Outside of those few who pull the strings, it's hard to imagine many in the book industry rejoicing at the latest round of mergers and acquisitions changing the shape of U.S. publishing. In just the past year and a half, for example, Bertelsmann bought Random House and merged it with Bantam Doubleday Dell and HarperCollins acquired Morrow/Avon. And although it never came to pass, Barnes & Noble's attempt to acquire Ingram Book Group caused a sea change in the world of wholesaling.
With each of these major consolidations, the ranks of editors, reps, and the marketing forces are inevitably shaken up, and booksellers have to deal with the consequences. They complain, among other things, that because of the mergers, there are:
--fewer sales reps covering more territory and presenting more titles; increased confusion over coop advertising;
--a greater amount of bookstores' inventory being controlled by fewer publishers;
--and declining midlist, which is narrowing diversity in American publishing.
"When a merger happens, there's so much confusion around it that it's actually more difficult to order books," noted Kathy Kirby, purchasing coordinator for Powell's. Unlike many other independent bookstores that have lost sales reps in the shakeups, Powell's, a $40-million-a-year empire occupying a city block on Burnside Street in
downtown Portland, is big and it's a local institution.
But the disruptions brought about through merger activities have made working with the publishers on midlist titles nearly impossible. Booksellers interviewed for this story complained that reps are new assignees, their territories have exploded in size and the lists of books to sell have doubled and tripled. Once a ritual to discover the next hot handsell, buying direct from publishers is now an ordeal. Going through a stack of catalogues with a Random House rep leaves many exhausted. Others mention that too frequently reps don't know the buzz on the books, nor is there any time to sift through for pearls.
"What's happening to the rep network is probably the most serious change that's taking place in the industry," confirmed Ed Morrow, owner of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt. "The rep network was a fantastic resource--culture seeds traveling around the country, spreading the word about books they became familiar with at sales
meetings and from buyers who had already read a galley or knew something about the author. That kind of fertilization was invaluable. That's withering on the vine at a fairly rapid pace."
At Kepler's Books and Magazines in Menlo Park, Calif., and Book People in Austin, Tex., buyers report that for the first time they are being assigned reps from as far away as Brooklyn, N.Y., and Washington, D.C. "Hardly someone we can just call up and get to meet with very easily," noted Peggy Hayley, a Book People buyer.
The changes in the way product is being presented to buyers is cutting off the small and medium-size independents from what's going on, says Mary Alice Gorman, who with her husband, Richard Goldman, runs Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa. Since the BDD-Random House merger, Gorman has lost both her children's rep and her specialty sales rep.
Mystery Lovers has nine book clubs that meet monthly and hosts a number of other community groups, including weekly school field trips. Gorman prides herself on knowing what's hot in her category. Right now, she says, young readers are clamoring for fantasy. But she wonders if she'll ever be able to communicate her market's needs to publishers like she did in the past, now that "the lifeblood's been sucked away."
Just a Call Away
With reps being cut from the small accounts, the publishers are increasingly using telephone reps with varying degrees of success. Though most prefer the interaction of a live human being, few objected to
telephone reps if they had the skill and the knowledge to help the booksellers.
While she's still searching for a Random Inc. rep, Gorman has a "terrifically good" tele-rep from Penguin Putnam, and for the first time this year she is gaining a tele-rep from HarperCollins--the first time HarperCollins has ever provided her a rep.
Clara Villarosa, who owns the Hue Man Experience, in Denver, Colo., had a very good telephone rep from Random House who she could count on for the buzz on African-American books. After the merger, he was replaced by an inexperienced tele-rep who did not know her product.
Like other booksellers who feel left out in the cold, Villarosa increasingly orders through wholesalers. Since the B&N-Ingram deal was first announced, booksellers report that a number of wholesalers, such as Baker & Taylor, Booksource and Bookpeople, are, unlike publishers, beefing up their service and being more proactive about frontlist titles. Says Hayley of the bookstore Book People in Austin, "When the Ingram merger was in the news, some of the distributors really stepped up and noticed that we'd transferred our business over to them. They said, 'We want to keep that business--what can we do?'"
Economies of Scale for Errors
Mergers and acquisitions have also caused confusion among booksellers about discounts, returns and co-op policies. The stakes are higher than ever before, as costly errors result when policies are unclear and orders are not consolidated properly. Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., and Kepler's in Menlo Park, Calif., have complained about "nightmarish" problems over shipments from publishers who have consolidated various warehouse operations under one roof. Says Karen Pennington of Kepler's, "When the corporation gets to a certain mass, it seems to have less and less control over what's going on, and if an independent bookstore doesn't have $20,000 to sustain that kind of
debt, it will be placed on hold. And the collections departments of 'the big guys' have no mercy.
