Rob and I have just returned from the PBFA York Book Fair. This January fair is the smaller of the two fairs that the PBFA run in York. This one had a mere 120 or so dealers offering around 400,000 books. We've been to this fair before but only as customers, this time we were exhibiting our own stock at stall number 61.
It was hard work, as we knew it would be, but we benefited from lots of advice before hand from the lovely Heather and Jeff at Peakirk Books as well as from the fair organisers. It was lovely to meet lots of new customers as well as the other dealers. It was also lovely to meet one other book blogger, the writer Martin Edwards from Do You Write Under Your own Name.
Speaking to Martin, it occurred to me that though I often read posts by bloggers about a wonderful bookshop they've been to, or a great library, or even what they've bought from a charity shop, I rarely see posts about book fairs. In fact Martin is one the few people I've seen write about bookfairs (and again today, you can read his review of York). In an age when the economics of selling mean that so many sellers, like myself, can only trade from behind a keyboard, a book fair is great opportunity for buyers to chat to dealers and browse the physical books.
Why do bloggers not go to bookfairs then is the burning question? Have you ever been to one, PBFA or otherwise? Did you enjoy it? Do you know how to find out about book fairs? I'd be interested to know!
On that last question at least I can help:
For PBFA Fairs you can browse the PBFA's fairs calendar. There are fairs coming up at Stratford, Poole, Cambridge, Durham and Edgbaston in the next few weeks and many more throughout the year. They're all over the country including Scotland and Ireland.
For other fairs you can try the monster The Book Fair Calendar from the The Book Guide which lists PBFA fairs along side many other major book fairs plus many smaller independent fairs. There are fairs listed for Lewes, Sherborne, Winchester, Preston, Kinver, Tenterden and Long Melford for this month alone.
Just to say, if you're interested in the economy, that my business forms one of the case studies in the Quarterly Survey of Small Business in Britain from The Open University Business School. I'm case study C at the bottom. You can access the full survey and subsrcibe to future editions here.
This coming weekend you have the chance to be in the same building as the largest number of rare/used/antiquarian book sellers in one place in not just the UK but Europe. They are accompanied by lots and lots of books!
The annual York National Book Fair, the largest in Europe, will open on Friday 19 September 2014 at the Knavesmire Suite, York Racecourse in York. If you have not been to this event before, it is a must for book lovers and buyers seeking books, maps and images, indeed all things to do with paper. Not just for collectors, it is very much for readers too, with items for all budgets, though it is a wonderful opportunity to see and browse some really special items.
2014 is the 40th anniversary of the PBFA and this year's fair features the largest ever number of exhibitors. Over 210 leading dealers will gather to offer rare, antiquarian, unusual and hard to obtain items on all conceivable subjects. This year exhibitors are from as far afield as Germany, Hong Kong and Canada as well as all corners of the British Isles. In advance of the fair, you can take a peep at some of the items exhibitors intend to bring by visiting the website www.yorkbookfair.comwhere you can also get a complimentary ticket. Admission on the door is otherwise £2.00 per person.
With over 100,000 books for sale, where else can you look at, touch, enjoy, and even purchase so many rarities under one roof? If you are already a collector then it is a great opportunity to meet new dealers in your area, and again if you have a collector's heart on a student's budget it is great way to meet dealers and discuss their specialisms. The sellers bring just a fraction of their stock but you can pick up leaflets and bookmarks with their website details, where you may find at a later date a regular supply of your favorite authors or areas within your budget.
The Racecourse venue is light and airy with ample parking. For those coming by train, or just wanting access to and from the town, there will be a free shuttle-bus. This operates between York Railway Station and the Racecourse, approximately every 20 minutes. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org
You'd like to see a picture of bookselling Stephen with Taylor Lautner wouldn't you? Here he is! That is proper bookselling wear that is. Stephen's bookshop was used in the Funeral epsiode of Cuckoo recently.
Back to York bookfair: if you attend I'd love to hear what you think of it, or read about what you bought!
Keeping up with news from small, independent family booksellers (new or used books) is a good way to support those businesses.
Newsletters remind you that we exist when you've forgotten which bookseller was so helpful and gave you really good advice though you didn't buy anything, or packed that book for your mum's birthday so well, or made the extra trip to the post when you ordered a book at 4.45pm that you needed the next day for a major deadline, or waded through knee-deep snow to get a inexpensive book that meant a lot to your wife to the post office in time for your wedding anniversary even though there was less than £1 profit in the sale! (I've done all those things!)
