Posted on November 16, 2012 by Vanessa
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 Amazon.com’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.
Posted on April 10, 2012 by Vanessa
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.
See you soon. Promise.
Posted on October 3, 2011 by Vanessa
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…
Posted on September 18, 2011 by Vanessa
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.
Posted on May 3, 2011 by Vanessa
Way back when, several weeks before World Book Night (remember that?) I, along with many other booksellers and interested parties such as authors and publishers, raised concerns that, in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s, it might not be in the best interests of the trade to give away a million books. In an attempt to keep this post as concise as possible, I’m not going to re-state my criticisms, but do follow the link to that blog post if you want to refresh your memory.
Many of us felt that however much we agreed with the essence of World Book Night; that it was to be a celebration of reading and the joy of books, it would be damaging to the book trade at a point in the economic cycle where we needed to be promoting the idea of book-buying – after all, we might be cutting back on holidays and socialising and shoe-shopping but a book is comparatively cheap at about the same price as a cinema ticket and yet has the potential to be life-changing. Much as I love a new pair of shoes, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that even a new pair of Manolos could change my life.
When I first wrote about our concerns re World Book Night I was unprepared for the opprobrium that was unleashed – although I was far from a lone voice, those of us who were sceptical about WBN were derided as narrow-minded, reactionary, grumpy or even anti-reading. Suggesting that giving away so much product would actually devalue books and that it gave ammunition to the idea that authors were unreasonable to expect to be paid for their work, was seen as almost heretical. The organisers continually dismissed our concerns as the moaning of a small but vocal minority but the support that us naysayers received was significant – I received dozens and dozens of emails from authors, publishers, retailers and readers agreeing that I was right to be concerned. There was also a lot of criticism from givers hurled at those of us who queried the wisdom of giving away so much stock although that was to be expected – but our argument was with this as a trade initiative and not with those who had really imaginative and worthwhile plans to distribute the books.
In the end, having made my own suggestions as to how World Book Night could be improved for next year and having become quite tired of discussing it, I decided to keep my own counsel and see what happened. Jamie Byng had enthused to me about how this was going to be an annual event but one which would in future involve and take into account the concerns of booksellers. Although I – and many others – feared that the book trade would see a fall in sales following WBN and worried about the implications for many of us who were trying to cope with trading through a recession, I really hoped that we sceptics were wrong. I had my fingers crossed so tight that they squeaked that we wouldn’t see a fall in sales following the distribution of the free books, that the much-hyped evening of book programming on BB2 (two documentaries and a showing of the recent film of Brideshead Revisited) would indeed stimulate the masses to rush out and visit libraries and bookshops. I didn’t want to be right but I did want booksellers to be listened to and not marginalised and had every hope that this would be the case if it was to run in 2012.
Sales figures however were what would define the success or otherwise of World Book Night. Although The Bookseller gushed about a boost in sales for the books featured in WBN this was not experienced across the wider market. Way before book sales figures were released by Nielsen Bookscan which collects data from most retailers – around 90% of all books sold are recorded by Bookscan – I knew that sales were down in our shop. Sales in the week immediately after WBN were almost 30% down on the previous week. Over subsequent weeks, we’ve managed to pull this back, but it’s hard not to assume there’s a link between a drop in sales and a few thousand free books being dumped into our local area. Other booksellers told me of similar drops in sales in their shops. Later, Bookscan released figures showing that UK bookshops saw takings of £103 million in the four weeks to 2nd April; some £8.98 million less than the same period in 2010 and the worst March since 2005. Volume sales were down 12.2% to 14.2 million. At the same time, the Office of National Statistics released figures showing that overall retail sales in March 2011 were 1.3% UP on March 2010, contrasting with the experience of bookshops.
It gives me no pleasure to be right and to have called it correctly, but I can’t see any factor other than WBN that could have triggered these sharp falls, especially given that the figures for the wider retail sector were comparatively positive. But sales figures are what WBN has to be judged on and they aren’t good. So it depresses me to see that another World Book Night is planned for 2012.
I’m pleased that former Foyles marketing manager Julia Kingsford is taking over as chief executive; I have every faith that she will organise things better than the chaos that was this year’s event. However, I was promised that booksellers’ concerns would be listened to and was hopeful that we would see a mechanism introduced to promote sales. But it seems that that was just an attempt to shut the dissenters up rather than a genuine attempt to listen to our concerns and try to work with us. It has to be pointed out though that the press release outlining next year’s scheme wasn’t exactly met with excitement – the Bookseller article received a dozen or so comments, mostly from this year’s givers and a search on Google news for “World Book Night 2012” shows that the story was only picked up by the Seattle Post Intelligencer. Hardly setting the world on fire.
