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