Many booksellers have email newsletters - do ask your favourite sellers and sign up!
As lots of you know I have a book newsletter that goes out by email roughly once a month. This is news of new stock that I've bought as well as some wider booknews that may be of interest to my core newsletter readers (who are mainly academics in the arts and humanities). There are also a number of offers the last being a massive 50% off for a day that was exclusive to my newsletters subscribers. I also include offers on newly published books as well as on my secondhand stock.
In addition to my main newsletter there is also a Book of the Month email most months with 20% off an interesting volume.
As the main newsletter focuses mainly on my academic stock I have decided to do occasional newsletters on children's books, twentieth century poetry, and local history. If you've bought a children's book, or a book on Yorkshire or Lancashire from me in the last 12 months then you'll be on the list to receive a copy of the relevant email. If you would like to receive one of these specialist emails then you'll need to sign up for the main newsletter here. If you're already on my mailing list but haven't bought a relevant book in the last 12 months then please drop me an email and let me know if you want to receive the children's, Lancashire, Yorkshire or twentieth century poetry so I can add that to your email account with me.
It goes without saying that your email address is between you and me only and I never, ever share details.
Something very sad is happening today. For those who do not know Jane Badger Books is ceasing trading and Jane writes about the decision here. Jane is one of the most knowledgeable specialist booksellers in the country. She ran her pony book online shop alongside a formidable bibliographical website providing encyclopaedic knowledge of all things pony book including, amongst a wealth of illustrations, profiles of over 1,100 authors. Many of you will be aware that she has recently published a book on the genre Heroines on Horseback. As well as being fascinating for the lay reader, for booksellers, or for anyone enrolled on the growing number of MAs in Children's Literature, it is a much needed resource in an under-explored area.
Jane has been a friendly and supportive colleague in the five or so years I've known her. We're both members of Ibooknet where she has been invaluable, and she was a strong and hardworking chairman during a difficult time. We've commented on each other's blogs and swapped jokes on twitter. We've discussed books, and selling, and customers, and dogs and hamsters, and on one occasion sparkly shoes and the possible addition of welly socks which explains where we both are sartorially! I got Jane onto twitter. She got me onto Facebook. We're not fully losing Jane because she will be keeping the informative side of what she does going, so she is not going away, but the fact she is no longer trading upsets me greatly. I buy my Flambards books from this woman for heaven's sake! The laws of supply and demand are getting it wrong if this kind of bookshop can't work!
What is particularly sad is that Jane ran a specialised shop with great expertise. Another very experienced bookdealer told me many years ago to specialise as it is the only true way to compete with the pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap model, or indeed what Jane calls the model of 'now' that has come about with the internet age. If a specialised dealer like Jane can't drag a reasonable living out of her expertise then, well, I'm frightened. Not just for my own business but for what the trade as a whole will look like in ten, or twenty years' time.
I know there has been a bit in the blogosphere this week about the impact of a certain website on book sales and book sellers. It is focused mainly on the new book trade but both sides of the trade are suffering together. You can read a lot of debate on Simon's blog here. Simon was on the wrong end of some unfortunate vitriol. That's not on. We need to debate this without blaming anyone. As Jane says it is not as though every bookseller in the country hasn't bought something from you-know-where.
Beyond that, I don't know what to say. I can't imagine what will happen next to our trade which supports reading for pleasure and education, supports collecting and completing and preserving, and is frankly dying on its feet.
In the meantime, if you would like to buy your literary criticism and theory from an independent dealer you know where I am. And you can sign-up to be the first to hear about new stock and discounts here.
Books are fairly portable, when you carry them one at a time. I can see the point of an e-reader for multiple copies however. Years ago being pocket sized was a regularly advertised virtue and the scores of Everyman and little hardback Oxford World Classics, like this one, that pass through my hands each year are testament to their continued popularity. I do still get the odd book search requests for "any edition so long as it will go in a pocket" usually from older gentlemen, younger ones I guess are all kindled-up.
Anyway, are pocket books fighting back? Hodder and Stoughton have flipped the text through 90 degrees and with thin pages and hardback covers come up with these little portable flip books. What do you think?
