A bookseller's view? - Julia Jones

          Years ago, back in the 1980s, I opened a bookshop. It was in an Essex village - far too small (according to Publisher Association guidelines) to support a general bookshop selling new, non-specialist titles. But that was the village where I liked to do my shopping and it didn't have a bookshop so, if I wanted to buy books at the same time as I shopped for food, china, newspapers, furnishing fabrics, saddlery (yes there were all those shops in the same short high street) someone need to open a bookshop and, as a young mother, I decided that that someone might as well be me.

As well as books my shop sold greeting cards and local artists' paintings: acted as the box office for the operatic society and after a while began to dabble in local interest publishing. I didn't get rich but I didn't go bust either and after about ten years, I was able to sell the shop on to a friend who'd been running it while I researched and wrote a biography of Essex detective novelist Margery Allingham.

So much was different in the book trade then - there was the Net Book Agreement which gave small shops the chance to compete on customer service rather than the stark differentials of price. All the same, if any business was quite as tiny as mine, it never had any spare money to invest in anything other than more new books. If we wanted to innovate we had to be a bit -- I was going to say Heath Robinson but I'll modify that to Wallace and Grommitt.

There was teleordering, for instance. Anyone remember teleordering? You probably don't if you weren't in the trade. It was a mid-1980s attempt to speed up customer orders and regular re-stockng by using dedicated electronic terminals. Just what a shop like mine needed if we were to carry on amazing our customers by the speed with which we supplied their books. The terminals were far too expensive of course -- but I had a BBC 'B' computer -- and with just a little ingenuity it could be linked into the mainstream system. Could do my stock control on it as well, and type invoices, produce catalogues, write letters...

           Twenty five years later the book trade looks different in so many ways, yet a venture such as Authors Electric demonstrates that technology can still be adapted to serve the needs of the individual enterprise as well as the multinational corporation. Thank you for allowing me to join. I think it's going to be fun.

I have to admit to having been very slow to begin publishing my books electronically rather than in the much-loved physical format that filled my shelves and my shop window and my customers' shopping baskets (on a good day) -- and which still spills across every surface of my house. If it hadn't been for the good services of Jan Needle's technologically-talented son Matti Gardner, I'd probably be in the embarrassing position of writing this blog with the project still at the 'wouldn't it be a good idea if ...' stage.

As it is, my sailing adventure novel The Salt-Stained Book is up there on Amazon in its Kindle incarnation and also sitting on my desktop as a ePUB ready for what might be a more congenial journey -- congenial to an ex-high street bookseller, that is.

           As a book
buyer I'll buy from anywhere -- from Amazon, from Waterstones, from the independents, from Oxfam, from a box in someone's garden next to the windfall apples -- and I want to continue to have that choice. My own shop finally closed last year -- it had diversified into selling dainty gifts and Belgian chocolates alongside the books and cards and so struggled past its 30th birthday. That village high street is a less varied and lively place - in my opinion.

           So, how to publish electronically and not ignore retail choice and the independent bookseller? Firstly by getting
The Salt-Stained ePUB Book into Waterstones who are putting a lot of effort into their internet selling and where ebook sales are gradually increasing. This can be done quite straightforwardly for £35 via a company called ebook partnership. Secondly by getting the book stocked in Gardners Digital Warehouse. Here the royalty rates are not so good -- in fact they are the same trade discount rates that wholesalers always charge publishers -- but the market is different. Gardners supply the Apple ibookstore but also Foyles and Blackwells and Tesco ebooks and public libraries and, potentially most interesting of all, Hive.

           Hive is an initiative to which 350 independent booksellers have signed up to since its unveiling at the London Book Fair and which is intended to make it possible for even a tiny shop to supply its customers with ebooks, CDs, DVDs. It is also intended as the platform for Google ebooks in the UK.
Big promotional impetus is planned for Hive from later this month when the Google deal is finally clinched. Probably around the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair. I hope it succeeds - no idea whether it will -- but I thought I'd like my ebook to be in the same warehouse, just in case ... Anyone else there already?


