|WH Smith: Half price on all our top 20 celebrity hardbacks!|
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|
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.