Wednesday 21 April 2021

Working the numbers at night

The gradual release on lockdown has allowed the reopening of not just pubs with gardens and Primark but bookshops too. Good. But I’m not sure that this is going to make much difference to sales of CBe books.

In theory, independent bookshops are almost by definition supportive of small presses. In practice, very, very few independent bookshops (with three or four honourable exceptions) have ever stocked CBe titles on a regular basis. When a customer asks a bookshop for a particular title, often the bookshop will check if it’s in stock at Gardners, the main wholesaler, and if not they will tell the customer the title is not available; they will choose not to order from CBe’s trade distributor. When I take books into bookshops myself, they may agree to take one or two copies on a sale-or-return basis – agreeing to pay for those copies (less trade discount) in three months’ time if they have sold, and requiring me to chase them for that. I know bookshops have to pay rent but those are not supportive practices.

CBe’s trade distributor, fielding orders from bookshops and online retailers, is Central Books. I also sell books through the website – but in a usual year, around five times as many books are sold through Central Books. The past year has not been usual. In fact, the sales pattern has been reversed. April 2020 to March 2021, the numbers of books sold through Central Books was 73% less than the previous year; in the same period, the number of books sold through website orders was 135% more than the previous year. Gross sales income (before deduction of costs) from all sales for 2020/21 was just 11% lower than the 2019/20 figure.

I’m writing here about CBe; other presses will have other tales to tell. The actual numbers involved (as opposed to percentages) are small. Of the 68 titles published since 2007, 22 have sold fewer than 100 copies through Central Books; two titles have sold more than 3000 copies through Central; six others have topped 1000. How to increase those numbers? I could ditch Central Books and try another distributor, or I could ditch the present sales agent (who promotes the list to bookshops) and try another … but publishers complaining about sales agents is as traditional as authors complaining about publishers, and I’m not persuaded that swapping x for y would make a significant difference. I could – in fact I should: I owe it the authors – scale up (adding in marketing know-how and applying for ACE funding to do this), but there’d be no guarantee of extra sales to support the extra costs, and worry about taking on books that I wasn’t confident would sell in numbers would play a much larger part in decision-making than it currently does.

What’s kept CBe going over the past year has largely been the Lockdown Subscription – 10 books of your choice over 10 weeks for £70, with extras thrown in. Thank you to all who have pressed the button. It’s still available. Three new 2021 CBe titles (by Roy Watkins, Dan O’Brien, Nuzhat Bukhari) are now in print, and another two (by Leila Berg, Charles Boyle) are up on the website for pre-orders; any or all of these can be included in a subscription.