State of Independents

opinions free from chains

Crikey – I’d better get writing….

Posted on July 3, 2013 by

Good morning, especially if you’re a new visitor to this blog.  Do have a mooch around and do leave a comment as it’s lovely to hear from new people

I haven’t written here for a while as you can see, but this post, seems to have a attracted a fair bit of attention recently. Most of it positive fortunately.  I’ve also had a few emails asking why I have been so quiet, after all, it’s not as though I don’t have plenty to say on things book-related. The answer to that isn’t altogether straightforward.

Partly I’ve been really busy tying up loose ends from the sale of the bookshop and getting our publishing company back on track.  Partly because I’ve been taking a back seat from social media activities – Tweeting and Facebook etc when we owned the bookshop was important and the 5k plus followers we had on Twitter were very helpful, albeit often in a nebulous, undefined way.  And partly because I have felt a bit distanced from the booktrade.  Independent bookselling is having a tough time, although I think beginning a resurgence and by selling the bookshop I’ve felt a little disloyal to my fellow booksellers, as though I’ve bailed out instead of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

However, I enjoy blogging and want to get back to doing more, although I think it’s only to be expected that I’m going to be a little less focussed on book-retailing than I have been.

So, here, State of Independents, is where I’m going to try to write more about bookselling, publishing and the business of writing.  When I do get out and about I make a point of visiting independent bookshops, so I’m going to make a point of writing about those shops on here.  I have another blog, where I’ve been writing infrequently about what I’ve been up to, most recently resurrecting our garden after The Great Flood of last summer. I’ve also reviewed a few books there and I’m planning to do more of that.  After the bookshop sale, I went through a period of reading very little, it was as though the freedom of not having to read for work freed me and I re-read favourite titles and some of the books I’d been putting off because they weren’t one of the vast number of proof copies that overflowed from our bookshelves.  But now I’m reading more and I’m going to write about that over one my personal blog.  And of course, there’s a news page at our company website. Fidra Books rescues neglected children’s classics and although the site desperately needs rebuilding you can keep up with our latest news by popping over there.

I’m not sure how I’m going to manage going from very infrequent blogging to maintaining three, but I’ll give it a go and see how it goes… You can also follow me on Twitter at @Ness_Robertson

In the meantime, whether you’re a new or old reader, hello!

Self-Publishing or not? A matter of semantics

Posted on November 16, 2012 by

There was an interesting piece on the Huffington Post site this morning from an author claiming that best-selling authors should ditch their publishing deal and form their own publishing company. Tucker Max is an author who has spent many months on the New York Times bestseller list and claims to have invented the ‘fratire’ genre (who knew that even existed?). I’ve never heard of him but I think it’s more that I wouldn’t tend to gravitate towards memoirs of college days with titles like I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Assholes Finish First rather than due to any failing on his part or that of his publisher.

To summarise, Tucker claims that by forsaking his Big Six publisher and setting up his own publishing company he tripled his income from his books. He contracted areas such as editing, proof-reading and marketing out to freelancers but the key component of his success was that he made an arrangement with one of the big distributors to deal with warehousing, supplying his book to retailers, returns etc. I imagine that he must also have had an arrangement for someone to rep his books and sell them into stores – either another freelancer or possibly a bigger publisher as it’s common for them to carry titles on behalf of smaller publishers who can’t justify their own sales force.

As a result of this, Tucker’s newest book, Hilarity Ensues, was number two on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list in its first week and he tells us that it has since sold very well while Tucker’s income has risen from $3.60 per book to $12 (before distribution costs). Frankly, I’m a little wary of the spin that’s been put on those figures. I don’t have access to US sales data for the whole market but I would make an educated guess that many of his sales are online and at the time of writing, Hilarity Ensues was ranked at 1673 on’s sales chart and if the Evil Empire are selling it at $10.88 then he’s unlikely to be receiving anything like $12. But it would be splitting hairs to argue with the minutiae – he’s a best-selling author who has turned to self-publishing and it’s working for him.

Although he insists that he has not self-published, that is exactly what Tucker has done. I imagine that he objects to that label because of the negative connotations that have grown up around it – sloppy, unedited writing; dodgy cover design; the experiences that booksellers have had with some self-published authors… I could go on.

