The Author Summer 2007
One question dominates the minds of publishers when considering a manuscript. The answer will haunt authors skulking between the shelves of their local Waterstone’s fruitlessly searching for their book or gleefully finding it on Amazon, unable to understand why it isn’t in high street shops. The answer means the difference between success and remainder and whether your book gets into the grubby hands of eager readers.
The question? “Have high street retailers any reason to reject this book?” It is a misleading question, because the answer may have nothing to do with the work’s merit – the sparkling prose, flashes of insight, fantastic cover, even the author’s eye-catching marketability.
Instead the answer involves a complex equation mixing the informed intuition of agents and editors and hard-nosed statistics and market knowledge of the sales, marketing and publicity departments, all of whom have a say in acquisition meetings in which decisions are made about what books to publish.
The answer is also affected by the excitement built up about a book and which rival authors publish at the same time. If the maths shows any reason to reject it, the book is unlikely to be bought. Even if it is, it is very unlikely to carry on up the charts, because, though a listing on Amazon with glowing reviews may gratify the ego, it is not the same as availability on the high street. At its most basic, Amazon only lists what it can supply, either from its warehouse or after placing an order with the publisher. Bookshops stock physical copies – prêt a lire, so to speak.
So why do some books appear in bookshops and others not? And is there anything to be done about an overlooked book?
The most obvious answer to the first question is space. There are over one million books in print in the UK, and every year about 200,000 new titles are published, of these 135,000 might be suitable for bookshops.
The average branch of Waterstone’s only stocks 30,000 titles and even the biggest branch only stocks 200,000 titles. As well as new books that stock must include 500 years of literature from Dante’s Inferno through Matthew Lewis’ Monk to Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y. It means in any given year a new book has less than a one in 10 chance of display in store.
The odds of appearing in a promotional hotspot, such as a three for two, or inclusion in seasonal promotions, such as Mother’s Day or Summer Reads, are even narrower. And inclusion in promotions is vital. Their prominence in store draws most attention from customers making them crucial for publishers who want to race a title up the charts.
“If you are going to go big on a book, you have to think of the promotional slots available in supermarkets and chains, and if it is a debut or unknown author, you need to think about whether the author will have enough momentum to overcome competition for those slots from established names who may be bringing out books at the same time,” Jeremy Trevathan, publishing director of Pan Macmillan, explains. “You have to make it irresistible to retailers.”
Key to seducing retailers is the acquisition process, as Will Atkinson, sales and marketing director of Faber points out. “A good acquisition on the whole tends to lead to good publishing,” he says. “If everyone in the company is up for taking a book on in the first place and the key decision makers are behind it, then the rest of the process tends to go well and fast. That is what happened with Vernon God Little, we all read it over night and offered a serious amount of money the next morning.”
The explosion of excitement at the acquisition sets off a chain reaction that affects the way a book is received by the rest of the trade, he says. “Publishing is a lot about the transference of energy to the rest of the supply chain.”
According to agent Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander Associates, the nuclear explosion that creates word-of-mouth with retailers starts very early, sometimes even before an agent has seen the manuscript. She recently sold A Case of Exploding Mangoes by debut author Mohammed Hanif into five territories, including Jonathan Cape in the UK and Knopf in the US. She took the book on after two authors she respects recommended it. Their excitement proved grounded and fed her excitement when she took it to publishers.
“What started out with those authors, then me and then five respected and well known figures in publishing including Dan Franklin here and Sonny Mehta in America, has turned into a whispering campaign and the book is selling into more places,” she explains.
Sometimes in order to make it sing an agent or publisher will reinvent a manuscript to appeal to retailers. A master in reinvention is John Blake, founder of John Blake Publishing. His most notable success was to reinvent the Page 3 glamour girl Jordan as a post-feminist role model. Initially the pneumatic model planned a lads’ picture book. But, Blake realised that the book would not cut it with retailers, especially to supermarkets, whose book buyers are dominated by women.
“I thought the original book was wrong,” recalls Blake, who claims if a manuscript doesn’t grab him in 30 seconds it goes on the slush pile. “It was a men’s book but it was women who were intrigued by Jordan, who at the time was not getting the best press. We had the idea to turn Jordan into two people, Katie Price, her real name, writing about Jordan, this cartoon character she plays, and call it Being Jordan.”
Blake recognised that Price embodied the ambitions and aspirations – as well as some of the bad behaviour – of many young women, not traditional book buyers, but ones who would identify with her and buy her book. Though Being Jordan was initially turned down by the chains, it was ideal for the supermarkets and their faith was rewarded after her appearance on I’m A Celebrity.
