In 30 years of shop-floor bookselling, I have seen bulbous reputations rise . . . and pop. Below the hum of the launch party lies the throb of the pulping machine, literature’s Grim Reaper.
This wheel-of-fortune stuff is dear to my heart, because in two years I have sold 8,000 copies of my book (Kent’s Strangest Tales, Pavilion Books) with no book reviews at all. It still sells, in Tesco, W H Smith, and bookshops; many a fêted novel has bitten the dust since my whelp arrived blinking on the shelves.
Recently Batsford published my Londonopolis, A Curious History of London. “Enough plugging” I hear you bark, but someone’s gotta do it. My advice to authors seeking plugs is “do it yourself”, by which I mean: get blogging. All booksellers and newspapers have a penumbral blogosphere which is easy to enter if the web editors are approached with fresh material, or seedy personal revelations.
Other tips from what H G Wells would call a “counter-jumper”:
- Know what section your book is going into. (“Gift” isn’t a book section.)
- If you can, price properly. Customers are tired of high pricing which assumes universal discounting.
- Don’t neglect non-bookshop outlets, and suggest such outlets to your publisher. Write to the c.e.o. of Tesco in fountain pen: reply guaranteed. I bought my book in the National Gallery, just for the frisson.
- Be nice to booksellers. They are poor, but mostly passionate. They, not Boyd Tonkin or the Observer, will make or break your book, toiling away for you 363 days a year.
- Read Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman, who wrote “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (and some flops, too). The book is a reassuring and funny chronicle of marketing hubris, with Joe Public as the quietly discerning hero.
If both retailers and the public fail you, remember Swift’s hallmark of genius, “all dunces are in confederacy against him,” and do a Kafka. He used to slip into Prague bookshops to check, with satisfaction, that his books were not selling.
Martin Latham is the manager of Waterstones Canterbury and the author of Londonopolis . . . (Batsford)