Tuesday, October 04, 2011


It is an unseasonably humid day in New York, the kind of day designed for sitting in an air conditioned bar, sipping something cold and mildly fruity, and less mildly alcoholic with a copy of the New York Times for company in the absence of one's nearest and dearest. It is most certainly not a day to be hauling oneself in and out of subways and the occasional taxi in order to sign books at the city's bookstores - not, I hasten to add, because such an activity is a chore in itself, for it is not, and God forbid that anyone should read this and mistake it for a plea on the writer's part to be required to perform anything resembling a real job, but because it is slightly unbecoming of an author to arrive at a store's information desk bathed in sweat and panting like a bloodhound at the end of a long and harrowing fugitive hunt. Even the most understanding of booksellers is entitled to be a little dubious about the bona fides of a sweaty, croaky man with a peculiar accent who claims to be the author of the books in whose direction he is frantically pointing and ownership of which he is apparently claiming by spraying them with his own perspiration.

On the other hand, weather permitting, drifting in and out of bookstores to sign one's books is a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, just as talking to readers and booksellers and about books - one's own and the work of others, assuming one's ego is wiling to allow the existence of the work of others, however inferior - is considerably less than a chore.

Quite often in the course of a signing, especially one that is particularly well attended, I'll be asked some variation on the question: "Does it make your hand hurt?" Now that's open to a number of answers, some of them unfit for popular consumption, but I tend to rise above the obvious and reply that, no, it doesn't at all, and even if it did it would be a very good complaint.

Like most authors, I can remember a time when nobody would ask me to sign anything at all. I recall tramping around Britain for EVERY DEAD THING, my first book, and arriving at stores in which my impending arrival, advertised with a showcard and a time, seemed to have aroused absolutely no interest at all among the local population. Now, again like most authors, I had kind of hoped that my first novel would change the world, and in every small town crowds of adoring acolytes would be waiting to greet me with palm fronds, rose petals, and babies to be kissed. The reality, as you may have surmised, was somewhat different, and this continued to be the case for a number of years. My novels sold okay, but nobody wanted to meet me, or have a book signed. Now more people want their books signed, and some of them even want to meet me, although not many of them want to meet me twice, which is probably understandable.

I remember going into a chain bookstore in the northwest of England to sign copies of EVERY DEAD THING, pen at the ready, only to be informed that I shouldn't sign too many copies. "We haven't sold any yet, dear," a nice lady explained, for this was a time when a signed copy was regarded as a sold copy, which meant that the bookstore couldn't return it to the publisher if nobody bought it. I would essentially have defaced my own book, thereby rendering it valueless. I signed three, I think. I hope that they sold. I wouldn't want to have left the bookstore with an irksome debt. Now bookstores don't tend to mind too much if I sign their stock, which is nice.

This was the first time that I had done the round of New York stores since Borders went out of business, and I missed them because they had been just as good to me as Barnes & Noble, and no writer likes to see bookstores go out of business. I'd also made friends among the Borders crowd, and it pained me to think that they were out of work, although some of them have now found homes at B&N, or with other stores, although most have had to find jobs in areas without an outlet for their love and enthusiasm for books and reading.

It's one of the reasons why I find myself growing increasingly angry with those of my peers who seem to have divested themselves of any loyalty to bricks-and-mortar bookstores in favor of a rush to solely electronic publishing, too ignorant to even be ashamed to use phrases like "dead tree publishing" or "legacy publishing" about the beauty and usefulness of a printed book. Hey, guys and gals: those bookstores, chains and independents, that you've apparently abandoned to their fate were the making of you all, and you were very willing to badger their owners into stocking your books when they were the only game in town. I'm as happy as anyone to take my royalties on e-book sales, and I'm grateful to the companies that distribute me in that form, but I firmly believe that electronic publishing and printed books can co-exist in our brave new world, and I'd dearly like to see bookstores survive to take their place in that world, because it will be a poorer, coarser place without them. End of lesson.

So, sweatiness apart, today was a very good day, enlivened by chats with booksellers, some of whom even bought copies of my books for themselves and for others. I almost had a shelf to myself in B&N on Union Square, and I rather hope that they'll put up a commemorative plaque when I die. At B&N near Greenwich Village I had a bonding moment over Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood with the marvellous staff behind the information desk. At Partners & Crime I had one of those fine chats in which recommendations are exchanged, and at McNally Jackson, that great independent on Prince Street, I met again the lovely Michelle, who used to work at RiverRun in Portsmouth, just down the road from my stomping ground in Maine.

Even after all these years, though, I'm still plagued by that sense of doubt specific to authors signing in bookstores, and it's this: if the bookstore has lots of books in stock, the author worries that nobody is buying them; if it has only a handful in stock, the author worries that the store is not ordering enough, and therefore nobody is buying them, because they can't. It will never cross the author's mind that people might actually be buying the books, hence the relative lack of copies, or that the author is sufficiently popular that the store feels confident enough to keep multiple copies of his or her various works in stock. No, it's either bad news, or worse news, with nothing in between.

But there was THE BURNING SOUL in each store, which was nice to see. Nicer still, perhaps, was the fact that THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS seems to have found a permanent place on the shelves of both chain stores and independents. I remain hugely fond of that novel, and I'm always touched to see it in stock. It had no luck when it came out: it was barely reviewed on my own side of the Atlantic, was rejected by a major TV book club for implying that Red Riding Hood might have harbored feelings for the wolf, and was the first of my novels not to make it into the Top Ten Bestsellers list. But as the years have passed it has found its way into the right hands, thanks to readers recommending it to other readers, and the passionate support of booksellers in both chain stores and independents.

And, every time I sign a copy, I think to myself, "Hello, little book . . ."