The lovely Barbara Fisher of March House Books now has a blog which is you are at all interested in children's books, book selling or book collecting I am sure you will love.
Barbara's main website is well worth a look too. It is beautifully illustrated with images from children's literature. Barbara also has some wonderful articles on children's writers on her articles page.
We recently bought lots of early twentieth century items (mainly war poetry critiques, Modernism, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot) and after this latest, 17th century, influx our 18th and 19th century sections are looking thin by comparison. I would therefore really like to buy literary biography or literary criticism of:
Mrs Radcliffe and gothic fiction
Other Victorian poets such as Clough and Arnold
General critiques of Victorian or Edwardian literature or writers
Books about women writers in either century or feminist critiques.
A Campaign for Real Books has been launched. It aims to support the book trade in the UK, both new books and secondhand, online shops and bricks and mortar. As a member you'll receive a simple paper CAMBO card entitling you to 10% discount when you spend over £10 at independent bookshops. It's a book token that works all year round; it's valid in both new and second hand bookshops who have signed up and when you buy one it will enables the campaign to do all this and more:
•support new and secondhand independent bookshops across the UK
•campaign to save threatened bookshops and libraries •support independent printers, publishers, papermakers, binders, private presses and all those whose livelihoods depend on paper books
•hold and sponsor book fairs, literary festivals and other events
•organise prizes for authors, shops, independent publishers, designers, illustrators and others associated with the book trade
•develop our website with news, views, interviews, links to shops, books for sale and much, much more Plus you'll get free or discounted admission to all CAMBO events, a newsletter and more! You can start showing your support by pre-registering today - and when you do, you'll receive an extra two months' membership free, meaning your CAMBO card will save money on books this Christmas and next!
Whilst I have nothing against e-readers I support this campaign wholeheartedly. The book trade needs all the help it can get. I have signed up as a participating bookseller though I haven't fathomed how to get a CAMBO banner on my site yet. You can however still get the 10% when ordering through C L Hawley or by phone.
Some of my colleagues who have signed up to give the discount to CAMBO members include:
Happy birthday to us - C L Hawley Books is 10 years old this month. We'd like to thank all our customers for their support over the last 10 years. To celebrate we are offering customers a 10% discount on our stock during July. Please use the discount code 10yearsold at the checkout and the discount will be applied. Extra offers will also be advertised here on Juxtabook during July so please keep looking in to see what's happening.
The first extra offer is an additional 10% discount which you can use as well as 10yearsold - the second code is juxtabook10 and is valid throughout July and is especially to thank readers here and followers on twitter. Please use both codes at the checkout or if you prefer use the contact us details on the site to request the total for your order.
We don't stock a lot of fiction but we do have some which you can view here. Most of our stock is literary criticism, history and the other academic arts and humanities.
With a personal interest in aviation, we aim to stock the most current, informative and renowned books in the aviation industry. Exclusive and historical books on aeroplanes, airliners, flying and more can be found at your local Bookshop in Skipton.
Alley Books have also kindly sent customers my way when they are looking for out of print books. For used books of course I am my own local indie, sadly not open to the public, but available 24/7 online here.
Fiona Robyn is the author of two published novels and a book of poetry. Fiona has kindly agreed to write an article for Juxtabook about her experience of becoming a published novelist. I hope that aspiring novelists find this useful!
Six years ago, I completed my first novel. Like most unpublished writers, I desperately wanted a publisher. I wanted my work to be read. I bought The Writer's Handbook, sent off submissions, started a blog, and continued to write. Six years later, my first three novels were accepted for publication by Snowbooks. My debut, The Letters, was published earlier this year. Was it all I'd hoped for? Was being published my Holy Grail?
My journey towards publication, like most writers, has been full of trials and adventures. I did find an agent shortly after finishing my first novel, but she couldn't find a publisher willing to take the book on. I had countless near misses and set backs. In retrospect, I am very grateful that it took me six years to find a publisher. I have learnt so many useful lessons along the way, and I know that these lessons will be of benefit in the years ahead.
What have I learnt? I have discovered a lot about marketing - the things that I enjoy (blogging, sending out newsletters, social networking) and the things that seem to work (being authentic, doing the same marketing activities over and over for a very long time). I published a couple of non-fiction books myself, and this taught me about putting books together, and gave me a taste of having 'an audience'.
