Particular Problems Confronted By Those Selling Books

27th July 2012
7 min read
28th September 2020

The below is an extract from Marketing Your Book: An Author's Guide.

Marketing Your Book cover

Many would rather do something else than read

As authors, we are committed to thinking that books are wonderful. Whilst there are many who agree with us, sadly there are even more who find the book irrelevant:

‘I don’t really read books: there’s not enough space in my life. When I have an empty space in my brain, it’s cool, it’s OK. I don’t want to fill it with anything.’
Celine Dion, singer, Sunday Times Magazine, October 1999

Books have to compete with a vast range of other items that cost about the same – or perhaps more – but take less decision-making time. Nor is one book always competing with another title for the customer’s money. An alternative to buying a book could be a training course (costing vastly more) or a meal out; the customer is not necessarily deciding between two books.

Others see books as worthy, boring necessities

Generations of schoolchildren have grown up with a view of books as boring necessities associated with homework. The dilapidated condition of the book stock in schools, and poor access (class sets often consist of one between two rather than one each) have compounded this problem.

There are definite ways in which the author can help here. Subheadings encourage the reader to get involved, as do page layouts that reflect modern design – for example with boxes, highlighted quotes and ’sound-bites’. A study of magazine layout will yield further examples.

Book purchase takes ages

Choosing a book demands a great investment of time – and this is true whether one is a buyer in a bookshop, or a consumer trying to choose between the titles they have selected. And the time one has to invest – to read the blurb, look at the cover, perhaps read the first paragraph, look at the index, and so on – is in inverse proportion to the financial investment required, as most books sell for a relatively low purchase price.

‘Choosing a new item of clothing can take me seconds: do I like the colour, is my size available, is it machine washable? Ironically, the final purchase price can be ten times that of a paperback book that it takes me ten times longer to choose.’
Waterstone’s customer

‘I realised that the amount of time I invested in each customer – getting to know them; building a relationship; recommending titles they might like and ordering what I did not have in stock – was probably yielding about 20p per title sold. As I was running my bookshop as a business and not, as many of my customers assumed, as a hobby, this was hardly a cost-effective way of making a living.’
Recently retired independent bookseller

How can the author help guide the reader to what they want to know quickly? By providing concise and interesting information on both the book and yourself whenever possible! The following was drafted as advice for talking to reporters, but is equally relevant to any form of author information. In Managing the Message, former Today Programme presenter Peter Hobday commented:

‘It never ceases to amaze me the amount of useless personal information an individual will give a reporter – about the committees they serve on, whether they are chairman, treasurer or secretary, how many clubs they belong to. The very grandest will airily hand you a photocopy of their entry in Who’s Who. It is far better that you, rather than the reporter, should decide what you think is relevant. From your obviously glittering and lengthy CV choose the few – very few or better still no more than two – facts that seem to be most germane to the interview in hand. The object of the exercise is to make sure that you are seen as the right person to be talking about this issue.’

Customers only buy the same book once

If you decide you like a particular brand of chocolate, or spirit, you will go on buying the same brand until you change your mind, which may be never. Publishers seldom have the same opportunity. There are occasions when a title is bought again, for example as a present, but these are relatively rare. Each book is a different product; hence the desire of publishing houses to build a brand to represent a particular type of author or house. That is why your book may end up looking relatively similar to others in the same genre (group of related titles, e.g. thrillers or romantic fiction to be sold through supermarkets).

The publisher can never be sure when books are sold

Because of the number of titles available, and the importance of persuading booksellers to stock books by authors who are completely unknown, the practice developed of supplying books to shops on ’sale or return’. In other words, if books do not sell, they may be returned by the bookseller to the publisher for a credit. But the publisher cannot return them to the printer: thus, unlike in any other form of retailing, the risk remains with the producer rather than the shop owner. This makes the finances of running a publishing company particularly difficult – you can never tell when the product is actually sold. The nightmare scenario for publishers is that the books have been subscribed into bookshops, the reviews are good, and you order a reprint just as the stock comes back from the shops for a credit.

Books are outstandingly good value for money

In industry, most firms would seek to make a profit of at least 15-20 per cent; publishing houses do well to get 5-10 per cent. As some wag once said, the only enterprise you take on for love not money is owning either a publishing house or a football team.

I think it behoves all authors to constantly restate the value that book purchase represents. A paperback novel costs less than a cinema ticket, or a large frozen chicken, yet there are still large sections of society that consider them expensive.

So, can you deliberately buy books (rather than anything else) as presents, give a talk in your local library or school to coincide with National Book Week, choose books to be photographed with, or just enthuse about them whenever possible? A head teacher I know consciously walks around school carrying a book in his hand in the hope that it will prompt conversations and encourage others to read. As we are producers of the codex, our aim should surely be to convert others to feel as passionately about books as we do. There are natural allies out there.

On the Chris Tarrant radio show 3, singer Rod Stewart was taking questions. This one came from Mike on the M1:

Mike: Rod you are a rich man, you can have anything you want.What do you want for Christmas?

Rod: I like books; particularly ones about trains. I love reading about trains and knowing things about them.

Similarly, the BBC’s John Simpson was asked what single medium he could not live without:

‘Books. Nothing – not radio, nor television, and not even the Internet – can replace the book for me. If books stop being published, I shall give up travelling, close the door and spend the rest of my life reading the ones that already exist. And I shan’t switch on the television set, ever again.’
John Simpson, BBC Chief Foreign Correspondent, The Times, 3 November 2000

Writing stage