Thursday, November 22, 2007

The joys of Christmas

One of the most frustrating aspects of running a bookshop is the number of unsolicited phone calls I receive at Christmas from self-published authors and small publishers. The last ten weeks of the year is make or break time in bookselling and if I'm going to spend time on the phone, I'd rather be selling a book to a customer than listening to someone waffle on about their definitive history of telephone boxes of the 1930s.

Last week a self-published author phoned during a particularly busy time and I asked her to send me an email, which she promptly did. Later, during a quiet moment at the till I, read the author's description of her book. On the basis that she wasn't a local author, hadn't arranged any publicity for the book and was writing about a fairly esoteric subject, I decided not to stock it. That should have been the end of it.

A few days later she rang back and was very abrupt with one of my staff. I was busy dealing with a long enquiry and couldn't talk to her. The next day she managed to track me down and asked if I was going to stock her book. At first I wasn't sure which title she was talking about as I've had so many calls like this recently. The conversation went like this:

'I really think you should stock this title'

'Are you a local author'

'No, I live in **** *******'

'And why do you think that I should stock this book'

The author told me how interesting and well-written their book was, which led me to the next question:

'What sort of publicity have you arranged?

'I've had some local newspaper articles, but nothing in your area. I'm hoping that it will be picked up by a national paper'

'I've no doubt it's a very good book, but I have trouble selling titles by Penguin that have been backed by a marketing spend of thousands of pounds, so unless you can guarantee some sort of publicity I don't think I'll be able to sell it.'

We agreed to differ.

I gave the author some advice on how to publicise her book and encouraged her to try local radio, promising to stock the title if she did this. She probably thought I was being a bit of a bastard but in the past, if you visited the stock room of any bookshop you'd find hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds worth of unsold books from small publishers and self-published authors. These titles were bought on a sale or return basis, but it's interesting how the person that hassled you every day before Christmas could be so elusive when you tried to send the books back. And if you did track them down, returning the books was a lengthy, time consuming process. Instead of picking 400 books and sending them back to HarperCollins, you had to do dozens of small consignments with separate forms for each one.

There's nothing I like more than seeing a small publisher or self-published author succeed and, contrary to the tone of this post, I always try to be open minded when an author approaches me. But it is frustrating how many people publish books without doing any research into the book trade, make no effort to get publicity and then phone bookshop managers at the busiest time of the year.


Jim Murdoch said...

Thank God! A blog that's not about Thanksgiving and what's it about? Ruddy Xmas!

Seriously though, very informative and helpful. I'm going to be one of those self-published authors in a few months time and at the moment I'm reading everything I can about marketing. It's enough to make a grown man cry.

Nice to see your side of it and I really do empathise. The bottom line is that there are just too many damn books coming out.

The thing is, I'm not one for paying too much attention to publicity. I usually take the point of view that if someone's trying to shove a book down my throat I'm probably not going to like it. I'm a browser. And as such I've found quite a few gems (e.g. Gaétan Soucy) that I'd heard or read nothing about and I'm now spreading the word.

I had hoped that a few booksellers like yourself would provide an opportunity for other browsers to stumble upon one of my books and a buzz might start from there.

Clearly I'm a little naïve. I wonder if it's something I'll grow out of?

pundy said...

I'm a self-published person and I think your attitude is perfectly reasonable. Why should you invest time and space in a book if the (self-) publisher won't invest time and money in helping you to promote it.

Both of you are in business after all.