Thursday, November 22, 2007

The joys of Christmas

One of the most frustrating aspects of running a bookshop is the number of unsolicited phone calls I receive at Christmas from self-published authors and small publishers. The last ten weeks of the year is make or break time in bookselling and if I'm going to spend time on the phone, I'd rather be selling a book to a customer than listening to someone waffle on about their definitive history of telephone boxes of the 1930s.

Last week a self-published author phoned during a particularly busy time and I asked her to send me an email, which she promptly did. Later, during a quiet moment at the till I, read the author's description of her book. On the basis that she wasn't a local author, hadn't arranged any publicity for the book and was writing about a fairly esoteric subject, I decided not to stock it. That should have been the end of it.

A few days later she rang back and was very abrupt with one of my staff. I was busy dealing with a long enquiry and couldn't talk to her. The next day she managed to track me down and asked if I was going to stock her book. At first I wasn't sure which title she was talking about as I've had so many calls like this recently. The conversation went like this:

'I really think you should stock this title'

'Are you a local author'

'No, I live in **** *******'

'And why do you think that I should stock this book'

The author told me how interesting and well-written their book was, which led me to the next question:

'What sort of publicity have you arranged?

'I've had some local newspaper articles, but nothing in your area. I'm hoping that it will be picked up by a national paper'

'I've no doubt it's a very good book, but I have trouble selling titles by Penguin that have been backed by a marketing spend of thousands of pounds, so unless you can guarantee some sort of publicity I don't think I'll be able to sell it.'

We agreed to differ.

I gave the author some advice on how to publicise her book and encouraged her to try local radio, promising to stock the title if she did this. She probably thought I was being a bit of a bastard but in the past, if you visited the stock room of any bookshop you'd find hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds worth of unsold books from small publishers and self-published authors. These titles were bought on a sale or return basis, but it's interesting how the person that hassled you every day before Christmas could be so elusive when you tried to send the books back. And if you did track them down, returning the books was a lengthy, time consuming process. Instead of picking 400 books and sending them back to HarperCollins, you had to do dozens of small consignments with separate forms for each one.

There's nothing I like more than seeing a small publisher or self-published author succeed and, contrary to the tone of this post, I always try to be open minded when an author approaches me. But it is frustrating how many people publish books without doing any research into the book trade, make no effort to get publicity and then phone bookshop managers at the busiest time of the year.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Clash

I discovered this Arabic television clip today featuring Wafa Sultan, an outspoken secularist. I don't agree with everything she says and she makes Melanie Phillips seem relatively tolerant, but in a week where a Saudi Arabian victim of a gang-rape has been sent to prison, it's good to hear a Muslim woman challenging the forces of bigotry. I just wish she'd done it in a slightly less bigoted way.

Click on the picture to watch the clip.

Then click on the picture below to hear the other side of the argument:

Thursday, November 15, 2007


I don't read thrillers. I can't see the point in reading something that offers nothing more than a routine television drama. The best novels not only entertain the reader but also provide an insight into the human condition, whether they merely ratify your own view of the world or open you up to new possibilities. However, last week I decided to break the habit of a lifetime and read a proper thriller called The Death List by Paul Johnston.

It was almost exactly what I expected and confirmed all my prejudices about the genre, but there was one surprise: I couldn't put it down. The plot was implausible and the characters were superficial, but the author had placed his hero in such an appalling situation that I had to find out what happened next. I read the book in a day, refusing all offers of human contact until I had reached the end. Afterwards I felt dirty, as if had just eaten a bag of jam doughnuts.

What was particularly interesting about The Death List was the fact that the main character was an author who'd been dropped by his publisher. There were lots of bitchy comments about the publishing world and I wondered if this was connected to the fact the Paul Johnston is now with Mira - an imprint of Mills and Boon - rather than his old publisher Hodder and Stoughton.

I checked the reviews on Amazon. Some readers loved it but others thought the novel was 'implausible' and that the characters were 'two-dimensional', which is like complaining that there's too much fighting in a Bruce Lee film.

That should have been the end of it, but a few days later I found myself reading another thriller - this time by Simon Kernick. Like Paul Johnston's book it was impossible to put down and although I found the main character extremely annoying, I had to find out what happened next. By now I could see a clearly discernible pattern emerging in both thrillers, resembling a symphony in four movements:
  1. The hero is suddenly plunged into a nightmare scenario by an unexpected threat from an unknown individual
  2. The hero tries to discover the source of the threat, but ends up being pursued by both the police and his enemy
  3. The hero is at his lowest ebb and decides to fight back with the help of a trusted friend
  4. The hero finally meets his adversary and they fight to the death. The hero wins.
And that's it. It's a story that has been told for thousands of years and will probably continue to be. Both books were good fun but I'm now aching for a decent novel. I have a pile of books on my bedside table but at this moment in time I fancy re-reading Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying.