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Bookstores and the Mid-list Writer

24 February 2013

From author Matt Hilton on Pulp Publisher:

Like many other mid-list authors I’m fighting a losing battle to get my books onto physical bookshelves these days, and instead of seeing the numbers of my books growing in availability I’m finding that fewer bookshops now carry them than when I was a newbie on the scene a few years ago.

. . . .

But then you have to also look at the way that the chain bookshops have largely turned their backs on supporting the mid-list authors and simply stacking tables with the ‘big names’, the ‘latest fad’ or questionable ‘biographies’ allegedly penned by questionable ‘celebrities’.  Even if/when a chain carries books, you’re lucky if they carry a single copy which, when sold, isn’t reordered, so the chance of selling in quantities is now a thing of the past.

I’ve observed shoddy practice at a sales floor level. I once went into a Waterstones store in Birmingham – after travelling hours and hundreds of miles – to sign copy for them. The sales assistant gave me a blank look and then said, ”Oh, we forgot to order them in.” Another time I went in a Scottish Waterstones store to sign stock and introduced myself. The manager said, “Never heard of you, mate.” I then explained my book was (at that time) in their company top ten best sellers, to which he replied, “Oh, they have a different chart in England.” He then ignored me and walked away. On another occasion I went into a WHSmith store to sign stock (a few weeks after the book came out) and discovered that not only were the books on a pallet in the warehouse they were being sent back having never been put out on sale. Most authors will have similar tales to tell, and although such practices are harmful they do tend only to be at a local level, and not massively destructive to a career. But then larger problems persist.

. . . .

In excitable fashion I was telling all my readers ‘The book’s now available!”, only to receive replies from readers in the fashion of “Matt, it’s not in my local shop.” I then encouraged them that they should go in to the shop and order a copy. Only for the reply from the shop to be along the lines of: “Sorry, but our distributor isn’t carrying any copies and there’s no date available for when the book will be in stock.” Was I gutted to learn this? Not half! Thinking that there was a distribution problem from my publisher’s end I contacted them and was told some disturbing news. There was no problem from the publisher’s end just that neither WHSmith nor Waterstones had made any advance orders on the book. Doubly-gutted. When enquiring why, I heard some equally disturbing replies. Waterstones have almost completely withdrawn from selecting full priced mass-market hardbacks, and offer very few central promotions, so it is down to individual buyers in each shop to decide on the books they carry.  (In other words they’ll stick to the established big sellers, thank you very much). Although individual stores can take orders, the book isn’t carried in their distribution hub, so therefore it is difficult to source.

. . . .

[Quoting another author] “This happened to (his book), which I think is the best novel I’ve ever written. It was released exactly as Waterstones put a moratorium on new buys so month of release it was almost impossible to find anywhere except for places like Forbidden Planet and indie booksellers. Then when Penguin released (his next book) I got ZERO bookstore distro through Waterstones and Smiths because ‘my last book didn’t sell’ which was the one they didn’t stock because of their bloody lock-down on buying as they were going bust. The reality for me is, when I turn the new novel in to the agent in a couple of months, I’m looking at a pseudonym and hoping a second bite at the cherry works as they’ve completely screwed up any high street value I had.” He went on to say: “Frankly mate, it’s heartbreaking and exhausting. I’ve seen myself go from #2 on Amazon to unfindable in about 26 months… I spent the best part of 20 years building up a reputation for working hard, delivering on time, hitting a level of quality and reliability with editors… and my first bloody book with Penguin didn’t even get STOCKED. What am I supposed to do? I have no answers. So really, it’s like saying the last 20 years don’t count, I’ve got to start again from scratch. When the new novel goes out basically no one will know it’s me…”

. . . .

