Pulped Fiction

It’s every writer’s dream to see copies of their masterpiece on the shelves of a bookshop, but there are good reasons why that might not happen for 10:59. At least, not yet.

Like every author, I used to daydream about herds of voracious readers browsing in their favourite local book store, drawn to my novel by its eye-catching cover, tempted by the intriguing blurb, and willingly parting with their hard-earned cash. (And then, of course – having been wowed by my scintillating prose – returning a couple of weeks later to buy extra copies for friends and family.)

The reality is rather more cut-throat and commercial than those romantic notions. Publishers and book retailers are all about making money. Who knew? The big publishing houses pay to have their titles displayed prominently in shops. They pay extra to have the book at eye level and to have the front cover facing outward on the shelves. They pay even more to bag a coveted spot near the front of the store, on the end of an aisle or beside the cash till. They pay for table displays, they pay for window displays, they pay for those sweet little recommendation labels.

This means that if, like me, you get your cherished masterpiece out into the big wide world via one of the many small-but-excellent independent publishers, we’re not exactly talking equal opportunities. Not only are you a nobody – a new author who no one’s ever heard of, with a debut novel no one knows exists – but it’s highly unlikely that your publisher has an obscene amount of cash in their pockets to splurge on prime shelf space and lots of advertising. Let’s face it: the odds are stacked against your precious baby becoming a runaway best-seller. Instead, you must rely heavily on reviews and personal recommendations from one reader to another. You must earn your success slowly, instead of buying it fast.

Now we come to the biggest handicap facing those poor, starving authors who dream of seeing their books for sale in the High Street. Retailers can’t afford to take risks, especially on new writers. Again, who knew? They prefer to buy books on a ‘consignment’ or ‘sale-or-return’ basis, which means they can return any unsold copies for a full refund. Perfectly understandable, but it’s another reason why the playing field is about as level as the Grand Canyon: the big publishers can afford to offer this, while most indie publishers supply their titles on a ‘print-on-demand’ basis.

So where do books go to die? What happens to all those unsold copies of Confessions of a Human Resources Professional, and Fifty Favourite Turnip Recipes, and My Bum Smells Like a Barnyard? Well, a lot of them get pulped. Thanks to the bizarre and extravagantly wasteful way in which the book industry still operates, over-ordering results in millions of trees being felled unnecessarily and hundreds of thousands of unloved tomes being murdered in a variety of gruesome ways: those precious pages are chopped up, dissolved in acid, incinerated, buried in landfill… Despite attempts to make publishing greener, an estimated 40% of books that get printed are never sold.

Before you reach for your violin on my behalf, none of this is meant as a whinge; I’m just telling it like it is. Most publishers and retailers don’t have it easy. I have no regrets whatsoever about choosing an independent publisher. I’m one of those old-fashioned souls who doesn’t own an e-reader and prefers to hold a physical book in their hands. (Mmm, smell those pages… Look at them, feel them, turn them…) Bookshops are wonderful places and I’m especially in favour of supporting the indies who are passionate about their trade. I’m happy that my book is supplied on a print-on-demand basis that’s more environmentally-friendly.

Anyway, if you’re wondering why your nearest shop doesn’t stock 10:59, now you know some of the reasons. And if you see me pushing sales via Amazon and pleading for reviews to be posted there, it’s because we’re all slaves to the algorithms nowadays, and that’s what I need to do to try and get my little book noticed… at least until word gets out and every self-respecting book store wants to carry a few copies of 10:59.

Right, I’m off to nudge for more reviews and start work on My Turnip Smells Like a Human Resources Professional. Wish me luck.

Posted by N R Baker