Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Breaking free of the chains

WH Smith: Half price on all our top 20 celebrity hardbacks!
One of the less enjoyable parts of being an author is meeting a lovely friend who has tried to buy your book in her local bookshop. She drove there specially, looked carefully, even asked a shop assistant.
Then she breaks the news to you.'I'm really sorry,' she says, 'WH Smith in Brent Cross/Wood Green/Luton Airport/the Arndale Centre didn't have your book.'
Argh! If only she'd checked first! I could have told her not to bother, guided her gently towards a lovely indie bookshop or Amazon. A debut author with a small publisher has to get very lucky indeed to get her book into the big chains, and my first book When I Was Joe, was not lucky enough.
In fact anyone who isn't a known best-seller,  pretty much has to have a publisher able to pay large amounts to promote you, and a book which catches the eye of the buyers at supermarkets or chains, often because it is similar to other best-sellers. What was I thinking, writing a realistic 'gritty' (hate that word) thriller in 2009? Obviously, teens only wanted to read about vampires.
Waterstone's Islington promotes Almost True
Sometimes it seems that the main places where most people go to browse books (for indie bookshops are closing every day) are stocking a smaller and smaller range of books. Go into a smaller branch of WH Smith and you might be forgiven for thinking that the only people writing for children nowadays are Julia Donaldson, Jacqueline Wilson, Darren Shan, Stephenie Meyer, J K Rowling, Francesca Simon, Jeff Kinney and their imitators.
Doom and gloom abound.  A received wisdom is growing up that without the big orders from the big chains, you don't stand a chance. You can't be a bestseller until you're already a best seller.  Authors are all too often judged on their market performance in the first six months of their career -  before they've had a chance to build up a readership through any other means than piling their books high in chains and supermarkets. And established authors are judged equally harshly, despite their past success.
So, hurray for this article in The Bookseller which challenges this notion.
 'Publishers once bemoaned the passing of the backlist, yet now it is midlist titles they are concerned about as the focus is drawn ever closer to the bestseller charts.' writes Caroline Horn, quoting agents and publishers (notably Francesca Dow of Penguin) saying that there is less room in the market for a range of titles and writers. The news is particularly bad for those writing for 8-12 year-olds, pushed aside by all those teen paranormal clones.
HOWEVER -  and rarely has a however been so welcome - Ms Horn does clever things with the figures to show that actually the children's market is growing and all is not as it seems.

 'The frontrunners account for less of sales now than a decade ago....£62m for the top 10 authors compared with the market as a whole of £324m.'
She goes on to  discuss different outlets stocking children's books, different formats selling well. And then  -  imagine my surprise! - she talks about my book

Publishers have to work much harder to achieve those sales, says Gail Lynch, sales and marketing director at Frances Lincoln. She cites Keren David's When I Was Joe as an example. This was published by Frances Lincoln on its fledgling YA list and while the title has not been supported by the major chains, sales have still reached nearly 10,000 copies, which Lynch attributes to the unflagging efforts of the author, sales reps, indies and the number of regional book awards it has featured in. But she adds that each and every sale has been "hard won".

