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.