“Small” sports publisher ready to challenge Amazon

RANDALL NORTHAM, the SJA’s Treasurer, also runs a small sports books publishing business. He’s considering battling his way through the jungle of distributors and books shops

Randall Northam: small, but perfectly formed?

Robert McCrum caused a storm in SportsBook Towers at the end of last year. The Observer’s associate editor, once their literary editor, said in a column about the 50 things he knew about publishing that “small publishers were small for a reason”.

It seemed to me from the viewpoint of more than 30 years as a journalist to be one of those lazy columns you dash off when you have something more important to do, like Christmas shopping.

And comment number 39, the one about small publishers, seemed both pompous and patrionising to me. So I sent a letter to the Observer, and someone suggested I tell BookBrunch, the online publishing site, about it. I did and Liz Thomson, who runs it, asked if I wanted to write an article. I did.

I stressed I didn’t know Robert McCrum, which I don’t. I know of him and I love his name. But I suggested that literary editors and pages were of little importance to small publishers because they didn’t support us, being too busy reviewing each other’s books etc.

He was suggesting, of course, that we small publishers are small because we are not very good. Well, that’s for others to judge but I did not go into publishing to produce blockbusters. Maybe fiction publishers do but I know that the books I publish are unlikely to sell huge numbers and that we are not likely to become a large company.

McCrum’s ill-advised comments didn’t really bother me. Life’s too short to get upset by that sort of thing. And I forgot to check whether the Observer had printed the letter, but I doubt they had.

Of much more interest to us at SportsBooks were comments made by Anton Rippon on the Sports Journalists’ Association website.

Anton was the founder of Breedon Books and he made a great success of it until he sold the company in 2003. So he knows what he is talking about. He was bemoaning the fact that he could not get a publisher to take on a biography of four times Derby-winning jockey Charlie Smirke, “the greatest flat jockey never to be crowned champion”.

He wondered if there was a publisher who was brave enough to take it on.

It sounds just like the sort of book that would interest us at SportsBooks and it certainly would have a couple of years ago. But times are different now. I’m now turning down books that I would have eagerly published three years ago and the reason isn’t entirely down to David Cameron and George Osborne and the other clowns ruining the economy.

The biggest reason is the way books are being bought and sold these days. Waterstone’s has been rescued but has not gone back to the way they bought books a few years ago, WH Smith’s is a sad reflection on what it used to be and the big bullies at Amazon are trying to take over the world, squeezing the profit margins of publishers and putting independent bookshops out of business.

Easy to buy from: but are Amazon fair to sell through?

Look at the economic model of contemporary bookselling. If Waterstone’s decided to take one of our books they buy it on sale or return from our distributors. We get paid, minus Waterstone’s large discount and the percentage taken by our distributor, and if the book is returned (often in a condition in which it cannot be resold) an adjustment is made. That happens with Smiths, any independents and any of the wholesalers who deal with bookshops.

But not with Amazon. They take our books at a discount of 55 per cent (I’m not kidding) but they don’t pay for them until they sell them. I can hear people saying that there can’t be much wrong with that and there wouldn’t be if Amazon didn’t often order too many and hang onto them. They are supposed to be sale or return but they never get sent back. That means they get ordered but not paid for and can sit in Amazon’s warehouse.

That can cause us big problems. For instance we have 562 of one title supposedly in stock which means we will soon be looking at a reprint. But we haven’t really because Amazon have got 243 of them. That means we really have only 319. If someone else orders a lot we are scuppered because Amazon won’t give them back even though they have not paid for them.

The Christmas before last we had 500 of a title left at the end of October. But suddenly Amazon took 451 of them, which meant we were unable to fulfill an order from Waterstone’s. The printer we asked to do a quick reprint messed up and the Waterstone’s order disappeared. We asked Amazon to return some but they said no because they thought they’d sell them all in the run up to Christmas. They didn’t.

The solution, of course, would be to tell Amazon that we supply at firm sale only. In other words what they order they pay for. This year will see how brave we are at SportsBooks Towers.

  • This is an edited version of an article first published by Northam on his personal SportsBooks blog, which also lists the various books on his lists which can be ordered directly… cutting out Amazon.
  • For more book reviews and news from the sports publishing business, click here

2 thoughts on ““Small” sports publisher ready to challenge Amazon

  1. David against Goliath has nothing on this. I wish muscle and might to Randall, a brilliant journalist and a brave and enterprising publisher. He will probably find it easier swimming the real Amazon than taking on the internet giant.

    Even more aggravating than the way Amazon squeeze blood from publishers of conventional books is how they are monopolising the relatively new market of downloading e-books. For the privilege of reaching Kindle customers, we (authors/publishers) have to pay up to 70% from the asking price. Then there is the little matter of 20% VAT. I collect 65p for every sale of a ‘Kindlelised’ novel I have on Amazon. I am a long way from being able to afford a Rolls (and I am talking ham or cheese).

    I think that Randall, the prolific Anton Rippon and I should take Mr McCrum out to lunch and tell him a few home truths. It is a race as to who goes out of business first, small, squeezed publishers or The Observer.

    Meantime, I am tucking myself away in the corner of self publishing, aiming at niche markets and trying to make a crust without surrendering a penny to the likes of Amazon.

    Good luck, Randall. You will need it.

  2. McCrum’s remarks show a remarkable degree of arrogance and ignorance. “Small” publishers (whatever that means; I was turning over £1m annually at Breedon and making good profits) are the lifeblood of publishing, giving talented writers and worthy books a chance they would never be afforded by the sort of “big” publishers.

    Wouldn’t life be the poorer if the only books we could read were “written” by celebrities with big chests?

    But the real problem here, highlighted by Randall, is how the retail trade has failed firms like his. It used to be so simple: in 1985, I walked into WHS in Derby, told the manager (who’d worked his way up from being a school leaver on a railway bookstall) that I’d just published a book on Derby County, and he ordered 1,000 copes on sale-or-return – and at 33% discount. He piled them high, sold them in six weeks, and reordered well before then.

    Over the next decade, it was a story that I saw played out again and again, all over the country, because experienced managers at both WHS and Waterstones (and Dillons, remember them?) had a great deal of autonomy.

    By the time I sold up in 2003, their ilk had all but disappeared. Autonomy had become automaton. “Yes, I’ll have 10 copies to start with, and at 50% discount please?” The stock control systems that should have triggered re-orders were a joke. It was dispiriting.

    By then, of course, the abolition of the Net Book Agreement (resale price maintenance) had destroyed hundreds of independent bookshops, and encouraged by the high discounts that supermarkets had negotiated, large chains like WHS and Waterstones had also upped their take to often unsustainable levels.

    And then, of course, we had Amazon. Randall and Norman have adequately highlighted their approach, but I have a confession: I use Amazon a lot.

    Because we no longer have an independent bookshop in Derby (well, we have something called the Book Cafe but it’s more cafe than book). We have WHS and Waterstones still, but they may not have what I’m looking for and, anyway, they’re a bus ride away and …

    Mostly, though, if I can buy a book direct from a publisher’s website, then I do.

    If Randall can persuade more people to do the same, he will have won a significant victory for the small publisher so dismissed, and apparently despised, by Mr McCrum.

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