Thursday, November 19, 2009

Selling to the Bookshop Chains: How Waterstone's Compares

After the conflicting claims about the way in which Waterstone's deals with literary fiction not backed by big marketing budgets (see Stuart Jeffries versus Waterstone's MD Gerry Johnson and writer and Waterstone's employee Sara Crowley), it's been a bit hard to know what to believe. So, for what it's worth, here's my own experience of visiting branches of the chain bookshops in central London this week, and asking if they would order my new novel, Too Many Magpies (published by independent Salt which doesn't have the resources for big marketing budgets).

Borders, Charing Cross Road. I set foot in this shop with a sinking heart: it doesn't really look like a book shop, more like a W H Smith's, a big gift shop, basically. I approach the information desk with my book and a sheet of information about it, and ask if I can speak to the relevant person. I am given the immediate and unequivocal answer that I need to ring Head Office and swiftly handed the number. I leave the shop, efficiently dispatched.

Foyles. Now this should be more promising: after all, Salt have done a reading here in which I took part. At the information desk I am told by a rakish-looking young man with a beard that the fiction buyer is not available, and I should email him for an appointment. I explain that I'm only in London that day (Tuesday) and the next, and am told that I should still email him and ask for an appointment next day. He adds that this is a very busy period, Christmas. I'm pretty sure I'm being cynically fobbed off, but for the sake of thoroughness, I repair to a cafe and do so. Now, at the time of writing, it's late on Thursday, and I have still had no reply, and of course I am back in Manchester.

Blackwell's, Charing Cross Road. The academic bookshop which you might expect to be interested in serious literature - although of course they probably rely on the academic rather than the general market. This time I can actually speak to the fiction buyer, a nice bearded young man. He hears my spiel, he looks at my book and the information sheet, and the review quotes for my story collection on the back cover. He looks very embarrassed. He is silent. He bites his lip. He says, 'Er...' He is silent once more then he says: 'But will you be getting broadsheet reviews for this?' I say, 'Well, it's certainly been sent out to them for review!' But of course we both know how difficult it is to get reviews nowadays, and the unspoken knowledge swells between us. He starts to go red. He looks as though he'd rather die than be dealing with this. I feel tremendously sorry for him. He bites his lip again, and then he shakes his head. 'I'm sorry,' he says - and I can see he really is - 'but it's so difficult to sell anything that hasn't already had broadsheet reviews.' And that's it. He can't stock my book.

Now 7 branches of Waterstone's:

Waterstone's Trafalgar Square. I'm feeling pretty cynical as I enter this branch, which I imagine caters to passing rather than serious literary trade. But when I speak to Stephen on the front desk, he turns out to be not only one of the fiction buyers, but to know all about Salt, to be really interested in the fact that they have now published a novel (my book), and in my book, and orders two copies on the spot! Wow! Thank you, Stephen!

Waterstone's Gower Street. Once again the first bookseller I speak to, Verona, turns out to be a fiction buyer and orders a copy of my novel there and then. Double wow! This Waterstone's also has a 'small press' section, I notice, in which books by Dedalus and another small press are given a magnificent display. Thank you, Verona!

Waterstone's Covent Garden. Triple wow! Without any ado Gabie, the knowledgable-looking woman on the front desk, orders a copy of my book as I stand there! Thank you, Gabie.

It's the end of the day now and I finish on a high and I'm back in love with Waterstone's.

Waterstone's Oxford Street Plaza. Next day here in the retail heart of London my renewed affection is perhaps inevitably in for a bit of knock. This is a far more commercial-looking branch, 'Best sellers' flagged like mad at the entrance. I must say, though, that the young man I speak to is wonderfully attentive and enthusiastic: he insists on taking me upstairs to the fiction buyer, and all the way up the escalator he asks me about the book and takes it in his hands and strokes it and seems mightily interested and impressed. He introduces me to the fiction buyer and stands by waiting. She is an extremely polite young woman, who tells me most pleasantly but briskly that at this time of the year unless I am a local author or the book has a specifically London connection, they are unable to take it as they can't give it the profile it requires, with face-out displays and Staff Recommends. I say that I wouldn't necessarily expect the book to be given a high-profile treatment, but she insists on her point, perhaps understandably, and says that now, in the run up to Christmas, all the Staff Recommends are hardback (my book is a paperback). Maybe I'm being unfair, but now I'm getting the feeling I'm being fobbed off. She does take my information sheet and tells me that in the New Year they'll perhaps look at the possibility again. And the young man insists on taking me downstairs again and all the way to the front door, with almost ostentatious solicitousness, and, maybe I'm completely wrong, but I can't get rid of the feeling that they saw me coming (or at least read my statement on the web that I was coming).