"Let's face it, the book industry used to give a wink and a nod if you were a pretty good account," Pennington continued. "They'd let you stretch those 60 days. It never happens any more. The big account men are really running a tight ship on these big companies. If you're a day late, you're on hold. So we end up FedExing overnight, in some cases, just to keep a running balance. Leveraging against these huge debt loads becomes increasingly a brinkmanship game."
"I'm very skeptical about the big guys giving a hoot about the independent store," Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge, Raleigh, N.C., said. "They give a lot of lip service to it because there are some bestsellers that break out because of independents. But anymore, they just want their money fast."
That independent booksellers feel like pawns in the game of mergers and acquisitions is a surprise to few in the industry.
"When I came into this business some 20 years ago, there used to be a three-way dialogue between publishers, booksellers and authors," said Avin Domnitz, ABA CEO. "Now this conversation is a two-way conversation between corporate boardrooms of booksellers and corporate boardrooms of publishers."
"All the big publishers want the high profile book," said Brian Weese, owner of Bibelot, which has three stores in the Baltimore, Md., area. "All the houses want to grab that brass ring. They think that if they hit a home run with this book, it will clear up all the ills of the rest of the list that may not have performed as well as they wanted. A lot of times the book you pay a lot of money for doesn't necessarily translate into sales."
Though it may take a few more years to assess the impact of mergers on titles being published, some are beginning to see signs of homogenization. Kathy Kirby of Powell's noted, "There's a blandness this year that I've never noticed before. It's disturbing because that's what we feared would happen."
Diana Gilbert, owner of Books and Company in Oconomowoc, Wis., is more optimistic, hoping that the trend toward bigness will reach a saturation point--that at some point the players will become so bloated and so concentrated on one bestselling track that a shift will happen. "We all may read titles from the bestseller list from time to time, but we all don't want potato chips every day, three times a day," said Gilbert.
“I'm less alarmed by mergers than many other independents, only because there's so many other smaller publishers taking up the slack, picking up titles that are being rejected by the mega-publishers," said Ed Morrow.
With the erosion of the rep network, independent booksellers have rededicated themselves to the task of finding the pearls. Publishers singled out for astuteness in publishing and marketing included Walker & Co., Steerforth, Algonquin, Phaidon, Heyday and PGW. Grove/Atlantic continues to be a favorite of independents. Nancy Olson pointed to Grove's president: "I feel good working with people like Morgan
Entrekin, who not only says he appreciates independents, he shows it."
It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that corporate consolidations will lead to a renaissance of small press publishing, but the current industry environment would defy that notion. Domnitz said that the problem facing all small players--both booksellers and publishers—is that the bar for entry into the marketplace is so high that it can be very difficult for small presses to get attention. And they can be destroyed by returns from chain stores.
But smart marketing can work wonders. At stores like Bibelot in midsize media markets, owner Weese said, "We've got our own daily newspaper, NPR station and daytime talk shows that are all really hungry for authors. They'll take an author from New York, Montana or wherever, just to have someone on their show talking about books. We've established good connections with those shows and work with them closely."
At Walker & Co., editor Michael Seidman says, "I'm afraid I'm feeling rather self-satisfied." Since the mergers have heated up, he's hearing from more writers "who are absolutely panicstricken because they're getting cut, houses are being absorbed, and if writer X doesn't have figures that mea sure up to writer Y's, writer X is cut. I feel sorry for my publishing and author friends when it happens. I'm happy I stayed out of the big houses and work someplace small where our concern is writing and publishing, and not primarily whether Barnes & Noble will take it."
Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books in Berkeley, Calif., recently hired a new sales and marketing manager who had been with Ballantine for 10 years. Similarly, when Harper San Francisco consolidated, he says he had his pick of great editors. "I've often felt like a farm league for the large presses--an author or an employee will start with me and go on to the majors. This is the first time I'm seeing a reverse flow."
But like many other small publishers and booksellers, Margolin frames his recent experiences in the context of a bigger picture. "Anything that weakens the industry in general weakens every member of it, even if the initial fallout benefits us. To be in a healthy publishing environment with lots of diversity is just good for everyone."