Zero-sum Games…

In gaming theory, a zero-sum game is one where for someone to gain something someone must lose something. Think combat – there is a winner and a loser. A non-zero-sum game is one in which both both sides can gain and where the sum of gains and losses does not equal zero. Think trading with other civilizations where both have excess resources – both sides win.

What does this have to do with the price of books in bookstores?

We were recently approached by the UMass Boston bookstore about doing signings at their store. We scheduled one for this past Thursday for Beth Harvey’s new short story collection Damn Faeries. The signing was scheduled for 1 PM. Boston is a good hour drive from where we live and work, so it was basically an entire day committed to this signing. To our disappointment, the only people who came into the store during the time we were there were a student selling back books and a campus police officer who thought Beth was flirting with him…

Normally this type of setback wouldn’t bother me, but before we left the assistant manager came over and confided to me that in fact the store never gets any customers at that time of day and the manager was hoping we would bring a large crowd to buy the book at the store. Really?

First a bit about what bookstores ask for in return for your book residing on their shelves for 4 months (if that long) before it is replaced by something else. Most major brick-and-mortar bookstores expect a 40% discount and to sell on consignment. This means that, unlike other retail outlets, they can return anything they don’t sell in any condition (meaning it probably can’t be sold to anyone else). The promise from the bookstore is that, in return for this arrangement, they will make your book available to people who otherwise wouldn’t hear about it. This would be an example of a non-zero-sum game: The bookstore gets an author signing books where they get 40% of the list price and the publisher gets to sell books to people that might not find the book otherwise.

In the case of the signing at UMass, there was never an intention of making the book available to people who hadn’t heard about it. In fact, they were expecting us to pack their store with people we had already identified as potential buyers and give them 40% of the sales. Let me be honest about something. I don’t need to be in a bookstore to sell books to people I can already identify as potential buyers. That’s what the internet is for. In fact, I save myself the 40% that bookstores receive by selling to those people directly through my website and not selling through a bookstore.

One needs to look no further than the fact that in 2009 almost 50% of all book sales were through Amazon and BN.com to know that brick-and-mortar bookstores are no longer the gatekeepers who decide which books flourish and which perish by not getting shelf space. Direct sales through websites and the rise of social networking have changed all of that. But many bookstore still have not changed their attitudes, and it is this reason that many small publishers do not accept returns and in general won’t deal with them.

This is not to say we have had bad experiences at all of our signings. We do all of our local book launches at Well Read Books in Plaistow, NH. In return for a nice place to do a book launch and the possibility to sell to people we wouldn’t reach otherwise, we invite people we have identified as potential buyers to buy the books at the store. This is an example of a non-zero-sum game – we get a nice place to do a launch (and have sold 29 books at the two events we held there) and the owner gets people into the store who wouldn’t be there otherwise. It’s been a great relationship that I look forward to continuing.

But for bookstores that treat this like a zero-sum game, the sad truth is that publishers large and small no longer need you. Because in the internet age there are just too many other places to sell books…

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