Archive for January, 2010

Knowing The Industry Well Hasn’t Helped My Own Book Get Published

Two years ago I had an unexpected and impromptu meeting with a gentleman whose company publishes something in the range of 400 print-on-demand Christian titles per year.   We talked about a variety of issues impacting our industry, but then, a day later, a thought occurred to me which simply hadn’t up to that point:   Taking the notes from a seminar I was preparing, The Pornography Effect and putting it into print form.

He suggested I go ahead and convert part of the notes into manuscript form so he would have an idea what was under consideration, and within a few more days, he had a draft version of the first three chapters in his hands.

I should explain at this point that I immediately envisioned any print version of this as a kind of “crisis” book.   You may have noticed that many of the grief or consolation or “issues” books you sell are on the short side, with many of them being mere booklets.    This one, I guessed, would clock in around 23-25,000 words.

His reply totally took me off guard.   He believed strongly in the necessity and the value of my proposal.   Too much so, perhaps.   He said he saw this as something that far exceeded what he, as a niche-market print-on-demand publisher could do.

Instead, he said, “I see this being sold in packages of four or five, with every pastor having several copies on their desk that they can give out when someone comes into their office in this situation.”

At this point, I should explain that The Pornography Effect‘s subtitle is actually, Understanding for the Wives, Daughters, Mothers, Sisters and Girlfriends. It’s a project that doesn’t so much target men who are online addicts — though I expect about a third of readers would end up being that anyway — as it targets women who are the ‘collateral damage’ of some male’s misuse of the internet.

So my new publisher friend basically tossed the ball back into my court, with the added stress of looking for publishers who have a history of doing multi-copy sets, or — an extension of the idea that I added — doing bargain priced or promotional priced titles.

Through a series of connections, I was able to get the full book — 15 short chapters — read at InterVarsity Press.   As expected, it didn’t have the intellectual or academic qualifications to bear the IVP brand.   (With the goal of accessibility, there are no footnotes, though there is a large  bibliography and references to works contained in the text itself.)   Furthermore, publishers are looking for authors who have an established platform.   Breaking in new talent is tough in a slower economy.   Contacts with three other publishers who met the multi-pack or promotional price criteria led nowhere.   There are a lot of people out there hawking books right now.

But I felt — and still do — that the topic itself was important enough to carry it through to meaningful sales numbers.    So I bit the bullet and decided to look into other print-on-demand publishers who were committed to the larger Christian market, as opposed to my original contact, whose 400+ titles are more academic.

That’s where it became rather frustrating.   As a bookseller I only wanted to clarify two things:

  • The book would be available to Ingram and STL such that they could pass it through to retailers at full trade discount (or really close), and
  • The book would get listed with CBD, more for credibility since Ingram carries such a wide variety of product.

I wasn’t concerned about anything else, and at that point I was quite prepared to take or leave whatever they offered in terms of Amazon.

As to the actual production, I had a recognized artist willing to do a very particular duo-chromatic cover illustration, but would want the publisher to do everything else.   I wanted to keep the retail price low because of the above considerations, and the book’s aforementioned size, and I was willing to sacrifice some of the normal royalty percentages to make this happen.

What do you think happened next?

The answer is, nothing.   I mean that to this very day these companies that print just about anything writers feed them have never answered a single e-mail.   They’ve kept me on e-mail lists for upcoming special offers, but replying to e-mails or phone calls seems quite outside the scope of their efforts.

These companies — which I won’t name — are looking to feed manuscripts in one end of a machine and have books come out the other, and if you want anything over and above that in terms of service, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

This surprises me, because I think with a topic like Pornography, you’re looking at moving a lot of product.

On April 30th, 2008; frustrated and disillusioned, I created a WordPress blog page and uploaded the entire book — actually version 1.0, not the one I would publish today — onto a blog.    I did the last chapters first so that, on a blog, everything would appear in order.