What is planned for next year is little better than this year’s effort – an edition of 25 Shakespeare sonnets will be despatched to 10 million households but bookshops will be able to stock a special £9.99 hardback edition. I do question whether Shakespeare is the right choice to appeal to such a large number of people, and I’m curious as to how these 10 million households will be selected. I’d also be surprised if that edition is very popular in bookshops given that the country’s going to be knee-deep in the free paperback edition. But other than that, it’s nothing new – book groups will be asked to suggest books; top 100 will be announced and the 25 selected titles announced later. As far as we know at the moment, there will be no incentive to encourage customers into bookshops other than with this hardback edition of the sonnets (which is mere tokenism), no commitment to promoting new writers and nothing has been said about how the distribution process will be improved to avoid bookshops having to double as parcel depots.
We came up with a number of suggestions as to how next year’s project could be run, and Nicola Morgan suggested (and did an amazing job of promoting in such a short space of time) an alternative or complement to World Book Night based more on the Spanish tradition of men giving women a rose and women giving a book. Despite that though, and despite all the other suggestions made by other people in the discussions on this blog and Nicola’s, no-one at World Book Night has listened and the fervent promises of consultation and wanting to listen to booksellers and authors have been empty.
So. We’ve come up with a better plan. One which can promote an unlimited range of authors; will give away masses of books without publishers having to pay for additional print costs; doesn’t require any public funding; won’t require authors to forgo royalties and can include absolutely any in-print title; which will draw customers into bookshops; which can give away a virtually unlimited number of books and which is – importantly – local and sustainable and inclusive. It also has the possibility of becoming truly global without losing sight of those three factors although if it’s just our bookshop involved that’s fine.
My next blog post – probably in a day or two, have to sort some coding on a website out first – will tell all, but until then think about the book you would choose to give away…
NB: To clarify, World Book DAY is different and I’m a huge supporter of that – it introduces children to books by introducing them to short novels/long short stories by marvellous writers and really promotes sales of books by those authors. For the children who choose not to read one of the free WBD books, they can use their voucher to get £1 off any other book. Those who criticise booksellers as being mean-spirited when they’re less than ethusiastic about WBN are clearly ignorant of the fact that we pay for the World Book Day books, we organise schools events and that £1 discount is given by us out of our takings, not reimbursed by anyone. And we don’t mind – partly because any initiative to get children reading is worth supporting, but also because, from a business point-of-view, there is an obvious benefit in introducing children and their parents/carers to the fun experience that is visiting a bookshop.
Posted on February 14, 2011 by Vanessa
Imagine a project to promote reading which provided entertainment for readers; tempted non-readers to dip their toes into literary waters; emphasised the importance and joy of libraries; encouraged more people to venture into bookshops; boosted the income of publishers, authors and booksellers and made sure that books and the wonders that they hold were something everyone was talking about without alienating a single element of the book trade. Imagine if that project could get millions of people sampling books they might never have known about or heard of and borrowing them from the library or buying them in a bookshop – buying them at a discount too, so that they could dip their toes still further into the magic of language and the power of story-telling for less than the price of a packet of fags. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Since I voiced some criticisms of World Book Night, I’ve been accused of being overly cynical, angst-ridden, negative and all sorts of other things – though mainly by people whose livelihoods aren’t threatened by giving away £9 million of stock it has to be said. However, I’ve also had dozens of emails from authors and booksellers who are worried about disappearing royalties and profits. After all, the Society of Authors has found that the average earnings of authors is about £7k per annum so to see a precedent being set for giving away content is disconcerting at the very least for them. It seems to be unique to the book and music industry – I don’t remember anyone expecting surgeons or bus drivers to provide their services for free.
Actually, I’m not a negative person – mostly I’m fairly cheerful and I do have a strong streak of optimism (we run our own business and wouldn’t get by without that). I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself fluffy but I’m generally pretty enthusiastic about new ideas, which is why I’ve been working up an idea of my own. After all, it’s easy to criticise but it’s important to make suggestions as to how things could be better. Although we were vehemently opposed to the ‘bookaholism’ notion, we did make some suggestions that were later adopted by the Booksellers Association in conjunction with the American Booksellers Association.
Firstly though, before I explain the cunning plan, we need to look at what a free sample is. When I was in the supermarket a couple of days ago, at the deli counter they had a plate of little biscuits with dollops of pate on them. Nearby were whole packets of that pate. Obviously, the idea was that shoppers would try a little and buy a packet. Giving customers a whole packet of it as they walked through the door wouldn’t have increased sales, except possibly of the little biscuits to spread the pate on, but I don’t suppose that was what they were trying to promote.
