When the Bookstore Doesn’t Have the Book

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.

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Ten books that have touched me

A different kind of list this time: yesterday I spotted a Kate Keen* post about a Facebook meme which asks you to name ten books that have touched you. I usually avoid those things like the plague, because I can never narrow my influences down to ten or five or twelve or whatever the chosen magic number is. But this specification is an interesting one; it implies a book that generated a strong emotional reaction when you read it, which is not the same thing as being the most loved, most challenging, or most influential (although they may be that too). It’s asking not about the books that made you think, but the books that made you feel.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are ten (actually eleven) that did it for me. Numbers 1-4 are from my childhood and adolescence; the others got me as a grown-up.

1. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

I suspect this is going to top many, many lists. It’s the immersion, which makes the reader care deeply about what’s at stake; and the sense of fellowship with the characters that begins at the very beginning of Fellowship. My mother gave it to me when I was nine, and what it did to my head and my heart is, I am quite certain, the reason I’m a writer today.

2. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

Has there ever been a bright, bookish, slightly odd and outsider little girl anywhere in the world who didn’t identify with Jane? She made me cross, she made me cry, she made me believe that things would get better. And that if they didn’t you could bloody well make them better. Or move on.

3. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe / Roots – Alex Haley

I should be able to choose between these two, but I can’t. I read them both when I was around 10-13 years old** and they made the reality of what slavery had actually meant accessible to me in a way no history lesson ever did, before or since. They made me sick to my stomach, they gave me nightmares, and I’m glad of it. If we could build that level of revulsion into the mind of every kid, we’d clear ourselves of violence and bigotry in a generation.

4. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

Well overdue for a reread, this one, but I still remember the emotional highs and lows of reading it for the first time. Dickens doesn’t just tell us about social inequality and the class system here, he makes us feel every vile moment of it. Through it all runs a complex web of love, friendship, family and sacrifice. Overwrought and melodramatic at times, but completely captivating.

5. Black Man – Richard Morgan

What?! I hear you say. An ultra-violent grimdark tech-noir thriller? Yes, absolutely. This is a novel about what it is to live within the constraints of an altered physicality and psychology; to never know if the things you want, the things you do, and the things you fear are really you, or what’s been done to you. It’s about damaged people who know they’re damaged trying endlessly to negotiate that line. And it makes us live through the death of a character we’ve come to admire and respect. Gut-wrenching.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Anger, horror, anger, contempt, anger, sorrow, anger, fear, anger. Did I mention anger? Atwood’s current MaddAddam trilogy is intellectually engaging and artistically accomplished, but it doesn’t do anything for me on an emotional level. Handmaid left me so furious I couldn’t speak.

7. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

I avoided this for years – unappealing cover, unappealing title – until I discovered that it was, actually, about time travel. I thought I wasn’t particularly enjoying it until about two thirds of the way through – kept feeling like I should chuck it in and not read any more – until the moment I found myself in floods of tears. And then I couldn’t stop reading, and could barely stop crying. That was when I understood the source of my reluctance: it drags you into the emotional lives of the characters whether you like it or not, into the heart of their incredible, doomed, love story, and makes you live it with them. Gorgeous and heartbreaking.

8. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

I wrote about Lolita last year; less a review of the novel than of my reaction to it. It’s another book that will break your heart, for completely different reasons. The narrator’s capacity for self-deception, for reframing the horrific and focusing on the banal, has the effect of completely dehumanising the young girl he claims to love. What’s shocking is how seductively he does it.

9. The Book of Night Women – Marlon James

James’s second novel left me profoundly shaken. It’s the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation, told in the colloquial language of the enslaved; unlike Beecher Stowe and Haley, told from the inside. The litany of atrocities suffered from birth to death, the way their lives brutalised both the abusers and the abused, what it took to endure and what it cost to survive, are simply part and parcel of the existence of people who feel as real and visceral as any people you know. It’s a stunningly good book that should be widely known and read, but I warn you now – it will hurt you.

