Bookstore market failure

For a webzine that has “Where free markets meet technology” in its masthead, Tech Central Station sure seems to have little faith in the ability of free markets to provide consumers with what they want. Consider this column by Glenn Reynolds. Reynolds reckons that bookstore employees are driving customers away:

Even my hard-core lefty colleagues have noticed the wall of Bush-bashing books that are prominently displayed at the entrance to every bookstore in town, and to my surprise, one of them told me the other day that it was turning him off. He hates Bush, and will certainly vote for Kerry (unless Kerry looks like such a lost cause that his temptation to vote Nader wins out) but he’s still taken to buying his books from Amazon. All those Bush-bashing books, he said, are just too depressing to encounter every time he visits the bookstore. He buys books to escape politics.

Now here’s the thing: bookstores need to sell books or else they will go out of business. So if they are building walls of anti-Bush books, it’s because people are buying those books and that’s the way to sell them. They will also conduct market research to find out how they can get customers into the store, so are likely to have more basis for their decisions than Reynold’s one anecdote. And if they weren’t doing these things, there would be a business opportunity for someone to start a bookstore with no anti-Bush wall and clean up. Reynolds seems to believe that the free market has failed to provide consumers with the sort of bookstore that they want.

Reynolds continues:

On the right, of course, people are a lot unhappier. And they’re unhappier still since word got out that Borders employees were actually bragging about hiding copies of the anti-Kerry book, Unfit for Command. (You can see a cached Google page here. Example: “Just ‘carelessly’ hide the boxes, ‘accidentally’ drop them off pallets, ‘forget’ to stock the ones you have, and then suggest a nice Al Franken or Michael Moore book as a substitute. Borders wants those recommends, remember? . . .I don’t care if these Neanderthals in fancy suits get mad at me, they aren’t regular customers anyway. Other than ‘Left Behind’ books, they don’t read.”)

Unfortunately, Reynolds seems to have fallen for a posting by a sock puppet. The forum administrator reports

According to IP Address records, the person who posted the “let’s hide the book” message was also posting under another name, responding to the messages he posted under his first name. Under his second ID, which identified him as a free market conservative, or “Classical Liberal”, he said he was shocked that Borders employees would not tolerate diversity of opinion, and that the messages (he) posted under his first pseudonym proved that there was a problem. This suggests to us that this was a troll who was trying to manufacture controversy. His account(s) have been deleted. He was a new user.

This information was posted at the forum a week before Reynolds wrote his column, but he does not seem to have checked. Oh well, at least he didn’t base his column on forged memos.

Update: I emailed this post to both Glenn Reynolds and Atrios. Atrios linked here. Reynolds posted a correction but did not link or acknowledge my email. It is possible that somebody else emailed him first, but the timing of his correction (a couple of hours after my email and a couple of days after his column) suggests otherwise. More interestingly, he has posted some comments from his readers speculating about why bookstores are prominently displaying anti-Bush books. Amazingly, in neither his comments or the other comments he posted is the explanation I gave above (and emailed to Reynolds) considered: the anti-Bush books sell and make money for the bookstore.

Comments

  1. #1 John Lott
    September 25, 2004

    Really hate it.

  2. #2 Mary Rosh
    September 25, 2004

    And John Lott is dreamy.

  3. #3 QrazyQat
    September 25, 2004

    Meanwhile, isn’t Borders the chain that banned a singer from performing at a Fredricksbueg VA store because she said that George Bush had “chicken legs“?

    Why yes, yes it is.

  4. #4 John Moltz
    September 25, 2004

    Reynolds now notes the issue on his blog and offers a witless reader’s idea the reason there are so many liberal books up there is that they’re not selling! You don’t see conservative books because they’ve already flown off the shelves!

    One hopes the reader does not work in inventory management.

    Reynolds is not sure he buys the idea either, but devotes a lot of space to it anyway because he’s desperate for anything that will make his baseless article look good now.

  5. #5 Kip W
    September 25, 2004

    They don’t even have to fly into the stores to get the sales figures. They can just wave at the stores as they travel, packed in boxes, from the publisher to Scaife’s place, then on to yard sales and wobbly sofas all over this great land of ours.

