Pacifist Guerilla

Wastrel Rodent and the Blue Pootle, pacifying gorillas since 2,050.

08 August, 2006

Skipping Stones

Your friend and mine, the man we like to call 'Doc Hock' in these parts, Ian Hocking had a little chat with Scott Pack, who has recently skipped 'stones.

Coincidentally, Skipping Stones, the novelette I've written with E. Sedia, has been bought by Paul Jessup, publisher of Grendel Song. It will be released as a stand-alone chapbook sometime next year.

But for now, it's over to Ian and Scott. Ian is the bold one. (Thanks very much for this, Ian.)

How would you describe the role of the chief buyer at Waterstone's? Is it as all-powerful as some would claim?

Not at all. The title was Buying Manager and that was precisely what I did – manage the buying. I very rarely actually bought any books for the business myself, I simply ran the team that did that job.

I suspect the whole ‘most powerful man in publishing’ nonsense came about because a) the Waterstone’s 3 for 2 could sell a lot of copies of a book and I was ultimately in charge of what went in there and b) I was the only retailer prepared to express a public opinion. Both points can be viewed as positives or negatives depending on your point of view.

I recently wrote a piece for The Times (5th August) that goes into a bit more detail on the whole power issue.

Since assuming your role within Waterstone's, how would you say the UK publishing industry has changed?

Oh, in lots of ways. Supermarkets and the internet have become the dominant forces. This is good news for customers in terms of price but probably bad news in terms of quality and range of books published.

The Big Read and Richard & Judy have brought reading to life for a much wider group of people than were reading before. The literati had successfully ignored the general reader for years so when something less elitist came along it was no wonder that it had such a huge effect on sales and reading habits.

Book groups have grown to such an extent that a certain type of book (your Kite RunnersorSmall Islands) can become a bestseller and stay a bestseller for a very long time.

There are many other areas but I think these are the most interesting.

You began your career at the HMV in Southend, before the HMV group bought Waterstone's. Do you feel that the book is fundamentally unique as a product, or can it be sold using the same methods that shift CDs, DVDs, and computer games?

A bit of both really. I spent as long in HMV’s head office as a buyer as I subsequently did at Waterstone’s which probably gives me a unique insight into the two industries. There are elements of music and DVD retailing that can be, and have, translated across very well and to the benefit of the book world. The biggest single factor that I believe has already been taken on board is a sense of urgency. The music industry has a Top 40 chart that changes drastically every week. It is also a very release-driven environment, customers know when new CDs and DVDs are hitting stores and it is important that new releases are on the shop floor as soon as possible. When I started at Waterstone’s it was not unusual for big new books to sit in stockrooms for several days before finally getting on to the shelves where customers could buy them. This has certainly changed. What publishers have yet to successfully emulate is the whole release date thing. It wouldn’t be that hard to have all books published on one day each week and publicise new titles around these days so that customers knew when the next Grisham, Haddon or Murakami was going to be available. Petty squabbling within retail and a fairly toothless Bookseller’s Association/Publisher’s Association set up has stopped this from becoming a reality.

A recent story was doing the rounds about the sums that publishers must pay in order to give their products a boost in terms of promotional activities and placement within branches of Waterstone's. Is there a case for making this clearer to customers, who may be under the impression that the local or district manager has selected works on the basis of quality? And, given that Tim Waterstone's built the reputation of his shops by championing the judgement of individual managers, could this climate ever return?

Firstly, a word on the judgement of individual managers. If you give the individuals in the shop complete control of their stock, what they buy and how they display it then you are effectively an organisation ‘running’ a number of separate independent businesses with no cohesion. That may be fine for some people but the Waterstone’s I joined had taken that so far that we were losing sales hand over fist. You had stores choosing not to stock the number one book in the country because it ‘wasn’t their market’. I’m sorry but if a customer walks into a bookshop they expect to find the most popular books in the country. If you don’t have them then your store is crap. What makes your store, or stores, unique is what you do in addition to the bestsellers.

All major retailers charge for their promotional space. The magazine you buy in Smiths had its space and location paid for. The CD in the window of HMV is there because the record company coughed up to put it there. It extends to all sectors. Many high street retailers make a profit from these charges. Waterstone’s do not. Every penny of marketing money they get from publishers goes into promoting books through press and TV ads, windows and the point of sale material in the store. That seems a reasonable situation to me.

The books publishers ‘pay for’ are the ones you generally find in the £s off and 3 for 2 promotions. These are by no means all of the books front of store and individual branches use a great deal of this space for their own selection. And the costs are usually minimal. If The Friday Project wanted to put a book in the Waterstone’s 3 for 2 they would have to give a bit of extra discount and pay a couple of hundred quid. That would ensure the book was FOS in every branch which is one of the best ways to sell your book. Newspapers charge thousands of pounds for a press ad and all research tells us that these ads have little or no effect on book sales. The last official industry research I saw claimed that only 1% of customers purchased a book having seen an advert for it.