10. The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough

I read Sarah’s beautifully written, achingly sad novella a couple of weeks ago, so it’s fresh in my mind – but I think it would have made this list anyway. The account of a woman’s vigil at the bedside of her dying father, it’s about family and love and loss, what brings people together and what tears them apart. It’s about facing the inconceivable. Anyone who has lost a loved one will feel how true it is – it took me back to the death of my own mother seven and a half years ago. And yet, strangely, it doesn’t leave you devastated. It ends with a sense of renewal and wonder; a hint at the possibility of magic.

And that is my list. Over to you – what’s on yours?

§

* Kate is on Twitter as @ladymoonray

** Because those were the halcyon days before the invention of YA fiction, and the rise of the corollary notion that because there is now a category deemed ‘appropriate’ for young readers, other books must perforce be ‘not appropriate’ – but that’s a rant for another time. (And is not, by the way, a criticism of YA books or writers, many of which/whom are wonderful; what I have a problem with is the creation of a barrier to other books.)

Nine Worlds News

Where have I been, where have I been?

Enjoying that rarest of phenomena, a proper British summer; selling my house (big moves afoot! more in a future post); rereading the Binary draft, collating thoughts — editor and agent, the ®Evolution Readers, and my own (again, lots of material for its own post here) — and commencing my own edit; all interrupted, for the past 36 hours or so, by a visit from the norovirus (who knew you could get the winter stomach flu in the summer?!?); and getting ready for the NineWorlds Convention, now only two and a half weeks away.

I jumped on the Nine Worlds bandwagon when it was running its Kickstarter back in February. The organisers billed it as ‘an unconventional convention’, with multiple tracks to accommodate all fans of the fantastic; from comics and cosplay, to gaming and Game of Thrones, to films and fanfic, to academia and, of course, books. If I’m honest, the thing that had me most worried was the sheer enormity of their ambition – could a first-time convention put together by a bunch of fans actually pull off something on this scale? But I made my pledge anyway, because I prefer grand ambitions to puny ones, and because I was really impressed by the con’s commitment to being thoroughly diverse and completely inclusive; to internalising the full breadth and depth of fandom, and making the event a place where everyone is welcome and safe, and no one feels marginalised. That, I thought, was well worth a punt.

I’ll report back after the event, but on both fronts the signs are good. The number of tracks is frankly mind-boggling, and they all seem really well programmed. The guest list is, to say the least, impressive. And judging by that programme and those guests and the regular bulletins we’ve been receiving, they’re doing what they promised and making it a con for everyone.

My appearance schedule looks like this:

  • Friday 9th August, 10:15pm: NEW VOICES SLAM SESSION. Short readings from nine of science fiction and fantasy’s most promising new authors! (Full disclosure – I suggested this one to the organisers, because there are always more authors wanting to read than can be accommodated, plus it’s hard for new authors to pull an audience on their own. So if it tanks, blame me. But it won’t. It’ll be great. I can’t wait. It’s on Saturday night as well, with a different line-up — go to both.)
  • Sunday 11th August, 10:15am: CAN’T TAKE THE SKY FROM ME: SCIENCE FICTION AND SPACE TRAVEL. It’s over fifty years since we sent the first humans into space. Are we still as excited about going to the stars? How have real-world concerns about the reality and practicality of space travel affected the genre? I moderate Charles Stross, Adam Christopher, Jaine Fenn, Ian Whates and Gavin Smith.
  • Sunday 11th August, 11:45am: RACEFAIL 101. The panellists discuss colonialism, xenophobia and racism in science fiction and fantasy, recommending the best works discussing these issues as well as discussing the problems we face in writing and reading SFF and what we can do about them. Anne Perry moderates me, Zen Cho, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Tade Thompson.
  • Sunday 11th August, 1:00 – 2:00pm: BOOK SIGNING. I’ll be racing from Racefail to the Forbidden Planet table to sign copies of Gemsigns – do drop by for a chat and a scribble.
  • Sunday 11th August, 3:15pm: WRITING THE OTHER. Last but by no means least, I’m joining Rochita Loenen-Ruiz to run this workshop as part of the Queer stream. The thinking is to follow on from some of the themes of the Racefail panel, looking broadly at issues of inclusion, diversity, and social justice in addition to the core LGBTQ focus. I’m told that signups are essential for this one; email queer@nineworlds.co.uk.