    As someone else noted, it’s like they don’t even expect them to sell in the store — all they want is for people to read those lurid subtitles (“How the democrats are going to murder your puppy dog and force your daughter to marry… you know, one of Them!!”). They just want people to think there’s a real book in there that makes the case so confidently set forth on the cover.

  6. #6 Rich
    September 25, 2004

    I read the part about Border’s employees hiding Unfit for Command and the very first thought that popped into my head was “Good! Borders has responsible employees who realize that selling a book full of disproven, discredited information may boost their short-term profits, but will discredit the store in the long-run. People will say to themselves ‘Oh yeah, Borders is where I brought that book that turned out to be complete garbage.’ “

  7. #7 Mooser
    September 25, 2004

    That’s what I thought, too

  8. #8 PigInZen
    September 25, 2004

    of using an singular piece of anecdotal evidence and interpreting it as data. Why, if his ultra-lefty friend is irritated with all the “Bush-bashing” books out there then, by gosh, ALL THE LIBS must be irritated as well! Obviously too much criticism and not enough of that optimism that the President and Iraqi PM Allawi were talking about yesterday. Didn’t you guys get the memo? Things are looking up, er, we’ve turned a corner, er, happy days are here again!

  9. #9 Mary
    September 25, 2004

    Instapundit is right. All liberal anti-Bush books are a anti-government left-wing plot. No real American would buy them. They should be banned. Bush is the most popular President ever. No one should question him. He will lead us out of the darkness. He has been sent by God himself to be the “father” to the “child” that is America. Love America, Love Bush. Critical thought and free speech should be outlawed. Anyone who questions our “father” should be ridiculed and derided. Hail Bush! Or else.

  10. #10 Ray Radlein
    September 25, 2004

    the anti-Bush books sell and make money for the bookstore.

    Heck, even my local Sam’s Club has anti-Bush books all over the place: Bush’s Brain, the Kitty Kelly book, Against All Enemies, that one book by the ethics professor tearing in to Bush’s claims to be a moral leader, and, of course, the most devastating anti-Bush screed ever, The 9/11 Commission Report. The single row of copies of Unfit for Command which they had looked positively lonely there next to the Kelly books.

    And if Sam’s Club – whose political leanings are just a wee bit to the right of, well, any other chain of stores – is carrying those books, it’s for damned sure that it’s because they’re selling well.

  11. #11 Ray Radlein
    September 25, 2004

    Oh, and the coda to my anecdote: The Sam’s Club in question is in a part of Georgia so red that where I live there are no local Democratic candidates for any office anywhere on the ballot.

  12. #12 Pastabagel
    September 25, 2004

    Your analysis is wrong. Bookstores don’t decide what to put on those shelves based on what is selling. Publishers buy that prominent shelf space from the book chains. It’s called slotting.

    Most hardcover nonfiction books don’t sell out and get returned by the stores anyway. Bookstores have to be incentivized to carry them, display them and take away shelf space from the better selling fiction books. This is why a lot of the same books are prominently displayed in every bookstore chain, because the publisher makes slot buys in every chain in a market.

    Here’s an anecdote for you: Clinton’s book My Life came out the same week as Stephen King’s book Song of Susannah. I was in a bookstore and the two books were on the first display table in front of the door. There were stacks and stacks of clinton’s books on the shelf and on the floor below. There were five copies of King’s book left. No one standing in line had a copy of My Life, a few had King’s book.

    At least people know the difference between good fiction and bad.

    THEY CALL ME PASTABAGEL

  13. #13 Barry Freed
    September 25, 2004

    All Hail BeoLambert! Bane of noisome Sock Puppets everywhere!

    “Then farther he hied;
    for the hardy hero with hand he grasped,
    felt for the foe with fiendish sock puppet,
    for the hero reclining, — who clutched it boldly…..”