Tucker states in a preliminary paragraph that his advice is only aimed at best-selling authors and others in the publishing industry and he reiterates frequently that his approach will only work for writers with previous sales of at least 500,000. He advises mid-list authors to stick with conventional publishers because of the value they add and says that new writers without an audience should concentrate on self-publishing.

Many of those best-selling writers would be horrified at the prospect of having to run a publishing company in addition to having to write the books and promote them. For genre writers who publish a book a year there just wouldn’t be the time even if there was the inclination. Tucker’s first book came out in 2006 and he’s only written two since then. Even with energetic promotion that still leaves time to take on running his own publishing company.  For newer and mid-list authors, I agree with him that mainstream publishers can add a great deal and personally, if I were to write a novel I would prefer to be conventionally published by a traditional publisher.

However, what Tucker is describing is simply self-publishing. What separates him from most self-published writers is that he is taking a more professional attitude while many are well-intentioned dabblers at best, wilfully self-sabotaging at worst.*

A large part of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of some of the companies that provide self-publishing services. Many of their promises are vague and rely on their customers not knowing any better and in quite a few instances the prices they charge for their services are frankly outrageous. Worst of all are the ‘publicity packages’ which generally consist of a boilerplate AI emailed to bookshops and their cover design services which look like 1990s clip-art.  It’s just old-fashioned vanity publishing with a new name. Writers don’t need these companies – they need to learn about the trade and learn how to do things themselves.  They might as well – they probably need to do the same amount of work and they’ll be spending their money on the important areas.

But if those considering self-publishing aren’t told then they won’t get it right will they? The vast majority want to do a good job. A track record of sales, a good review or two on blogs, a recommendation from a bookseller (because the first lesson is that the book trade is the most gossipy business there is!) can mean that an agent or an editor will look at their next book with more interest and it can lead to a book deal with a traditional publisher. Once there, that author’s experience and knowledge gained with their self-published book will stand them in good stead. Or they can stay self-published and build on their success.

Conversely, some writers simply want to want to upload their work to Amazon and don’t care about errors or sales numbers; they just want to say ‘my book’s available for the Kindle’. Good for them. They can sink into the morass of badly written, badly edited hell that lurks there. I can’t help them, none of us can.

As a bookseller I was driven demented by some self-published authors because while I was running a business they would be amateurish or would assume that the usual norms didn’t apply to them because they or their book were ‘special’. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people who insisted on telling me about their book on a busy Saturday afternoon despite my polite requests that they leave a copy for us to look at when it wasn’t so frantic; the people who would tell me I was wrong when I said that their book wasn’t right for our market (East End true crime whilst my shop was in a genteel area of Edinburgh for example); the people who really couldn’t see that the cover of their book was unutterably awful (one had a large swastika in the foreground) and that I didn’t want to stock something that people would physically recoil from if they saw it on the shelves.

I’ve given advice to individuals on an informal basis, I’ve given talks to groups of writers on how to work with bookshops and how to use social media and I’ve often muttered about how I wish self-published authors would learn a bit about the trade because it would make it easier for all of us. However, now that I am no longer a bookshop owner and have a little more time – although it’s amazing how work and other projects expand to fill the space available and 2013 is already taking on whirlwind characteristics – I’m going to use some of it to offer advice to self-published, aspiring and newly published writers on how to promote their work to bookshops in the hope that a fragment or two might help them.

I hope that some people might find it helpful. There will be no cossetting or ego-stroking though – this is Author Boot Camp not a support group.

Next time – why your book needs to be on bookshop shelves.

* I should make it clear before I go any further that I know some very lovely self-published authors who work very hard not only to produce great books but to understand how the book trade works so that they can maximise their chances of success. They know who they are – I hope – and also understand that my comments are aimed at the majority rather than these shining stars.

How to Write Like Steinbeck. Sort of…

Posted on April 10, 2012 by

Gosh, I really do need to start blogging more.  It was one of my New Year resolutions but it hasn’t happened yet.  Maybe it can be an early-mid April resolution instead, even if they’re just short blog posts with interesting links.