A sample is a lure, a taster to tempt the consumer to purchase (or in the case of library books, borrow) the whole thing. That’s one of the reasons why World Book Day works for children – they can exchange the voucher that they all receive for one of the books and discover a new author or a new story by one of their existing favourite writers. For authors to be selected, it can be a massive boost to their sales as children, having enjoyed one book often want to buy more. And the contribution from authors is comparatively small – it isn’t a full length novel that they’re forgoing the royalties on and although they might not get royalties for this WBD title they will usually see a subsequent uplift in sales of their other books.
So, here’s The Edinburgh Bookshop’s proposal for World Book Night 2012. Instead of producing special editions of 25 different books, the first chapter or so of the same number could be included in an anthology. This would be cheaper to print – economies of scale being a wonderful thing – and less complicated to distribute.
Although the printers of this year’s book are producing it for just the cost of the materials, that can still be a hefty amount for small publishers to find. With our suggestion the cost of taking part would be lower – assuming the printers have enough spare capacity to produce the book again for just the cost of the materials, publishers would only have to pay part of the costs. I can’t guess at what that might be as so far no-one’s given me any examples of what this year’s costs are but obviously it would be much lower. That would mean that the project would be open to a wider number of publishers – poetry from Salt for example as well as Faber. It might be possible to include some non-fiction too as there are plenty of people who don’t read novels but do read history or biography.
One could include a wider range of authors because you haven’t got to choose books that you think will generate enough interest to warrant printing 40,000 copies. So that makes it possible to include debut and lesser-known authors. For example, our best-selling fiction author is Per Petterson who, despite winning the IMPAC prize, isn’t that well-known – it would be great to include the beginning of Out Stealing Horses, a book which has won over so many people who’ve bought it from us. And what about a classic or two – everyone knows the first line of A Tale of Two Cities and the inclusion of the whole first chapter might prompt a few people to rediscover – or discover for the first time – Dickens. Each excerpt could be introduced by a page with a bit of blurb and maybe few suggestions along the “if you like this, you might also like…” line. Or maybe a megastar author or celebrity introducing the books that they love. It’s doubtful that even the most poorly-paid author would object to a sample of their work being included – it’s clearly a marketing opportunity with massive potential.
However, it is being organised by the book trade and all of us, whether authors, publishers or booksellers need to turn a profit. Simply giving away samples of great books isn’t going to boost sales and get more people reading; it’s important to get the recipients of these anthologies into libraries and bookshops. So, in the back of each book we could include a voucher entitling the reader to buy any of the books included at half-price, with publishers and wholesalers ensuring that the discounts provided to bookshops enabled them to sell the books that cheaply without making a loss – obviously everyone has to chip in something and I’m sure that booksellers would have no problem covering the associated costs such as staffing, storage, display, card payment fees etc. And there should be some information about libraries – maybe publishers could donate some copies to libraries so that the books are available for borrowers or to be reserved. Authors also benefit from that through PLR payments.
Now, that we have our lovely book, with a fantastic cover design using the names of these authors so there’s something to attract as wide a range of people as possible and a good strapline, we have to distribute it.
Well, because we haven’t alienated anyone, bookshops will be happy to give it away, with in-store events and other promotions. Authors too, would be delighted to join in, even the ones who are currently expressing disquiet because of concerns re devaluing their work, because we’d be raising the profile of books generally and – crucially – encouraging people to buy them or visit libraries. I’m sure many of this year’s ‘givers’ (such a hideous noun, nearly as vile as the phrase ‘it’s a big ask’!) would be keen to take part again and because it’s not as specific as each of them finding 48 people to give the same book to, it would make it easier to give out. Libraries would doubtless want to give it away, people could give it away outside tube stations, on buses, outside football grounds and at rugby matches, in pubs, at hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, petrol stations, shopping centres, nightclubs, supermarkets… there really are no limits.
World Book Night 2011 is a great idea with a number of significant flaws; with some work it could become a scheme which didn’t limit itself to book-loving people giving books to other book-lovers. Because for all the people who plan to try to pass the books on to people who wouldn’t normally read there will be at least as many who – like the customer in our shop on Saturday – simply plan to give the books to their family and friends.
With some revisions to the scheme, it would be possible to get this book into the hands of so many more people than the one million planned recipients of this year’s books. We could show readers and non-readers alike the amazing breadth of work out there whilst at the same time supporting a library service currently threatened by huge cuts, authors who are constantly seeing their income eroded, and publishers and booksellers who are trying to keep going through the worst recession for two generations. It would be sustainable enough to grow into a genuinely World Book Night and to become an annual celebration of literature in all its forms.