[Yet another author] told me that his first book came out on both sides of the Atlantic published by a major publishing house. It did well in sales and was even number 1 in the German paperback charts. When his second novel came out, his publisher messed up, and distribution barely occurred. Because book 2 didn’t sell, they decided not to publish his third book and pulled his contract. No fault of his, but his career went down the Swanny. Fighting back, said author then released a book through self-publishing means and it was a medium hit. It gained him enough notice that he was picked up by another agent who sold his next series to a major publisher in the USA for a substantial advance fee. Because the US bought publication rights, then so did Canada, and on the back of it the UK also took the series. Then the initial US editor left the company, and in what almost sounds like a fit of spite the publisher cancelled all the deals on books commissioned by that editor. But that wasn’t the end of it. Because the US was no longer publishing his books, the Canadian publisher decided they wouldn’t bother either, and, yes, the UK publisher soon made the same decision. This author had done absolutely nothing wrong, but was dumped on from a very great height. Bad enough luck for anyone to contend with, except now his name is dirt in the publishing world and nobody will touch him. I reiterate: this author did absolutely nothing wrong, it was bad decisions and bad practices that killed his career and he is now right back to the drawing board to try to resurrect his writing and his name.

Link to the rest at Pulp Publisher and thanks to Catherine for the tip.


Big Publishing, Bookstores

53 Comments to “Bookstores and the Mid-list Writer”

  1. I would have read the full article, but I can’t read white type on black backgrounds. Reverse type is meant to be seen in small chunks, which is why you never see full articles in print magazines displayed in reverse type.

    My eyes! They burn!

  2. “book came out on both sides of the Atlantic published by a major publishing house.”


    The system is a mess, even within Amazon.

    “Slated,” by Teri Terry, a book I am interested in buying is $11 at Amz.com


    In the UK, it’s £4.49, (which is a bit short of $7)


    I CANNOT buy the UK version, even though it’s obviously the same book. I’ll be in the UK soon, I wonder if I’ll be able to buy it while there. I can’t using a VPN, from here.

    A annoying mess, which is more likely to put off a prospective customer, who feels ripped off in one place, and not the other.

    Digital is international. Get to it, you snooze, you lose.


    • The fact that people and markets will pay different prices for essentially the same good is one of the oldest problems of economics: for every buyer you gain by lowering the price, you give up money from the buyer who would have paid more.

      (I am reminded of a garage sale I had when I moved out of the house I lived in during college: I had a particular thing priced at $20, and someone came up to me and said, “Will you take $15?” I said, “Sure.” After paying it, he grinned rather nastily and said, “I would have given you $20.” I smiled pleasantly back and said, “I’d have taken $10.”)

      I’m not saying that is why this price discrepancy in particular exists: I’d be willing to bet it’s just dumbeffery. But in general, they do exist, and they can exist for quite logical reasons.

  3. Most browsers have a way to turn off the formatting that comes from the site; on my Firefox (Mac), if you select from the View menu, Page style=No style, you can see the whole thing black on white.

    You lose the shape of the page, so it’s just a kludge for meanwhile.

    I agree with you: white on black is hard. I blame it on older eyes – maybe we’re subtly being told we’re not in the demographic?

    Stylistic choice – just as I am free to choose not to read, or to cancel the site’s formatting. Thank God and the browsers for choices.

    • For a quick way to peruse hard-to-read fonts or page color schemes, on a PC hold the control key down and press the “a” key, which highlights the whole page.

      Now hold the control key down and press the “c” key, which copies it to the clipboard.

      Now open a blank page in your word processor or text editor. With the cursor in that window hold the control key down and this time press the “v” key, which pastes the text into the W/P or T/E screen.

      (The above is a quick basic “copy and paste all” operation.)

      Now it’s black text on white background with (usually) no distracting images or ads. If you need to see them, just look at the original page again (click anywhere on the screen to turn off highlighting).

      Need to save a copy for future reference? It’s right there. Delete the sections you don’t want and then save, naming the file so you know what it is and can find it again. When I do this, I copy the URL from the address bar in the browser and add it to the top of the page so I know where I got the information.

