Indigo, on-sale dates, and the Stieg Larsson fiasco
Yesterday, yr. humble correspondent moderated a joint Book and Periodical Council/Book Publishers Professionals Association Ideas Exchange panel on the future of the bookstore (one reason among many for the lack of a short story post yesterday; there’s one coming later today, I promise). The panel discussion touched on the bookstore as communal space; the need for booksellers to pick up the slack from publishers in promoting books and authors; the way e-books and print-on-demand technology will change the appearance and nature of a physical bookstore; and issues surrounding parallel importation laws. Although the subject came up very briefly, no one said anything particularly substantive about Indigo Books & Music’s recent breach of protocol in deciding to release the highly anticipated final book in Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, a full 11 days prior to the publisher’s specified release date.
On Monday, Bookninja posted a piece asking readers to confirm e-mails that had started rolling in over the weekend stating that Larsson’s book was on sale in Chapters and Indigo locations, despite the fact that the book’s publisher, Penguin Canada, indicated that the book’s on-sale date was May 25. Readers quickly chimed in with additional information: apparently, there was no signed embargo on the book, but there was an understanding that Penguin’s on-sale date was May 25, and a general expectation (vain hope?) that booksellers would abide by this. In any event, Penguin’s director of publicity and marketing told The Afterword, “The book was not a strict on-sale,” meaning that there was no signed contract stipulating a one-day laydown. Regardless, if a publisher sets a specific on-sale date and a bookseller ignores that, there may be repercussions, such as restricted access to a publisher’s titles in the future.
The problem in this case is that many independents didn’t even have the book in their stores when Indigo jumped the gun, which means they lost out on the crucial first few selling days of the title. A Bookninja commenter from the Guelph indie The Book Shelf says that books were shipped to Chapters/Indigo warehouses a week prior to the specified release date, as per usual, but Chapters then couriered the stock to individual store locations, much to Penguin’s chagrin.
Even if there was not a signed embargo agreement, it was dirty pool for Indigo to release its stock more than a week before the publisher’s stated release date. As publishing moves further and further toward Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, the first few selling days of a major release become more and more important, and independents that didn’t even have the title in their stores when Indigo put the book on sale lose out. One indie bookseller commenting on the Bookninja thread acknowledges that customers who had placed advance orders for the book called to cancel, saying that they had already picked up the title from Indigo over the weekend. Clearly, every lost sale hurts independent bookstores, which are already struggling in a highly inimical environment.
Penguin would be entirely within its rights to exact punitive measures against the big blue monster, such as restricting when (or even if) the chain receives stock of future titles. Naturally, Penguin will not do this. How can it? Indigo accounts for too large a slice of the bookselling pie in Canada. Penguin would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. It would be much easier to exact punitive measures against smaller independents, which may be ordering only 20 or 50 copies of a given title.
Interestingly, another independent bookseller on the Bookninja thread posted a screenshot of a letter from Random House Canada that reads, in part, “During 2009 we have witnessed a noticeable lack of respect from some of our customers in honouring the on sale dates assigned to our new title publications. For this reason we are implementing strict policies that will allow us to restrict shipments to those customers that choose to violate our on-sale dates.” The letter, which is signed by Duncan Shields, vice-president of sales, goes on to say, “We have been very lenient in the past but feel it is time to take such measures to ensure all of our customers have the same advantage when it comes to selling our books” (my emphasis). The letter was apparently sent in an e-mail with the subject line, “Fwd: Sensitive On Sale Dates letter for Independents” (my emphasis).
What is clear is that there is one set of rules for indies, and another for Indigo. Independent booksellers are being punished as a result of their relatively small market share. This highlights one of the dangers of a virtual monopoly in any industry, and should be a cause for concern among everyone who loves books in this country. As Lori Cheverie, a buyer at the Bookmark bookstore in Charlottetown, PEI, told Quill & Quire, “It’s such an unfair practice that the big guys are able to dictate when they sell a book and there’s never any repercussions about it, whereas if it were us, we wouldn’t get our next shipment [from the publisher].” It’s well past time that such unfair practices came to an end.