And there it sits.    Every day a handful of people read it.   I think it presents a unique perspective on some aspects of this topic that you simply won’t read elsewhere.    But the print version continues to elude us.

Until the self-publish, print-on-demand industry is willing to take author proposals seriously, and learn to answer e-mails and phone calls, then I truly don’t see it ever attaining parity with its counterparts in the larger publishing world.    What you’ll see instead is books available which were rushed to market at the cost of reasonable product development.  I think there are some great partnerships that can develop between print on demand publishers and local bookstores, but the stores have to know who they can refer their customers to with confidence; after all these future authors are still existing customers and stores have to live with the responsibility for recommendations they make.    Print-on-demand publishers, on the other hand, need to learn the moral decency of dealing with the mountains of correspondence their type of business is bound to attract.

This article is the continuation of some thoughts initiated two days ago on this blog.

If you or someone you know might benefit from reading version 1.0 of The Pornography Effect click here.

Related: Author Sarah Bolme Appears on Christian Authors Show to Discuss Marketing Books To Christians

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What Ontario Stores Will Be Doing One Year From Now

Ontario is Canada’s most populous province, and on this weekend one year from now, if they haven’t done so already, store owners in Ontario (and also British Columbia) will be completing their second-ever combined tax (as in PST + GST = HST) return and their first for the critical fourth-quarter retail sales.

In Ontario, most stores remit PST monthly or bi-monthly, so this means large amounts of funds are going to have been accumulating throughout the busy fourth quarter.   And for the first time, stores won’t be receiving compensation for the provincial portion of tax collected.

On the other hand, stores will also have paid the provincial portion in their wholesale purchases.   In Ontario, the provincial tax portion becomes another value-added tax.   Many stores don’t realize this, thinking in terms of the exemption certificates which now apply.  They won’t after July 1st, 2010.    So like the GST, your return should be tempered by the fact that it really amounts to the difference between tax paid out and the tax collected.

So should stores stock up on inventory before June 30th which they can buy exempt of the provincial input, or should they stock up after July 1st when they’ll be charged a provincial portion but it becomes somewhat deductible?

I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to that when it comes to inventory as opposed to expenses.   Clearly when it comes to expense items, there may be advantages to being able to claim the provincial portion as inputs, but currently provincial taxes become part of the expense itself.   The whole thing, the more you think about it, is somewhat neutral.

The advantage to buying inventory before June 30th would be greater if it’s inventory you don’t expect to sell quickly.   Why you would be doing this in the present economy is another question, but if a supplier is offering you a deal on boxed Christmas cards and you have before or after delivery options, you might not want to tie the additional tax portion of the cost up for four or five months.   A May delivery would be preferable to one in July.

Again, these differences may be moot.    In terms of short-term financing however, stores need to remember that every invoice for non-book items including music, DVDs, giftware, cards, accessories, bookmarks, etc., will be 8% higher after July 1st., and those inputs aren’t deductible until you file the third quarter return sometime in October.

Another adjustment will apply to stores which occasionally make small retail purchases in other markets — or from competitors — treating the seller as a wholesaler.   Currently, it’s easier to do this with books, since doing so on other product types means either disclosing your intent through the request for tax exemption (i.e. completing a certificate) or taking a loss on the provincial tax portion.    Under this system, the provincial portion now becomes an input credit, there are no certificates, and the seller doesn’t need to know you’re buying for resale.   Signs stating, “No Dealers Please” take on new meaning.

Stores in the maritime provinces who’ve been down this road can tell us if there’s any other considerations we want to make in terms of the actual HST conversion date.    Your comments are invited.

My personal opinion?   The value-added tax will prove to be a cash cow for provincial governments in Ontario and BC to the point where there is no need to retain the rate at 8%.   Rather, 7% (for a combined HST of 12%) ought to be a maximum.   If that sounds extreme, remember that Alberta has never had a provincial tax and doesn’t want one.