I learnt (or learnt again) that I'm a control freak, and that it is difficult for me to hand things over, but that it's really helpful when I'm able to let go. I learn that I get easily addicted to praise, and the more praise my books get, the more I want. I learnt that this praise is never enough, and instead I need to remember that I am already enough, before I ever wrote a word.
I also learnt that writing is centrally important to me. I will continue to write whether or not my books continue to be published. Writing helps me to make sense of myself and of everything else, and to engage with the world. I love rolling words around in my mouth. It makes me happy when other people enjoy my descriptions, or become fond of my characters, or learn something about themselves when they read my stories. I got better at recovering from rejection. I got better at persevering. I could go on.
Being published has been a wonderful experience. I've thoroughly enjoyed working with Snowbooks, and there is nothing like holding your book in your hands for the very first time. Seeing it on the shelves in a bookshop is pretty cool too!
But no, being published hasn't been my Holy Grail. I'm not quite ready to retire on my royalties. Nobody has recognised me on the street yet, and I'm still waiting for Richard and Judy to call. I still have days when I think I'm a pretty decent writer, and days when I fear that I'm truly awful.
Having the goal of 'being published' was a helpful one, but rather than seeing it as the end, I now see it as just another stepping stone in my career as a writer. The joyful work of writing continues, and ordinary life goes on. I'll continue to learn, and carry on celebrating the milestones and the good stuff - being nominated for my first prize, or getting positive feedback from readers. I have always planned on being in this business for the long run. I am a writer. What else would I do with my days?
Fiona Robyn's latest novel, The Blue Handbag, will be published on the 1st of August, and her debut novel The Letters is available now. You can read more about her life as a writer at her blog, Planting Words.
If you enjoyed this article you might also find novelist Alis Hawkins' piece on being published with Macmillan New Writing very useful.
Not normally the sort of book I mention on here but the free availability of the above is so odd as a publishing phenomenon that I couldn't resist. I have read and enjoyed the first thirty pages or so. Tom Reynolds as an ambulance man has to put up with the sort of bonkers stuff teachers had to put up with in my "challenging" school. With more blood.
If you want to host the book on your own blog then have a look here. If you want a physical copy of your own it is available on Amazon here and the Book Depository here.
Following on from my post on the poetry and short story publisher Salt and its Just One Book campaign, here's a few further links of interest.
Firstly a nice piece in the Guardian on the inital success of Salt's viral marketing campaign, and secondly on the delightfully named blog Baroque in Hackney Salt poet Katy Evans-Bush is offering a personal shopper service where she will recommend something from Salt's catalogue for you, "You tell me a bit about yourself and so on and I will advise you on what to buy." So there is no excuse not to buy Just One Book.
The poetry buyer in the Hawley household has invested in a copy of The Missing by Sian Hughes.
Just a quick post about Salt Books They are a valuable independent poetry publisher in trouble because of the economic down turn. Whilst I know this true of business in all walks of life, it seems a particular shame to loose one of our few consistently good poetry brands.
Elizabeth Baines has a good post about it here. If you were thinking of buying a book today then purchasing short stories or poetry from Salt would help ease their cashflow problems and maybe keep them afloat.
Anyway got any good recommendations from Salt's lists?
After a brief discussion between Macmillan editor Will Atkins and myself, in the comments section of a previous blog post, about what it is like to be published by Macmillan New Writing, I thought it would be appropriate to ask an author exactly what it is like to be an MNW writer. I tentatively approached Alis Hawkins and to my delight she not only kindly found the time but has written a lovely long piece that I am sure will interest anyone with a first novel languishing awaiting attention from the wider world. There has been much written on the subject of Macmillan's new(ish) imprint so it is good to hear from an author exactly how things really are from the writer's point of view. Here's Alis...
I was delighted, a little while ago, to be invited to give readers of Juxtabook an author's view of what it's like to be published by Macmillan New Writing. Having recently sent off my second book to my editor, I got down to work…
In January 2007 I got the email that all unpublished writers fantasise about - an offer to publish my book. The publisher in question was Macmillan New Writing, an initiative from established publishing house Macmillan to discover and promote the work of new novelists.
