The joys and woes of the independent bookseller

I recently went on a tour of bookshops in the company of ace Hachette sales managers Bob Mackenzie and Ian Williamson. As well as meeting the lovely folk from the ‘big’ names, I was lucky enough to meet a number of independent bookshop owners and managers. The first thing that struck me was the wonderful stories that had brought these people to their calling. For many it was simply serendipity, a chance twist of fate that suddenly provided them with the opportunity to follow a dream. For others it was a linear progression from book lover to bookstore summer job to world-bestriding colossus i.e. owner of their very own book emporium. Of course, the glue that bound all of these wonderful people together – and bound them to the authors whose works fill their shops – is the love of literature. Book selling in the world of the independent is truly a calling. Margins are wafter thin, hours are often long, sales are rarely predictable. And yet, as I talked to store managers and owners about my book, literature, their cats, kids and the arcane arts of book selling, I realised that there was something else that these individuals had in common … they were happy! They were happy because when they awoke each morning it was to the knowledge that they would spend another day in the company of books or that they might arrive at work to find a proof sent to them of a book that they will instantly love. One incident stays with me. At the Primrose Hill Bookshop I was astounded to see a panicked customer charging in, in dire need of a birthday gift for a loved one. ‘Leave it to me’, the store owner said authoritatively. ‘I know her tastes.’ Needless to say a recommendation was swiftly forthcoming invoking a great sigh of relief from our customer. It is this bond between seller and customer that leads to me believe that whatever the soothsayers and doom-mongers predict, the little bookshop around the corner will be around for a good while yet.

Below are some pictures of my day trolling around Foyles, Waterstones, Blackwell’s, Hatchard’sWaterstones OxfordWaterstones Reading-Oracle, Waterstones Reading,  Blackwell’s OxfordThe Riverside BookshopPrimrose Hill Bookshop,  Belgravia BooksThe Wallingford Bookshop, and The Bell Bookshop in Henley-on-Thames

Homespun wisdom for the aspiring writer

For a debut author getting published in today’s fast-changing and challenging publishing environment is harder than the proverbial camel (or camel 2indeed baby elephant) squeezing through the eye of a needle. For me it has taken almost a quarter of a century. The best advice I can give any young writer is to write, write and then, when you’re absolutely sick of it, write some more. The globally bestselling literary author John Irving reveals that a defining moment for him came when another novelist pointed out that ‘anything else you do is going to be vaguely unsatisfying.’ Thus the first thing any writer needs to do is make the mental adjustment from saying I’d like to be a writer to saying I am a writer. The real question you should ask is ‘am I good enough?’. In other words:  is my writing of a sufficient standard to put together a well written novel in the genre I want to write in? To answer this you need to be brutally honest with yourselves. Most of us are not.. I wrote my first novel aged 17. I thought it would be a runaway bestseller … it wasn’t. I wrote for 23 years before an agent accepted me. I had a great career in the real world in the meantime, which made it difficult to find time to write but I kept at it, never wavering from my end goal of getting published. I estimate I wrote well over a million words during that period – and completed half-a-dozen novels, garnering more rejection letters than I care to mention. Looking back at my early work I can see how I have become a vastly better writer in terms of the actual quality of the writing but also in terms of pace, plot and characterisation. Unless you are one of the lucky ones who hit instant success your road as a writer will be similar. Never give up.