I'm going to tell you a story about an author which is as unlikely as it is remarkable.
At Mostly Books, we get approached by many authors who ask us to stock their book. Many of these books are self-published. This started happening almost as soon as we opened four years ago, and as a result of observing many different approaches - and realising that there was very often a link between the *approach* and the eventual success (or otherwise) of sales of the book - we developed a course for authors called Shelf Secrets, which we run roughly twice a year (the next one being in August).
The relationship between bookshops and self-published authors is not an easy one. Often authors self-publish because they have not found success with mainstream publishers (for a variety of reasons) and so there is a perception that shared ground exists with independent bookshops. Some authors feel an affinity with independents - they see us all as being part of a team, the little guys against the status quo, etc.
Unfortunately there are many reasons why independent bookshops cannot stock a particular self-published book, and it is often for the same reason that we can't stock a particular mainstream published book either. It may not be right for the shop, we think it won't sell, we don't feel we can get behind it, etc. It may not be a problem with the book per se (although many self-published books just don't cut it from a quality perspective) but it suffers by comparison to all the other books we think we have a chance of selling.
(As an aside: Do you really need to spend all that time, effort and heartache trying to get your book into a bookshop, possibly the most hyper-competitive place in the world for a book to survive on its own merits: cover, blurb, price. Might there be alternative retail outlets for your book? This is really worth meditating on if you are a self-published author...)
Having said all that, we've always tried to be supportive of self-published books and authors in the past - and although I can sympathise with the exasperation that led to this post, I know how incredibly difficult it is as an author to publish, market and sell your book - and we do try to be supportive of authors who come in even if we don't take their books.
Anyway, if you are an author who is self-published, or are with a small publisher, or are mainstream-published but have to do a lot of your own marketing (that's most of you) - and particularly if you are an author writing for children - you may want to read the following very closely. If nothing else, given the bewildering speed of change in the publishing industry today, it shows what can be done - and possibly provides some clues for what you'll need to do to thrive in the future...
Here we go...
Last September, I was invited to speak in Nottingham by New Writers UK, a fantastic and extremely dynamic writing group, centred in Nottingham but with members increasingly further afield. Once per year they organise a New Writers Festival which takes place over two days at Nottingham's County Hall. It generates buzz, attracts visitors, authors promote and sell their books, and guests from the publishing world come and speak.
It's a great vehicle to market and sell members' books - definitely worth thinking about if you are in a writing group and have a book to sell.
Whilst I was there, I took some time to chat to a number of the authors, although many of the books I looked at I felt we couldn't sell in the shop. One book stood out however. Author Catherine Cooper's book 'The Golden Acorn'. The book itself was well-designed, and everything about the way it was presented smacked of professionalism and quality - from the quality of the production (it looked like a mainstream-published book), the use of wording on the spine (i.e. it would attract even when spine-out on a shelf), the price point (believe me, we can never sell paperbacks by new writers which retail for more than £10). There were design themes picked up and used consistently through supported bookmarks, posters, even the cloth covering the table. What this said to me - here is someone who is serious about this book, and worth investigating a bit more.
It turned out that Catherine was a teacher who - having taught at primary schools level for almost 30 years - had had to retire through ill-health, and had decided to start writing (has it ever struck you how many good children's authors are ex-teachers?). She told me about the book - not in a breathless, this-will-change-your-life kind of way, but just in that quietly passionate tone that all good salespeople adopt - those that genuinely believe in what they are selling.
She also told me about the events she had done, and the website she had set up, the way they had been collecting feedback from children and the positive response that it had received.
(This of course is nothing revolutionary - as an aside, and for those interested take a look at Kit Berry's Stonewylde website, or read Scott Pack's post on the experience of John Howard and The Keys To Chintak).
She also told me how much writing had gone into the book. She had rewritten several times, got feedback from a published author, rewritten again, got feedback. Again, over the last few years, I have been struck by the number of authors who rewrite incessantly, and the quality of the books that result.
Catherine kindly gave me a copy of the book, which I read on my nightmare train journey home, and I liked it. But I'm always a bit dubious about my own taste in books, and I wanted to get a second opinion. I lent the copy to two children we know who come into the shop, who are voracious but critical readers (one boy, one girl), and the response that came back couldn't have been more positive (the girl in question had been so inspired that she dressed up as one of the characters at her school's World Book Day event recently).
So we ordered some books, and started selling them. They are great books to recommend for 8-10 year olds, particularly those kids who have burnt through many of the bestselling series and who are looking for something a bit different, perhaps gentler than some of the breathless, issue-driven stuff creeping into children's books at the moment. It's a pleasure to recommend it - and we get good feedback.
The book was out 6th bestselling book in all genres during June BTW.
All this isn't particularly earthshaking, but unbeknown to us, Catherine submitted The Golden Acorn to the inaugural Brit Writers' Award. She made the shortlist for the Children's Story award. And lo and behold, at a glitzy award ceremony last Thursday at the O2 centre in London, she not only won the children's award, but was crowned Unpublished Writer of the Year, a £10,000 prize and a book and film deal.
It's the stuff of dreams - but it is very well deserved and we were delighted that Catherine dropped in to see us yesterday to tell us all about it!
22,000 books were submitted for that prize BTW, so that's what you are up against. But pick through the bones of this post, and ask yourself: could you do what Catherine did?
More about the upcoming Shelf Secrets Course on August 24th can be found here...