My foray into investigative journalism…uncovering the secrets of the publishing world
I have been frustrated recently.
I’m a writer, but first, and most importantly, I am a reader. I adore stories, and more than anything, I adore science-fiction. But it has to be the right kind of science-fiction. Fantasy is good too. I love Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss, that sort of world. They’re so beautifully crafted it’s nigh on impossible not to adore them.
I love cyberpunk, dystopian, low-tech, high-concept, high-tech / high concept. Far out worlds and humour. Give me humour!
But, and here is where the frustration is coming from. I am struggling to source the kind of sci-fi I want to read.
That led me to recently start going back to bookshops to see what was available in print form. I tried the supermarkets first – Tesco and the like. But the book shelves were filled with the same names. Lee Child. James Patterson. Stephen King.
Ah, now I love those authors. They are masters at their craft, but they are not the only writers in the world, and none of the supermarkets had any sci-fi / fantasy other than the huge sellers everyone has already read.
I figured I would try Waterstones and popped over to my local one. I went in, selected a bunch of awesome looking science-fiction books, and went home in a happy state of glee.
Sadly though, I’ve ditched 3 of them within the first couple of chapters, and it’s not looking so good for the others.
…Jajajabobincham picked up the flooglestrummer and fired a pramstack at the huggypoos but there were too many flowing through the quadzilchy, so he took to his quambam and flew off into thegrambon
Seriously. Wtf is that? Some (most) are opening up like that. You have to work soooo hard to read the story, or there is no story and it’s just something to do with huggypoos and pramstacks. New language is cool to an extent, but these books are drowning in it.
They were just not floating my boat, and so, in a pique of interest, I decided to explore this further and examine the content within the science-fiction bookshelves of my local Waterstones.
I duly donned a disguise. A big bushy fake beard, thick glasses, and a wig of tumbling locks. For clothes I wore a gorgeous summer frock complete with big rubber boots and a tote shoulder bag filled with gadgets to be deployed in the event of capture. You know, the normal stuff, small steel balls to throw at my pursuers in case of a comedy chase sequence. A slippery banana skin. A big roll out pretend tunnel entrance to pin across a brick wall. An Acme anvil. A jetpack. Some rope and even the CSI boxsets for emergency watching to forensically remove all trace of myself from the bookshop. CSI MIAMI, CSI NEW YORK, CSI LOS ANGELES and of course, CSI Isle of Wight (who still aren’t entirely convinced on that whole DNA thing ).
Bookshops are funny places. Quiet like libraries but driven by the greed of retailers. A juxtaposition as it were of learned repose mingled with cut-your-throat sales tactics, where the sale advisers nod meaningfully as they barcode scan the Rushdie you just bought. ‘Would you like some mints with that?’ they ask, waving a hand at the small tins of mints. ‘No thanks. ‘Emergency poncho?’ ‘No thanks.’ ‘Novelty pen and notepad? Jokey gizmo that predicts the future? New mortgage? Plastic bag for 5p? life insurance? Buy something else or I will stab you…’
But I was prepared for this you see, not the up-selling, but the whole bookshop vibe. I slipped inside in my guise of an educated bearded lady in a summer frock and rubber boots and made my way gently towards the biography section where some people off the telly talk about that one time they struggled for money and had to choose between a new car or the luxury holiday to Morocco. Poor sods. Nice covers though. Either huge smiles, or serious and wistful, or black and white and edgy, with a hint of violence. Reality TV is quite brutal apparently.
Anywho, so I duly paid my respects to the books of people I have never heard about, and slowly progressed around the podiums and stands bearing new books. Oh, the lust was there. I wanted to loiter and stare at the covers, and gently stroke the edges of the spines, then pick them up to finger the cardboard outers and inhale that special pheromone inducing scent of new book.Kiera Knightly and Scarlet Johannsen should ditch their perfume adverts and do eau du parfum Musk of New Book, designed to drive nerds to orgasmic expulsion within a few seconds. The advert would have Keira Knightly in a black Ninja outfit, running from some baddies while exciting music plays. She’d pause at a corner of a hemmed in, yet surprisingly clean and colourful shanty town, and open her tote shoulder bag to throw steel balls over the floor before pinning a fake tunnel entrance to a wall. Then she’d run off and leap from a bridge while throwing her tote bag to Scarlet Johannsen passing underneath on a barge. Scarlet would drop to a knee and open the bag just as more baddies pour onto the deck of the barge. Oh no! She’s surrounded…what to do??? She takes out the bottle of eau du parfum Musk Of New Book and sprays it into the air, instantly making the baddie henchmen come to a crashing stop as they sniff about and fall down to writhe in orgasmic delight, just as Kiera Knightly tries to leap onto the barge but misses and falls in the water. Scarlet just shrugs. She doesn’t like Kiera anyway .
