Whilst reading this article in The Independent yesterday on Quercus — the publishing house that bought the rights to Stieg Larsson‘s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo et al — it occurred to me just how important it is that fledgeling published authors think of their books, their first published pieces in particular, as not just products to be sold but as promotional tools.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an obscure piece written by a dead Swede. Quercus were having trouble shifting copies and some retailers simply refused to stock. One retailer, who Mark Smith (founder of Quercus) refused to name, even stated that its customers “don’t like authors with funny names”.
Now, knowing what we know about The Millennium Trilogy, this sounds quite ridiculous — but, in fact, it isn’t all that unusual and, ultimately…
Mark Smith, who founded Quercus in 2004, became so desperate to shift copies, [...] he gave them away to people reading in parks – and planted dozens of more on the back seats of taxis and on Tube trains. “At that stage we were giving away more than we sold,” Smith says. “It was getting pretty nerve-racking.”
Now, I’m not in this position with If I Never. I don’t think my publisher lurks on street corners, collar turned up, muttering, “Great book. Here. Go on. ‘Ave it. It’s free and worth every penny.” But, if he did, would that necessarily be a bad thing?
On the surface, it would suggest that not all was going according to plan. As Mark Smith said, it would be “pretty nerve-wracking”. But increasingly in publishing — especially within the mainstream “establishment” — so much is thought of in the short term. And this, I feel, is fundamentally wrong.
Many excellent novels sink without a trace. A hard fact of life. But some… with persistence and time, some break through. Sometimes it’s a lucky break. Dick and Judy or whoever read it and start lavishing praise and — whoosh! — off it goes. But more often than not it’s about building a readership one reader at a time, gradually building a fan base until it reaches a tipping point, encouraging word of mouth, paving the way for book two, book three etc.
So should we be out there giving books away? Well, actually, unless things are looking really hairy, I would generally say no. I’ve tried giving freebies to a couple of celebrities and this didn’t meet with much success (Stephen Fry, bless his little cotton socks, promptly lost his copy and doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to find it… he’s still a lovely chap, though… no, really, he is.) In my experience, free stuff is usually viewed — as I joked above — as being “worth every penny”.
Nevertheless, the book is still a promotional tool. A first-time novelist needs to understand that some people are going to buy his book and pass it on to friends. When I first heard of people doing this with If I Never, I’ll admit, my reaction was something along the lines of “NO! BUY THE FUCKING THING, YOU TIGHTFISTED BASTARDS!” And then I realised. Then I saw the very fundamental truth behind this act. People were enjoying it so much that they felt the need to SHARE IT. So now when people tell me they’ve passed it on to a friend, what do I do? Rip off their faces? Become all indignant and tell them that they’re stealing from me? No. I — very sincerely — thank them and tell them how fantastic that is. I then add, with a wink, that they should make their friend promise that if they enjoy it they actually go out and buy the next one.
Libraries are also extremely important. Copies taken into libraries count as a sale — and whilst a first-time novelist probably isn’t going to make all that much, if anything at all, on PLR, library sales in themselves can soon add up. For instance, we recently approached for the second time one of our regional libraries. They’d taken one copy in not so long ago and, when we checked, we couldn’t actually see it on their system (via the their website.) We queried this and the extremely helpful staff member confirmed that they did have a copy — and that it was out. Because of this, she promptly ordered four more.
Now these copies of If I Never in this library and all those others are going to get read. Library Members aren’t paying for the book and, unlike someone browsing in Waterstone’s, can therefore afford to take a risk. Looking for something new, chatting with familiar librarians, they discover new writers and, always assuming they enjoy what you do, talk to people about your book. Many libraries also have reading groups, of course, which means they’ll sometimes buy in something like twelve books at a time (which has happened with me.) Granted, many of these readers will, with future books, wait for them to arrive at the library and borrow them. But some won’t. Some will decide to splash out and treat themselves.
But, you know, even if they don’t — it doesn’t matter. Not at this stage. Not at any stage. These are required conditions for the propagation of word-of-mouth. Libraries are the very places where the book begins to promote itself and its author. Short-term, it may not necessarily look all that appealing.
Long-term, however… it’s fundamental.
Two sample chapters of If I Never can be read here.
To buy your copy of If I Never, please click here.
© 2010 Gary William Murning