Waterstones' faulty logic
A new Waterstones "directive" apparently requires branches to cancel most local author events. Children's author Alan Gilliland, who has sold over £150,000-worth of books, mainly through signings in the Waterstones chain, is but one author dismayed at this latest move.Simply put, this latest directive suggests that all Waterstones branches should cancel their local author events, with the exception of local book launches or those that are expected to create a queue. The events they retain should last no longer than 90 minutes and be staffed by booksellers throughout. I will add that this means that travelling out of your area is now impossible unless you have a very, very serious following.
Tweeting to my reviewers, I have been receiving a "this is outrageous" reaction. One immediately tweeted to Neil Gaiman and vowed never to buy from Waterstones again if this new policy is strictly enforced. Smaller shops are also apparently disgruntled because good "local" authors help achieve, or exceed, daily targets. Such stores cannot "pull" famous authors, so they will be left out of pocket while impotent to improve their ratings. Rather than this blanket ban, maybe Head Office should have allowed expert local event organisers discretion to permit good sellers but omit ones who are too aggressive or incompetent.
It seems Waterstones' local author/store autonomy drive of last summer has backfired. With the sudden increase in PoD leading to many indifferent and badly designed books, the pressure on stores to permit signings may have resulted in wasted days or complaints. Now the pendulum has swung wildly in the opposite direction. effectively banning all non-crowd-pulling authors, except on a book launch. One can only hope that reason eventually puts a dampener on this lurching from one extreme to the other to one allowing rational choice based on commercial viability to permeate the rank and file bookstores while permitting new authors the chance to prove their viability, as I once did in Guildford, selling more books in my first signing than most authors invited to the concurrent Guildford Book Festival that year.
I hope that the intention is simply to remove the "presumption of a right to hold signings" regardless of the merits of the book or competency of the author. But as it stands, very few shops are going to tie up a member of staff as warden to authors even where they can drum up enough support to gather a queue - and how much extra work is that for a store, prior to any event, let alone having a bookseller hand-sell on the author's behalf?
Having turned over 8,500 Curd the Lion at £15 and 3,000 Flight of Birds at £10 in toto, mostly through signings where staff order the stock (that is, where they don't insist the author brings it with him/her) and then provide a table, I have put something approaching £150,000 through Waterstones tills in this way. I have, it now transpires, foolishly based my business model around the bricks-and-mortar chain as opposed to ebooks because of my love for the printed quality of my illustrated book and its unsuitability as an ebook, for I am about to be rewarded for all the hard work I have put in by a dismissal of service without accounting the small contribution I have personally made to their own continued viability.
Last year, out of area, I toured Southern England, selling over 1,100 books from Exeter to Ipswich over five weeks. In the lead-up to Christmas, I sold 806 (at £15 and £10). Not inconsiderable for an author unknown to every customer on introduction. This edict presages an end to that era in Waterstones of the "discovery" of a new author that so many of my own clients have told me they found enchanting as I talked them into my nonsense adventures with my storyboards.
Is it not sad that, at the same time as James Daunt is very laudably promoting across the chain a beautiful book by an unknown author, (Chingiz Aïtmatov's Jamilia), this draconian edict effectively bans all authors of possible merit but unknown to the chain's customers from the opportunity to gently build a following while seemingly welcoming any celebrity, regardless of merit, who can amass a crowd.
Mark this day with a black stone, as Charles Dodgson would say.
In an era when rank commercialism herds those curators of quality - the major publishers - into frantically rushing out clones of the latest "hot product" to placate their shareholders where the bidding frenzy failed to secure them that new market-leading "product", is it not largely left to the small publishers of old-fashioned integrity to support writers of potential merit through their formative years before success sees them snatched away? How many will be able to continue to do so now, knowing their protégés will get only one shot at bricks-and-mortar success in the biggest chain in Britain unless they can secure an outstanding review in the disappearing book pages of the national newspapers to endear them to that older generation of book buyers who still read newspapers?
Authors will surely be compelled to engage in the frantic banter of self-promotion via online social media to grow their readerships, which itself drives online sales through Amazon, which itself diminishes the need to pop down to the old store to make serendipitous discovery or meet and chat to a real live author (and for many such an intimate exchange with any author carries a certain magic).
No, the future for the customer is endlessly to queue for a cursory glance and a quick squiggle with their idol.
If I had not received this generous support from Waterstones and other bricks-and-mortar bookstores, along with that from Lovereading4kids website, my book would never have reached the eyes of educationalists such as Margaret Mallett who, in her award-winning guide for teachers and student-teachers, Choosing and Using Fiction and Non-Fiction 3-11 (David Fulton), gave Curd the Lion a half-page box, saying: "It's not surprising this book has been compared with Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear: riddles and word play, mysteries and surprises are wonderfully interwoven. The play on names is superb." She prefaced the chapter by saying that "in a necessarily selective account, I have been concerned to pick out some of the best writers and most memorable titles which have survived over the years and which I think are likely to continue to be read." And I would never have discovered, as I did last week, touring Waterstones in Somerset, that Curd the Lion is shortly to be the subject of a lecture by a professor at Bath Spa University. Surely such incremental discovery and recognition of the virtue in a work - in this case in academic circles - must be some proof of the value of permitting unknown authors a platform?
Of course my first acknowledgement came from the most amazing source, John Gray, to whom I am hugely indebted, who gave me permission to use his comment in whatever way might help sell my book: "Gilliland's mix of upside-down logic and serious whimsy is nonsense of the highest calibre. The best thing to have happened to children's literature since Alice went through the looking-glass. I was particularly taken by the Labyrinth chapter. The whole seemed to me delightful - in the magical tradition of George Macdonald, but with an extra dimension of nonsense and wit of its own."
Alan Gilliland is an artist, draughtsman and author by trade. He did not go to art college, preferring devious paths to the realisation of his creative ambitions via film-making, architecture, photo-journalism, newspaper cartooning and news information graphics – with 18 years and 19 awards as graphics editor of the Daily Telegraph – before finally arriving at the decision to write and illustrate fictions less ordinary than his own life. His former boss, Sir Max Hastings said of him: "… an exceptionally gifted artist and illustrator… I can endorse as simply ‘the best'."