Waterstone's Oxford Street West. This branch is if anything even more commercial. I speak to a young woman who says the fiction buyer has just popped out, she'll go and check. I can hear her reporting my request to a man who comes back and tells me that there are no fiction buyers in the shop today. He says he'll pass my information sheet on to them, and I'm out of the shop in five minutes flat with the complete certainty that nothing will come of it.

Waterstone's Piccadilly. Here in Waterstone's flagship store is the first table I have come across dedicated to collections of single-author short stories, but as far as I can see (in my by now worn-out state), they are all by well-known or classic authors in editions from mainstream publishers (which would appear to make Brighton Waterstone's, with its specialist short story section, something of an exception). The person I speak to is the crime buyer, who says he will deal with me because the general fiction buyer is busy and not available. He looks doubtful. I push my spiel. I point out my nice comment (re my short stories) from ex-Waterstone's Scott Pack. He says, in such a mumble that I have to ask him to repeat it, that they only deal with official reps from publishing houses. I explain that my publishing house doesn't have the resources for an official rep, and then get the feeling that I've thereby condemned myself and my publisher anyway. He takes my information sheet to pass on, but once again it doesn't look in the least promising.

Waterstone's High Holborn. This is the last shop on my list. It's late in the day, dark, I'm exhausted and hungry - I didn't have lunch - and it's a long trek up to High Holborn from Piccadilly. Is it worth it, when Waterstone's has been so disappointing today? But me, I'm like a dog with a bone, I've got to finish this job. I set off for High Holborn. When I get there I find the branch is tiny. The fiction section is miniscule. I say to the young man at the desk: 'Is that your whole fiction section?' Yes, he tells me. 'Well,' I say, hardened and cynical now, 'then there's probably no point my asking if you'll stock my new novel.' He says he'll go and ask James. James comes up. James instantly hits the buttons and orders three copies of my book. I nearly fall off my blistered feet to the floor. Thank you, thank you, James!

Hatchard's, Piccadilly. Before leaving Piccadilly I turned into Hatchard's (owned, like Waterstone's, by HMV). Oh, wow. Here it was, a truly traditional bookshop, oozing the glamour of intellect and of tradition and modernity in collision which I have always associated with bookshops, and for which I think we're all in mourning. Downstairs in the fiction section which was hushed with a kind of lush intellectual expectancy, Margot received me and my book with warm enthusiasm and ordered four copies, the biggest order of all, and told me that she will give it attention and display it face out. Thank you, thank you, Margot.

So what can be concluded? If my experience is anything to go by, the other big chains are a dead loss for no-budget literary fiction, but Hatchard's and some, though not all, of the Waterstone's branches are great. And that Waterstone's just can't be characterized by any single one of its variable branches.

And, for the sake now purely of promotion, here are the branches where I know my new novel is available:

Hatchard's Piccadilly and Waterstone's in Brighton (Thank you Sara!), Trafalgar Square, Gower Street, Covent Garden and High Holborn.


Sheenagh Pugh said...

Can I just say I'm so glad you name-checked the reps who dealt well with you. We all need a bit of encouragement to do our job well, especially when it involves dealing with the public, and I think it's very politic to Reward the Good.

Moral of this for me was that getting off the beaten track is maybe better than sticking to the biggest, most commercial branches? I also now know why novelists want broadsheet reviews. I've heard it said (by the editor of Salt, no less, though maybe he only meant for poems) that they don't improve sales, but if you need them just to get stcoked in bookshops, then they must do.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, Sheenagh, guess this is the moral, and yes, I thought that was a very interesting insight re reviews in the light of received wisdom.

Jen HE said...

Goodness, Elizabeth, that is some amount of walking you did! What an interesting experiment, thank you so much for doing this.

A couple of times a year we make a similar tour of the London bookshops, with a similar level of success. We used to have sales reps who worked for us, but our books were just some of many hundreds published by many publishers of a vairiety of genres and I doubt that they got more than a couple of seconds' attention at a sales pitch, if that. If small presses use sales reps, it's very often like that - very few can afford their own dedicated team.

I have to say that I rather think the excuse about needing broadsheet reviews is only that, an excuse. I don't believe for one minute that every book in that bookshop has had a broadsheet review, especially considering the amount of shrinking review space available. I know for a fact that our fiction books have had broadsheet reviews and not found themelves on a Waterstone's shelf. And I also have to say that had your book been a collection of short stories, your experience may not have been so positive: most shops won't have taken it and those who did would probably have ordered just one copy and then stuck in in the A-Z Fiction shelves, where it would sit, lost and alone, until it's returned a few months later and we have to refund the shop.

This approach, traipsing around individual shops, is, sadly and frustratingly, the only way to sell fiction into Waterstones in my experience. I have met with the central fiction buyer and have emailed and phoned her more times than I care to remember, but have had not one single purchase through her. Not one, ever.

