Publishers Look Beyond Bookstores
By STEPHANIE CLIFFORD and JULIE BOSMAN
Published: February 27, 2011Kitson, a group of boutiques based in Los Angeles, is the kind of store that appears regularly in the tabloids for both its stylish clothes and its celebrity clientele like Sean Combs and Joe Jonas.
Ann Johansson for The New York Times
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But in a town that is all about flash, Kitson is finding a surprising source of revenue that is not from its fashionable shoes or accessories. It is from books.
The company’s owner, Fraser Ross, estimates that Kitson sold 100,000 books in 2010, double what it had the previous year.
Publishers turned aggressive about selling to Kitson, Mr. Ross said, as traditional bookstores switched focus or closed. That “has been good for us,” he said. “If there’s a good book, we’ll go deep into it.” And publishers, he said, “realize what a specialty store can do for their business, with the window and the table.”
Publishers have stocked books in nonbook retailers for decades — a coffee-table book in the home department, a novelty book in Urban Outfitters. In the last year, though, some publishers have increased their efforts as the two largest bookstore chains have changed course.
Barnes & Noble has been devoting more floor space for displays of e-readers, games and educational toys. Borders, after filing for bankruptcy protection in February, has begun liquidating some 200 of its superstores.
“The national bookstore chain has peaked as a sales channel, and the growth is not going to come from there,” said David Steinberger, chief executive of the Perseus Books Group. “But it doesn’t mean that all brick-and-mortar retailers are cutting back.”
A wide range of stores better known for their apparel, food and fishing reels have been adding books. The fashion designer Marc Jacobs opened Bookmarc in Manhattan in the fall. Anthropologie has increased the number of titles it carries to 125, up from 25 in 2003. Coldwater Creek, Lowe’s, Bass Pro Shops and even Cracker Barrel are adding new books. Some mass retailers, too, are diversifying — Target, for instance, is moving away from male-centered best sellers and adding more women’s and children’s titles this year.
Having a physical outlet for books is extraordinarily important, publishers say. While online and e-book sales are huge channels, lesser-known books can get lost in that world if they do not have a physical presence to spur interest. The ability to catch a shopper’s eye in a store is almost impossible to mimic online.
So publishers are approaching just about anyone with a shelf. For Perseus, sales at nontraditional retailers in 2010 outpaced its sales at Borders, which were around 7 percent, for the first time.
For Abrams, which publishes illustrated and art books, nontraditional retailers are seen as one way to offset the business lost by Borders, which has slowed especially in the last year, the Abrams president and chief executive, Michael Jacobs, said.
“We’ve definitely cranked it up,” Mr. Jacobs said. Last year, executives realized that “so much of our backlist wasn’t being carried by bookstores. If we’re still doing these books, where are we going to sell them?”
The nontraditional category has been growing for Abrams, making up more than 15 percent of its total business in 2010. Mr. Jacobs said he expected that it would grow to 25 percent in the next two to three years. Big publishers, too, like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Random House, say they have been seeking out specialty retailers.
The attention from publishers comes as a welcome surprise to the stores.
“The response has been dramatic. There are piles of book samples and catalogs dropped off in the shop every day,” Jennifer Baker, a book buyer for Marc Jacobs, said in an e-mail. “The assortment of rare and out-of-print books have been a challenge to keep in stock.”
Placement in different stores can widen the audience for books, appealing to someone who would not spend time at a Barnes & Noble. “A customer who might not often buy books but adores the brand can ease in to the Bookmarc selection,” Ms. Baker said.
Beyond attracting new readers, book sales tend to be a good deal for both sides.
Though sales to nonbook retailers can be more complicated and labor-intensive for publishers, books are generally sold on a nonreturnable basis. Bookstores, on the other hand, can return unsold books to publishers.
“We know it’s a nice clean sale,” said John Duff, publisher of Perigee Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA.
The books tend to be profitable for the retailers, since they select them carefully and do not usually mark them down. More important, they can drive other purchases and help with branding.
At Lowe’s, books on subjects like cooking and home projects are stacked at the front of the store, “inspiring and informing customers to purchase goods that will allow them to successfully complete home improvement projects,” Patti Price, the company’s senior vice president for merchandising, said in an e-mail.
At Sam’s Club, which has long carried stacks of best sellers, more children’s books and cookbooks have been added lately. “Those are areas that don’t fit as well into the e-book story, like the best seller or mass-market or even romance books do,” said Phil Shellhammer, a Sam’s Club executive who oversaw the books category there until recently. Sam’s Club has been using its bricks-and-mortar advantage in other ways, too, like adding books from local writers, and bringing in authors for signings.
If Anthropologie is selling ikat prints, it might feature books with ikat covers, or it will carry books about inspiration and poetry to get the customer in an escapist mood.
“As we try to get them excited about different ideas as they walk in the door, books can be a tremendous way to narrate those stories,” said Aaron Hoey, head merchant for home and accessories at Anthropologie. “We do a very good job of selecting unique books, books you’re not going to find in a typical bookstore, and certainly not in a mass-market bookstore like Borders or Barnes & Noble. And to stumble across it at Amazon, you have to really know what you’re looking for.”
The specialty stores can be a boon for publishers selling quirky titles unlikely to get on Amazon’s home page. “Awkward Family Photos” is a hot item at Urban Outfitters, “Hello, Cupcake,” about cupcake design, has been selling strongly at the craft store Michaels, and Price Stern Sloan, another Penguin imprint, sold 42,000 copies of “Mad Libs” in January alone — at Cracker Barrel. At Bookmarc, where fashion titles sold predictably well, executives were surprised when “Erotic Poems” by E. E. Cummings started flying off shelves.
At Kitson, too, the top sellers hardly mimic the best-seller list, including books like “How to Raise a Jewish Dog” and “The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm.”
“We try to be different,” Mr. Ross said.