Nicola Morgan said…
Julia, that is REALLY interesting - thank you. I'm particularly interested in your last two paragraphs ( though your own story is interesting, too!) I'd heard of Hive but didn't know it was already going. I'm now off to investigate it and ebook partnerships. thank you!
catdownunder said…
All this makes me realise I have an enormous amount to learn. I have not yet laid eyes on an e-book. I have only seen a Kindle from a distance. Our local indie recently changed hands and is, I think, struggling. There are no signs of any e-books in there yet.
Even our local library has not mentioned the word e-book - yet.
It has to come.
Thankyou for getting me started!
Dan Holloway said…
Wow, major 80s computer nostalgia!

Hive sounds really fascinating. I'll be interested to see how it develops. If it serves all those outlets, it doesn't sound as though it will serve indies very well - its function will be purely reactive - once you're in an indie store it will stop you leaving to get your ebooks, but it won't replicate or enhance the things that got you there in the first place. What it needs for that is a browsing algorithm that allows stores to reproduce their real life flavour online. It needs store-specific not customer-specific browsing - for example, The Albion Beatnik, my local store, specialises in US fiction & poetry books you can't get in other stores (not even particularly obscure - a few weeks ago I was looking for Jay McInerny's Bright Lights, Big City and neither Blackwell's nor Waterstone's had it). Whilst you can get almost all ebooks from almost all places, the ebook experience at The Albion Beatnik needs to be able to match the paper book one. Otherwise the danger is that ebooks will be an at-the-counter purchase like chocolate at WH Smith. And the danger for independents in going for something that isn't really right is that they think they've got ebooks sorted and stop working on something that is
Jan Needle said…
welcome on board, julia (as we norticle types say)and thanks for the ref to my lovely and talented son matti gardner. you're obviously a better pupil than i am, because your blog contains things i've got no idea about. it's his birthday next week, so i'll withhold all presents until he gets me up to speed. anybody else interested, he'll set it all up for you a very little cost. he has a masters degree in computers, but the big society has no job for him yet! (he's called matti after a brecht character, by the way. nowt wrong with romantics, is there?)
julia jones said…
Dear Jan - yes, your lovely and talented son is indeed l & t. One of the things I especially like about him is that when something doesn't go quite right he just says "Oh bugger!" and gets on and fixes it - even after a hard evening at the pub. Now where could that attitude have come from, I wonder?
julia jones said…
Such is the speed on Out Exciting Times my blog was out of date almost as soon as I'd written it. The Google Bookstore went live on Thursday and the Hive initiative appears to be moving up a gear. Presumably because the deal struck with Google could be key to their success or otherwise. Here's a link http://www.hive.co.uk/about-us?utm_source=taomail&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Campaign-115573

What I like about Google is that it appears to be open access - direct to authors as well as publishers. And for print as well as ebooks. My fear is that they are promising so much, can they possibly perform? But I'm certainly going to try to get involved.
Julia, this is a very interesting piece. I knew things in the e-world were moving fast, just not quite how fast!

Is is as easy to make an ePUB version of your book, as it is to make a Kindle version? If so, then I think I have quite a bit more work to do...
Debbie Bennett said…
Smashwords will convert your upload to an epub format. Don't suppose there's anything to stop you downloading that and sending it on elsewhere.
Matti Gardner said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matti Gardner said…
Debbie's right about Smashwords, they will convert your text into ePub, among others, and you can then download it and send it off elsewhere. There are some problems with that, like Smashwords wanting its own special copyright page, which would look a bit strange appearing on a separate version on a different site. Perhaps you could upload to Smashwords without such a copyright page, grab the ePub then immediately withdraw it from Smashwords again.

Other options are using Apple Pages, if you have a Mac, which will export to ePub. I've never tried this, just know it exists. The most complicated way, but the one that gives you most control over the appearance of your ePub is Adobe InDesign, which I've used for Julia's.

To simply convert from one format to another, use <a href="http://calibre-ebook.com/>Calibre</a>. It can change your kindle format into an ePub or vice-versa.
julia jones said…
Probably unnecessary to say BUT if you are putting your book out in ePUB as well as Mobi (Kindle) you do need a different ISBN. Just as in the Old Days you had different ISBNs for hardback and paperback editions. These can be supplied by a company like ebook partnership.
Hywela Lyn said…
Very interesting post Julia, thanks. I'm going to have to look into Waterstones and Hive, thanks.

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