There’s a serious crisis in bookselling. We do all know this but I wonder sometimes if people realise quite how serious it is.
As authors we’re artists, of course, and many independent publishers are also authors who are in this to keep outlets open for writers – I was told many years ago that you can’t make a business out of poetry and it’s true. As authors and publishers we have one product – books – and if they don’t sell then there’s no way to finance print runs. It’s as simple as that.
You might think this doesn’t matter, and that ebooks are the way to go. You may dislike the words ‘business’ and ‘finance’ used when talking about artistic creation. But if we want to keep printed books going we do need to look at ways to get enough sales to pay for the print runs.
Even if publishers choose to use print-on-demand, books do need to be printed in quantity because most authors and publishers tell me that 90% of poetry books sell at events. So you do need to have a stock, and print-on-demand can actually work out more expensive.
One way of increasing sales and keeping print runs going is by providing mutual support at events. Publishers and authors can work together, and not in competition, to try to get those essential sales to keep trickling along. This isn’t unusual in small press publishing, but we can find more ways to do it.
The first Poetry Book Fair in London this year showed how well this can work. Charles Boyle of CB Editions had the idea and was surprised by how many independent publishers wanted to book a table and a reading slot at the event. Even though it wasn’t an easy venue to get to, the fair was packed from morning to evening and people were buying books.
It was also great fun and wonderful to get together with such a great bunch of publishers, poets and book buyers. We don’t have many chances to see each other all in the same room for a day.
The only downside was that we really need this to be happening more regularly. I’m going to be drawing more attention to the ‘bring and buy’ book table at the Friday Night Writers events I organise in London, so that more audience members realise they can bring along any books they have published (or magazines). These can be displayed alongside the books brought by the main performers at each event.
So, events can be like a small market. It’s possible to set out a couple of books at a time, with more in your bag to replenish the stock if and when your books sell. Audience members can also make announcements about other relevant news items such as competitions they’re organising, or their own events. They can display flyers on the table.
Although I set up Ward Wood Publishing with Mike Fortune-Wood in summer 2010, I’ve been working on writing projects for much longer than that, and the events I hold are to support a variety of publishers and authors rather than just our own company – this has always been my approach on other ventures. Most of the authors who have been booked to read at Friday Night Writers in Swiss Cottage Library have come from other publishing companies.
It’s expensive for publishers and authors to find a venue or to get booked in London, so I’m hoping this helps. I would love to hear about more similar projects all around the UK and Ireland – and our authors do travel, particularly to the US, so do let me know about any venues there. The Twisted Pepper and the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin are two particularly good venues which have been approachable for new authors.
I don’t have any funding for the events, so can’t cover travel costs or pay a fee, but authors have found it a useful venue when they’re passing through London, and with two events a month I’ve managed to fit them in on convenient dates. This has the added advantage of bringing together authors from various regions – it’s surprising how regional we can become at times, especially in the poetry world.
I don’t believe the saying ‘Poetry is a small world and everybody knows everybody’. It’s easy to become part of a clique and not see the poets who are just off our radar. Making events open to authors from different publishers, and from different regions – even if they aren’t people who can normally support the event – can put a larger number of authors on to our radar. We can never know all the good poets who are out there.
I keep mentioning poetry, but the same is true of literary fiction, and it would be good to see an independent publishers’ fair that included both fiction and poetry. Many presses publish both forms, and it’s hard to help novelists get started because they lack the network of open mics and events that’s so well established and helpful to poets.
There is the opportunity to read fiction at Friday Night Writers, but I need to ask for maximum 500 words now due to the popularity of the event. With the event anthology there’s another chance to support a variety of publishers as well as aspiring writers. Authors can read from a published book at the Friday Night Writers open mic, and they can submit a published piece of writing to be considered for the annual event anthology. This would mean a credit for the published book should their submission be selected.
The next event is on Friday December 9th, with Sue Rose as the main reader, and open mic with a chance to submit to the annual anthology. As it’s our last Friday Night Writers before Christmas it’s a good chance to have a bit of a ‘bring and buy’ book market, so don’t be shy about bringing along some books to display. If you set them out a couple at a time we’ll have space for everybody. And there will be mince pies and other goodies too!
By keeping admission free, and by charging just £1 for wine (proceeds go to the library user group fund) I hope the event is accessible to everybody, and also that it’s more tempting for audience members to buy a book from the table – by whichever authors and publishers appeal most.