Breaking The Readership Barrier

Bryant and May

I have a feeling I need to pull the stops out for the next Bryant & May here in the UK. In the US the series does better and better, but here we lag far behind. This isn’t helped by the fact that WH Smith, the ubiquitous railway station-souk, thinks they’re a mite too clever for their readers, apparently.

I can’t believe it’s true that they’re for the cognoscenti and therefore lack WH Smith-appeal. However, it’s clear that they fall below the blockbuster mark by a long way. I’ll be skipping the Harrogate Crime Festival this year while I try to work out how to create a wider readership.

WH Smith famously likes to promote books about family secrets, passionate affairs, patrician lantern-jawed cops, Jeremy Clarkson’s Big Book Of Fossil Fuels and volumes of loosely-assembled words by the well-known typist Jeffrey Archer. Basically many of their readers have remained unchanged in their tastes since they bought the Victorian melodramas of the 1850s, and many are technically dead.

I have this stupid idea that readers would like something more from a book that ‘She fell to the floor like a limp rag’ (copyright Kate Mosse). I could give up the series and concentrate on a new character, Joe Bloke, who roams America tracking serial killers, or I could change Bryant & May by:

1. Making them 25 years old, and giving them a busty female sidekick.
2. Removing all humour/ subtlety
3. Adding a gunfight every ten pages
4. Describing many delicious meals.
5. Writing. In. Very. Short. Sentences.
6. Offering readers a Galaxy bar and a copy of ‘Which Computer?’ with every purchase

All ideas very gratefully accepted!

29 comments on “Breaking The Readership Barrier”

  1. Mike Cane says:

    Hmph. First, I’m glad to learn they are doing well in America. At least we haven’t been totally debased! Second, what do you mean, make them 25? You can do that any time! You seem to have given up going back in their past and have frozen them as codgers. Not that I don’t like them that way, but I really did love the time twisting you did with Full Dark House and would love to see more of that.

  2. admin says:

    Ah, I’m ahead of you Mike! Coming next is a short story set in 1952…

  3. I agree with Mike, I loved the flashback in Full Dark House. The research and descriptions of the Blitz were very well done.

    I’ve no idea how to better promote your books in the UK, but do keep highlighting the nooks and crannies and history of London that most people don’t find. Love it.

  4. Russ Varley says:

    So W H Smith don’t sell your books, this must be the reason I haven’t bought a book there for at least fifteen years. Plus having been in the Northallerton branch recently buying a trail running magazine, it’s not just your books nobody is buying in there, I didn’t see any books being purchased.

    I know this is easy for me to say as my livelihood is not the one dependant on their moronic buyers, but do you really need them? How much of the book market does Amazon now control? is now claiming they sell more digital books than paper ones so it is likely that we will follow suit over the next few years. Even my tiny local library offers a digital lending service. I don’t for one minute think that paper books will disappear but digital will probably replace most of the paperback book sales in the future. By doing things like this rather fine blog, using Twitter and (whisper it) Facebook you build relationships with us, your readers which make us more likely to buy your future books.

    Also you could make more of the Amazon sales link at the top of the page. I found it only after I had got up to date with all the audio and paper books (sorry)! However, when the Memory of Blood comes out this is how I’ll buy it because (I think) it’s better for you. What about special editions of the book only available through the blog as another idea? If you haven’t already, take a look at what Cory Doctorow does to promote and sell his novels for one possible future of book sales in general and yours in particular.

    Another question to ask is why did Lady Gaga just release her new album for 99c in the US? Combating piracy might be one reason, but as she is probably the best user of the internet and social media to promote herself at the moment, may be the reason was simply as an excellent way of promoting her live events which is where pop singers are alleged to make most of their money. Just some thoughts from the outside.

    It’s a shame you’re not coming to Harrogate, but sounds like you have other things on your plate at the moment.

    PS what happened about the TV series of B&M? Or is it all hush hush?