Now, earlier in the article sales for another book of 3,700 were described as 'very modest', so the gap between success and disappointment seems to be pretty narrow, but it's still nice to be singled out as a good news story. I'd have added a big, fat, hopeful  SO FAR after the figure of 10,000. Furthermore, When I Was Joe was always stocked by some, if not all, branches of Waterstone's, and I know several wonderful Waterstone's booksellers who have worked tirelessly to handsell my books (a particular thank you to Corinne in Islington, Gabriel in Thanet and Nicole at Piccadilly -  and those are just the ones I know about).  I very much hope that the move in Waterstone's to central ordering does not curb the impact of their enthusiastic booksellers who can make a real difference when they champion a book. There was a phase when it seemed that all the fan emails I received were from people who lived in or near Thanet.
And my third book, Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery  which manges to disguise its inner 'welcome grittiness'  under a girly cover, is stocked by WH Smith and was on 3 for 2 at Waterstones, before that promotion was cancelled.
But yes, making any kind of impact was hard, and involved exceptionally hard work from the entire  team at Frances Lincoln. I'm constantly impressed by the advantages to be found at  this particular small publisher. Everyone cares about me and my book, everyone is interested in doing extra stuff which might just help sell a few copies here or there. They believe in growing sales slowly, they believe in a word-of-mouth ripple effect, they work and work to let people -  librarians, reviewers, booksellers, teachers -  know about me and about my books.  They are wonderful and I owe them a lot.
As for me, what have I done to help my publisher sell books? I realised early on -  before the book came out -  that there were things that I could do that played on my strengths and were (apart from my time) completely free. I'm good with people and I'm an experienced journalist. So I blog. I facebook. I tweet. I make new friends, both virtual and real.
Some of the time I do this with a 'networking' hat on, and mostly I do it because it's fun and supportive and interesting and I meet wonderful people (only today I had lunch with a brilliant author who is also published by Frances Lincoln, Naima B Robert and I had been friends online for ages, but as she lives in Cairo and I'm in London this was our first actual meeting).
 I do school visits, although not loads and loads. I try and say yes when I'm invited to speak at conferences and festivals. I've also worked hard to keep the books coming - four written in three and a half years. 'I do admire how you keep churning them out,' someone told me the other day, to the quiet sound of my grinding teeth.
 I wish more people in the industry would take heed of Caroline Horn's article.  Getting books into Tesco is not everything. Failing to get a Waterstone's promotion isn't the end of the world. Sometimes it's better to be patient than expect instant results. Trends are all very well, but good writing is more important.
The top ten children's authors are making an average £6m a year each. The rest of us  -  thousands of us -  share the remaining £262 million. Our challenge is to earn a living from our writing.  We can take some crumbs of hope from Caroline Horn's conclusion:

Where books are selling and how they are sold is changing, and the burgeoning internet and e-book markets will change this further. What hasn't changed, however, against all expectation, is that midlist and backlist titles, as well as the "quieter" new books, are selling—and they are selling even better than they did a decade ago.


  1. I find all this very encouraging. Thanks, Keren. It feels as if more and more pressure is being piled on to authors to make a splash with their debut, despite the fact that slow build careers seem the longest lasting. The unspoken message is 'you have one chance -- don't waste it', so this is all very welcome.

    Keep on churning out that grit;)

  2. 10,000 copies sold? That's FANTASTIC as far as I'm concerned. Well done.

  3. Loved this blog post about getting round chain bookstore dominance. Good luck!

  4. Now if publishers would just LISTEN to that advice and be willing to take a few more risks... but I guess that's a whole other blog post! Great to see the positive news about Joe and Frances Lincoln!

  5. Well, another reason When I was Joe has sold is surely because it is extremely good!! For example, I picked up on it via a blog reference; read it myself; bought it for my godson; then persuaded my son to buy it with his birthday book token! (Both of those via the Muswell Hill Children's Bookshop.) My son's also read Lia and loved it - I can always tell when he's enjoying a book; not only does he read it fast but he keeps reading bits out loud to me! (He's also unusual in that he genuinely likes books with girls as main characters.)
    But it drives me nuts that we have to travel 45 minutes for a good bookshop; there is a WHS and a Waterstones nearby, which are fine if you want the latest best-seller, but little use otherwise - like when you are picking out a considered and carefully targeted present that wasn't published this week and isn't on a 3 for 2!
    I do think children - in spite of being the computer generation - still need to browse, read blurbs, explore and discover, to hold a book in their hands, in order to try new authors. I buy in Oxfam, and on Amazon, but I always support the indies because if they don't stay in business, where will we ever find the books we don't know about yet?

  6. @Anonymous Ah, thanks for your kind words. So happy your son liked Lia! I agree completely about bookshops, but of course Amazon is the elephant in the room...who uses bookshops when they can get what they want with a click of the mouse, with a massive discount. What will the browsing experience be like in the e-reader age? Just closing my eyes and hoping for the best!