Waterstones have recently decided to change the way they plan author events at their stores (google 'bookseller waterstores author events'), which has led to widespread condemnation from (mostly independently published) writers as being an elitist device to stop the ever-growing numbers of self- and independently published authors from selling their work in the relaxed environment of what is Britain’s last and only real bookshop-chain.
Maybe they’ve had the tighteners put on them from the big houses or maybe James Daunt, Waterstone’s enigmatic managing director, dislikes hand-selling books in his stores or maybe it’s a mixture of both, but this spells disaster for relatively unknown authors who are prepared to travel sometimes hundreds of miles to spend the day at a Waterstone’s store, quietly going about the business of introducing their books to customers.
If this new measure really was an attempt to stop those authors who shove books in people’s faces and use the hard-sell option to sell as many copies as possible, it wouldn’t tar us all with the same brush, but it is now targeting all indie-authors, the vast majority being respectful, unassuming and a great (and free) asset to the financial viability of stores.
I received one email yesterday from a store manager, outlining how she proposed to run her author events in future.
*As a bookseller has to be with you throughout your visit, signings cannot take place between 12 noon and 3pm. This is our lunch period.
* Authors will be expected to stay at the table, and not approach customers away from there.
* Signings last for two hours, though if there are customers queuing to see the author, the signing will continue until the author sees the last customer in the queue.’
I emailed back to say that, regrettably, I couldn’t work under these guidelines and thanked her for my first signing event.
I thanked her for this event, from which I sold a book to a lady who works for a very good distributor that has since taken my book on consignment, and that I visited a local school free of charge to read my story to 200 children over an afternoon.
I made it clear that without Waterstone’s, it would not have been possible to create this link with the publishing world and education.
I received a reply from this manager today, but it was not addressed to me personally.
I’ve spoken to some authors on the phone and it would appear that not everyone has received the email below’ (which tells of further cancellations across the country for the week before Christmas, which will cripple independent authors) ‘so I’m resending.
Once again, my apologies.’
This sort of tactless behaviour has really upset me. If she gave a damn about authors, she would have at least replied to my email personally. I worded my reply as respectfully and gratefully as I could.
It’s obvious that this particular manager can’t stand authors, yet she runs the only real bookshop in what is quite a large, prosperous town. Crazy or what? It’s like putting a sociopath in a nursing home.
My book sold more copies than any other title at the store on the day of my visit, including the sick-making Fifty Shades of Shite.
Let it be known; before you assume that all managers are like this that they certainly are not. It’s been an absolute joy visiting stores, seeing towns I’d never been to, meeting wonderful people and feeling like a part of something real.
When I’m welcomed into a store by staff, I don’t expect any special treatment. I just go to my table and when I see a suitable reader for my book, I introduce myself and ask if they would like to take a look at it. I usually leave them to it and say that I will be able to sign it if they would like a copy, but sometimes I engage in further conversation.
Meeting children is an amazing thing.
Some are literally gobsmacked when they realise that I actually wrote the book and I get the feeling that I might be helping them to let their own imaginations fly when I talk to them.
I try to perceive when a customer seems disinterested or has little time but I’m not perfect. It’s a learning curve.
On the whole, parents enjoy talking about how the book came to be and it’s quite a challenge retelling my story eighty times a day.
I’m prone to tiredness and don’t like sitting at my table for too long, especially when I know that there are people milling around the store who would probably love to see my book. I like to keep busy and before the new guidelines most managers encouraged me to mill and chat to customers.
They know full well (unlike the self-seeking graduates sticking their oily noses into the boardroom at head office) that we are their bread and butter for the smaller stores, of which there are many. Author events are often the difference between a good week and a decidedly ordinary week.
As a working ratio, I’d say that, of those approached, one in two or three buy the book happily after inspection. Of those children who read the book quietly in the store (I encourage a full read, even when it’s 1800 words), almost all of them want a copy afterwards, which is very encouraging.
I have enjoyed some brilliant times at signings and most managers are amazing at their job, but since news of the new guidelines came about, I’ve noticed a change in attitude from some store managers and even general staff. It seems that they think we are surplus to requirement. This, I believe, is borne from sheer laziness.
Before the news came, we were happy to go about our business but now it’s just not the same. I feel like a dead man walking and am sometimes conscious of eyes on me when I approach a customer with my book. It feels awkward now, as if I’m in the way. The last thing I wanted was to be seen as a pushy author, which I’m not, but it seems we’re all marked now.
In short, my confidence has taken a severe battering.
All I know is that I don’t know how things will work out with Waterstone’s and there’s some consolation in realising that they don’t know either. They are the masters of their own destiny and while I am in a state of flux, I honestly think that I will come away from this in better shape and with a more rounded sense of how best to promote my books.
That's not to say it hasn't hit me hard.
I had to cancel an event in London last weekend and another yesterday because I just couldn’t face the thought of being shown the same treatment as I received at a very recent event, where I saw my table moved around the store (from children’s to history to cookery) before a suitable place was found.
I still sold more copies than Fifty Shades of Shite, but my resilience is wearing thinner and thinner by the day.
Up until last weekend, I had never cancelled any of the 35 events I have taken part in over the last four or five months.
On the two occasions when financial errors were made by Waterstone’s in my favour, I reported each to the accounting department. I wonder if the big houses would do the same?
Today has been a day of rest to take stock of my thoughts, and I have made a conscious decision that I will honour all events from now on, unless they are cancelled by Waterstone’s. The buzz has gone but I remain deeply grateful to Waterstone’s for giving me the opportunity to promote my book in such a great environment. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to sell 1600 copies of the book and read to all the schools I have visited. This year has been a revelation and it’s almost all due to Waterstone’s.
I can’t stand to think the party’s over but it would be wise.
I’m not going to do social media, which I find laborious. It’s just not my style and I love meeting people, which probably means I'm a ghastly social pariah!
Instead of tittering or facemucking, I’ll concentrate on building better relations with schools, councils and libraries, although I know how deep the cuts have affected their budgets.
I’m still not in profit from outlay (illustrator, printing et al) and while I always knew this would be a slow process of love, determination and hard work, I never thought Waterstone’s would pull the plug on indie-authors, but there it is.
A lot of people reckon they’ll see how damaging these new guidelines are and eventually go back to how it was, hopefully with a code of conduct that stops pushy authors selling rubbish and urges managers to vet the work of authors before they’re given an event.
I hope this has been helpful to anyone thinking of self-publishing or trading as an independent publisher/author.