Saturday, December 08, 2007

The hidden cost of a Christmas best seller

One of the biggest problems I have found with print on demand is the fact that because the ISBN is registered to the publisher or POD provider, in my case Authors OnLine Ltd, rather than you as the author, as in traditional lithographic short print run self publishing, it means that you have no way of accessing your own sales data. As it stands, the best I can hope for is to try and keep tabs on how many books Gardners are ordering, and then go to their home page, type in my ISBN and see how many copies they have in stock. This is far from reliable though, since for one thing the system is not necessarily updated on a regular basis, and for another, it does not tell me where the books are going when they are shipped out. Many book shops have told me that they will order copies but without any means of accessing this data, I have absolutely no idea whether they have done this or not.

It has become apparent though from the number of shops that have told me they will be ordering, the total numbers that friendly book sellers have told me have sold through the tills, and the total numbers in circulation across Waterstones stores that the figures do not add up. There out to be more books in circulation than there are. The reason for this can only be one of two possibilities - either some stores who told me they would order have not done so, or for some reason they are failing to replenish their stock when the books do sell. It seems to me that it is far more likely to be the latter, and I am not sure what I can do about this.

I know for a fact that there are at least 2 local branches of Waterstones where this has happened - and the reason I know this is because I have been to the shops in question and spoken to book sellers, who have told me that they have indeed sold copies of my book, and yet further copies have not been ordered. I am at a loss as to know why this is, since I was given to understand that once stocks had been exhausted in a particular branch, another copy was automatically re-ordered. I suspect that like the system in Borders, what actually happens is that a list of books that have been sold and gone out of stock is generated on a weekly basis, and the department or store manager makes a decision as to whether they should re-order. For some reason, best known to them they have decided not to in my case.

I am at a loss to as why this should be when copies have in the past been sold in these stores, and sold quickly as well, in both cases within a matter of weeks of the books going on sale, but it does concern me, since it makes me wonder how prevalent this practise is, and how many other stores are doing this. It pees me off big time, since they are not giving the book or myself as the author a fair chance, and at this time of year especially I need to maximise every single opportunity I can get. It is not as if they do not make money on this book, in fact they make very good money at £6 profit per book as opposed to my paltry £1.39. This is the other thing that pees me off, how certain stores like to bang on about how they do not order from wholesalers since they do not get a high enough margin, and they consider it too much of a risk. Exactly who is taking the risk here - me or them, and more to the point, who spent five years of their lives writing this thing for such little return!

The story from The Times (entitled The hidden cost of a Christmas best seller) about how Waterstones charge obscene amounts of money for front line promotion and display is once again doing the rounds, and it does make one feel, as a self published author very despondent indeed, as if one is battling against almost insurmountable odds. I know I am doing much better than almost every POD author that I know (and I know quite a lot of them now), but that is not the point - this book could and should be doing so much better, if only it were given a fair chance, and by failing to re-order it when it has sold, these 2 stores, and possibly others too are just not doing this.

It is waste of time trying to get through to them now on the phone to query this so close to Christmas, but I did send an email out to all stores who ordered in August and September as a precaution and urging them to re-order if they have not already done so. Whether it will or has done any good I will only be able to tell when I ask the next friendly book seller in the New Year. In the meantime though, I will add all those stores who are stocking me to the list for not only Christmas e-cards, but also a phone call in the New Year to check exactly what has been sold and ordered! Thank goodness for those unlimited calls phone packages that's all I can say !

Friday, December 07, 2007

131 book shops, 401 orders and counting ....

Six months ago when I published the second edition of my book and began to promote it in earnest, I would never have dreamt in a million years that I would be in the position that I am in now, and sometimes I still have to pinch myself to make sure that it really is happening and I will not wake up tomorrow (Bobby Ewing style) and realise it was all just a dream ...

Following the announcement in August that Gardners, the largest wholesaler in the UK had taken my book on as a stocked title (only a handful of other POD titles in the whole country are in this esteemed position), I have been ringing book stores up and down the country at the rate of around 10 - 12 a day. This has been an exhausting and time consuming task, that at various times has left me both exacerbated and elated. It is now though I am proud to say, stocked in 122 out of the 296 Waterstones stores in the UK (not including those in Ireland or university shops).

The last month has been absolutely manic - with the number of stockists doubling in the run up to Christmas. Gardners have I just heard, placed their 3rd order for another 50 copies in the space of one month, and the back orders are piling up, as they no doubt are for other books as well. As Christmas though began to approach I set myself a target to achieve orders for 400 books by Christmas and today I have exceeded it - thanks to Norwich Castle Street who have agreed today to order 2 copies.

