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The Dominance of the Big ‘a’ (and Why it’s so Hard to Resist)

It’s a wonderful moment the first time you hold in your hand a physical copy of a book that you’ve written. No amount of digital text can compete with that solid artefact. It’s also comforting to note that people still love love them. Reading the real thing has not been killed off by all the putative threats of the past two centuries: not radio, not TV, not audiobooks, not e-books. None of these has stopped the purchase of the printed word on paper. And bookshops have survived, though by their own account, not all and not without great difficulty.

For this reason, I’m told, there is huge resentment amongst sellers of printed books, of their online, megalithic competitor that has almost (but not quite) wrapped up the entire market. If you’d like to see your book in a bricks-and-mortar store, you’d better not use the distribution services of that notorious company, nor have mention of it in your book. You’re unlikely to receive a sympathetic response. Apparently.

But then, bookshops have to accept some of the blame, don’t they? Certainly from the point of view of an independent author and publisher, this is how it feels. Because I really did try to find alternatives to the services provided by ‘a…’ but it was pretty unsuccessful in so many ways. Much as I might feel ethically compromised, they really do offer a fantastically easy and well-priced package for the likes of us. Nowhere else is as cheap, as easy or as flexible. No printing company offers POD (print on demand) on the same terms with as little fuss, with the same distribution for as little cost. No bookshop, large national or small independent is welcoming to independent authors and publishers or has a straightforward system to submit books for consideration.

I contacted by email, two nearby independent bookshops, knowing that they sometimes hold titles from local authors, and I asked: Here are my books. Would they be interested? What were the terms and normal procedures? Would they accept books ‘printed by a…’ or would they rather that I found a different printer? That was a month ago and I’ve yet to hear back at all. We’re in a pandemic, so I can forgive a little lack of communication. But the thing is this – knowing that they probably wouldn’t want the ‘a’ word anywhere near their store, I looked at alternatives for printing. Nothing comes close. One local printing company quoted me £11 per book for something that I sell for £5.99 and for which I currently pay £2 per book! Even the biggest rival POD company which offers a great service all round the world, charges more, is less simple to set up and requires an up-front payment for the service.

Then there are the national chains. One of the most widely-used makes a policy of not accepting anything from authors, though they have a self-professed policy of ‘Finding and championing publishers that are small, new, or hard to find on the high street’. That’s great and it’s a start, but it’s not easy, even after you’ve been down the standard route of obtaining an ISBN and making sure your book is properly listed on Nielsen (as I have). Publishers have to use one of their named distributors and are encouraged to go down the specific route of one in particular. This requires setting up a trading relationship with that wholesaler/distributor and then applying to the bookshop after that has happened.

Yes this is all doable, but they don’t make it easy, do they? Who does make it easy? That online company that is taking all the trade whilst making a bad name for themselves in a multitude of other ways. A finished book can be ready for the virtual bookshelves within an hour and on sale worldwide within a day.

Now at the back of people’s minds is that proviso, ‘Yes but it could be any old rubbish and that’s the problem.’ Well that’s true, but it does not mean it is any old rubbish and there almost certainly will be independently published books that are far from any old rubbish. They just might not be filling up the shelves of your local or national bookshop because really, how could they?

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