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Zondervan and Baker Launch Community for Unpublished Authors

January 29, 2010 3 comments

Yesterday in a joint announcement in Grand Rapids, Zondervan and Baker announced the formation of an online Christian community within an already existing web platform pioneered by Zondervan’s parent, HarperCollins, in the UK. — don’t think of capitalizing the ‘a’ — was established to allow unpublished authors to upload both completed and incomplete manuscripts to the site, but to separate the committed from the uncommitted, requires a minimum of 10,000 words.

That’s where it becomes confusing however, because the site doesn’t permit massive uploads all at once, and seems to have some built-in issues with chapter titles, prefaces and forewords.    There are also issues with how the site interprets format tags and carry-over HTML information from other applications, resulting in uploads that don’t look right and can’t be edited, nor can the site accept manuscripts that contain charts, diagrams, pictures or illustrations.   On the other hand, writers must supply some kind of bare bones cover image.

In its present form, HarperCollins UK doesn’t actually read any of the manuscripts posted — at least not immediately — but relies on comments and online activity to gauge whether something is worthy of closer examination.   Presumably Zondervan and Baker will use similar criteria.   Writers can’t control comments except for editing which ones appear in the more dominant positions in that section.

While the most popular books in each category — writers can designate up to four — are ranked on a regular basis, an algorithm in the system also ranks people making the comments to see “who the trendspotters are.”

Anyone can then read the books online free of charge.  The service is also free to the authors and open to people around the world.

Thursday’s press release claims the service, which is over a year old in the UK has “150,000 users …and more than 10,000 manuscripts have been uploaded.”

Personally, I know what it’s like to have a book available for free reading online.  I’ve had a manuscript — version 1.0 of one anyway — posted online now for nearly two years.   The Pornography Effect has attracted many readers, but nothing close to the numbers that would have been achieved had we completed a deal for a print version, so for authors wanting to reach a wide audience, this type of format is still somewhat limited.    Sometime in March, version 2.0 will be launched and, absent any other offers, we might just try this one ourselves.

The appeal with is that writers will value the affiliation with two well known publishers, and the knowledge that getting their book into the top five insures a hard-to-get reading from Baker or Zondervan editors.

This weekend at Christian Book Shop Talk:

Since we got into the topic of my own book, this weekend, I’ll explain why someone so connected with publishers couldn’t get the rather unique publishing event off the ground; and why the print-on-demand and self-publishing industry is only looking for certain types of customers.

Beating the Competition

I thought it was rather strange that sales people were out selling 2010 Christmas cards in January until one such person explained the necessity of getting there before the competition does.

I was once so naive as to believe the real reason was to determine production quantities for items that need to be printed in advance.   I’m sure that’s still a factor.   But I’d never considered the possibility that it was also part of a race to get buyers to sign on the dotted line.

Strangely enough it was something entirely different that got me posting this today.   I noticed that another major publisher has signed a young blogger for a title releasing in the fall that is, well (a) not exactly clear in its intent from either the title or background information; (b) not a well considered premise, because the writer is rather young and obviously inexperienced; (c) not exactly needed, in the sense it will get lost with so many other attempts at signing “cool” next generation authors; probably won’t say anything new; and addresses a need which I don’t think exists.

It then occurred to me that — like their counterparts on the sales end of things; out flogging Christmas cards in January — the acquisition departments of major publishers have got to get to some of these younger writers before anyone else does.    It is 100.00% the same principle.

Don’t get me wrong:

  • I’m glad Jon Acuff’s book is coming out because he’s got a huge following onlineand lots of talent; Jon is one of those naturally funny people who also has some depth.
  • I’m glad bloggers like Andrew Jones have a platform to say things about the Emergent church at the store level that we’re already reading online.
  • I’m glad pastors like Pete Wilson at Crosspoint in Nashville are recognized and perhaps even somewhat legitimized through the Christian publishing industry;  Pete has a great heart.

The cream definitely rises to the top in these cases.    But the one I saw today… I’m not sure that the project was totally thought through.   I think it was a case where an acquisitions editor simply hadn’t signed someone that month and felt he/she had a quota to fill.

We can always hope between now and the fall it gets put on hold.   Then again, I’d hate to be the guy who inadvertently rejects the next Donald Miller, or one of the two dozen Christian publishers who rejected Shack. I know it can’t be easy.

But then again, this one is really “out there.”   Anyway… gotta run and work on my Christmas card order.

Why Articles Aren’t Tagged
Most articles in Christian Book Shop Talk appear without search tags or category tags, though many still get picked up by web-crawl and appear in search engines.   The reason for this is that I consider this an industry blog, not designed for general consumption.   However, there is a search feature on the sidebar that allows you to type in any word and get an index of posts containing that word, name or topic.   It gets somewhat lost in the appearance of this particular blog, but it works well.
~Paul Wilkinson
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Why Christian Bookstores Need to Rethink Frontlist

Instead of doing more with less, we’re now faced with doing more with more.

Note: This is part two of an theme begun two days ago.

Two rather obvious trends dominated Christian publishing over the last several years:

  1. The more successful it was in the Christian book (CBA) market, the more likely that major retailers — especially online and big-box stores — wanted a piece of it.    Moving forward they might not notice titles 21-40, but items 1-20 on any Christian retail list are firmly on their radar.   Many Christian retailers have focused instead on the secondary tier of titles.
  2. An continually increasing number of titles are now print-on-demand and many of the short discounts associated with this technology are giving way to publishers offering full(er) discounts.   By definition — mostly doctrinal — the Christian market is fragmented a gazillion different ways, and a mix of new social media and old order media is generating demand for the broadest array of author viewpoints.

Each of these two trends brings consequences:

  1. If you’re an author who wants sales in the CBA marketplace, you may be better to be in that secondary 21-40 tier than to be noticed by mainstream retail.   Some stores are wary of investing liberally in a runaway (i.e. The Shack) when everybody else in town has it, too.   Better to invest that money in niche products that will connect with Christian customers.   Remember, authors:  the return rate from those big stores is huge, so why lose Christian bookstore sales by virtue of being there?
  2. While the top ten lists once included sales numbers that were geometrically higher (i.e. number two was selling ten times number three, and number one was five times number two) market fragmentation means that the numbers are more spread out, more arithmetically higher (i.e. number one sold 1,540 copies more than number two, which sold 821 copies more than number three.)  The awarding of a “Number One” title is more easily obtained and perhaps not as significant, while at the same time, the term “out of print” is inching its way out of our vocabulary.   Instead of doing “more with less” we’re now faced with having to do “more with more.”

While there will continue to be the Veggie Tales DVDs, the Gaither Gospel music products, the Left Behind types of book series and the various Shacks, the bottom line is that on a day-to-day basis, frontlist (and the energy creating frontlist displays)  isn’t as vital as our ability to find stock on the shelves for customers and to process orders efficiently, knowledgeably, and quickly.

We need to be able to look at proposed “A” list titles with a cavalier, “Who Cares?” type of attitude, not because we’re not going to stock them, but because in the future,  we’re not going to find retail salvation in getting excited about end-cap displays and street date launches.   In some stores, where space is compromised, this might mean the end of “face out” book display, in favor of library-style, spine-out selection.  In others, it might mean ‘creating’ your own best-sellers with titles your staff and managers believe in, or mining the backlist of perennial titles for something missed the first time around.

Instead, we’re going to find the business part of our ministry succeeding because of our ability to “mend the nets” and do retail with a much broader range of titles, rather than fretting over whether or not there are any Amish romances out there we haven’t ordered in massive quantities.

