BOOKS: PICKING THE WINNERS

He knows just what you like and you'll get what he says. Who is he? One of the faceless bulk-buyers who control our reading habits
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The Independent Culture
ARE YOU a 30-year old female graduate who buys books in Sloane Square? Then you probably read contemporary fiction. A twentysomething man keen on cars and sport who gets his paperbacks in Birmimgham? You're likely to be a buyer of science fiction. A businessman flying from Heathrow's Terminal One? You'll pick up a Sidney Sheldon blockbuster.

Welcome to the world of paperback fiction - run by computers, dominated by the hard sell, and dependent on the buyers of W H Smith.

No other retailer exerts power in publishing in the same way as W H Smith, and with the breakdown of the Net Book Agreement, the method by which book prices are fixed, its domination of a competitive market is likely to increase. Its 500 high street, railway station and airport stores, together with its distribution network, give it unprecedented buying power. If a book is to succeed, it has to be stocked by W H Smith and given due prominence on their shelves. While WHS has a reputation for selling cookery books and DIY manuals, 30 per cent of all paperback fiction bought in this country is sold in its stores, and for some authors as much as half their sales are in WHS. Last year, the company sold 12 million paperbacks, of which two million were sold in airports.

Selling books in W H Smith is about picking fast-moving winners, and they move fastest out of its branches in Terminal One, Heathrow, and Victoria Station. In this era of book-buying on the run to plane and train, the company uses its computer records to break down, region by region and shop by shop, exactly who buys Jeffrey Archer or Joanna Trollope. On the basis of this, the buyers of W H Smith know whether to sell horror in Chelmsford or humour in Bolton.

W H Smith's dominance of the market, and its perceived caution in failing to back new authors and reliance on blockbusters for its profits, has made it the subject of intense criticism. Earlier this year it was lambasted in the pages of this newspaper by the MP and novelist Chris Mullin as "Stalinist'' for its authoritarian, centralist power.

This is never more apparent than when publishers travel to W H Smith's unprepossessing grey and white Swindon headquarters, where eight miles of shelving hold stocks of books before they are despatched to the 500 W H Smith stores.

Trying to persuade W H Smith's buyers to take their books is one of the most daunting tasks a publisher undertakes. These are the people who always judge a book by its cover - and it can take just a matter of minutes. Transworld, for example, does a major paperback presentation to W H Smith every six months, when its staff will spend two hours introducing around 48 new titles. Novels are graded by the company from 1 to 9, with one being given the most exposure in its stores. A low grade means that a book is probably doomed to low sales with little promotion.

For a key member of a "Stalinist" firm's politburo, Graham Edmonds cuts an unlikely figure. Dressed in a knitted waistcoat, a modestly patterned tie and a rather crumpled blue shirt, Mr Edmonds has worked for WH Smith ever since he left school at the age of 18. Today, as head of paperback fiction, he wields extraordinary power. If your novel is going to be a bestseller, it has to win over the quietly spoken Mr Edmonds. If he thinks the price is too high, or the cover too dull, it is likely to be changed. Reference to his computer data gives him evidence of writers' past performance, and the probable sales of their next work, and so influences any decision he makes about a book.

Presentations to Graham Edmonds and his team are held about six months before publication, with content, price, cover and promotion up for consideration. The managers of the individual W H Smith shops have little role to play, although those that express particular interest in books, rather than, say, greetings cards or jigsaws, are invited to voice their opinions.

``Smith's buyers are undoubtedly hugely important," said Garry Prior, sales director of Transworld, which publishes Danielle Steel, Catherine Cookson, Mary Wesley and Joanna Trollope. ``They have a significant influence on what is published and what sells. Their importance does depend on your list, but to reach the widest market, you have got to use Smith's.''

Chris Mullin lamented the power of W H Smith and the emphasis it places on the marketing budget of publishers and TV or movie tie-ins. Graham Edmonds puts it another way:

"We get publishers who come here to present books and expect us to be impressed. Then we ask what the publisher is doing to sell them. I think some authors would be shocked at how little support their books are given. Publishers expect us to take books which they have no plans to advertise, no marketing, no promotion. They just want it to sit on the shelf. Why should we back a book which even its publisher is not prepared to promote?

``It is fair to say that many publishers are now more focused. They have cut back on the number of their books and are concentrating harder on what they are selling. Our intent is to work more closely with publishers in building up authors and working on long term plans for them."

