The author is in the bookshop

Charles Dickens, COPY 1/541

Charles Dickens, COPY 1/541

Authors, you’ve got to love them.  Without authors we would have no books, and then where would we poor booksellers be? At the back of the dole queue lining up behind the librarians probably. So we do love them but they can also sometimes be a bit of a trial. They have EXPECTATIONS. They have seen the queues lining up outside Waterstones, the full window display, the mobs of teenage girls clamouring for a signed copy of some twenty-something’s ghost-written biography and they want the same for their own perfectly crafted tome on the Epaulettes of the Napoleonic Forces.

It doesn’t matter that their book is better in every way, well researched, comprehensive, the last word on epaulettes. The buying public is easily swayed by cheap media acclaim.  Many may never read the book anyway, and are purchasing a copy just for the chance to breathe the rarified air of someone who has reached the finals of Britain’s Got Talent.  Authors often think a book signing guarantees queues of eager groupies. Sadly the truth can be different.

Don’t get me wrong – book signings can be a joy for author and bookseller alike. We have had some very successful ones recently with Jeremy Paxman For Great Britain’s Great War and Max Hastings for Catastrophe. They gave fascinating  and erudite talks, they are charming individuals and (I am sorry – as a retailer my god is Mammon) we sold a lot of copies.

But if your book is niche and if your mien is more of one born to blush unseen the results may not live up to those expectations. The queue in front of the signing table may be less than one hoped. On a bad day, with the wind in the wrong direction and the tubes on strike, you may have only a couple of eager punters – one of whom is your cousin and the other whose dog-eared copy was clearly nicked from the local library.

I feel for the authors, I really do. I couldn’t write a book. There are days I have trouble finishing the shopping list. They have a subject they understand and are passionate about. They have spent years researching, chasing dead ends through dark archives like some literary Dan Brown, their fingers are ink-stained and they have slaved late into the night by the flicker of the guttering candle (bear with me here – I am a historical bookseller, the past is always with me). They have argued long with agents and publishers to preserve the integrity of the work (publishers always want another Harry Potter or Fifty Shades, and sometimes you can work neither wizards or S&M into a book about epaulettes). Finally their work is published and their task is done.

Now they just need to sit back and wait for the royalties to flood in and the prizes to mount up. They wait, they wait and after a while that first cheque arrives – they squander it all on a coffee at Starbucks and think about what they can do.They haunt local bookshops their hopeful puppy eyes scanning the window displays and best-seller tables for the piles of crisp clean copies. They check the shelves. Finally they sidle up to the till.  Do you stock The Train Spotters’ Guide to Thermos Flasks? Ah yes you exclaim (always be careful, you are so often talking to an author) a particularly useful study, let me show you and you guide them to the cobwebbed corner and tenderly lift it down. Then retreat – allow them to caress it and to put it back in a more prominent face out position.

Kate Adie will talk about her book Fighting on the Home Front on May 1st

All this apart it is lovely to meet the authors. They are such a diverse group. There are shy fauns and bristling martinets. Some whose prose is deathless have trouble stringing a sentence together in the flesh, others speak as beautifully as they write.  Customers love to catch a glimpse of a real live author amongst the bookshelves and signed copies can be a draw. A  book signed and dedicated by the author makes a perfect very personal present.  Let us be honest, you can’t tell which edition you are reading on the Kindle and no-one is going to sign your Kobo.  When you bequeath your library to the nation it should be smelling of musty paper not on a USB stick.

I think, of course I could be partial, that the authors’ talks series at The National Archives is really worthwhile. You can gain an insight into the way the book was crafted and hear all the anecdotes which never made it to the final edition. We have had some really interesting talks. Rachel Johnson discussing her novel Winter Games played recordings from the elderly debs she had interviewed who had been in Germany during the 1930s, and Anna Sebba told us about the thrill of trying on some of Wallis Simpson’s jewellery. Have a look at the Writer of the Month events and come out to Kew and listen to Kate Adie or Lucy Worsley. Maybe buy a book, and make both me and the author happy.


  1. Mark Warby says:

    A great article, Sally – made me smile about my own situation as a would-be author. I’m currently writing (and trying to find a publisher for) a biography of the First World War cartoonist Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather – not quite as niche a subject as Epaulettes of the Napoleonic Forces – but it is the result of 35 years research (including one or two visits to the National Archives) and I hope it will one day be found on the shelves of bookshops. It won’t be a huge bestseller but to me nothing will be more satisfying that seeing it on the shelf. There’s nothing like handling a ‘real’ book – it beats reading off a Kindle or Kobo, no contest!

  2. Jane Dismore says:

    Very amusing article, Sally, and so much of it true. Mark, good luck with your book – yes, research can take ages but never mind the length of time , feel the quality (and satisfaction) at the end. Yet even when your book is published, unless you’re already a known name as the authors Sally mentions are, you still might not get invited to read, but as long as your book is on the bookshelves it probably won’t matter. And as you say, nothing quite beats a ‘proper’ book. I found the National Archives a great facility for my first non-fiction book which included the period of the First World War (and which to my amazement got long listed for the New Angle Prize for Literature) , and shall be using them again for my next.

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