FROM THE PULPIT
BRYANAPPLEYARD BOOKING THE AUTHOR
book as a pleasurable thing in itself. The big question is, of course, does any of this do any good? Well some, obviously. In sales terms, it is
T HE MANFROM the Jewish Chronicleconfessed he normally did obituaries. Speaking professionally, this is a bad move in the middle of an author interview. The interviewee is likely to feel either that the interviewer knows something about his health that he doesn’t or that the JCdoes not take him seriously enough to send a regular interviewer. But I was cool, I did not take offence; I simply looked at my watch. He, sadly, failed to spot this. And, I later reflected, my book was about the possibility of immortality, so an obit writer made some kind of sense. Publicising a book is a strange business. Despair and humiliation walk hand in hand with crazy elation. The D & H are most commonly inspired by television. I once appeared on a morning show with Fern Britten and Philip Schofield and was so horrified at the madness and cruelty of the thing that I failed to do the one thing I ought to have done – point out the madness and cruelty. This was live TV so they would have been powerless. Lately I did Sky News and was dumbstruck again, this time by the amount of make-up the male ‘anchor’ was wearing. There seemed to be no evidence of flesh. On both occasions, TV got what it wanted and I got nothing. But one feels one has no choice. Books are such marginal products that one feels one has to seize any opportunity to get them noticed. And there are plenty of opportunities. The book-publicising circuit is vast and exhausting. There is more television than there used to be and infinitely more radio. Just doing the rounds of the BBC – Edinburgh, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, the capacious maw of Radio Five Live, Start the Week, Night Waves – can render one senseless with embarrassment at the sound of one’s own voice. On the other hand, BBC radio in particular is, compared with television, a haven of sanity. Especially on Start the Weekand Night Waves, one actually has the chance to say something intelligible. Then there are the strange bookshop events – a talk, a discussion, and the signings. Again, unlike television, one feels one has been heard on these occasions. Of course, there is always one character who attempts to hijack the occasion with angry refutations. I used to fear these people, but no more. They seldom know as much as they think they do. It is the quiet, one-off questioner who usually catches you out and makes you think. And, finally, there is the now enormous publicity market of book festivals. These can be humiliating. In the signing tent afterwards, I keep finding myself signing for a trickle of buyers while, on the next table, some TV superstar empties several felt tips to oblige a round-theblock queue. But the great virtue of festivals is that the audiences do tend to be interested in books, in the things themselves rather than just the headline idea. Too much opinion for or against can destroy the sense of a
better to be noticed. Furthermore, the big bookshops, Waterstone’s in particular, have more or less given up on the idea that a book is significantly different from a box of Finish dishwasher tabs. Window or front-ofhouse slots now have to be paid for, and the ‘staff picks’ shelves are excuses to dump excess stock. Judgement, taking notice of reviews, genuinely feeling enthusiasm for the product – these are not encouraged. All that counts is shifting what are perceived to be safe mass-market books. Indeed, the rage for stickers – two for one, half price, whatever – has now reached the point where one routinely sees front covers on which the author or title or both have been obscured by a big red sunburst. It doesn’t matter what’s in it, just buy it. All of which puts pressure on the author of anything other than chicklit to make themselves available because they know nobody else will. That said, there is something slightly mad about the whole business. A long trek to address forty people in a tent, ten of whom buy a book, must be questionable financially. Much as I like festivals, I can see they tend to be more about vanity and a day out than actually selling books. Equally, I don’t think regional radio stations, conscientious as most of their presenters seem to be, actually persuade people you’re worth buying. But book publicity has become its own justification. It must be done, so it is. For publishers’ publicists, it is their reason for getting up in the morning. On the other hand, Amazon has made their task, if not harder, then at least more irritating. All publicists moan about the Amazon sales ranking that appears on the page selling your book. They moan because authors tend to watch the hourly movements of this figure obsessively. Worst of all, they compare it to other books. Publicists, to whom success is necessarily a vague, ill-defined prize, now find themselves constantly and unfairly monitored by a machine. Inevitably, this makes them even more frenzied in their attempts to fill their authors’ diaries for the year after publication. Plainly too many books are published and, equally plainly, the big bookshops aren’t doing their job. The publicity circus rushes in to fill the vacuum. As the power of bookshops diminishes with the advent of new technology – print-on-demand, e-books – the frenzy is likely to increase as a more open and undifferentiated market is created. This is a good thing. I just hope it happens before the obits guy from the Jewish Chronicle has the chance to write about me in the way he knows best.
LITERARY REVIEW March 2007