How I’d Sell Books

I’ve had a fair amount of time to think lately, and musing about publishing issues made me consider the haphazard way books get publicized at present and how I’d alter things, if I were made Bookworld Queen. Books aren’t like bars of soap, their best qualities are not the pretty wrapper and the promise of a well-known brand name and yet it feels like that’s how they are sold, that and the relentless thumping home of a handful of titles. Books are ideas, they are slices of society, they are questions and they are challenges, they are also comfort, pleasure, excitement and escape. And their authors are artists, creative gold, and should be respected and used as such. To this end, I would:

1. First get my authors to cancel all their individual twitter accounts, blogs, facebook pages and all the other social media that dissipate everyone’s attention and energy. Consolidation is what we’re after, that and exclusive access to information.

2. Start up the most interesting newsletter ever, using my authors’ talents for writing. They can post about their work in progress, the genesis of their ideas, the research trips they undertake – think how great it would be for readers to become engaged by a novel in the production stage, how their interest and curiosity might be whetted by the non-fiction writers talking about how they approached their family over their tell-all memoir, or how an author first realised s/he needed to investigate a forgotten moment in history! The bookshop shouldn’t be the first place I hear about a new book. And I’d make sure there was space for all my authors over time, not just the few who are known about already.

3. I’d also engage readers in the working of the publishing house – there’s drama and excitement there – debut authors to be presented, the vision of publishing that’s currently being created, former editors musing over their relationships with classic authors…

4. Now for events. I’d be tracking down the right sort of locations for regular event evenings. Sure, I’d have readings occasionally, but I’d also want to put groups of authors together for discussions, tying books in to what’s going on right now in the world. It might be the release of a big film, or some current event, or a new cultural trend. I’d get the academics in with the editors and authors to debate where fiction is going (but NO boring death knells for the state of the novel!), school groups for fun activities, and sometimes there’d just be a ‘come and meet’ party (Christmas and midsummer). Then, I’d reach out to all the interested groups in the area – the bookshops and libraries, the book clubs and writing groups, the schools. I’d want to build relationships, work out what the community responded to, try to have a little control over creating the buzz, not desperately following it like headless chickens.

5. Authors create, publicists publicize. So it’s up to the publishers to work on having the best network of media contacts, and a huge network of readers. To whom they could send the now fabulous newsletter, and who would also be interested in the events. The publicist helps authors to place articles in newspapers and magazines, and to give interviews on television and radio. The publishing house is responsible for both media contacts and reading audience, they need them for every author they work with.

6. But authors are creative gold. I’d want to get my authors together regularly, for something informal and laid back and creative, a sort of workshop-plus-pub visit. They can work together to come up with ideas for book programs on television and the radio, and then the publicists would put those ideas into sellable form (because that’s their job, not the authors’). The authors need to keep thinking about that newsletter too, how to keep it innovative and fresh. And I think authors need to get together with their own kind to spark off ideas and keep excited in their own projects. Who knows what might come out of friendships and collaborations?

7. If I wanted to sell ebooks, once their novelty value has worn off, this is the perfect place for deals. Anyone who buys a hardback novel should get an ebook free – so they can take that book on the daily commute rather than leave it at home. When an established author puts a new book out, how about an ebook bundle deal, whereby a handful of backlist titles are sold alongside the new one? There could be ebook subscriptions for the genre readers: a book a month, get readers interested in authors they might not have tried otherwise (a great testing ground for new authors, too).

8. I’d use bloggers properly. I’d have a database in which to log their interests, which books they’d been sent, and which had been reviewed. If a blogger didn’t review, say, three out of five books, I’d strike them off the list. For crying out loud, we are the only sector of the market guaranteed to buy or borrow books for ourselves. Being sent a book for review ought to be a privilege and we should be professional about it. At the same time, I don’t review now for publishers who don’t say thank you when I send a link. There should be reciprocal benefit here. Publishers should get their reviews, and bloggers should get increased traffic. Links to reviews should all be put on the website, and tweeted, and publicized in all possible ways.

