A Book’s Life

One of the first and strangest things I learned as an author is that a book does not usually have a very long life. I’d always assumed that a book sat there on the shelves for countless years continuing to earn an author income over those years.

Generally speaking, not true. When you think about it, most bookshops have limited space … and they can’t, firstly, take every title published every month (thousands of titles) and, secondly, they can’t keep books on their shelves unless there’s a demand for them (i.e., unless more than three people a month buy one!). So a newly published book faces two challenges: first, to be stocked initially; second, to remain on the bookshop shelf longer than three months. In fact, most book’s lives last forabout six months … and then they basically can’t be found on bookshop shelves and they’re not earning for their author. While you may walk into a book store and see many of the same books as were there the last time you visited, and even the same books that were there last year, these books are the exceptions: for every book that lasts on the shelves, at least another hundred have faded away and died the inevitable death – they’ve been pulped.

Thus if you write, don’t write one book and expect it to feed you the rest of your life … you’ve got to keep writing books. One a year at least.

I’ve been incredibly lucky – something that took me a while to realise. All of my books are still on the shelves and still selling very well, and most of them are into their ninth or tenth reprint. That’s very unusual, and I feel very honoured that they’ve managed to hold their own … they’re good little children!

A book’s life can be extended by managing to make it onto a ‘Best-Seller List’ … but these lists are very strange creatures. Newspapers and magazines who publish best-selling lists generally only survey a very few bookshops … and what if those one or two or three shops don’t stock (or only stock a very few) of a book that might sell in its thousands in Target or Coles? In more cynical moments some people (heaven forbid that you think that I am one of them!!!) claim that the editors of the book pages in newspapers have a vested interest in seeing that their favoured books make it high on the lists … and thus ensure they survey the bookshops that stock large quantities of their favoured books. Best-selling lists can also be skewed by authors who, knowing which shops are due to be surveyed, then go out and buy up every single copy of their title, ensuring they make it to number one and then onto the talk-show fest (I don’t think this happens in Australia yet, but it is surely only a matter of time).

Bookshops, in Australia, at least, are able to return books to the publisher whenever they wish and not have to pay for them (returns are the bane of the author’s life). So what does the canny author do? Make sure they sign as many of the books in a shop as they can because then the book seller can’t send them back as returns because the book is ‘damaged property’. If you see an author at a book signing diligently sitting down and signing their way through scores if not hundreds of books, that’s why they’re doing it … those books are guaranteed ‘sales’ (if only sales because the book seller can’t return them and thus must pay for them). Some authors also trudge around to every bookshop they can make it to and sign every book of theirs in that shop – and occasionally they’re turfed out by annoyed booksellers.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

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