Mail order. In publicity, be crystal clear about postal charges and the information punters should supply; eg their name and address, contact email, quantities and titles if you sell more than one thing. If you’re worried about disclosing your home address, get a PO box (about £52 per year), or ask people to contact by email first. It’s good to offer a choice of postal options. Say how long each will take. Surface mail is lots cheaper than airmail, and sometimes arrives abroad in a week or two rather than the 6-8 weeks it’s supposed to take. The Royal Mail’s leaflet, Pricing Made Easy lists postage prices for the whole world. Check out http://www.royalmail.com/ . Printed papers (your novel), qualify for a lower rate of postage. You must mark the envelope ‘printed papers only’. For destinations outside the EU, attach a customs declaration CN22 saying what’s inside the package. Always say the contents are a gift, or the recipient might get stiffed for import duty. Most of my mail order sales came from the USA, possibly because there’s a vibrant zine scene there.
In person. In practice, I sold most copies of BCL this way, mostly at free gigs around London. It was depressing – like being a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman who’d been mug enough to write the encyclopedia himself. I now know how those poor sods feel who sell pirate DVDs round pubs .
Gigs. Until about fifteen years ago you couldn’t go to a gig without someone trying to sell you their zine, but that’s over, except at gigs with clear connections to DIY culture. People’s resistance to buying the novel surprised me. I’d get comments like, ‘If it’s any good, why’s it so cheap?’ or, on a good night, ‘It’s probably shit, but I’ll give it a go.’ I’d generalised from my own curiosity and assumed people would leap at the chance to buy it, even if it turned out to be ninety closely-typed pages of all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. But then, people are used to what they know; when was the last time someone came up to you in a pub and tried to sell you a novel? I had a success rate of about 40%, so for the 160 odd copies I sold this way I probably approached 400 strangers and was rejected by 240 of them. This really bruised my confidence; over the nine months where I did most of the intensive direct selling I hardly completed any new writing. By the end of that period I was exhausted from going out night after night, and a stone overweight from all the lager I’d necked to get up the nerve to approach people.
Zine fairs* etc. Sadly, these are rare in the UK, but if you can get involved in anything similar, do it. An artists’space near me held a fair where people could sell their creative work. I took a stall and had a brilliant day. I sold six copies, met nice people, and attracted lots of interest. It was so nice not needing to make the first move with people. The same goes for the times I fly-pitched on Brick Lane market alongside street-drinkers selling their old trousers. We got moved on by the police but it was pleasant while it lasted.
Shops. Despite the chainstores’ onslaught, independent bookshops still exist that might stock your novel. Check Yellow Pages or visit http://www.booksellers.org.uk/ .Try other types of shop as well, especially those that might ordinarily stock a zine. BCL sold well in record shops like Rough Trade etc.
Some shops are wary of stocking self-published work so it helps a lot if you seem really together. Phone the shop to see if they’re interested; don’t just turn up. Be ready to tell them useful stuff about the novel; plot summary, any press response you’ve had, publicity you’ve done etc. Mention any local connection you have to the shop. Nice as many booksellers are, finally, they want to know if the novel’s going to sell. If they’re interested take a contact name and arrange a time to visit. When phoning or visiting always avoid busy times like lunch-hours and weekends.
Shops will inevitably expect to stock your novel on sale or return*. You leave an agreed number of copies, then collect the money once they’re sold. Delivery has to be paid for by you so aim to do it yourself – get a bus pass! Issue some form of invoice or receipt for the novels you deliver and get a signature. It sounds bureaucratic but it saves queries later.
Shops will expect to make about 40-50% of the retail price as profit. This may seem a lot but given that they could more easily stock a blockbuster with big marketing behind it, they’re probably still doing you a favour. Be guided by the shop on how many to put into stock. It’s pointless pushing a shop to take more novels than they can sell, then having them lying around on the shelves getting tatty. Similarly, accept their lead on when to check back on sales progress. Don’t expect them to ring you to order more copies, but resist the temptation to constantly chase them for sales updates. Give it at least 6 weeks before checking. You’re responsible for collecting any unsold copies. You’ll just have to write off any that have become shop-soiled beyond use.
Zine distros. The UK never had many distros before, but happily that’s changing. The best worldwide list of distros is www.zinestreet.com . Here are the UK zine distros I know;
Cause and Effect. www.causeandeffectdistro.com
Active Distribution. http://www.activedistribution.org/
All That Glitters. http://www.allthatglittersdistro.co.uk/
Slender means. http://www.slendermeans.org.uk/
Dead Trees and Dye. http://www.deadtreesanddye.com/
Most distros list their terms, preferences and submissions guidelines on their websites. Respect these, particularly as distros are always volunteer run. Distros usually operate on a profit share of about 50/50 or 60/40 of cover price. Some pay upfront, some work on sale or return.
Working with distros raises some issues if you’re publishing a novel on a zine basis. Will your novel be regarded as a zine? To me, what’s decisive is the organization of the means of production, if it’s a DIY self-published project that’s low-budget and not-for-profit, it’s a zine in all but name. But not many zines focus on fiction, and your novel probably won’t have the trad cut-and-paste layout, so some distros won’t see it as a zine.
Weight is a more concrete problem. BCL weighed 250g, and cost 70p to post second class in the UK. Once you’ve mailed something that size to a distro, who then add on the postage from them to the reader, the price starts mounting. One answer is to serialize your novel into chunks around the length, size and weight of an average zine. Wred Fright serialised his novel Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus, as a seven part zine and it worked for him. This way, the total price of your novel won’t be much lower but readers may be more inclined to try your stuff if they’re making less of an initial outlay on the first instalment. Be sure to complete the novel before taking this route, and brace yourself for the possibility of tons of people buying part one and no bugger buying later sections.
Alternatively, you could try negotiating with distros to see if they fancy working from flats*, ie you supply a flat copy of your novel, the distro runs off copies when orders come in and you decide a profit split between you. Many distros don’t work this way as it’s yet more unpaid labour for them, but it can halve postage costs and may save the distro some risk if they normally pay upfront.