Six days from release, and I thought I would share some fears and observations from my time spent shelving books and also from this past week of seeing my book on store shelves in the UK. The gist of this post is “discoverability,” a trending buzz word in the book biz. Discoverability is a measure of a book’s prominence. It’s all about how to get a reader to stumble upon your work. And it scares the daylights out of everyone.

At any one moment in time, there is only one book selling the way we all dream of our books selling. I first noticed this while working in a bookstore. Working backward chronologically, it might look something like: Gone Girl, Game of Thrones, 50 Shades of Grey, Hunger Games, Steig Larson, Twilight, Dan Brown, Harry Potter. Like the fossil record, this misses a few specimens, I’m sure. And James Patterson is the amazing constant across it all. But the observation from my desk on the bookstore floor was that customers walked through the door with a single book in mind, and poor Charlie Huston never stood a chance.

Charlie Huston is a great writer. I love his work. When I noticed we weren’t carrying his stuff, I mentioned this to my manager, who took a glance as Charlie’s oeuvre and promptly ordered a dozen books.

Six months later, we returned a dozen books.

I understand that this reflects poorly on my bookselling skills, but I really did try. I showed people the books and talked them up, but they languished spine-out on the bottom shelf of the fiction aisle and never went home with a reader. It wasn’t their fault. Nobody was looking for them.

We sold books from the bestseller list, from endcaps, from the same handful of popular names, from special displays, from the center aisle stacks, and from staff picks. We sold classics and perennial favorites. If this sounds like a lot of sources, it really wasn’t. We mostly sold the same two or three dozen books every year, plus the chosen books that stand out in the fossil record. As an aspiring writer who spent his every spare moment working on his own novels, the languishing of the vast majority of our books was a sad spectacle. I’m not kidding when I say that I was nearly moved to tears every time we pulled books for a massive return. I was putting geldings out to pasture. I was hobbling children who never got a chance to walk.

At every stage of an author’s journey, there is room to fail. We stagger up a razor-thin ridge toward an impossibly distant precipice, and a misstep or a gust of wind will send us straight to the bottom. Landing an agent is the goal of so many, and for most it will never happen. When it does, getting a publishing deal then becomes the struggle. I met authors at my agency’s anniversary party last year who were newly signed and just wishing and hoping for a publisher to make them an offer. They discovered yesterday’s summit to have been a false one. Another rise looms into view.

Even when published, the challenges are enormous. What will be the sell-through to retailers? What was the print run? Will the publishing house’s sales staff get onboard with the title? They are selling dozens of exciting books each quarter, each one pushed by the editor that brought that book to life. And this is just one imprint in one publishing house. A buyer like my manager wades through hundreds of catalogs for every imprint at every publisher, and only circles a fraction of the books. Let’s say your book gets circled. How many did they order? Probably one. Two, if you’re lucky. If you are the golden book being pushed by your editor and sales force and publisher . . . maybe they ordered four copies. You dream of double digits. You dream of displays where 12 copies will land the bookstore a free cardboard stand and a boost to their buying discount, but very few will get this treatment. Even megastars like Nora Roberts can walk into a bookstore and be miffed at where her books are displayed. Another rise along that steep climb that you mistook for the precipice.

If this sounds grim, it is. This is what everyone in the book biz is up against, and the higher up the ridge you climb, the more fear you see in everyone’s eyes. The height makes you dizzy, and it gives you a good view of how far you have yet to go, how far to fall. Senior Editors at major publishers have watched enough good books slip over the edge and fail to gain traction that they have learned to test every step. I had a good glimpse of what I was up against in London, as I watched a customer browse the bestseller list. There was WOOL, face-out, six copies strong. Surrounding that red cover were dozens of other books, most with recognizable names. I watched as the customer browsed them, looking for something that triggered a “buy” impulse. A glance at WOOL. Never heard of it. Never heard of the author. A hand reaching for Patterson.

Books are investments, not just of time but also of money and clutter. They are expensive in each of these three categories. Unlike a 2-hour film, you might spend two weeks or a month with a book (hey, not all are page-turners). Your house is already littered with them. A hardback costs the same as a meal out or a film with a friend. Best to get something safe, something everyone is talking about, the top of the bestseller list, a name you recognize, a recommendation from a friend.

One of the reasons I think e-books sell so well is because they severely reduce two of these costs; they clutter nothing and they cost much less (indie e-books, anyway). Moving from the world of selling e-books to physical books is a cause for worry. There’s a great chance, even with all the unbelievable press and the backing of an amazing readership, that my book flops on store shelves. I’m steeling myself for this. I’m expecting to go into a Barnes and Noble and have a difficult time finding my book. There will be two copies of the paperback in the store. I’ll be lucky if they are face out. And this is for a New York Times bestseller with an all-star lineup of blurbs. In the UK, I saw nothing but brilliant product placement. I still left the store wondering who in their right mind would pick up my book.

