How much do you value bookshops?

1%20-%20Grain_Bookshop

Let me tell you a true story. In 2012 my family went with some friends on holiday to Scotland. One day we were visiting a very pleasant, bustling little coastal town, popular with tourists. Strolling down the street we came across a bookshop. It was an independent, not part of a chain. I’ve always loved bookshops and find it vaguely painful to pass one without going inside – so, with the luxury of time on our hands, we did.

It turned out to be one of those TARDIS-like establishments that didn’t look very big from the outside but opened up pleasingly once inside. It was a well-stocked, attractive-looking place, and it had a decent children’s book section. Our party included a total of five kids, ranging in age from four to ten, so this was good. I’d already spotted an interesting looking tome in the shop window, our kids love to browse, so we were all set for an enjoyable experience. And the bookshop was pretty much guaranteed some sales – which, according to this recent article, was an opportunity they couldn’t have afforded to pass up too often. Or so you might think …

Before I proceed with my story, I want to pick out two quotes from the article in question. It’s about the ongoing decline in the number of independent bookshops in the UK. Specifically that means traditional, physical outlets – what in the US are usually called bricks-and-mortar stores (a phrase I find unreasonably irritating, by the way – the geeky pedant in the back of my brain keeps shouting ‘but the shops in malls are made of concrete and glass, surely? Wouldn’t physical be a better, more accurate term? – and shorter too!’ – but that’s just me).

Anyway. Here are the two quotes:

“The book trade, the government and the general public need to realise that if we don’t take action now, the future of our bookshops – and therefore the health of the publishing industry and reading itself is at risk.

“It’s great that there are so many ways now to consume literature but the independent bookshop is a crucial part of our culture and I would hate to see them disappear from our towns and cities.”

(Emphasis is mine in both cases.)

I wonder what you think of those statements. I suspect I’m far from alone in being broadly sympathetic, to the second one at least. I’ve already mentioned my affinity for bookshops. If my wife and I go shopping together, the ideal scenario is a clothes store and a bookshop in close proximity – then we’re both happy. I’ve also mentioned in a previous post how much I love the good, solid, unashamedly old-fashioned book made out of dead trees, and that I like to consume both paper and e-books simultaneously (well not absolutely simultaneously, but you know what I mean).

I do think bookshops are important, and I do try to buy actual books from actual, bricks-and-mortar physical stores on a reasonably regular basis, even when I know I could probably buy it cheaper from Amazon. But I also buy books from Amazon and I refuse to feel guilty about it.

Because I sometimes find physical bookshops to be – if I’m honest – slightly frustrating places. For the Amazon generation, accustomed to the ability to quickly find whatever you’re looking for from a vast available choice, scanning the frequently disordered and thinly-stocked shelves of the average bookshop does not strike me as being always the best use of valuable time. Unless you really are content to browse at leisure with no little or no preconceived idea of what you want to read next. Most independent bookshops are on the small side, but even the larger ones cannot realistically compete with the choice available online.

One of my favourite recent discoveries is Erin Kelly. Having read one of her novels, last year I went looking for another. This was actually her first novel, and it has been adapted for TV in the UK. I decided to try to buy it in a physical bookshop. Could I find it? Could I heck. Even the Oxford branch of Waterstones, a sizeable chain store, didn’t have more than one of her books.

Perhaps it’s unfair to criticise bookshops, especially small ones, for not having a particular book. But like I said, this was a good-selling, contemporary, mainstream title that’s recently been on TV. It’s not in the Fifty Shades of Grey League, but I would expect most general interest bookshops in the UK to stock it.

But then some bookshops don’t help their cause by wasting their precious floor space by opening cafes and selling toys instead of carrying more, well, books. Diversification seems to be the in thing, but I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a good idea. In one independent store I visited last year, I couldn’t see very many books at all for all the racks of greeting cards and novelty pencils; in fact if the sign outside hadn’t said ‘bookshop’ I might not have guessed what it was. If I want a cup of coffee, I’ll go to a café. If I want stationery, I’ll go to a stationery store. Some bigger stores might have room to spare to diversify, but I suspect most really don’t.

But I could have asked a bookshop to order that Erin Kelly book, couldn’t I? Yes, I could. And in the past I’ve sometimes done that. But, to be honest, why not then just order it myself online? Surely the whole point of physical bookshops is that you can see, browse and hold the books themselves?

But what about the human touch? Good old fashioned customer service? Ah yes. That brings me nicely back to my story.

