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by Rick Klaw

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The Five-Finger Discount

People steal. I hope I haven't burst any bubbles out there. People steal CDs, Twinkies, and even books. Yes, books. Lots of 'em. Believe it or not, this is a huge problem and a contributing factor to many a bookstore closure. Every store I've worked in has dealt with this. And it's not just in Austin, Texas. The reality is that shoplifting is a major concern of any bookseller.

What is the most commonly stolen book? What's the object that sets a thief's pulse racing and makes their palms sweaty? The Bible. Yep, The Bible is the single most shoplifted book. All versions. King James, New International, Catholic... Doesn't seem to matter.

A well-groomed young man walks up to the counter and asks to speak to the manager. He holds a bible in his hands. The man stands there calmly as you get the manager. There is a sadness about him. You like him.

The manager walks up and the man tells him about how he bought this bible for his beloved mother, but before he could give it to her, she passed away. He goes on to explain how The Fellowship of the Ring he didn't keep the receipt since he hadn't planned on returning it. The man would really like his cash back since he is too grief stricken to think about anything else.

The sympathetic manager listens intently and decides to break store policy and give this poor man a cash refund even without the receipt. The saddened man thanks the manager profusely. He leaves the store with both a grin and his cash.

This one of the most popular bookstore scams. An inexperienced manager cannot resist the tug on the old heart-strings. The well-groomed man couldn't be a thief! But he is. Most likely he walked into the store, picked up a bible from the shelves and went up to the registers for his score. A little tear in his eye and the whole time he's thinking SUCKER!

There is a whole other class of bible thief: the one who believes the word of God should be free for all to experience. I want to get these folks bumper stickers that say "The word of God, not just for terrorists anymore." What these fools don't realize is that the price covers paper, binding, the bookstore rent, employees and a zillion other expenses.

Computer books are another popular item with shoplifters. This is a no-brainer. Computer books are expensive, therefore have a high resale value.

Minority Report Valis At this point you are probably wondering: how someone would steal a computer book? Those suckers are massive with some of them weighing in at 1000 pages and three and half pounds. Can't exactly stick them down your pants and walk out. ("Excuse me, sir, that is a mighty big... um... package you got there.") This is the main reason most bookstores don't allow backpacks or large bags past the front counter. Trust me, it's not personal. Shoplifters come in all sizes and shapes (hell, I've seen mothers hiding books in the baby stroller), so everyone is suspect. We're talking about an industry loss in the millions, maybe billions of dollars here. Giving up your satchel or backpack when you enter a store is a small price to pay to keep your favorite bookshop open.

Science fiction is another perennial favorite of thieves, but a different class of thieves to be sure. These are usually the sort of person who either gets a thrill by stealing and/or is broke. For the immature SF fan, stealing can be a game. "Let's see how many times I can steal books before I get caught. Besides books are expensive and the store must be making a mint." This couldn't be further from the truth. Most stores are lucky to keep their doors open.

That brings to mind another interesting fact. New books and magazines are the only retail items that come pre-priced. Market has almost no effect on new book prices. Booksellers pay anywhere from 40-60% of the cover price of their product, while grocery stores buy tomatoes at one price and can then sell them for whatever the market will bear. If a lot of shoplifting happens in a grocery store, they just raise the prices a bit to cover the loss. A bookstore doesn't have that luxury since the prices are predetermined by the producer, in this case the publisher. Until booksellers can determine the selling price of their products, independent bookselling will never be a hugely profitable business. Why shouldn't something sell for more when it's hot or A Path of Daggers popular? It certainly works for clothing and music. When the new Robert Jordan premieres, a bookseller should be able to sell it for as much as they can get for it. Then when the fervor slackens, they can lower the price. Let's say the new Jordan will sell for $26. (I'm not sure what the price will be, though rumor has it there will be a new one in the fall.) Under the present system, the bookseller will pay in the neighborhood of $13 for the book, and sell it for the pre-printed price of $26. A huge percentage of that book will sell in the first month. Why shouldn't the seller take advantage of the demand and sell the book for $30 then when demand slackens off drop the price to $26 or lower? Happens all the times in other retail. Another place The Hereafter Gang this model works is with regional authors. Let's face it, no matter how incredible a writer Neal Barrett, Jr. is, his books sell far better in Austin, Texas (his home) than the rest of the world. Why shouldn't his books sell for more when the retailer knows they can get it? It already happens with his used books. Barrett classics like Hereafter Gang and Through Darkest America sell for twice as much in Austin as they do in other markets. This all relates to shoplifting, because if the bookseller could control the prices, they could raise prices to cover the losses incurred by theft.

At Book People, we had a "Five-Finger Discount Authors" list of frequently stolen writers. The number one science fiction writer on that list is Philip K. Dick. (Being a Dickhead myself, I've always taken great offense from this. But them are the facts.) Other popular authors for the discerning shoplifter are Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, William Gibson, Robert Anton Wilson, Lois McMaster Bujold, J.R.R. Tolkien, Neal Stephenson, and just about anyone else that sells. One of the biggest problems with combating shoplifting is the books that sell and those which are stolen are usually the same. You have to carry these titles in order to make any money.

There are a lot of different methods of fighting store theft. Electronic sensors with alarms, mirrors, cameras, undercover or uniformed guards are just a few. All of these work to some degree, but nothing is as effective as plain old customer service. Being attentive to customers, along with not allowing them to carry large bags in the store, are the only major deterrents to shoplifting. This does not mean that when a clerk asks you if you need help, that they think you are stealing. Someone nearby might be thinking about it and if that certain degenerate thinks there is any chance or even possibility that they will be caught, they'll think again!

You can help. Don't give the poor bookseller any shit when they ask for your backpack. They can't afford to make exceptions. When that unscrupulous individual argues, the clerk has, as ammunition, the example of everyone else going along with the policy. Another helpful way is to become involved. If you see something suspicious going on, tell someone. Don't engage the thief, just get some help and then get out of the way. Remember, it's your bookstore too.

Copyright © 2002 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw decided to collect his columns, essays, reviews, and other things Klaw in Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century (currently available from Monkey Brains, Inc). As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business.

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