in which Caitlin tells of how FACP's titles fare in the market
A conversation between Caitlin Toohey and Phillip Winn, Perth, 24 November 1997
in which Caitlin tells of how FACP's titles fare in the market place...
|Caitlin Toohey's calm and elegant poise belies her years of hard work spent in Perth bookstores engaged in the practicalities of selling books; sending and receiving orders, packing and unpacking books, organising displays, facing customers. Her wealth of experience in the book sales field sheds invaluable light on the operations of FACP in its home town and highlights the place of the small publisher in the Australian context.|
As an avid reader and student of literature, books have obviously had a great influence on your life, but just how did you come to work in the book sales area?
When I graduated from University I got a job at the University of Western Australia Bookshop - that was my first taste of the book world. After about a year, unfortunately, that bookshop went into receivership. I then had a stint with Angus & Robertson and then Dymocks - which was probably enough of the chain-store kind of bookshop for me. Then I started working at New Edition Bookshop in Fremantle which is more of an alternative, independent type bookshop. After an extended overseas trip I got a job at Bookland which sells secondary school books, stationery and art supplies. Currently I am working as publishing coordinator in Bookland's desk-top publishing and marketing section.
So, from your experience in these very different bookshops, what would you say are the main factors which determine the range of titles available in any given bookshop?
It's determined by popular demand more than anything else, it really is driven by the market, otherwise the books aren't going to sell. It depends on the bookshop and the location of the bookshop as well - because even within chain-stores like Dymocks you are going to get a different feel in the Fremantle store to the Subiaco store or the Claremont store. Actually the Fremantle store is a very good example because they've got the Fremantle niche market down to the last number - they've worked it out very well. It's also dependent on availability as well, and the bookshop's financial status.
Is availability of stock an issue for booksellers?
There are some funny conditions within the book industry and from my understanding this is left over from the days of the Empire in the sense that there are books that are available from America, but we don't get them here as readily as the ones that we get from England (from a publishing house that has its headquarters in England). You can get these alternative editions, but you have to go through American supply companies and it's not as straight forward. Also you can be frustrated by something that you know is readily available in the U.K., but you have to wait at least 4-6 weeks for them to airfreight it in for you. The average time for a book to come in is usually about 2-3 weeks, depending on the supplier. People like Penguin and Harper Collins are really good, they're big houses and can get it to you very quickly.
Does this mean that there is often a difference between what the bookseller has on offer and what the readers expect?
I guess that depends on the expectations of the reader and the kind of image that they have inside their head of that particular bookshop. I found that especially true in the case of New Edition, which is a very particular bookshop; it's been there for 10 years and people have very strong ideas and associations about New Edition Bookshop. And when things were perhaps not going as well as we would like and the books weren't there that the readers were expecting, the disappointment was palpable; it was horrible for all of us - readers and employees alike. When people go into a Dymocks, that sort of place, you're getting a different kind of customer really, it's more like a supermarket approach to books - they just want the latest Tom Clancy or the latest John Grisham or whatever - and they expect you to have it too, but they don't expect you to have some weird book by Henry Rollins that he published himself in the USA. Whereas, at New Edition you would expect to see that on the shelf.
When you were working in sales did you have much contact with FACP?
When I was at New Edition, which is just down the road from FACP, they would come in every week with a box of books to stock up. And we had an on-going agreement with them that they would come in if we ever ran out of something; they would fix it up straight away so that we would always have at least one or two of everything - of their entire range. We had a special section for their books which was fairly prominent in the shop. They were very prompt if we ever needed anything.
That's certainly a high standard of service. Would you say that FACP has a high standing in the Perth and Fremantle book trade?
When I was at U.W.A., and particularly at New Edition, they were well regarded. They were seen as a publishing house that is small, but which produces quality stuff that people were interested in having, and buying. Places more like Dymocks and Angus & Robertson, particularly away from the Fremantle area, were not so interested and they would only have picked something up if it was really selling and very popular.
Which tends to suggest that FACP caters mostly to a specific audience.
They tap into a really good market of people who want either to read about a family that they know of - they actually know the person, or are somehow related, or it's their grandmother's friend or something like that - or else they're going overseas and they want gifts with a West Australian flavour, or someone is actually coming to them to stay in W.A. and they want a souvenir gift for them.
Having served many clients, could you draw up a FACP client profile?
It's actually quite a wide range of people. They've done some really good kids' books which are really popular and they're quite a good price, so people buy them. And a couple of them, like Palo Morgan's Cat Balloon, have been made into very successful plays by the Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in Fremantle - so they sell very well. Then you have people who are interested in reading about some historical event, so you get anyone from people in their mid-twenties onwards for that, and also the souvenir/gift books as well.
So which of FACP's titles have been the most successful?
The ones people really know about would be My Place by Sally Morgan and also Emma: A Translated life, by Emma Ciccotosto - who is an Italian lady who basically tells the story of her life. They're very popular. Also Hungerford's Stories from Suburban Road and a couple of his other memoirs. Then there's Bill Bunbury's, Reading Labels on Jam Tins, Cyclone Tracy, Rabbits and Spaghetti - they're all memoirs about growing up during the depression. Another good seller is their annual Wildflower Diary - nice quality and for about $25 people would really go for that too.
What do you think contributes to the commercial success of any given title?
It has to be targeted well; it has to fit a certain market niche and answer a need that's there in the community. It also has to be timed well, for example there was a kids' book that came out about football written by Wendy Jenkins called Killer Boots and that did really well. It's a great story and she's a great author (and a Fremantle local) and they released it during the football season. Books also have to be presented in the right kind of way to catch people's eye, to fit in with the subject matter. And then there's word of mouth, articles in the local paper and that sort of thing.
In comparison to the books produced by larger publishing houses, how do FACP's titles sell?
Generally very well... it's not like the latest, blockbuster best-selling, Grisham or what have you, but they are definitely very well received, considering how much smaller they are and how far away they are from the main action of the book world which is in Melbourne and Sydney. Obviously their numbers are not anything like Harper-Collins, but comparatively they would be doing quite well.
What do you consider to be the place of smaller publishing houses such as FACP?
The main thing is that they give a voice to people who would otherwise not be heard, particularly as we're in Western Australia, we're a long way away. There are a lot of really great stories out there, they're just little stories, but they're important to those that want to write them and to those who want to hear them too. It's something that has a uniquely West Australian flavour and I think that's important, otherwise you get swallowed up with just the latest from America and the latest from Melbourne and Sydney, but you don't have anything from here - and people need that. Particularly somewhere like Fremantle - it's really well placed there because people have such a strong sense of community.
So, given that this strong community support is likely to continue, what kind of future do you foresee for FACP?
They seem to be on the right track as far as anyone can tell; - the book world being notoriously volatile and difficult in terms of making money - giving people a voice, whereas otherwise they would have to be silent. I think FACP realises that role and that responsibility really well. They might expand into other areas such as the children's literature which they are really starting to get into now, which they weren't so much previously. With a little bit of luck they'll be able to continue to do the job they're doing now and keep going from strength to strength.