Bookselling Across The Pond

I’ve just gotten home from my UK book tour. It’s only five a.m. and I should be sleeping, but instead I’m sitting here blogging because … well, because jet lag is hell. This was my third trip across the pond, and as always, I came away with some fascinating tidbits of information. Well, I find them fascinating, since I’m a junkie for gossip about the publishing biz.

This trip reinforces what I’ve felt for some time — that book tours outside the U.S. really do make a difference in sales. US book tours have, at most, a modest effect because our country is so vast. Even if you attract a lot of publicity, say, in Detroit, and manage to bump up your sales in that metropolitan area, it’s still only a riipple in the overall market. For an author to reach every market in the US, she has to land national TV and radio media — or she has to go on the road for months.

Maybe even YEARS.

So forget writing the next book. And pack a big suitcase.

But in a country like the UK, book tours are far more efficient. Radio stations across the country can be linked up via the same studio in BBC London. There are tons of bookshops concentrated in downtown London, and I think I did about 10 drop-in signings in a single day.

I was startled by the extent of discounting in the UK. In all the bookshops, you’ll find “3 for 2” paperback displays. You can buy three of the titles for the price of two. In the US, bookshops generally sell brand new paperback titles at cover price, and only in the warehouse clubs will you find paperbacks discounted deeply.

Even more startling were the new hardcovers selling at half price. (In the US, the deepest discount I’ve ever seen, in warehouse clubs, is 40%, which gives the clubs just a sliver of a profit.) Even Patricia Cornwell’s latest title, which you’d think would sell well even at list price, was being offered in the UK at 50% off. How on earth can a bookstore make any profit off those sales?

The answer: they can’t. They just break even. The deep discounting, I was told, is a way for stores to get customers in the door. You lure them in with a half-price Cornwell, and hope they stay to buy other books. But in this desperate bid to attract foot traffic, UK bookshops may be setting off their own death spiral, because now customers EXPECT a 50% discount on all hardcovers. They think it’s normal to pay half-price for a hardcover, and will balk when a book is sold at list price.

If you’re an author, this means that there’s no way to get your book on a UK bestseller list unless the bookshops offer your book at a deep, deep discount.

Like the US, the UK is seeing a growing market share of book sales going out of grocery stores and non-traditional outlets. About a third of my American hardcover sales, I’ve found, have gone out of warehouse clubs such as Costco and Sam’s. In the UK, I discovered that almost 40% of BODY DOUBLE’s paperback sales and 20% of VANISH’s hardcover sales went out through Tesco’s, a UK national grocery store chain. Not surprising, really, when you think of the convenience; everyone needs to shop for groceries. Why not throw a book in the cart at the same time?

After dealing with US publishing numbers, the UK numbers may seem small. The week I was there, the number one bestselling paperback title (by Sophie Kinsella) sold 32,000 copies. BODY DOUBLE sold about 23,000 copies and it hit #4 on the London Times bestseller list. The number one hardcover (by Conn Iggulden) sold about 4700 copies. VANISH sold 3700 copies — and, amazingly, hit #2 on the London Times list!

Small numbers, but very, very sweet.

Aside from business, what else did I do? Well, you KNEW I was going to talk about food. In Glasgow, I tasted haggis for the very first time. For years, I’ve wanted to try this traditional Scottish dish, made of minced sheep’s innards and oatmeal, traditionally cooked in a sheep’s bladder. What better place to give it a try than in Scotland? Although I must tell you that I was warned off it by quite a few people, who wrinkled their noses and asked why on earth I’d want to even go near a haggis. One Scotsman advised me to “drink a few whiskeys” before I gave it a taste.

I chose a restaurant called Stravaigin in Glasgow, because I’d learned that the chef had won the “best haggis in Scotland” award, in a competition with 600 other chefs. After all the warnings that I’d hate the stuff, I cautiously ordered only the appetizer portion. What came out were three little mounds. One was the “neeps” (mashed turnips), one was mashed potatoes. The mound of haggis was black and almost granular, with a dusting of oatmeal. With some trepidation, I scooped some onto my fork.

It was utterly delicious. The reputation of haggis has indeed been sullied; this is one fine dish, and I’d order it again in a second. Next time I attend a Robert Burns night, I will stand up and recite the “ode to a haggis” with complete conviction.

I cleaned up that plate in no time, and started in on the most flavorful lamb chops I’ve ever tasted.

The restaurant again: Stravaigin, in Glasgow.

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