Faces with names

by M.J. Hearle

What sells books? A good cover? Sure. A recognisable name? Yes. Positive reviews? Doesn’t hurt. A well-written story? Maybe. Actually meeting the bookseller behind the counter and leaving a favourable impression? Definitely. The fine folks who work in the bookstores ultimately have enormous power over whether or not your work is picked up by readers. Being on the front line they have a unique perspective on the current literary trends and have an undeniable influence over shaping those trends.

Picture this: Grandmother Betsy wants to buy her niece Amy a book for her sixteenth birthday. She knows Amy just loves those Twilight novels so goes to her local bookshop and asks the bookseller behind the counter if she could recommend something similar. There are literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of paranormal novels out there, most of which the bookseller has probably never read. What the bookseller does remember though is a friendly visit by a young author who recently had his first novel published. A paranormal romance, called…um – oh I don’t know? – Autumn’s Shade. The title still fresh in her mind, the bookseller recommends this book to Grandmother Betsy. Grandmother Betsy buys the book for her niece, who reads it, loves it, and passes it onto her friends. Before you know it Autumn’s Shade has become a phenomenon.  Or that’s the idea anyway.

My publisher told me a story about Craig Silvey, the author of Jasper Jones, who took a few months off to travel around Australia for the purpose of meeting booksellers and promoting his book. Jasper Jones went on to become an award-winning bestseller. It’s a great book but would it have achieved the level of success it has without Silvey taking the time to meet the booksellers? Probably. The point is – it definitely didn’t hurt.

Unfortunately, I was never able to embark on a similar trip around Australia for Winter’s Shadow. I didn’t have the money or the time available to me. What I did have was a couple of days on my way up to a week’s holiday in Byron Bay, which I could use to meet a couple of booksellers.

First off, was the Book Warehouse in Port Macquarie. Roz and the gang have shown me an incredible amount of support from the very beginning. It certainly doesn’t hurt being a hometown boy, but regardless I can’t thank them enough for going above the call of duty in promoting Winter’s Shadow. They still have a window display up in their front window 2 months after publication. It’s incredibly touching.

Port Macquarie Book Warehouse

Not only that, but during my visit this week, Roz had me in to sign another 40 books! Considering, I’ve already signed two hundred or so books for her this was an enormously generous offer. A signed book is a sold book. Even if (God forbid!) nobody buys them, Roz can’t send them back to the publisher.

The next stop on the whirlwind Winter’s Shadow tour was the Book Warehouse in Coffs Harbour. It was the first time I’d been to the store and I was shocked, and a little intimidated to see just how big their YA Paranormal section was. I’m talking a vast chunk of the wall crammed with books about curious young women, vampires, witches, and angels. It was encouraging to see that Winter’s Shadow had been displayed with the cover facing outwards so as to at least stand a chance of attracting a consumer’s attention, but still, seeing all those similarly themed books was unnerving. Asha, the lovely bookseller and resident Paranormal Romance expert, was a pleasure to meet and graciously showed me around the store. She hadn’t actually read Winter’s Shadow, but after I did a quick spiel (making sure she understood I’d created an entirely new supernatural mythology for the book) she seemed genuinely intrigued to read it, which is all I can ask. This goes to show you how important it is to meet the booksellers. If I’d never visited, there’s a good chance Asha wouldn’t have known Winter’s Shadow offered something original compared to the myriad of other Paranormal Romances and was therefore worth recommending.

Asha and I at the Coffs Book Warehouse

After the Book Warehouse I visited Pages, and met Stephen who was similarly intrigued to learn Winter’s Shadow wasn’t your typical YA Paranormal Romance. That I specifically included some literary allusions (having your lead character reading Jane Eyre probably isn’t really an allusion –  more of a direct reference – but hey, what do you want?) in the novel also interested him, as he was often put in the position of recommending titles to teachers who look out for such things.

Stephen and I at Pages

My last stop in Coffs Harbour was Dymocks where I met the delightful Emily. Emily had not only read Winter’s Shadow and loved it, she’d also passed it on to her sister who was now reading the book. Hearing this piece of news from a bookseller absolutely made my day. She also gave me some interesting information about the time frame it takes for a book to catch on – about 7 months. Emily used The Hunger Games to illustrate her point, saying that initially they’d only sold 5 or 6 copies of the book when it first was published, but 7 months later, they sold many times that amount because the novel had time to circulate and attract buzz. So there’s still plenty of time for Winter’s Shadow to catch on!

Emily and I at Dymocks

Leaving Coffs Harbour I realised how valuable it is for an author to engage on a personal level with booksellers. For Asha, Stephen, and Emily – M. J. Hearle isn’t just name on a cover anymore, it’s a face they’ll remember, and a story they can tell their customers. A story about a young Aussie bloke who wrote a different kind of paranormal romance, and took the time to pop into their store to tell them about it. Now if I could just visit the other five thousand or so other bookstores in Australia I might actually have something here. As it stands, when I get back to Sydney I’ll definitely make the effort to visit all the booksellers I can. First though, I’m going to enjoy my holiday.

Until next time,

M. J.