Friday, 3 April 2015

Selling: a mystery (and an old book)

End of March is, for some historical reason, the end of the financial year, and I’ve been adding up numbers and finding that in the last April-to-March year CBe has sold around 20% fewer books than in the previous year. Despite the Guardian First Book Award shortlisting for May-Lan Tan and the Goldsmiths Prize shortlisting for Will Eaves, and the enormous support that the Agota Kristof books (start here) have had during the year.

At its core, at a level untouched by statistics and analysis, publishing (like writing, like reading) is a mystery. One of the first four books, back in 2007, by an unknown author, sold over 500 copies in just a few months without my having a distributor, any representation, any track record, and without any author readings. (It was then taken over by another publisher.) On the other hand, sales through the distributor this past year for a book that was shortlisted for a prize during the year, and that had reviews to kill for, and whose author has been appearing at festivals, were minus 5 (that is, more returns than sales). One of my favourite books on the list sold 8 copies last year; another sold 1.

And 2014/15 was a good year. This is, surely, how it will go on, with most years being so-so rather than good. (I’ve paid for consultation on how to sell better, and found it sympathetic but largely unhelpful. I don’t think magic wands exist.) I am not complaining (and not just because there’s no one to complain to): in terms of enjoyment, the seven years of CBe easily trump any previous work. I wasn’t expecting anything different; I wasn’t expecting anything.

Meanwhile, two or three submissions ping into my in-box most days. Each year, several hundred; each year, CBe publishes just four or five books, at least one of which will be a new book by a writer CBe has previously published (a backlist: accumulation). So I’m going to say no no no x a hundred for each yes, and maybe a couple of maybes, even though more of those submissions than you might think are not just publishable but good, and more than good, writing.


Back in 2007, another of the first four books – numbered 01 – was The White Room by Erik Houston. Total copies sold: 199. Reviews: 0. I’m still deeply fond of that book. It is now out of print. Erik died in 2010, aged just 37. I have just one copy. This week, two reminders of that book: on Tuesday I found that John Sandoe’s still have 3 or 4 copies in stock; this afternoon, someone added a comment to a five-year-old blog post about Erik and the book (see here), asking where they might find a copy.


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Charles

Small publishers like CB editions (and Gladpress) which cannot afford a publicity budget have to rely on word-of-mouth. The problem is that word-of-mouth is just as mysterious and intangible as everything else in publishing.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

billoo said...

Charles, thank you for pointing to me this book. I've only read 11 pages (online) but it does look lovely. I'm afraid that may be as far as I get since it is unlikely that the book will ever make it to this corner of the universe.

Best wishes,


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