Saturday, July 05, 2008
The Schlock of the New
When I left bookselling I felt mild pangs of anxiety about losing touch with what was going on in the publishing world. I loved being in the privileged position of having a sneak preview of new titles before they were in the shops and also enjoyed listening to the publishers' reps bitching about certain authors.
Whenever I had an appointment with a rep we'd spend at least half of the visit gossiping about the book trade. The rep would slag off the editorial department for publishing unsellable books. I'd moan about my head office for buying unsellable books. Eventually the reps would say 'Well, I suppose we'd better do some work' and we'd go through a catalogue of new titles, haggling over how many titles I should take. It was one of my favourite parts of the job.
At the end of the visit I'd be handed a few proof copies. With a few notable exceptions, most of the proofs were unreadable and I used to wonder how so much dross managed to get published. I always left the proofs in the staff room for people to take home, but they'd sit there for months until the pile became structurally unsound, at which point I'd bin them.
I used to send damaged copies of decent books to the local hospital, but couldn't bring myself to include many proofs. It didn't seem fair to subject someone with a serious - possibly terminal - illness to such dull writing. I wish I could give you an example of what I mean, but they were so unmemorable that I cannot recall a single title.
The 3 for 2 tables weren't much better. They had a few decent novels, but most of the selection was formulaic holiday reading. I often struggled when customers asked me for personal recommendations, as I had read so few of the 3 for 2 titles. Why waste your life reading second-rate new fiction when there are so many masterpieces in the backlist?
Go into any chain bookseller and you're going to see the same selection of titles. Occasionally, you might find a branch where an imaginative buyer has been able to represent some of the quirky, small press titles (Waterstone's in Brighton has a superb table of fiction in translation), but this is the exception rather than the rule.
Since I left Waterstone's, my reading tastes have been dictated by a mixture of serendipitous discoveries in charity shops and secondhand booksellers, plus the recommendations of fellow bloggers. I have read books I'd never heard of and authors I never expected to like. It's been a wonderful journey of discovery.
At the moment I'm reading His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke - a fantastic Victorian novel about the time when people were transported to Australia for minor misdemeanors (if only they'd bring it back - I'd be first in the queue). I'd heard of the book, but wouldn't have read it unless I'd spotted a copy in the Lewes branch of the British Heart Foundation charity shop. I've only got as far as the third chapter, but it's gripping. The blurb on the back promises: murder, mutiny, flogging, child-suicide, homosexual rape and cannibalism. What more could anyone want?
However, although I could happily spend the rest of my life reading backlist titles, I don't like the idea of missing out on the next Cloud Atlas. There is nothing like reading a new novel and knowing that it will still be in print in 100 years' time.