July 30, 2013

Who needs seasons: publishers, sales reps, booksellers?


Judith Rosen of Publishers Weekly asks whether it is time for the book industry to stop dividing its list into seasons. Her article argues that in an age of ebooks, digital catalogues, Edelweiss, and a changing role of sales reps (“who focus more on sell-through than sell-in”), dividing the year into two or three seasons no longer makes sense.

Drop-ins are a major issue, and there are more titles for booksellers to keep track of than ever before. Mark LaFramboise, head buyer at Politics & Prose, says it feels like “one perpetual season.”

“The publishing seasons were originally determined by when barges could deliver their cargo,” features editor of PW Andrew Albanese said in a podcast interview with Beyond the Book. “For now, publishers are hanging on to seasons for their organizational sanity, but with seasonal lists that can stretch beyond a thousand titles plus drop-ins, or late-breaking, the lines are getting more and more blurred.”

It’s not the first time the publishing industry has been accused of being outdated. But we have to ask, who are these seasons for: publishers, sales reps, or buyers? Many publishing companies have already dropped their third season, consolidating into Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter.

This means fewer deadlines for catalog copy and fewer seasonal launch meetings for publishers, but more titles competing for the sales reps’ and buyers’ attention. Random House alone has 900-title catalogues, and that’s before the merger with Penguin.

According to Edelweiss’s Joe Foster, nearly 5,400 titles are due out in September; between 20,000 and 25,000 titles this fall, depending on drop-ins. Given the sheer volume, Cathy Langer, head buyer at Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, said, “There’s really no break anymore. I buy all the time. I have appointments with my reps seasonally, and there’s rarely a day I don’t have to respond to a drop-in.”… Langer prefers buying seasonally. “I really like seeing themes and trends with seasons,” she said.

With hundreds of thousands of titles published each year, and fewer paper catalogues than ever, how can publishers organize book data in a way that makes themes and trends apparent to book buyers? The two season structure may not be working, but what is the alternative? When do booksellers, reps, and publishers exchange information about upcoming titles?

There are too many titles for one annual meeting with sales reps or buyers, and buyers don’t have the time for more frequent meetings. If the information is disseminated digitally in a constant stream of updates (like the 24/7 news cycle PW cites), how is this any easier on booksellers than frequent drop-in titles? Moreover, how can publishers distinguish their lists in a crowded marketplace without seasonal catalogues and launches?

“It isn’t just for nostalgic reasons that we still feel so strongly about the seasonal catalogue,” said Norton president Drake McFeely told Publishers Weekly. “Presenting our list whole and allowing recipients to see how the pieces fit together is still enormously important to us. Our catalogue is in many important ways our identity, and I know our affiliates feel the same way.”


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.