On Saturday past, CANAV launched Aviation in Canada: Bombing and Coastal Operations Overseas 1939-1945. The usual fun was had at Legion Branch 527 and that’s now history. Thanks to the fine citizens who showed up for a beer and the best Legion sandwiches in town. The first 300 books are now fanning out across the land, from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, and the feedback is already more than enough to make a publisher beam.
Other October news is how Indigo Books and Music, that darling of the CBC, is again beating on Canada’s book publishers. This is no big revelation, since the chains from the rotten old days of Coles and W.H. Smith have always been the book biz bullies. If there was a successful Canadian independent, the chains would squish it, if not with a buy-out, then by opening around the corner and offering deep discounts.
This time, according to a Toronto Star “Business & Careers” item of October 11, Indigo will shorten the time it will keep a book on the shelf before “returning” it to the publisher. The “returns” policy has helped kill off any number of Canadian publishers, including the biggest, General Publishing/ Stoddard, which went under in 2002. Such smaller publishers as Vanwell were forced to find some other way to make a living after one too many 70-foot trailers full of unsold books rolled up to their receiving dock from Indigo.
Publishers count dearly on books going out into the stores to actually be sold (now there’s a novel idea, booksellers). Returns are the bane of the publishers, just the worst and often the process is inscrutable. Once I shipped 500 copies of my new CF-100 book to W.H. Smith in good time for the 1981 pre-Christmas book buying period. In the new year all 500 came back, not one box ever opened. A few weeks later the chain wanted 600 more copies of the same book, so what goes on! After a couple of even stupider W.H. Smith stunts, CANAV decided to cease trading with the chains. For years I would urge my fellow publishers to do the same — simply cut off the chains until they accept the fact that business is a 2-way street. But the publishers have no balls, which must make Indigo split its corporate sides in glee. It orders the publishers to grovel, and the publishers grovel.
The publishers will stay on their knees, too. They are not a proactive bunch. They’d never do anything radical, no direct action. Instead, after today’s announcement, at best they’ll bleat and moan and groan to some useless functionary in Ottawa, and maybe try to get some sort of enquiry going at the taxpayers’ expense.
When CANAV began in 1981, Canada had a thriving book publishing industry. But, nearly every member listed in that year’s Canadian Book Publishers Association directory has since failed, in large part on account of the brutal business practices of the chains, and their own fear of standing up to them. This is all well covered in a book that every interested Canadian should read — Roy MacSkimming’s 2003 The Perilous Trade: Book Publishing in Canada 1946-2006. Here is a story of adventuresome, creative, principled, loyal, old-time Canadians gradually brought low by such self-inflicted wounds as failed management, but also by book chain blitzkrieg. Get yourself a copy of this first-class exposé. Perilous Trade is “OP” — out of print — but I see lots of affordable copies for sale on the internet.
Besides a frontal assault on the publishers regarding returns, Indigo also announced that it will start charging the publishers a 4% tax on each book sold. Can you beat that! Indigo already beats the publishers down for gross discounts, returns mountains of books (many in damaged condition), charges extra to display a book face out, now it wants to tax the publishers for selling their books. Just swell and thank you Indigo, eh! “Beat us some more, we love it,” I can just hear the the publishers chanting.
Yo, publishers! Stop shipping books on consignment. Give it up and take command. Start demanding that a purchase order received from Indigo, etc., is real currency, a contract, not a worthless piece of paper. A concerted effort by the book publishers could turn the tables on the booksellers.
And Indigo … how about just put some energy into selling more books, instead of picking the publisher’s pockets for farthings? Here’s a case in point. In 1983 CANAV published The De Havilland Canada Story. Soon the first printing was sold out. Here’s how that worked. In three Toronto W.H. Smith stores there were enlightened managers who stacked the books up prominently, 1 or 2 cases at a time, and no extra charge for that. One fellow had a big pile right beside the cash register. Guess what, the books flew out the door. So maybe hire some gung-ho managers and start selling some volume, instead of whacking your suppliers on the head with a 2 x 4 and grabbing another 4%.
Sad to say, I have to call the booksellers (big or small) “the people who pretend to buy books, then pretend to pay for them”. Early in 2000 one of Toronto’s renowned independent booksellers wanted five copies of De Havilland in Canada. These were shipped and paid for — two years later. I occasionally would call the owner (another of the CBC’s darlings) and he would put me off. First it was “We’ll pay you when we sell the last copy.” Eventually, there were other excuses. Finally, one day the dope agreed to pay, long after the 5 books had been sold. “Just super,” I said. “Pop a cheque in the mail and thanks a million.” “Not so fast, chum,” was his reply. “You’ll get your cheque when you come downtown to the shop.” Well … maybe the independents really do deserve to be squished by Indigo, I must have thought! So I got on the subway, presented myself at the shop and was obliged to wait two hours for a cheque. Eventually, CANAV generally ceased dealing with booksellers, right down to the smallest. It’s simply not worth the aggravation. Independents who want CANAV titles must pay in advance. And so they do, when they have good customers wanting CANAV titles. And … CANAV accepts no returns, the way it should be across the trade. So get with it Canadian book publishers … returns are for the birds. Turn your business mentality around — fight fire with fire — if you want the pain to ever stop. Meanwhile, hope you’re all havin’ fun out there … Larry