  14. #14 Barry Freed
    September 25, 2004

    And also notice how the Perfessers “correction” is deviously dishonest. The following is from the TechCentralStation column, the same correction is also on his website:

    UPDATE: The Borders employees union has posted anotice stating that the person who posted the “hide the book” messages may not have been an employee of Borders, as they don’t verify employment for those posting on the message board. Regardless, there seems little doubt that, as noted above, many bookstores have become places where politicization has made customers feel uncomfortable, something that management may wish to look into.

    Now notice how he makes no mention of how the forum’s administrator noted that the same IP was used by a poster to make the relevant claim and used under a different name to call attention to said post. This is rather compelling proof that the claim is a fabrication. But the way the Perfesser has it one has no reason to buy into the much weaker disclaimer that Border’s cannot verify that the poster is actually an employee. And no doubt those rabid wingnut fans of his will automatically dismiss this “correction.”

    Very dishonest.

  15. #15 Demogenes Aristophanes
    September 25, 2004

    What’s particularly odious is the way Instafuckwit goes from credulous belief in the anonymous poster’s claim to hide right-wing books, but when the lie is exposed, he questions the veracity of the administrator of the VERY SAME FORUM with his snide “well, maybe” intro and omission of the real issue – faking an identity – in favor of smoke-and-mirroring “may not have been a Borders employee”.

    What a total weasel.

  16. #16 Demogenes Aristophanes
    September 25, 2004

    Ah, Insty, Insty, Insty. He has inspired me to immortalize him in song:

    Born in a trailer park in Tennessee

    Most inbred state in the land of the free

    Raised amongst Freepers so’s he knew every IP

    Over-billed him a client when he was only three

    Insty, Insty Fuckwit . King of the Wide Blog’sphere

    He blogged single handed through the Culture War

    Till the Left was whipped and fear was restored

    With his handpicked Fightin’ Keyboardists’ Corps

    Made himself a legend, forevermore

    Insty, Insty Fuckwit . the man who don’t know fear

    When his stats went down, and his grief was gall

    In his heart he wanted to leave it all

    Lose himself playin’ with his Flightsuit Georgie doll

    But he answered instead, the dittoheads’ call.

    Insty, Insty Fuckwit, the choice of the whole Blog’sphere

    He went off to the Web and he typed a spell

    Smokin’ out the terrists from the comfort of a Dell

    Took over Fallujah, so we hear tell

    Caught him Saddam and sent him straight to Hell

    Insty, Insty Fuckwit, seein’ his duty clear

    When he come home, his chickenhawkin’ done

    The wingnut march had only just begun

    So he packed his gear, and his T-shirt of a gun

    And lit out a whorin’ to put labor on the run

    Insty, Insty Fuckwit, Leadin’ the Profiteers

    His land is biggest, and his land is best

    He’s objectively pro-freedom, from West to shinin’ West

    He’s ahead of us all in meeting the test

    Followin’ his legend right into the realm of jest
    Insty, Insty Fuckwit, King of the Wide Blog’sphere

    King of the Wild Blog’sphere

  17. #17 tristero
    September 25, 2004

    Every moment spent meticulously debunking Glenn Reynolds’ lies is a moment that is not spent pointing out Bush’s.

    That is why Reynolds lies. Just ignore it.

  18. #18 Brennan Griffin
    September 25, 2004

    In conservative Fort Worth, TX, its the pro-Bush, anti-Kerry books that are displayed very prominently in the stores, both Borders and B & N. They probably have different strategies depending on their readership.

  19. #19 David Tiley
    September 25, 2004

    If “slotting” is the explanation, we are faced with
    a) it seems a lot of expensive slotting is getting in the way of more profitable fiction books and
    b) the argument just goes back to the publishers, who are prepared to pay first to put these things in the marketplace and then to fork out for the aforementioned slots.
    Either way, significant confidence that the marketplace wants them.

  20. #20 Contrary Mary
    September 25, 2004

    QrazyQat – Reading about the Borders bookstore, I am reminded why they call it FredNECKsburg. Pretty town, well worth the trip to see Kenmore and the Civil War battlefields. Also, it’s about 20 miles south of Quantico, the mall would have a heavily Marine customer base. (The Marine’s aren’t the Frednecks BTW.)