After dallying about the new book podiums, I veered gently into the fact book section where bearded men of a certain age loiter and blast air through hairy noses. ‘Why can’t I see a book on 1957 British car seat texture design? Hmmm? What kind of bookshop is this?’ Those types refuse to ever look on Amazon. Even when they ask for help and everyone else in the whole High Street stops and calls out: ‘HAVE YOU CHECKED AMAZON?’ they sneer and tut and pretend not to have heard.
From fact book into graphic novels and comics; the most dangerous passage of all, where anything with a heartbeat tries to move along without gaining the attention of the teenage boys that will dry hump the legs of strangers while their spots burst puss. Quietly now. Shush. Step after step. Don’t make eye contact. One of them paused in his reading. Fourteen and so full of hormones he would probably go home and fuck a bucket. Silence. Stay still. He started to look up. Fear grew. People swallowed and pursed their lips, but the boy scratched his spotty face and popped a few face-volcanoes before making his winky grow big from looking at the latex figures in his comic .
A sigh of relief and I broke free to reach the mainstream FICTION section. Gosh. A-murders a plenty here eh? But it’s cool, cos like, DI DC DS DCI PC PS CI Coroner DA Forensic Examiner retired ex-marine-corp, FBI CIA MI5 MI6 DEA agent-with-a-secret will totally solve all the crimes. Yay! The general fiction section is kinda like mainstream fashion. It’s the biggest and the most-selling, but everyone else looks at it with disdain. Oh, you read crime thrillers do you?Said in a verrrry judgmental tone
Then woohoo! I made it into the science-fiction and fantasy section. It felt like home. Geeks and nerds aplenty, but not dark like the bucket-fucking teenagers, and not bearded in the way of the refusing-to-admit-Amazon-exists huffer and tutter hobbyists. Normal folk. The most normal of all. People who dig speculative fiction. That’s what they call it apparently. Those in the biz (London bubble). The old publishing biz (London bubble). We all call it sci-fi. They call it Speculative Fiction. Or Spec Fiction. Or Spec Fic. Or Sp Fi. Or SF What, like SF as in Science-Fiction? No! Don’t be a knob. SF as in Speculative Fiction . Ah, gotcha.
Anywho, so I had made it. I was embedded on my secret spy mission and ever so casually I slid my secret spy image capturing device (phone) and secretly snapped the shelves, but like a greenhorn newbie spy I hadn’t turned the shutter noise off! Disaster. Every head snapped over. Spots stopped bursting. Legs ceased getting humped. New books stopped getting licked. Beardies, bucket-fuckers and armed sales-persons stopped mid-stab to look over. ‘FUCK IT!’ I grabbed another couple of quick pics then gave it billy big legs. ‘RUN AWAY!!!’ ‘GET HIM,’ someone yelled and they burst to action. I’d broken the rule you see. I’d taken a picture inside a bookshop. People don’t do selfies in bookshops. I couldn’t very well tell them it wasn’t a selfie and that actually I was on a secret spy mission, could I? I ran hard. I ran fast. Back through the general fiction section where DI DS DC CI DA Coroner ex-marine-crop has-a-secret-to-hide agents tried to stop me. ‘HAHA!’ I yelled and threw my steel balls about the place. On I ran, into the graphic novels and comic section with puss exploding bucket fuckers launching at my legs. ‘HAHA’ I yelled and deployed the slippery banana skin which made them think of moist things which in turn made them all drop to try and hump it. ‘DO YOU WANT A PONCHO?’ a sales-person armed with a sword leapt in front of me. ‘MINTS? ALMANAC? DIARY?’ ‘I just want to get out!’ ‘Buy a bag for life and I’ll hold them back…’ ‘Fuck it. Fine! 5p…’ ‘Bags for life are 10p.’
