I’ve done four book signings between 2011 and 2017, and the relationship between you and the venue is absolutely key. The first signings were at the same place; the local branch of a well-known national bookshop. 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, supportive, and fairly approachable; any minor quibbles were easily managed by the ever-helpful staff, who guided the all-too-frequent changes of management through the various administrative and practical issues involved with a book signing. I always got a very good spot in the store; right near the front door in the central aisle, and visible from all sides, I was always assured of a warm welcome.
Things shifted in 2017 as a question arose around the discounts this particular chain of bookshops wanted. All book shops 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 accepted as an industry standard.
For smaller publishers, including Inspired Quill, they can’t 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.
Or, more accurately, I should say that we used to get concessions 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 Waterstones that I’ve done all my signings at in the past. There was another 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.
Sadly, local decision-making has been removed by head office, managers having to pass everything up to centralised buyers and directors who exert more control and authority than 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 became a week’s negotiation between us and them. Essentially, this book chain wanted to up the discount rate from 35% to 40%, demolishing all profit margins for both myself and Inspired Quill on any copies of my books sold through the store.
Sara and I conferred, and 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 caused untold inequality in terms of our receipts – 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.
I recognise that I’m just one author amongst many tens of thousands; there are others who would (willingly or not) agree 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 hard enough to make a decent fist at writing full-time, and dealing with organisations that put money over people and readers turn me cold. If even a few authors banded together to protest against such unfair treatment, then I’d like to think it would make a difference.
Having made my decision, 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 immediately; 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.
I’ve worked 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 strict rules on commercial trading within library premises, and of course I would need to sell copies of my book to people who came to have a copy signed.
It would seem, however, that 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. They even offered me the opportunity to stay for most of the day if I’d have wanted. This was incredibly generous, but I gently declined; as a relative unknown, I decided not to push my luck too much. I stuck to a couple of hours and kept my fingers crossed that I would have at least a couple of people turn up.
To have a full-time library on my doorstep is an increasingly-rare privilege in an age of cuts to cultural institutions; to live in a district where there are eight full- and part-time libraries is very 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 and is 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; I should have done this a long time ago, and I certainly will go back.
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. There was a time when local managers had much more autonomy, All that has vanished, to be replaced by a singular lack of appreciation of the little guy; the writer with a smaller publisher.
I for one won’t ever go back to Waterstones for book signings, 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.