The figure is probably in actual fact higher than 400 copies (the order from Norwich actually brought the total to 401) since this does not take into account repeat orders or orders from branches I have not been able to get through to on the phone (I emailed them all as well). I suspect the fact that Gardners have ordered another 50 copies means that there have been a fair number of repeat orders, so the total may be 430 or even higher than that. Whatever it is though I am delighted and looking forward to a big fat royalty cheque in 4 months time.

Following on from yesterday though when I wrote of my concerns regarding the length of time that the book has now been out of stock, I rang Waterstones (the old Ottakars branch in Norfolk Street) in Kings Lynn to see if the copy they ordered had arrived, and it seems that at long last it has. The fact that Gardners are still showing as being out of stock means that as I suspected, that the first batch of 50 books has indeed arrived, but the high volume of back orders meant that in shipping them out, they promptly went out of stock again. The 50 copies that were ordered just over a week ago should then arrive very soon, which will hopefully cover the rest of the backlog, and then the next 50 copies should arrive sometime between Christmas and New Year - Lightning Source, Richard tells me, are currently taking around 10 days to fulfil orders.

This is then a manic time for all, so much so, that it has become apparent that I will be wasting my time now in continuing to ring the stores. Most of them are not answering their phones anyway, so in fairness to them and having reached my objective, I am giving myself three weeks of well earned rest from all this ringing round. I shall come back to it then in the New Year with renewed vigour and ready to take on not just Borders, but the whole world. So, 131 book shops (122 Waterstones), 401 books and counting ....

Thursday, December 06, 2007

It's raining book orders....

It has been chucking down with rain for most of the day (and half of last night as well), so the area around our village is starting to resemble a lake. The gullies which run along the top end of the main road into the village are in full flow. By the time I walked up the hill to work this morning from where I had parked the car, despite the fact that I was wearing a thick waterproof, my uniform was soaked. Thankfully it dried out within 10 minutes or so, but it made the men's eyes pop out and put a temporary smile on their faces at least.

Despite the rain though it turned out to be a reasonably busy day. I must remember to ring the bank in a minute and see how much my first pay check is for.

The good news though is that we have another new chap starting on Monday. This means that the staffing problems have been alleviated. My boss is taking him on for the moment as a Christmas temp, but as soon as becomes official that his predecessor is not coming back (company procedures say that you have to wait 3 weeks from the first date of absence - the first week was up yesterday), this new chap will become a permanent member of staff. I met him briefly when he came in this afternoon to confirm the details. He seems nice enough and I am sure will do a good job. It will be strange not to be the new person anymore, but I am sure I will get used to it!

Going back to the book business though, I have decided that tomorrow will definitely be the last day that I make calls to book stores, since Christmas is fast approaching and it is becoming just too busy for most of them to talk to me. Some of them I have called every day this week, and been told it is the managers day off, so I get the feeling that they just don't want to talk to me anyway. This is fine, as it just means that I shall bookmark them for a call in the New Year instead. I don't give up that easily !

Still the week has not been a total loss though, since I have managed to receive orders from several more Waterstones in Watford, Maidstone, both branches in Colchester (they share a Manager), Winchester Brooks, Windsor, Torquay and Salisbury High Street, and today I got Telford and Wrexham in North Wales. This is good since I need more in Wales, and the MBS Manager there sounded particularly keen. She ordered 5 copies where most stores order just 1 or 2 to begin with. She even indicated that she might read the book herself, which is always good.
I also had an interesting conversation with the Manager of Swindon, who although she is not willing to order copies this side of Christmas, has asked me to ring her in the New Year to arrange a book signing and/or talk. Apparently she knows people at the local radio station well and they often come down to interview authors live in the store when they host such events. Richard then will be pleased, as will Paul. Might give him a ring later on, and Richard tomorrow as well again, if Gardners are still out of stock.

