Packing them in

I went to a thanks­giv­ing party on Saturday after­noon (hos­ted by an American PhD in the Exeter School of Psychology; we don’t gen­er­ally cel­eb­rate thanks­giv­ing in Britain), and, in the course of my rounds, I was asked what I did for a liv­ing. Right now, I replied, I’m a writer.

Mmm. How’s your book selling?”

I usu­ally reply some­thing along the lines of ‘stead­ily’ or ‘the next one will be a best­seller’, and then retreat to the kit­chen for a quick beer. The short answer is that, for me — a British nov­el writer kick­ing around 2005 AD — there is only one way to sell books in suf­fi­cient quant­ity to afford the private island I deserve. My book would have to be avail­able in book­shops — on the shelves, mark you, not via the Special Phone. As of right now, people gen­er­ally do not buy from the Internet. They buy in book­shops. Sure, Amazon is a power­ful beast, but it’s brows­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies are lacklustre; you won’t be enticed to read a new author.

On this sub­ject, I’ve just read a good (biased, but good) art­icle on Guardian Unlimited about an upcom­ing decision by the Office of Fair Trading (an inde­pend­ent British body respons­ible for the over­sight of mer­gers, etc.) on wheth­er the Waterstone’s book­shop chain will be per­mit­ted to take over Ottakar’s, a rival chain.

The per­spect­ive of the authors and pub­lish­ers — and, by exten­sion, I would think read­ers too — is that this mer­ger will lead to a severe lim­it­a­tion on book­selling diversity in the high­street. Buying decisions will fall ever more greatly into the hands of Scott Pack, the chief buy­er for Waterstone’s, and the man about whom writers whis­per to their chil­dren late at night: “Be a good boy or Scott Pack’ll getcha.”

According to the art­icle, Waterstone’s choose about 5,000 books each year to pro­mote. How do they select them? Well, the same way Ikea might select a product: How fast and how much has the most sim­il­ar product sold?

Is this a bad thing? Nobody would cri­ti­cise a busi­ness for act­ing in the interests of its share­hold­ers, but I think it is fair to point out that the sales impact of book is only tenu­ously related to its lit­er­ary mer­it (with the usu­al caveat that meas­ure­ment of the lat­ter is prob­lem­at­ic). With such a tar­get-driv­en policy from a force that dom­in­ates the mar­ket, the effect on pub­lish­ing — and thus lit­er­at­ure, how­ever you define it — will be slow but immense. (I’m reminded of the RAE, but that’s a post for anoth­er time.)

It will get even harder for young pups like me to get their books under the noses of cus­tom­ers, where they can pick up a copy, thumb through it, smell the pages — all the stuff you can’t do on the web. How hard is it right now? Well, I’ve already related the story of how I’ve tried to get my book in loc­al book­shops. After four or five trips, my loc­al Waterstone’s failed to stock Déjà Vu des­pite an expressed inten­tion to do so. Someone ordered cop­ies and, a few days later, one of the Waterstone’s staff called me in a state of some dis­tress to com­plain that the books had not yet been col­lec­ted. Well, ques­tion, but why the fuck are they call­ing the author to com­plain about one of their cus­tom­ers? Answer: Because if books in Waterstone’s don’t fly off the shelves, the shit will even­tu­ally find its fan. It doesn’t mat­ter that this is my loc­al book­shop, and loc­al book­shops have tra­di­tion­ally been the first out­let for books that, giv­en time, have ‘taken off’. These books are the tor­toises men­tioned in the Guardian Unlimited art­icle.

If Waterstone’s get to take over Ottakar’s, expect less diversity, few­er pub­lish­ers will­ing to take on new authors, and steady shift of con­sumers away from the high­street shops towards the Internet. Why? Because read­ers still want to be chal­lenged. Because some people thought the Da Vinci Code was shite.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

4 thoughts on “Packing them in”

  1. Ian
    Here’s what I’ve done for my friends here in the States in the past: I go to sev­er­al pub­lic lib­rar­ies (in dif­fer­ent counties or ones that are not con­nec­ted to each oth­er via inter­lib­rary loan) and request the book. In most cases, the lib­rary will pur­chase the book, and stock it for all the pub­lic to see for almost the rest of time. Just a thoughts.…
    ~Katey
    http://www.livejournal.com/users/kateyschultz

  2. I run a club for inde­pend­ent writers. We tried that order­ing the book idea. A mem­ber in Manchester ordered my book from Manchester Central Library and I ordered hers in my loc­al lib­rary on the south coast. They are both small press but cur­rent and avail­able, both depos­ited at the leg­al depos­it agen­cies as they should be. I had to argue for some time that the book actu­ally exis­ted even after I’d giv­en them pub­lish­er, ISBN etc. Anyway, even­tu­ally they put in the order. It was last sum­mer. Neither of us have heard any­thing yet.

  3. Thanks for your com­ment, Kay. The lib­rary thing has worked for me in Exeter (and anoth­er lib­rary in Cornwall, I think) — they seemed pretty happy to stock it. Perhaps try­ing to order the book, the lib­rary cus­tom­er should pre­tend they don’t know you and just ask about ‘this book I’ve heard of’. You nev­er know.

    Best of luck!
    Ian

  4. Thanks for your com­ment, Kay. The lib­rary thing has worked for me in Exeter (and anoth­er lib­rary in Cornwall, I think) — they seemed pretty happy to stock it. Perhaps try­ing to order the book, the lib­rary cus­tom­er should pre­tend they don’t know you and just ask about ‘this book I’ve heard of’. You nev­er know.

    Best of luck!
    Ian

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