In that bookshop in Scotland, my first inkling of trouble was when I was almost knocked over by a thunder-faced woman bustling down the aisle. She did not appear happy. She looked, in a word, stressed. Now I know what you’re thinking, and let me say I’m the first to admit that my kids are not always 100% perfectly angelic. But, honestly, we’d been inside that shop roughly three minutes and the kids had been OK. Seriously. They were not screaming, running, vomiting or hitting anyone. They were chattering enthusiastically. They were picking up books (not dropping, throwing or drawing on them). They were happy to be there, and my kids being excited by books is something I’m extremely keen to encourage. I would hope that bookshops might be too.

A few minutes later, as I was approaching the counter with a book in hand, I noticed that the above-mentioned stressed woman – who it seem was someone senior in the shop, perhaps the proprietor – was conversing with my ten-year-old daughter. Well, hissing more like. She (the proprietor) then turned to me, upon learning that I was the father of the errant child, and loudly informed me, in front of the whole shop, that my daughter had bent the cover of the book she’d taken off the shelf and had been carrying around the shop. (My daughter had done that because she wanted to show her friend, presumably because she liked it.)

I can’t sell that book now, complained the bookshop woman. (In fact, knowing my daughter, in all probability she was about to nag me to buy it for her.) She stared at me accusingly, as if I’d personally sanctioned the wholesale desecration of her shop and its contents. I felt about ten inches tall. I mumbled an apology. I returned the book I’d been carrying, the one I’d been about to buy, to the shelf. I then ignored my sons’ requests for other purchases and removed myself and my family from the shop as quickly as possible.

The results of all this were as follows. Ten-year-old girls in tears: one. Embarrassed and confused parents: two. Sales for bookshop: zero.

Now I admit this is not typical of my experience of customer service in bookshops. But ever since the Scotland Incident I’ve felt rather self-conscious when taking my kids into similar establishments. What if they make too much noise? What if (gasp) they slightly bend a cover?

It’s one reason why I don’t subscribe to a certain view of the books retail business. The one that has this spectrum of goodness with independent bookshops at one end, selfless bastions of culture, halos glowing atop their flowing, literature-loving locks; then from that moral high ground we proceed downhill through chain bookshops; then online retailers other than Amazon; and finally, at the extreme opposite end, at the very bottom, Jeff Bezos gnawing on a baby’s thigh bone.

Amazon are not perfect, and there are strong arguments that their dominance of the book market is not a wholly good thing. But the fear and loathing they inspire in some quarters is a thing to behold. As far as I can see they are a highly entrepreneurial organisation that is simply very good at what they do. Sometimes they make mistakes. No doubt they can be prone to exploit their dominance in a way that’s not to everyone’s taste or advantage. But every experience I’ve had of their customer service has been either good or outstanding. They offer an exceptional range at low prices. They have helped to drive the revolution of e-books. And they’ve never, ever made my daughter cry.

I’ll say it again: I like bookshops. I’d prefer to see them survive and prosper – the good ones at least. And I acknowledge that it’s a tough business, and I admire those who stick at it for the love of books. It’s easy for people like me to snipe from the sidelines. But the world has changed and is changing, and no particular business model has a divine right to survive. It therefore seems to me that instead of moaning about Amazon and spreading alarmist clap-trap about the death of publishing, culture or reading itself being dependent on their survival, independent bookshops and their defenders might want to adopt a more proactive, creative, customer-focussed mindset that doesn’t involve raging at Amazon, declaring themselves ‘Kindle-free zones’* or generally straining, Canute-like, to resist the tide of progress.

(* I have seen at least one bookshop in the UK proclaiming this on a sign in their window, and another with a similar message. The precise purpose of this escapes me, beyond attempting to make a proportion of its customers feel guilty.)

Now I’m quite sure that there are many excellent independent bookshops who are taking a more positive approach. No doubt it’s still not easy for them, but I wish them all the best.

My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that in the future more independent bookshops will have to specialise. Trying to be generalist outlets, matching the range and price of the online giants, is a battle they can never hope to win. Subject specialism is one possible approach. Another is to jump on the localism bandwagon. If I had the money and time, I’d like to open up a bookshop showcasing Oxfordshire authors, including the self-published. My own books would be sold there, naturally; I mean, that would be one of the perks, right?

What do you think about physical bookshops? Do you think it’s vital they survive? Do you regularly buy from them? Do you think Amazon are the villains of the piece, the heroes or somewhere in between?

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 7 of 7

Here it is … the final chapter of my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story: Falling Girl – part 7 . (Also includes some background information on castles.)

