Most days I spend time looking around the world of publishing when I should really be in that world and writing novels. Here’s something I found today that really caught my eye.
Sometimes authors get together and talk about how major publishers are and will respond to the disruption coming from self-publishers, Amazon imprints, and other new publishers. For example, the consistent line spun over the past few years that print books are resurgent and would everyone please forget about eBooks and go to your nearest bookstore. It’s a fascinating topic, and an important one if you earn your living writing novels. But that’s about publishers; we don’t spend as much time debating changes to brick and mortar retailers.
Cue this article about a keynote speech by James Daunt, boss of Waterstones, one of the two remaining national bookstores in the UK (if you include WH Smith). Waterstones has been taking hammer blows from Amazon for many years now, but Daunt seems to have stabilized the business.
The change that caught my eye was that Waterstones has come off a reliance on co-op payments. Now, co-op for those who don’t know, is a complex and evolving class of negotiations that basically boil down to this: publishers pay bookstores to promote their titles. It’s not always as simple as the description I’m about to give, but if a bookstore has big stacks of a major new release on prominent display, then there’s a good chance that they’ve been paid to stock those books, and to place them in the prime real estate at the front of the store.
It’s not always this way. If I ran a bookstore, I would want plenty of copies stocked for a brand-new Harry Potter book, for example. But sometimes when you go to a store and it’s overflowing with a title, it isn’t because it’s the big new thing; it’s an illusion that the title is the next big thing that publishers hope will become self-fulfilling. And if it doesn’t, the bookstore will return many of those copies to the publisher for a refund.
Coming off co-op (like ‘coming off heroin’, says Daunt) is a big part of the reason why Waterstones has shrunk their returns from 20% of stock to 3%. In other words, Waterstones are now carrying more of the books that their customers want, rather than stocking the books their suppliers want.
It’s a bold move, and it sounds like a transformational one (which only goes to show how distorted the industry had become). After all, the radical philosophy that has made the Amazon bookstore so successful is that they always put the needs of their customers ahead of their suppliers. OK, that’s the theory. Sometimes they stray a little from their core principle, but not too far. And as I think about it, that Amazon principle is how I make a living writing books. If people buy and enjoy my novels then Amazon will recommend them to people they think will also enjoy them. I don’t pay Amazon to do this (although I have also advertised separately in the clearly labelled ‘sponsored’ parts of their storefront).
I hope this works for Waterstones. I really do and maybe Daunt’s move will be copied by bookstores around the world. Perhaps Waterstones will be seen more like an indie bookstore, rather than how it used to be: a corporate chain where every store in the country looks the same and carries the same stock. (Although that wouldn’t be such a good outcome for indie stores, though).
I’m enthused… but enough to step inside Waterstones? There’s one in Bedford, just outside the library where I often write my novels during the week. Hmm… maybe not.
My love of science fiction literature was suffering a long death during the noughties. I cancelled all my short story magazine subscriptions because I didn’t enjoy most of the stories. I had followed the book recommendations in those magazines, and in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction and BSFA Vector, but too often they led me to novels that I could sometimes see were impressive in various technical ways but didn’t enthuse me. (With an occasional exception). The grimmest symptom was that not finishing a science fiction novel had changed from a rarity to the norm. I thought my long love affair with science fiction literature had ended.
Then came the flood of new authors that hit the Kindle I received as a leaving present when I left my last ‘proper job’ at the start of 2011. They were sometimes rough and ready in the earliest years, but they told exciting stories that filled my imagination to bursting point. Instead of taking months to work my way through a book before giving up, I was now reading late into the early hours and finishing in a few days. I fell in love with science fiction literature again.
And once I’d started buying, Amazon started giving me recommendations of more great books. True, some ridiculous suggestions were thrown up, but what enabled my connection to this new talent was the Amazon principle of recommending what it thinks its customers want, not what its suppliers want.
That focus worked for me. I hope it works for Waterstones too. It won’t in my case, though, because only a tiny proportion of the authors I follow are stocked in the science fiction & fantasy shelves at Waterstones. It’s got to be a decade or more since I bought a novel at a physical bookstore.
But Waterstones has taken an interesting step in coming off co-op and I wonder where it will lead.
The article link, by the way, takes you to The Passive Voice, which quotes articles on publishing. Sometimes the comments are the most interesting aspect of the posts here as you can get a fascinating range of informed opinions, although there is a tendency to champion the many smaller rivals to the Big Five publishers and the incumbent publishing establishment. If you are interested in the world of English language publishing, and your main sources of information are the likes of major newspapers, Publishers Weekly, and The Bookseller, then you are in serious need of a more balanced view of publishing. The Passive Voice will help you to do that.