It’s a curious business, this writing game. In two days’ time, my Talking To The Dead is launched. And it’s at this point that things gets scary. Ordinary readers think the book game works like this. Publishers publish something. It hangs around on the shelves, gets reviews, maybe sells or maybe doesn’t depending on quality, then either become a big success or doesn’t. Sure, there might be a little luck involved here and there, but in essence good books sell, bad books don’t – and all books have a shelf life long enough for readers to make up their own minds.
And that’s not how it works at all. In reality, publishers purchase space in bookstores. In times past, WH Smith used to charge £25,000 to be ‘book of the week’. Publishers made extra sales from the promotion, but they didn’t make enough from those sales to amortise the £25K – they only participated in the promotion to buy a space in the WHS bestseller charts, so that the book would go on selling heavily in the weeks that followed.
And then, if a book is to sell, it needs to sell fast. Publishers won’t keep buying expensive shelf space if the book doesn’t shift copies pretty rapidly, and retailers will want to shift to more lucrative alternatives anyway. Most newspapers will not have reviewed the book and in any case those reviews are far less influential than they were and most books never meaningfully get reviewed at all. If a book doesn’t sell well in the opening 2-3 weeks, it risks being sidelined to the shelves round the side of a shop, where sales are as much as 50 times slower than sales from front-of-store tables.
So what makes a book sell or not sell in those crucial opening 2-3 weeks? Well, the cover matters massively. And any publicity is helpful. That’s good if you’re a celeb, because it’s easy to get on the chat shows, but “Professional author Harry Bingham writes another book” isn’t much of a story, so PR is pretty skinny for most authors, most of the time. Talking to the Dead will, for example, launch without reviews, without puffs, without consumer advertising and without any publicity. That’s not rare. It’s typical.
Oh, and just to add scariness, although TTTD launches in hardback, it is basically a paperbacky sort of book. It’s good quality genre fiction, I trust, but it’s still commercial fiction. Yet a failure in hardback will lead to retailers cutting back hard on any paperback orders. So the hardback still matters a crazily huge amount to the overall success of the book.
But I’m not complaining. I understand how this industry operates. (Indeed, I’ve written a book about it). And for all its faults, there’s no profession I’d sooner have. What’s more, the randomness of the industry does have one major – if tantalising – lure. Each time I publish a big new book, there’s this weird outside chance – a 1% chance? a 0.1% one? a 5% one? – that the book hits some commercial nerve and becomes huge. At that point, everything changes. Future books will get reviewed, retailers will order them, the promotional in-store positioning will be guaranteed, publicity will be easier, and so on.
Some authors even make money from writing. Indeed, I’ve been led to understand that a small fraction of writers actually have a reliable job. That is: they know that their next title will be published and that they will get an advance which actually guarantees a year of non-starvation. Although my advances have always been good, there’s never been a time when I’ve known with certainty that I’ll sell whatever I write.
So. In two days time, the merry-go-round starts again. Will I be spun off to fame and fortune? To a long slow oh of disappointment? Or to something creditable but intermediate? I don’t know. The next four weeks will tell. I’ve got my paws crossed.
If you want to know more about the book, you’ll find it here.
If you want to buy the book, you can do so here.
If you want to win a free ticket to the Festival, you can get details here.