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Reflections of a working writer and reader



How To Sell Your Book

This week both The Sunday Times and The Literary Saloon comment on the practice of booksellers making publishers pay to have their books displayed on high street shelves.

When you go into your local bookshop and see the books laid out on the tables, or look over the recommendations, there is something in you which assumes that they are there because of some kind of merit. It might be literary, or they could have a great plot, or somehow – by word-of-mouth? – they have earned their place in the display.

You couldn’t be more wrong. They are there simply because the publisher has shelled out an enormous amount of cash to make sure of it.

As far as the major retailers are concerned books are commodities like everything else in the high street. Gloves, belts, baked beans, if you’re a shopkeeper they all mean the same thing.

WH Smith, the UK’s biggest bookseller, is currently asking £50,000 per title per week for places on its “adult gold” list of recommended reads in the run-up to Christmas. A less demanding £15,000 will ensure that any old book will be “read of the week” during the year. No other qualifications are necessary.

The Sunday Times report says:

No authors appear on recommended lists unless their publishers pay the fees, and those refusing to pay may not even find their titles stocked.

WH Smith are not alone, other big booksellers like Borders and their subsidiary, Books Etc. are playing the same game. To have your book ‘chosen’ as Waterstone’s book of the week, the publisher will have paid £10,000 for the privilege. And inclusion in three-for-two or other promotional schemes also involves money changing hands. Customers and potential customers believe that these titles come with the bookseller’s unbiased recommendation. Usually they do not.

One publisher claimed yesterday that he had books “recommended” and positively reviewed in marketing literature by bookshops before the books had even been read.

And elsewhere the story is very similar, In America Barnes & Noble and also employ pay-to-display tactics.

So, tomorrow go out and buy a book. Be manipulated. You know it makes sense.

21 Responses to “How To Sell Your Book”

  1. skint writer says:

    I must be more naive than I thought, that has shocked me. Surely that’s blatantly illegal or anti-competitive or something. The long-term damage that is being done to the industry and to society in general is too scary to contemplate.

  2. Jennyta says:

    I find that very depressing, especially as I have a (first) book almost ready to do something with. It has a good chance of not getting anywhere but I like to think that it would at least be judged on merit.

  3. john baker says:

    I posted this because I, too, was shocked and irked by it.
    But we really shouldn’t be surprised. The Sunday Times points out that they first broke this story five years ago.
    They have only brought it up again because the figures charged by the book-selling chains have climbed so steeply in the interim, in some cases by as much as ten times since the 2001 levels.
    As human beings we have a well-developed tendency to put the things we don’t like out of sight and then pretend that they don’t exist.

  4. One consolation in human behaviour, John – there are only so many “brushes under” that a carpet can take.

    This made me wonder how much the publisher(s) paid Waterstone’s for their current promotion of “try me for 99p”. On shelves right by the check out queue, I added one, possibly two of these paperback novels to my other buys this week. I actually did think this was a good idea and I certainly picked up a book by an author I’ve not tried before. But these books were not “recommended”; they were just cheap to try out.

    I’m not a naive reader/consumer, so if something is recommended to me, it matters greatly who made the recommendation. Otherwise, I shop based on price and secondary to that, availability.

    I’m not a Waterstone’s “best customer” at all. This week it was convenience and availability to me, followed by price. (The books were essentially for someone else and not me, too.)
    I’m not surprised that WHS charges more than Waterstone’s though. They have more and better locations and certainly benefit from train station branches (where they often seem to charge more for a book than at their city centre banches, I might add).

    But, charging to be “recommended” as opposed to being featured in a good offer for sale, when there is little or no basis for the “recommendation” is not playing fair with the consumer. May the “outing” of this practice come back to bite them all in the tail.

  5. Maxine says:

    There is also a characteristically good posting over at Grumpy Old Bookman about this:

    Very sad, I agree.
    Mind you, soon there will be no books at all in WHS if our branch is anything to go by. Mobile phone concession was their latest innovation (after the cafe). Guess what made way to create the space?

  6. John Matthew says:

    Hi John,

    I am shocked too! With publishers only taking only published authors and neglecting the ones at the entry level, I guess this completes a gloomy picture for newcomers like me.

    Lower end books that used to define the human condition can never find shelf space, I guess. Only kiss and tell will survive I am sure. An agent visiting India said “Become famous and then write a book, I will find you a publisher.” I would make that “infamous”!


  7. Amy says:

    Hi John — Wonderful blog. I’ve added you to my links.

    I read about this on GalleyCat today. Isn’t this practice much like the old radio station practice of payola? Except that payola is illegal over here in the US. If a radio station wants to play a song after receiving promotional funds in exchange, they have to state that it is sponsored airtime. Playing the song and acting as though it’s part of the natural line-up is payola.

    So it would seem to follow that this display practice is payola for the lit industry. Disappointing.

  8. john baker says:

    Yes, it is very similar to the Payola system. But we find ourselves in a society where so-called leaders and public figures get away with lying and cheating. We really shouldn’t be too surprised when companies and sometimes whole industries fall into these kinds of corrupt practices.

