Sunday 1 August 2021

On selling books

[Drawing by Nick Wadley]

In July 2013 I and another small-press publisher took a pop-up shop in Portobello Road to sell our books. He, Tweedledum, strode out into the street and attempted to press-gang passers-by in to the shop. I, Tweedledee, stood behind my table and occasionally, if someone was standing in front of my books for a suspicious length of time, offered some chat about them. Neither of us was cut out for this.

I began CB editions in 2007 after a lifetime of reading books but with no experience of attempting to sell them. I am not a natural salesperson. (I am writing this while reading Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart by Irmgard Keun, trans. Michael Hofmann: ‘I have no aptitude for business. I don’t think I could even go bankrupt successfully.’) I worry that that if someone buys a book they won’t like it, and they’ll have a lingering distaste for me ever afterwards. I tell this someone about other books than the one in their hands that they are about to pay for, but now maybe not. I give people every opportunity to have second thoughts. If they insist on buying, I’m so stupidly grateful that they are offering me money they could otherwise spend on wine or food or cigarettes that I offer them a discount. I’ve had tables at book fairs where I’ve been so just part of the furniture that I’ve basically said, I can ignore you too, don’t even dare to buy a book from me.

To an extent, I’m offering here a caricature of myself that is not dissimilar to the publicity-shy image promoted by certain writers who turn out, on closer inspection, to have been very good at publicity: dedicated aversion worked in their favour. Somehow, I have managed to sell a few books: a few thousand of a couple of the titles, before another publisher pounced or my license to publish closed or I just ran out of steam. But I’m still better at not selling them: fewer than a hundred copies of several titles that were no less worth the publishing than the ones that touched a sweet spot.

A sweet spot is what everyone working in publishing is employed to reach. There are a lot of books and very few sweet spots on offer. The consequence is a level of hype – in press releases, in the puff quotes on book covers, on Twitter and other social media – that smacks of desperation. How many most-eagerly-awaited-books-of the-year can there be? (At the time of writing, I feel for Sally Rooney as well as for Simone Biles: the publishing business treats its sweet-spot authors as the sports business treats its athletes.) Another consequence, at an individual level: you work in publishing and that’s good – you’re selling books, as you might be selling dog kennels or cutlery or porn or liver sausage, but books are different, aren’t they? – but it gets tricky when your job description includes the promotion of books you may have some difficulty with (Jordan Peterson, for example). It might be cleaner to be selling dog kennels.

Selling books also involves, of course, the logistics of how a book gets to a reader, a medieval process that involves distributors, wholesalers, sales agents and reps, all of whom take their cut before a book even gets on a shelf of a bookshop – which down the line, if it’s just taking up shelf space, can return the book and get their money back (in which case I will have not only not sold the book but paid a number of people for the privilege). Because of all the little cuts along the way, no one gets rich unless they are involved with a book that sells in high volume – and the system is geared more to those books than to the ones that sell in single copies to very occasional buyers. (Capitalism: we can tinker at the edges, with grants and bursaries, but this is the bed we’ve made and now we have to lie in it.) All the people involved in this process tend to be nice, book-loving people; but life is short and it’s rare for them to actually read the books they are selling. They are selling from the puff-quotes; they are selling blind. Another twist is that aggressive discounting by Amazon serves to force the cover price of a book up.

But the biggest twist in the tale is that by and large – on the whole, more or less, give or take, for better for worse – the distribution system does (creakily, and with hiccups) work. Because it is so stretched out, breakdowns between the various players are not uncommon, and at these points it’s up to me to chase and bang heads together. That I’m not cut out for this (see above) is not an excuse. I publish books; a part of publishing is selling. Here’s a sentence from Some Gorgeous Accident by James Kennaway tracking Fiddes, a doctor, a decent man who does good work (and is eventually struck off and disgraced; but that’s another story), wondering ‘why he’d chosen to be the kind of doctor who makes no money’: ‘There was such awful, English arrogance in that.’ There absolutely is.