Anyway, here’s today’s interesting post for any would-be writers out there.  There are a million books on how to write (or so it often seems) but I love the fact that John Steinbeck, winner of countless awards including the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, conveyed his advice in to six simple points. The last I think is one of the most important – a lot of the books we see, whether self-published or from big name authors, feel lumpy and often it’s when you read the dialogue out loud that you realise the problem.

Anyway, here’s the link to the full piece at Brain Pickings (one of my favourite blogs) – Six Tips on Writing from John Steinbeck.

See you soon.  Promise.

Overcoming Authors’ Reticence. Or, How to Make Bookshops Love You and Your Book

Posted on October 3, 2011 by

A couple of weeks ago I was deeply honoured to be asked to join a panel at the Society of Authors in Scotland to discuss ways in which authors could promote themselves and how it was nothing to be frightened of.  Unlike my fellow panel members the wonderful Peggy Hughes from the Scottish Poetry Library and the equally wonderful Colin Fraser of Anon poetry magazine and social media expert, I’m not able to speak intelligently off-the-cuff so I had a prepared talk for my ten minute slot.  Some peope have asked about it and so here’s a tidied up version…

Good morning. I’m delighted to have been asked to join you today to talk about how authors can promote themselves to bookshops. It’s a sad fact that just as publishers’ lists are shrinking, so are budgets for marketing and promotion and so are the teams of sales reps who tell bookshops about new titles. It is essential that authors are willing to market their books to some degree, whether on-line or in person. And I do know that that’s hard for some people – being a writer is about having time and space and solitude and when your book comes out you’re suddenly expected to become an extrovert willing to talk about all aspects of writing and your life as well as the actual book and to devote time to blogging and Tweeting and maintaining your Facebook page etc.

I do sympathise with anyone who is horrified by the prospect of promoting themselves to bookshops and readers but I’m here today to tell you what bookshops need from you in order to sell your book and to share a few of the awful encounters I’ve had with authors – names have been changed to protect the guilty though, so don’t worry. What you have to bear in mind, more than anything, is that finding good books to sell is as essential for bookshops as breathing is to you and I and that we need to work together to do that.

Publishers big and small have fewer reps out on the road talking to booksellers and I know that there will be thousands of books that simply pass under my radar, so we need authors to bring their books to our attention. One of my raisons d’etre is to discover great books – it’s a wonderful feeling to have someone come back to the shop to tell me that the book I pressed into their hand changed their lives. It’s why I’m a bookseller.

Lovely books and lovely authors make bookselling a great way to make a living. And books and their authors are not inseparable – there are books that I only take one copy of or ignore altogether because the author is vile and there are books whose authors are so talented and charming that we take multiple copies and put them face-out, on the table, in the window etc. We’ve often joked about having a Lovely-O-Meter and where authors sit along it, but joking aside, being nice gets you an awfully long way. Never, ever forget that, whether you’re the top of the best-seller charts or just dreaming of when you can give up your day job to write full-time.  I know that I have a reputation myself for being fairly sharp-tongued at times but many people will tell you that I’m quite nice really and always willing to chat to people about their books and to see whether it’s a title that could work in our shop.

So, why would I choose your book? Roughly 135,000 books are published in the UK each year. My shop stocks around 3,500 titles, depending on the time of year. Even if we ignore the truly awful books that are published, that still means that I don’t have space for all the books that are worth stocking. Therefore, I have to be really picky. Every single title in our shop is hand-picked. I know my customers and their tastes and I’m always looking for lesser-known titles to surprise them with. Books that are half-price in the supermarkets or cheap-as-chips on Amazon aren’t, with some exceptions, particularly attractive to me. My customers typically buy a lot of books but few buy exclusively from me and so my stock has to be unpredictable, comforting, challenging, entertaining, quirky and reliably high quality. And I like to be able to recommend books that they may not have seen elsewhere. But my aim is to sell books – if I can’t sell a book then it isn’t worth wasting space in the shop on it and I don’t stock books just to be nice to writers. It’s a harsh economic world out there and every book in the shop has to earn its place on the shelf.

