Sunday 2 October 2016

How not to sell books

This blog has been neglected and is looking like my garden. I’m looking a little tired myself. I’m going to restart with something very specific.

At the weekend the Guardian Review carried a very fine review by Deborah Smith of Ananda Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins, which is co-published by CBe with Les Fugitives: the last para quoted one of the four characters who are the focus of the book – “I read as if books could loosen the noose tightening around my throat. I read to understand that there is somewhere else” – and ends: ‘It could be a manifesto for reading translated fiction, and this stunning short novel is a perfect starting point.’ Earlier in September, the Guardian Review carried a review by Jonathan Gibbs of Lara Pawson’s This Is the Place to Be: ‘It challenges the reader to examine their own beliefs and decisions as closely as Pawson has examined hers. Brilliant and uncompromising.’

Most CBe books do not get Guardian reviews. Most small-press books do not get Guardian reviews. (It was lovely, in last weekend’s Review, to notice also a review of a book from Uniformbooks. And Lezard, patron saint, on a Peirene book.) Attention has, always, to be worked for, I can't just rely on being beautiful, and – in terms of advance copies sent out, books sent out, contacts sought and nurtured – costs. Necessary costs, because if no one pays attention to a book it doesn’t exist. And even then, reviewed, shortlisted for a prize, attention doesn’t automatically translate into sales: from a review in The Poetry Review, the TLS, maybe one or two extra sales, no more.

But in the Guardian, maybe …

Turn it around: how – where - do people buy books? X, brunching on a Saturday, has read one or both of those reviews over her eggs, or her mushed avocado. She goes to Amazon: ‘not in stock’. She might, if she’s keen, ask at her local bookshop, who will look the book up on the sites of the wholesalers they order in from – Gardners, Bertrams – (they are not, most small bookshops, going to order direct from the distributor, Central Books: too many accounts, too many invoices, keep it simple) – and find also, “not in stock”. Expected date of stock arrival: more than two weeks ahead. X shrugs, buys another book instead. Just possibly, small hope, she notes the name of the publisher and checks out the CBe website and orders from there and I fall in love and we will spend the rest of our lives in bed, reading and fucking, because selling books is just too damn tricky.

CBe has a distributor and an ACE-funded sales agent, to both of whom I pay a cut on every book sold out of the distributor, it’s in their interest to sell, and last week I hand-delivered the Pawson book and the Devi book to three London bookshops because they could not otherwise get hold of the books. At the very heart of the book trade, dysfunctionality and inefficiency. I recognise something there. It’s maybe why I love it. (Also at the heart of the trade, white male privilege, I'm aware of that. Any connection between that and the basic inefficiency?) Next year, back to hobbyist mode: no sales agent, no puff quotes, no organised publicity.

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