Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Jon Woolcott

“Novel Nights is a monthly literary event in Bristol and Bath showcasing and supporting excellent writing and writers at all stages of their career.”

I am a fan of independent publisher Little Toller which publishes books about nature, rural life, and local history, mainly in the British Isles. As well as being informative and engaging, their books are beautifully presented – high quality and aesthetically pleasing. I am always happy to receive one to review. When I spotted on Twitter that Jon Woolcott was to speak at a writers’ group in Bristol, and that all were welcome, I decided to go along. What an enjoyable evening it turned out to be.

Held in The Square Club, Clifton, this well attended and welcoming group offers creative writers the opportunity to read from their work prior to a talk from an invited guest. Last week we were treated to three excerpts from as yet unpublished novels, all with a nature theme.

Polly Roberts read from the novel she wrote as part of her Creative Writing MA, provisionally titled ‘Animals’ and currently looking for a home. This is a work of fiction and, in the excerpt read, the prose had a poetic quality. It described relationships between otters – the book is set in the English countryside.

Andy Morgan is a writer and journalist. He read from his non fiction work, ‘Sahara Soul Rebels’.

“Self, desert and nature are one and nature is beautiful”

Despite conflicts in the area there is a deep love for the land.

“I’m free in my country”

Grace Palmer, the founder of Novel Nights, read from ‘Cathy’s Field’. The excerpt centred around memories – an attachment to land that was to be sold.

“Time to let it all go”

Although based on a particular landscape on the Staffordshire / Shropshire border, the world and characters are fictional. This was the first chapter in a book Grace is working on.

There followed a short break allowing drinks to be purchased and conversations with other attendees to be enjoyed before Jon took his seat to give his talk on The Business of Books.

Jon has, over the course of his career to date, worked for Waterstones, Ottakars and Stanfords booksellers. He is aware that there can be a disconnect between author, publisher and retailer. In an industry that loves to gossip, where a plethora of information exists, rumours are rife. Jon gave is some facts.

In 2016 (the last year for which figures are available), the total sales from all publishers in the UK amounted to some £3.5 billion, £1.5 billion of which was exported. Around 160,000 individual titles were published. These included technical, academic, self-published and reprints of older books. There were around 60,000 ebooks published, many as co-editions of physical titles. How, in a market awash with books, does a bookseller decide what to stock?

Bookshops are businesses. Their primary priority is to remain solvent. They will therefore stock what sells, including cookbooks, celebrity memoirs and best-selling authors. Deciding what units of stock will shift can be tricky and there have been some notable disasters in the past twenty or so years.

The first of these was the end of the net book agreement. This led to retailers offering discounts on premium authors, the very titles that would sell anyway, to get customers through the door. Supermarkets wanted a slice of the action – Asda offered one of the new Harry Potter titles for a fiver. Waterstones introduced its 3 for 2 multibuys.

Then there was Amazon. The use of the ISBN enabled the online retailer to easily catalogue available books. In response to Amazon’s success several bricks and mortar chains abandoned their ecommerce operations, although many of these have since been reinstated. Amazon was accepted as the go to on line shop.

Next came the Richard and Judy Book Club. Their first title was expected to sell perhaps twenty thousand units. It sold ten times this amount. In response, publishing focused on that market. It influenced commissioning decisions, packaging and price. Publishers tried to produce books more cheaply, affecting quality and creating generic designs.

Soon after came ebooks. For certain genres this caused a 20% drop in sales, badly affecting bookshops. Books are, after all, discretionary purchases. Attempts to copy the success of the Kindle failed.

Then, in 2011 the Booker Prize winner, Julian Barnes, praised the design of his novel. He stated that if physical books were to have a life in the world of ebooks they must be beautiful, that the product must be created to gain attention. Jon equated this to the plumage on birds.

The race to the bottom ceased.

Around the same time Waterstones was sold to a Russian billionaire who simplified the business. A centralised buying structure was introduced, stores were refurbished and many of the price promotions removed. As a result sales fell but so did returns. Publishers grew used to selling books over a longer period rather than simply around initial publication.

Book tables are now less likely to hold only the latest best sellers. Curation has grown in importance. The shortcomings of the Kindle have been recognised – they have a place but not a monopoly. The landscape of bookselling is as stable today as it has been for some time.

The invisible giant, Amazon, remains with its poor pay and ability to avoid tax. However, readers are aware of this and can make informed choices. Many bookshops, including the independents, will take on line orders and post direct to readers.

Although the big publishers are still mainly London based there has been a notable growth in the small presses. They are willing to take risks on what they believe in, and most bookshops are willing to stock their titles. Social media offers access to readers. Although still tiny, managing to survive month by month, they offer authors greater flexibility and a beautiful end product.

So, how does this affect writers?

Firstly, bookshops matter. Forge relationships with booksellers early on. Seek advice on what sells. Make friends but don’t make it all about your book. Be realistic in expectations – bookshops are commercial enterprises. Offer to sign books (there is no truth in the rumour that signed books cannot be returned). Offer to do events, then provide the audience by inviting friends. Generate interest by joining up with another writer to offer a Q&A and help sell their books as well as your own.

Other aspects that matter are a good AI sheet – offer to meet the publisher’s sales rep. Use social media – The Big Green Bookshop is a fine example of how this can work. Provide content for the local newspaper, perhaps the story behind the book. Invest time in creating an author website or blog – and sing the praises of your local bookshop. Encourage readers to use their library too.

Jon was asked about the recent growth of interest in nature writing. He suggested this could be partly nostalgia but also an increase in awareness of the planet. Little Toller started out republishing nature classics but now publishes more contemporary works, some from commissions and others from submissions. It remains small, operating out of a converted cow byre on its founders’ farm.

With that the evening was drawn to a close and the audience were able to browse and buy from a tempting range of Little Toller books. As anticipated, this had proved a truly fascinating evening.

Little Toller Books will publish the latest in their Monograph Series, Eagle Country by Seán Lysaght, in April 2018. It is available to buy now if ordered direct – click on the cover below.

You may keep up with events organised by Novel Nights on their website and by following them on Twitter: NovelNights (@novelnightsuk)

You may follow Jon Woolcott on Twitter (@jonwoolcott) and also Little Toller Books (@LittleToller)

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