Now you see it, now you don’t

Most authors are familiar with the scenario where a well-meaning friend or relative rings them up.  ‘I’ve just been to Waterstones and they only had one copy of your latest book.  You need to get on to them.’  One would like to reply, ‘I’ll get them to order a dozen copies right away.’

Big in the US, out of print in the UK

The truth is, of course, that one can’t.  Bookshops have a very complicated system when it comes to stocking books.  All sorts of agendas come into play. Author bookshelf profile, publisher’s discounts..the list of hurdles seems to be endless.  I’m lucky that my books tend to get stocked by most bookshops but once the first copies are sold, not all are automatically re-ordered, especially gift books it seems.  The bookshops prefer updating their stock with new publications.  A couple of my books, especially The Orchard Book Of First Greek Myths and Aesop’s Fables have done well enough to be kept on Waterstone’s shelves years after their first imprint, and I’m grateful for that.  I guess all writers have a title or two that keeps the taxman happy at the end of January. [okay, so the taxman is never happy, whatever you give him, but you know what I mean.]

Why a book is a hit, or a flop, is beyond me.  I’ve had titles that got good reviews in the national papers, earned out there advance in the first year, and then..they faded out.  I’ve also done books that had lukewarm reviews, or even no reviews at all, I’ve never seen them in the shops, and yet they keep on selling.

Sometimes I think a book only sells if it captures the buyers’ collective mood. Or if it meets a specific need, although writing something to plug that mythical ‘gap in the market’ would-be writers  are always talking about is a non-starter.  Three years ago I did a book for Kingfisher called AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 TALES.  It was a massive project, lavishly illustrated by Richard Johnson who’d worked on my Aesop’s Fables.  There were, I think, no less than fifteen co-editions.  And each edition brought its own challenge.

I spent a long time researching sources while editors tried to agree which 80 countries were going to be featured. I guess everyone has cultures they want represented. And favourite subjects in one place where often seen as taboo in an another.

I remember getting an email in the middle of the night from my editor at the Bologna Book Fair.

Editor:  Good news. Three more Eastern European countries want to buy in.

Me: That’s great.

Editor: There’s only one problem. They can only afford to publish if we move printing to China.

Me:  And the problem with that is……?

Editor:  We have a story from Tibet.  No Chinese printer will touch the book if we say Tibet is a country.

Me: Can’t we be vague about what Tibet is?

Editor: We need to replace the story from a nearby country.

Me:  But what about the illustration?  It’s too late to change that.

Editor: I guess you’ll have to find a story, from a nearby country, that features a donkey eating straw.  Can you email it by tomorrow? You’re a star!

I spent a sleepless night looking through my files.  I can’t remember how I solved the problem in the end, but somehow I did.  I think I used a story that ends with a village being deserted, and the donkeys coming in to eat the straw off the roofs. I needn’t have worried about that straw-munching donkey, though.  The picture was never used.  As were a lot of the stories I wrote. I think I did first drafts of more than a 100.

By the time the book was published, the British part of Kingfisher had been bought out by Macmillan. Something fatal happens to books launched during a takeover. They never do well.  I guess it’s because there is no midwife to facilitate their birth.

Perhaps £19.99 was too hefty a price for a book, even if it did have 80 stories in it and was beautifully illustrated.  The first print run of 80 Tales sold out, a cheaper version was produced instead of a paperback and when that sold out too, the book went out of print.

The Americans, however, seem to have taken the book to their hearts. This despite rather sniffy reviews in the press!  [One reviewer castigated me for putting too many stories in it; her colleague had turned up her nose at my Aesop’s Fables for having too FEW stories.]  I get more fanmail about it from the US than I have done for other books, and the royalty cheques keep help keep that dreaded taxman away from the door.  I should set some of mates down the gym on him, really. There’s more to life than threatening artists with the sale of their worldly possessions.

Hope Is The Word is a wonderful US blog featuring books and home-schooling. Read their review of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 TALES here.

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