Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Sales and Returns

Well here’s a thing - Amazon is now advising the unwary who click on Testament and wonder whether to buy it to ‘order soon!’ as there are only 5 left. And, indeed, in bookshops other than Amazon, Testament does seem to be getting hard to get hold of. Friends check in from various points in the country to tell me that it can no longer be had or ordered in bookshops for love nor money (OK, as far as I’m aware nobody has offered anything except money…). But, then, Amazon says cheerily ‘more on the way’ and this fails so completely to fit the available facts that I am inspired to wonder ‘where from, exactly?!’ Because, as far as I know, there are no ‘more’ to be ‘on the way’. Booksellers who try and order copies are told that neither Macmillan nor the wholesalers have any copies left. Perhaps Amazon is sourcing its copies from Goldsboro Books which, I believe, still has some signed copies.

Waterstone’s website is advising would-be purchasers to ‘contact customer services’. Whether they want to warn people against committing their hard-earned cash to my debut fiction, tell you they can trawl their stores for copies hanging around unloved on shelves, or advise customers to wait until next January and the paperback version is unclear. And yes, they are offering the paperback version (£7.99 in case you’re interested) for pre-order. As are Amazon.
For goodness sake! Who orders a book nine months in advance? I know people are fond of comparing their novels to offspring, but there are limits…

All this sales stuff is baffling to me. Well, ok, not baffling, I’m not an idiot - I do get the general concept. MNW do lots of unseen publicity, lots of booksellers think they like the look of the book, they order it, they put it in their shops/on their site, it sells, royalties accrue. It’s confusing, though, and slightly bewildering, to have no idea how the thing is actually selling in terms of people removing it from shelves, taking it to a till and parting with actual money. Booksellers may be enthusiastic about a book which the public totally fails to take to its collective reading bosom. In other words, there may be tons of returns. I’m hoping that the fact that Waterstones.com are trotting out the ‘customer service’ line and Amazon are having to draw on some hitherto unsuspected (most things about Amazon were hitherto unsuspected, let’s face it) source of copies means that there won’t be tons of returns but – and here’s the bit which baffles me slightly – I HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING.

I suspect that the bafflement is a largely first-book phenomenon. You’ve spent years writing the thing, polishing, honing, hawking it about, polishing, honing, hawking it about – I don’t have to draw you a picture - and then somebody offers to publish it, and suddenly it’s not your book any more. It’s theirs and they deal with all the sordid details like whether it’s actually making its way, via a commercial transaction, into people’s homes and on to their to-be-read piles. It would be great, as an author, to have some kind of access to sales data but it’s just impractically difficult. I just have to get used to not knowing what’s happening to my book any more. If I can talk MNW into publishing the next one, I’ll know what to expect.

Before we wander off the subject of returns completely, HarperCollins’ new idea of ‘no frills’ publishing which includes not accepting returns from booksellers, is an interesting one, is it not?
Initially, my reaction was to say ‘Hooray! Jolly good show!’ and throw items of headgear in the air but then realism kicked in and I realised that, in terms of debut fiction, booksellers would be monumentally unlikely to take books nobody’s heard of by people nobody’s heard of without the option of sending the things back if they looked like long-term shelf-clutterers.

What HarperCollins are clearly hoping, on the other (more optimistic) hand is that booksellers might just be motivated to exert themselves to sell the stock they’ve bought.

I’m not being funny, but which do you think is more likely?

PS, independent booksellers – THIS DOESN’T APPLY TO YOU – you are all lovely, self-exerting-type people.


David Isaak said...

I think the non-returnability concept will only fly if adopted across the board.

As to Amazon==don't try and figure them out. You'll drive yourself mad.

I know one thing, though--when the Pan Macmillan site lists a book as "Out of Stock", it means that inventory has dropped below a certain number of copies, but it may or may not mean there are literally no copies.

When "Schok and Awe" went Out of Stock, Will explained to me this meant that inventory had run low. He had them change the magic number, and, voila!--I was back In Stock. Now, however, I'm Out of Stock again.

How that relates to whether or not a bookseller can order additional copies, I have no idea.

Alis said...

Thanks, David - it's a minefield, isn't it?