      This can all probably be done on a Mac too, but I know nothing about them and don’t know the steps.


      • Click on the page in the area you want and press Command-A (to Select All). Press Command-C to copy, go into your text program of choice, and Command-V pastes. (And Command-S saves. 🙂 )

        Most Mac and PC commands are identical, except on the Mac, they use “Command” (or “curly-key” or “clover,” depending on slang) instead of Control.

      • I know how to change my browser. I’m a web manager and have been online since the mid-80s. It is a matter of choice, but I refuse to frequent blogs and websites that use color schemes that hurt to read.

        I have yet to find a site that is so appealing that I’m willing to change the way I browse the internet. If I’m really interested in the page, I’ll copy-paste it into a text document and read it that way, or find the print version if it exists.

        On the other hand, I have talked many bloggers into getting rid of their reverse type skins. Anyone with half a brain can understand that you’re going to lose readers if you use a color scheme that’s too hard to read.

        • “color scheme that’s too hard to read.”


          Too right.

          Any particular scheme, font you prefer?


          • Not really, Brendan. I think serifs are more readable, but that may be personal preference. The major factor to readability is contrast (the good kind, not the opposite kind). If you have light grey type on, say, a pale blue background, the type is going to be harder to read. Black type is your friend. Or at least, dark grey.

            Designers are very good at making attractive, pretty pages, but they suck at typography (with a few notable exceptions).

            • Meryl,


              I did some DTP back in the 90’s and it was amazing
              how creative folks paid zero attention to logic.

              They’d put huge screeds of info on the front page and
              fight me like a crazed dog when I attempted to make it digestible.

              This is the same thing, different cloth. Just as batty.


              • I’ve got two decades of publishing experience, starting in paste-up on AM Varitypers (where you had to change the cassette to go from roman to italic fonts) in college. Went through the DTP revolution, then the web. One thing that stays unchangeable is that they expect you to do the impossible, for less money than you deserve, in less time than is needed, and also, while you’re at it, make sure it’s perfect. And if it isn’t, it’s your fault.

                I’m so hoping that my novels catch on with readers, so I don’t have to deal anymore. Except on my own terms.

        • This reminds me of a creature I used to know, whose preferred colour scheme for reading text on a screen was — wait for it — purple on black.

          If you guessed from this that he did not have half a brain, you would, I fear, be right.

      • If I have to go to that much trouble, I shouldn’t bother. If the writer prefers a format that half-blinds the readers, then he/she deserves to be passed by for more readable articles.

  4. But…but….traditional publishing is STILL the way to go!

  5. “This author had done absolutely nothing wrong, but was dumped on from a very great height. Bad enough luck for anyone to contend with, except now his name is dirt in the publishing world and nobody will touch him.”

    I’ve got news for the author. The “Publishing World” is a much larger planet than you imagine. I and many others have formed our own islands on that planet and the weather in my little corner of the “Publishing World” is sunny and dry.
    Writers no longer have to take crap from Legacy publishers. It’s a choice now, not an unavoidable condition.

  6. I went to a barnes and noble in raleigh on way to the airport and they have less books than they used to have, I was looking in a section on history books and it has shrunk I was looking for a book that is a new best seller about the vietnam war and they didn’t have it, I can go on amazon and see the top 100 new books about it and top 100 best selling books on the it, I think these books stores are going to die out, on the plane a lot of the people were reading on a pad device or playing on one. When I was in the book store I got mad because the books that they push up the front are mostly garbage books in my opinion – the ones that are history books at least. I went into a little airport bookstore, it was small and pushing the big name best selling books… but it was the same crap books in the barnes and noble that was being pushed. Point is how is barnes and noble any different than a little book store in an airport? They just got more toys and a coffee store in it. Screw it, that is probably the last time I will go in one just order from amazon and the used book stores that let you buy from them too.

  7. This, BTW, is why I refuse to be sorry for book stores, especially the chains. They brought this on themselves by killing the midlist back in the eighties and nineties.