Do let me know what you think…
I’m sorry this was so long – if you got this far, thank you for sticking with me!
Posted on February 13, 2011 by Vanessa
This was in The Scotsman’s book supplement at the weekend. I’d post a link but can’t find it on their website…
Posted on February 10, 2011 by Vanessa
In the last few weeks, I’ve been told quite often that I’m wrong to be worried about World Book Night and the giving away of £9 million of stock. I’ve been told that it doesn’t further devalue the book as a purchase; that it doesn’t reinforce the notion that authors should work for free; that it doesn’t give the impression that booksellers are shored up by private incomes and don’t need to actually see cash in the till at the end of the day; and that it is EXACTLY the sort of project that will help to ensure prosperous futures for booksellers, publishers and authors alike.
But – with a few exceptions – I haven’t been told this by people at the frontline of the booktrade. I’ve been told this mainly by the Booksellers Association. And told this in an incredibly patronising manner when I queried whether this was something they should be upporting and raising my own worries about the future implications of WBN.
So, aware that it might just be me and that I was missing something, I emailed half a dozen booksellers who I know and respect and asked what they thought. In the main they shared my uneasiness. One agreed with me but took comfort in the fact that the list of books were the sort “chosen by people who read for people who read and by the middle class for the middle class. I’m going to hope that it doesn’t impact on sales as these are exactly the sort of Guardian readers who see shopping local and in ‘real’ shops as a political movement”. Which is very true and one which probably (I hope) applies to our shop in leafy south Edinburgh as well.
Another – more forthright – bookseller said: “my main issue is that it is such a tremendous missed opportunity. Byng et al are great at getting the publicity, but the idea itself is only marginally better than the … ‘bookaholic’ wank.” Yes, ‘bookaholism‘ – remember that? It was kicked into the long grass after the trade made it clear what a lousy idea that was…That same bookseller was fairly blunt in his views of the BA too and I have to agree.
Someone else, after making the point that WBN seems to promote the idea that it doesn’t really cost anything to write, publish or retail a book and that they’re not really worth paying for, said: “At best, it seems like some kind of industry-wide loss leader / giant marketing campaign which might be perfectly normal business practice for the chains and large publishers, but unfortunately it’s not really something I can afford my customers to become accustomed to just yet … but at worst, it seems to be cutting me and my shop out of the book scene in the town completely – why bother with the bookshop when WBN / publishers are giving the books away free?”
Others had similar thoughts although a couple did say that they would have a think about how they could get involved if they thought it might get some new people through the shop doors but they didn’t seem to think that was likely, given that it seems to be mostly about readers giving books to other readers rather than trying to recruit more people to the joy of reading. These are not head-in-the-sand, Luddites who are negative about every new initiative that is mooted. These are knowledgeable, experienced booksellers who are regularly lauded as some of the best in the country. People with years of experience as booksellers but also – crucially – as people who run their own businesses.
So, having established that I am far from alone in the trade in my worries, I started asking our reps what responses to WBN they were hearing as they travelled highways and byways bringing news of forthcoming titles. Without exception they told me that my feelings seemed to be universal among independent booksellers and that even in the chains the response was generally negative and at best disinterested.
And that’s before we even get to the comments on my last blog post where the pro-WBN lobby were so spectacularly outnumbered by the anti-WBN brigade. And the emails I’ve received from publishers, booksellers, readers and authors in the last couple of days almost all of which agreed that WBN is pure folly. That Amazon will have even more books priced at 1 penny by 6th March and that many books will end up languishing in boxes, undonated, as suggested by Tim and The Bigooner, is highly likely.
We are not stupid and nor are we mean-spirited – we give a lot of books to charities, we run book groups for adults and children, take authors to schools and The Edinburgh Bookshop will soon be launching our big new charity project. and like us, most booksellers I know also run a shedload of charity and not-for-profit activities.
But we still don’t see why giving away so much stock is the best way to spread the love of good books and to promote reading. And we don’t like being condescended to by our own trade body, or publishing lackeys who have no idea of the stress and responsibility of running your own business and can’t even begin to comprehend the fury some of us feel at being screwed over in this way. Publishers, booksellers, authors and readers have a symbiotic relationship and to alienate booksellers by effectively cutting them out of the supply chain is foolish. We all need each other.