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Bumper Stickers We’d Like To See

Jon Acuff at Stuff Christians Like has some great ideas for Christian bumper stickers, along with a checklist to see how what’s on your car rates.   Here’s his suggestions:

1. “Quit judging! I direct deposit my tithe.”
2. “Sorry I cut you off. I’m a Christian, but I drive like an agnostic.”
3. “My other car is a chariot of fire.”
4. “In case of rapture, I’m not sure reading this bumper sticker is a top priority for you.”
5. “Another Sunday Morning Jogger/Saturday Night Church Attendee”
6. “God created it. The Bible said it. My wife and I are doing it. SEX.”
7. “A hedge of protection is my car insurance. Seriously, I’m uninsured.”
8. “I’ve got GPS. God Prayer System!”

OK, that last one was a little cheesy, but that’s what happens when you write Christian bumper stickers.

You can read the whole article with the 24-point checklist here. You might just get addicted to SCL and want to increase your Zondervan order for the book!

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Why a Collapse of the “Street Date” System Needs to Happen Immediately

January 25, 2010 1 comment

The purpose of “release dates” aka “lay-down dates” aka “street dates” is so that no retailer has an advantage over any other retailer simply just because the contingencies of shipping mean they got their new title parcel sooner.   It also builds anticipation and helps marketers to focus promotion and publicity efforts.

And it has become meaningless.

One online retailer has already been selling the product for months in advance.   The transaction is, for all intents and purposes, already completed.    The buyer has made a commitment to purchase, and has locked in a price and a means of payment.

This is an advantage traditional retailers don’t have.   In the Christian book industry, there have been some rather lame and rather pathetic attempts to counter this with “advance order pads” with forms which can be filled out, and the customer is then notified when the product arrives.     But the customer is free to bail at that point.   They have not truly locked in their purchase.

Should you be keeping stacks of books on a stockroom shelf awaiting a street date when your competitor has been selling it for weeks?   (Or in this case, what will have been more than a full year?)

The answer is no.   You don’t owe anybody that courtesy, but that courtesy was not extended to your business.    A situation evolved whereby the mechanics of selling online defied the spirit of release dates. You were disadvantaged in that process.   Furthermore, the market leaders of that process enjoy a nurturing and support from the publishers that exceeds anything you can imagine.

Of course, you can go into online commerce yourself, and simply play the new paradigm by its rules.    Or you can simply opt to get off the roller coaster.

How?   Tomorrow I’ll post part two to this discussion, “Why Christian Bookstores No Longer Need Frontlist.”     The revolving door of new releases may no longer be where the action is in a new bookselling economy.

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Bookstore as Spiritual Community

Today two of my staff members are taking the time to drive to a city about 50 miles (90 km) away to visit a customer in hospital with bone cancer.    Many years ago, I visited a woman in hospital knowing that she had no other church affiliation at the time.

But I’m sure you could tell me stories where you or your staff have done this is as well.    It’s a reminder that there is so much more than retail commerce going on.

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How To Frustrate Retail Music Buyers

I was considering reviewing These Simple Truths by Sidewalk Prophets on my personal blog.   I listened to the album three times on Friday while driving to Toronto and back and it’s easy to see why this band is catching on with so many fans.   A popular music style combines with solid Christian lyrics.

But when I tried to retrieve an image from Ingram just now, I couldn’t ignore the irony of their use of a copy clearly stickered $9.99, while they’re selling it at $11.99.    Remember, this is the distributor that does the best job when it comes to product images.

I do wonder about the price, though.    STL doesn’t carry it at all, so there was no comparison available there.     Wonder why.   I checked several different ways.  It’s $14.99 CDN at Cook.

Also checked out a Gilbert Morris omnibus from Barbour today that was $24.99 at Ingram, but only $19.97 at STL.   As wholesale buyers, it does pay to shop around.

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Amazon Collateral Damage in Real Terms

January 22, 2010 2 comments

Yesterday, for about 30 minutes, I was interviewed by a U.S. magazine about the larger issues affecting stores in the wake of massive online and big-box-store discounting.    It was enjoyable discussion — it’s always nice to be asked your opinion — but it was nothing compared to what it might have been had we talked 24 hours later.