In addition, I’m definitely going to the launch party for Tom Pollock and Snorri Kristansson‘s new novels (The Glass Republic and Swords of Good Men respectively) at 8:30pm on Friday; to the panel on gender and sexuality at 8:30pm on Saturday; and then to the New Voices Slam at 10:15pm Saturday, assuming I’m still vertical. In between all of that I shall be spinning around like a top, trying to work out how to take in all the other great events.

Nine Worlds is being held at the Radisson and Renaissance hotels near Heathrow. Tickets are still available here, and you can follow them on Twitter; the event-wide handle is @London_Geekfest, the Books track is @booksnineworlds, the Queer track is @NineWorldsQueer, the Writing track is @9WorldsWriting … and there are more. Did I mentioned I’m impressed? I’m impressed.

Lists

2013 is off to a good start – I appear to be getting over the latest plot-related stumbling block with Binary, and Gemsigns is popping up on a flattering number of most-anticipated lists. Here they are: 

A Fantastical Librarian: Anticipated Books (Winter/Spring) 2013: Science Fiction and Horror

Joanne Hall: Hotly Anticipated – 13 Must-Reads for 2013

Angels of Retribution: Most Anticipated Releases for 2013

 

World Book Night: one amazing story

World Book Night is well under way. I did my bit early, taking my two dozen copies of Good Omens to the local college where library staff had assured me that the student population were not, in fact, regular readers beyond what was necessary for coursework. So I expected it to be a bit of a struggle. But in the end it wasn’t; I teamed up with a fellow giver, and, armed with free books and lots of chocolate, she got them to spend time with a delusional shopaholic while I persuaded them that the end of the world, as imagined by Messrs. Pratchett and Gaiman, is incredibly funny. I left a couple of young guys already nose-deep in their books, and came home happy.

But I am left with a sneaking suspicion that it may have been too easy. I’m delighted to have shared the books where I shared them – it’s true that no one we spoke to had read either book before, and I doubt that many of them are avid readers in general. But I don’t think the books they got today are likely to change their lives. The same can’t be said for another giver, whose story was posted  on the WBN blog. I won’t steal her thunder; please click the link to read. All I’ll say is that it’s left me with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.

A very moving Givers story.

Good Omens

The good times continue to roll. My last post chronicled my delight at being on the receiving end of literary luck; now I get to be a giver. A book giver, to be precise, on April 23, in celebration of World Book Night. I applied months ago, along with many tens of thousands of passionate readers in the UK, Ireland, Germany and the USA. Emails were sent to the successful applicants last night. And I do feel truly privileged to have been selected. For a reader, writer and lover of story, this is my kind of community work.

World Book Night prints special editions of 25 great books which volunteers then give away, preferably to non- or light readers. The objective is not only to pass the adventure and excitement of reading on to people who currently don’t spend much time with books; but to do so in a way that makes them ambassadors in turn, passing their WBN books on to others and to others and to others. There’s even an online registration portal that can track the journey that each of the gifted volumes takes.

I get to give away 24 copies of my first choice, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It is a fantastically funny, witty, wicked take on the age-old (and frequently rather tired) tale of ponderous powers locked in a battle of good vs. evil. But there’s nothing turgid or trite about this version. In this one the angels and demons, formally avatars of opposition, turn out to have far more in common with each other than with their ineffable and absent bosses. The deep and imponderable mechanisms of apocalypse are about as reliable as a cheap watch. And humanity, supposedly no more than pawns in their grand game, manages to give a pretty good account of itself.

Good Omens is a bravura collaboration by two great writers at the height of their powers. Gaiman’s feel for character, and his gift for not just retelling but subverting mythology to suit his own satirical ends, mashes up wonderfully with Pratchett’s mastery of the comic fantasy form. The plot spins at a dizzying pace through a series of mounting crises, charting the course from mistake through disaster to catastrophe, leaving you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach about what might be about to happen – even as you laugh out loud. It is that rarest of things, a comic horror novel.

And I get to share it! I get to go up to perfect strangers on the street, or in the pub, or waiting for a bus and say, Excuse me. I’ve got a great book here, and I’d like to give it to you. No thanks, you’ve had a rough day? Believe me, it’ll cheer you up no end. D’you believe in God? The Devil? Either way, you’re going to have fun with this. You think books are boring? Really? Let me read you the first page.