Now would be a good time to point out how damn lucky I’ve been. I’ve reached more readers than I ever dreamed I could across a hundred lifetimes. My inbox is a constant stream of notes from fans and people sending me their thanks and encouragement. I could die right now a perfectly content human being. I want and expect nothing. The source of my fear (something I expressed to my editor at Random House in the UK) stems far more from my desire to see the hard work of the publisher rewarded. If they don’t earn a profit, that kills any chance of a second book hitting shelves. Even worse (in my opinion): it might make them wary of taking on another self-published success.

This would be the worst. No matter what happens, I’ll carry on writing because I enjoy it. I could go back to shelving books and pounding out adventures on my lunch breaks. I could work at a fastfood joint and enjoy my time off with my family. I’ve been blissfully happy as a roofer, a store clerk, an audio video installer. But I still fear the failure because it might mean the chance I’ve been given is seen as an experiment gone awry. It might mean the next indie bestseller doesn’t get its own chance. I fear this, and I fear coming this far and getting up the hopes of others and then letting them down. And that could very well happen.

Six days from release, and what can I expect? Will store managers be disappointed when eight people show up to my signing and they are left with stock they’ll never sell? Will friends and family go into bookstores, ask where WOOL is out of curiosity, and discover that the book is not in stock? These are the fears born out of my observations as a bookseller and more recently from watching my books sit on shelves. Who in their right mind would stock this book? Prominently display this book? Who in their right mind would pick a copy up and clutter their house with it?

Oops. Nearly lost my step, there. I better pay attention to where I’m going. I think that’s the precipice right there in front of me. I’m pretty sure, this time.

18 Responses to “Fears and Observations – 6 . . .”

  1. marc says:

    Nah. You’ll be fine. As soon as your book is out, all of the major newspapers will do reviews, and that – I think – is what sways a lot of people when they buy books. It’s how I first discovered Dan Brown’s,The DaVinci Code, before it was well-known.

    As long as people don’t think your book is about shearing sheep, then it’ll do well….It has to, so that the rest of us indie authors can remain hopeful.

  2. Ruby says:

    Sigh. I get your self-doubt; I really do. So much so that I can’t even refute it. All I have left at this point are warm virtual hugs, all my good thoughts, and my absolute confidence that this story will continue to find its audience.

  3. Jon says:

    Well, I would clutter my house with it, and I don’t say that lightly.

    I need to read constantly, it’s a bit of an addiction. Having every book I read be physical would simply be impossible, so I only keep/get those books in physical form I know I’ll reread, that I’ll hand to my children and friends and I will never get tired off.

    Regarding publishers and physical sales and the problem of people not knowing which book to pick up; it all comes down to word of mouth. Nowadays people are bombarded with good looking products drowned in high praise, and at least I am often disappointed. You simply can’t know if a book you haven’t read from an author you don’t know is good, and odds are simply it won’t be. Of course ebooks have the advantage you mentioned of being cheaper and more easily stored, so people are more likely to just get it on a whim.

    But even on Amazon and co, I still read the reviews first. In this age knowing a bad review from a good one is a crucial skill. I regularly go hunting for books on the internet and my main method of discovering new authors is via mentions in *user* reviews, Amazon’s “People who liked this also liked…” and reddit.com/r/printsf.

    I guess my point is that people usually only buy books when they come recommended from someone they know likes the same stuff they do. If publishers (or book stores for that matter) want to increase the number of sells of unknown authors and books, they need to create/encourage communities where people can gather around genres and recommend books and talk about them. This is one of the main reasons amazon is so successful. The internet is perfect for this because many people can gather in the same place at little cost. I seriously don’t know why no one has done this yet with this explicit goal in mind.

  4. It’s an amazing book, Hugh. I reposted the link to this blog on my facebook page for a couple aspiring writer friends of mine. I’m an aspiring writer myself. I’m not in it for the money or the fame, but it’s nice to know I can write, sell to friends, keep my day job, and have some virtual (and POD) legacy to look back on. Perhaps I write for posterity and for my own sake? In any case, I get your fears, loud and clear.

    I KNOW, somehow–don’t ask me how–that people are not in their right mind if they pass up your book! Despite the fact that you’re not Stephen King, Patterns, J.K. Rowling etc. Those guys were no-namers once upon a time as well. Your audience will find you. If I have to go out and drag people kicking and screaming to the store, demanding they order your books…one by one. Oh well, you know what I mean. I hope. :)

  5. Well, clearly, I need to march out to my local B&N and demand to buy Wool books. But beyond that… thank you for this. Thank you for being an inspiration for indie authors, for wanting to carve that path for others. I won’t tell you to banish the fear, because I think that’s part of this creative business, but I will thank you for sharing it. And for always being an amazing inspiration, even in your moments of worry and doubt. :)

  6. Once again, I find myself following your success, never thinking that there are still fears and obstacles associated with success. Thank you for sharing and giving us a better view from the cheap seats!

