Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Now and Then

This afternoon, while filling in a form, my wife asked me what my occupation was. I thought of all of the different options before reluctantly answering "Bookseller. But I'm not really a bookseller, am I?"

Even after 25 years, I still resist being defined by my occupation. It would be different if I was a composer, writer or artist - I could say any of those with pride. But bookselling is something you do when you don't know what you want to do.

In the past, the job had its compensations. I got to read new novels months before they were published. I met novelists, actors, artists, gangsters and models, enjoying the demimonde of London without having to buy a single drink. I also worked with some lovely people.

However, today my working life is mainly one of drudgery. I buy books in bulk, knowing that most of them are worthless, hoping that the few that are of value will keep the wolves from the door for another month or two. So far I've kept going, but the sales have been rather patchy recently.

My book sales used to be fairly predictable. I knew that I would sell x number of books per thousand on sale, and that 60% of the orders would be from within the UK.

However, that's all changed. For some reason, the ratio of domestic to foreign orders has reversed and on some days, I sell more books to Amazon Germany than its UK branch. I thought I was doing something wrong, but when I spoke to a friend who sells ties on eBay, she said that she'd had an awful summer.

It looks as if people in Britain have stopped buying things they don't need. I'm in trouble.

As a result, I've neglected blogging and days out, so that I can knuckle down and increase my sales inventory to compensate for the downturn in sales. I've been taking so many boxes of books to and from home, that several neighbours have assumed that we're moving. It's been hard work, but I have come across some interesting books.

This dustjacket is somewhere between the salacious covers of 1950s Pan paperbacks and the Fleming/Deighton adaptations of the early 60s. The Lady Chatterly trial is over and suddenly, everyone appears to be sex mad.

      "I just need to measure the light by pressing this against your chest"

This is from a 1960s book on taking portraits. The 'glamour' element is creeping in, but there are also some interesting pictures that don't feature tasteful nudity:

This is a great photograph, with echoes of Yousuf Karsh. Sadly the book is worthless, so I ripped out the plates before I threw it away.

I've no idea what this man is doing. He seems very respectable, but perhaps he is distilling the LSD that will destroy the social fabric of Great Britain, paving the way for sitar music and kaftans. I've no idea.

This is Jack de Manio - a name that will probably mean nothing to most people, unless you're British and were born before the 1960s.

The name sounds vaguely like a New York boxer or gangster, but he was every inch the English gentleman:

De Manio was one of the original presenters of Radio Four's Today and when his laid-back, clubable persona didn't fit with the more earnest, news-oriented direction the programme took in 1970, he resigned. He was almost sacked in 1956 for carelessly announcing a programme called Land of the Niger as Land of the Nigger.

De Manio's autobiography, Life Begins Too Early, is a very entertaining account of his bizarre childhood, when he had to compete with a monkey for his mother's affections. There are also some amusing accounts of his wartime experiences, during which he was both awarded the Military Cross and dismissed after a Court Martial. It's only a penny on Amazon, so you have nothing to lose.

I barely remember the 1960s, but these creatures made a very strong impression on me:

I still remember the terror I felt when I saw a Dalek in Arding and Hobbs - a department store at Clapham Junction. It moved, waving its sink plunger menacingly. I had no idea that a small child had climbed inside and put a shilling in the slot for a one-minute ride.

Finally, if you were born in Britain during the 1960s, you may remember this:

This is from a BBC schools educational series called Look and Read. The programmes lasted for about 15 minutes and were divided up into three segments. The first and last segments contained a filmed drama series, but the middle contained a tedious section that introduced children to words like tug, wharf and mob.

The fourth chapter, called 'The Big Job', asks children to "Draw a crate and write on it a mark which makes another mark when it is upside down."

I never liked 'Len and the River Mob'.The social realism always depressed me. 'The Boy From Space' was more my cup of tea, and it was in colour.

I shall keep the momentum going on the book-logging front, so I hope that I'll have some more interesting titles for a future post. In the meantime, here is a wonderful author photo from an earlier period:


Rog said...

Take one more step and the dog gets it!

We are selling more stuff abroad than we were - at least we are countering the container tide of high tech imports flooding in to Felixtowe. I bet Peter de Polnay will go down a treat in Hamburg.

helenalex said...

No one with a beard like that can be respectable, even now.

Annie said...

I think you have a great eye for funny, interesting design. Must confess I don't know anything about royalties or copyright but I could see you with a card or poster business sourced from some of these images...

Steerforth said...

Rog - I'm glad you're selling more stuff abroad, but have your UK sales declined noticeably?

Helenalex - What does a respectable beard look like?

Annie - I'd love to do that. I have a large collection of images, many of which are copyright-free. I've just tried selling one as a poster on eBay, but my listing was met with a deafening silence, so I need to rethink my approach.

Donna said...

I don't know...maybe you should list your profession as writer? Having never availed myself of your literary wares, I can only think of you as the person who writes words I want to read. Yes, you're a writer. What you write about is immaterial. I'm in it for the voice.

Martin said...

Ah, a post like this is a breath of fresh air. Just what the doctor ordered, Steerforth. And yes, I do remember Jack de Manio.

Steerforth said...

Donna - Thank you. I'm not sure if I deserve such a lovely compliment, but I'm taking your advice. When the Christmas party season comes round, I'll tell say I'm a writer. It won't be a complete lie, as I have contributed to a book that's being published next week (by a proper publisher, I should add). But I'll quickly change the subject before they rumble the truth.

