One of my gripes about writing and selling novels based where I live, in West Cumbria, is that some booksellers insist on describing them as ‘local fiction’ and condemn them to an out-of-the-way corner of the shop labelled ‘local books’, far away from anything remotely topical or current or interesting. I visited one of these dark places this morning, squeezing through the children’s section and right at the back. One of my precious books sat forlorn on the ‘local fiction’ shelf, its cover bent and scruffy, like a forgotten mongrel at the dogs’ home, silently begging to be taken home. That book must have been there a while: it’s got a long shelf-life, but on the wrong shelf.
One of the reasons for deciding to write historical fiction is that it doesn’t date in the same way as ‘contemporary’ fiction does. The fact that my trilogy is set in the first half of the twentieth century has a bearing on its ‘genre label’ but doesn’t surely preclude its being a relevant and readable set of stories with a central character who is perfectly recognisable in today’s world. The characters are timeless, even though the settings and the details of life are carefully embedded in their age.
The long shelf life I seek for my work is about their relevance to my community and to the readers who both live and visit here. Year after year, people visiting our special region will want something to illuminate its past, won’t they? I want that when I’m travelling. But visiting readers in bookshops also want something that’s visible, not have to ferret round in the back room. As a self-publishing author I enjoy the sense of control it gives me over the look and production of my work. The only thing I have no influence on is how booksellers treat my books. I understand that bookshop window space is at a premium, and that sometimes it is ‘sold’ to the highest bidder or the publisher’s rep with the most clout. I understand it, but it still annoys me. No wonder we self-publishers get a little paranoid about the continuing efforts of the traditional book business to keep us out of the loop, no matter how professional we are.
When I asked the bookseller who had banished two of my three books to the ‘back room’ he seemed to say that a book will be given ‘prominence’ in his crowded shop only when it is new. For a few precious weeks just after publication the third book in the trilogy was indeed in the window, but I don’t have a new book out this summer, so that brief honeymoon is over. Producing a new book may provide fleeting visibility, but what else can I do to keep the existing books in sight, literally and metaphorically?
I could buy advertising space in appropriate papers and magazines, but the cost is usually prohibitive. And I could create my own ‘stories’ for the local press to use. These might be appearances at various events, with some text and the all important pictures. Or it could be a local story, linked to the settings of my books. There have been some good opportunities recently, which I’ve tried to exploit through social media, but not very effectively I fear. This coming week will see a programme on BBC4 about Sellafield, a rarity in itself with the secrecy that surrounds the place. Some people watching may realise for the first time that a reactor fire in 1957 was almost a disaster, with only local know-how and courage saving the day. They could deepen that understanding immeasurably by reading my third book ‘Fallout’ which tells the inside story of the fire through the fictional character of Lawrence Finer, a nuclear physicist seconded to the plant, but how do I let people know that this novel actually exists, and where to find it? Good PR boosts the shelf life of a book, but the effort needs to be made repeatedly There’s definitely a limit to this, and the law of diminishing returns will have an impact too. Refreshing the PR is all part of the author’s constant support of her own sales, and it’s hard work.
I suppose what I really want is that my books should be on the ‘English Classics’ shelf, as enjoyable and relevant in ten or even fifty years time as they are today. That’s ambitious, but I can still live in hope.