Naturally, my resources are limited; I cannot afford proper marketing so I never expected substantial sales. To date, I have sold 240 copies of Henry’s Trials and 46 copies of Smethurst’s Luck. And when I did decide to venture £100 on some local magazine advertising, the response was zero.
The very limited sales of both books were entirely expected, and although I would like to think that they would command some attention if only they could be adequately publicised, I am content. My level of kudos – if not income – was increased recently when I received a demand for five copies of Smethurst’s Luck for deposit in the National Library of Scotland, the Bodlian Library, Cambridge University Library, Trinity College Dublin and the National Library of Wales.
Just before Christmas I made a pilgrimage to Richmond. Since the extended title of Smethurst’s Luck is ‘The Story of the Richmond Poisoner’, I concluded that it might be of some interest in that town. Sure enough I sold nearly ten copies, and there is now stock of the books at two independent retailers as well as the Local Studies Library. Sadly, not so Waterstones. They seemed to be quite interested with the local connection, but I was told that the purchasing of stock needed ‘Head-Office approval’. The manager I spoke to seemed enthusiastic about the book, but nothing ever happened. I had the same story in Chelmsford which was a shame, since when Henry’s Trials came out in 2009, having been written by a local author, the local Waterstones took several copies.
Waterstones, of course, have their own problems, and controlling stock must go a very long way to keeping costs down. But I wonder if the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. yesterday I tried to buy a copy of Whitaker’s Almanack from Waterstones. They were advertising it on line at £40, £10 off the cover price, but they ‘did not keep it in stock’ in the shop. All they had was the concise version which I did not want. So, I bought the book on Amazon for £31 delivered.
I recognize that I am both poacher and game-keeper here. I do buy a lot of books and I don’t want to pay more for them than I have to. But I do like to browse, and you can’t browse on Amazon, even with their ‘look inside’ feature. Independent bookshops complain that Waterstones undercut them by discounting, so my experience with Whitaker seems to be a case of the biter bit. On the other hand, I want to sell my books for as much as possible, and all booksellers demand a substantial discount from me as a supplier.
The conundrum is then, how does a high-street book-seller make a working profit, and can the market accommodate both the chains (Waterstones etc) and the Independents in the face of Amazon? Let me add that Amazon offer a superb service. I recently needed to return a book after the Post Office helpfully left it in the front garden behind the dustbin without telling me. I discovered it after it had been outside for two or three days in the rain… The operation was slick and stress free – I printed out a return label, took the book to my local Co-op, and they returned it to Amazon. The replacement arrived two days later no questions asked.
However, as I have said, I cannot browse in the Amazon bookshop because there isn’t one, and Amazon has been accused of ‘poor warehouse conditions for workers’ and tax-avoidance in the UK. The latter I have commented on elsewhere in this blog. Still, Amazon is a $61B international business and is capable of looking after itself. So the question remains, how can the UK high-street – chains and independents – survive?
I like browsing in bookshops and it can’t be done on line. Frequently, I buy a book purely by chance having seen it in a shop – and more often than not it is a book I had no idea that I wanted. But bookshops are businesses, and businesses must make profits.
I don’t know the answer, but somewhere in there must be customer service. I find that I am always willing to pay a modest premium, say 10% or 15%, for a good service; knowledgeable, helpful and friendly staff, a ‘nice’ environment, a quick and efficient ordering service for material not in stock, and, of course, a decent browsable stock. Perhaps we should lobby for reduced business rates for bookshops. After all, books nourish the mind; surely a case can be made.