note from MB: this extended aside was written as part of a longer post on the Business of Bookselling – the idea was compelling (to me) but not a good fit for the larger argument I was trying to make. Not one to be wasteful, I decided to pull it out for its own post. There isn’t an argument here (at least not a complete argument) (or a firm conclusion), but I feel the analogy might give some folks a new perspective on just how tough it is to sell books these days.
The Pie’s the Thing.
Let’s say I save my nickles and pennies and decide to open up a restaurant. I notice folks like pizza, so I decide to make it a pizza restaurant.
To keep things easy (on me and my staff) even before I open, I also decide it’s going to be a pizza buffet – one of those all-you-can-eat types — we pick the top 20 favorite pizza-topping-combinations, we arrange to have at least 10 of those 20 coming out hot and ready to eat multiple times throughout the lunch and dinner service, on a easily-browsed buffet line where you can see what we have and grab it. Cashier is to your left.
We’ll cycle through recipes to keep things interesting, so the next time you come in, you might not see an old favorite, but it’ll be back soon. With the recipes, a small staff, and a plan: we’re good to go. We advertise the pizza buffet, we open for business…
And our customers aren’t having any of it.
Instead of grabbing a plate and taking pizza off the buffet service line, everyone who comes in just grabs a table and waits. They demand someone comes to the table to take their order, even though (from the sign outside, to the service line inside, right down to how the tables are arranged and the whole restaurant is set up) it should be obvious this is a take-what-you-want buffet-style dinner service.
“You sell pizza here, don’t you? As soon as you send a waitress to my table, I’ll order.”
“What kind of restaurant are you running here? No one has been by to take my order and it’s been 5 minutes!”
…but sir, this is a buffet, you can just help yourself…
“NONSENSE. If you sell pizza, you have to be a full-service restaurant. That’s obvious. That’s the only way to sell pizza. Are you sure you know what you’re doing? … I’m Still Waiting…”
This is the Booksellers Conundrum — we do everything we can, to make the books easy to find, and all day long the customers ignore signs, refuse to walk more than 20 feet, and generally flop around the main aisle,
“Oh your store is *So Big*! How does one find anything?”
On top of that, no one can run a bookstore unless we also provide the equivalent of a research librarian with a graduate degree. “I need a book comparing the economic impacts of solar and other ‘green’ alternative energy sources vs the so-called cost savings we enjoy because fossil fuels are an established industry where historic investments and other sunk costs have already been repaid.”
come again? Of course that wasn’t a real question: the customer asked “Where are the books on solar energy?” — I didn’t get to what the customer *really* needed (the chunka-text above) until we’d been looking through the bookstore for a good 15 minutes. Pro-tip: if you’re writing a graduate paper on it, there likely isn’t a book about that specific topic yet.
“Yeah, I don’t have a title or author, but I need anything you might have on the import-export business, logistics, and agile business management.” “Yeah, I just heard an interview on the radio but I didn’t catch the author’s name but the book sounded really interesting, do you have it?” “This is great, but do you have any books on organic ostrich farming?”
[bored]hi my name is matt i am your waiter how can i serve you today.[/bored]
“Great! So it turns out everyone at the table wants something different but we’re not sure exactly what; say, instead of this menu can we see the pizzas? and you do sell by the slice, right?”
So. um. We’ve set up a beautiful buffet, and instead of looking at it [browsing the bookshelves] you want someone to tell you what’s on there, then bring the options to you so you can then critique our selections and tell us how bad we are at our jobs?
Oh, I’m not done with the pizza metaphor yet. Two weeks into running our buffet/sudden-full-service-pizzaria, the phone starts ringing.
“Hello, yes, I need 2 lbs. of buffalo mozzarella”
“yes 2 lbs. of buffalo mozzarella, can I pick it up this afternoon?”
“Surely this can’t be the first time you’ve been asked; you do sell pizza, right? I just need 2 lbs of buffalo mozzarella and I’d like to pick it up today.”
We do sell pizza, but, um, you want us to just sell you the ingredients?
“YES. Man you’re slow.”
But sir, we’re not really set up for…
“AHEM. So. You sell Pizza, yes?”
“And you use mozzarella, yes?”
“And so you have mozzarella for sale, yes? …yes?”
…um, when you put it that way…
“So I’ll be by in 2 hours – ah no wait, I’ll be busy – I’ll send someone by in 2 hours, just have my cheese ready for them to pick up.”
What? Ah, sir we sell pizzas…
“Well you certainly won’t be selling them very long if this is your attitude toward customer service. Hmf!”
The bookstore is set up for discovery. You come in, you browse, you read the jacket copy, maybe a chapter or two, and eventually: you buy. The bookstore is an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Our customers no longer treat us as such. Customers come in, cruise right up to the information desk, and they demand books (and get pissy when we’re sold out of, say, The Cuckoo’s Calling) or they get on the phone and treat us like a pizza place: “I need 12 copies of Maxwell’s Failing Forward and Bob the unpaid intern will be there by 2pm to pick them up. Oh, even better: can I give you my credit card over the phone? You don’t deliver, by the way, do you?”
