Wednesday, 6 June 2007

The Rep Rap Part Three

The second shop the rep and I visit is Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road. Foyle’s has gone the opposite way to Waterstone’s since the time I was a bookseller. Back then, there was an incredibly complicated system of books being categorised by publisher. So you’d have to consult a thick catalogue of titles to work out where exactly was the book you wanted to buy (either that, or go to the Waterstone’s next door).
Unlike our previous appointment, where one bookseller buys titles for the entire shop, at Foyle’s you have to find the relevant buyer for each section. It’s a lot of coming and going for a rep, but it means that when you do track the buyer down, they really know what they’re talking about. We head upstairs for the music section, to sell in Perfect From Now On, an American indie music memoir. At the last shop, our ‘like Chuck Klosterman’ pitch failed as the buyer didn’t know who Chuck Klosterman was. This time, I notice a huge pile of Chuck Klosterman on the table. We’re in here – the buyer gets what the book is about and takes a punt: thirty copies. Thirty! I struggle to keep the grin on my face in check.
From Foyle’s we move onto Hatchards. Another great dame of London publishing, and though now owned by Waterstone’s, still very much maintains its distinctive nature. The books displayed on the ground floor are all different again, a selection with as much character as the various booksellers we meet. I make mental notes of more titles I should be reading. We head upstairs to the health and parenting section, and we pitch my book Staying Sane, a humorous guide for young mothers. Again the buyer likes the package, and takes a gamble: ten copies. For a first book by an unknown author (on a new and untested list) this is brilliant. I come away from the day feeling buoyed.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

The Rep Rap Part Two

To a central London branch of Waterstone’s. It’s a huge store, and it’s empty. Empty of customers and seemingly empty of staff – it takes us five minutes of hanging around the till point before anyone appears to ask if we need any help. Finally someone appears, and we head off the shop floor and up the stairs. It’s the first time I’ve seen our London rep in action, and I’m pleased to see he’s really good. He presents about forty titles, on subjects raging from naval books to knitting, and sounds confident and assured on each one.
Here’s the bit that always gets me. Each title is getting about twenty seconds airtime. If that. The bookseller is looking at the title, the jacket, and perhaps the first couple of sentences of the AI (Advance Information sheet) and making a decision on the basis of that. It’s blunt and it’s brutal. It’s the heart (or lack of it) of modern publishing. If the buyer says five or more, then the book will end up on the table. One to three and it’ll be on the shelf. Zero, and it won’t even be in the shop.
I don’t know if it’s his nature, or his selling rules, but this buyer is cautious. He takes everything, but hits the magic five figure no more than a couple of times. My own titles, which I pitch as best I can, gets two threes and a two. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement: when was the last time you bought a book off a shelf? Exactly. When I was a bookseller, we were far more gung ho – decent quantities of some titles, none of others. But then we didn’t have the scale-outs to deal with, head office taking the big decisions out of your hands. The big decisions that take the fun out of being a bookseller.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Is it Just Me...

… or do a lot of submissions have a similar ring to them? Every so often, you get a book whose influence dominates your in-tray. They are picked up and waved about by prospective authors because a. the book has been hugely successful and b. because they seem deceptively easy to put together. Previous ‘I could do that’s include Schott’s Miscellany (‘It’s just a load a random facts chucked together’), Nick Hornby (‘I can do lists’) and chick-lit (‘Jane Austen plus nice shoes equals easy money’). At the moment, the market leader is ‘Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?’ – a week doesn’t go past without one Shit Lite (Shite?) landing on my desk, full of ironic rudeness and digs at Starbucks and Jade Goody. These wannabe writers are making two mistakes here: firstly, the book they are adapting is already eighteen months old, and will be over two years and counting by the time their book would be out – in other words, it’s too late. Secondly, and more importantly, they are assuming that because something is easy to read, it is easy to write. The more I work in publishing, the more I realise the absolute opposite is the case.