In the last few years W H Smith has been trying to shake off its slightly staid image as the bookshop for gardeners, DIY enthusiasts and blockbuster readers. While the bulk of its customers are women between 25 and 40 and well-educated, it has been trying to attract a broader range of customers and, at the same time, extend the range of novels it sells and introduce new authors. But this is not a new-found altruism on the part of the country's biggest booksellers: ``Tastes change. Authors who do very well today won't necessarily sell in five years' time. We've got to find the new authors,'' Graham Edmonds explained.

According to Joanna Mackle, publishing director of Faber and Faber, W H Smith's sudden enthusiasm for new authors is in part due to the success of Waterstone's, the prestigious bookshop chain founded by ex-Smith's employee Tim Waterstone and now owned by Smith's. Waterstone's proved that bookshops could make profits from selling contemporary fiction by up-and-coming writers.

``I think Smith's have improved in the way they treat new authors. They do consider in more detail how they can promote them. And it pays off. Someone like Kazuo Ishiguro sold 3,500 copies of his first novel, but Remains of the Day has sold half a million copies in paperback and hardback. With sales like that, Smith's are going to take a substantial order of his next novel," says Joanna Mackle.

W H Swith has developed canny methods for limiting its risk-taking. Books are not only taken on a sale-or-return basis, but it demands discounts of up to 55 per cent for restocking a slow-selling book.

Publishers also have to pay for their own promotions within the Smith's stores. W H Smith is keen to be seen as promoting contemporary writing and Fourth Estate, which is developing its contemporary fiction list, knew that success with a novel like E Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, was dependent on W H Smith sales.

W H Smith ordered 8,000 copies of Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and featured it in a recent edition of Bookcase, its in-house magazine for customers. Bookcase's single paragraph on The Shipping News cost Fourth Estate £2,000. That means that from its spread on modern fiction, featuring eight novels across two pages of the magazine, WHS would have been able to make at least £16,000.

Joanna Prior, publicity and marketing director for Fourth Estate, said: ``I think Smith's have realised that readers can be pushed a lot further than in the past. They can introduce them to writers who a few years ago they would never have considered right for their stores. Someone like Carol Shields, for instance, they would now see as a mid-market read who could appeal to readers of Joanna Trollope. They took 5,000 copies of The Stone Diaries, but they've re-ordered and are up to 7,500 now.

``On a book like that we would show them early versions of cover designs and discuss their views. That is where they have an influence.''

Among other promotions which W H Smith uses to boost book sales of new writers is Fresh Talent. Since it began three years ago, Fresh Talent has highlighted six writers each year whose books go straight into paperback.

This year 90 books were submitted to W H Smith, which has selected six to be promoted under the Fresh Talent banner in February next year. The chosen titles are Black Out by John Lawton, a wartime detective thriller with a cover that looks rather like Fatherland and an endorsement by Fatherland's author Robert Harris; Divorcing Jack, a comic novel by Colin Bateman published by HarperCollins; Living It Up, Living It Down, a romance by Norma Curtis, also published by HarperCollins; Stolen Children by Gwen Hunter, which WHS promises will provide some incest and child molestation - a "woman in peril" thriller, to use the trade's jargon -published by Hodder. The list also includes two inevitable Aga Sagas, Living Dangerously by Katie Fford, published by Penguin, and The Marriage Bed by Diana Saville, published by Hodder Headline.

"This is the main buzz of the job, finding new writers,'' said Edmonds, who confesses to being hooked on science fiction and humour. "A lot of our customers rely on us to make their choices for them. Not all readers are browsers, and they will come in and buy all the Fresh Talent books. It's the same with our Thumping Good Read award - they rely on us to find them a book.''

Promotions like Fresh Talent enable W H Smith to work even more closely than usual with publishers; Edmonds has been able to demand a particular shade of pink, for example, on one of the latest Fresh Talent jackets:

"What we really aim to do nowadays is to work with the publishers, building an author, looking at how we can develop them.''

W H Smith is not only "developing" individual authors but is now in the business of developing genres. Genres take the risk out of backing a new authors. It means that the all-powerful computer records can be used to predict exactly how certain kinds of book will sell, even if a particular author is unknown.

The success of Joanna Trollope's rural novels led to a whole wave of Aga Sagas from publishers hoping to cash in, but today's best-selling formulaic products are legal thrillers, featuring powerful lawyers struggling against adversity and conspiracy.

So if you have a novel something like a John Grisham, then you are likely to make the grade with Mr Edmonds, and the rewards will be huge. But without the imprimatur of this small man in a knitted waistcoat, a novelist doesn't stand much of a chance.

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