A good example of the mid-list, not-especially-well-known book that I love to stock is Diamond Star Halo by Tiffany Murray. This book was read and enjoyed by a bookseller friend of mine, who hand-sold it to a mutual friend of ours, who in turn passed it onto me, telling me how much she loved it. I read it and I’m now selling it to masses of our customers. That I mentioned on Twitter how much I was enjoying it and Tiffany popped up to say hi didn’t hurt. She was friendly but not pushy and that’s nice. It’s a mid-list title, by a fairly new author, from a small publisher, Portobello, and although they have an excellent sales team, it had passed me by. It’s a lovely novel but without a hefty publicity budget to buy space in promotions or advertising it was dependent on word-of-mouth to build awareness. If you extrapolate the sales seen in our bookshop and my friend’s bookshop and can replicate that across say 50 bookshops, that could be around 1,000 or so sales in a year. And our shop’s best-selling fiction title has sold over a hundred copies since it came out in February. Imagine that extrapolated across a few dozen shops…

If you’re a mid-list author you need to befriend your local bookshop because if your publisher isn’t paying for you to be in promotions, your book will be shelved in the back of big bookshops or languishing on Amazon where it will be relying on people going to look specifically for it. Or you’re relying that their ‘you might like this’ algorithms are working in your favour. Given the random stuff they’ve suggested to me, I wouldn’t place too much hope on that.

When you befriend one bookshop you befriend many, because booksellers are among the gossipiest people on earth. We love to talk about books – after all, none of us are in this game for the money or the glamour – and when we get together we talk about books we’ve loved, books we’ve hated, books that that came out of left-field and pleasantly surprised us and authors who’ve been a joy or a disaster to work with. Seriously, when it comes to the last of those, half a dozen of us can spend a riotously cheery hour and several glasses of wine swapping horror stories.

So, how do you make a bookshop love you and your book? How do you give your book a chance to make our hearts sing and how do you establish yourself on the Lovely-O-Meter? I should point out that I’m not speaking for all booksellers, just myself. Although I think many of my points would be echoed by others…

Firstly, tell us about your book. But not a couple of weeks before Christmas when I am running around like a headless chicken; not when I’ve got a shopful of customers and never, ever on a Saturday because I’m just too busy selling books. Drop a copy of your book off, marked for my attention, and if you want it back, enclose a padded envelope with enough stamps. I don’t like having to keep lots of books hanging around as we don’t have the space so if there’s no envelope I will assume that you don’t want it back and it will end up in the charity box or the recycling bin.

I’m actually quite a nice person and I know how much you love your book and how proud of it you are and I don’t want to trample on your dreams. However, when you ask me what I thought and I say something vague about it not really being right for our market or whatever, please understand that I might be trying to let you down gently. Of course, it might just be that I don’t think your book’s right for our customers so don’t over-analyse it.

Don’t tell me that you know better than I what my customers want to read. Especially if you’re not actually one of our customers.

Don’t nag me. My husband and our accountant will tell you that doesn’t work. I have a business to run, I am busy and I have a to be read pile by my bed that looks like one of Waterstone’s unlamented 3 for 2 tables. There’s some fantastic stuff in there that I’m looking forward to reading and some stuff that’s probably dross. But if you ask us to consider your book and drop one off, I will read as much of it as possible and if I like it then I’ll order it in. If you really want to know what I thought, emailing is hugely preferable to ringing me or rocking up at the shop. If I didn’t like the book then the latter two put me on the spot a bit and I would rather tell you the bad news by email rather than face to face. You’ll look downcast and I’ll feel as though I’ve kicked a puppy and that’s not nice for either of us. Just because you haven’t heard from me doesn’t mean that I didn’t like your book though – it might well have been ordered and be just waiting for the right customer.

Don’t pitch your book to me on Twitter or Facebook or our blog or wherever. Be professional – send me information and don’t harrass me.

Love your local bookshop. Don’t do all your shopping on Amazon or wherever and then try to play up the fact that you love our shop so much and you’ve written a book that you think I should stock. If you buy a book now and again and are friendly and chatty then when you tell me about your book I’m already predisposed to give it a go.

Don’t do what one author did recently when he called in on a Saturday and wanted to talk to me about his new novel.  His wife cheerfully pointed out that they’d never been in before because they lived in the New Town. I live in Stockbridge and those of you that know Edinburgh will know that the cross-town ride on the number 23 isn’t the most arduous of journeys. Geography alone is not a reason for me to stock your book. Being local and an occasional customer will ensure that I at least read it though. No-one is too big to concern themselves with their local bookshop – you can ask some of my customers who have sales most writers only dream of.