    They’re the ones that turned the publishers into the big hit chasers they are. They have driven the industry too long.

    They’re also the ones who aggressively went after the small independent booksellers and put so many of them out of business. (And I noticed that in some cases, the surviving “indies” did so by behaving just like the chains, and pushing the best sellers and abandoning the midlist as well.)

  8. Interesting. I occurs to me that there are parallels between bookselling and grocers. Grocery stores hold the most power in the distribution of food. There are so many suppliers that they simply refuse to carry foods without a substantial profit margin. Result: big players like Nabisco, with huge operations that wring the maximum amount from factory organization can play. Small, local producers cannot. And the farmers who grow the foundation – food – get the biggest squeeze of all.

    The difference: nourishment can’t be made digital. At least…not yet! 😀

  9. IMHO, authors really need to get over bookshelf obsession. Consider it a case of unrequited love and just learn to let it go. Readers in droves are already abandoning physical bookstores because bookstores long since have failed to serve our needs as customers. Honestly, shopping on Amazon is a PLEASURE compared to going to a bookstore these days. Authors should be less concerned about getting on bookstore shelves and more concerned with making their books available on the platforms that readers are turning to.

    ” The chances of anyone browsing [Amazon] and coming across a little known author’s book are minimal.”

    And this statement from the article is just ridiculous. Hasn’t this guy ever browsed Amazon? It’s the easiest thing in the world to find new, promising authors. But we all know that.

    • Sarah – I agree with both your points.

      Bookstores are fading and authors would be best served by letting them go.

      And finding things on Amazon is incredibly easy. Much easier than finding something in a bookstore!

  10. I’m with Camille McGuire on this. Bookstores are as responsible for the failure of midlist authors (and their numbers are probably in the thousands and their tales just like those cited above) as the publishers who permit the stores to order and then return books within a few short weeks (most likely never having placed them on the shelves). To add insult to injury, the authors’ royalties are then frozen to cover the cost of returns.
    Moral: do not sign with a publisher unless the money is such that they had better promote you. My guess: 7 figures.

    • I’d probably say at least a hefty 6 figures. But to get either, I.J., writing the ‘best book you’ve ever done’ ain’t enough. There can’t even be a whiff of ‘mid-list’ to your book. Now, more than ever, your book has to be that rip-off of some other writer’s best-seller, or YA or Romance, or whatever is currently popular. Sailing past the traditional gate-keepers of clashing rocks and sirens on the good ship Digital to get back to mid-list “Ithaca” is no sure thing, but hey,it’s the journey, right?

  11. I didn’t go read the entire article, but the example of the author who “fought back” by self-publishing, had a “medium hit,” and then jumped when he was offered another traditional deal instead of continuing to self-publish made me think of the abused woman syndrome. She gets away long enough for the broken bones and bruises to heal and then goes back for more. Hard to believe so many authors are hit-me-again types, but it seems to be true.

    • @ Ellen – alittle chilling, but right on point. If you go back to a corporation that trashed you, don’t expect to be treated differently.

      And the question: Why would anyone go back?

  12. So this is how the “universe takes care of you” if you trust yourself to the traditionalist publishing machine, circa 20-teens…

    Head-shaking material. 🙁

    Makes a nice companion piece to David Gaughran’s article:

    I think there is a generation gap opening up between those willing to try alternatives to the machine and those preferring to go down with the ship. And the biggest effect is going to be felt in the financials.

    • If there is a ‘generation gap’ it is – in my experience anyway! – mostly between older writers like myself, who have become thoroughly disillusioned with traditional publishing and were just waiting to take advantage of the alternatives now available to us and many younger writers who still believe a traditional deal will bring them fame, fortune and promotion. There’s no other way to explain the thing I found most puzzling about the examples cited in this piece – why on earth would these writers go on doing exactly the same thing and expecting different results? Well, I suppose I know why, because I did it myself for many years, always hoping that the next agent, the next publisher would deliver what they promised. None of them did. I agree with Camille about the big book chains as well – they contributed to the squeeze on the mid list along with big publishers whose representatives were loudly and smugly proclaiming the ‘death’ of the midlist and agents who conspired in the whole thing – all of them seemingly without any consideration for what readers might actually want.