Put simply, if the charges retailers ask for didn’t make sense then publishers wouldn’t pay them. And bear in mind that they have a budget to spend with retailers, there is money put aside for precisely this purpose. It would seem daft for a retailer not to take it and use it wisely.

The most important thing to stress here though is the sequence of events, something that recent press reports have failed to mention and which put a completely different spin on things. The marketing charges come in to play only once the books have been selected. The books are chosen on merit and then the publishers are asked to contribute to the marketing costs. You cannot buy your way into a campaign.

Personal recommendation, snazzy cover, review blurb: Which factors do you feel are most important between the time a customer glances at a book and the decision to purchase?

The biggest single factor has always been, and will always be, word-of mouth. Personal recommendation from a friend or someone whose opinion you respect is, more often than not, going to make you check out a book. Covers are also vital. I cannot say I know of any really bad books that were big hits purely because of great covers but I can think of dozens of great books that failed because the cover was shite. Beyond that, everything else can only contribute to a sort of cumulative effect. No one really buys a book just because of a jacket quote but it may help in making the decision.

Following on from the last question, you've written that you'd rather watch Dick and Dom in da Bungalow than suffer the beardophile review pages of some broadsheet newspapers. Given that such review sections are read, for the most part, by writers and other critics, how can we get the buzz about diverse new fiction titles to the reading public?

I will confess that I was being a tad mischievous with that comment but the essence was true: the broadsheets cater for such a narrow band of taste that they are largely irrelevant for most readers today. The significant and notable exception is The Times, especially on Saturday. Erica Wagner has produced a books section that celebrates all types of reading and is the single most important resource for book fans in this country. Other good places to get to hear about good books are websites such as http://www.palimpsest.org.uk/ where there is some healthy and informed debate. I also think the bookseller recommends sections in most high street stores are an honest and usually quite cutting edge selection of new and old titles.

There was also a practical point behind my flippant comment. I was spending 3 or 4 hours every weekend reading every word of the books pages of every newspaper only to find that they had little or no impact on what people were actually buying and reading. It was taking time away from my kids and, in that respect, was a waste of that time.

Sadly, Dick And Dom In Da Bungalow is no longer with us so I will have to find another source of highbrow entertainment.

What's the feeling within Waterstone's and the bookselling industry about new printing technologies such as Print On Demand? Is it seen as an irrelevancy? The future?

There are upsides and downsides.

Up. With agents and publishers becoming more and more impregnable it is fantastic to see an avenue open up for undiscovered writers.

Down. Most of it is shit. To qualify that, much of the work that would previously have gone unpublished did so because it wasn’t very good. POD removes that quality control filter. I would say that for every 10 self-published POD books I saw, 8 were varying degrees of bad, 1 was OK but needed a lot of work and 1, if I was lucky, could hold its own with the ‘proper’ books.

Up. POD could mean that no book ever goes out-of-print ever again. By maintaining a POD backlist publishers could ensure that all of their books are always available. I believe Virago have done something like this for their entire catalogue.

Down. If books never go out of print then publishers can retain the rights to them indefinitely. At the moment if a publisher lets a book go out of print for a prolonged period the author can claim the rights to the book back, effectively owning the book themselves to do with what they will. Susan Hill has done this very successfully with some of her early work which she now publishes herself. I suspect publishers may hang on to books forever now, claiming that POD keeps them in print.

Personally I like a vision of future which enables any reader to order any book that has ever been published whenever they feel like it. Wouldn’t that be nice? Mind you, I am not sure secondhand bookshops would agree.

You've been spotted around and about the web, posting here and commenting there. Which websites help you take the pulse of the book-selling/publishing industry?

I have already mentioned Palimpsest which is probably one of the best as it is driven by readers. I like the books pages of salon.com but am not a subscriber so only dip in now and then. It is probably dreadfully uncool of me but I do check out Amazon quite regularly (most people in the book trade do) and frequently find their customer reviews helpful as well as their recommendations feature.

You're about to start work as the Commercial Director of The Friday Project, a publisher. What do you hope to do for them as a company?

I guess the clue is in the job title, some commercial direction. They are a young, vibrant and cutting edge company with bags of enthusiasm but recognise that they need something else to compliment those attributes.

I hope to help them to get better and more organised at what they do as well as acquiring books and authors to their ever growing list. I have some ideas as to how we can use the internet in different ways which they seem quite keen on and I hope to progress them quite quickly.

For you, what makes a good book?

It is always, and will always be, the story. I had to read very widely in my time at Waterstone’s and the books that really stood out, in every, or any, genre, were those that spun a good tale. That applies to non-fiction as well.

I can’t stand authors like Salman Rushdie or Martin Amis. They are undoubtedly clever and talented writers but, for me, they are too wound up in impressing the reader that they fail to tell a good story. Many of my friends violently agree with that assessment, and they are probably right, but my taste is for storytelling first and foremost. Take David Mitchell. He is certainly as clever and talented as Rushdie or Amis, and he experiments wildly in his work, but he also spins a bloody good yarn. The same with Murakami or Auster, two other favourites of mine.

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