9. Finally, the website is the place where everything comes together. The newsletters are stored here, photos from previous events, details of upcoming events, all the reviews for books, all the latest deals and competitions, news and gossip. With a happening website, it makes sense to sell books from here, too. I have to say that on the two occasions I have tried to buy books direct from publishers, I have ended up at amazon out of sheer frustration. Penguin (who I think should be named and shamed) was my worst experience. A different shop for different imprints, so it took a while for me to track the books down, and then when I wanted one book from each of two different imprints, I couldn’t seem to combine my order. It was madness. A clear, easy, reliable shopping system, with big deals on pre-orders and featured titles, that’s what I’d want.

So this is the result of sitting around, not being able to type – overthinking and empire building! These are just my ideas and I’m sure people can come up with better ones. It was just fun to speculate. And keep your fingers crossed for me – at the moment, my arm does seem to be slowly improving.



46 thoughts on “How I’d Sell Books

  1. Some great ideas there! They would really help publishers to build relationships with readers, and get their authors known in a deeper way. So much is possible online, and yet not much is being done in an organised way. Most publishing houses and imprints have no particular identity in readers’ minds, and that’s a missed opportunity.

    It does seem bizarre that publishers are so bad at selling books through their websites. I’ve wondered sometimes whether they came to some agreement with the bookshops that they would avoid competing with them by being deliberately incompetent in setting up their online shops!

    I remember Hamish Hamilton put out a newsletter with short stories, essays and other stuff from their writers – It was good, and I subscribed for a while, but lost interest at some point. The one you describe sounds more interesting!

    • Oh someone once told me about Five Dials and I’d forgotten all about it until you mentioned it. I really should check that out. I agree – publishers don’t market their own brand and they really should – I do find that each house has quite a distinctive style. And I don’t think the problem/opportunity of social media has been approached systematically – that would be much better! As for selling books, lol, I love your explanation – maybe that’s it!

  2. Oh this is excellent. But don’t make me cancel my blog or Facebook. Just turn off my internet access. (So guilty….)

    I can’t think why people aren’t already doing the ebooks and hardbacks together. Just as you get a free download if you buy a CD fro the Amazon. One for the car, one for the home. Simple.

    • Heh, authors can have private social media as much as they like – it’s only the ones who don’t want to be there/don’t understand it all who could be let off the hook! And absolutely – buy a book in one medium, have the opportunity to enjoy it in all the other ones. That seems a natural way to go to me. I love the thought of being able to listen in the car to a book I’m currently reading. That would be great.

  3. Sounds pretty good to me! Mostly I really want to read that newsletter. I am not an author, but the amount of publicity (including all that twitter and blog updating) sounds quite exhausting.

    • Well that’s what I think – it’s all time that could be used for proper writing (which is time-consuming enough!). I thought of what I’d most like to have in order to know more about books appearing and that newsletter was the idea that popped into my head. Shame I have no influence whatsoever! 🙂

  4. Some authors are astute at using social media (margaret attwood is a prime example) but others I get the feeling are doing it because their publisher told them that was the way to promote their work and they really need to get facebook page, twitter etc etc. But they don’t get help to know how to use social media effectively and then realise how much time and effort it takes.

    • Well this is it – it takes AGES to get a toehold in social media, so much time and energy required. Margaret Atwood is fortunate enough to be famous in the first place, but it’s the rare writer who affects their sales that way. If publishers do want their authors to use their time that way, some sort of training course would seem appropriate.

    • Heh, small things like lack of time, energy, money! 🙂 I was really dreaming about what could be done with a publicity department, rather than a one-man band. But if I ever become a publisher (doubtful but not out of the question) then I would think long and hard about publicity as I think it’s the key right now to making a business work.

