I’m a fiction writer by trade; I like making things up. So I’d certainly fit into the current American government administration, or perhaps even the Sun newspaper on a good day. Perhaps I’m being a touch over-the-top; after all, I doubt very much that I could write fiction to the extreme that’s in the current American president’s head, or that sometimes lives up to the expectations of the Sun‘s headline writers; I’m a reasonable writer, I hope, but I’m not in that same class.
Oh dear, I seem to have digressed from my point without even beginning to make it. I do digress from time to time, but usually after I’ve started to make my point. So I’d better rally my thoughts and start again.
I am certainly a fiction writer by trade; non-fiction doesn’t come quite as easily to me. I can write articles – the pieces I’ve written for disability magazines and my blog show that to be true – but they don’t come as naturally as fiction does. I have entire creative worlds swirling round in my head that are just as real and vivid as any world you can read about through the newspapers. Yes, I know they’re not objectively real in the sense that you can’t touch or feel them in space and time, but they exist in a corner of my brain with a richness and vivid nature that I wonder if I can ever fully put across onto the page. I hope I can make a decent go of it, any way.
At any rate, fiction is where it’s at for me, and my third book is very shortly due for release – and by very shortly, I mean within the next few days. There’s always a certain amount of organising involved in bringing a book to fruition … and by “a certain amount”, I mean a lot, most of which is absorbed through the publishing house. However, there are always jobs for the writer to do, and because I rather love the sight of a deadline looming over me like a dark and rather depressing shadow, I usually end up collecting a few jobs and then blitz through them at a rate of knots.
Fortuitously, I’ve now had three books come out, so I’m starting to learn the ropes – I know how much time each job will take, and my publisher has worked out when I need nagging (and I’ve figured out the vice versa). One think that requires carefully planning is the book signing; should I do one (or more), where should I do it, and how can I make it work?
I’ve actually done three book signings before (my very first book was reprinted in 2015 due to some edits and amendments to the text) and a number of talks where I’ve been asked to sign books at the end, so I’ve managed to gain a fair amount of experience as a result – and learnt from each and every one.
The main thing I’ve learnt from organising this up and coming book signing is how to manage expectations; mine in particular. I’ve always had a reasonably good relationship with the local branch of a well-known chain book sellers; for the purposes of anonymity, let’s just call them Waterstones, then you’ll never know who they really are.
In the six years I’ve been dealing with them, they’ve been friendly and supportive, and fairly approachable; any minor quibbles I’ve had were easily managed by the staff, who were able to support the all-too-frequent changes of management in guiding them through the various administrative and practical issues involved with a book signing. Oh, and I always got a very good spot in the store as well, right near the front door in the central aisle, and visible from all sides. It was rather lovely, all-in-all.
Now, there was also a question around the discounts this particular chain of bookshops wanted, although it’s certainly not specific just to them; all book shops, by and large, will ask for a bulk discount on books they purchase in order to get a better deal on the cover price and their share of the profits. This, by default, then reduces the profits to the author, but for bigger publishers, this isn’t so much of a problem, as they can bulk print large quantities of books and absorb any losses through the quantity of books sold. A discount of 40% is fairly normal in these kind of deals, and that’s usually accepted as an industry standard.
For smaller publishers, and Inspired Quill certainly features in that category (although they’re certainly growing), it’s rare that they can afford to take that hit; they certainly can’t afford to off-set the cost of the discount by mass-printing as many books as a larger publisher would do without even blinking. Even with small publishers like mine, the big book chains insist on an eye-wateringly large discount; traditionally, however, it hovers somewhere around the 35% mark, so we do get some concessions for being a small press, I suppose.
Or, more accurately, I should say that we used to get a discount for being a small press. As I began the regular process of organising a book signing for my new title, I naturally went back to the branch of this book chain that I’ve done all my signings at in the past. There was another new manager in post, but she seemed very pleasant when we spoke on the phone and asked me to put it all into an email, which I duly did and explained the warm relationship I’d had in the past with the staff.
This was when the eye-opening part of the story came in. Sadly, local decision-making seems to have been removed from the store managers now, instead passing everything upwards to centralised buyers and directors who have a lot more control and authority than perhaps they ever used to. This has the downside of preventing local managers making local decisions about local issues, and being responsive; the discussion that was previously dealt with in a day at the outside became a week or so’s roundabout negotiation between us and them. Essentially, this unnamed book chain wanted to up the discount rate from 35% to 40%, essentially demolishing all final profit margins for both myself and Inspired Quill on any copies of my books sold through the store.