The previous six instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this book, whether you’ve managed to read all of it or only part. As all writers know, constructive feedback (along with practice, practice, practice) is the best way to improve. So thank you in advance for any feedback you can give.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 6 of 7

I’m serialising my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story on this website. Each part is free to download. These two chapters form the penultimate instalment: Falling Girl – part 6

Next week, part 7, will be the very last chapter.

Previous instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Should self-published authors think more about print?

reading-a-book

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve embraced e-books as both reader and author, and it’s obvious that for the self-published writer the medium has compelling advantages. It has lowered or removed production and distribution costs. It’s enhanced the ability to sell online and so bypass both bookshops and the traditional gatekeepers of publishing. For these reasons it’s been a major factor in the explosion in the popularity of self-publishing.

Therefore the temptation, for many, is to ignore print completely. I don’t have any figures to back it up, but it’s very probable that a substantial proportion of self-published titles – perhaps even the majority – are available only as e-books, and often only in Kindle format.

But are we missing a trick by ignoring the humble printed book? It’s not just that I like them – though I do. In fact I still read them, tending to alternate between physical books and my Kindle. E-books are all very well, and their advantages are obvious, but sometimes you just can’t beat the look, feel and even smell of the printed page. (You just can’t sniff a Kindle. Or more accurately, you can, but (1) it doesn’t really smell of anything, and (2) it looks even weirder than sniffing a book.) And it’s just nice to have one part of my leisure time that doesn’t involve staring at a screen. Plus, the batteries never run out and it isn’t the end of the world if you drop in the bath. And probably no-one will steal it.

To be honest, that’s the main reason why I put both of my novels into Createspace, to make them available in paperback as well as Kindle editions: so that I could see my own work in print. (It certainly wasn’t the economics – more of that below.) Seeing my name (well, my writing name) printed on a spine on my bookshelf wasn’t my only motivation for starting to write, but I don’t think I’m alone when I admit it was a pretty big one.

And the point is, paper books aren’t going away any time soon. The ‘print is dead’ mantra always struck me as over-simplistic at best, tinged by a smug techno-arrogance (look at those Luddites clinging to their dead trees!), and mixed also I think with a kind of wishful thinking, the hope that one simple world (all is print) would be quickly and smoothly supplanted by another (all is e). The truth, as so often, has turned out rather more complicated.

It’s now widely known that e-book sales are levelling off. To some degree that was predictable – explosive, exponential growth cannot go on forever in anything. It doesn’t mean that e-books won’t dominate the future of reading – it’s hard to believe they won’t. And they will continue to grow and develop in ways that are hard or impossible to predict right now.

But print has proved a remarkably stubborn old goat. Take this article, which includes the startling statistic that among 1,400 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK, approximately 62% said they preferred print books over e-books. Yes I know – all statistics need to be taken with a bucket of salt – but it does seem that it’s not just oldies who are hanging on to their paper products; even the younger generation can see the point of print. It’s a pragmatic decision – which format is best for my needs? And those needs will vary depending on the situation. I’ll happily read an e-book, but I’d rather take an old-fashioned paperback onto the beach – the sand won’t bugger it up and no-one will sneak up and nick it when I doze off for five minutes.

But another statistic quoted in this article also caught my eye: that 60% of e-books downloaded in the US are never read. The very cheapness, the sheer ubiquity of the e-book may have become one of its biggest weaknesses. So easy and cheap – often free – vast numbers are crammed onto the world’s e-readers, far more than their owners could every realistically read in their lifetimes, doomed to gather digital dust. If you’re giving away your books for free to garner attention and the odd review, that’s sobering news. Not all paper books are read either, but they’re harder to ignore for ever when they sit looking accusingly at you from your bookshelf; and if you’ve paid more for it, the perceived value is higher.

Also, we forget the fact that not everyone has an e-reader. More people have tablets, but those all-singing, all-dancing devices aren’t necessarily the best for reading. It’s hard to concentrate on a book when the device keeps pinging every five minutes because you’ve got e-mail, and there’s the ever-present temptation of a quick game of Temple Raider.

So far, I’ve sold about as many paperbacks of my books as I’ve sold Kindle editions. Now I’m pretty sure that’s not everyone’s experience, and it’s also true I’ve sold very few of either, but still. I know that some people wouldn’t have bought my books at all if they weren’t available in paperback, even if they do cost more.

