Matt Hilton (author of the Joe Hunter series; his latest, NO GOING BACK, has just been released in paperback) made a recent Facebook post about authors getting shelf space for their books, and what a problem it was unless they were already a famous 'name'.
This is an interesting subject, and one I was quite ignorant of before getting a publishing deal myself. I had always naively assumed that if a mainstream publisher took a book on, it was pretty much guaranteed space on the shelves of all major book shops. It turns out that this is far from the case however, and getting a new book from a début author into the stores is rather more problematic than I had hoped.
There are many outlets that sell books - independent book stores, chains such as Waterstones, other retail giants such as WH Smith, supermarket chains, as well as many on-line retailers such as Amazon. If we forget the on-line retailers for a moment, and look at the traditional bookshop, what do we see when we walk through the door? Displays aimed to show off the latest from the more high-profile authors, which have many copies available. And if your book isn't there, it's already an uphill battle.
And then - because of the prominent space, marketing, and amount of copies available for the 'major' books - they will naturally sell more copies, which will push them onto the 'best-seller' lists, which then garners them more publicity and additional shelf space.
From the point of view of the retailer, this makes sound business sense, of course. Authors that are already popular and have a good 'track record' make good bets for investment - the business will probably continue to make money from their subsequent books, and will therefore push those over less well established authors.
So where does that leave the début author? It is not so easy as the publishing house announcing that they have a new book coming out, and the retailers all demanding the right to stock it. The début author is an unknown quantity after all - maybe the book will make money, maybe it won't. It is not a sure bet, and retailers are therefore understandably cautious.
The publisher therefore needs to try and convince retailers to take the book. And sometimes they are successful, and sometimes they aren't. And if they are, future success may depend on how many copies a retailer takes, and where in the bookshop the title is placed. For example, even if a large chain such as Waterstones decides to stock a book nationwide, but only to place one copy on the alphabetical shelves of 'general fiction', huge sales are unlikely to result. After all (except for the author's family and friends), who is to know it's there at all? But at least it is there, and there is always the chance of word of mouth generating more sales.
If the publisher puts a lot of money into publicity and marketing (not so common in today's cash-strapped times) things are generally better - good customer visibility will generate and improve sales, which will then hopefully prompt further improvement. But if this is not forthcoming, the outlook can be dark.
This reinforces itself when it comes time for the publisher to market and sell the author's second book. Because retailers go on 'track record', they will look at the author's début sales figures. But if that book wasn't displayed visibly (or sometimes just not stocked at all), then sales won't be anything but poor, and the retailer will not take the second book either.
A Catch-22, it would seem!
But there is always hope, and début authors should never despair. It is important that we believe strongly in the quality of what we have written, and hope that this alone will cause people to sit up and take notice, marketing or no marketing. As I said earlier, word of mouth is a powerful thing!
And while the book business is a business like any other, with the bottom line being all-important, it is also true that retailers are always on the lookout for good début novels to stock - because the 'next big thing' might just come from anywhere!