Not All Bookstores Are Created Equal

Hey sportsfans! I was supposed to be reviewing a self-pubbed title today, but unfortunately, the book ended up being not the best fit for this space. Instead, you get me again! I’ve been a little self-indulgent here, and written a post that’s been on my mind for a few months – particularly since so many publishing professionals have been struggling through this weird pandemic year. I love these details, but I hope that even if it’s not usually their jam, readers will be able to use this knowledge to support authors during this ongoing, trying time.

I’m going to make my own shameless plug for support with this post as well. At the end, like all of my posts, I’ve put a link to my ko-fi. As a bookseller at a local indie, I lost most of my income due to COVID this year. I’ve been lucky enough to figure out ways to make it work, but your support is always appreciated! If you enjoy this post, please consider supporting my work on this blog!

Book Retail 101

The publishing industry is so huge that its inner workings can be mystifying even to those with a peek behind the curtains. When you walk into a retail outlet, and purchase a new book published by a trade publisher, there is a whole globalized ecosystem behind how that object came to be.

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The Short Version

First, the author writes the book. Generally, an agent then partners with the author to edit and submit the book to publishers. An acquiring editor purchases the book, and then works with the author, a marketing team, and artists to create the final mock up. That is then sent to a printer, generally in China. Advance review copies, or ARCs are the first prints of books that are created, pre-publication, and then the final product is printed. Cases of the book are shipped to the distribution company. Bookstores order copies from the distribution company, and they have 90 days to sell the books, or return them to the distributor. The books that are left over are called “remnants”, and depending on the title, they are either destroyed and recycled, or purchased in bulk at a lower price from a different kind of book retailer, who can then mark them down and resell them at discounted prices.

Types of Book Retailers

You can see even from this really brief breakdown that there are many different versions of every book, and that there are many kinds of book retailers. In this post, I’m going to break down what the different kinds of book retailers are, and how you can use that knowledge to best support the person that is at the heart of this whole industry: the author.

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New Books for Cover Price

I’ll start with the type of book retailer that most people know best: brick and mortar chain bookstores. These are stores like Chapters and Indigo in Canada (and recently the US), Waterstones in the UK, and Barnes and Noble in the US. They are one of the backbones of book retain worldwide. They sell new books, which they buy at wholesale prices, for the cover price. That difference in price is their profit margin. They sometimes get special prices from distributors, allowing them to have pretty great sales – like “bargain bestsellers” or Indigo’s well-known 30% hardcover markdowns, for example. When you buy a book from one of these retailers, authors get royalties on that sale!

Independent bookstores are my favourite kind of bookstores, and that’s generally because they are smaller, and have a more curated selection of books, than your average chain store. Although they may have more than one storefront location, independent bookstores are not owned by an umbrella corporation, and operate (as the name would have you believe) independently. You can find an independent bookstore in the US through IndieBound, or in Canada through the map recently created by Penguin Random House Canada. CBC also recently posted a resource for finding a Canadian indie that will ship books ordered online, due to the pandemic.

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If you ask me, libraries and indies are the cornerstones of the publishing industry and book distribution. Indies work so hard to support authors and reading communities, and often take political stances in the industry where chain bookstores can’t or choose not to. Indies sell new books, which they buy at wholesale prices, for the cover price. That difference in price is their profit margin. They are not generally eligible for publisher discounts, which means that any discount you receive from an indie is a loss to the store, that they’ve chosen to absorb for their customers. When you buy a book from one of these retailers, authors get royalties on that sale!

One important thing to know when you’re shopping for a title that a smaller independent bookstore may not have in stock is that indies have contracts with all of the major book distributors in their region. What that means is that just because you don’t see something on the shelf doesn’t mean that they can’t get it for you! If you drop by, call, or Email your local indie seeking a specific title, they can almost always order it in for you if it’s still in print. Unlike online book retailers, if you pick up your book in the store when it arrives, you won’t be left on the hook for shipping costs, either.

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The next kind of book retailer where you’ll see new books in the wild for regular cover prices is special markets stores: your pharmacy, grocery store, Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn, big box stores like Target or Wal Mart, price clubs like Costco, or gift stores. These are different from off-price retailers like Marshall’s or Winners, and I’ll get to those later. These stores are curated, but in a way that’s very different than independent bookstores, and generally only carry household names, bestsellers, or lifestyle books that fit a certain niche, depending on the store. They are purchased from distributors through special markets sales reps that work with publishers and help curate these selections. They are sometimes sold in speciality packaging created specifically for the needs of that retailer, and can sometimes be offered publisher discounts to lower the price point for the store’s customer base. When you buy a book from one of these retailers, authors get royalties on that sale!

