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.


pierre l said...

Another very interesting post. I really must make the effort to go and visit the Brighton branch of Waterstone's one of these Saturdays.

The Garden Monkey said...


I'm enjoying yr book blog.

I have a small one of my own

Jim Murdoch said...

I would say the bulk of the books I've bought over the last few years have all been though online recommendations and I'm not often disappointed. There's a lot to be said for a reader's review. I try and do one a month, something I truly would recommend. The problem is that Canongate have started sending me the odd advance copy and I feel a bit obliged to do a review when I've been sent a book for free.

Rob said...

His Natural Life sounds very intriguing. I've just had a look on Amazon and it has near-universal rave reviews (and in this case, I think it's safe to assume that none of them were posted by the author...)

Steerforth said...

I'm now a quarter of the way through 'His Natural Life' and find it hard to believe that it was written in the 1870s. The author's candour about certain subjects is unusual for Victorian writers.

This is one of the most compelling novels I've read for a long time and I'm surprised that it isn't more well known outside Australia.

David said...

I may be wrong, but I think the BBC may have made His Natural Life into a drama series a long time ago, maybe early 80's, is the protagonist a blacksheep in his family which leaves hum to give a false name when he is arrested to avoid bringing shame on his parents?

Steerforth said...

Yes, that's more or less it. I didn't know that it had been adapted for television.

John Self said...

[Sound of penny dropping]

Ah, wasn't it televised as For the Term of His Natural Life? I always assiduously avoided it when it was rerun during the school holidays as it looked so dull. I also used to confuse it with Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days, which was about an even worse sentence: being a teacher in a minor English public school.

Jim Murdoch has it spot on about advance copies. When I started blogging last year, I was delighted to start getting freebies - especially advance freebies - from publishers. It took several months for me to realise that the sense of obligation to read the damn things is likely to crush any pleasure out of the experience. And also that in getting advance titles, all you are doing is giving the constant stream of books you know you want to read and will never have time to, a head start of a few months.

Now I rarely request copies from publishers. I feel more independent when I've paid for the book I'm reading myself. They still come unsolicited though, which at least keeps the local charity shop in stock.

JRSM said...

You can go to a lot of the places in Tasmania where 'His Natural Life' was set: some very grim old prisons and the like. There's also a film coming out about one of the more famous Tasmanian convicts, Alexander Pearce, a chap who escaped in a group, and ended up eating all the other escapees before being recaptured. He then escaped again, with somebody else who had little sense of self-preservation, and who he also ate, even though he had other food still left to live on.

Brett said...

"Why waste your life reading second-rate new fiction when there are so many masterpieces in the backlist?"

Exactly. My new sig quote. I sold books for 8 years before I became a librarian. "Backlist" conjures for me that old life. It is foreign to the library world.