Oddly enough: we weren’t set up for that.
Before you say, “Well that’s your job, isn’t it?” — How many retailers have 4 separate phone lines to handle the daily customer call volume? And please tell me which other retailers have an information desk? No, not a customer service desk, but an honest-to-god information desk where a part-timer making minimum wage is expected to routinely make recommendations based on their personal comprehensive knowledge of Literature, History, Philosophy, Religion, Sociology, Psychology, Technology, Foreign Languages, Pop Culture, what the kids are reading, what Oprah is reading — oh, and of course, at least some familiarity with the sentimental poetry of Alphonse de Lamartine.
The question at a retailer is, “which aisle has Peanut Butter?”
I don’t know what bookselling is anymore, but it ain’t retail. Retail is the income producing activity that funds the rest, but our job is not retail.
We will try to accommodate you as much as we can, but you’re treating an all-you-can-eat, $4.99 pizza lunch buffet like a personal caterer and specialty grocery store. Instead of enjoying the local neighborhood bookstore for what it is, and relishing that, *reveling* in it: everyone wants their local bookstore to also be the internet.
Yes, your local bookstore can and does do special orders. Why is this the obligation of bookstores, though? Say you heard of a trendy lipstick, one not carried locally — do you demand your local CVS special order it for you, have a clerk call you when it gets in, hold it for 2 weeks so you have plenty of time to pick it up — and not charge you anything if you change your mind, or forget and never pick it up, or find it cheaper online somewhere so there’s no need to buy it?
[back to food analogies]
Sizzle vs. Steak
One can order certain cuts of beef online, frozen, [I hate to advertise for a specific company; a search will pull up multiple vendors, or at least the one very large vendor] and for as little as $4 a meal, you can get steaks and burgers delivered to your home (packed in dry ice) ready for skillet or grill. Going to a warehouse-style store (CostCo or similar) you can likely get the same cuts at a discount, as little as $2 a pound, if you are willing to do a little work yourself in re-portioning and re-packaging and freezing.
Even at the local supermarket, by watching sales, I can manage $6-a-steak for a large hunk-of-entree (boneless rib-eyes are a personal fav) that can be cooked at home with minimal fuss.
And of course: That same hunk of meat will cost you $16 minimum, and maybe $20 or $25 at a fine dining establishment.
Same cow. Same meat. Same cut. $25. “But it costs me $6 at the grocery store! and hell, I bet I could go on the internet and mail-order that same steak for $2!”
One could argue that at the steak house, you’re paying for the sizzle, not the steak. The presentation, the expert preparation, the ideal sides, the experience. One certainly can order a steak online, sitting at home, and with some work, yes, indeed, it’s the same steak. But that $25 buys you more, a lot more (subjectively), when you get the same steak at a steak house.
What does this have to do with books?
[besides an obvious parallel price point, he asked, knowingly]
When you buy a hardcover book, in its first week of release, even discounted [as they inevitably are these days] you’re still paying $20 for what-is-eventually-going-to-be-a-$7-book for what, exactly?
Well, obviously, it’s a physical book and you get to read it. As a physical book, others see you reading it. You can lend it out when you’re done, or leave it on the coffee table so your guests can see what you’re reading. When you put it on your shelf at home, visitors to your home can see that you didn’t wait for the paperback: you like this author enough to buy it in hardcover.
You spent $20 for the sizzle, not the steak.
In an age where the ebook releases simultaneously with the hardcover and immediately undercuts it on price (whether we’re talking $16 or $14 or $9.99) — the portion of the market that buys New-York-Times-Bestselling-Author hardcovers on the day of release is still the same. By analogy: the market for $25 steaks is not the same as the market for raw meat. There will always be a opening in whatever market for the “sizzle”.
And all other things being equal, why would someone buy a book at a bookstore when there is an e-book version available for less? That’s a philosophical question.
Why would someone buy a CD for $12.99 when the same music is available from iTunes for $8.99? Do they not use iTunes? Do they not like iTunes? Do they just want a physical copy that they own without the digital nonsense?
Maybe they like the flexibility of a book, not tied to a device. Maybe they’re my grandma, and they don’t have the requisite device.
Maybe they come to the bookstore because we stock books — a great big beautiful book buffet — and the fact that such a place exists in their neighborhood is reason enough to go there, and shop there, and yes, buy the so-called “overpriced” version.
There are a whole lot of folks (up to and including all of Wall Street) willing to conflate mail-order with retail – to the detriment of both. Analysts and journalists who aren’t really readers themselves (I can tell) are more than willing to dump all over book retail, present their own opinions as market realities, and declare the bookstore dead before they themselves even bother to walk into one.