This is really beginning to irritate me now - they have been out of stock for almost 2 weeks again, and this is the worst time of year for it to happen. I have book stores who ordered books on November 22nd who are still waiting for them, and if they don't hurry up then I risk losing valuable Christmas sales, increasing the chance that the books will be returned. This is the last thing that Richard and I want or need right now. I am not sure what the delay is - 50 copies were ordered nearly 2 weeks ago and another 50 just last week, but the orders are backing up, to the tune of 66 to 70 copies I estimate which must now be on back order, so as soon as the first lot do arrive they will be sent straight out again, meaning that they are immediately once again out of stock. I can see why some people do all the fulfilment themselves! Then again, if I had done that several things would have happened - firstly the house would be overrun by books, padded envelopes etc, secondly my shoes (not to mention arm muscle) would be very worn from constant trips to the Post Office and thirdly of course most shops only order through a wholesaler/distributor anyway. Fingers crossed that they arrive tomorrow then ....

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Trouble in paradise?

Continuing on from the religious theme, the Bookseller website today carries another tale of woe regarding the troubled Christian book selling chain formerly known and owned by SPCK (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge). The chain was taken over by the SSG (St Stephen the Great), a more orthodox Christian charity last year, headed by Mark and Phil Brewer, and the stores subsequently renamed to reflect this change. The changes were apparently made in order to reflect what they term as 'traditional Christian values'. Exactly what this means is not made clear.

Whatever it does mean though, it is clear that the company's staff are far from happy, as an insider claimed in November of this year that since the Brewers had taken control of the chain, more than 100 staff had left. Carole Burrows who managed the Durham shop left at the end of October, and earlier that month 11 staff simultaneously walked from the Exeter store. The latest casualties are Newcastle and Truro, where both Managers are due to leave on Christmas Eve. 4 book sellers have simultaneously announced their own departure from the Truro store on the same date.

Mark Brewer acknowledges that the company has staffing problems, but says this is no more than what one would expect. He states in a typical head in sand stance, that it is important that the company's employees are supportive of the charity's aims and devoted to supporting its work, since this is not just a job, but a mission. He went on to say that the shops are like the talents the Lord spoke of in the parables, and to earn His favour as 'good and faithful servants' we must invest these talents for His glory.

It is clear that these two men just do not get it, as the fact that so many staff have resigned and that church attendance as a whole has fallen in the last decade signifies to me that these so called traditional Christian values just do not work, and are not seen as important in the lives of a) those who work for the company and b) those in mainstream society.

The former Manager of the Leicester branch had the right idea when he bought the store from the Brewers earlier this year, renaming it as Christian Resources - this is one that I shall certainly be contacting myself in the New Year to see if they may be interested in stocking my own book.

Leicester is after all a interfaith and multi cultural city (more Muslim in fact than anything else these days) and the range of books stocked needs to reflect that. Rather than stocking exclusively Christian items and books, the new store then stocks books from a variety of different faiths and belief systems, including Anglican, Methodist and Afro-Caribbean churches. It also sells books direct to churches on a sale or return basis so that they can sell them in church events and stalls etc, which certainly makes sense to me. It is nice to know that someone within the 'faith' movement has some (common sense that is).

On a personal note, I have not had the same amount of time to write this blog since I started back at work. It is only a part time job, but it has still meant a lot of adjustment, since it is more than two years since I had a permanent job like this. The money and the stimulation were desperately needed, but even so, it has not been easy rushing straight home and changing from corporate saleswoman back to book saleswoman in the five minutes it takes me to dump my bag and change out of my uniform.

The fact that the other new person, a full timer who started a week after I did, did one days work and has not turned up since has not helped matters, especially since the man that he was supposed to replace is due to leave at the end of the week. Fortunately he has agreed to stay on for a few more weeks on a part time basis to cover days off, or otherwise they would be really stuck, as all they would have had would be me, the Manager and his new deputy, together with 2 weekend staff. As it is I have to work all day on Monday so that the Manager can have a day off and his deputy will not be on his own in the shop all day.

They have tried everything they can do to get hold of this chap who has left, but to no avail. All they need is for him to simply tell them that he is not coming back, but he won't do that, and under company rules they have to give him three weeks absence before they can even begin advertising for someone else. I think this absolutely stinks myself, but that's the way it is.

I suppose having to possibly work full time over the next week or so will not affect my book promotion plans too much though, since it is getting to the point now where the shops are becoming too busy to call anyway, so I have to look at this philosophically and just think of the extra money, which I must admit will come in handy. I have managed to get the book now into well over 100 Waterstones and although I will continue to call until the end of this week, anyone that I cannot now get through to will have to bookmarked for a call in the New Year after Christmas. Until then, I shall just hold my breath and pray that the books are not all sent back in the New Year - one would hope that they would give them at least 6 months to try and sell, but in the book selling business shelf space is money and anything can happen.