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Today’s blog is a rant. About bookstores, and fantasy ranges therein.

I’m lucky to live within kicking distance of several good bookstores, which I like a good browse in. Many, many moons ago I was a bookstore manager (albeit I didn’t manage books, but fiddled around with magazines instead.) One of the shops I worked in was a quirky shop, over three floors, with lots of very loyal customers. Eclectic was the word for the shop’s range. Books about tractors were very popular, as I recall, and I know I stocked magazines there that I never would have thought of elsewhere. It was something of a treasure trove.

Going back to about the same time, my husband worked in an academic bookstore, again years old with bookshelves containing books not found anywhere else (and not just academia – the shop did a fabulous range of Irish interest books, second to none. Signed Seamus Heaney’s; Michael Longley’s, numbered and bound in kidskin; a lovely range of maps.) I used to go and pick him up with the kids on a Saturday and all of us would curl up in corners and just read. (Although there was the time one of the kids shook the anatomical-skeleton’s hand and it fell off.)

Now, I find it more challenging to get buried in a bookstore. So many are chain stores (and I like chain stores – nowhere better to go and find the latest book at a good price), and that limits the range stocked (although I will shout out for my local Easons, who stock loads of indie writers if they’re local.)

Range is limited because of the way shops buy stock, which has become more centralised. This has had the double-edged sword of pushing more of the range onto Amazon, further reducing the footfall of the avid readers who get frustrated at lack of choice.

There are good reasons for the range selection, from a chain’s point of view. They can be bought in centrally for a good price, giving a reasonable margin. Titles can be managed by computer. They can be bought by a buyer with their finger on the pulse, access to reps, and a nose buried in the Bookseller magazine at least a day a week.

But that means is I can go into the fantasy section and list the names I will find. Aaronovitch, Abercrombie, Banks, Brett… etc etc. There is limited range. Fewer quirky finds. Most of the authors on the shelf will be big names, from a very limited range of publishers (the Big 6 and a few of the stronger genre publishers like Angry Robot.)

This is not the shop’s fault. It’s not the manager’s fault. Their hands are normally tied in terms of what they can or can’t buy in – and that’s one of the central changes. Years ago, managers had more discretion. They had regular reps who dropped in and spoke to knowledgeable staff members about sections they were specialists in, who knew the customers and their tastes. It wasn’t about putting stock on a shelf because central buying dictated it. It wasn’t all about stocking the big names, but also the quirky local treasures that suddenly took off and you had to put at the till point.

We talk a lot about Amazon and how it’s killing Independent booksellers, and there’s much to be worried about there. But do our bookshops play into Amazon’s hands?

Readers are voracious within their genre. I’ll be lucky to see an author on the average chain’s sff shelf that I haven’t tried, or know something of. I’m not there looking for the latest George Martin – I’ve read all those. I’d much rather see the latest Adrian Tchaikovsky (hard to find), or Becky Chambers (wasn’t there the last time I looked.) Ian McDonald, Jo Zebedee (hey, I wrote the blog, I get to have a plug), Peadar O’Guilin.

I don’t want to buy their books from Amazon (nor do I especially want to be an author making more money for Amazon than the bookstores that support me). I want to give the bookstores my business. I want to keep them in business. But the quirky stock that might get me to put my hand in my pocket and try something new is too hard to find. As a consequence, I now walk out of bookshops empty handed, even when I haven’t been in one for a month or two.

Is there a way back? I think there is. My local Easons has a fab manager – waves, if she’s reading this – who supports local authors and talent. Waterstones allow some discretion for local managers – and my local Belfast store have supported me, and bought stock in. Print-to-order provides possibilities for the future.

But there are obstacles. My husband is a book seller. His knowledge of academic books is worthy of its own printed anorak, frankly. (On a forum, someone seeking a philosophy book described the cover and he was able to name the book, author and edition…) But, when working in a chain, he was on 20 hours a week, mimimum wage. That’s not enough to keep a family. Crucially, it’s not enough to bring in talented staff, who’ll learn their sections and do more than just put the books on the shelf.

We have an entire industry based on low profits and a consumer belief that the product should be cheaper than it is (which is partly based on two competing markets – the indie and the trad – where prices are vastly different since the indie makes the same per copy at £2.99 on kindle as the paper-based trad author does on a £10 cover price.) This means that most authors earn way, way less than the mimimum wage, meaning that fewer and fewer can justify writing as a means to pay the bills (refer back to my blog before this one, to see what authors reckon of the current market) – leading to less diversity and even more centralised buying.

It is, possibly, to do with consumer pressures. The Martian DVD is on sale at the moment for £10. That’s an hour and a half of viewing pleasure for ten quid. The book is probably a little cheaper – it took me, a voracious reader, three days to get through. And that was by not putting it down for the last day.

The entire industry is run on low margins – running a bookstore gives tight, tight margins with little room for error. Would the manager of the shop prefer to pay better wages, give more hours, and get more specialist staff? Yes, of course they would. But the economy of a bookstore makes it hard – and the pressures on high-street stores makes it even harder (covering long opening hours, fluctuating customer numbers, and a high volume of stock in-stock out.) The only saving grace is that bookstore workers often love bookstore work, and stick around longer than the pay would dictate.

And then we have the writers, and their place in this. To write a book takes hours. (Maybe I’ll sit down and plot it one day. If I remember.) Easily into the thousands.

Let’s take a round 1000 hours (I’m being very low in my estimate, by the way). To earn a pound an hour requires £1000 of sales. There are two models:

Self publish. Which means selling on kindle, primarily. Let’s take the average sort of price of £2.99 (and yes, publishers often charge more, but indies tend to lower prices.) Let’s say the author is making around £2 on that after Amazon’s cut and tax. That author needs to sell 500 books to earn a pound an hour.

But, wait! That author will have paid for editing (I hope!) and a cover. Some promotion. Say, a very, very basic outlay £500.

So, now the first 250 sales go to paying to produce the book. That means that author now has to sell 750 books to earn a pound an hour. Most indie authors sell nowhere near that amount. 300 is considered well above average – many sell less than 50.

Okay, then, a published author. Surely that’s easier. On the shelves of a shop at £10 a copy (which isn’t that off these days and it’s a nice round number to work with.)

Many authors, bar the very biggest, get paid on net profits. That’s the profit the publisher makes after costs (but not editing costs, or paying for your own cover costs)

On a £10 book in a shop, the shop will take around 40% (it varies), so we’re down to £6.00 per copy left. The publisher and the author will then split that. Even assuming it’s 50-50 (and few contracts are) and that the publisher doesn’t take costs out of the net profit before paying the author (many do and it’s becoming more common) that’s £3.00 per copy. Most likely, the author will get close to the same amount as they do for the £2.99 self-published kindle copy. To earn a pound an hour, 500 books need to be sold. To earn the living wage something like 4000 need to be sold. (On top of that, the author’s agent  - because the likelihood is they’ll have one if they’re with a big publisher - gets 15% of the author’s cut. And now we’re pushing towards 5000.)

When you see that economy of scale laid out, and think of how many people want free books, or 99p books (I’m as guilty of this as the next person – authors often are because we buy a lot of books and get paid, often, less than a pound an hour. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle) you start to see why choice has become less limited. Margins have to be made up somewhere, and stock control is a huge cost to a store if it’s done wrong.

All of which adds up to less diverse sff sections, and a rant from me.

Jo writes sf and fantasy between rants and more about her can be found on: