What rough beast?

Strange times, hard times. My book Talking to the Dead launches today. It’s the best book I’ve ever written. It’ll appeal to you if you enjoy crime – and if you don’t normally read crime, well, this is much more than a crime novel. It’s a book that’s as much about the heroine, Fiona Griffiths, as it is about solving a murder. I hope you buy it, if you haven’t done so already.

But you’ll have to buy the book on Amazon, download it to your e-reader, or find it at a sturdy independent bookstore. (One like Goldsboro Books, for example.) Because if you want to know how many copies Waterstones has ordered, the answer is zero. None. Not a single copy. That’s the biggest high street book chain in Britain, we’re talking about. WH Smith has bought none either.

That’s not because Waterstones has a personal vendetta with me. They now buy ‘brand names only and even then it’s start small and reorder if necessary.’ (The quote comes from a publisher, who knows these things from the inside.)

It’s hard to know quite what to say. I suppose at least three thoughts spring to mind.

1) What are hardbacks for? Lots of people don’t like or buy hardbacks. I don’t. Perhaps Waterstones is, to some extent, aligning itself with customer preference.

2) A chain that can’t sell new product is not long for this world. On the other hand, what is a bookstore there for, if not to introduce wonderful new books by wonderful new writers? If it can’t make money doing that, will it really be able to subsist financially on what remains? Given that there is already a steady erosion of revenues to the ebook (*), one would guess the answer to be no. Not in the long term, anyway.

3)And does it even matter? I, and all authors, have always loved bookshops because they are they to promote and sustain our work, visibly, proudly and supportively. Waterstones and others were once willing to take risks, to offer the new, to offer the quirky alongside the mainstream. But if chains retreat into a shell of easy sales – a mashup of Jamie Oliver, Victoria Hislop, Suzanne Collins, Ian Rankin – does it really matter whether they survive or not? Do they do anything distinctive for the literary culture of Britain that is not done as well or better by Amazon and indie bookstores? There is not, at present, a convincing positive answer to that question.

That’s not to say that physical books or physical bookshops will die. I mentioned Goldsboro Books, the bookshop run by literary agent David Headley, because I went in there this week to sign 150 copies. David has already managed to pre-sell 120 of those and will be shipping them this week. So people want books. And good booksellers can sell ’em.

Meantime, whether my book sells or not, depends partly on doughty indies and partly on Amazon. Cripes! Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham is available here but not here.


* – Yes, I know Waterstones now has an in-store tie-up with Amazon, but sales are eroding anyway.

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  • I thought James Daunt was one of the good guys?

    Give it a few more years, and the only bricks and mortar bookshops will be small and niche.

    Another thought: if Waterstones will now only stock famous and popular authors, then a bit more of legacy publishing’s USP – its ability to put your book on bookshop shelves – has gone missing.

  • Hary, I’m not sure who told you this but my local Waterstones certainly has it (I went down to check after reading this post)!

  • Harry

    OK – that’s odd, cos it was my publisher who told me. Perhaps some individual stores have bought via wholesalers. Certainly Waterstones hasn’t bought it centrally.

  • Harry

    Lexi – that’s true. Historically, you HAD to have a publisher to crack the retail market. That’s less true today than 2 years ago, and will be still less true in 2 years time.

  • MJ

    Waterstone’s buying is a mess at the moment. Initially they ask that everything is bought centrally which is hopeless.
    They have regional buyers for groups of 3 or 4 shops who, depending on which buyer you talk to, are very open to trying things out. But better still if you can get to talk to booksellers in the branches then they are definitely very willing to give things a go and very happy to defy a decision made centrally. However, every single book the branch-located bookseller wants to get in to their shop has to be given the ok by the regional buyer.
    There are various caveats and idiosyncracies but this is a rough version of what goes on.
    The great indie man has made the chain more centralised than it has ever been which is really unfortunate.

  • And there was I, in my naivety, about to trot down to my local Waterstones to see if they’d be interested in promoting a POD book by a local author. If you’re not being stocked, Harry, what hope for the rest of us……..

  • Harry

    It’s worth a try actually. Local shops are usually helpful to local authors – the issue is more that you’d expect a national chain to be confident in buying on a national scale from major publishers.

  • Hi Harry,
    I echo your concerns and do fear that the bookstores are signing their own death warrants – but I hoping that they will wake up and realise they need to think more creatively to survive.
    On the plus side, my copy arrived today – and I am really looking forward to reading it!
    All best of luck with it.

  • Harry

    Ha – well, hope you really enjoy it!. It’s a strange ‘un, but I think it’s a good ‘un.

  • Peter Strachan

    Despite trying to support “real” bookshops, I confess to having bought your book, Harry, on Amazon. However, around the same time I also ordered another hardback novel (Jess Richards’ wonderful Snake Ropes) from Waterstone’s. Not only did they get it for me within 24 hours but I noticed they’d also put a copy on the shelves. If this is common practice, then perhaps the moral is to order from them to widen the range of books in the shops as well.

  • Peter Strachan

    Just back from a trip to York. Can confirm that there’s copy of Talking to the Dead on the shelves in Waterstone’s there.

  • Funny you mentioned Waterstones. My sister ordered Demon (by me) and they obtained it for her even
    though they did not stock it. Another book store said they would sell the book but didn’t want to get it from
    Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Xlibris or any of the others that have it because they would make no profit.
    How do book shops make profit then? And usually how much do they want to make? I’m a newbie so sorry
    about the questions that may seem obvious but I’m trying to understand what to do! Thank you anybody.

  • Harry

    Many retailers (esp indies) get their books from the wholesalers, Bertrams & Gardners. They usually demand a 55% discount on list price (from the author/publisher). Bookshops vary in the turn they need, but 50% is not uncommon. Truth is that if you’re self-publishing, distribution and marketing is by far your greatest challenge. That’s why – still – most writers still want to go the traditional route via agents & publishers.

    Obviously if you publish electronically (via the Kindle store, for example), it’s easy to make your books broadly available, but even then getting them seen is a real challenge.