MNW is that rarest of rare beasts in the industry: a publisher that actively wants to see your unsolicited, unagented novel. For those familiar with the near impossibility of securing the attention - still less the services - of an agent, MNW's welcome feels almost improbably open-armed: anyone with a completed, polished, double-spaced MS on their hard-drive can submit it for consideration. And, though MNW may not offer to publish your work of towering genius, you know that your MS it is going to be taken seriously. It's not going to be given to the work experience girl, it's not going to be used to prop doors open, it's not going to be sent back, unread, with a 'not right for our list' figleaf. It's going to be assessed by experienced professionals who, over the last three years or so, have proved themselves adept at spotting novels with promise.
Once your book has been accepted, perhaps the most significant element of the Macmillan New Writing experience is the personal attention you get as an author. When you ring Will Atkins, MNW's commissioning editor, he answers the phone himself. There's no hiding behind PAs, assistants or interns; you just get him. It's Will who commissions your book, he who works with you through the editing process, he who steers you through the novelties of proofs and copyediting and he who comes and celebrates with you at your launch party. Yes, launch party. Most established publishers these days only seem to throw parties for the glitterati in their lists, but MNW has no glitterati so it treats every author as a potential star.
The other highly personal strand of the MNW experience is working with Sophie Portas who is in charge of MNW's marketing and publicity.
Authors who are published by small imprints often complain about the negligible or non-existent marketing budget; all their publisher's scant resources are taken up in producing the book and it falls to the author to do most of the shouting about it.
Despite the fact that it belongs to the PanMacmillan empire, MNW is a small imprint. It only publishes twelve books a year - one hardback per month on average - which is not a huge output by anybody's standards. But that doesn't mean that its authors are reduced to touting our books around or bungee-jumping from the top of Salisbury cathedral in order to draw attention to ourselves and our work.
Before my novel, Testament, was published I met with Sophie to talk about the marketing that would go into the book and to discuss any particularly interesting avenues she could follow. As a result of her efforts, in the weeks following the book's publication I did four local paper interviews, made several appearances on BBC Radio Kent, got a national newspaper review, did a signing event in a bookshop in Cambridge, a Q-and-A spot in a new library's launch event and spent an evening talking about my book to ticket-holding punters at an independent bookshop. No bungee jumping and no effort on my own part but to accept invitations gratefully and turn up.
While we're on the subject of marketing, it's worth remembering that, as a Macmillan New Writing author, you don't have to fight bigger names or their bulging best-sellers for a slice of attention. Because of MNW's unique position in the industry - it exists purely to publish debut full-length fiction - there's no danger of the marketing budget being squandered on writers who are already sure-fire bestsellers whilst your masterpiece languishes, spine-out on the shelf.
So far so rosy; so why is it that MNW hasn't always received glowing publicity from those who write about books and publishing, one of whose number suggested that MNW was 'the Ryanair of publishing'? Is MNW getting new authors on the cheap? Are we being offered a cut-price deal? Are we, in short, being ripped off?
No. I don't believe we are.
The Ryanair quote from 2005 (variously attributed to Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian, Robert McCrum of The Observer and writer Hari Kunzru) is proving remarkably durable. Perhaps people want to believe that writers are getting ripped off. But the description in no way fits the Macmillan New Writing that I know.
Surely a 'Ryanair of publishing' would offer its authors a smaller percentage of royalties than is standard in the industry rather than a larger one? MNW authors receive a 20% royalty on sales, significantly higher than that offered by most mainstream publishers. Admittedly there is no advance paid to authors but, speaking for myself, I'd just as soon receive money after I've earned it as before, especially as the advance made to the vast majority of debut novelists is a very small number of thousands of pounds; nothing like enough to give up the day job and take a year off to compose your next masterpiece. (A month, possibly two if your mortgage is small, but not a year.)
A suspicion also seems to exist that being asked to sign a standard, non-negotiable contract is exploitative. Well, like any other contract, nobody forces you to sign it. And it's not as if you're signing away the life of your firstborn, however much your book feels like your baby. Basically, on signing a MNW contract you agree, for fixed royalties and a stipulated percentage of revenue from foreign sales and e-books, that MNW will have world rights in the book they have offered to publish and first refusal on your next book.
