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 . . ."


Meri said...

Happy to report that a lovely independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I am in temporary exile, not only has The Burning Soul, but also prominently displays The Book of Lost Things in the Young Adult section.

I've given many copies of The Book of Lost Things as gifts. If you haven't been told enough (as I suspect you haven't) it's a beautifully crafted work.

And yes, I'm one of those strange people who has gone out of my way to see you, from the gusty night in the half snow/half rain in Massachusetts to two long road trips from Rhode Island to Maine, I've seen you six times now. Does that qualify me as a slightly demented, if pleasant, stalker?

-- Meredith (the a-ha fan)

Mich said...

Like Meri, I have gone out of my way to see you. (Not literally, but when you hate NYC as much as I do, you better believe a 30 minute car ride is out of the way for me).

The Book of Lost Things is perhaps my favourite of all of your books (and that is an EXTREMELY difficult decision, because I do truly love them all). It's the sort of book that I like to write as well as read, which is maybe why I liked it so much. (It's also why I would love to give you a copy of my just-published book. I was going to bring it to NY a couple weeks ago, but--being blonde--I forgot.) :/
Next time!!

And I hope you weren't kidding when you invited me out to the pub after the book signing, because I'm totally coming next time. <3

Just finished The Burning Soul yesterday--LOVED IT!!

CathHowe55 said...

As one who makes some of her living from the sale of pulp wood for books, I have mercenary reasons for hoping that the printed book continues to be in demand. However,as one who has read herself to sleep most nights of her life, I will always purchase "real" books, even after I have "read" them on Audible, if they are good. That I have all of yours, (although quite a few are on loan), says something, doesn't it? And someday my schedule just may allow me to come to one of the signings, if you don't journey to Bethel. ;^)

james hall said...

Beautifully said and painfully true.
James W. Hall (who also owes his ebook sales to his legacy publishers and is forever grateful to them and the booksellers who were so loyal to me)

Matt Sinclair said...

For what it's worth, I found a copy of The Reapers you signed in an NYC Barnes & Noble and bought it. I'm quite pleased to own it. It was the signed one there.

Matt Sinclair said...

*only* signed one

Bríann said...

The Book of Lost things was my girlfriend's favourite book, and John was kind enough when I asked him about buying a first edition, to give my his first edition for her. All he asked was that I pop ten euros into St Vincent De Paul charity (I put twenty). That's just the sort of chap he is, and I love seeing the book on the shelves of bookstores, getting the recognition it so rightly deserves.

Christina said...

The Book of Lost Things is a beautiful story that I have shared with many people. In fact, my first paperback copy is now in tatters. My signed first edition is the best birthday gift I have ever received and I wish I had been there to have to sign it in person. Thank you for your wonderful writing.

Zakariah Johnson said...

I was introduced to your books by Barb at Murder By The Book in Portland, OR. MBTB was my local haunt the decade I lived in PDX because they really made the effort to know their customers' buying histories and tastes. At my request they recommended many writers I might not otherwise have picked up. I had a copy of Every Dead Thing put into my hands as a result of requesting "something of high literary value and extreme violence." I now own all your books--several signed--and my son promotes The Gates as his all-time favorite book. We ordered The Infernals months back from our new local book store, which we support for the simple reason that without book stores, especially those staffed by readers who love books and value their customers, I really don't see how the next generation of authors will ever become known.

TomH said...

“He who does not feel his friends to be... does not deserve…."

I was amazed when first travelling to Toadstool several years ago and witnessing the level of loyalty to such a small and Independent bookseller. I began figuring: surely there must be larger outlets.

And there are.

But the occasion of travelling so out of the way didn’t seem to matter to the author then… or now.

It would be guessing on my part of course but I bet the small store at the edge of such an out of the way small town mall was there for the author from the beginning.

And when it had to have meant so much more….

Alan T said...

You are absolutely right that ebooks and 'real' books can coexist. It irritates me that so many commentators seem to think it has to be one or the other. I love my Kindle (and my Sony before that) as I travel a lot and it is handy. When reading, the medium shouldn't matter; you get lost in the book and it is the story that matters.

However, the Kindle doesn't enhance my bookshelf the way a favourite novel does. In Milan recently, I bought a beautiful Moleskine cover for it with a notebook which makes it feel good and gives me space to note down thoughts in the way annotations on the Kindle itself don't.

In the local Easons I bought a signed copy of the Burning Soul, but I read the book mainly on the Kindle (excellent by the way, Parker doing more detecting than recently and the supernatural tone just right). Yes it would have been better to have met you and had you sign the copy, but I treasure it anyway.

I also treasure my Kindle. And I wouldn't let you sign that!

TomH said...

The Toadstool and Steven Wright and my favorite author... in the same spot and at the same time. John's wry humor and lyrical wit reinforced by questions from an audience member turning out to be Mr Wright himself.

Don't get no better than that.

Mrs. Britt said...

Heaven forbid that authors stop signing books. I ran a used bookstore (mostly mysteries) in South Carolina for several years after I retired from a real job...and had the most fun meeting authors. Gave all my Irish collection of short stories/poetry to my alma mater.
Now I have a nice collection of Irish crime novels...signed Hughes, Neville, a Erin Hart, a Dennis Lehane...and next year after Buchercon...a couple of Charlie Parker's - THE KILLING KIND and THE WHITE ROAD.

Jane, senior citizen,
Jacksonville, Florida USA

Lee said...

I've loved all your books but THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS is definitely special, and so unique.

joefulham said...

a difference between John's and james lee's books is in john's only people of dubious character drink alcohol.
I note too the word 'copacetic' in John's new book, a favourite word of Dave Robichaux' drinking pal.
I've enjoyed the books, hope there is more to come cheers
joe f