I read this post on Jane Smith’s excellent blog a few days ago about the roles of literary agents as gatekeepers to the publishing industry and also as a primary filter to ensure that what is submitted to publishers is actually the genre they’re interested in, that it’s of an appropriate standard, that it’s saleable* both to the publisher and ultimately to a paying customer.
But between the publisher and the reader is the bookseller. And whilst there may be booksellers who’ll buy most anything a publisher tries to sell them, either because they have soooo much shelf-space to fill or because they haven’t got a handle on their customer base or maybe they just have too much money to spend, most of us are harder to sell to.
Take our shops for example. We’ve seen three reps so far this week from major publishers and we’ve ordered in some lovely books which are coming out in April and May. What we do buy is good literary and middle-brow fiction, Radio 4-type non-fiction, biography, history, interesting foodie and craft titles (making stuff is very popular), good crime (nothing too gory, Scandinavian crime in translation is hot at the moment following the success of Stieg Larsson) and more quirky titles – Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists? Well yes, madam, here it is. And yes, I know they hadn’t got it in Waterstone’s. Sometimes we buy in books knowing exactly which customer will buy it and we’re often spot on. For example, we have a regular two-year old customer who is obsessed with diggers and we know who will buy Middle Eastern history titles.
However, it’s interesting to look at what we haven’t bought. Quite a large number are titles we don’t have a market for – for example, we sell very little chick-lit (and what we do sell has generally been by read by Becky or I and chosen because we liked it – it doesn’t tend to hit the shelf until then); we don’t sell celeb autobiographies; we take hardly any celebrity chef titles because they’ll be half-price or less on-line or in the supermarkets and so on. If a rep tells us that a book will be in a Waterstone’s promotion we tend to bypass it or just take one copy.
Sometimes we don’t buy because the covers are so unremittingly awful and sometimes it’s because the rep just couldn’t sell the book to us (and there’s an art to selling books that’s quite different to say, double-glazing) and sometimes we’ll look up from the AI (Advance Information sheet) with a simultaneous “what the fuck?”. And in some of those cases, the rep will shrug and say that that’s been a fairly common response… It isn’t a bad thing for them to admit that to us by the way – it builds trust and means we have more respect for them and are more likely to believe them when they say that a book we’re not fussed about is really good.
And it’s a shame for the average books with the unexciting covers or the WTF books because they and their author have spent years going through the publishing process – agents, editors, acquisitions meetings, editing, type-setting, cover design… and much money has been spent quite apart from the author’s advance. But no-one thought about how this could be sold to a bookseller and whether it was something we could in turn sell to a customer.
So there you go – agents might be a primary filter but booksellers are the filter of last resort. And when you browse a bookshop full of titles you loved or which make you want to read them remember that we’ve worked hard just to make sure that they’re there for you.
* and yes, I don’t care how marvellous you think your novel is; if there isn’t a market for it, it won’t find a publisher. If it is constantly turned down then it’s either not good enough or not enough paying readers will want to buy it and the book trade is just that – a trade. Agents, publishers, booksellers are all in it to make a living, just as we assume that most writers are.