Discounted New Books

This is where bookselling starts to get tricky. Let’s zip back to the short version of this story. Remember where I wrote: The books that are left over are called “remnants”, and depending on the title, they are either destroyed and recycled, or purchased in bulk at a lower price from a different kind of book retailer, who can then mark them down and resell them at discounted prices? Well, these stores are where those remaindered books go. Books sold at these stores have been bought for radically discounted prices, and the pricing of the books is at the discretion of the retailer. When you buy a book that has been remaindered, authors do not generally get royalties on that sale. The bulk sale of these books is a way for publishers to recoup some of the loss of printing and distributing a book that did not sell well for its cover price, and to avoid landfill waste or the costs of bulk recycling.

It is important to know: remaindered books are new books. They are generally identified by a remainder mark, which can be a dot on the cover of the book, or a line on the pages, but otherwise, they will not appear drastically altered or damaged. For more information about remaindered books, check out this piece from the Guardian.

Who are the stores that sell remnants, and how can you tell whether or not you are actually supporting an author when you buy their book? Some of these stores are off-price department stores that sell all kinds of remaindered goods, not just books. The most recognizable are those owned by the multi-national TJX Companies: HomeGoods, HomeSense, Marshalls, Sierra, TJ Maxx, TK Maxx, and Winners. Ross’ Dress for Less is also an off-price retailer. These stores target middle-income households with more affordable prices than regular retailers.

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If indies are my favourite book retailers, “independent” bookstores that make the bulk of their income off of remaindered books, and often, other remaindered sidelines (non-book products sold by book retailers, like bookmarks, tote bags, stationary, etc.) are my least favourite. Technically speaking, these are still independently-owned stores, but they do not play the pivotal role in the publishing industry or the lives of publishing professionals or authors that indie bookstores do. Some of them even have contracts with major book distributors and sell a mixture of remnants and new, cover-price books. My local example of this is Book City, which claims the title of “Toronto’s leading independent bookstore”, even in a huge city with thriving indies who do incredible work. (Shoutout to Another Story, A Different Booklist, Glad Day, Bakka Phoenix, Page and Panel, the Beguiling, Mable’s Fables, Ella Minnow, Type, (the list goes on)…)

The last place where you will see remaindered books in their natural habitats is in second hand book stores, thrift shops, or online book outlets like Book Depot or Book Outlet. Anywhere where you see books selling for less than the cover price, you can be almost certain that you have encountered a book that has been remaindered. The important thing to know is that while this may appear customer or budget friendly, it is actually much worse for the industry than patronizing your local library. Publishers get pennies for these remaindered copies, and none of the professionals or content creators who work to make these books happen get paid when remaindered books are sold.

Second Hand Stores and Rare Book Sellers

Credit where credit is due, on my part: I don’t advocate purchasing books that are still in print at discount prices if you can access them through a library or purchase them at cover price. However, second hand bookstores, and especially rare and antiquarian book dealers, are so essential to the literary landscape. I have spent many hours in my life rummaging through dusty shelves of out of print, impossible to otherwise find, or internationally printed books, and that way I have found some absolute gems. My current favourite is the Monkey’s Paw, and if you want to check out your local, you might find them through the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Canada, or the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

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Critical Publicity

Currently Reading: After the Eclipse, by Fran Dorricott

On Talking About Books

Recently, I was listening to an episode of the Print Run Podcast that was about the nuances that exist in talking about books, particularly the difference between writing about books for the sake of criticism versus writing about books for the sake of publicity. I spent the remainder of my drive after the episode ended thinking about my own talking about books, and considering why it is that I do what I do, and exactly what it is that I think I do, both in my personal life, and in this blog.

I have lots of qualifications that mean that I am well-suited to write literary criticism. I am a published doctoral student with a speciality in critical theory, and I spend a lot of time evaluating, peer reviewing, and producing academic writing. I am also a bookseller in a small, independent, justice-oriented bookstore in Toronto. If I’m feeling particularly self-confident, I would tell you that my marginalized identities and my social location mean that I bring a unique perspective to the books that I read.

That said, I would be lying to myself and anyone who cared to ask if I didn’t say that even when I’m providing criticism of a book, I’m ultimately doing it for the purposes of sales. It will probably damage my anti-capitalist street cred to say that, but living in a capitalist world, when I look around me and I consider what luxury purchases I want people to spend their surplus money on, and what investments I want people to make with their time? I want them to spend it on books.

A lot of that is selfish. Publishing is not a perfect industry, by any stretch – and mass market publishing is such a small part of the publishing sector as it exists in the world. But as person who has often felt isolated in the world, it’s not an exaggeration when I say that books have often been my closest friends, and there are many parts of my life that I never would have survived without them.

