Over the end of September and the beginning of October, at the behest and expense of my publisher, I traveled to several regional book shows hosted by associations of independent booksellers. For all the hype about the demise of such bookstores, there are still a considerable number of such stores in business and ordering books. It’s also clear that the majority of such bookstore owners and employees do love books.
My tasks at such shows are relatively straight-forward — to sign books for booksellers in the hopes that they’ll order more, to participate in whatever activities the show and my publisher have lined up for me, and to stand somewhere in the publisher’s booth that is out of the way of the sales reps and yet located where I can talk about my books to booksellers. Fortunately, Macmillan had large enough booths to make this possible, and very professional sales reps who were very accommodating.
I’ve done this, on and off, for years, but it’s an experience that every author should have for a number of reasons. First, when you walk past the rows and rows of booths from publishers large and small, it brings home just how many publishers there are and how many books are published every year. What’s more amazing is what isn’t there. Tor is a division of Macmillan, and Tor publishes over two hundred F&SF titles a year, over half of which are new hardcover titles. At each show, the Macmillan booth displayed, at my best estimation, no more than 200 titles — and those were titles from close to 20 Macmillan subsidiaries, of which Tor is only one. There were display copies of less than ten Tor/Forge titles and advance reading copies. Ten… out of two hundred, and the same general ratio doubtless applied to the titles of other Macmillan subsidiaries. And, remember, the majority of books displayed represented less than half a year’s titles. Now… I can’t say what ratios applied to other publishers, but I’d wager that none of the larger publishing firms were displaying all their current titles or even a significant fraction of those titles.
This didn’t mean that the sales reps weren’t selling the other titles. They were. They often went over long, long title lists with bookstore buyers, but there are thousands of titles, and even the best rep can only mention so many.
Why do I bring up this perhaps obvious point? Because too many authors seldom understand why their publishers don’t “do more” for them and their books. Given the low margin in bookselling, publishers have to focus the majority of their efforts and resources on the blockbuster books, and then on a comparatively small number of best-sellers. The rest are sold through the publisher’s seasonal catalogue and through booksellers who ask for certain titles because their customers want them — call it the end product of word-of-mouth and past sales figures.
For all the logic behind the process, for an author, or at least for me, such shows are always a very sobering reminder that even those of us authors who have enjoyed some moderate success are still very small fish in a very large ocean of books.
NOTE: Because I’m headed to World Fantasy Convention, the next post won’t be until November 3rd..