Fears and Observations – 6 . . .
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.