Next blog post – how World Book Night could have been run in way which would promote reading, promote book sales and to reach even more people…
Posted on February 8, 2011 by Vanessa
As you know (or may not – it’s amazing the number of people who haven’t heard of this most trumpeted event), 5th March has been declared World Book Night, emanating from an idea put forward by Jamie Byng of Canongate. Even the title is hubristic – there is nothing global about the project. 20,000 ‘givers’ have been selected to each give away 48 copies of one of the 25 “carefully selected” titles. That’s one million books (about £9 million of stock at retail) being given away in one night – assuming it works as intended. One million books flooding a struggling book trade; one million copies of books which make up a good part of many bookshops’ sales (David Nicholl’s One Day; Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; Case Histories by Kate Atkinson; Fingersmith by Sarah Waters to name a few); one million books being given away, further reinforcing the notion that we’re all there to provide a public service and that authors, publishers and booksellers don’t deserve or need to make a living.
The public (those who are aware of it) think it’s a great idea and quite understandably so – it’s getting something for free and we all love a freebie, especially some of the book bloggers who’ve been so breathlessly excited about WBN. Less excited are some authors – the writers of the 25 selected books will not receive royalties and given that most authors earn a very small income from their writing it sets a worrying precedent for those further down the ladder from these best-sellers.
Much less excited too are booksellers: while some are cautiously positive, most of the people I’ve spoken to are horrified; when we’re already being undercut by supermarkets who can wrestle bigger discounts from publishers and Amazon and Tesco etc are even selling books as loss-leaders, to further erode our market and the perceived value of books is foolish in the extreme. And that’s the problem: not that this will necessarily undermine sales but that it’s another way of eroding the public’s perception of the value – and cost – of books. As one hugely well-respected bookseller said to me “people will think that if the trade can afford to give away so much, our margins must be enormous and our profits vast…”. It’s hard to think of another industry which has given so much product away. Or indeed one which would want to.
When I contacted the Booksellers Association – our trade body – and raised my concerns I was very patronisingly put in my place. That I don’t see the wonder of Jamie Byng’s grand idea is down to the fact that I’m a Luddite and a flat-earther who refuses to appreciate the amazing surge in reading that will result from World Book Night. A surge which is unproven, unresearched and even the Hon Jamie – a man of many ideas, some genius and others utterly ridiculous – can only claim that “everything in my experience and instincts say its [sic] going to do something really amazing for books”. I’m not a fan of market research – much of it has a flawed methodology and makes unjustified claims (although that’s probably because I come from an academic background where every assertion has to be have substance), but surely before the booktrade gives away £9 million of stock there should have been some sort of research? I’m finding hard to see how the instincts of Jamie’s intestines should be grounds for this sort of giveaway.
Tim Godfray, Chief Executive of the BA, tells me that the BA Council see World Book Night as an opportunity for bookshops to “Reboot their Reading Communities”. WTF? That’s one of the problems with projects like this – slogans that at best mean nothing and at worst are merely spin intended to distract from the poor thinking behind them. He also pointed out to me that booksellers are not being asked to make any financial contribution, implying that that means we’re not entitled to any opinion. Which is wrong – the activities of the BA are funded by subs paid by members and so the time he and the rest of the staff are spending on this is in fact funded by booksellers and we should be able to question whether this is the best use of their time and our money.
Tim informed me that most of the funding, whether in kind or in cold hard cash, is coming from publishers and others in the trade. That publishers are happy to forgo such a chunk of profit on some of their best-selling books is indeed surprising, but given the discounting they indulge in, endlessly eroding profit in the quest to sell just a few more books in the supermarkets, even if it’s at a loss, logic does seem to be in short supply in the boardrooms. And I suspect that in order to get these books printed for free, the printers have tied those publishers into contracts regarding the amount of business they’ll put their way in the next few years, thereby covering their costs. I’d be amazed if that’s not the case. And of course, the authors concerned are losing out. Those whose books have been chosen might be selling enough to not miss the royalties – authors such as Lee Child, Marian Keyes and Margaret Atwood are probably not too fussed and have no doubt been spun a line about how this giveaway will do (completely unquantified and unknown) wonders for their backlist sales. But for many authors WBN merely reinforces the public’s suspicion that all authors are minted and can afford to work for free and that they certainly shouldn’t expect to get paid.
World Book Night means that booksellers, already working hard to make customers realise why indies don’t discount in the same way and why Amazon can afford to knock our cookbooks at less than half price (because they don’t have to have shops, or trained staff etc) will have to work even harder now to reinforce the idea that there is a cost involved in producing and selling books. After all, if you’re a punter and there is a charity shop full of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that were given away aren’t you going to wonder why Muriel Spark’s other books are being sold at £8.99 in the bookshop up the road?
Next blog post – Not just me – reactions from others in the trade
Blog post after that – how this could have been done in a way that promoted reading AND book sales
Posted on December 26, 2010 by Vanessa
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.keep looking »