Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Writing at the Business End

This semester I have a small class of students who are all serious fiction writers, and we are combining a high-level critiquing regime with an intensive program of what you need to know if you want to be professional and published. Among other topics, we've looked at contracts, the publishing process, how manuscripts are acquired, and talked about resources and organisations. This week, we started to focus on marketing, which meant a very interesting excursion to Carlton, where Borders and Readings bookshops are right opposite each other.

Before they got to the bookshops, each student had to choose three novels similar to what they were writing, then focus on one that had been recently published - what publicity had there been for the book, what reviews, by whom, did the author have a website and/or blog, how else has the book been publicised? When we got to the actual shops, I sent them off to find their chosen books. Where were they shelved? Face out or spine out? Anything extra? (Nobody reported their book on the special front-of-store displays!)

You can guess the results. Some of the books were not on the shelves at all. Some only had one copy available. Many were spine out. The reports on publicity and marketing were spotty (not the students, the results!). Several authors had no blog, a couple didn't have a website of their own. One well-known author had a website and a book trailer and lots of reviews. One dead author had a million things about him and his books, but hardly anything was generated by him (obviously - but also he was 75 when he died last year, so he probably thought it was all a waste of his time).

Then we compared bookshops. Borders was the obvious winner in terms of the range available, and the number of copies. But I also asked them - which bookshop would you prefer to shop in? Which bookshop would you feel did a good job of selling your book if you were published? Readings came out on top, unanimously. This was not just about prospective published authors analysing which shop would promote them better - it was also about where they would prefer to shop. I think it's a great validation of why independent bookstores are thriving in Australia - real customer appreciation and creating a sense of the "traditional bookstore" where you can browse and find gems and new writers to enjoy.

I wondered how many writers ever do this - look seriously at several different bookshops in their area and investigate how they operate, how they sell books, how they keep customers happy. It's all a business. As a writer, it's valuable to know in order to understand what happens when your book becomes a consumer item. What do you think of your local bookstores? Where do you prefer to shop?


Anonymous said...

This is a great post. Your course sounds brilliant. You really give your students a sensory experience of this industry - they'll be well prepared for the world of publishing when it all happens for them (as will we, because you keep sharing you tips!)

I love my local indie, and always go to them first - something about the atmosphere. And I've gotten to know the girls there, and they get excited when I come in because they have a new book or two they know I'll love. But sometimes I am forced to a bigger chain if I really need a book fast that I can't find at my indie.


Sherryl said...

Katherine - I have to admit that since I discovered Fishpond, I don't often shop at Borders anymore (maybe I have contributed to their fall in sales?). But when I want something I've never read before, something different to try out (without doing my $$), I'll go to my local indie too. It's where I've discovered writers like Barbara Kingsolver over the years.

Sally Murphy said...

A great post and an excellent exercise, Sherryl. Whilst I am two hours (+) from my nearest bookstore, when I do get to one, I find the independent bookstore staff/owners knowlegeable and helpful. Their stores FEEL like bookstores, wheras in some of the big chains it feels like a discount store and it is hard to find someone who actually knows about the stock. If someone has helped me, then I will go back to that store the next time.

Anonymous said...

Sherryl said...

Um... Anonymous - is the link relevant to the topic? Not sure why you posted it. Can you tell us?

Sherryl said...

Sally, I can't imagine not being near a bookstore. But it would probably save me a lot of money!

Kristi Holl said...

Oh, how I miss our independent book stores in the U.S.! They felt like real book stores (like that movie "You've Got Mail" where the independent children's book store gets put out of business by the chain.) We used to have a lot of them, but many/most have gone under. So I shop bookstores online now for the most part.

Sherryl, I wish I could be in your class. Wouldn't you have given your eyeteeth for a class like that back when you started your career? 8-)

Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog

Sherryl said...

I would have loved a class like this, Kristi. Can you guess this is why I wanted to teach it?
I was very lucky to have Michael Dugan, a terrific writer and supporter of others, to explain contracts to me. The rest of it I have picked up over the years, but it has taken me a long time to gather all the info and correlate the best advice for these students starting out. I want them to succeed! And be aware of what is in front of them, without putting them off.

ayaz said...

Hello Sherryl:

Your post is a thoughtful and interesting read. I enjoyed it.

As someone who dreams to become a voracious reader and a fervent writer, I would like to share my experiences with how I deal with bookstores at my place.

I sometimes visit the Oxford bookstore here when I go out to the shopping malls with mother. Most big shopping malls over here have at least a single bookstore. In the particular Oxford bookstore I go to, I love how they have multiple reading areas around book shelves. Some are for kids entirely, and others for adults or everyone else. I also love the quietude of the place which allows me to stand and skim through several pages of the books that seem to interest me. The bookstore also has a few books highlighted in the front (next to the door, or at the counter) that are mostly new arrivals. Last time I picked a book on politics in part because it was a new arrival (and in part because it felt like it would turn out to be a good read).

There is another chain of bookstores here by the name of Liberty Books. I have been to their store once, but what I love about them is their online portal through which not only can I browse all books in their catalogue, but can also purchase and have books delivered to my doorstop. What I usually do, when I like a book in the online catalogue, is that I head over to places like, say,, and look for that particular book. I then read the reviews if any over there, and try to figure out how the book is rated. I then decide whether I want to purchase the book or not.

Given the opportunity, I would prefer to spend more time in bookstores. But to be honest, I have never looked at books in a bookstore in some of the ways and perspectives that you have mentioned in your article. I would definitely keep those in the back of my mind the next time I visit.

Thanks again for the great post.

Sherryl said...

Thanks, Ayaz. It's great to hear about bookshops in other parts of the world. I was interested in how you check out the reviews on Amazon when you want to find out about a book - I guess I do that too, sometimes, but I take more notice of the reviews that come from places like the School Library Journal than individuals. Maybe I need to read more of them!