Thursday, January 8, 2009

More on Stacey's and My Time in Children's Publishing

I stopped into Stacey’s yesterday on a whim. I’m tempted to stop in every day I’m at work from now until they close just because I can and because I think it would be interesting to watch in sort of a train-wreck-in-slow-motion sort of way.

There were no visible signs that the venerable old shop was closing. In fact, the place was packed, I suppose from all that free advertising from the news media reporting on their demise. Maybe they should’ve announced they were going under sooner.

I worked at a small toy company called MerryMakers for about 8 years. They made and still make mostly plush dolls based on children’s book characters. It’s a very small company. For most of the time I worked there I was the only full-time employee other than my boss, the woman who started the company. As a result I had a ring-side seat for the bunny-eat-bunny world of children’s publishing as well as the publishing and bookseller world in general. At one time or another I knew the name of just about every independent bookseller in the country with a children’s book department of appreciable size, and I probably knew the name of their buyer. Maybe I didn’t have encyclopedic recall of those facts, but if so-and-so from such-and-such called up, I probably recognized their voice. I am, after all, terrible with names.

We were on any number of listserv’s at the office that plugged up our inboxes with emails from one children’s bookstore to another about various things. We rarely chimed in, but it was like having a tap on their phones. I wish I had saved the flurry of emails that went around in anticipation of the release of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. As I recall the prevailing debate centered on whether or not to charge people just for attending their release parties. The problem, you see, that these booksellers had experienced firsthand for previous Harry Potter releases, was that parents would bring their children to the small independent bookseller’s release party (that said bookseller would spend a lot of money to throw) and then at the stroke of midnight they’d pack the kids up into the car and stop off at the local Walmart on the way home and buy the book at half price.

So the question was, do you have your party for free and risk losing the sale to Walmart or do you charge for the party and risk alienating your customer base?

I remember the day Half Blood Prince came out, my boss came back to the office after having purchased it at the local independent bookstore down the block all mad that she’d paid full price. “Why should I pay full-price there when I can go to Walmart and get it for half? That’s why these independents are going under. If they can’t reduce their prices, why should I shop there?”

I was astounded. The independent bookstores HAD to sell that book at full price. It was their Christmas. They had to make all their money for the year on that release. Costco or Walmart could afford to sell it at a loss. They weren’t making money off the book. They were making money off the diapers, jeans, and 2-Liters of Diet Coke people bought as long as they were there buying the book. If you went into an independent to buy Harry Potter, that’s all you were buying. You weren’t going to impulse buy something else. You weren’t going to noodle around and pick out a few other books while you were there. If they sold the book at a loss, they’d just eat that loss.

And that of course is the problem with your average independent bookstore. All they have is books. Amazon has EVERY book. They can’t compete with that. Borders and Barnes & Noble have big inviting stores that encourage you to stay a while, read a book, have a coffee. The longer you stay, the more likely you are to buy something. They have gifts. They have music. They get you in the door for the deep discount on Harry Potter and make money off the Mocha you buy at the café.

Would Stacey’s have survived if it had a café and CD’s? I doubt it given that Borders is in dire straits at the moment. They were something of a dying breed: a general interest independent bookstore. They didn’t have a niche or focus that made them THE place to go if you wanted a book on something specific. I wonder how Alexander Book Company is doing, just around the corner. They also sell college text books and have a rather large selection of African-American Romance novels. They seem to have found a niche. Maybe if Stacey’s had a bar. I read somewhere (although a quick googling has revealed nothing) that some considered that the new thing in bookstores, serving beer and wine. That’s not a new idea, really. Kramerbooks & Afterwards has been doing it quite successfully since 1976. If you’re in DC check it out. It’s a great place.

Stacey’s was trying to be the independents Barnes & Noble, right down to the décor, and it worked for them, for a while, but not well enough to survive the worst economy in a generation.

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In 1789, the governor of Australia granted land and some animals to James Ruse in an experiment to see how long it would take him to support himself. Within 15 months he had become self sufficient. The area is still known as Experiment Farm. This is my Experiment Farm to see how long it will take me to support myself by writing.