This acquisition of all rights to your book has raised more than eyebrows as most commenters seem to feel that authors should be free to sell their book where, when and in whatever format they wish. Well, I'm sure that's all very freemarket and laudable but I wouldn't know how to sell a foreign right to save my life. OK, so that's what agents do and maybe they do it more profitably for their authors than the very experienced Macmillan rights department does for me. But hey - I don't have an agent. More to the point, I didn't need one to get signed by MNW which is kind of the whole point. And if an agent would like to do better for me than selling (to date) German, Spanish and Latvian translation rights for my novel then they're welcome to take me on once I'm out of contract to MNW.
And I'll be out of contract sooner or later. Sooner if MNW decide not to publish my second book, Not One of Us, later if they take it on. Unlike the more conventional 'two book deal' in which you contract to write two books for your publisher for an agreed advance, the MNW 'two book deal' specifies that the publisher, once it has published your first book, retains the right of first refusal on your second book. MNW is not obliged to publish it, but you are obliged not to offer your second book to any other publisher before MNW has seen it.
But what if you don't want to sell your next book to them, people asked me. What if you could get more money elsewhere?
I think this question demonstrates the persistence of the (mistaken) assumption that, once your first book is published, you only have to offer subsequent MS to a publisher and they will fall on your neck weeping with gratitude and pushing wads of money into your faintly-protesting hands.
Not quite. In reality, unless you've managed to acquire a huge and adoring fan base on the basis of the simple brilliance of your debut novel, it's almost as hard to get your second book published as your first. Actually, if the first hasn't done very well, it's potentially even harder.
In that kind of market, I'd be mad not to offer my second book to MNW. They know me, they know what they might expect in terms of sales from my book and commitment from me. What writer in their right mind would go elsewhere?
(Not to mention the fact that, if you are of a remotely grateful cast of mind, simple decency would dictate that you would stick with a publishing house that was prepared to make an investment in you when nobody else would.)
And maybe we MNW authors are all of a grateful cast of mind. It's often commented that, as writers of very disparate novels, the one thing that seems to unite us is an uncommon loyalty to our publisher and I suspect that the tone of this post is going to do nothing at all to challenge that. So what is it that gives rise to such loyalty?
I think it comes from a sense of personal commitment. Fundamentally, as an MNW author you feel that your book matters, that you matter.
This feeling of group loyalty is given a tangible form - or perhaps I mean forum - by the Macmillan New Writers' collective blog which each new author is invited to join at the time of their book's publication. The blog gives us the chance to comment on each other's work, talk about our own work and just chat about writing generally.
The blog means that, unlike most novelists, MNW authors genuinely feel as if we are part of a creative community. And, in contrast to the authors of most other publishing houses who are in competition with one another, we feel a kind of investment in each other's success as each new MNW cheer goes up. Cheers like Eliza Graham's Playing with the Moon being shortlisted for the Books Worth Talking about award linked to World Book Day last year, or Brian McGilloway getting rave reviews and being nominated for the Irish Crime Novel of the Year for his Inspector Devlin novel, Gallows Lane, or Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel DuPree being nominated for the Orange Prize and the Orange New Writers Award. We are delighted for each other, we support each other electronically and, sometimes, in person by turning up to each other's launches. I know that other authors envy us our collective forum and our sense of shared journey and it's something I appreciate hugely about being an MNW writer.
Well this time yesterday I thought I was really behind with work and very busy. I had been having some bother with my books/invoices/customers database. I discovered that for some reason that it was not backing up in its entirety but only up to transactions up to September 2007. Having twiddled with various things with no success I contacted the database's creator who made a suggestion, which I admit sounded feasible, but as a result of the subsequent course of action the guy suggested I appeared to have killed off my only working copy back as far as September 2007. 18 months work - Grrrrrrr! I would now give anything to merely behind and busy as I was yesterday. Now we're up a notch and I am officially hysterical!
Taking my mind off that with a saunter round the web I happened upon Faber's flickr site where they showcase Faber covers old and new along with other Faber ephemera. I rather like The Faber Book of Children's Versecompiled by Janet Adam Smith, and the Ambrose Heath jackets, but one of my favourites is How the Whale Became and Other Stories by Ted Hughes. See what you think.
