Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Dollars and Sense of The Genealogy Book Biz - Part Two

There’s one nice thing about books.  

They’re very, very smart and very, very talented.  

You see, books can order themselves from the publishers.  Books can unpack themselves and jump straight up on the storage shelves.  When it comes time for a conference, books can select themselves, put themselves neatly into boxes, magically cause those boxes to load themselves in to the vehicle and then magically drive themselves to the conference venue, all while Mrs. Bookseller and I snooze in the front seat.

Then, once we’re there, those darling little books unload themselves, find their way to the right room inside, set up the tables and arrange themselves.  

The best part?  

The books can write their own receipts, and jump into the customers’ bags, all while we booksellers go off and party elsewhere.  When the conference is over, the books dutifully repack themselves, load themselves into the vehicle, get themselves home and climb back on the shelves, like so many good little children.

Next, my trusty book gnomes take over.

The gnomes call in the credit card slips, prepare the bank deposits, remove the “sold” items from the electronic inventory & website and do all the necessary accounting and book-keeping, including the preparation of state sales tax reports, etc.

That’s the great thing about the genealogy book biz – once you train your books to order, pack and sell themselves – kinda like Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice – and once you get the book gnomes to do the rest of the work for free, it’s all gravy. 

Yup. Running a book biz is a piece of cake.

Of course, if the book gnomes get sick or go out on strike and if the books forget everything you’ve taught them, you’re back to the Square One – a place that’s better known as “Reality”.

Now you’ll need to do all that packing and lugging stuff by yourself.  Now you’re a bookseller in search of “billable hours.”

Unless, of course, you believe that your time has no value whatsoever.  More often than not, that seems to be the case.

Last time, I discussed the basic profit/loss of bookselling by simply using the simple hard “cash” numbers from the event we did last Saturday, just as though the actual work was all done by unpaid gnomes, by the books themselves or by smoke and mirrors.  In other words, I wrote about the financial “bottom line” of bookselling as though everybody worked for free.

Today, I welcome you to another reality.  

Observation: It takes a whole lot of time to sell a $9.95 book and make what appears (on the surface) to be a $3.50 profit.

Here’s the analysis of the “time/labor cost factor”, using last Saturday’s event as the example:

In order to exhibit last Saturday, I had to have the books on hand in the first place and then I had to select the lucky ones that got to go on a road trip to Massachusetts. And then I had to pack them.  And then, Pat had to pack the display stuff, table covers and ‘basic business” stuff, like receipt books, credit card slips and bags. And then, it all had to go in the vehicle, get to Waltham, get unpacked, set up, repacked and unloaded and re-shelved.  

Time involved in all that?  About 9 person-hours combined.  Not a huge amount – but wait…

Next – the travel:  two of us spent a combined total of 14 person hours driving back and forth from NYS to Waltham, then back to NYS.  While not very strenuous, time is time.

Then there’s the event itself.  Two of us were there from 7:30 AM till 4:30 PM.  That’s a combined total of 18 person hours of “floor” time in the vending area.

The “post-event” book-keeping took about 3 hours. 

Bottom Line: about 44 person-hours were spent by two people preparing for, traveling to, staffing and accounting for the event at Waltham last Saturday.

So, now the question arises:  how much is a bookseller’s time worth to do all of the above?  Say, for the sake of argument, that it requires virtually no skill or experience – just a strong back.  Let’s peg it at about $10.00 an hour; if you could hire a couple of high school kids to do all of the above, the “labor cost” of exhibiting would be about $440.00.  

If, however, somewhat more skill was involved, and if $20.00 per hour was a reasonable rate, then $880.00 would be about right.  

But who actually pays the bookseller’s salary?  Answer: the bookseller pays himself or herself, out of whatever is left over after expenses are subtracted from gross sales.  Remember, the bookseller’s salary has to be covered by the net profit generated from sales, if exhibiting at the event is going to make any economic sense at all.  “Economic sense” is the same thing as “salary and maybe even a little profit.”

