Authors and bookshops - help or hindrance?

A couple of months ago, I listened enviously as a writer friend of mine, Victoria Finnigan (author of Viking Gold, a brilliant YA/Children's title) listed all the children's departments in UK-wide bookshops that she was attending for signings. I'd just come back from promoting the paperback of Between the Sheets in New York, Toronto and Paris - my experience had gone from no-shows (Ben McNally's in Toronto), family-and-friends only (Type in Toronto), fab students and enthusiastic audience (the wonderful Bluestockings in New York), and best of all, an actual sell-out (Shakespeare and Company in Paris).

Buoyed up by Paris and New York, and by Victoria's crazily busy, but profitable promotions programme, I thought I'd give it a try here. My publishers, Duckworth, were very supportive - they offered to pay my travel expenses, to fly me down from Glasgow to Cardiff (where I'd base myself at a friend's house for the week), and from Cardiff to London. So, thinking it would be a breeze from here on in, I duly contacted the individual stores of a major high street chain, all close enough to Cardiff for me to get to easily: Cardiff itself, Bath, Bristol and Birmingham, and one of their London stores. I also tried the Bristol and London stores of a rival chain, and some independent bookshops in Oxford and Hay-on-Wye.

I wanted to do readings, rather than signings, if possible - I'm not sure I have the kind of personality you need to sit at a table in a bookshop, trying to attract random shoppers and persuade them to buy my book. But I was hopeful - my book has some big names in it, like Sylvia Plath and Martha Gellhorn, and it's 'full of juicy details' according to the New York Times (as I never tire of telling the world. Hey, I may never get another NYT review in my life, I'm making the most of it).

I telephoned all the stores first and spoke to individual events managers, most of whom were very nice. Then I followed up with an email to each one. Silence. Then a couple of rejections - the Bristol store was very sorry, but even though the events manager personally wanted more lit crit stuff, they just couldn't get the audience for it. Cardiff couldn't offer me a reading for the same reason, but they could offer me a possible signing event. Bath, Bristol and Birmingham didn't reply, and the London contact couldn't get her manager to agree on a specific date. The rival chain never replied to me either, the indie in Hay told me she'd phone me straight back and didn't (even after a couple of email reminders), and Oxford - well. They were booked up till August. I'm coming back to Cardiff at the end of October for a writers' conference, I said. Maybe you could fit me in then? A very sniffy 'Hmmmm', was the not-so-encouraging response.

All these cities are 'University towns' - they have Eng Lit depts, but they still couldn't get an audience interested in a book of literary biography? Really? It's not like I was trying to sell books in a fruitshop. Books! in a bookshop! It should be possible!

A friend sent me a list of indie bookshops in London - when I checked those, and the ones who hadn't got back to me/rejected me, what I found was that the author events that did occur were either with very local authors, or very famous ones. I thought about the Scottish branches of bookshops - yes, the authors were generally local or famous, too. Nothing much inbetween.

So what's a writer to do, if you want to try and spread the word about your book beyond your home city, and you're not in the bestseller league? Targeted appearances seem to be the main answer - Bluestockings in New York took me because it's a feminist bookshops and my book was a feminist lit book. Plus it was a block or two away from a University, guaranteeing that student interest, I guess. Shakespeare and Co have a captive audience of ex-pats. Both, though, also did excellent PR, advertising my event properly (as both Toronto shops failed to do).

With the closing down of Silver Moon bookshop on London's Charing Cross Road, well-known feminist bookshops are rather thin on the ground in the UK, alas. And University towns are no guarantee. Bookshops can't drag audiences in, but perhaps there's a way for them to generate more interest in those who aren't living right around the corner, or who aren't mega-famous? Otherwise authors really will be singing for themselves.          


  1. This is so disappointing at a time when bookshops are supposed to be trying to fight back against digital publishing. Sadly, not all that surprising, though - the point about being local or famous is so true. I'm embarrassed on behalf of Oxford, where I live!

  2. Thanks, Lorna - I was surprised, it was Blackwell's in Oxford, and I thought they'd be ideal for Between the Sheets. There's so much bashing of the chains that we seem to think indies will automatically be much, much better, but my experience of them was rather disappointing,bar the two that I mentioned. In the Toronto ones, each bookseller just shrugged when I arrived and introduced myself, and when I asked where they wanted me to stand, said, 'wherever'! There was no advertising in the window, and no attempt to let customers in the shop know that an author was there, nothing.

  3. I'm surprised Blackwell's was like that - I agree, your book seems ideal for them. They do go for a lot of big names, have to say. It's a shame Borders went bust - they were very good at running author events in Oxford. I remember sauntering in and chatting to someone and getting the offer to run a creative writing group talk! It takes a lot of guts to keep putting yourself forward, pinning a positive smile on your face, when you meet with apathy and inertia. Have you read Mortification, by Robin Robertson, about writers' experiences of readings and appearances. Some painfully funny examples there!

  4. Yes, I remember Borders in Glasgow doing that - I have a feeling Waterstone's might be doing things like that now, too? If I ran a local or independent bookshop, I'd get writers in all the time to speak. It gives the public something different and attracts folk into the shop, it seems common sense, really. I think it was Andrew O'Hagan in that book that described the horror of a no-show in LA, maybe? It is such a horrible thing, when it goes wrong, but amazing when it's right.


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