  9. Emchi says:

    I vaguely remember reading something about this before, but it was more in line with how authors were fed up with Waterstones “making” a writer. I used to love Waterstones with it’s darkwood bookcases and it’s new pressed book smell. Now I’m such a book junkie, if I’m desperate to find a book by an author, I’ll hit Amazon or Play, why pay more? I have to then ask myself are the authors I’ve read more prevalent in my collection because someone has paid for them to appear in the bookshop or because I liked the story?

    I felt good about myself buying two of your books directly from you, I felt like I was supporting an author and not a faceless corporation which makes millions. Of which I’ve now finished one (The Meanest Flood, good book, will probably review it on my site). I guess the question now to pose is how do I get my book fix without bowing to the pressure of the bookseller pimping a book?

  10. john baker says:

    Difficult questions for which I don’t have immediate answers.
    But it was good to hear that you enjoyed The Meanest Flood. That book was partly set and written in Oslo, and I’m going there again soon. Even mention of the book has me recollecting the time I researched the older areas of the town. I was re-reading Knut Hamsun at the time, his earliest, and best, novels set in a time when the city was known as Kristiania.
    I suspect the publishing industry was in a better state in those days. . .

  11. Debi Alper says:

    Sadly my naivete on this subject up and left a long time ago. Now it never writes, it never phones – not so much as an email for my birthday …
    All the more reason for supporting indy bookshops – who are at the Struggling To Survive end of publishing as much as writers are …

  12. paul ablett says:


    So how does one go about getting a book marketed and into the public domain once it has been printed or self published??

    jb says: I wish I could tell you, Paul.

  13. first says:

    i just wanna ask about how can i sell a comic book that i made it myself. i wrote it and drew it and i want to sell it, but i don’t know how too.
    do you know how to sell it?
    please help me

  14. Tom Langdale says:

    I have just puplished me first book and trying to sell it, I find your comments quite distressing,that new authors are given such little chance to sell their work along side established authors.To have a closed shop envirenment, means the world is forced to miss out on what could be better quality books but for the sake of a ransom. What can be done about it

  15. Sue Edwards says:

    Very interesting since I have just self-published my first book. I was disappointed however to see that the title “How to sell your book” although it catches the eye, tells you simply how expensive it is to sell through book shops, rather than offering ideas.

    However, I have a wesite with online payment and am on Facebook and yes it’s hard work to sell, like everything else. I’m organising my own book launch (this eve) and am confident that I will sell a good deal, judging by the interest I’ve had so far, but of course we’ll see.

    Good luck to everyone out there trying to do the same.

  16. John Brown says:

    How sad that the publishing industry should come to this. Although I have to add, if you are determined and have a degree of talent there are still places to be had within high street shops. In particular, the attention now given by Waterstone’s to local authors is a positive step.

    You can also find quality free advice, inc’ a list of agents, publishers and a beginners guide at websites such as and – who will give you a 3 months listing free of charge.

    As a point of interest – we managed to place my latest book – North of Watford Gap in nearly 200 Waterstones – hard work, but it can be done.

    So you see – it’s not all bad – keep scribbling and don’t let them grind you down.

    John B.

  17. I had no idea this went on – it’s horrific!! No wonder publishers are focusing their promotional efforts on the big name authors at the expense of the little folk. Absolutely outrageous. Now I’m wondering if bookshop staff actually read at all! I know the ones in my local Waterstones do because they rave about various books, but in general, when money controls placement, you have to wonder…

  18. Alison says:

    Unfortunately there is nothing new in this. And it doesn’t just apply to books either, but music and DVDs. Did you know that before Woolworths went bust a couple of years ago, the ‘majors’ would pay £200 million a year for X amount of shelf space for their discs? So regardless of whatever crap they chose to sell, there it was in top position for all to see. How is an independent publisher or person supposed to compete with that? If you think ‘talent’ will get it there, forget it.

  19. I disagree. I think talent will always rise. It’s just that now, authors have to promote their books outside the bookshop so that when a prospective reader goes in, they ask for that particular book. Word-of-mouth promotion trumps all.

  20. Shelagh McHardy says:


    I have just completed my first book and have it up for sale on Amazon in paperback and Ebook. I was distributing leaflets yesterday and someone asked where they could buy it, claiming that not everyone is on the internet, which is true. I also have an article about my book being published in the Scottish Sunday Post next Sunday, and the same question was asked. I was shocked to read your blog, but can you let me know if these book sellers will order the book in if a customer goes in and requests it? Thanks!

  21. Go here:

    and scroll down to where it says “Submitting your book for consideration”. I believe you have to register it with Gardners, one of the big UK book wholesalers, at a minimum 60% discount in order to make it likely to be considered. All the info can be found at that link above 🙂 I’ve been checking out the possibility too 🙂

    Considering the % discount they require, I’m not sure you’d make any money at it, but it might be a good way to spread the word. Emphasis on “might”.