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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