And when you make it big, and if your work is good then I hope you do, remember the people at the independent bookshops who championed your work. They are the people who made sure that the big old world out there actually read your book by actually putting it into people’s hands and telling them how good it was.

If you were at my talk you’ll see that I’ve tweaked this a little just to make it more coherent for those who weren’t at the conference.  I hope it’s of interest/useful and thank you to everyone who has said such nice things about my talk.

You might also find this blog post I wrote a couple of years ago about how not to sell your book to a bookshop interesting.  Almost all of it is completely true although it will take wine or chocolate to persuade me to tell you which bits…

The future of publishing…?

Posted on September 18, 2011 by

Yesterday I went to the Society of Authors in Scotland’s conference – I was actually honoured enough to be one of their guest speakers but more of that another time.  One of the presentations was from a number of industry experts sharing their thoughts on the way ahead for publishing.  One was Marion Sinclair, CEO of Publishing Scotland, one was agent Jenny Brown and one was Bob McDevitt, head honcho at Hachette Scotland.

Bob linked to the video below during his presentation and I think it’s a great way of summing up the misconceptions that some aspects of the trade have about the future of publishing and indeed the book itself.  My experience of young people is that they still care, still think and still engage with books.  And this reinforced my feelings of optimism.  Enjoy.

Don’t let books be marginalised – save Bookstart

Posted on December 26, 2010 by

I could write a great deal here about the need to encourage in children the habit of reading for pleasure and the need to help parents to start reading with their children.  There is masses to say about the folly of government plans to remove funding from the brilliant Bookstart scheme which has since 1992 (interestingly set up under a Tory administration like the one which now seeks to remove it) given books to all children at three key points before they start school with subsequent schemes later in their school careers.  Fantastic books by leading authors and illustrators accompanied by advice for parents on how to get into the habit of reading with their children because an awful lot of parents aren’t readers themselves and don’t know how to start with their children.

An army of Bookstart coordinators run activities such as reading groups in community centres, promote library membership, advise childminders and nurseries and generally work tirelessly to build on the basic premise of giving children their very own books from an early age.  And the inclusive nature of the scheme which gives books to all pre-schoolers rather than just those who are means-tested or specially selected by some other means as needing additional help promotes the idea of reading as an activity for everyone.  It doesn’t feel like charity or ‘intervention’ and thus has no stigma.

My own experience with young people who haven’t developed the habit of reading possibly points up the need for the Bookstart scheme rather well.

I have a PGCE and worked for some time with teenagers who were drifting into further education following undistinguished school careers.  This was in the mid to late ’90s and these teenagers were too old to have benefitted from Bookstart.  The common factor that linked all of them was that they didn’t read for pleasure.  I found that if I could get them to start reading it helped their attainment levels in the subjects they were studying.  What they read might not have been directly related to their courses but it was part of a process that made visiting the college library less of a chore, helped them to realise that the knowledge it held could help them to achieve the jobs and careers that they aspired to but which they felt were impossible to grasp, that books were not dusty and irrelevant.  Would they have passed more exams if they and their parents or carers had benefitted from Bookstart?  Maybe not.  But it wouldn’t have hindered them and it might have improved their attainment levels.

It is not over-dramatic to say that losing Bookstart would be a tragedy.  Books can change lives.  Establishing and maintaining the habit of reading can dramatically alter the life chances of children and young people.  Books are one of the foundation stones of our culture and to erode the importance of reading will undoubtedly undermine much of our country’s literary, artistic, scientific and business standing.

That picture book about a penguin or a patchwork elephant or a cat or a digger is the beginning of an imaginative adventure which can change lives. Don’t let that adventure be stifled at the very beginning.  Bookstart’s £13 million of funding is the equivalent of a second-class stamp for every person in the country.  Not even peanuts; cheaper than peanuts.

You can sign the petition to keep Bookstart’s funding here.  Please do.

Rights and Copyright

Posted on November 19, 2010 by

This is a post for the lovely Jane Smith’s Copyright Day (she writes How Publishing Really Works, but I’m sure you know that already).

