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I unequivocally love bookshops… but there’s a ‘but’

in the bookshop

I love bookshops. I used to own one. A local bookshop is an oasis on a crowded, noisy high street where you can slow down to explore new worlds, learn, laugh, cry, have fun. They are, sadly, a dying breed as few new ones open, and existing shops tend to pack up without new owners taking over. I would love nothing more than to see a resurgence in bricks and mortar bookstores on our high streets and in our villages. The effect of Amazon, online bookstores and supermarkets selling books has had a dramatic effect, but their decline is a different subject.

I just want you to know that this isn’t a post that is in any way anti-bookshops, just that as a means of selling books for small publishers and self-published authors, it simply doesn’t work if you want to sell significant quantities.

The UK book trade is driven by long cycles. An author signed today might not see their book in print for two years. There are reasons for this, and we need to work back from it appearing on the shelf or a table of a bookshop for the first time.

It will have arrived at the bookshop from a wholesale distributor, where it was one of a pallet-load sent there by the publisher. It might have come from the publisher’s own warehouse, from the bookshop’s warehouse, or direct from a printer. The journey of the book could have had it sitting in several warehouses, depending on the bookshop’s preferred means of supply.

Maybe the printer was overseas, maybe in the UK, either way there was a proof edition (maybe several iterations) that had to be printed, sent and checked to ensure it passed quality control before the full print run was ordered.

Copies were sent out in advance of publication to reviewers, bloggers, and influencers for their opinions and feedback, which they had to read in their busy schedules. So, plenty of time was required to allow them to read and review the book. Perhaps feedback led to some re-writes and amendments, so the proof version they received was changed for the final, full print run.

Prior to this, the originally submitted manuscript bounced between author, editor, and proofreader(s) to get it into shape for publication. Depending on the number and scope of revisions, this could have taken months to finalise.

The sales team needed information about the book well enough in advance to distribute at least a description and front cover to sell the book into distributors in the first place. Catalogues are produced by publishers, distributors, sales agents, etc, many months in advance as tools to sell the book to the outlets. Cover design doesn’t happen overnight; it is a collaborative process that can take months to finalise.

All of the data about the title (known in the trade as metadata) must be disseminated by the publisher to ensure everyone in the chain has the correct information. Some parties need this data 9-12 months in advance of publication.

It’s possible the publisher or author sought grant funding to assist with writing, editing, design or production. Obviously, this had to tie in with the submission, review and decision-making criteria of the funder, a process which might be annual rather than a rolling programme, and will take weeks at best, more likely months.

That’s how it is in publishing – if you look at any of the steps above you can see the potential for delay at all stages.

Wordcatcher Publishing is not unique. We are not alone in being a POD publisher. POD = print on demand. We don’t fill warehouses with stock, we sell a book first, then we print it – even if that means one at a time. We are an agile business that can get a book to market in a matter of weeks, not years. It’s not always advisable to publish that quickly, therein lies mistakes and frustrations of a different kind. But, generally, we do get books from submitted manuscript to the virtual shelves of online bookshops in a fraction of the time of the traditional process.

None of this is to say the traditional model for bookselling is right or wrong – it simply is what it is, and I don’t see it changing radically for a while to come.

Our business model is simply incompatible with this traditional one. We don’t have the metadata for most books a year in advance. We don’t believe in filling warehouses full of stock, or for that matter filling author’s homes full of stock either. Our title acquisition and production cycles are much shorter than those of traditional publishing.

Back to the bookstore owner, or rather whoever is responsible for stocking their shelves. There are more new books coming out than any shop can ever hope to stock, let alone the back catalogue of existing titles. So, decisions are made on a daily basis about which are going to sell and which are stocked. Competition in all genres is fierce, no author has a ‘right’ to be stocked in a shop – that’s the shop’s decision alone. Factors come into play that the small publisher can’t compete with – deep discounts, incentives, even payment for stocking books.

More importantly, shops need to turn stock over in their shop. If a book isn’t selling, it’s taking up space that could be for a book that will. Books have seasons like other retailers – you don’t sell many Christmas-themed books in February. Shops are bombarded by what’s fresh, who is up-and-coming. Last quarter’s hot-sellers might not be so this quarter. A bookshop’s customers don’t want to see the same books every time they call in. Thus, bookshops have no obligation to continue stocking a book if it’s not making them money. So, the lifespan of your title in most bookshops is like that of a mayfly.

Of course there are exceptions. I had books and authors that I continued to stock in my shop for much longer than three months, including their full backlist. But I was a single shop with a relationship with an author that was selling. Yes, I had books by other authors on the shelf because I supported self-published authors. But they didn’t sell any copies and if I’d needed the space I would have returned them. Being ‘in a bookshop’ might have meant bragging rights for the author, but nothing for sales for either side. You might be surprised how few sales it takes in a single bookshop to qualify it as doing well. Selling 100 copies of your book through one bookshop over six months won’t pay your mortgage, especially if there isn’t another title hot on its heels.

Unless you follow the traditional stock-driven model it’s impossible to service multiple retail outlets. Even if you do follow the stock-driven model, there’s no guarantee your books will stay in a shop for long, even if it’s successful for a few months. Every product in a shop gets moved on, even reference works like dictionaries don’t live forever.

I will always support bookshops as a consumer, and Wordcatcher will do what we can to sell through the trade. We just have to find additional ways of reaching readers that doesn’t involve the waste, returns, and carbon footprint of the traditional supply chain. The dream that many authors have of seeing their book on the front tables in Waterstones might not be achievable, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still be successful. And being on that table might not be the best measure of success anyway.

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I unequivocally love bookshops… but there’s a ‘but’

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