Publishers’ relationships with retailers and wholesalers are structured around twice yearly presentations of lead titles and regular monthly meetings with key account buyers in the supermarkets, chains and wholesalers, including Gardeners, Bertrams and THE, which supply independents as well as non-traditional outlets, such as music stores and garden centres, as well as some supermarkets.
The most powerful people in the book industry are the people (called buyers), who choose the stock for wholesale, chain and supermarkets. Buyers stand between chart glory and failure. Authors should be aware that while their books will be listed in a publishers’ catalogue not every title will be presented to buyers at meetings. Super-lead and lead titles dominate. These are the books backed by the highest marketing spend, usually bought at a premium which place publishers under pressure to make them work.
With £40,000 or more changing hands between publisher and retailer to get a book into a promotion, small publishers struggle to get in front of these powerful people. The chains are making an effort: Waterstone’s has a dedicated buyer dealing with this vast sector, while the wholesalers, which supply supermarkets, have regular meetings with sales agencies such as Derek Searle Associates who represent small publisher clients.
Publishers may go in with all guns blazing – complete with book jackets and information sheets (AIs) which detail projected marketing, publicity and even the amount of money a publisher is willing to spend on co-merchandising campaign – bungs to some, these are the front of store promotions paid for by publishers with flat fees and extra discounts. But if the buyer doesn’t deem it “right” for his or her outlet, there is little the publisher can do to convince them otherwise.
What makes a buyer turn down a title is a mystery to many in the trade. Talk to sales and marketing people in the big houses and they will rail against seemingly capricious decisions based on whether the buyer liked the jacket design or didn’t think the author was “quite right for us”. Talk to anyone in retail and they will tell you they never reject a book based on the jacket.
Scott Pack, now commercial director for the Friday Project, but until recently head of buying at Waterstone’s, adamantly denies books are rejected by the chain because of their jacket design. “We never rejected a single book because of the jacket,” he says. “At no point did we ever say that we wouldn’t stick that book out on the shelves with that cover. Sometimes we would say that it would be difficult to promote because of the cover or to put in a promotion, but at the end of the day we were just offering advice and were aware that we were just part of the market.”
For publishers desperate to get their books in store, a buyers “advice” is hard to ignore, as one marketing and sales director at a publishing behemoth points out. “If Asda says they would order 100,000 copies with a different jacket, you change it. Simple as that,” he says. “It would be madness not to.”
I have heard of more than one case recently of buyers at a major chain saying the jacket treatment proposed by the UK publisher “didn’t work” for them, and the publisher swapping it for the US design in order to ensure their major name author features front of house.
Buyers’ decisions are not arbitrary. They are accountable to their bosses for every square foot they merchandise, and if the titles they choose do not leave stores quickly, questions will be asked. Their decisions are made using sales data from their own stores and Nielsen BookScan data gathered through tills, which shows them not only their own market share on past titles by that author or in that genre, but the market share of their rivals. Retailers are not risk takers, they will look at what has gone before and want more of the same bestsellers and reject anything that has proven a flop in the past
Retailers will look for blips in demand for titles in branches across the country – Waterstone’s Phoenix system is fiendishly efficient. If the book turns out to be more than a local success, the publisher will be approached and a deal thrashed out to get it into more stores. They will also look to see rising stars on Amazon, in case there is a potential bestseller they have overlooked.
Amazon is a good gauge of word-of-mouth. If an author works hard on promotion after publication and creates demand, they stand some chance of getting their book reconsidered by the chains, desperate not to miss out on market share as happened with a book like Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
Retailers’ obsession with market share is a double-edged sword. “Market share can be a real problem with one high street name,” observes one marketing director. “We will show them a title and say that we have a big marketing spend behind it and they will say, ‘We’ll wait and see what happens.’ Two weeks later the book is in the Sunday Times top 10, so they come back and want it because they have no market share. But by the time the book is in their shops it is three weeks late and the initial momentum of the campaign is starting to wane, so inevitably the retailer gets a bad market share and complains they couldn’t shift the last book when you go back to them with the author’s next book. You can’t win.”
The almost neurotic fixation on market share is what drives retailers to stock more or less the same titles in every shop in the land and why brand differentiation between chains and supermarkets has eroded to a dangerous point – how can customers identify with one high street retailer instead of its rivals when what they find out front is the same everywhere? If you don’t identify with a retailer, what is there to be loyal to?
The obsession is driven by shareholders, who care more about market share on Harry Potter than profits, which is why the final book in the series will be sold at knock down prices – it’s a brave retailer who risks upsetting investors by sacrificing a significant slice of the action to profits. It is cold comfort for the author scanning the shelves of bookshops vainly searching for their book. But at least an explanation for why it is not there but available on Amazon.