According to retailing and publishing experts and the Media, it seems that the future of the high street bookshop is at best uncertain. They say that bookshops can’t compete with internet retailers who offer cheaper prices and greater choice. I don’t know enough to argue with them, and nor can I claim to write on behalf of readers and authors as a whole, but I can give a personal perspective on the issue, for what it’s worth.
As a reader I would miss bookshops. I’m not a great fan of shopping, but bookshops are one place I’m happy to be. I love the smell and feel of books. I enjoy exploring new titles and genres that I might not otherwise have considered – and you can’t do that in the same way with virtual books.
Discovering a new book should be an enjoyable experience in its own right, yet sometimes all the choice that the internet provides seems to make choosing books, more like hard work. The better bookshops remind me how it felt, as a child, armed with a book-token or some cash, and the excitement of choosing from all those books. Don’t get me wrong. I’m as hypocritical as most and often buy books and ebooks on the internet, but I do try to follow the mantra – If I actively browse and find what I like in a bookshop – I buy it in that bookshop.
But it’s as a writer, that bookshops mean so much more to me. As a relatively new author I know how difficult it is to get a book noticed and to reach readers. Hundreds of thousands of new books are published every year. In a presentation at the Digital Book World conference in New York on 25th January 2012, the author and “futurist” David Houle, said,
“There were more books published this week than there were in all of 1950,”
And that’s without all the classics and the bestsellers of past years, and the back-catalogues of well known writers still in circulation and popular. It’s hard for unknown writers to compete with the Big Names. Most new writers will never be reviewed in national newspapers or magazines. Most publishers have limited promotional budgets for new writers. So the unknown writer increasingly has to self-promote to find readers and hopefully generate word of mouth. And every new writer is in the same boat, trying to get their book known in a crowded marketplace, trying to use the social media to promote. (One tip here for new writers – If you want an online presence that makes a difference – start building it long before your book comes out!)
The Internet is wonderful though.
This week I watched a couple of sessions from the “Author (R)evolution Day” conference streamed live from thousands of miles away in New York. One talk in particular impressed me. It was a joint presentation by Eve Bridburg (founder and director of the “Grub Street” writers centre) and publishing industry guru, Porter Anderson. They presented a scatter diagram with some of the many ways an author could promote themselves and their book. The sheer number of avenues for promotion was staggering. Some were familiar to me, others I had heard of, but didn’t fully understand or didn’t have the necessary expertise to exploit, some I had never even come across. The promotional band-waggon moves at one hell of a speed and is constantly changing. Facebook, twitter, blogs and websites are really only the tip of the promotional iceberg, and that’s without thinking about methods of generating or manipulating on-line traffic. Some have used them extremely effectively, but the vast majority (like me) I suspect have barely scratched the surface.
It was what Eve Bridburg said in conclusion though, that really made me think. It was like a moment of calm in a blizzard of concepts, initiatives and innovations. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but this is what I took away from what she said in terms of self-promotion:-
- Don’t feel you have to do it all – it’s not even possible nowadays.
- Set goals, but do what makes you feel happy.
- Strive for balance between writing and promotion.
- Manage your expectations and don’t get sucked in by the hype.
- Be honest with yourself about what you want to achieve, and what is achievable.
- Never lose touch with what it is you enjoy about writing,
- Remember why you started writing, and what your goals were then.
- Decide what really matters in your writing, and who you want to reach.
- Celebrate the achievements that have really meant something to you.
My book, “Avon Street” was one year old this month. The book is set in Bath and my publisher (The Mystery Press) recommended right at the start that I should call into the main Bath bookshops and introduce myself.
It was good advice, though I was nervous initially about strolling in and introducing myself. My first visit was to The Oldfield Park Bookshop. They did not have my book in stock, but said that they would order it. They also made me feel welcome, boosted my confidence and gave me the encouragement to try other bookshops. Toppings bookshop was also welcoming, as was Mr B’s Emporium. Toppings had copies of the book which they asked me to sign (a strange feeling) and they also took the couple of posters I offered them. Waterstones were less welcoming, saying (probably quite rightly) that I should have made an appointment to see the relevant person.
Celebrating three achievements that have really meant something to me.
- I was amazed when, later that same day, I walked past Toppings bookshop again. There in the front window were copies of “Avon Street” complete with posters. In a couple of hours they had built a window display for a local, unknown writer.
- A few months later, in the summer, I walked into Waterstones and “Avon Street” had a glowing staff review card under it. It was displayed cover-outwards and was included in their “Buy Two – Get Second half-price” promotion. Again, a largely unknown writer was sitting beside national bestsellers and household names.
- Just before Christmas, my daughter texted me to say, ‘Hey dad, I’m in Oldfield Park Bookshop and your book is in the Top Thirty.’ - I can’t claim “Avon Street” is a national bestseller – but in Oldfield Park it was – and that felt good.
And OK, most bookshops in Britain won’t even have heard of “Avon Street” let alone stock it. But looking back on the year, these are the 3 achievements that have given me the most joy – and they all came from high street bookshops. I’d just like to say a big thank you to all the bookshops in Bath, including the ones I haven’t mentioned. You’ve all helped and encouraged. And to all the other bookshops wherever you may be – Keep up the good fight.
Who needs ‘em?