Completelynovel.com, which went live to the public on January 27th, is going to add a new twist to the new book trade. If BookRabbit was a cross between Amazon and Facebook then CompletelyNovel is a cross between BookRabbit and Lulu: it combines book buying, social networking, and self-publishing. The self-publishing is in a much more attractive format than Lulu.
Like all these things you join and set up a profile. You can then add books to your library, write review of give marks out of 5 via a star system. You can also read reviews and join in discussions. Most mainstream novels are available to buy via Amazon links on the site which make following up goodies you've spotted very easy.
What is different about CompletelyNovel is that there is free fiction content too. Where ever you see the logo of a rather demented looking redhaired badger you can read the complete text for free. These are the self-published works. So what is in it for the authors? Well apart from obvious things like getting reviews, publicity and feedback whilst trying to get a conventional publishing deal, Compeltelynovel also makes it possible for readers to buy physical copies. So you start reading something, get to page 20 and think, yep, this is my cup of tea, and click and buy, and courtesy of digital print on demand a copy will wing its way to you from the printer. The author sets the price, and keeps the profits once the printer has been paid.
The use of free material seems to be on the increase. Within the last month Emma Barnes at Snowbooks announced that they would be making proof copies available via Lulu and even bound copies of their AIs. Scott Pack has also mentioned that The Friday Project hope to make some material free online sooon, though whether that will be the whole text of a work like at CompletelyNovel is not yet clear.
So what is on CompletelyNovel? Well there aren't huge numbers of free to read books on there at the moment as they have only been going five minutes, but I had a browse about and popped a few into my library with the intention of reading a few pages and giving you an idea of what the quality appeared to be like on there. Then I started Alan Baker's The Lighthouse Keeper. I began Friday evening and kept interupting my accounts to finish the work on Saturday. All 215 pages online - yuk. Bad neck this morning, but with his supernatural thriller Alan Baker has hit the page turning button, and I couldn't leave it alone.
Set across December and January 1900/1901 and with a parallel contemporary narrative thread too, 'The Lighthouse Keeper' begins with the true story of the mysterious disappearance of three keepers from their posting on the Flannan Isles, one of the most remote parts of the UK. The parallel stories continue as we follow the experieinces and the discoveries of thre relief lighthouse kepers sent out after the disappearance in 1900 and the modern day scientists on the island. The events in each story are an echo of the other, and the reader wants to race to the end (as I did!) to discover whether any of the characters, in either chronology, escape and how.
Baker builds up the interest, atmosphere and suspence from the first pages. The book has a strong sense of place, and of time, and uses these beautifully to build the ghostly atmsophere. His prose is very neat and tidy just like a spic and span Victorian lighthouse, or the thought processes of the modern scientists, and as such is perfect for the job in hand. Nothing is overplayed en route to the end in his orderly sentences; and of course the hysteria should be the reader's and the protganists,' not the narrator's, so this just as it should be.
Part supernatural thriller, part convincing historical fiction and part science-fiction it is scary in the fun way of classics such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Woman in Black. But like The Mysteries of Udolpho the ending is a little disappointing, but in a sense that is a tribute to the strength of the build-up. The prose is so tight and the emotional build-up so strong that nothing, however bizarre, in this world, the next world or a parallel world, could be suficiently bizzare to be truly satisfying. This is a tiny quibble; The Lighthouse Keeper is a hugely enjoyable read. If this is the callibre of the fiction available CompletelyNovel may well be onto something.
One of the problems of selling books by mail order, be it catalogue, website, or phone, is that the book has to be posted. When your customer realises that a two volume set (600 pages per volume) cannot just be bunged in a padded envelope 2nd class for a couple of quid there is not a problem. Books can be properly packed using bubble wrap and a box, and sent by the most appropriate method; the customer expects to pay cost plus a few pence for the quality packaging. This is what usually happens when I sell a book by phone or to an existing customer or via my own website. Customers are usually very happy. One gentleman in the USA sent me an additional £30 because he was so impressed with the way I packaged his (expensive) three volume set.
I like to pack all books well even if they are cheap so the limit on the postage on some websites is frustrating; it is increasingly difficult to look after heavy books properly. I have actually sourced some lighter, cheaper packaging just to use on Amazon. My feedback is still far better than most sellers on there so my cheap packets are still doing a job, but they are cheaper and thinner, and I still feel that there it is a chance for potential damage that, when postage costs allow, I would rather not take.