Sara and I conferred, but both of us felt very strongly about this; we would not compromise on something so core and fundamental – that of ensuring a small press got paid at least a reasonable amount of money for their part in the entire publication process, and that the author also got paid a fair royalty level for creating the book in the first place. By increasing this discount just 5%, it would have cause untold inequality in financial returns – we would have barely seen anything in return. So we took a stand and withdrew our request to hold the book signing there, and I repeat in this article what I said to Sara; I will never go back. I cannot condone any money-grabbing exercise from large, very well-off book chains all in the name of extended profits. No, simply no; I will not support such a grab for cash, despite the loss of a relationship with a large bookseller. If they are not willing to show respect to the little guy, then I am not willing to support the big guy.
Now, I recognise that I’m just one author amongst many tens of thousands; there are many who would choose to go up to the 40%, and I certainly wouldn’t force them to change their minds – although I hope one day they do. It’s hard enough to generate an income from writing, let alone enough to make a decent fist at writing full-time, and deal with organisations that place money over people and readers turn me cold immediately. If even a few ahtors banded together to protest against such unfair treatment, then I’d like to think it would make a difference of some kind; I hope it would anyway.
I then faced a serious challenge; do I try and find an alternative venue with the limited time I had available, do I cancel the book signing altogether, or do I push it back?
The third option was knocked out altogether; I’d already pushed it back by a week once, and I didn’t want to have to do it again. So it was choice between outright cancellation and finding a new venue. Not being one to shy away from a challenge, I decided to try and find a new venue, and then discovered something that I should have known (or remembered) a long time ago – that libraries really are wonderful places.
Of course I should remember that; I’ve worked directly for libraries in the past, shared office space with them, delivered author talks there, and witnessed the outright variety of people who came in to use the services. Of course I should approach a library – why on earth hadn’t I gone there before? Well, because there were traditionally very strict rules on commercial trading within library premises in Kent, and of course I would need to be selling copies of my book to people who came to have a copy signed (if anyone turns up, of course; I’m writing this before the signing, so anything could happen – my mum and dad are coming, as are a couple of my aunts, and I know of at least three friends are going to swing by, so we can but hope that a few more come by).
However, libraries have clearly become more aware of the changing zeitgeist – or perhaps have been this way for a while and I’ve just missed it – as they were very willing to accommodate me. In fact, they were willing to accommodate me for most of the day if I’d have wanted, which was incredibly generous of them; however, as a relative unknown in the grand scheme of things, I decided not to push my luck too much and stick to a couple of hours. That’s always served me well in the past, so I’ll work on a system that works.
To have a full-time library nearly on my doorstep is an increasingly-rare privilege in a day and age of cuts to cultural institutions; to live in a district where there are currently eight full- and part-time libraries is even more pleasing, and to think that they are willing to host little old me is even more pleasing. Broadstairs Library was one of the first libraries I ever worked in, and it was in fact my very first full-time job, so I’ve got a huge amount of affection for the place; it’s been extensively remodeled and redeveloped in the past few years, so it’s not physically the same building as it was when I was there, but it’s still a wonderful venue.
Would I be saying this if they weren’t hosting my book signing? Of course I would, because I’m a passionate advocate for libraries, but that’s perhaps the subject of another article, where I can do the subject justice (and tell you about some experiences I had from my time there at a juncture when libraries were massively changing and developing a digital strategy for the very first time). Suffice to say, I’m incredibly impressed by their welcoming attitude towards me and book signings, and I’m thrilled to be able to spend some time there – I should have done this a long time ago, I can see now, and I certainly will be looking to go back in the future with every book signing I do from now on.
So the bookshop chain’s loss is Broadstairs Library’s gain; yes, I am still cross with them for their decision to place money over relationships with suppliers, publishers, and writers of all different sizes. The flexibility and openness to change is no long there, and that disappoints me; there was a time when local managers had much more autonomy, All that has gone in favour of a fixed rate and no appreciation of the little guy – the writer starting out with a smaller publisher, both working hard to support the other and make sure that there are ways of getting books on shelves and making books fun.
I for one won’t ever be going back to Waterstones for book signings in the future, and I won’t be rushing to put my books on their shelves; I’ll work hard to promote sales through the Inspired Quill website and through Amazon – and even through me directly if people prefer. This is a matter of principle for me now, and until book shops are willing to acknowledge the fact that they are discriminating against the smaller guys, then I simply won’t work with them. They may not notice the loss of profit from one small-time author, but I’ll know that I’m standing up for what’s morally right, and on that front, I can’t be budged.
I’m just thankful we live in an age where libraries are an integral part of the community and that they’re also changing with the times; authors should do so much more to support their local libraries, and I will make sure I continue doing precisely that. All my future plans will go through libraries as a first port of call, and they continue to have my utmost respect and dedication.