  21. #21 isaac butler
    September 25, 2004

    I work in a bookstore in an area of Brookklyn that is pretty much unified towards the left, with a staff that is pretty much unified towards the left. We carry both pro and anti Bush literature, although you can guess which one sells better.

    For those one the right who have had trouble finding anti-Kerry books that are on the newsstands, I have a shokcing revelation for you… often, the publishers screwed up! At my bookstore, we waited for weeks for Unfit For Command to arrive, and everytime someone would find out we were out of it, they’d go ape on us as if we were purposefully not stocking it. It wasn’t your fault,t he publisher simply hadn’t sent us copies on time. Same thing happened with The Case for Internment. Sometimes, it’s just incompetance, not bias, that causes the problem,

  22. #22 Jeremiah Elias
    September 26, 2004

    Reynolds is a lost cause.

    That pseudo-scholarly piece of shit wouldn’t know reality if it hit him right between the eyes.

    And he teaches at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, which should make us all think about the quality of southern educational institutions . . . and the overall way of thinking of the south in general.

  23. #23 js
    September 26, 2004

    The guy thinks that 6-3=5.7.

    I kid you not. On Atrios, he claimed that $2500, compounded for 72 years at 6 percent interest but with 3% inflation is $140,000 in current dollars.

    When confronted with it, he laid down a trail of more bad math and arrogance like a squid laying down ink.

  24. #24 ben
    September 26, 2004

    and now for my anecdote:

    Here in fairly liberal Seattle Washington, in the university district, our B&N seems to stock a fairly good supply of all the current political hack books. Seems to me the anti-Bush books stand out because there are so many more of them. It’s no secret that Bush is hated more than any person in the last decade by the types of people that write books. So, shock! there are lots of anti-Bush books.

    I wonder if anyone actually reads all this political tripe. Seems like a big waste of trees to me. Maybe I’ll write a book about that, and about irony.

  25. #25 Elwood
    September 26, 2004

    You are the one falling for Reynold’s sock-puppetry. I am certain he knows that anti-Bush books are selling. The goal of his ranting is to make readers complain to the big bookstore chains about the displays, and demand that they be taken down. Hey, if they can intimidate CBS, why not Borders?

  26. #26 Pastabagel
    September 26, 2004

    Well, well, look who’s here.

    js, I already acknowledged my error over there. Don’t be a troll.

    And if don’t believe me about slotting, call borders or B&n and ask them about it. Loser.

    THEY CALL ME PASTABAGEL

  27. #27 LJ
    September 26, 2004

    Pastbabble, you moron. Someone already corrected you, but I’ll give you the smackdown a bit more firmly. I’ve worked in several aspects of the publishing industry, from retail to editing to writing. This is how it works:

    Publishers do slot in a great many chain stores; that much is fact. Here’s what you left out: Publishers slot based on their belief of what will sell IN A PARTICULAR STORE. The same books aren’t always slotted in the same stores the same way–even in the same city.

    What is notable is that publishers are slotting more liberal books, far more than they are conservative books. And publishers don’t do anything for political reasons. They do what they believe will make them the most money; ergo, they slot based on what they believe will SELL. They’ve seen the trend of lefty books selling better than the conservative books. So they slot more of those. They know that the conservative market peaked a long time ago.

    There are also some internal demographics that show an Oprah Syndrome with conservative books. This was a case where customers came to a store for a particular book, say for Oprah’s book club, and that’s all they would buy. If the store didn’t have the book they wanted, they’d leave without buying anything else. Conservative book readers have tended to do the same thing.

    Liberal book buyers, on the other hand, have been more likely to buy more books than the one they wanted. It’s a win-win for publishers and retailers to lure in liberal readers. They make money if the book is there, they’re more likely to sell more books, and they’re more likely to make a sale, even if the sought book isn’t available. Win. Win. Win.

    Of course, what really bugs the hell out of you is that the publishers slotted big on a Clinton book. Just can’t pass up an opportunity to unleash your Clintonphobia, eh? Are you going to argue with the sales numbers of either Clinton book? Mind you, those didn’t have asterisks beside them. You DO know what the asterisk is when discussing sales figures for books, don’t you?