Amazon charge the customer £2.75 per volume regardless, and curiously EBay have just imposed a limit for books at, wait for it, £2.75. Obviously a flat rate might even out over time. The chances are though, with books, that you will stock a lot of substantial tomes, and that it will not, in the end, be very comfortable for you using the flat rate postage.
The end result of all is this is the sad sight of dealers selling off their heavy books at car boot sales and the cheaper end of the book fair market. These are books that are physically sound, reasonably attractive and still either useful, entertaining or intellectually stimulating. There is nothing wrong with them, they are just big. Soon online sellers won't stock them and because online sellers (guilty as charged!) are knocking the stuffing out of the brick-and-mortar bookshop, then these big beauties will not be available there either.
So what to do? Well my solution for the present is to take a small unit in an antiques centre where my big books, duplicate copies, paperback classics (available on Amazon for £2.76 being 1p plus the flat rate postage), and other doddery types for online selling can reside in peace until properly re-homed. So part of half-term was spent shelf-stocking and otherwise settling some old friends into their new unit. When I say old friends some of these have been with me from the first week of trading. I repriced and sent out to grass stock number 0007 (seventh ever book) with some chagrin, I can tell you.
Anyway, here they are settling in, with me getting backache from all the boxes, and not bending my knees like I should:
And just for reference the kind of volume that is increasingly hard to sell (profitably) online include these inoffensive types:
It is difficult to see exactly how the dominance of the bigger book outlets online will affect the market as years go by, but I am sure that the nature of the secondhand bookstock of this country will be altered.
I have had to give up on certain types of book but I will always try to stock standard critical texts regardless of the prevailing price on Amazon. Books like F. R. Leavis' critical works in paperback and Basil Willey's wonderful background volumes (Nineteenth century Studies, The Eighteenth Century Background and the daringly named companion volume The Seventeenth Century Background) will always find a home here. I know other specialist dealers do the same with key texts in their areas, but even online the specialist dealer is being swamped by the pile 'em, high sell 'em cheaper megalister who desrcibes books as "may" have some wear, "may" be ex-library, "may" have a remainder mark and presumably, "may" be a book or "may" be a kangaroo because the item is obviously not in front of them when they are cataloguing.
What will the fall out be in the end, I don't know? What are customer's experiences of postage charges, and levels of service, or other sellers' thoughts on these matters?
If you are not a bookseller in the used or antiquarian side of the trade then you have probably never heard of Chrislands. If you're a book buyer, in the used or antiquarian market, you might have used one of their websites though. Chrislands was an independent company that produced 'ready to wear' ecommerce websites for small independent booksellers; exactly the sort of business too small to have much in the way of formal IT help but for whom an online presence they could call their own was essential.
Chrisland sites are not exciting to look at in the sense that, like blogs from Blogger or Typepad, they all have a 'look' that proclaims their origins, but the owner bookseller could manage his stock, add his own images, have a sale, sell gift 'vouchers', write his own terms and conditions and generally run the business his own way. Like with blogs, there is a good variety of Chrislands bookseller sites doing different jobs for different audiences. You might like to look at a few: Amwell Book Company, Beckham Books, Bagot Books, C L Hawley, March House Books, Stephen Foster, Peakirk Books.
All this is in the past tense because, hitting Chrislands booksellers like the proverbial bolt, was the news last week that Chrislands has been bought out by the super-dominant Abebooks. On booksellers' forums the phrase, 'fox bought the chicken coop,' seemed to sum everything up nicely.
So how does this matter for book buyers and booksellers? In the short term probably it doesn't matter as booksellers have been assured that at least while Chrislands founder remains on the board of the new subsidiary, then there will be no major changes. However in the medium term sellers are worried. It is very hard to be a small business when you have to compete with larger ones. Obviously, this is just part of the market competition, that is generally good for consumers, and we small sellers just have to get on with it knowing we compete well on service if not always on cost: just look at the variety of books, background, specialisms, and knowledge on the few independent sellers websites above. Because the independent bookseller provides a level of service and knowledge that the large well known online book retailers just cannot manage,the book market needs both, and Chrislands was an important part of keeping small businesses different, viable and independent. I don't sell on Abebooks myself because I don't like their business model; now my own website substructure is run by a company Abebooks own. To put it mildly I am not a happy bunny.