Out the door and into the shanty town where I tried to run into a tunnel but bounced off a brick wall instead. What wanker put that there ?On I ran. Onto the Bridge of Destiny. ‘HAYWOOD!’ Scarlet yelled out, passing underneath me on the Barge of Truth and Justice. I threw my tote bag down and launched after it. Scarlet caught the bag and whipped out the Eau Du New Book Musk as I missed and landed in the water. ‘Scarlet!’ I cried out as the Barge of Truth and Justice passed by with a strange scent of new book in the air. ‘Don’t bother,’ Kiera Knightly said. Splashing about next to me. ‘Scarlet’s a right bitch…’ Scarlet just shrugged while about her feet the baddies writhed in ecstasy.
Later. I retrieved my image capturing device (phone) and discovered that in my panic, I had only managed to get a picture of two bookshelves within the SF section. That being SF as in Science-Fiction. However, it did give me some data to work with. Albeit somewhat limited, and I then undertook an intense period of journalistic investigation. The results of which I shall present here:
Of those two shelves there were 29 books from 16 authors. Cos, you know, some of those greedy authors had written more than one book. I know right! Tuts. 29 books. 16 authors. Of those 16 authors, only 5 were British. Of those 5 British authors, 2 were educated at either Cambridge or Oxford (where they make all the Prime Ministers, and Foreign Secretaries, and members of the Royal Family) and 1 works for Waterstones. Only the two remaining British authors were normal, in the sense of either not working for the company that owns the bookshop or being born into righteous entitlement. Ouch! Miaow…
Of those 16 authors, more than half had not completed their Amazon UK author profiles. In some instances, there was no Amazon profile on any site. (You have to manually update author profiles in US and UK) That might not seem a biggie, but to me it is. You see, those books are published and taking away bookshelf space from super talented authors that are very hungry and putting in tons of effort, but the publishers have not bothered to market their authors within some of the biggest platforms. You read a book you have bought from Amazon UK. You like it. You click on the author page, but it’s blank. You give up and navigate away. That’s a sin of retail and marketing right there.
From those 29 books. Over a third had fewer than 50 reviews on Amazon UK and Amazon US. Again, not a wholly encompassing reflection. Or is it? Those books are published, and mostly they don’t have author profiles and are not being marketed or pushed, and, at least on the Amazon platform, it appears they are not selling. Yet they are taking up shelf space, whereas there are some very successful indie / self-pubbed SF and Fantasy authors writing brilliant books, gaining top reviews in the hundreds, marketing their arses off – but not getting into bookshops. Of course, there is a ton of stuff behind all this. From the subjectivity of commissioning editors to some of those authors previously having had NY Times bestsellers, and therefore being seen as bankable.
I drilled into the metadata and examined in from every possible angle, how many reviews, sales, chart positions, marketing, promotions, previous books and more.
What I concluded is that unless you are American, or educated at Oxford / Cambridge, or work for Waterstones – then you ain’t getting shelf space for your book.
Stop! That was a joke. It’s not like that. Honestly. It just looks a bit like that….
In all seriousness, what it actually comes down to is a hundred million different things, while at the same time it only comes down to this: Does the commissioning editor within the publishing house dig your book? Can that commissioning editor convince their bosses / teams to back you?
And that, to simplify an exceptionally complex process, is pretty much it.
The supermarkets want to stock books that will sell. They are retailers driven by profit. Big authors sell. Brand names sell. Capitalism baby. That’s what it looks like. Waterstones do have some autonomy within their systems apparently. They can fluctuate between head office telling the stores what to stock, to the store managers / workers deciding what to stock, so in that sense there is no hard and fast rule. But again, they need to turn a profit, so the big names will take the biggest space, and the other tiny spaces that are left are the golden inches to be fought over.
That crazy, chaotic methodology means that right now, in my opinion, there are some really crappy books getting onto shelves that in all honestly do not deserve that space. But fuck it. You’re an author. Someone says they will print and stock your book. Of course you’ll go for it. Who wouldn’t?
Anywho. Sorry there is no real conclusion to my scientific, serious journalistic investigation taken from my highly dangerous spy mission, but there it is.
What is clear, is that there is room for more sci-fi publishers in this crazy world. Hmmm? Like say, a small imprint that specialises in taking on stonking good SF stories and focussing on making them as awesome as possible and reaching as many potential readers as possible? Say one that was owned and run by an active SF author with an insatiable appetite for good story-telling?
Blimey, food for thought.
I might start a publishing company!!
Love hugs and kisses,
Nothing said here is to slag off the publishing world in the UK. It’s a system born from many complex things. Sure, there are faults and flaws, but we still live in a society where we have the freedom to choose what to read, and that is a huge thing.