Thursday, 24 October 2013

Return to Sender

Yes, it's a case of that old Elvis song when it comes to so many books on the shelves. As an author-come-bookseller, it's an eye-opening experience to work on the flip side of my great interest and love, books.

My boss says she used to have the desire to write a book. After ten years in the industry, this desire has passed. I've only been doing this a month and a half, but I can really see her point. A new release has its five seconds of fame on the top shelf or its proud spot in pole position by the door, then it is ousted in favour of even newer releases. The ones who remain are established writers, major prize-winners, and those with brilliant write-ups or word of mouth.

You get a stunning cover and a nice trade paperback to present yourself to buyers who do not know you. At best, you can expect anywhere from 2-8 weeks with a 'face out' (the cover facing outward to potential buyers), then it's spines for one and all.


If you've been on the shelf for 6 months or longer, you'll vie for attention as you disappear amid the many others - if you're lucky. If you're there any longer than six months, there's a strong chance you'll be returned to the sender from whence you came in order to make room for books that ARE selling. If you go unnoticed further still, you may go on sale - and remain in the sale bin til at last you are purchased by a bargain hunter who has a budget of $15 to spend on three books (that's five bucks a piece).

Conversely, if you ARE selling, you may remain in trade paperback format for several months before moving to smaller paperback format. If your sales were great, you'll stay there for a while, provided you do keep moving off the shelves and into the bags of customers who decided they liked your story. If your sales were outstanding, you may be privileged to get another print run or even offered a special edition hard back.


What amazes me is how big names (I mean HUGE names) can write the most crass and terrible work, and get the sales because someone who mattered said they were good. I am amazed at how winning a major prize will summon the attention of readers EVERYWHERE who religiously buy because notoriety has been won by accolade, and yet this suddenly acclaimed work will never appeal to so many purely because it's not their cup of tea.

Biggles Delivers the Goods

There are books I have read and loved only to watch them fade into obscurity, whilst others I have seen in the $5 bin, hiding out there as 'sleepers'. These books have been through the format wringer and not survived. They are sold dirt cheap, then one day resurrect into massive fame and fortune and perhaps even win movie rights. I feel sad for the sleepers - these underrated babies of literary goodness.

It's a harsh world out there, writers. Write to shine, lest you sleep forever. You simply must stand out.

No wonder publishers look for only the best of the best of the best. Get acquainted with what is out there. Find out what gets attention, and select the best qualities of these works to consider. Look at your own work. Have someone read it. If it doesn't have any hook, start again.

Richard Flanagan of The Narrow Road to the Deep North re-wrote his work 10 times before settling on the newly published version. It has paid off, and people are asking for it. We had to get more in to supply demand. Why? Read it and see for yourself... if you like the sound of it ;)

Another book that has just hit the shelves in large numbers (which I won't mention here ;) is sensationalism. It will sell because the author wrote something utterly shocking the first time round, and this walk around the park is made to be even more sensationalist that the first time. People will read it purely because the first one made such waves.

Current movers and shakers are these:
a)  Coal Creek by Alex Miller  (I will read this soon)
b)  Eyrie by Tim Winton  (I will not read this)
c)  The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton  (sounds interesting)
d)  Burial Rites by Hannah Kent  (I loved this)
e)  The 39-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths (Bwahahaha!!!! All kids should collect these)
f)  The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks  (It'll probably be a movie)
g)  Vicious Circle by Wilbur Smith  (Guaranteed never to bomb)

Among others, there are storylines so done that I can't stand to pick up another book along the same lines, and yet people clamber to read the same twists over and over again because the author writes it so well (Linda Chaikin, there's a gap for more solid pirate stories if you're so inclined).

Are you learning anything from this? It's a big, tough, nasty, amazing publishing world out there. Have no illusions. Be ruthless and make your writing stunning to all who cast their eye upon it. If you end up in the $5 bin, you cannot rely on being a sleeper. You may just be deceased.

 "What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1v9

Ce qui a existé, c'est ce qui existera, et ce qui s'est fait, c'est ce qui se fera. Il n'y a rien de nouveau sous le soleil.


  1. Hello Mercey,

    I write for children. I'm transitioning into it from engineering. You have some great advice here. I found your blog looking for other writers. Good luck with your writing.

    If you get a chance, stop by my writing blog, "Brianwoods" and say hello.


  2. Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy the transition. It's a big publishing world out there, so do well!
    Will stop by shortly...