      • What I’m thinking is that with the industry under stress, we are starting to see the code of silence breaking all over. People are starting to talk. So far we’re not seeing names named (except in the Harlequin shuffle) but a lot of dirty laundry is getting aired.

        And a lot of newcomers who might’ve been inclined to get on the agent/contract/”advance” treadmill to run as fast as possible, hoping to eventually get somewhere because “that’s how publishing works” are bound to reconsider their options for the new climate. As in, “if that is how *traditional* publishing works, then maybe non-traditional is the way to go because the odds of it being worse are pretty low.”

        In the comments of the original article the issue of self-pub came up and the answer was that yes, it might help. But that a lot of authors don’t have that option because they are “bound by their contracts”.

        Traditional publishing contracts as a form of bondage?
        Now *that* is a disruptive change.

        If that thinking spreads among the “free” writers there will be a “generation gap” between those that started in the business when traditional contracts were accepted practice instead of a potential career killing ball-and-chain, and those who understand advances are loan-sharking, marketting non-existent, access to bookstore shelves declining, and traditionalist royalties paltry. And that even “bestsellers” aren’t best sellers any more. Scary stuff to even consider if you’re not already benefitting from that model.

        The risk-reward balance is changing on both sides of the divide and the grass looks pretty wilted on the traditionalist side. There has always been more to the business than just “keep writing and trust the universe to take care of you” but now it is ever more clear that the writer needs to take care of business themselves. Nobody else is going to take care of you.

      • “many younger writers who still believe a traditional deal will bring them fame, fortune and promotion. ”

        Traditional publishing…the new vanity publishing ?

  13. A friend of mine went through something similar when a regional publisher marked her book as out of print, even though they had many cases of said book in the warehouse so she couldn’t get copies into stores for signings. Then she submitted to another publisher in the same region and they requested she use a pen name because her real one was now ‘poison.’ They ended up not picking her up, but the first publisher’s inability to get her books listed in the system as available made it much harder to pick up a new publisher.

    And yeah, I’ve driven 180 miles for a book signing and arrived to find no one ordered the books. (This happened with 2 different books). I’m so done with signings except for special occasions.

  14. Here’s a related article of a SF writer who is now doing hybrid trade and self-publishing because their trade publisher pushed back distribution of book 3 of a trilogy by over a year.


  15. The author looking at a pseudonym because the publisher messed up should keep the old name — and TPTB are fools to change it.

    That’s how his current audience will find him. They don’t know his last book bombed. Or they might have heard it was coming out, but not seen it, and forgotten all about it.

    They’ll pick up the new one and look at the “also written by” list to see if they missed any, and sales of the other will go up. Maybe not hugely, but some. That’s how I do it, now that buying is so easy. (Before, I’d look at the list, see I’d missed one, and sigh, since I much prefer reading them in order.)

    Focus on the several good books. It will be a fine line, explaining why it’s not his fault one bombed without bad feelings. Maybe best avoided? Not my area to advise in.

    If I ever finish my novel, I’m going to ensure that all rights revert back to me after a set time, unless if they keep it readily available so my fans can find it. Yes, they might skip right over me and go with someone who is less hassle, but that’s better than not being able to continue a series the fans and I love.

    • This would be great advice if his customer was the reader.

      He’s Tradpub, so his customer isn’t the reader, it’s the booksellers, and they’re convinced the old name is poisonous acid in a radioactive beaker. Doesn’t matter if his name would pull readers if the reader’s don’t see it on the books. Which they won’t, ’cause the books won’t be there to be seen. Because of radioactive poison acid.

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