  5. Vickie Farrar says:

    “I’m Proud to be an American” (lyrics from some country song)…and one of your devout fans! I, too, would be thrilled to spend time with Bryant & May in any decade you choose. Just waiting here patiently for your next humourous, subtle, bullet-free, tasty treatless, and complex sentence-ridden offering. Because your writing (and oft startling twisted viewpoint/storyline) truly delights.

  6. Gretta says:

    I was put onto B&M by an American friend, although a couple of UK friends did pipe up afterwards also praising the series.

    Wouldn’t Janice already count as a busty female sidekick? I do like the idea of a free Galaxy bar, though…

  7. Wayne says:

    Firstly, I am a bit disappointed that you are not coming to Harrogate.

    Now…. How can you widen the audience, i agree with Mike Full Dark House was by far one of the most interesting B&M’s Not that i don’t like all the rest, I do find that having them stuck fast in the present day though a bit too “Everyday”. I love the flash backs and finding out about the younger men that they once were. I have said it before it would be nice to read about their younger life in the PCU. The exiting past cases only eluded to in the novel’s would make great book’s.

    I didn’t realise that W H Smiths was such a powerful book seller anymore, i have never seen much in the way of books in our local store… Like you say Christopher, Mr Clarkson and the Passionate affairs seem to be the norm, lets just say Books your mother would read or your father. Or should that be Grandmother and grand father….. 😉 The book section is tiny.

    I find it hard to be critical of any of the B&M books as i enjoy them so much, Lets face it once you find something as good as B&M its hard to be objective. The whole series has been my life line since the first one arrived from Amazon all those years ago. When i got to number six, the final one, i was left wanting more so to have the bonus of more was such a wonderful thing.

    You could always self publish if they drop the Series….

  8. Wayne says:

    Can i just say, Russ is spot on with his comment. I am sure it wasn’t there when i posted my comment…

  9. Alan Morgan says:

    The same books are stacked high in book shops, the smaller ones (or that hereabouts) especially and doubtless because that’s what sells. Even taking into account how few people buy books, the books many buy seem to be the Clarkson-style tie ins. Doubtless the multi-platform effect you’ve mentioned before, Chris. I’ve said before about how often in someone else’s house I’ll look about and think ‘where are the books?’. People look at me oddly at bus stop and school gate when picking up the sprouts because I’ll do so with a book.

    And yes, all that you mention is not good. To you, to us, here. But we can’t make people want otherwise. If we sell potatoes but people tend to buy oven chips, then should you get into producing machine-made potato waffles? It could be argued that if the books are in Smiths then they will sell. This is probably true, I picked up Roofworld another century ago in Smiths, in the Elephant. But if there had been a bookshop then I would have been in there instead. And even in big bookshops there’s no certainty in finding anything by yourself. Do people buy the latest Clarkson as a choice between it and the re-release of Anno Dracula? I think they buy the latest Clarkson because they want the latest Clarkson. They could otherwise get both.

    Would people watch X Factor if there was decent drama on the other other channel? Yes, they would still watch the bingo freekshow and pay to be a part of it with their phone votes. You can’t get bent out of shape because you’re not popularist. Even with First Blood Templar Templar’s Escape From New York On Friday the Thirteenth (with added Templars) you’d still not be that. The populace won’t align with what you write, it’s just whether you want to write to that alignment. You know all this of course. Blah, blah, blah.

    As an aside and to agree, earlier B&Ms would be good.

  10. Diogenes says:

    Philip Kerr had a similar problem with his Bernie Gunther. WWII was over and the interesting post-war period had been played out. He went back in time to the build-up to the war and wrote prequels.

    I’d like to see Arthur in Thatcher’s Britain.

  11. Russ Varley says:

    For what I’m about to say Diogenes I am truly and deeply sorry, but “Philip Kerr had a similar problem with his Bernie Gunther” really does sound like rhyming slang to my ignorant, northern ears! Wonder what it could mean?

