Biblioasis’s new terms of sale for Canadian independents aim to support an industry sector that acts as the lifeblood for domestic publishers

Before Biblioasis was a publisher, it was a bookstore. As owner and publisher of the dual endeavours, Daniel Wells has a foot in each camp, and is well placed to understand the particular financial pressures on both independent book retailers and small or regional presses in Canada.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the Windsor, Ontario, press is at the forefront of a new initiative that aims to give better terms to independent booksellers ordering Biblioasis titles for their stores.

On Wednesday, the press announced that it would be increasing the discount for Canadian indie retailers from the industry-standard 40% to 44% and would allow up to two years for booksellers to return unsold stock for a full refund. In addition, Biblioasis would take advantage of the offer from its distributor, University of Toronto Press, for free shipping to Canadian independent accounts.

The revised terms of sale offer what Wells hopes will amount to an increased incentive for independent stores to stock Biblioasis titles and keep them on shelves long enough for certain titles to find an audience. “Independent publishers are consistently saying that we value independent booksellers, and yet we consistently give them the worst deal of all our partners,” Wells says. “We know what it may cost us, but we have felt for a very long time that it was time to put our money where out mouth was.”

Wells says that the press had been considering the move before the pandemic, but called a halt to plans in early 2020 when lockdowns began to hit and it became impossible to predict how either side of the business would fare. As it stands, the publishing house, while not rolling in cash, is profitable, and bookstore sales have increased by what Wells estimates to be in the neighbourhood of 80% over the last nineteen months. “It speaks to how poorly we were performing before as much as anything else,” Wells says. “But it’s moving in the right direction.”

Recent experience at the bookstore, where Wells has taken over responsibility for orders and reorders, has convinced him that the hit on his margins as a publisher that might result from increasing discounts by 10% will be offset by potential new sales and that it will help level the playing field against what more leveraged multinationals are able to provide. Wells notes that the discount he receives as a bookseller from Penguin Random House is 46%. “If you look at our profit margin as a bookseller for the year, that 6% is very close to what we turned in profit,” he says. “The cumulative weight of that kind of discount is huge.”

The initiative is financially supported by Ontario Creates’s Book Fund, which provides assistance to Ontario publishers for programs “that enable publishers at various levels to achieve business development objectives that best suit their individual corporate goals.”

Doug Minett, the executive director of the Canadian Independent Booksellers Association, lauds the moves by Biblioasis for their potential to allow independent booksellers to better source and stock the publisher’s books. “You want to make this as frictionless as possible,” he says. “You don’t want to impose on people a ridiculous financial penalty to sell books. You want to make it sensible.”

One bookseller who hopes that Wells’s financial gamble pays off is Toronto’s Ben McNally. “I think it’s a great idea,” he says. “I think it’s really forward thinking.”

McNally is especially pleased with the increased window for sending books back for a full refund. Increasing the window from the standard twelve months makes sense from both a retail and distribution perspective, he says. “The people who are really strict about the one-year [cutoff for returns] are idiotic. Sometimes you’ve got a book that’s important to you as a bookseller, a book that you think is pretty good value and want to keep on your shelf, even if it’s just that other people come in and see that you’ve got it.”

The observation dovetails with Wells’s own experience that certain titles require a longer period of availability before they find their audience. In the end, it comes down to discoverability and the ease with which a potential reader can locate a book on a store’s shelves. “The biggest issue facing us is visibility,” Wells says. “Anything that can increase that visibility should sell more books.”

That “should” points to a core uncertainty in whether the effort will produce results, an uncertainty which Wells is more than willing to acknowledge. “There is a gamble to all of this. I don’t know if it’s going to result in independent booksellers buying more of our books,” he says. “Perhaps we’re just giving more of our very slim profit margins away. I could no longer in good conscience, though, give independent booksellers terms that were so egregiously disadvantageous.”

At least one bookseller seems confident that the new sales terms from the Windsor press will act as an incentive to stock the publisher’s books. “It’s probably going to make it more likely that we carry almost every book that they publish,” says McNally.

Biblioasis’s new terms of sale for Canadian independents aim to support an industry sector that acts as the lifeblood for domestic publishers