Can it really sell 1,000 copies just like that?

Last week was the best week so far for sales. A well-established author with a big publisher would certainly scoff at the figures, but they were good enough for me, reaching double figures off one order alone. If that happens every week, then it can’t all be bad. Book orders come from Nielson Book Data once a week. They lump them all together and send them out reaching the publisher (all going well if there is no postal delay) around Thursday/Friday each week. Hopefully these are then filled and despatched by the weekend. It does all feel fast and famine though after the weekend, with nothing but the thankless task of promotion until the next eagerly awaited orders when either a celebratory drink or a session of drowning sorrows (only one bottle of Scotch required for either) can take place.

These days any book can appear (and will do) in every retailer’s searchable catalogue listing. An ISBN assures this. Some people may marvel at the idea that this is all it takes to nominally appear in Amazon’s, WH Smith’s or Waterstones’ catalogues. But that’s where the fun stops. Being in a catalogue doesn’t equate to being on the shelves ready to buy. How many books have you ordered that weren’t immediately available? I have only a few and I’m guessing most other people are the same or even less so.

So how did ‘Bringing home the stars’ end up on retailers’ shelves? A lot of hard work behind the scenes sending out review copies, arranging interviews, signings and readings and – probably the most important – sending out literally hundreds of book advance information sheets. Having a product isn’t good enough if people don’t know that it exists. I reckon from a hundred mail outs and quite a few follow-ups it maybe enthuses maybe half a dozen stores to actually stock copies. That’s quite depressing. Remember too that even being on a shelf doesn’t yet mean a sale because of that ol’ chestnut of sale-or-return. SoR means that the publisher is lending a copy or copies to a store until such time as it is sold. Who is to say that all those ordered copies aren’t going to filter back like a bad penny boomeranging their unwelcome return in six months time? We like to think that that won’t happen though, and in most cases it won’t because shops don’t order hundreds of copies to litter their shelves and stock rooms if they don’t think it will sell.

I’ve seen people ask about the problems of small presses. All Mouse Media certainly is a small press – let’s have no illusions. That means that when a review copy plants its way down onto a reviewer’s desk, it doesn’t have the clout of a big-name tome from HarperCollins or Gollancz. Instead, it shuffles to the back of the queue as reviewers prioritise their time, and decide what books may or may not interest their audience anyway. Small presses lose out here, as they haven’t yet got that clout. That’s where being a trailblazer can be really hard work because you have to make that name the hard way. A big publisher established that credibility a long time ago, so don’t need to.

Book readings and signings help a lot. I’ve been booked for some branches of Waterstones as well as an indie shop or two. I’m still dreading the first of these – will I be sat there like a billy-no-mates as people pass on by deciding against having a copy of my book with the author’s squiggle in the front. Hey, if they want an unadulterated copy I’m fine with that.

Sales come from the places you don’t anticipate. I have to admit that I thought as a first timer with a small press that most of the sales would come from dedicated people wanting to check out a bit of indie sci-fi and ordering it through All Mouse Media’s website. Not so. Ironically, it seems that Waterstones is the biggest market. Whether that will continue to be the biggest market, only time will tell.

I tried self-publishing (NOT, I may point out, vanity press) before. It’s a thankless avenue dogged with prejudice as people assume that your book wasn’t good enough for mainstream publishing. There are quite a few books that started out this way, then got picked up by the mainstream later on. I wish I was one of them, but I wasn’t. It’s a competitive market battling against stigma, and for the most part losing. That’s why I was glad that All Mouse Media took me on, even if it does feel only a small mini stepette up from self-publishing. No matter how successful this book is, it still feels like cheating at school sports day. I guess I’ll never evade that feeling, no matter how hard I work at it.

The plan always was to prove the market for ’Bringing home the stars’ then see if a larger publisher would pick it up for the next edition. I’ve been told that this can happen, but it all hinges on a load of ‘if’s ‘but’s and ‘maybe’s. Some first-time novelists with major publishers actually can get only 400 sales off a first hardback. Some score as low as 200 copies. I haven’t seen any figures for paperbacks, but I’m guessing that 1,000 might be a usual figure to aim for. That’s a big target to hit, and I’m not sure how good a shot I am. Time will tell, but it is bloody stressful, I’ll tell you!