  5. Bring on the revolution!

    I’d love a publisher to be interviewed here or elsewhere and explain why the industry as a whole seems so resistent to innovation. Your backs are against the wall, people! You need Bookworld Queen and her ilk! And most of these ideas wouldn’t cost any/much money to implement.

    To be fair, smaller firms are being much more creative – think of Peirene, Persephone, Hesperus, for instance. But often they’re limited by small budgets.

    I would let the authors do what they liked re online presence though. They have their own ‘brands’ to manage, after all.

    Glad your arm is feeling better! You need to be in full working order to run Bookworld, you know. I have a feeling it will be like herding cats. 🙂

    • Lol! Herding cats is about right, dear Helen! And yes, Persephone and Hesperus do lots of really interesting things (I hear less myself from Peirene, but it all depends who’s got hold of your name and who hasn’t). I don’t know why no one’s taken a more organised approach to publicity though – it wouldn’t be so very hard. If authors want to have their own sites, of course they could. It’s just the enormous time sink that is the internet swallows up enough time and energy as it is! I’m not sure my arm is *quite* strong enough to rule Bookworld just yet……. I agree it would require some serious muscle! 🙂

  6. I regret reading this, what a great collection of ideas that won’t happen (please prove me wrong). I get that you want to create some kind of writers-group to share time and expirience with themselves, I’ love to see something like this around.

    • I do toy all the time with the idea of starting up an online creative non-fiction group. It’s really hard for creative non-fiction writers to meet one another because we’re few and far between. But then I’m not sure how to go about it. Full of good ideas me, and no idea how to implement them! 🙂

    • Well that’s an interesting take on it. The thing about writers, though, is that they have the imagination to justify anything! 😉 Just kidding – it can be a lonely business, writing.

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  8. These are fabulous ideas and you perfectly expressed the problem. The reason you have to package and advertise soap is that in truth all soap is pretty much the same, so you have to fool people into thinking one is superior or different. But every book is different, and reading many different books is life enhancing, whereas hygiene with the same brand of soap all your life is perfectly fine! I wish publishers would take the approach you’ve pondered.

    • That’s exactly my thinking, dear Lilian. It seems that publicists in publishing houses are all geared up to sell genre and series, but struggles mightily with your average book. That seems… short-sighted to me somehow!

  9. There are great ideas here but why should authors not take things into their own hands? Nowadays I’m suspicious of authors who have no Blog, Twitter or Facebook. Down with the Ivory Tower – in my opinion. Everything else, yes, sure.

    • Oh I wasn’t thinking that way. I was just thinking how much time it takes to run a blog and a facebook page, time that could usefully be spent actually writing a book. I find it hard to be writing and blogging at the same time – sort of fragments my consciousness. I wish I had a clone who’d blog for me when I’m doing proper writing! 🙂

  10. I do so agree about the ebook question. Because I can’t carry physical books around with if they weigh too much I often end up reading something entirely different on my ereader when what I actually want to do is carry on with what I was reading at home. And why publishers insist on charging the same for back catalogue as they do for the latest paperback is beyond me. If they dropped the price they would get far more readers.

    Just one quibble. Can I put plea in for afternoon events. Some of us can’t manage evenings. In fact what is needed is some means of streaming such events because inevitable large areas of the country aren’t going to be anywhere near where they are happening.

    • Streaming is a brilliant idea, really excellent. I was thinking that whilst my plan was just about feasible in the UK, there’d be all sorts of problems with a huge country like the States. But streaming would be a way around a lot of issues there, too. And yes, afternoon events are much nicer than evenings in many ways. I think heavy books discourage a lot of people – ereaders are such a good solution then!

  11. All hail the Bookworld Queen! 🙂
    I agree about it’s being the job of a publicist to take care of promoting a book: nowadays if you want to get published, you have to be able to prove to the publisher that you’ve got a ready-made audience out there clamouring to read your book! But writers aren’t publicists – otherwise there are a whole lot of people out there who are being paid for nothing!
    As for social media, yes and no. They’re definitely a time-waster (especially if you don’t know what you’re doing) but it’s not a bad idea to have a network of people interested in the way you do your work. I still prefer your review / book club ideas though! Much more fun.

