Saturday, 23 February 2013

GUEST BLOG: Matt Hilton

Your life in their hands…

A recent comment I made on Facebook raised some debate about the practices followed by the bookshops and publishing industry in general, and Tony Black asked me if I’d write something about it as a guest blog. So, here for your consideration is just a few points I’ve plucked from the discussion. I haven’t an answer to the dilemma that mid-list authors face these days, and am somewhat still befuddled by it all. Likely individuals will have a different take on the subject than I do. But that’s fine. I’m not saying I’m right, only saying what I’ve been witness to.
     For those of you who don’t know me or my writing, I’m Matt Hilton and I’m the author of the Joe Hunter thriller series. In the UK, I’m eight books into the series, and the USA will see publication of books 5 and 6 this year. My first book – Dead Men’s Dust - only missed being a Sunday Times bestseller by a measly 24 copies, and the book was nominated as the Best New Thriller 0f 2009 by ITW (International Thriller Writers). From that statement you’d imagine that I’m thoroughly established as an author and that my books are readily available. To some extent you’d be correct, but maybe you’d be surprised to learn that my books are no way near as well established as you’d think. 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.
    There’s no single specific reason why this has happened, but you can count in the fact that there are fewer bookshops on the high street these days, that many of the supermarkets have cut back on the number of lines they once carried, and that many readers are now turning to Amazon to feed their reading habits. 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.
    I’ve just spent the last six months or so promoting and growing anticipation for the release of my latest book. Rules of Honour – Joe Hunter 8 – was published on 14th February, to glowing reviews and plaudits including this one from a daily newspaper: “Matt Hilton delivers a house-burning, body-slamming car crash of violence. Give it a go, you won’t regret it’ **** The Sun on RULES OF HONOUR”. 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. (In other words, it’s too much trouble to bother, thank you very much).  WHSmith do have a central buying mechanism, but have also scaled back their orders on anything other than the ‘biggest brand names’. Having only taken 230 copies of my previous hardback (and not reordering when those sold out), they said I didn’t sell enough of the previous book and declined to stock Rules Of Honour.
    So in other words, their lack of support last time meant that they pulled all support this time. Good of them.
    Of course I’m not alone in this. This is harming hundreds of other authors who are trying very hard to establish themselves. And this is my reason for having this rant. Surely all those authors deserve a fair bite at the cherry, and their careers should not be ruined by poor practices? But the sad truth is…they are being ruined.
    Here’s a model pointed out to me by a fellow author (who will remain anonymous for the purpose of this blog entry), and how the system worked against him: “Say the average Waterstones ordered 10 copies of book 1 in my new series when it comes out and make a nice display, they sell 7, well I'd normally be chuffed, but it means when book 2 comes out they only order 7 as they won't order more than they sold last time, but with 7 it's not enough for the nice display, so they don't sell seven, they sell 5, but that still means it gets a face out on the shelf. When they order book 3, they only order 5... half the initial buy, and if that only sells 3, book 4 won't even get a face out, diminishing the chances even further of selling...” 
You can guess what comes next. “Due to poor sales we won’t be carrying that author’s books any more.”
    The same author also told me this story: “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…”
    I can sympathise with the author in question. Although I haven’t been harmed as much as he has, I wonder what the future holds. When my last paperback book came out, one of the supermarkets blatantly admitted ‘We won’t be taking any Matt Hilton this time as we’ve no room on the shelves. We’re concentrating on stocking “50 Shades of Grey” and its derivatives and have no space for the other books we’d normally carry.’ Oh, that’s OK then.  So when the next paperback comes out, I can expect your full support? Or will it be a case of ‘Sorry but your last book didn’t sell enough copies so we won’t be carrying this one.’
    Another author I’ve spoken with related a shocking story. Sadly it wasn’t the shops that ruined him, but the very people he relied on to establish him as an author. He 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. And there’s yet more woe to add to the heap. Because his agent felt totally deflated, the author was dropped and began to seek new representation. Guess what the agents checked to see if he was viable? His sales record. Because his sales were poor, they declined. So, a guy who had not only won one major contract, but two, who did absolutely nothing except deliver terrific books readers would have read given the opportunity was all but finished. I haven’t spoken to him in a few months now, and can only hope that his talent and viability as an author has now been recognised and he has a happier story to tell.
    Some people have bemoaned the decline of the bookshops, saying things like “No wonder people now order their books online.” So are platforms like Amazon the future for mid-list authors? In my opinion, no. When I look on Amazon they are actively promoting the exact same books as the chains do. All promo material on site are for the select ‘big names’ or ‘latest fad’ or ‘celebrity biographies’ we see stacked on the bookshop tables. The chances of anyone browsing and coming across a little known author’s book are minimal. To me authors need the exposure to casual browsers through physical bookshops more than ever.
    Now, it sounds I’ve a downer on Waterstones. I haven’t. My local store is very supportive and go out of their way to push my books, and I’m very thankful of their support. They’ve seen that my books do sell in decent numbers given the exposure. Recently they even tied in to the popularity of one author, one of those ‘big names’, whose character had just appeared in a major movie starring a diminutive Hollywood superstar, by placing a shelf full of my books next to his, with the tag “if you like…then you’ll love…” My books sold in high enough numbers that their reordering system kicked in and began ordering five copies of each of my backlist. If only such practices were shared with other stores in the chain I’d be laughing, but alas they aren’t. I’m still struggling to get noticed alongside hundreds of others in the same position trying to do the same. Earlier today, a reader reported to me: “I kid you not, I asked about ROH in Waterstones Crawley and they had nothing on their system about you or the book ????? ( computer says no) Will have a look in Tesco tomorrow or will order it.”
    So there you are. I’m an internationally widely published author with eight books and a number of short collections under my belt, and I’m ‘unfindable’ on their system. What hope for others?
    Like I said at the beginning of this tirade, I’m not the only author in this position, and neither do I have a ready answer to save us all from disappearing from the shelves. I’m playing devil’s advocate somewhat, because I’m still a staunch supporter of bookshops, both the chains and the indies, and of libraries, and this isn’t a dig at them per se, just the tangle of practices we’re all held prisoner to. If you disagree with me, then fair enough, you’ll get no argument. This is only the way I see it and don’t claim to be right. Our careers – if not our lives – are in their hands, so I think we’ve a right to moan when we don’t feel we’re given equal opportunities to survive.
    All that’s left for me to say is: Rules of Honour by Matt Hilton is now available…
…but you might have to ask for it to be ordered, then explain who I am when receiving a blank look.

:: Visit Matt's website