As both publishers and booksellers we get a lot of books (or to be frank, “books”) that people would like us either to publish or sell. The quality varies (understatement), but what I find most astonishing is that sometimes I open a book to find that it seems….familiar. There’s a fine line between “influenced by” and “flagrant breach of copyright”, and it’s one I obviously see differently to the person who sent me a near-perfect rendition of a Spike Milligan poem. Copyright has been a controversial issue in the sphere of printed books – the Ian McEwan debacle and the numerous Harry Potter trials spring to mind – but social media and self-publishing has knotted it into a morass of confusion.

People have written whole books on this subject, but it strikes me that a number of salient points seem clear:

1.       Whilst there is no copyright on ideas, as soon as you write something down, it’s yours, and no one else should be able to use it without permission;

2.       Unless someone else has already written it down, obviously;

3.       In which case: if you didn’t know that someone else had written it first, then tough, the copyright still isn’t yours;

4.       There are some exceptions, such as fair use;

5.       If you are going to send me a picture book with really, really ugly illustrations, at least make sure you aren’t sullying Spike Milligan’s poetry in the process.

The reaction to Judith Griggs and Cooks Source has been extraordinarily vitriolic and I think it’s partly because of the unspoken recognition that writing is both personal and powerful. I am neither a novelist nor poet, but even in this blog post I am writing down part of myself – this is what I think, and my writing testifies to that. No one else should be able to steal it, or twist my words into something I didn’t intend. Authors have spurred political movements; made and destroyed figureheads; put into words that feeling you have always had but never knew how to describe, and the law acknowledges their achievement, courage and right to be compensated when their work is reproduced by someone else. Copyright recognises that writing has value, and for that, I am grateful.

Sometimes the personal is the political

Posted on May 4, 2010 by

A common refrain I’ve heard during the current election campaign is that none of the main parties really inspire voters – we haven’t had a “Yes We Can” moment from any of the leaders in their TV debates and with public borrowing etc at the current levels, everyone seems resigned to the fact that life’s going to be a bit grim whoever wins.

So maybe we should look to our own lives and the decisions we make and the fact that the choices we make can have a huge cumulative impact on society and especially our local communities.  This ties in with the new Indiebound initiative from the Booksellers Assocation.  Imported from the American Booksellers Association (all members are independent booksellers unlike the BA where my fellow members include Tesco and Waterstone’s) where Indiebound has been running for a couple of years as a grass-roots movement inspiring people to use their local independent businesses.  Our Indiebound pack arrived on Friday and both our shops now have the ‘Eat, Sleep, Read’ posters up.

And the Indiebound movement exemplifies what I was saying about how our personal choices can have a political impact, in some ways far more than waving a placard on a anti-globalisation march.  How many people  have ever ordered a book or CD from Amazon or bought a cheap t-shirt from one of the bargain-basement fashion retailers (who could sell it that cheaply because it was quite probably made in a sweatshop)?  We are seduced by cheapness into buying more than we need, often at the price of exploiting poorer communities.  Sometimes we are seduced by global branding and advertising into paying more than we need for products – Starbucks became fashionable in the UK at least partly because we were lured by the ‘Friends’ image – as though sipping an over-priced macchiato in a cafe with sofas would suddenly make us beautiful and interesting and surrounded by similarly hip friends.  We all do it – I’m as guilty of falling prey to the lures of imported out-of-season veg as anyone else.

Meanwhile, independent businesses – cafes, greengrocers, fishmongers, hardware shops, and – of course – bookshops are disappearing from our communities.  In terms of bookshops, when you shop with us you might not benefit from the loss-leader discounting seen on-line and in supermarkets (which is why you won’t see the new Jamie O or Nigella on our shelves – it isn’t worth wasting the space on them and we’d rather find you original and reliable alternatives) but you will benefit from our expertise; our knowledge of local titles and those most likely to be of interest to our customers, the quirky titles and lesser known authors that we search out and the events we run from bookgroups to author events.  You contributed to your community indirectly because local businesses donate to local causes in a way that major retailers don’t and you enabled us to create local jobs and pay local taxes.

In brief, shopping local and shopping independent whenever you can shows that you care about your community and that you don’t want to live in a homogeneous world where everything is bland and the decisions about what you wear, drink, eat and read are made by national or even international companies.

