The quiet revolution

The bookshop event is undergoing a quiet revolution. Publishers’ publicity budgets have been cut, so they are less able to fund writers’ journeys to provincial bookshops. At the same time, there has been an explosion of literary festivals. These festivals, funded by canny entrepreneurs who get funding via the Arts Council and local authorities, are hard to compete with. Their websites and ticketing are sophisticated, and still only a minority of bookshops offer online ticket booking.

Festivals (I have discovered as an author), are also more consistent about issuing author agreements, giving directions and generally making the author feel loved and valued. This is understandable. The poor old bookseller is organising events between bouts on the till and shelving. Last week a major author, someone I admire and had booked for a talk, phoned and asked me to send him detailed directions and hotel information. I do mean “send”, as in write a letter, for this author has no computer. I rifled through drawers and found, some headed letter paper (happily, its typeface back in fashion).

Should bookshops give up events and concentrate on plain old bookselling? Moving chairs and books around late at night after a long day, a bookseller can be forgiven for occasionally thinking so. But there were 4,000 bookshops in Britain 10 years ago. Now there are about 1,600: fewer than the number of tigers in India. Events, like cafes, are going to be more important, not less, and we need to do them differently.

Ticketing: Toppings of Bath and Ely are innovating here, with a £20 ticket to see Rupert Everett which also buys you his book. Other talks are ticketed for advance purchasers with a £6 book voucher, craftily rising to £7 on the door.

Big authors are still a good idea, but chutzpah and/or local connections are needed to net them. Phoning Umberto Eco’s publisher in Milan worked. Artemis Cooper is coming to Canterbury because Patrick Leigh Fermor was expelled from school here for his dalliance with a grocer’s daughter. Every bookshop has local literary connections, and local writers who have yet to be directly approached.

However, the explosion of self-publishing which has transformed the market is gradually affecting bookshop events programmes. The quality of self-published books has sped ahead, so that some of them now have an elan and vigour that the big publishers might envy. And this year, to my chagrin, some of the talks in my bookshop that have filled the most have been by self-published authors or authors from indie publishers. They have a ready-made network of supporters and their event is usually a major life event, rather than a tour date. These authors arrive mob-handed, often with their own projector and even audience refreshments. Sales are high, with a high proportion of multiple purchases for absent friends and relatives compensating for the lower margin. Local and self-published authors, once such a mixed blessing, are now a route into the local community, real and virtual. It was one of our local authors who put his event onto YouTube and Facebook before he even went to bed.

Even less resource-hungry than the the self-publisher is the daytime instore happening, cheap and footfall-increasing: the Tarot reader, the wood-carver, the decoupager, the mosaic-maker and the face-painter. I am not suggesting bookshops become fairgrounds, but some similar sense of wonder seems to unite all the world’s most loved bookshops, from San Francisco’s City Lights to Paris’ Shakespeare and Company.