Reading is formative for me. It has made me who I am and continues to make me. Book sales provide some of my very limited income. And one of the only things that I have strong faith in is the ability of ideas to make the world better… so ultimately, I spend a lot of my energy trying to get the books that I think will do that into the hands of people who need them.

I’m not always sure that readers understand all of the moving parts that is the giant machine of mass market publishing. I know that I don’t fully understand it yet, and I had an even more limited grasp before I began working as a bookseller. From conception to writing to physical production to distribution to sales, there are so many links in the chain that need to remain strong for books to make it into the hands of readers.

Right now, at the shop where I work, there are some scary conversations happening. Toronto is one of the most expensive cities in Canada, so the basic costs of maintaining a storefront in this city are a challenge for any retail business, especially one with profit margins as small as bookselling has. Although my shop still maintains a storefront, we also do the vast majority of our business through school board contracts and with educators – whose budgets are getting slashed by our current provincial government. That means fewer book fairs, fewer vendor fairs, and fewer librarians, lib techs, and teacher librarians who are ordering from us.

On a more macro level, things like paper shortages and tariffs on books will impact our tiny store’s ability to get newly published titles in a timely manner, especially in comparison to places like Amazon and Indigo, who are able to order much larger quantities of books pre-sale. Because of this political climate, the amount of backorders and slow reprints that we have to manage these days is much higher than it was in the past, which makes it difficult to please educators and retail customers.

And more than ever, authors are being pressured by their economic situations and also by the publishing industry to always, always, always be focused on that elusive measure of success… the pre-order. But so often, I see huge authors – in some cases, very successful people who have won the majority of their recognition in part due to the efforts of independent booksellers – promoting their pre-sales through Amazon, or other big chain bookstores. Authors are my heroes, but it hurts my heart to see those links. Indies (and other brick and mortar stores) can take pre-orders, too!

When I review a title, I always try to offer a critical perspective. I choose diverse titles to read on purpose. I almost never read books written by allo cis het men, and I try to read as many books by underrepresented authors and with characters who embody marginalized identities as possible. No matter what I read, I try to write reviews honestly and analytically.

But when I review a title… I am always hoping that someone is going to go out and buy a book, or visit their local library and take one out. I always hope that someone is hearing about a book that they need to read, or that someone they know needs to read, when they open my blog on a Monday afternoon – or, that they’re hearing about a book that they should absolutely avoid, but in favour of something that’s going to do the job better. I don’t think that that makes my reviews less legitimate, or that it makes my perspective less valuable. Publicity for any individual book is important, but whether I review a single title well or poorly, I like to think that that is publicity for books… and for me, that is the most critical thing of all.

Review: Wilder Girls

The cover of Wilder Girls, by Rory Power.

…which brings me to my review this week. I almost don’t even need to review Wilder Girls, by Rory Power, which was released on July 9th. As I’m writing this, it currently sits at the top of the Goodreads list of top titles published this month, with over 40 000 users having added it to their “want to read” shelf. No one needs me to recommend them this book (content warnings found here), because chances are good, if it’s for you, you’ve heard about it already.

What the publicity copy on this book won’t tell you, though, is that this is a book that I needed, and that the world needs, so badly. The book is gripping. I stayed up way past my bedtime and woke up long before my dogs were hungry the next morning just to finish it. In so many ways, I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for a book like this one.

This is a YA title, but this book is straight up genre fiction. It’s definitely a horror title that stands on its own legs outside of the YA category – and for me, that’s important in and of itself, because it demonstrates the depth and breadth that YA titles encompass these days. More than that, this book is queer AF. Three are three main protagonists in this story, and all three of them are queer women. But the best thing for me? That’s not what the book is about. The book is about politics, infectious diseases, climate change, adaptation, transformation, disfiguration, trauma, coming of age, mental health, love, friendship, and ALSO… queerness.

The protagonists of Wilder Girls are complicated. The relationships that exist between them and that the characters have with themselves are morally ambiguous and messy and raw… and this book isn’t even about all that. We are finally getting books that embody those aspects of queer life and community, but also have riveting, thought-provoking, surprising plotlines. This is one of the first times that I have ever felt myself reflected in a book in an authentic, multi-faceted way, and I am deeply grateful for the weird and wonderful experience that that was.

Listen. It surprises me more than anyone that 40 000 want to read about infectious queer girls sprouting gills and fighting over food and trying to save their friends from dying, literally. But I am here for it.

If you didn’t pre-order Wilder Girls, and you think that it’s your speed, don’t sleep on it. Your local bookshop can and should hook you up, and while you’re at it, put in a request at your local library, too. Out there, there’s a teenaged me who’s going to have a very different life than I did because this book landed in their hands early on.