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A Learning Experience

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Having attended two meetings in San Francisco recently, I thought I would
share valuable information with the membership.

The first meeting was on “the future of distribution” and featured the
marketing director of NBN and Susan Reich of PGW and Harper SF. Some
interesting comments:

  • Unless you have $15 million in sales, you will need a distributor to deal
    with the problem of receivables and to get your books into the ever-expanding
    chains.
  • Watch your distributor’s bottom line. Generally in contracts publishers
    have them paying in 90 days, but many distributors are not getting paid by
    bookstores for 107 days. The extra two weeks puts them in a precarious
    cash-flow position. (This is probably part of what happened with Atrium.)
  • Ingram is devising a scheme whereby it will obtain book film from
    publishers and then print for customers on demand. This elicited an audible
    gasp from publishers in the audience. (The rumor was later independently
    reiterated by another person at the second event.)
  • No one has a clue as to where the book industry is heading, but everyone
    agreed that smaller presses must diligently work all the non-bookstore venues
    they can find: sub-rights, serial rights, foreign rights, non-bookstore
    accounts, special sales.
  • It is hard to get into chains, and to do so at a minimum, you must have
    your entire marketing plan in place five months or more ahead of pub date.
    You must be able to demonstrate credibility and a track record. Everyone
    agreed that book buyers remember every last slight and broken promise.

The second event was slated as being about online publishing, but it was
really more about online marketing. People attending were a Nolo Press
webmeister, an Amazon VP, the Organic Inc. site designer, an O’Reilly
marketing person, a HardWire publicist, etc.

  • Amazon will put up graphics, text blurbs, reviews, just about anything
    publishers provide. They are trying to create a bookstore ambience online.
    Apparently the Ingram warehouse is right next door. Orders that come in by
    midnight are delivered to Amazon by the next morning, and then shipped to
    customers — a very efficient operation that had publishers in the audience
    salivating.
  • No one is making money on the Internet (surprise!).
  • The HardWired site is being set up on the cheap.
  • Borders and Barnes and Noble are both planning Amazon-like Internetbookstores.
  • Traditional independent booksellers will survive only by creating a local
    community/gathering place. With books available at a discount online or on
    demand through Ingram, it could be that bookstores won’t have books but only
    samples and Internet terminals. They will be places where people gather to
    meet authors and drink lattes — a non-virtual chat room!
  • Success of any website depends on constant updating and redesign.
    Catalog-only sites don’t work well, so many places are taking a modified “zine” approach.
  • There is an ideological split: should content be free, or should copyright
    be protected? Your opinion probably depends on what culture you’ve allied
    yourself to — technology artist vs. commercial publisher.

Much more came out of the all-day event. I hope others who attended will
share their opinions as well. The key conclusion is that nobody knows where
things are going. There are no models to emulate. Content is king.

Peter Goodman is the Publisher of Stone Bridge Communications in Berkeley, California,
and is the former President of PMA Affiliate, Marin Small Publishers Association.

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