  7. All we can do is enjoy the now for ourselves, and look out for our fellow man. And I really get the sense you are doing both of these things. Keep the perspective that it’s all a gift and you can only be rewarded when the unexpected happens and not be (too) disappointed when things go exactly the way they usually do.

    Thanks for being a trailblazer for us indies.

  8. Joseph Miller says:

    Thank God for the e-book revolution. Your book selling background gives you plenty of insight into what’s about to happen with your release, but here’s to hoping your wildest dreams come true.

    I think “Wool” will continue to be a hit and I expect it to sell well in bookstores. It IS unfortunate that people (myself included) take fewer chances on printed books than they used to. That’s why e-books are so important.

    With “Wool 1″ being free I couldn’t resist downloading it. All it took was reading that book to realize the entire series would be worth it and I immediately bought the omnibus edition.

    Scott is right: Every famous author was unknown at some time. And I think the e-book revolution (really, that’s what it is) offsets the immense difficulty in an author getting published the traditional way.

  9. williamjacques@gmail.com says:

    eBooks also cut down the “investment” requirement by being instantly deliverable with no hassle. So, they have a lower trigger pressure. Just a “click” is all it takes.

  10. Is Hugh Howey a pen name? It has a serious Vernor Vinge vibe to it the way it rhymes. I think it’s done well for you. :)

  11. I am many hurdles behind this with my books. Still just trying to create awareness that they exist. On amazon they are a very small needle in a huge haystack. I post about them everywhere I can until I feel like a nuisance, longing for a reader to blog about their read or put a shout out on facebook.

    Even at this point, my own insecurity is getting the best of me and I find myself spending too much time away from writing the next story. I second guess myself, critique my own work like my own worst enemy.

    I want to be read and I want to talk about my stories with those who have read them.

    In the mean time, I get to live vicariously through you. Thank you Hugh for sharing this glimpse from higher up the mountain.

  12. Hanna Elizabeth says:

    Even your fears are an inspiration! Keep climbing and don’t look down.

  13. greg says:

    @Bryan Livingston;

    …good question. I think it is Donald, or Troy, or ThawMan. :)

    Good to see that you are sharing a very normal feeling with us Hugh.

    PS: Glad you are back. Oh, BTW, your in Florida now it is “Movies” not film. >>>>>>>> I’m leaving before I get into trouble. ;)

  14. Joleen says:

    I’m also a fan of Charlie Huston, have read the Joe Pitt series. Of his other books, which is your favorite? I like having a list of what to read next depending on my current mood.
    BTW, this is why I really liked what you posted a few months back about the hurry up and wait for ebooks. I need things to stay in print longer because I don’t necessarily keep up in real time.

  15. Martin says:

    I couldn’t even pretend to imagine what you are going through. I hope you enjoy the fun part. I just hope you remember there have been other self published success stories, That your story is just a continuation of the change in the industry. Even if the release doesn’t go as you hoped the industry is already for changed. For Pete’ s sake you got Ridley Scott involved.

    As I read this I also thought about all the traditionally published writers that are going indie. So you’re a success no matter what.

  16. Morgan says:

    So you know, I not only read your books in e-format (and will continue to do so) I can’t wait to get them their own shelf, to line them up in physical form. I am so picky about books and I can’t put yours down. The great thing about my Android tablet is I can keep a lot of books with me and sneak reading in anywhere without much to carry. But I still like a real book and the next time I read them they will be at home on paper.

  17. Hugh:

    Thanks for always being so human.

    Patrice

  18. I’m one of those who rarely takes a chance on a new author by just browsing the shelves. I’m marginally more likely to do it while browsing Amazon, as I can easily look at reviews, their recommendations are pretty good, etc. But what really gets me to buy from unknown authors is recommendations, either from friends, or, more often, from other authors.

    I found out about you from another author’s blog, read Wool 1 for free, liked it, bought the omnibus and a few other of your books.

    And from your blog I’ve just found out about Charlie Huston, and bought one of his books off Amazon. Now I’m going to look for his blog, and hopefully he’ll recommend more authors.

    I *think* that all the self-published authors I’ve read recently can be traced back, through blogs and twitter and the like, to a blog post by Ken Macleod or Charlie Stross. Anyway, my rambling point is that for yer modern voracious reader, I don’t think that bookshops are actually that important. Word of mouth and social media far more so.

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