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Chain Power : The furor over 'Satanic Verses' has revived debate on book publishing and distribution.

February 24, 1989|PAUL RICHTER | Times Staff Writer

If Waldenbooks accounts for only 10% of all book sales, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton-Barnes & Noble and Crown Books together account for nearly 45% of the general-interest fiction and nonfiction works known as trade books, according to Jim Baker, editor of Publisher's Weekly. While exact figures are not available, the three leading chains' market share is believed to have risen from about 40% in the early 1980s, he said.

B. Dalton-Barnes & Noble has about 1,250 stores, while Waldenbooks, a unit of K mart, has about 1,200. Crown operates about 200 stores.

The chains' influence has been felt in many ways by authors, publishers and competitors.

They have brought a new management expertise to the business, with slick promotion and marketing techniques, computerized inventory control and other features that make traditional booksellers look stodgy and outdated. With the chains' backing, a book's sales can quickly climb into the hundreds of thousands.

But without the chains, publishers and authors lose their access to huge chunks of the American audience. And this often makes them desperate to get their books onto the chains' shelves.

Blockbuster Syndrome

Without a large chain order, "you have to consider whether you can raise the price for each copy of the book" to cover costs, says Los Angeles publisher Jeremy P. Tarcher, who heads a firm that bears his name. Or "you may decide that, with such a small press run, the book just isn't economically viable" and decide not to publish.

Writers complain that the rise of the chains has increased publishers' interest in the mass-market blockbuster at the expense of worthy books that might interest a smaller group.

"The publishers were always interested in promoting the potential blockbuster at the expense of other books, but the chains have made it worse," said Alec Dubro, president of the National Writers Union.

The chains' emphasis on the potential blockbuster often comes at the expense of so-called mid-list books, which are neither the best sellers ("front list") nor classics ("back list.") These can be the work of first-time or less well known authors.

For the most efficient use of display space, the chains also typically keep books in inventory for shorter periods, to the dismay of writers and publishers.

And the chains' presence can put pressure on small publishers, though most small publishers aim at narrow rather than mass markets.

Small publishers are confronted with a dilemma when the chains offer them a large order. If they decline to accept the full order, they may risk losing future business from the chain; if they accept the full order, they may later face the crushing expense of a large number of returned copies.

"A giant leaves large footprints," said publisher Tarcher.

Unfair Treatment Charged

Independent bookstores have long complained about the difficulties of competing in a world where the chains have narrowed profit margins to razor-thin size. "You've got to love books to be an independent, because there's just not that much money in it," said Glenn Goldman, president of Book Soup, a bookstore in West Hollywood.

Last December, the Federal Trade Commission sided with independent booksellers when it filed complaints against six of the largest trade publishers for allegedly selling hardback books at lower prices to chain stores than to independents. The agency also charged that the publishers treated the chains better in joint advertising programs and in providing promotional displays. The publishers have denied the charges.

Book lovers have sometimes found that their sympathies lie with the independent bookstores in their competition with the chains. When the elegant, 75-year-old Scribner's bookstore on New York's Fifth Avenue closed last December, some book lovers took it as another sign of the decline of the old-fashioned bookstore--though the store had recently carried only a limited inventory.

But the chains' admirers argue that the growth of the chains has brought stores to many neighborhoods that had no book outlets and reduced book prices to within the reach of many who could not afford them in the past.

Moreover, in the past several years, there has been a resurgence of the independent bookstores, though there are no firm statistics to describe the trend precisely. This is partially attributed to a greater interest in books among the aging baby boom generation.

Indeed, some industry officials, pointing to the slowing growth of the chains, believe that their importance may decline in the years ahead.

"Big companies like CBS and RCA got into the book business and got right out of it when they discovered it was no gold mine," said Jack Shoemaker, editor-in-chief of North Point Press in San Francisco. In the years ahead, "corporate America may get out and leave it entirely to the little guy."

THE BIG GET BIGGER The three largest bookstore chains have steadily increased their market share in the period between 1980 and 1987. Percentages are based on total retail revenue (including trade, mass market and religious book sales) of $2.3 billion in 1980 and $3.8 billion in 1987.

1980 Smaller chains and independents 73% B. Dalton/Barnes & Noble 15% Waldenbooks 11% Crown Books 1% 1987 Smaller chains and independents 50% B. Dalton/Barnes & Noble 25% Waldenbooks 21% Crown Books 4% Source: BP Report

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