Voting is important but sometimes we send out a political message as much by the choices we make on a day to day basis just as much as we do at the ballot box every four or five years.  Sometimes it’s our personal decisions which are the most significant political statements.

Our trip to the London Book Fair

Posted on April 22, 2010 by

The LBF is huge and mostly about selling rights – UK and foreign – in books; agents are there to talk to overseas publishers, publishers want to talk to the big buyers in the UK such as book clubs and the like and so on…

However, an increasing number of seminars are being run such as the Booksellers Association’s programme for independent booksellers, and some events for budding authors as well as events run by the British Council, PEN and Booktrust to name just a few.  Booksellers are increasingly being seen as an important group of attendees (even more so this year when there were few foreign buyers for publishers to talk to) and it’s a useful way for us to see what’s new and forthcoming, especially if you’re somewhere like Edinburgh where it’s easy to feel that we don’t exist apart from the three weeks in August when the book festival sets up camp in Charlotte Square.

On two of the days, there were presentations by publishers to independent booksellers of their titles for the latter half of 2010.  In theory, publishers had about 20 minutes to present the books that they thought would be of particular interest to us – in practice, some had little idea of time-keeping and took a rather scattergun approach but on the whole it was really useful, especially as we’re already starting to think about the titles that we’ll include in our Christmas catalogue (do I win a prize for the earliest mention of the dreaded ‘C’ word?).

Whilst listening though, I did make some notes and thought it might be interesting to share them with you, dear reader… Apologies for the length of this post in advance.

Monday morning…

Not many people here which seems odd – so useful to know about forthcoming titles and see jackets etc and as it seems every publisher is drastically cutting their rep teams meaning that we see them less and less frequently.

Random House up first and seem on the ball… new Kate Atkinson title is something to look forward too and will do very well for us.  New Salman Rushdie; lovely looking book by Simon Heffer about the correct use of English – could be this year’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves; new Nigella Lawson – will be so discounted everywhere that we may well not bother getting any in.

Headline  on next… Daisy Goodwin’s new novel My Last Duchess looks fun – might ask for a proof of that; Andrea Levy’s new book will be out in pb in the autumn; Grumpy-Old-Women type book from Jenny Eclair might do well as Christmas gift if really funny as so much of that market seems to be aimed at men.

Time for a coffee – I think.  It’s hot and wet but I genuinely can’t tell whether it’s tea or coffee.  Maybe we should just refer to it as a cup of ‘brown’ rather than be too definite.

Pan Macmillan next out of the blocks.  Oh no, these chaps want to be funny.  Saints preserve us from unfunny presentations…

Some interesting titles – collected letters of Nelson Mandela will do well and a biog of Obama by a Pullitzer Prize winner should have the necessary gravitas to sell well to our customers; book about beer; new Bret Easton Ellis; new book by Kate Morton is apparently all about a country house, time slip, part thriller, part ghost story, part romance – so that would be just like her first book, The House at Riverton then?  Oh well, if it ain’t broke…

Even the publishers feel the need to apologise for the forthcoming Jeffrey Archer (and well they might) but I think if I was Colleen Nolan I might be a bit miffed at the sneering at my forthcoming novel – whether she’s written it herself or not (and I expect the latter), they’ve signed it up and shouldn’t snigger about it.  It didn’t look enticing to me, but it is what it is and some people will enjoy it.

Little Brown next – Shirley Williams’ autobiography, Margaret Atwood and Jane Gardham into paperback; book on cheese by Alex James of Blur fame (seems to me that his name has become Alex-James-of-Blur); new David Sedaris will be a treat as will Sandy McCall Smith’s new Isabel Dalhousie in October.

Next comes Sam from Faber, presenting the whole of the Independent Alliance – we always look forward to her visits because the IA publishers are so in tune with our type of customer and Sam’s so aware of our market too.  And she often brings coffee which is always welcome.  Very much looking forward to the second Simon’s Cat book and the quirky and beautiful The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham.  Also, book on the history of Ordnance Survey maps (my father-in-law’s Christmas present); new Herta Muller title and Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre should be interesting.

Day 2,

A few more booksellers today; coffee/tea – let’s just stick with ‘beverage’ still dreadful.

