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Bookshops and Amazon

Getting published is a great moment, without doubt. But that is just the start – particularly if you are published by a small publisher with limited budget for marketing.

The first problem is getting reviews. Without the heft of a big publisher behind you, or a track record, you simply don’t get any reviews - no matter how good the book.  The more you read reviews (and I read the Literary Review end to end and those in most magazines and Sunday papers) the more you realise that it is a closed circle of mutual back-scratching. And before you think I’m irredeemably chippy, I’m perfectly happy with that: today’s best selling authors were where I am thirty years ago - and I appreciate that spurs have to be earned. It’s a simple fact of life - which is frustrating but which you have to get used to.

What has surprised me more is just how difficult it is to get your book stocked by Waterstones in particular. The buying there is done centrally and the more you visit  individual shops, the more you realise that the old ethos of Ottakars (which was taken over by Waterstones about five years ago) - giving individual managers the freedom to stock what they want - went a long time ago. The same tables of "3 for 2" and the same promotions on the counter are in every shop. In almost every instance where I have been to see the individual manager and asked he or she to stock Silent Night, they have agreed. My experience is that these managers are genuine book lovers working in a sausage machine. Even when Silent Night has had some recognition – it was long-listed for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel – there was still no change of heart from the politburo at the centre of Waterstones.

In the early days, when someone asked me where it to get Silent Night, I would tell them to go to their local bookshop; this would normally be a Waterstones. Nine times out of ten it would be out of stock and they would offer to order it in. This would mean that you would have to come back to the shop in two weeks time and pay full price. The alternative is to go onto Amazon at home, read seven (at last count) reviews and buy with one click to be delivered to you at home within two days and cheaper. Guess what I do now?

I love my local independent bookshop (Bailey Hill Bookshop in Castle Cary, Somerset) who have enjoyed Silent Night and sold it hard – hundreds in fact. But Waterstones? They have an almost monopoly position that deserves to be squeezed between Amazon and the smaller independents who give people who like books choice, recommendations and service. When Waterstones finally goes under, hopefully these independents will be able to flower again out of its suffocating shadow. Amazon isn’t going away and ebooks are not good for bookshops, but there is still room for a good dead-tree retailer – I hope. I just hope it's not called Waterstones.
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