Martin - I'm glad that you remember Jack de Manio. I was born too late and didn't hear his broadcasts until I listened to a history of the Today programme, but I think I'd rather spend my mornings listening to de Manio instead of hearing John Humphrys haranguing yet another hapless minister.

helenalex said...

Since about 1900 there have been very few respectable beards, as nearly all of them are worn by a) communists b) weirdo academics c) hippies d) Alan Moore e) artists f) weirdo teachers g) people who think they're being ironic h) dodgy scientists, or i) people who are some combination of the above.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

Maybe they don't have the 1p book culture on the continent ...
As my parents were R4 listeners, I remember DeManio, but don't believe I've ever seen a picture of him - and then Brian Redhead - another voice to remember.

Steerforth said...

helenalex - Don't forget folk singers, local government officers, tramps, Chas n'Dave, bikers, Sunday School teachers, Morris dancers, Islamists and 1970s male porn stars.

Annabel - I think Brian Redhead and John Timpson replaced de Manio, didn't they? It must be hard to share the limelight if you're used to being the sole presenter. I wonder how Richard Coles felt about the changes to Saturday Live on Radio Four.

Sandra Morris said...

I sell my wares on the internet and currently only one out of 10 sales is to a UK customer and it's been like that for some time now.

I can't help thinking that you should let us all in on where you sell your books. I've seen so many that I would love to own (I collect 'vintage' children's books) but extensive Googling has only unearthed Steerforth Press which isn't you at all.

Steerforth said...

Sandra - I have a website, but it's an embarrassment, frankly. It cost £130 to set up and it shows.

Steerforth said...

Helenalex - What happened to beards as a symbol of wisdom and integrity?

According to Desmond Morris, the act of shaving is an attempt to replicate the 'baby face' and appeal to a woman's maternal instincts.

I don't think all beards are a bad thing. What about Roger Whitaker?

Letterslive said...

Don't be embarrassed by your website.
Let all your readers have a look at it and give you our comments. That's the only way it'll improve. It may not cost all that much to make changes that give it a lift.

PS I don't run a website company. Just a small business that is going through the same process.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

How do you sell books, if not through a website? It can easily be fixed. Anyway, as long as it works...

The poster/greetings card suggestion is worth following up, too.

zmkc said...

Which one is Peter de Polnay (and what is a mark that makes another mark when it is upside down?)?

Steerforth said...

I'd like to think that the dog is Peter de Polnay.

I'm still baffled by 'Look and Read'. Do they mean p and d, or 6 and 9?

spotsoftime said...

Hi, I too have wondered where to find you as a bookseller - if not a website, then under which name do you sell? Give us a clue!!

Debra said...

Hi Steerforth,
Although I never was fortunate enough to watch "Len and the River Mob" (....), social realism for children took amphetamines in France when my kids were growing up, and I had to hunt tirelessly to find nice, wholesome literature for their child and adolescent minds (yeah, well, even now, a Flaubert/Zola/Balzac book falls from my hands due to the sheer cynicism of the authors, when Hardy and Lawrence still capture my attention).
Social realism is painful for adults, why must we subject our CHILDREN to it ? (and as if it were really... realism, to boot)
I have a book recommendation : Hrabal's "Too loud a solitude". (Maybe you even have it in stock ?)
It has a somewhat wistful, melancholic tinge to it that I think you would enjoy.
On books... why not try selling to your friends ?
It looks like there are a number of people on this blog who could be friendly enough for you to have a family business. Maybe..
Of course, this is not a social realism solution.
Let's try dumping social realism for a change, right ?
It's time now.

Steerforth said...

spotsoftime - The clue is in the song "I am who I am".

Debra - I know that pride is a sin, but I would be mortified if people bought books from me because they wanted to help. I live frugally and have no debts, so I can weather the storm, but thanks for the kind thoughts.

Debra said...

Steerforth, your last comment deserves all my attention.
I think it is time for us to move away from these attitudes.
I think that many people who would buy books from you would be SIMULTANEOUSLY doing themselves, and you, a favor.
NOT JUST wanting to help, but getting something in return.
Why shouldn't things work this way, Steerforth ?
I think that a lot of evil in this world now comes from frustrating individual people's desire to help.
We set up institutions in order to not look somebody in the eye when we gave him something, or.. took something from him.
But... what's the humiliation of taking something from somebody when you need it ?
And does it necessarily have to create a debt ?
Where does debt originate ? in the transaction, or in our ideas/attitudes about the transaction ?
These momentous questions are behind our current crisis with money, by the way, so you get some idea how teeny tiny individuals tie into the big picture.
Personally... I have no trouble saying no...
But I have learned how to say yes, PLEASE, too.
And I am totally financially dependant on my husband, by the way, and grateful to him for supporting me.

Anonymous said...

"Look and Read" was still going when I was a child in the 1970s. The stories were always gripping -- there was one with aliens and a gas gun -- but the spelling interludes were irritating.

I sat my O Level English Literature in 1986 when the movement for social realism in literature was perhaps at its height. We 'did' Chaucer and Shakespeare but we also had to 'do' this God-awful-dreary thing call "Short stories of our time". I think they were supposed to be 'relevant' to 1980s youth. How on earth were the grim goings-on in a truckers' caff ("Late night on Watling Street") relevant to a swotty geek in Sunny Worthing?

Chairman Bill said...

Any idea why Jack de Manio was cashiered, and by a FGCM at that?