Could the humble seasonal catalog have saved Hachette during its fight with Amazon?

by Jason Bennett

imgresFor a few months last year the book world was riveted by the fight between Amazon and Hachette Book Group. (For some background, see David Streitfeld’s report breaking the story in the New York Times, updates on the ongoing dispute, and Stephen Colbert’s hilarious send-up of the whole thing.) For many of us in the publishing world it was a weird story to see perpetually making headlines. After all, this wasn’t the first time a dispute over pricing at Amazon had leaked out of negotiations with a major supplier. MacMillan had a similar issue in early 2010, right around the time that they and a few other major publishers switched over to agency pricing in order to sell ebooks on Apple’s iPad. There were a few stories by publishing beat reporters back then but it didn’t make the leap from the business or arts pages to the front. In 2014, however, the story had legs beyond the publishing and business worlds. The public—despite the widely held assumption that most Americans couldn’t care less about books—was paying attention.

“I guess I’m intrigued (not necessarily surprised) by the timing,” Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA, told me recently. “After years of ignoring lots of stories about Amazon’s predatory practices, it’s interesting to note that this situation has the potential to be the tipping point (if I may borrow a phrase from a Hachette author!). Suddenly it’s regular consumers and not just book people covering stories about Amazon.”

During the spat independent booksellers tried to seize on the opportunity and created displays of Hachette’s books. But thanks in part to a feature of the big-house trade publishing landscape, it wasn’t always clear to consumers which books were affected.

Hachette, like other large publishers, is the sum of many parts. But unlike Penguin Random House or Simon and Schuster, until last year Hachette itself had no imprint whose colophon graced the spines of its books. (Hachette did launch “Hachette Books” in the spring of 2014.) For most of its existence it was merely the owner of such imprints as Little, Brown, Grand Central Publishing, and Orbit (among others). If readers noticed the imprints of these books at all, it is unlikely they went a step further to find out that Little, Brown is but a child of parent Hachette. This is no accident. Hachette’s branding is targeted to people within the book industry. Branding directly to consumers, the thinking goes, would dilute the value of a given imprint’s brand—why bother Malcolm Gladwell fans with this extra bit of info? Just give Little, Brown the credit and call it a day.

Retailers and Hachette, both caught off guard by the extended fight with Amazon, did the best they could with what they had to communicate to consumers exactly which books and writers were effected, often creating displays for individual Hachette authors in their stores. But was there a simple, economic, efficient tool that retailers could’ve used that might have saved Hachette from greater lost sales to book buyers inclined to be on their side? Something with ALL of the publisher’s titles from a season in a single place that a bookseller could have put on display to make browsing the beleaguered giant’s wares a little easier? Something like a catalog?

Perhaps not.

“We don’t have any paper catalogs for Hachette titles, unfortunately, so that wasn’t an option for us,” Geddis said. “Even booksellers aren’t always clear on what publishers/imprints/brands Hachette publishes/distributes. For instance, I order most Hachette titles from a Hachette rep, but I order other items such as Moleskine notebooks and Chronicle books & gifts from another rep. ‘Hachette’ is at the top of all our invoices for these products despite our different reps and the totally different brands. It can be confusing even for a professional!”

UGA Press's spring | summer 2015 catalog

UGA Press’s spring | summer 2015 catalog

This trend isn’t confined to Hachette. Before the Great Recession, many publishers were already looking for ways to cut costs wherever they could. While the seasonal catalog had always been a given—it has been an invaluable tool for sales reps, publicists pitching a season’s titles to book review editors or television and radio producers, a useful resource for booksellers to refer to, etc.—once the Kindle and other ereaders came along the catalog became an easy target. Thus the number of copies publishers print has decreased dramatically, and in some cases publishers have eliminated print editions altogether in favor of electronic versions distributed through platforms like Edelweiss and Scribd. (UGA Press still prints a seasonal catalog—and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future—but we print dramatically fewer now than we did five or ten years ago. And yes, we put our catalogs online as well.)

Historically, catalogs have been one of the most efficient marketing tools at our disposal. A catalog is economical, comprehensive, and a chance to showcase the breadth of a publisher’s output in a given season. It is light, it can fit in a tote bag easily, and if designed well it is the ultimate compliment and sales tool for carefully and beautifully designed book jackets (some people like catalogs so much they even tweet about them). It can store a book’s metadata, description and blurbs, and it can be a place to remind readers about books of note from previous seasons or other important news. It is—much like a book—an object of great value not easily summed up by its actual cost to produce. We just don’t happen to sell them.

But consumers rarely see these catalogs, and most probably don’t even think about a publisher’s “season” in the same way a book retailer or critic might. After all, it’s a publisher’s job to tell retailers what’s available. It is the retailer’s job to know their customers and to curate from a publisher’s seasonal offerings the books they will mostly likely buy. From the publisher’s standpoint, it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep putting money into a marketing tool whose expiration date is imminent if booksellers are just as happy to see a catalog on their iPad.

Enter the standoff between Amazon and Hachette. This was a unique situation where a tool fashioned for a specific purpose with a specific audience in mind could have had a broader use beyond that intended purpose and audience. If more widely available (and in actual print), consumers might have been able to flip through a humble seasonal catalog and appreciate the full magnitude of the effect that this supplier-retailer dispute was having on book culture at large. Literally hundreds of authors had their sales impacted. But for all most people knew, it was just Edan Lepucki, Malcolm Gladwell, and Stephen Colbert’s problem.

Still, if retailers had had thousands of Hachette catalogs to put out among stacks or coop tables, there’s no way of knowing how many sales might have been saved. Even if you could make an empirical case that Hachette would have been buffered against a huge loss of sales (down nearly 5% in 2014), no one is going to argue we should spend more on the dying catalog. The moment when brick-and-mortar booksellers could have used a traditional marketing tool to take advantage of a particularly modern problem one supplier was having with one online retailer is passed. It was over before Amazon and Hachette even came to blows.

The times have made publishers become all things to all people at once. For instance, we are not technically booksellers. But we will gladly sell our books directly to you over the web. We are not the traditional book media, giving attention to books in order to inform the reading public. But if you follow any of our social media accounts—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email blasts, or this blog—you will get quite a lot of information about our books with the hope that we can influence you to buy them.

We love traditional booksellers more than anyone. But we ignore Amazon at our peril. We love the smell and feel of book pages, but you better believe our iPads and Kindles are loaded with eBooks for that next trip out of town.

We are sad there are fewer and fewer seasonal catalogs coming off the presses, but we’ll send you a link online when the next ones come out.

Jason Bennett is the Direct Mail Manager and the University of Georgia Press.

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