  12. Daniel says:

    Is it a problem of community? I can’t speak for the crime reading internet public, being that I’m primarily SF&F/horror in orientation (I found B&M via your more fantastic works) and only dip in and out of crime, but I know that within SF&F circles, word of mouth plays a huge part in how well a book does. Other than the explosion of recommendations for Tha DaVinci Code (saints preserve us) a few years ago, I can’t recall a crime/thriller novel getting a huge word of mouth push to sales, yet I can easily point to The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie and Dreadnought by Cherie Priest as examples of books that far outperformed initial expectations driven primarily by the evangelical zeal of their fans, as well as the current success of Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi, based on his multimedia promotion of same (He commissioned a power ballad theme song for it, for goodness’ sake; how many people would think to do that?).

    (I should note: I’m open to the idea of a confirmation bias on my part, since the largest part of my online “socialising” takes place within the SF&F fan community.)

    I’d also be interested to know how much you/your publicist attempt to raise awareness of B&M outside of habitual crime readers? You’re the textbook example of underground success with both your fantasy/horror writing and your crime writing, yet I know quite a few people who’ve read Spanky, Breathe and Roofworld, but weren’t aware you’ve written crime novels at all and several crime fans I know are aware of B&M, yet haven’t read much, or sometimes any, of your fantasy/horror output. If you’re able to combine the totality of both readerships, surely that would be some small help towards raising wider awareness of your work? I don’t know if the reverse is true, but your crime novels are a perfect fit for the sensibilities of readers of horror and weird fantasy.

  13. admin says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head to a frightening extent Daniel. It doesn’t bother me as I’m not overtly ambitious, but I like puzzles that can’t be easily solved.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    WH Smith didn’t do very well here in western Canada and I don’t think it’s because we don’t read. People read waiting for the bus, on the bus, on Skytrain and riding up the escalator. I did see one young male reading while he walked on a downtown street the other day. Word of mouth works, at least to a certain extent, as I am certainly reading and buying books I wouldn’t have thought of before I joined a meetup for Bookcrossing. I heard an interview with the owner of Atomic Fez publishing (on Blog Business World with Wayne Hurlbert) and all the things he was suggesting are the things you’re doing – and how is that for cheek? I’m not sure how you convince crossover readers. I have to drag myself kicking and screaming to anything with a horror tag on it, even though I trust Chris not to drown me in blood or send fanged blood suckers into my brain. I, too, would like some infill stories following Full Dark House, which I think I like best of all.

  15. Ness says:

    Go and be nice to librarians – we get the word out about ‘long tail’ books i.e. those you won’t find in big piles at discount rates at chain stores or in the top seller lists at Amazon. Our borrowers are also book buyers and will purchase books that they want to read again such as yours. I’ve personally been generating sales for you since reading Full Dark House… Or get one of the walking tour companies to do a B & M tour of London.

  16. stephen groves says:

    Oi Fowler don,t you dare!
    Although I am rather partial to the odd Galaxy Bar.
    I like the idea of a possible young Bryant and May series.
    All best

  17. mel says:

    I love the idea of a tour in London but then I’m an American reader. I have no idea what the scene is like with book stores there but so many independent general bookstores in my city, San Francisco, have shut down. Our sci-fi/fantasy/horror bookstore seems to be doing ok but my local mystery store is closing. Maybe it’s just the authors I read but the ones that write in the sci-fi / fantasy realm have more blogs and direct online presence. Also the crowd at the sci-fi, fantasy, horror store seems much younger than the dusty mystery store that I love and will miss terribly. I have to admit that I don’t like the covers for the US editions.

  18. Jon Masters says:

    As an avid book buyer I can happily say that I can’t remember the last time I bought a book from WHS, and given that almost all of their book sales must come in the BOGOF category I’m not sure they really rank as a bookshop anymore.
    Sadly, with the loss of Borders, almost all towns rely on Waterstones as their main book highstreet outlet, and certainly for their smaller branches they tend to go the way of WHS and have only tiny stocks of books outside the British public’s comfort zone. The last two of your books in paperback were certainly not on the shelves on the release dates when I went to buy them.

    As others have said, WoM plays such a huge part in it, and interestingly there is always a long reservations waiting list on my local library system when your books come out. Perhaps encouraging some smaller retailers to make a big thing of your next releases, especially making sure good stocks of previous B&M books are available ?

