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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Who's Minding the Store?

It was big news recently when Norton Publishing announced it would increase its whole discount to bookstores from 40% to 50%. That discount applies to ordering directly from the publisher, not through a distributor (which is often easier for small bookstores not buying caseloads of single titles), but applies to both frontlist and backlist titles, and it’s heartening news. One California bookseller (quoted in "Shelf Awareness"sees Norton as recognizing a presently unsustainable business model in independent bookselling and offering a solution.

Norton Publishing itself is an independent outlier in the book (you should excuse the term) “industry,” in that they are employee-ownedand I can’t help thinking the “rigorously anti-corporate style” of the house must have a lot to do with their feeling for independent booksellers. For them, as for us, there is more at stake than a bottom line, though neither they nor we can afford to neglect that bottom line. It’s a balancing act. It demands attention to both principles and details.

Employee-owned workplaces are nothing new in the United States. In our early history, they were known as “cooperatives.”
Not only food-buying, but many other forms of business were carried on by workers and buyers banding together for mutual advantage, and in my opinion this aspect of American history is too often neglected in classrooms in favor of a “rugged individualism” that would never have carried us forward alone.

Here’s a question then: Should ESOPs be considered socialism (workers owning the means of production) or simply a more responsible form of capitalism? "False dilemma!" I want to cry out. Argument over how to categorize the model in terms of current American political divisions is a waste of energy. Who cares? Call it what you will – and follow both preceding links to read more – ESOPs have a lot going for them.

One of my favorite employee-owned companies outside the book business is Bob’s Red Mill, which I touted last winter on my long-neglected (no new post since May!) kitchen blog, but today I'm thinking more about farm cooperatives and the book business. Agriculture and the book world may appear to have little in common on the surface, but I’ve always been attuned to similarities: the stubborn independence of practitioners, search for sustainability in a fast-changing world, devotion to time-tested values, etc. And employee-owned companies, I’m thinking now -- whatever their product, like farmers and booksellers -- have their eyes on the long haul. They are not day-traders, making money with money, minute by minute. The deal in value, and they are invested in their work.

Norton, I salute you! And I'm so glad you are Bonnie Jo Campbell's publisher!


Dawn said...

That's exciting news! I've always liked the idea of cooperative business, agriculture, housing projects. Someday maybe I'll retire into one, with other seniors who all take care of each other. I know, that's not a business model, but it's one idea I find somewhat similar.

P. J. Grath said...

Some old friends and I have talked about that, too, Dawn. Yes, good idea!