It is good that individual branches are able to stock titles, but the time and effort that has to go into making that sale is high. That's not to say it's not worth doing, it's just a matter of logistics -- with a small team and limited resources (time as well as money) undertaking this exercise is a huge commitment. Last time we did it, we just about covered our direct costs: the profit we made from the sales (after discount to the shop and print costs) just about covered our train fares. We looked on this philosophically as a marketing exercise, which is fine once or twice, but at the end of the day, we have to make a profit otherwise we can't publish the next book.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Jen, thanks so much for this, which spells out the reality so much better than I could. I did actually think at the time that that thing about the broadsheets was a brush-off... And of course I was very aware that the single copies of the books that were ordered may simply get lost on the shelves and then be returned as having not sold! And as for short stories: as I said, I found only one shop with a table dedicated to single author collections and none of those appeared to be from small presses...

Sue Guiney said...

Fascinating. First - well done for getting up the courage to do this. For me, marching myself into a store, "hat in hand," is terrifying. I did it a few times and it almost made me sick. But I did take myself on an all-England book tour as you might remember. If the shops knew I was coming, then I wasn't so shy about it. And I did find this worth doing. Waterstones was MOST helpful. They took multiple copies (sometimes 20), let me sit there and sign, talk to customers etc. How many actually sold, I don't know - you know that long story. But it shows that many of Waterstones branches have more autonomy than you would think and that you have to treat each store like an individual, be it Waterstones, Borders or your local indie. Alas, it is clear that doing this sort of thing is very much part of OUR job.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, Sue, as Jen explains above, it's a job which she and Chris do undertake, but the value of which in the present circumstances is more that of a marketing exercise than financial or in terms of time and effort... (and I think I can vouch for that!)

Elizabeth Baines said...

Perhaps I can now say the thing I left out before because I was afraid that, without the searing account which Jen has now given, and which I wasn't qualified to make, it would appear to the uninitiated to reflect on Jen and Chris, the publishers, rather than the bookshops:

In every shop, before I approached anyone, I went and looked at the fiction shelves to see if they already had my collection of stories. Not a single one had, and before long I was only looking for the sake of thoroughness: I just knew that they wouldn't have it. As Jen says,if I had been trying to sell a book of stories rather than a novel, I would have had a much more difficult, if not impossible task.

As for the business of the reviews: I was clear at the time that it was indeed a brush-off. As I say in the post, it was clear that we both knew that it's nigh-on impossible to get reviews nowadays, and also that reviews don't sell books, and the truth that was 'swelling between us' was not only this, but the fact that I knew it was a brush-off and he knew I knew it, and also that I was semi-amused that he knew it, and this is why he went red, I think.

But I have to say that those buyers who ordered the book did read the reviews on the back of it and on my sheet and did seem impressed. And also re Blackwells: I do wonder if there's a grain of truth after all: it seems to me that they carry very little general fiction - mostly textbooks, stationery and classics - and that general fiction they do carry is mainly the respect mainstream stuff that does get newspaper coverage. In other words, the comment re reviews was maybe a code for saying that my book would have to one of those!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Honestly, me and my typos! Let me re do that last bit:

... respectED mainstream stuff that does get newspaper coverage. In other words, the comment re reviews was maybe a code for saying that my book would have to BE one of those!

Kanisha said...

hi, i'm a new author! hopefully following your blog will give me some interesting tips! :)

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hope so, kanishanashay.

Chris Hamilton-Emery said...

There's so much I could add on this terrific blog, but I don't want to drown it all out with my experiences of repping — I'll save that for a post elsewhere. I love repping though. It's often gruelling but talking to bookstore managers is always fascinating. You see the world of literature from a completely different perspective.

One thing I will add though is that every book on the shelves of a bookstore is a book not sold. That means it may be returned. And very few shops reorder. Often what you see is what's heading back to the distributor in a few months' time.

Over the past ten years the range in stores has gradually diminished, but that's against a context of massively increasing publications. Who could keep up with all these books? Who wants them? Who is buying them all? An even better question might be Where are they buying them?

Where poetry and short stories is concerned, we're all chasing a diminishing market with huge increases in titles. Total sales have shrunk by 10% over the past couple of years.

Here's a little example, over two years (2006-2008), the number of poetry titles in print has increased by 36%. In 2008 10,396 poetry titles were actively being sold. Average retail sales per ISBN was a meagre 85 copies. Total annual poetry sales by volume was less than Dan Brown's latest work. For many bookstores, the genre just isn't worth stocking. So few want the stuff — at least from retailers.

As far as Salt's experience is concerned, short stories are even harder to sell than poetry. There are fewer dedicated writers' groups, bulletin boards, listservs, fewer specialist critics, no societies or members organisations, and possibly fewer practitioners (poets, after all, are as plentiful as krill). In a bookstore there's rarely a dedicated bay for short stories. It may simply be the case that the audience for short fiction is elsewhere, but where is that elsewhere?