You see, in the meantime, I got an email from one of my church accounts.   It was the email that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.    The wording of it was similar to many others from them over the past 120 days:  Your prices are too high.

We’ve discussed the broader issues of keeping a store in the community with them, and we introduced a “WebMatch” program for all our churches that was created largely due to this one church.    In the end, they agreed to give us a “first pass” on all their book and Bible needs.

Today, we decided to give them a pass.

Their stewardship issues totally overshadow any ministry concern for keeping a store in their community.   They are giving us a “first pass” opportunity to quote prices, but as long as the A-word (no, not that word…) prices are so vastly different, we’re not considered to be playing in the same ballpark.

What makes this especially ironic is that our stores are broadly advertised as publisher outlet and clearance locations.   85% of our current book intake is red-tagged specials.   We are known far and wide for our discounting.    It just doesn’t apply to the titles they want.   (Although in the last two cases it actually did, but such as the remainder market is, didn’t apply to the titles when they wanted them.   There were overstock copies available the week before and the week after in both cases, but it wasn’t good enough because they’d left their request to the last minute.)

So this afternoon they received this:

After giving careful consideration to this decision, we have decided to release ———–  from any obligation to continue to support Searchlight Christian Books.

We have to weigh your stewardship issues against the long-term survival of the store, and feel at this point it would be better if you simply were free to pursue other options without having to receive matching price quotations from us.   In other words, this present process is breaking my wife and I (not in a financial way, but in terms of our spirits) and we simply don’t want to be part of this any longer.

To formalize this, I am taking the unusual step of closing your account as of 5:30 PM, Friday, January 22nd, 2010.   We simply don’t want to engage in any financial transactions when clearly, in your eyes, we are not able to provide items at the prices you want.   This removes any obligation on your part to feel you have to support the Christian bookstore in our county.

It’s extreme, I know, but these people were breaking our spirits in the process and we simply want to focus our attention moving forward on people who actually need us. As a bookseller, you simply don’t have to put up with this, nor do you have the time or mental energies.

Then again, maybe that other a-word does apply somewhere in this story.   Sorry, I’m just really ticked off right now with what our industry has devolved to.

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Christianity Today Celebrates “Top Books” You’ve Never Carried

Mark Noll.   Richard Foster.   William Craig Lane.   Doestovesky.  Gordon Fee.

It’s a strong list of authors; it’s a list of books with substance; but the Christianity Today Book Awards for 2009* aren’t the titles you’re selling by the caseload, unless you have a very strong pastor clientele.    Even in the blogosphere, where a lot of book-interest is currently being generated, only Deep Church by Jim Belcher (IVP) has evoked recent interest.

For the sake of those reading the list, I couldn’t resist adding this comment:

As always, critics’ lists tends to be both esoteric and eclectic. Digging into deeper reading is always good for spiritual health, but if you’re not directly involved in vocational ministry, don’t feel bad if this list presents titles which are totally foreign to you.

Rightly or wrongly, what happens in the bookstore environment tends to be a quite different universe from what interests journalists and reviewers.   Yes, it’s true, we do sell much that academics would consider somewhat pedestrian.

However, I would expect these world to intersect to a greater degree.   Is that just a liability when magazines publish lists like this or does it say something about our customers, our stores,  or about all of us as readers?

*Click the link to read the entire list.

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How To Survive a Christian Bookstore

January 20, 2010 1 comment

Apparently the places you and I work actually frighten some people.

Blogger Andrew Jones, aka Tall Skinny Kiwi offers what is apparently the first of at least a two part series wherein the usually not so humorous blogger makes our stores sound like the Haunted Mansion at Disney World.

You can — if you dare — read his comments at this link, and we’ll add other parts to this if and when he posts them.

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