I’m looking forward to it with an almost evangelical intensity. Is being able to give a great book to new readers a good omen for a new writer? Better believe it.

What’s in a genre? Unpicking science fiction, fantasy and horror

My bookshelves are bastions of unreality. Narnia and Middle-Earth, Dune and the Culture. Morgan and Mieville. Gaiman and Pullman. Joe Hill and H.P. Lovecraft. The direction of my reading has been second to the right and straight on ’til morning since I was young enough to want to be Wendy.

Most bookshops stack the stuff I love in a corner labelled Fantasy/Sci Fi/Horror, and they do indeed sit very comfortably on a continuum of related reading experiences. As a reader, I never thought too much about the underlying structure of the fantastical. As a writer, I have to. And I’ve discovered that the distinctions which are often subtle for the reader can be quite profound for the writer.

All three genres posit a reality that is different than the humdrum, everyday “real world” that we all inhabit; the writer has to create that reality and draw the reader into it. This is worldbuilding, and while it’s a necessary element of almost every story, its demands on the imagination are arguably greater for horror, fantasy and science fiction than for other genres. But there are some key differences between these broad categories of the unreal. I find them in the measure of internal coherence required of the fictional world; the degree of continuity between it and the “real” world; and the amount of explanation that needs to be provided to the reader.

In horror, the reader is given little or no information about the hidden mechanics of the storyworld; it often appears to be the same as the “real” world (and therefore to require no explanation), until weird things start to happen. Then the inexplicability of events, and their disconnection from a rational, coherent framework wherein they make sense in relation to other events is what drives the sense of apprehension and terror. (A caveat: this applies more to modern horror writing. Classic novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula were written following what we would now think of as a science fiction or fantasy approach to worldbuilding.)

In fantasy, the reader is given a greater degree of explanation for how the world of the story works, which is necessary as it is usually immediately obvious that it is not the “real” world. These explanations are often elaborate and detailed, but they only need to be internally coherent – in other words they only need to make sense within the covers of the book, within the world of the story. The laws and logic of the fantasy world can be completely disconnected from the “real” world, as long as the story obeys the special rules of the fantasy world.

In science fiction lots of explanation is required, and it needs to be both internally coherent and to have some continuity with the “real” world. The physical reality of the science fiction story needs to follow the same basic rules as the “real” world, or at any rate to provide a rational explanation for any discrepancies. Science fiction need not always be set in the future; but wherever and whenever the story occurs, and however profoundly different the world it inhabits, the reader needs a plausible connection between the “here” of the real world and the “there” of the science fiction world. A fantasy world does not require the same degree of plausibility.

It seems to me that this sequence represents an ascending order of difficulty for the writer as worldbuilder. In horror the storyworld does not need to make rational sense; in fantasy it needs to make sense internally, but not externally; in science fiction it needs to be plausible both internally and externally. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that it’s easier to write horror than science fiction – far from it. Creating the suspension of disbelief necessary to make you scared of an implausible monster is a tough trick.)

Having managed to unpick the nature of the writers’ challenges and readers’ complicity in constructing these imaginary settings, we inevitably run up against the stuff that just doesn’t seem to fit. Novels like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Never Let Me Go create a problem for genre cubbyholers. The scenarios they posit should be classic science fiction Big Ideas – but the authors make no real attempt to explain the how or why of the situations the characters find themselves in. Their worlds could be ours, but for the disconnects – an unrecognisable history that just is, seemingly impossible stuff that just happens. And excellent and acclaimed though these books are, there remains a sneaking sense of unease amongst both the SF geeks who want an explanation, dammit, and aren’t entirely inclined to trust an author who doesn’t give them one; and the snobbish literati who can’t quite put to bed the suspicion that they’ve been conned into reading something that smacks – gasp, shudder – of sci fi. Horrors.

Which, actually, is pretty close to the mark. I’m not a genre pedant; I’m happy to simply read a good book. But if I had to shelve these two in my fantasy bookshop of the fantastical, under Horror they would go.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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