 by: ebradway

Hmmm... I made a post yesterday relating the Star Trek replicator to Dan's ideas about manufacturing... I guess it got lost in a transporter accident (or posted to some other thread)...

Anyhow, Dan's ideas on manufacturing are dead-on, especially when it comes to books. In the Star Trek universe (or at least in Next Gen), Captain Pickard tells an entrepreneur from the 20th century that the pursuits of material objects is no longer a driving force because of the matter replicator. Anything you want, it can make for you, essentially for free. The MIT Center for Bits & Atoms is working on one and one is even used in Ghana, Africa. The basic idea being that one-off manufacturing has a very definite place in the current market and as the cost of one-off falls to meet the rising cost of mass-production, we'll see it become mainstream.

Books are already reached the Publishing on Demand stage. Of course, even PoD is having to deal with the reality that people like bookstores, they like to browse, and not all the books on the shelves at a bookstore sell.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-05-25 17:46:44.92063+00 by: Larry Burton

>> Books are already reached the Publishing on Demand stage.

Not just books but almost everything has reached a "manufactured on demand" stage due to productivity increases. The interesting thing about this is what practically limitless supply does to economic theories and business models. Distribution systems are the limiting factor on supply at this point which is why Walmart has become the giant it has become.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-05-25 18:51:51.092105+00 by: Dan Lyke

It's not quite "manufactured on demand", because part of what Wal*Mart is good at is anticipating demand, as well. There's still a substantial lag time in most goods, for instance even though clothing is up to six seasons a year the actual lag is at least four months.

And there's a lot of money yet to be made in decreasing that lag and those inventory costs.

The other thing that "on-demand" implies to me is some level of customization. I'm pretty hard on books, so for the most part I'd actually prefer a cheap thin paperback edition, whereas others would like the hardcover with the torn edges. Clothing gets even more complex...

#Comment Re: made: 2005-05-25 19:43:45.847824+00 by: Larry Burton

>> And there's a lot of money yet to be made in decreasing that lag and those inventory costs.

Exactly, which is why my company is doing more distribution systems than packaging systems these days. Still the consumer is pretty much finding that the items they want are on the store shelves when they want them or just within a few days of when they want them. This is also why I see manufacturing moving back closer to the distribution centers in the future. While currently manufacturing products in China is still cheap enough to offset transportation and inventory costs I don't see that holding true for much longer.

I'm wondering how long it will be now before books are downloaded to cheap readers from a kiosk that has copies of every book ever published.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-05-27 19:23:37.16072+00 by: ebradway

Maybe not downloading books to a reader from a kiosk, but going to the back of Barnes & Nobles (or Kinko's) and having a book printed. That's what POD is about. It's not about anticipating demand or shortening distribution - it's about eliminating distribution entirely by manufacturing on the spot.

And I don't think Wal*Mart does as good a job of predicting demand as it does creating demand. They are experts at putting piles of plastic crap in the middle of the isle at 1/2 the price of anyone else. Consumers tend to walk out with the crap because it was so cheap they couldn't resist. Wal*Mart continues by figuring out what Joe Nascar wants, like a new lawn tractor or a gallon jar of pickles, and pounding a supplier into submission so they take a loss at producing it so Wal*Mart can sell it for less than Target or Sears pays for it wholesale.

When I worked at Cyberflix, Wal*Mart wouldn't talk to us about Titanic: An Adventure Out of Time (a game), until it had been in the top-ten games for six weeks. And then, they would only pay 1/2 the price that Electronics Boutique and others were paying for it wholesale. The result, when Titanic hit their shelves it was priced at $18.99. EB was paying $21/copy and selling it for $34.99. Fortunately for Cyberflix, the development costs had been recouped by the time Wal*Mart was even interested and their orders were just gravy. But this also really pissed off EB and retailers where shelf-space is critical (but that's another rant).