    For the record, it does no good to compare the King book with the Clinton book. Different markets entirely. In addition, publishers know they don’t have to slot big for a Stephen King. They haven’t had to do it since, oh, Pet Cemetary. King books sell on their own. And, before you get all huffy about the five King books on the table compared to “all those Clinton books,” it would behoove you to ask: How many King books were slotted for the front? Did the King book have only one display slotted? Were copies elsewhere in the store–like in the mandatory Bestsellers section, or the genre section? How many were on the regular shelves? How many had people picked up and taken to other parts of the store? How many had actually sold in comparison to the Clinton books? In short, you can’t base your argument on how many books were sitting on the front table. Too many factors can vary that, a great deal.

    Some call you pastababble–I call you LOSER.

  28. #28 Jer
    September 26, 2004

    Well, I don’t work for Borders, but when I was shopping there the other day I did take the liberty of moving their stock of “Unfit for Command” from the non-fiction section to the fiction section of the new releases display…

    -j

  29. #29 Pastabagel
    September 26, 2004

    For the good or your present or future children please look up “concrete thinking”.

    THEY CALL ME PASTABAGEL

  30. #30 ben
    September 27, 2004

    good work Jer! I’ve noticed that here in liberal Seattle a few Bush/Cheney Signs that have been defaced, but not one defaced Kerry/Edwards sign.

    Keep up that holding down of other’s freedom of speech! Yeah!

  31. #31 DefacersForBush
    September 27, 2004

    Ben, someone should do a study on the defacing bias against the Republicians. The defacing ranks have over the years become a bastion of lefty-Bush-Bashers. I know because I have been attacked and my defacing career destroyed by other defacers when I tried to draw some tits on a Kerry/Edwards poster.

  32. #32 ben
    September 27, 2004

    from what I’ve seen on http://www.protestwarrior.com, and fitting with the mindset, the some on the left seems to think the rights to protest and free speech belong only to them.

    My anecdotes pass for scientific fact btw, just in case you were curious :p

  33. #33 Yobbo
    September 27, 2004

    Tim, as John Ray pointed out in his link to this post, I don’t see how this represents a market failure. All the right-wing books are still available, just primarily at Amazon and through other mail-order outlets. The only “failure” here is the management failure of the bookstores concerned, who are losing money to Amazon.

    The other point of course is that there ARE a great deal more left-wing books of this type than right, primarily because most academics and such are of the left.

  34. #34 Tim Lambert
    September 27, 2004

    Yobbo, there is a competitive market for selling books. If the management of the bookstores were as incompetent as you seem to be so ready to believe then they would have been driven out of business by other, better managed, bookstores. The bookstores and publishers make their money by selling books. There are more left-wing books because more people are willing to buy them.

  35. #35 dsquared
    September 27, 2004

    Actually I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some sort of “market failure”, though not one in a sense which Tech Central Station would generally recognise. As far as I can see, the left-wing books are typically published by proper publishing houses like Random House or HarperCollins, while the pro-Bush books come out of funny little right-wing presses. If I were the salesman for RH and saw a load of the output of Regnery Press in good spots while my company’s books languished on back shelves, I think I would have a few sharp words with the shopkeeper about which side his bread was buttered upon.

    All of this, however, just pushes the market failure argument up the supply chain, however; there being a big untapped demand for right-wing books is not consistent with the observed facts of the publishing industry, unless one believes that Rupert Murdoch is prepared to leave money on the table.

  36. #36 rdb
    September 28, 2004

    Meaning no disrespect to Tim as a blogger,

    Brian Leiter’s Ad Hominems, InstaIgnorance, and the Case of the Coming Draft may amuse.

  37. #37 Tim Lambert
    September 28, 2004

    No disrepect? But you make me feel inadequate by linking to the sublime Fafblog! While everything Leiter says about Reynolds is correct, I still don’t think it is a good idea to call him InstaIgnorance. I would prefer to show people what is wrong woth his wrtings rather than tell them.

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