It’s hard writing a book and even harder marketing one. If you’ve got paperbacks or hard copies out there in bookshops or online, well done. You’ve probably been on a long slog to get to that point.
It’s hard work selling books as well and you have to feel for bricks and mortar booksellers. They’re beset by the encroachment of the digital age and all their overheads, and thousands of new titles coming onto the market weekly.
From an author’s point of view, there’s still a lot of things we depend on bookstores to do, to sell our books. Can you depend on every book shop to give your book every chance of selling? Well, based on the straw poll survey I’ve done of half a dozen bookshops in Tasmania over the past fortnight, sometimes you can, and sometimes you can’t.
If you’ve got a you-beaut cover, ideally you want your book to be face-out into the bookstore, rather than spine-out. That way you’ve got more cover real-estate smacking your customer in the eye. If nobody’s looking, I’m unashamedly in the habit of turning my books face-out. I try not to cover up anybody else’s book in the process. But if I’ve taken the trouble to be in the shop, I’m doing what I can to increase my chances and it’s proven to work. Read to the end to hear how.
Ideally your book will be in the right section of the shop, but so often it’s not. My book is a rural memoir. Think River Cottage in book form, told by the wife, with humour, and better hair and glasses. It belongs in the travel and biography sections. But here in Tasmania it gets put in the ‘Tasmania’ section. That’s mostly okay. A lot of people go looking for gift books there. Tasmanians are great buyers of books about their island. There are lots of densely written historical books that would make you slip into a coma too, but horses for courses. It also means I can position it face-out next to Nicholas Shakespeare’s ‘In Tasmania’ if nobody’s looking.
I visited a bookshop last week that looks like a wealthy man’s retirement project. It’s beautifully laid out in a heritage property. And empty. He was in a very bad mood. He had one copy of my book, in the ‘Agriculture’ section, under ‘Sheep’. A place and a topic that none of my readers go to. I was in a bad mood too by the time I left.
I found my book on the bottom shelf in one Hobart bookstore. Literally an inch off the floor. There was some random piece of spare furniture stuck in front of it. Ain’t nobody buying that baby anytime soon. It’s frustrating because this bookshop sold well for me initially, they went to a second order.
In the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s gift shop, it was another story. They’ve had new shelves built recently, and they’re bright and white and place all the books at easy-to-reach level. The store is laid out and stocked beautifully. I had a lovely chat with the young woman staffing it who told me about their system for re-ordering. It’s an honour to be stocked here. Thank you, TMAG.
Ideally you’d like the staff in the shops to have read your book so that they can sell it. Occasionally you’ll get a store that writes those little personal notes of recommendation and hangs them off the shelf below your book. Magic.
If an order of your book sells out, you’d like the bookshop to reorder. One shop I visited last week no longer had any of my books on the shelves. the manager looked it up and could see they’d had them, but they’d all sold. They won’t be ordering any more now because the owners have put a stop on all purchasing in the current pandemic climate. It’s a beautiful shop with giftware as well as wonderful titles in stock. What a shame for us both.
I couldn’t even find the last shop in Hobart I intended visiting. And after all the above I was feeling a bit disheartened and increasingly committed to focussing all my marketing efforts at online and e-book sales.
But I’ve left the best till last. I heard John Gaunt, founder of Waterstones, talking about how a book can become a bestseller based on the efforts of just one bookshop, if that shop loves a book, advocates for it, sells it actively and word spreads. You have to put the hard yards in personally, but sometimes, with personal contact, a bookseller comes through for you.
I popped into my local independent bookstore in Launceston to buy a book for my son. This shop is family run, has been for decades, and is the city’s last remaining independent. It’s a tough business but they’ve been in pole position for years, and little wonder. They support their authors with signings and launches, and are fantastically well stocked, and have great staff who are great at making personal recommendations.
On my way in, I checked on Apple Island Wife in the Tasmania section. They had one copy left. I turned it face-out and headed off to teen-fiction. On my way out I decided to photograph it for social media, but that last copy had gone. Looking around, I saw it sitting on the front counter, and some woman about to buy it. I went over and gave her a poke. ‘Are you buying that?’ I asked. She was. It was a gift for friends. She had come into the shop not a minute before, seen it looking out from the shelves, glanced at the blurb and knew instantly that was what she was looking for.
That’s a day when all your ducks lined up. I signed it for her, and it made the day for us both.
I then wandered up the street and saw the owner of the bookstore waiting for a coffee. I told him what had happened and we had a chuckle. He said he’d just reordered Apple Island Wife because it sells consistently, and every time I drop in it reminds him to check how many copies they’ve got left. That man is a saint.
As for the rest of the bookstores I called on, I like to support them, I really do, as a customer. But as an author I’m starting to see why the bestselling rom-com writer I know bypassed both publishers and bookshops, went straight to Kindle Publishing Direct and is really happy there.
Fiona Stocker is the author of rural memoir Apple Island Wife – Slow Living in Tasmania, published by Unbound. It’s the story of what really happens when you leave city life and move to the country, of finding your feet and your identity, as a wife and a rural woman. It is available in all the usual places online, and to order in bookstores in the UK and Australia.