Cost. That brings me neatly onto one of the main drawbacks of Createspace and other ‘Print on Demand’ book programs. I know something about print technology, and it’s an unavoidable fact of POD that the cost per copy will always be that much higher. The very ability to produce single copies cost-effectively precludes any economies of scale. That’s why you can’t price your Createspace paperback as low as you’d like, and why you’ll never match the price points of the mega-sellers from James Patterson and J.K. Rowling. Their books are printed in thousands and tens of thousands at a time, on monster printing presses a world away from the glorified photocopiers that serve the POD market.

I’d love to be able to price my paperbacks lower than they are, but until recently I’ve had to put out both BASIC Boy and Falling Girl at US$5.99 / £4.99, much more than the Kindle editions, and that’s still making very little royalty per copy. The only way I could possibly price much lower would be to commission a high speculative print run, outside of POD, which would mean significant up-front costs running into thousands of pounds – and a house crammed with boxes of books. And how would I sell them? I think we all know that getting self-published books into the average bookshop is mission impossible.

Perhaps there are other channels though. I’ve toyed with the idea of a market stall, or perhaps a collaboration with other local self-published writers. But I haven’t yet been brave (or stupid?) enough to take that kind of risk. I have however donated copies of both books to my daughter’s high school library (much to her embarrassment). I figure that any exposure is a good thing, even if I make no money from it.

One thing I have done recently is to reformat the paperback edition of BASIC Boy. By reducing the text point size and margins and removing the table of contents (not really necessary in the paperback) I’ve managed to knock almost 20% off the page count, without compromising readability too much I hope, and that has enabled me to reduce the price to US$4.99 / £3.99. I plan to do the same with Falling Girl next. I’m not kidding myself that this will kick-start mega sales, but I just like the idea that people can buy my paperbacks for a slightly more reasonable price. And if I do want to buy any more books to sell on or give away – perhaps to more local libraries – then it’s become more affordable to do so.

At the same time I refreshed the covers, having noticed that the bright on-screen e-book colours became darker and murkier in the paperback, so I made the paperback edition colours lighter. The new cover designs are below (feedback very welcome!).

BB cover kdp March 14      FG cover 24mar14

I’d be interested to hear of other people’s experience of selling their print books. How have sales compared to the e-book versions, and how and where have you sold them? I don’t have the answers; I just believe that there’s still a place for both the print book and the e-book, and the print may be able to offer additional opportunities that would be unwise to ignore.

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 5 of 7

Over the next few weeks I’m serialising my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story on this website. Each part is free to download. Here’s the next two chapters: Falling Girl – part 5

Previous instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Are men idiots?

A rhetorical question, you might say! Today I came across this article in a UK newspaper, and it got me thinking. (I usually blog about books or writing, but there is a connection – bear with me.)

The article contends that in modern, Western popular culture – in this case, television specifically – it has become commonplace for men to be portrayed in less than flattering ways. Certainly this can be seen in some advertising, where the male of the species are often seen to be shallow, simple and/or sex-obsessed, and frequently outwitted with ease by sassy, self-confident women.

Perhaps it’s the case that, quite rightly shy of overt sexism or racism, and possibly over-compensating for the overt gender stereotyping of the past (see below), mainstream advertisers have started to regard men as the easiest target.

Roles

For myself, as a man, I can see the article’s point, and I do think that some advertising is guilty of this. TV programmes, probably less so. (I don’t, for example, especially agree with his view about Outnumbered – yes, the dad in that show can be a bit wet, but so can the mum.) But equally I’m well aware that I live in a society where men still have it pretty good. Most top politicians, business executives and high earners still tend to be male – that’s changing, but slower than it ought to be. And it’s important to be able to laugh at ourselves – and let’s face it, most stereotypes have at least some basis in reality …

Anyway – how does this link to writing? Just the thought that it’s important to avoid lazy stereotypes when creating characters – because it’s very easy to do. Specifically, as we strive to draw strong, compelling and authentic female characters in our stories, we should beware of the temptation to short-change the males. Especially the older ones. This may be especially a risk in teen / YA fiction, in which the younger characters are centre-stage and the older ones tend to be in the background and therefore in danger of being merely one-dimensional and under-developed – and if they’re also men, the risk may be higher.

One adult male character, Rob Black, appears in both my novels Falling Girl and BASIC Boy (though in the latter he’s a teenager half the time too). He’s middle-aged and male – the kind of character who, in YA fiction, might not come across in a very positive way. I’ve tried to avoid that, and I hope I’ve succeeded. He’s certainly flawed, and many of this shortcomings are brought into sharp focus as the stories unfold, but so is a deep courage and determination. In the end it’s the kids who really save the day of course, but he helps and he’s clearly there to support them. He’s certainly not an idiot – not entirely anyway. Or at least I hope not.