Bloomsbury on first and they’ve got some interesting books – new books from Sue Miller, Lisa See, Howard Jacobson.  Four new titles in the Bloomsbury Group series although the covers seem to be getting progressively worse in this list; new cookbook by Monty and Sarah Don looks lovely but will be so discounted elsewhere that I’ll probably just get one in for myself; another title in the River Cottage Handbooks series – Hedgerow – which will be great for the autumn.

Bloomsbury shouldn’t have pointed out that they were going to be promoting one of their kids’ books mainly through schools and libraries – doesn’t indicate that independent bookshops are going to see a lot of sales and isn’t terribly helpful to mention to a roomful of indies.

HarperCollins on next – Louise Rennison’s Withering Tights, her new series after Georgia Nicholson, looks brilliant and I can’t wait to read it; biographies of Roald Dahl, Edward Heath and Coco Chanel look good; The Blitz by Juliet Gardiner will be great. And a new Oliver Jeffers children’s book is always a treat.

Russell Brand’s follow up to his Booky Wook – This Time It’s Personal has a missing apostrophe on the cover so let’s hope that was a draft image… and the HC chap is dreadful – a last minute stand-in due to the volcanic ash problems but he just read the Powerpoint slides out to us in a dull monotone – might as well have just emailed the slides to us all.

Penguin’s got some interesting autumn titles – new Moomins books, new Dick and Felix Francis title – have sentimental memories of my gran enjoying those so will read it as soon as it comes out because of that; new le Carre,

The Hodder chaps are great – sitting down at the table to talk to us, noticing our reactions and asking us questions – they seemed really interested in the books and in us.  Which is nice.   Dawn of the Bunny Suicides will be huge at Christmas; biography of Debo Devonshire will be great but no doubt heavily discounted on-line so not a huge seller for us; Awkward Family Photos from the blog of the same name is a perfect Christmas humour book and there’s a new Jill Paton Walsh/Dorothy L Sayers book out which I’m looking forward to.

Orion next – Keith Richards autobiography; Marco Pierre White; Pink Floyd The Wall illustrated by Gerald Scarfe; new Maeve Binchy; new book from Bernard The Reader Schlink.  They’re also bringing out a special edition of Ballet Shoes in hard back – cloth bound etc but bafflingly they’re pricing it at £6.99, rather than the £8.99 I would have expected.  It just goes to show how mad pricing is – over-inflated for the cookery, thrillers etc which will be hugely discounted and some real gems are underpriced.  Still we’ll sell dozens of that Ballet Shoes in the run-up to Christmas are whatever price they put on it.

General points re success of presentations – you know, just in case any publishers read this (and yes, I can see your IP addresses and know who you are Penguin, HarperCollins and Waterstone’s…)

  • Don’t tell indie booksellers about all your new books – just pick out the ones which will be of greatest interest to us.  I know Nigella/Jamie or whoever will sell shedloads but they probably won’t sell masses for us when Tesco are knocking them out for a fiver.
  • Be interesting.  An over-heated conference room and a really dull presentation means that we start drifting off.  Or Tweeting about how grim this is and then it flashes up on the screen in the foyer because of the LBF10 hash-tag and then everyone knows how bored I was… Oh yes, that happened!
  • Make sure the coffee’s decent.  Or at least recognisably coffee.
  • See it as an opportunity to tell us about your new authors, or your authors who are more indie and less Amazon oriented.
  • Don’t flash up a mock-up of your super-duper on-line marketing campaign with its prominent link to Amazon in the corner – it isn’t going to move that book to the top of my list.

Overall though – some really interesting books coming out during the rest of 2010 and lots of ideas for our Christmas catalogue and some authors to try to organise events with.

Post at The Fidra Blog – Patti Smith

Posted on April 5, 2010 by

A week or so ago, we went to Oran Mor in Glasgow to handle the booksales and signing at Patti Smith’s gig to promote her new autobiography, Just Kids. It was a brilliant night in lots of ways and we were all completely star-struck at having met such a legend…

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Welcome to State of Independents. I'm Vanessa Robertson. I live in Edinburgh and my husband and I run a tiny publishing house. We also used to own the award-winning Edinburgh Bookshop. This is where I write about the book trade as I see it and I'm not always as diplomatic as I should be...

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