Back in the day, when I was a commissioning editor, market research was pretty basic. It consisted of visiting a variety of carefully selected bookshops in London to see which, if any, books they had on their shelves that were on the same subject as the book I wanted to publish.
To get the most comprehensive picture of the market, I always went to stores of differing sizes and locations around central London. I would also visit my local bookshop at the weekend and go to a bookshop in a suburb of London if at all possible. As I couldn’t easily do research outside London, I would sometimes ask our sales reps for feedback as they spent a lot of their time visiting shops in smaller cities and towns. Our reps had often been in the business for decades and they were always useful sources of information, and opinion!
As an aspiring author, you would probably expect to do most of your market research online because this gives you far more information than can be found in a local shop. That said, there are still some important lessons from my old-fashioned market research that may make you want to consider visiting a few shops. Here is what the shelves could tell me:
- If a bookseller stocked a book, it meant that it was selling (otherwise it would not have got shelf space).
- If there were more than two or three copies of one book on the shelf, it meant it was popular.
- If there were a lot of books on one subject area and on related subject areas, it meant that it was hot topic.
- If there was one book and it had been published a few years ago, it indicated a gap in the market (the book was stocked so it was selling but there were no competing titles).
- If there was one book and it was a fantastic book, it indicated that nothing else that had been published could compete with it so any book would have to be great to steal any of the market.
- It there was the only book on the topic and it looked as it if had been loitering on the shelf for a while (a bit dog-eared), it probably meant if was going to go in the bargain bin pretty soon so either the book had not met the needs of the market or there was no market.
So you see, there is a lot that a bookshelf can tell you. And, if you think visiting a bookshop is too old hat to consider, think again. Bookshops have limited shelf space (unlike Amazon!) and so they only stock what is selling. It’s a very fast and dirty way of finding out what it really hot and what is selling consistently.
If there is doubt about the evidence on the shelves you can garner help from the (usually) very helpful bookshop staff. If you go at a quiet time of day and ask specific questions, you can often get a lot of useful feedback, especially from members of staff who buy stock or who have worked in the shop for a while.
If your book is less mainstream and so less likely to have shelf-space in a book shop, you need to take a different tack and use more online information. More on that in my next post.
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