Going through the pages of The Guardian today, I came upon a story about a self-published British author, David Eckhoff, who was having some peculiar difficulties with his local branch of the Waterstones bookseller chain. Now as you know, I started out as a self-published author, and it was difficulties getting my work into bookstores that had me end up seeking a publisher for lack of resources in that direction. Now while I hit a lot of resistance from bookstore employees, it was nothing like this. I hit David up on Twitter and asked if he’d like to tell his story to you folks, my readers – and here it is.
Why Self-Published Authors Shouldn’t Upset Waterstones
One Sunday back in March I visited Waterstones at Bluewater, the monster mall in Kent, in the UK’s south-east. I did what many self-published writers do, left a few cards advertising my book, The Royal Factor, near books like mine. These cards are the same as business cards, measuring about three by two inches. On the following Tuesday I received a stern email (there is an email address on the card) from Waterstones warning me that that this sort of activity is futile as my cards had been thrown away and that any further cards found will be thrown away too. I wrote back, apologising, but asked if Waterstones could do more to encourage new writers, possibly providing a small space for people to leave cards, etc. This would hardly compete with its trade and could lead to
Waterstones spotting emerging talent.
I didn’t receive a reply to this. However, I did receive some interesting reviews for The Royal Factor on Amazon. Every few days I check for new reviews, as a self-published writer I get one or two a month. But two reviews had been placed on the Monday, both with a barrage of insults. One majored on The Royal Factor being ‘complete inane rubbish’ and ‘Xenophobic’ and the other accusing me of plagiarising John Steinbeck! I was expecting some people not to like it, it’s a first novel – but two ‘troll’ reviews, on the same day when all previous reviews had been positive?
Both reviews were long, rambling and vitriolic but neither contained any examples from the book, as if they had been written without having read it. They appeared to have been written by two people suffering from the same outpouring of hatred. Yet I’m not a celeb or a politician and I was sure I wasn’t known to the reviewers. I put one of the reviewers’ Amazon names into Google. It turned out also to be a twitter ‘handle’. I was intrigued to see that this person had made complaints against Marks and Spencer, at Bluewater, about the purchase of some vinegar(!). The person’s name was easy to track down from there, let’s call her ‘Miss X’, and it became clear that she was a bookseller at Waterstone’s, Bluewater.
I could not track down the other Amazon name, but I wrote back to the chap at Waterstones and asked to confirm if an employee had placed these reviews. He came back later that day and confirmed that Miss X had admitted to one malicious review, and that she would remove it. She denied the second review and Waterstones’ man said that he would not call her a liar and challenge her any further.
That same Tuesday evening, another troll review appeared. I wrote to Waterstones again asking if its people were responsible. The response was that lots of people post reviews on the internet and people were allowed to say what they want. Clearly Waterstones had had enough of me. I wasn’t giving up though, I was livid that someone was finding time to conduct this vendetta for such a ridiculous reason. I still hadn’t tracked down the second review but the third was easier: it appeared to be from Miss X’s only ‘friend’ on Goodreads, a site for book fans. I put this to my man at Waterstones and its head of communications. Waterstones immediately agreed to a further investigation and talked of disciplinary action. This led to the third review being withdrawn and the admission from ‘Miss X’ that she had also placed or arranged the second review that she had denied only the day before. I asked Waterstones if disciplinary action would actually make any
difference to this individual, she appeared to be ‘on a mission’. I was assured that dismissal would follow any further ‘unprofessional’ behaviour. In actual fact, I wasn’t looking for dismissal, anyone can make a mistake, even if it is the sustained public rubbishing by an ‘impartial’ person in the book trade of a book they’d never read, and getting friends and family to do the same – or using their accounts to do so. Also, selfishly, I wondered what this person might do unbridled by pressure from her managers not to do weird things.
Whilst this was going on, by way of apology, Waterstones offered me some help with The Royal Factor. I said I would be grateful for this and it sent me some web links about how to self-publish! I pointed out that a) I had already read as much as anyone could bear to read on the subject (even if I still wasn’t that good at it) and these said nothing new and b) free web links did not constitute any sort of apology.
Waterstones then offered to carry my book on its eBooks site. I was happy about this but asked that if I accepted, would there be any promotion? I made it clear that I was not expecting the JK Rowling treatment but the odd mention on Waterstones’ site and a few tweets would be welcome, otherwise the book would be as safe on Waterstones eBooks as it is on my PC; no-one would know it was there apart from the limited marketing a lone author can do, which I already do for The Royal Factor on Amazon. I also asked that it be ready in time for the Diamond Jubilee, a fantastic opportunity for this book.
Some weeks later, I was still chasing Waterstones to publish the book. The problem was always with ‘another’ department, and the promises to look into promotion still came but without any actual description of what could be done. And then I noticed that Miss X was talking about her disciplinary meeting on Twitter! I had followed her out of morbid interest. I said to a friend at the time that this could mean trouble – and this proved to be the case; another troll review popped up that evening along the lines of my book being like GCSE coursework. Having seen examples of GCSE coursework I thought this quite a compliment but clearly it was not meant to be so.
Again I notified Waterstones and again I went off hunting around the web. This time I tracked it to ‘W’, who appeared to be a work-mate of a relative of Miss X. Again she admitted it and it was removed with assurances that it would not happen again. But there was still no sign of Waterstones coming through with its promise of carrying my book. I asked yet again in the week before the Diamond Jubilee and got an autoreply saying my contact had gone on holiday. The book finally ended up on Waterstones’ site some time after the Diamond Jubilee, the best marketing opportunity for me had been missed. And after the umpteenth time of asking about promotion Waterstones said that it had decided not to promote the book in any way as other authors had to pay £119 to appear on the
site and that was as much as was due to me as recompense for its staff’s activities.
I have not had one sale from Waterstones. Some time after I asked where the money would go if it did sell one I received an email asking me to email my bank account details to a third party, a far cry from the slick, automated operation that is Amazon self-publishing. Miss X has also pressed the ‘unhelpful’ button on positive reviews, which can’t be withdrawn. However, the detective work I carried out tracking down this person and those she had possibly recruited (or used their accounts) for this campaign was an extraordinarily satisfying experience.
And there you have it! You can visit David’s website at http://www.theroyalfactor.blogspot.com/ and find his novel, The Royal Factor, on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. And, of course, you can buy it at Waterstones. Given the nature of the topic, I’d love to hear what YOU think about this situation!