  19. Helen Martin says:

    That certainly makes sense if people are lining up to reserve library titles, but they won’t all buy, of course.

  20. Matt says:

    I totally agree with Helen. I read Paperboy which I bought in Gays the Word. It was hilarious. Then I started B+M. My local library raved about your books and how many people borrow them! I now rave about your books to my book group!

  21. Colin says:

    I came late to B&M having read your other stuff a few years ago. I discovered books like Spanky, Roofworld etc because I worked in a bookshop and the covers looked interesting so I gave them a go and loved them. I had no idea, until the last few months, that you had written crime novels and, even better, a series (which is my current genre of choice). I discovered the B&M books by chance while browsing in my local library. Again, I noticed the cover first, then saw your name and from that moment I was sold. I’ve read most of them, out of sequence due to the limited availability in the library, but as soon as funds allow I will be buying all of them as I’m sure I’ll be re-reading all of them, just as I do with my Allinghams, Crispins, Conan Doyles, Legges, L Sayers etc.

    I realise that this doesn’t help in terms of increasing your readership but I hope it gives some small insight into how at least one reader “missed out” until recently.

  22. Bramble says:

    I became one of your readers after listening to you speak at the Reading Festival of Crime last year. Childhood spent among my mother’s collection of those green-striped Penguin novels, early twenties in central and north-eastern London, fan of Golden Age, narrative and wit – I just wish I’d encountered Bryant and May earlier. So a thank you for attending that festival, and although it’s only on a very small scale of increasing readership, I am spreading the word…

    What can we do to help? Is it better to buy your books in Waterstones or WH Smith, or make them order them in, rather than the anonymity of Amazon?

  23. Lisa says:

    I am an American reader who just discovered B&M last fall at a specialty mystery bookshop in Houston, TX. My friend and I love them and only have one more in the series to read (Off the Rails) I can’t understand why you don’t have a larger group of readers in Britain. I for one have been spoiled by B&M and other mysteries pale in comparison now!

    I do agree with the idea of more stories set in the past. I loved that about Full Dark House.

    Perhaps you need to start a twitter or Facebook account as Bryant and post his musings on a daily basis. You never know, you might get a following of readers/book buyers. I don’t know about the UK, but here twitter and Facebook are popular with authors and celebs.

  24. admin says:

    Hi Lisa – I like the idea of doing an ‘Arthur’s musings’ column. I can currently be found on Twitter under ‘Peculiar’ and on Facebook under my name. And of course there’s

  25. Inken says:

    I’m a Brit expat living in the US and I’m sorry to say I can’t remember how I started reading Bryant & May but after the first one I instantly went out and bought all the others that were published at the time and wait desperately anxious for the next one to appear. I live in terror that one day you’ll have to kill them off due to old age but live in hope you will write a full novel about one of the earlier cases in the 1950s or ’60s that you keep hinting at and never fully explain (damnit!). I love reading these books because a) I learn something new about London every time and b) the people are so wonderfully ENGLISH. I do everything I can to promote these books to friends and acquaintances in Colorado but it’s a bit of an uphill struggle. Thankfully my local library does stock them and whilst I don’t know the lending stats, I’m doing my best to improve them.

  26. admin says:

    You see, this is how to get into my good books. Compliments, offers to pimp books to other people – all the things we writers love and need. Thank you!

  27. Magpie says:

    Couldn’t you have our heroes behave in a manner more like other old codgers and use their pensioner rail passes to travel the country; maybe they could solve a grisly murder committed in a WH Smith at a station.
    WH Smith would then happily flog your books and you could follow in B&M’s footsteps and do a book tour of all the WH Smiths in every station in the UK.
    Problem sorted and no Galaxy give aways needed.

    To be honest, as much as I love the settings being in London; I’d love to see Arthur in a different setting so please consider sending the old boys on a trip.

  28. admin says:

    Your wish is my command – Bryant & May are heading for the seaside in ‘Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood’…

  29. Magpie says:

    And I shall demand WH Smith to order me an a copy ASAP !!!

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