Thursday, October 02, 2008

The sound of silence

Did an interview with Clive James and Pete Atkin yesterday for Word's Backstage series of podcasts. Clive's got a new book out and therefore he was going straight home to have a look at how it was doing on Amazon. He's not the first author to succumb to the irresistible lure of looking at his Amazon ranking. It must be the least scientific way of keeping track of sales success since the last one.

For years magazine people have been fishing for good news by going into WH Smith and trying to work out if the stack of their latest issue was diminishing at the required speed. I don't know why they do it but they do, everyone from editorial assistants to CEOs. It's a professional disease and professionals should know just how unreliable it is. You don't know how many they've got in the back. You don't know how long they've been out there. You don't know how representative that particular outlet is.

If you want to know how well anything's doing - a record, a book, a magazine - my advice is just stay indoors and see if anyone gets in touch. The most reliable indicator of success in any endeavour is that people can't wait to tell each other anything that could ever be interpreted as good news. Silence usually means they haven't got any.


  1. When I worked in the record dept. of WH Smith in Putney, Martin Chambers of The Pretenders came in one day and asked me if we had any copies of (their then-new single) 'Message of Love' in stock. I told him we'd sold out and he smiled and left.

  2. When I was a youngster I worked in a branch of WH Smith in a northern English city. One day I was idling by the cash register when an agitated man stormed up to the desk. He angrily announced that he worked for Jeffrey Archer and that the shop wasn't dedicating enough of its shelf space to his client's back catalogue. Oh dear. Needless to say, after he had gone I reduced his shelf space even further!

  3. In Jeffrey's defence (never thought I'd say that) his publisher had probably paid WH Smith for some promotional space and somebody was just checking up that they were getting what they paid for. Your unilateral action, noble though it may be in some ways, explains precisely why publishers get so het up about the ability of the big chains to deliver what they charge so handsomely for. "Compliance", they call it.

  4. As I recall, Jeffrey Archer didn't have a new book out and hadn't had for some time - it was an issue over the amount of space allotted to the back catalogue. I appreciate that the publisher fellow was doing his job, but he went about it in completely the wrong way. Had he been remotely polite, I would have gladly given his client some extra shelf space. I wonder if he stormed around every book shop in the town, inadvertently causing his client's shelf space to be reduced further still by peeved shop assistants! A kind word goes a long way.