BOOKS – COMPARE THE MARKET: TRAVELS THROUGH VANITY BOOKSELLING
By Adam Smith
Unlike Aleksandr the meerkat, who grew up dreaming of exploiting his aristocratic contacts in order to get advertising gigs on the telly, I aim to earn a kind of living as a novelist. I’m taking the calculated approach: writing, writing, writing, all the time doing battle in short story competitions and story slams, and dropping my work into slush piles across the world (well, it seems, mostly Mayfair and Bloomsbury). On finding out that artists’ collective and independent publisher Earlyworks Press wanted to publish two of my stories in an anthology, I built into my strategy the possibility of a promotional event. What better way to connect with your audience than by holding a reading in a bookshop?
Along with Kay Green, publisher of the Ways of Falling anthology, I set out to co-organise a launch in London. For years, Kay’s been doing this type of thing while I’ve been writing and doing readings. I even used to work in bookshops. We were a dream team. But the real world thought otherwise. You see, as we all know, bookselling is a failing business. In order to survive, bookshops have channelled novel revenue streams beyond their traditional offerings. But high-margin greetings cards and fresh coffee aren’t enough: bookshops also make money from hiring out their space for literary events. Kay recalls that this used to be free to publishers: bookshops were happy to open their doors to a captive audience likely to purchase the promoted book. And shops generally recognised their role in supporting emerging writers, without whom they have no product anyway. But paid-for venue hire is now just another way for bookshops to prolong their lives – a new drug just at the right time.
I am no blueblooded meerkat. And Earlyworks Press is a kitchen-top outfit without the marketing moolah that is apparently swimming around computer-generated writers. But even if we could pay to hire a bookshop, the question is: would we want to? Kay criticises what she calls vanity bookselling: that is, a writer or publisher paying to display their books in a shop. It’s not right, she argues. “When we started Earlyworks Press,” she remembers, “we discussed whether to go for a payment of tuppence ha-penny per writer or a competition format with a good-sized prize cheque for one writer and as much publicity as we could generate for the remainder. The second option proved more popular so we put all the likely cash into prize money plus printing – after that, my challenge is to market the book, and the authors showcased in it, as well as possible using everything except money (because there isn’t any).”
Kay believes that bookshops should support writers and be thankful for the foot traffic their events can attract. One wonders whether a bookshop would hold a launch for a book whose publishers can pay, regardless of the quality of the book. On the other hand, if the writer is well known enough maybe the shop would not charge at all. If I were a meerkat with a comical Russian accent and guaranteed to sell lots of books, for example, maybe a shop would let me take over for an evening without charging me a hire fee. (Come to think of it, as a punter, I would pay to attend that.)
Kay and I eventually landed on The Bookshop Theatre, a charming shop close to Waterloo and connected to John Calder, publisher of Samuel Beckett. With this shop, we hatched an innovative approach: let’s hold the launch during opening hours, when the shop has no additional overheads like it would for an evening do. Daniel Kelly, one of the shop’s partners, liked the sound of our anthology and idea – and took the chance. “Why not, for God’s sake?” he says. “It’s not as if the existing model for bookshops is working. So let’s try this – after all, it actually makes sense if we try to help each other.”
The event will start at midday with an introduction from Kay. Five of the anthologised authors will read 10 minutes’ worth of their work (with a break in the middle) and then they’ll take any questions from an audience of friends, family and subscribers to the Earlyworks Press or Bookshop Theatre mailing lists. Now we’re working out the tricky business of deciding the order of readings (alphabetical by author surname, I say) and hoping that punters come to listen and buy the book. If not, well, we can just blame the meerkat.
The Ways of Falling launch will be held at The Bookshop Theatre, close to Waterloo in London, on Saturday, 19th February at 12 noon. It’s free to all.