Markets change all the time, or rather oscillate, or revolve — the history of publishing and book selling is littered with repetitions on pricing (and price fixing), discounting, and the patterns of what sells.

We're once again in an age of bestsellers, and the conglomerates and large chains are in a pact around those big numbers (surrounded as they are by thousands of failures).

Serious literature, as ever, is a cottage industry. But a cottage industry with a powerful ally, the World Wide Web. Perhaps we'll all have to wait a decade to see what bookshops do — return to specialisms, knowledge and qualitative passion (rather than quantitative lust), but the book industry is increasingly big business, and a by-product of this is that some genres and, indeed, most literary publishing, may become diminished, and even extinguished.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Chris, thanks for this great contribution. I have to say that after the experience, and weighing up everything that has since been said, the conviction has been growing in my mind that bookshops are simply an outdated retail model which is no longer working. Maybe some would argue that they can survive by cutting out the cottage-industry side of it (the small presses, the poetry and short stories and unconventional fiction), but Borders shows that down that road is a metamorphosis into something that's no longer a bookshop, more general gift shop.

As far back as the late nineties when I was selling the short story mag metropolitan, we had to look on our bookshop orders as loss leaders (even then Waterstone's was starting to ask for 50%)and our only non loss making sales were mail order. We could probably never place those copies of the mag there now of course, so we couldn't use the shops as a marketing tool as we did then.

Sad as I would be to see the demise of the bookshop, I would prefer a future in which, due to the advent of new marketing models such as the web, the usefulness and fate of bookshops is irrelevant to literary publishing, than to one on which bookshops have killed off literary publishing.

David Knowles said...

Hi Elizabeth - I'm David from Two Ravens Press, a small independent literary fiction/poetry/literary non-fiction outfit in Scotland.Full of admiration for the experiment - done some of the same myself and it isn't easy.

Over the years we have also had a number of our authors do the rounds of their local Waterstones. They have frequently managed to get somebody to order a few copies. As you experienced - people in shops are as embarassed as the rest of us to say 'no' face to face. But I know that even when the author was a 'local' - 90 per cent or more of these copies have come back to me as returns. I'm not moaning at Waterstones. They don't owe me a living.But I do now actively discourage our authors from doing this. Sure, if they want to go and talk to a targeted independent bookseller - or even a chain if there is some sort of promotional tie-in - then I'm all for it. But the real value of your experiment will come if you ever manage to find out how many of those 'Magpies' actually got ordered after you left - and, more importantly, how many have come home to roost in 3 or 4 month's time. It can be hard to get this information - particularly now that Waterstones Hub is in operation - but Chris will likely be able to tell you or make a good guess. (Actually - I bet he can make a pretty good guess right now!)

Wish you fair winds for 'Too Many Magpies'.
David Knowles

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi David, yes, I know this is the likelihood, and I do feel bad now that I know that Salt will have to reimburse the shop for postage (we never had to reimburse the shops for returns of our short story mag metropolitan so I didn't realize this).

My experiment really was to see how independent the booksellers were of central office/ordering, as this is what a lot of the debate was about, but it is clear of course that while they may have the individual power to order books, this is no power in the greater scheme of things.

David Knowles said...

Alas - its worse than that! (Although you don't actually pay the return postage.) When a book goes out from a distributor the publisher is charged a portion of the invoice value. The publisher pays the carriage to the shop. When book come back the publisher does pay back the bookshop AND there is also another percentage of invoice taken by the distributor for processing and re-shelving the return. Overall a returned book can represent 25 to 30 percent of invoice value up in smoke. AND many of the books aren't fit for resale. Ouch! High proportions of returns can seriously damage a publisher's health.

Not wanting to make you feel bad - but it is any area that many writers just don't get exposed to and is a perennial source of mutual frustration between authors who want their books out there and publishers who have to weigh the costs.


Elizabeth Baines said...
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Elizabeth Baines said...

Oh my god, Salt will be sacking me! I wish I hadn't done it now, and had saved my poor blistered feet.

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating process, particularly the comments from David. Thanks, Elizabeth, for this and many other terrific articles. I will track down one of your books in the shops you mentioned. I hope I am not too late.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Joseph, I hope you find it - and thank you for looking!

Fat Roland said...

I forgot to say at the time, but as a result of this post, I ordered in a copy for Blackwell in Manchester.

(Only one mind, for the reasons David outlined. There's never much reason to get more than one anyway, unless it's D*n Br*wn. One copy does mean it is in stock and if it sells, it gets reordered and everyone wins.)

Elizabeth Baines said...

Wow, FR, that's fantastic! Thank you so much! (Hope it sells!) (Oh, and actually, I was interviewed recently for the Uni student mag, so with a bit of luck there'll be a market..)

Elizabeth Baines said...
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Elizabeth Baines said...
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