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?