So, now, if we factor in the actual net loss of MINUS $6.88 (see previous post) from book sales and my speaker’s honorarium combined at the Waltham event with the cost of “labor”, using either the arbitrary $440 or $880 amount above, it becomes abundantly clear that this was not a moneymaking event for us.  

No salary for either one of us, or any business profit, at least not this weekend.  In effect, we worked for free.  Sometimes we do.  Sometimes we don’t. 

Was that the plan in the beginning?  Well, no.  

But then, that’s the nature of this kind of business; it’s all about taking calculated risks, and investing both time and money in the expectation of (a.) covering expenses, (b.) paying yourself for your time and (c.) maybe even making a small profit.

How much actual “working capital” is at risk, in addition to the expenses I wrote about yesterday?  

That depends on how many books a bookseller like me has on display at any given event. Last Saturday, for example, I started the day with about $5,000 of “bought and paid for” books.  I own ‘em.  I paid for them when I bought them from the publishers. They’re not returnable.  No cash comes back to me until I sell them. 

If I had calculated that a larger crowd was likely, I would have packed proportionally more books, thus increasing the “at risk” capital to about $7,500 worth of already-paid-for books.

At large conferences, like NGS, FGS and NERGC, we often have as much as $30,000 - $50,000 worth of books on display. Since they’re all bought and paid for, they represent rather a lot of our working capital at risk.  (By the by, if I sold two books every day of the year for the rest of my natural life, I’d need to live to be well over 100 before the books in our current inventory would be gone…even if I never bought another book for re-sale.  Ain't gonna happen!)

As you can see, everything about the book biz is unpredictable and highly risky.   

  • Will enough people show up to the event? 
  • Will there be enough time so that attendees can actually browse the stuff on the tables? 
  • Will there be too many vendors for the number of attendees? 
  • Did I bring the right stuff?   
  • Will I get a “bad” check or “bad” credit card and thus have to absorb a significant loss on that purchase? 
  • Will someone pick up a book and “forget” to pay for it? 
  • Will someone browsing inadvertently spill their coffee all over a stack of books, thereby ruining them?

But, if it’s so risky and unpredictable, why do it? Why not take that working capital and invest it in something safe, like, say, Afghani government bonds?

Because, like most booksellers, I suffer from what is often described as the “gentle madness.”  I love everything about books, from the look of a well-composed printed page to the feel of the paper to the content of the author’s thoughts and words. Plus, I like to teach and expose people to new ideas and the wonders that can be found between the covers of a printed book. 

More to the point, I believe people should own actual books, not simply electrons dancing on a plasma screen.  (I still own the very first out-of-print book that I ever bought: a leather-bound and Paris-printed early edition of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, that I bought when I was 14.)

I don’t believe that you can Google everything, and even if you could, I don’t think you should. And Wikipedia is not a replacement for the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, not even close.  (And, if you don't know why I singled out the 11th edition of the EB, it's time to chat up your friendly neighborhood reference librarian - preferably one over 55 - and learn about it.)

Plus, I also think that there’s a huge difference between selling books like so many potatoes (that’s what Amazon does) and being a bookseller.  In a way, it’s much like the difference between downloading stuff with abandon from World Family Tree and being a genealogist.

Okay, so I didn’t make a killing at the MGC Conference last Saturday.  No big deal.  It was my choice to attend and my choice of risk.  I had fun.  I got to teach. I met friends and had some great conversations.  I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Besides, in the end, life is short.  And there’s always a "next time" to try and make up for the last time.  

At least, that's what booksellers tell themselves in their dreams...


  1. I am saddened by the financial reality of genealogical booksellers but I am glad that you do what you do and are willing to lecture too. I wish I could bottle up all that knowledge in your head!

  2. It's a common theme among specialty booksellers. I worked for years for an amazing company publishing and selling children's history and social studies books. We had a wonderful time and they paid me for as long as they could. But eventually the numbers simply could not work.