Sunday, 8 October 2006

It's Cheltenham Literary Festival time, and while I am not going to many events, I did go to a very interesting session yesterday called New Grub Street, and featuring Scott Pack, former chief buyer for Waterstones, now part of The Friday Project, Susan Hill, a writer who set up a publishing house, Ion Trewin, the chair of the Festival Committee and former Literary Editor of the Times, publisher and many other things, Patrick Neate, writer and guest director for the first weekend of the Festival, and Danuta Kean, booktrade commentator and former chair of the Romantic Novel of the Year judges. They said a great deal of interest, but today I want to focus on one thing, a cautionary tale mentioned in passing by Susan Hill.

I don't know whether you remember, but a couple of years ago Hill, having set up Long Barn Books as a small publisher, held a competition to select the first work of fiction that she would publish. The competition attracted 3,741 entrants and the winner was Helen Slavin's The Extra Large Medium.

According to the Long Barn website:
A US publishing deal has been agreed.
An Australian/New Zealand publishing deal has been agreed.
And, advance orders are so good the novel is REPRINTING BEFORE PUBLICATION. !!
The book was published in May. Long Barn gave it a 2,000 print run, and secured a 3 for 2 deal with Waterstones, who took 1,600 copies. It was in the shops when the reviews came out - good reviews mainly, and more than usual because of the background. And Beryl Bainbridge had a shout on the cover:
"The Extra Large Medium is very, very good... no unnecessary words or explanations, just good, and also witty. A highly original talent. Helen Slavin should be encouraged, I've no doubt about that."
At yesterday's talk, Susan Hill said that the returns window had just about closed, and Waterstones had returned 1,400 copies.


Anonymous said...

Maybe it goes to show that books about spiritualism don't have much of a market anymore.

Liz Harris said...

To what does Susan Hill attribute the failure of Helen Slavin's book to attract buyers, despite being on the offer tables and despite good reviews? Did she have any idea why the sales were so disappointing?

Jenny Haddon said...

I didn't buy the Helen Slavin, though I noted it when it came out and meant to read it. Just didn't get round to it. Why?

I think the crude answer is: what the hell is the story? The reviews suggest an intriguing premise but no burning desire on the part of the protagonist to do or to discover anything. Situation, yes. Plot, no.

Contrast this with a Mark Billingham novel which I did remember to buy recently. It was powerful, horrible and I shan't buy a third. I bought it because, though I recoiled from his first one, I recognised a strong talent and several people told me enough about "Lazybones" for me to want to know what happened in it.

I'm sure I would have enjoyed Helen Salvin more. But the reviews, the blurb and the word-of-mouth just did not hook me. Maybe this is because a lot of the comment tended to read like essay marking rather than, "this is a fab book you just gotta read".

And there are so many books, so little time. Even now, though Slavin's book is back on my wish list, I may not get round to it.

But you're right, Stephen. The bottom line in the book business is scary.

Gabriele C. said...

According to the description, it's one of the books that may win prizes, never to be read by anyone besides the jurors of the prizes.

The German market it full of these. But if Marcel Reich Ranicki trashes such a book in his show, sales skyrocket. :)

Jeanne W. said...

Mr. Bowden,

I sent a message to your email address yesterday of great urgency. It concerns using one of your blog entry in an online magazine column. Please check your new email and respond to me as promptly as you can.

Jeanne W.
Staff Reviewer