So Regeneration has been out for four weeks – four weeks! – now, and I couldn’t be happier with the reviews and reader reactions. (The email I received this week from a bookseller in Illinois, who ordered it international delivery because next year’s North American release was too long a wait, is just about the best validation of why it is I do what I do.) But I’m also hearing from readers who can’t find it in their local bricks-and-mortar bookstore. I’ve double-checked through Jo Fletcher Books, and the Quercus sales team have confirmed that the books are in stock and orders to retailers have been fulfilled. So what’s going on?
It would be nice to think Regeneration is selling so amazingly well that all the bookstores have simply run out of their initial orders. In some cases that may well be true. But here’s the harsh reality of the current market: the economy may be recovering, but sales of books so far have not. Most booksellers operate on very thin margins. They can afford to order large numbers of the latest footballer’s memoir or TV chef’s recipe collection or works of fiction from already-bestselling authors, and to send them out to all of their branches, because they know they will sell. But a novelist who is critically praised but doesn’t have a track record of high sales, or a high profile? A novelist, in other words, like me? The practice is to order our books frugally, and to send no more than a couple of copies to each store; and not even to every store in the chain.
So “selling amazingly well” can actually translate to only having sold one or two copies, which was a store’s entire stock. By the time you pitch up looking, they’re sold out. And here’s the thing: if you don’t speak to someone in the store about what it is you’re looking for, they’ll never know they could have sold more copies. If it’s a store that never got sent copies in the first place, and that never gets any inquiries, they’ll never know about the sales they could have made.
Here’s another thing: almost every modern bookstore, whether an independent or part of a chain, is linked into a database which allows them to locate and request the book you want in a matter of seconds. It’ll generally be in-store for you to collect in a couple of days. And they want to do that. They are in the business of selling books. They want to know what it is you want to buy, and they want to sell it to you.
There’s a fair amount of kvetching about what bookstores do and don’t get right, and some of it may well be deserved. But I have a lot of sympathy for the basic business conundrum that booksellers face: they cannot stock all of the books in the world, and they need to prioritise those that will sell. They don’t know which books will sell until people buy them. But people can’t buy them unless they sell them. So they end up relying on historical sales data, which may not always be a good predictor of future sales potential.
So please, for the sake of the booksellers and me and every other struggling newbie or mid-list author: tell them what you’re looking for. Order it from them if you can, but even if you can’t – even if you’re about to leave town, or you’re going to go check somewhere else because you can’t wait you want it NOW – tell them about the sale they could have made. Tell them there’s a market for that book. Give them the data.
You’ll be doing us both a favour.