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The Myth of the Bookshop


As a new writer, when you walk into a bookshop, what do you see?

Do you see thousands of shiny successes, each carefully categorised on shelves, each its own testimony to the triumph and wealth of its author?

Do you see an overwhelming amount of books signifying a closed market, a fabled realm into which you can never reach?

Does that zone inside you that you call your heart fill like a bath with the tepid green water of envy?

Please let me help you shatter some illusions.

Of all those thousands of individual titles you are looking at when you walk through the doors of Waterstone’s or Barnes & Noble or whichever bookshop you walk into, perhaps less than a dozen sell enough copies to sustain a book-selling business. Every other title, reaching far back into the shop and covering every genre from cookbooks to children’s literature, from science fiction to literary classics, will be selling far, far below the rate necessary for it to be viable for it to be there as an individual item. Over two years, an individual title would be lucky to sell a couple of thousand copies in total.

About 90% of the books on the shelves, in other words, are there for show.

So what are you actually looking at?

You’re looking at something resembling an optical illusion; you’re looking at a myth. You’re looking at a kind of trick. When you walk through that mystical portal into those hallowed halls, you’re entering a dream world in which it looks as though success is on display. There is a measure of success, of course: each one of the volumes that you see has made it through a rigorous process of selection, polishing, distribution and display so that it is in that shop to be viewed, and in getting that far it has dramatically increased its chances of getting purchased. But those chances are still incredibly low. Only the big names, the best-sellers, the books that have punched through into large scale sales with the public already, will be turning the business wheels of that shop; the rest are there as a kind of ‘net’, in the hope that, attracted by the lure of the big names, shoppers might linger a little and make an additional cross-purchase.

A close analogy might be that of a supermarket, which similarly stocks needed best-selling essentials but also has a vast array of ‘extras’ which it hopes shoppers might be tempted by on the way down the aisles. But the big difference is that in a supermarket, essentials are essential - shoppers need to eat. This is qualitatively different from a need to read. We might pop into a supermarket and come out with more than we intended to buy, but only a few of us shop for books that way: we usually go in to get a specific title, and emerge having browsed enviously for a little while, with that title.

Everything else, all those other books on all those other shelves, are there to convince you of a myth: that a ‘published author’ is somehow a transformed being, that to sit in pride in a shelf in a bookshop is a mark of something, a sign of success, a portent of prosperity. It’s not exactly a lie, but it’s not the whole truth, for sure.

Modern bookshops (and supermarkets, for that matter) are part of the general contemporary trend towards cross-selling - that is, the idea that when a consumer of some kind buys one thing, you can sell them other related things while you have their attention. Stocking the thing that the customers need most - whether that be the latest best-seller or a loaf of bread - attracts the customers in, and while they are there, you try to sell them things that they didn’t originally plan to buy. Obviously, you need to make sure that you have your best-selling or most needed items stocked up and displayed at the front of the shop, while behind you have lower numbers of ‘test’ items. If you just sold the essentials, as was the case before modern marketing techniques took hold, you were, so marketers realised, missing out on the opportunity to make that little bit of extra money from an additional purchase a customer might make. It’s one of the moves towards greater consumption that naturally follows as a consumer society develops. But if you are the producer of one of those lesser-needed items, an author of one of those books towards the back of the shop, you’re probably not going to see much action, and almost definitely not viability.

It’s a model. Once you see it as a myth, an illusion generated by the cross-selling giants, you can also see that things don’t have to be that way. You’re a victim of a system which functions only on its best-sellers and uses you as a cross-sell supplement. The bookshop and the distributor and publisher behind that shop, hope to make a few extra pennies by having you there, that’s all. Not many of those pennies will make it back to you. But all the mechanics of the thing, the editing, publishing, printing, transporting and displaying functions which only the cross-selling giants used to have control over, are now no longer exclusively theirs: they’ve been placed in your hands by the wonderful internet.

So how would an alternative model work?

The cross-selling model above works, like all economic and social models, on need. Right at the heart of it is the consumer’s need, whether for bread or the latest best-seller. On the edge of that need is a more casual inkling to buy something else while they are there. If you want to build a consumer-based model along the same lines, you need to apply similar principles: what is it that readers would most need about your work? How can you find the readers who have the most urgent need for what it is you are offering as an author? How can you activate that need using every tool at your disposal, and then guide those readers towards making a purchase of your book?

You need to know the basics of marketing.

If you’re really ambitious about it, you can develop your own ‘bookshop/supermarket’ model: readers will flow in to purchase the item they most need (your main book) but you will also stock your back shelves with further items which they might be tempted to add to their cart on the way through.

You can create your own illusions. You’re especially good at it: you’re a writer.

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