    • Well that’s exactly what I think – what are publicists FOR exactly, if the writers are doing all their own publicity? Surely they have specialist knowledge and skills that writers wouldn’t have? If writers want social media for their own purposes that’s fine, but it’s a big ask for those who don’t like or understand that sort of thing. But wouldn’t it be good, if you were an author, to instantly have a family in your publisher – other writers to know, a collective to work with and inspire you. Well, I like the idea of that!

      • It sounds fantastic!! Getting published for the first time must be as scary as it is exciting, and to have a ‘family’ of fellow writers to support you must make all the difference! Sure you can find all the info you need on the internet if you spend the necessary time looking it all up – and then checking it’s all true – but it’s never fun doing all that alone. And it’s not entirely right that publishers should act as if they were God Almighty. After all, without writers, they’re jobless too…

  12. Like the ideas, but probably like the Dyson version of book publicity – you’d have to do it yourself. Not a bad idea if you could get a publisher to employ you at it. Anyway, I thought you already were the Book Queen.

    • Queen already? Lol, if only! 🙂 But probably better not – it would only go to my head…. 🙂 I’m normally aware of having absolutely no influence whatsoever, and that does keep me grounded!

  13. Thanks for this detailed and candid insider’s view of the business. Glad to see the important role bloggers get to play in the whole scheme of things. 😉

  14. how completely delicious a Vision.

    if you do it – we promise to write something for your consideration.

    it sounds like a brilliant plan.


    ps: are you on goodreads (for now, before you set up your Empire of book-ness?) – we’re starting to tip a stockinged toe in the water and would like to follow people whose reviews we admire… you.

    do. tell.

    • *waving from Cambridge* I’ve been a bad commenter lately but I loved all the posts from your adventures abroad lately, and am in awe of the way you keep cheerful despite being awake and jetlagged in the small hours of the morning! That’s real class! Any publisher would be very lucky indeed to have you on their books. I am on goodreads, but am appallingly slack there and don’t do very much. I keep promising to be better and… well, not managing it. But I’d be delighted to link up there in any case. 🙂

  15. Great ideas! I love the newsletter idea, and also the idea about ebook bundling. That one might eventually come true, if we’re lucky. Your ideas about events sound good as well — fewer readings, more interesting discussions.

    • Really it’s a shameless cry out for all the things I’d like myself! 🙂 Well, what is the point of having a blog if one can’t write virtual Santa’s lists on it? I’d love to run a newsletter one day – one day; I seem to have trouble enough just blogging regularly at the moment! 🙂

  16. Yeah, but would ye still take 85%? lol

    Wouldn’t number two make a kick ass magazine? A new book for each issue. I’d pay good money to see my fave books from seed to bloom.

    • I am such an idiot, I hadn’t thought of taking a percentage AT ALL. This is why I stay out of the commercial world. But yay, that is exactly how I feel – why aren’t we devoted readers more engaged with the process of other’s creativity? It would be so interesting!

      • I’ve been thinking about that since you started your workshop (would love to get you drunk and hear what your id thought of the experience lol), and a hazy vague idea of online works hoping has been forming in my brain. Like or something. You can submit your piece and have it analysed to suit your personality: rough and blunt, or gentle and empowering; but all honest. It’s about time we writers give a leg up to our compadres with real-life critique, and crush the literary hopes of people who should never, ever be allowed near language.

      • That is brilliant. Quite brilliant – it’s what so many writers need, a properly honest assessment. They’d better be able to get two or three, or more, because taste does vary. But it would do us all the world of good to have readers rather than writers telling us what they think. There is such a difference between the perspectives of the two groups. Lol to hearing what my id thought of the course! I’ll have to ask it and let you know. 🙂

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