FINDING NEW VOICES
DEFINING NEW GENRES
There’s been a great deal of discussion in the publishing industry recently about the ‘showroom’ issue, that as bookshops continue to close, and those that remain seem determined to lurch from one retail crisis to another, the only hope for the bricks and mortar channel is to act as a shop window for digitally savvy consumers. The assumption seems to be that readers use a bookshop for visual inspiration, the joy of a purchasing an armful of physical books replaced by a rapid download of product chosen from the artfully displayed titles. I mean who in their right mind would actually buy a physical book when already armed with a smartphone and an Amazon account? Apart from me obviously 🙂
There have even been suggestions that bookshops should charge consumers for the privilege of gazing at these skilfully arrayed shelves of titles, a privileged consumer gallery of literature. Let’s ignore for the moment how sad and distressing that actually sounds or that if the only future for bookshops is as a glorified display cabinet then cover designers are going to start charging a lot more money. What would such a move mean for independent publishers and authors? How does it affect discoverability and commercial potential? Let’s be clear, we’re already in a world where getting a single copy, let alone a pile of copies, into a Waterstones or WHSmith is the equivalent of finding the holy grail at a boot fair or being the one publisher who didn’t reject Harry Potter. In fact, unless you’re one of the big trade publishers, and you’re willing and able to take the hit on discount to guarantee your place on the exclusive (and ever decreasing) list of core titles for rollout to stores, there’s very little chance of getting that first time indie novel in front of eager window shoppers.
So instead we have a scrum of entrepreneurial indies and self-published authors battling Amazon algorithms, throwing everything at social media in a discoverability frenzy, and even getting their Mum to facebook about the new novel (thanks Mum!!). Anything to try and get some traction in a very competitive market, that one piece of visibility that will get the ball rolling on sales and turn that groundbreaking indie title into a consumer wonder. That’s why I send pleading letters to Richard and Judy, drink far too much Costa awards coffee, have dreams about Booker longlists, and send review copies to everyone from the Sunday Times to Little Thrumpton parish magazine. Because the bookshop ‘showroom’ probably won’t exist for the majority of indie or self-published titles unless (or until – optimist!) they actually become bona fide bestsellers. Aah, the joy of those chicken and egg situations. No bookshop space until you’re guaranteed to sell. Or at least pay us to stock you.
But there is a far more effective showroom for indies, for self-published authors, in fact for every budding writer worth their salt and willing to bring their dreams to the printed page. I’m not just talking about price promotions or giveaways on kindle (although goodness knows they can be effective), or tweeting like crazy about Smashwords. I’m talking about the ultimate showroom. The reader.
Example on the way, and I’m really, really sorry but it involves Fifty Shades. Sorry. I’m not in the habit of chatting to women on the train in the morning but a few months ago I decided to break that habit (and my court order) when I saw a fellow commuter brazenly reading a paperback copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. This was when the Fifty Shades phenomenon was only just getting up a real head of steam (as it were), and I was curious because one of the reasons given for its success was that readers could indulge their passion for the book anonymously by reading it on a kindle. Putting on my best professional publisher voice (the one that I use for rejecting manuscripts in a sympathetic way) and making it clear I was only bothering her for purposes of publishing science, I asked the woman reading the book why she had brought the paperback edition and wasn’t reading it on kindle, thereby avoiding telling everyone she was reading an erotic novel. The answer? ‘I want you to know I’m reading it’. Brilliant! Terrifying and a more than a little scary but brilliant. The book became a statement, a part of the reader’s image and persona, and of course a rather fantastic piece of visual advertising. Other commuters were curious and by the time we arrived at St Pancras most of the carriage knew a lot more about spanking than they did at 7.14am. And how many paperbacks did 50 Shades go on to sell? How many hundreds of thousands? And think back to Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, even Harry Potter….all highly visible books, but highly visible in the hands of readers, not just immaculately designed dumpbins (although I know that hopefully happens eventually).
Of course I’m not saying it’s only down to getting a few copies into the hands of readers and making sure they open them prominently in public places, but the reader is your ultimate showroom. Why spend a fortune on Google adwords (really, how the feck does that do anything except hoover up money?), give heart and soul to a PR campaign, or hope that your 29p price point will create an overnight ebook sensation, when a few copies actually being read by people, yes, read, could be the best stimulus possible to driving sales.
Think about it. When you were last in a coffee shop and someone near you was reading a book, did you look and see what it was? And the first step to actually being part of the bookshop showroom is getting a book stocked, and there’s no quicker way to get your book stocked than having customers ask for it. Books are already designed to be perfect pieces of individual advertising – why not immediately take that the next level and attach them to a walking, talking hoarding? Start that discoverability process early by giving a new book every chance of being visible. My next piece of marketing will be to give some copies of Remember to Breathe to my fellow commuters – I’ve a feeling that readers are the true showrooms that define a book’s success.