Category Archives: Bookshops

Who will sell a book?

I have been a bit naïve. After all these years I still don’t know ‘everything’ there is to know about bookshops, and the politics between publishers and shops, or chains. I’d know more had I realised that there was stuff to learn and find out about, rather than me believing in common sense in the book trade.

For all the mutterings I’ve done over the years about ‘the buyer from Waterstones’ and how they might not like a cover, say, so the publisher bends over backwards and makes a cover that will please ‘the buyer from Waterstones,’ I hadn’t understood that not all books get ‘accepted’ by – shall we say – Waterstones.

In fact, I still don’t know whether the non-acceptance of a new book by ‘John Smith’ means that you can’t even go into the shop and ask them to order it for you. I should try and find out.

If you can’t, then it seems that there is only Amazon and other similar online shops. If you want ‘John Smith’s’ book, that is. 999 Nuances of Grey and books by comedians are obviously always an option.

I used to think the hurdles you had to overcome were a) write book b) have book accepted by agent c) agent sells book to publisher d) publisher publishes book and sends it out into the world, where e) you hope someone will buy it. Perhaps f) read it. I just had no concept of the gap between publishing a book and it being available for buyers to find.

It appears that if you have a Land’s End novel and a John O’Groats novel, you shouldn’t – necessarily – expect bookshops at the opposite end of the country to stock it. This is just so weird. It’s sort of the continuation of the situation where if you are a white Londoner you must only write a novel about white Londoners, and now you should only expect to see it for sale in a London bookshop.

I can see the reasoning happening. I just don’t understand it.

Most bookshops in the UK probably stock Jo Nesbø’s novels. They were written by a man in a country with five million inhabitants. The population of Scotland is the same, but it seems Scottish books don’t necessarily make it to bookshops outside Scotland. (Because it can’t be that smaller publishers are discriminated against, I hope?)

Many shops are also likely to stock the crime novels by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, who hails from a small country with a population less than Cornwall. I actually have no idea if Cornish novels are treated differently, but if they aren’t, I wonder about the Scottish apartness. The referendum (the first one, about going it alone) was full of people saying we are the same and belong together. If so, what’s happening with books?



With my not inconsiderable past, I sometimes have to do a search to see what I might already have said about topic X. This time I found an almost forgotten moan about bookshops and lifts and being hard up. And earthquakes.

Not admitting to being a little bit poor had completely slipped my mind. Possibly because I no longer mind mentioning that the amount of money I have could have anything to do with whether or not I buy, or where I do it.

In fact, that’s what does make the indie bookshop a hard deal. They really do know what you’d like, and they have it in stock. Except you need to escape the expectation to buy as politely as possible.

Or there’s the opposite. The word ‘handselling’ supposedly has such a nice ring to it. For me it’s mostly the opposite. Whereas even the empty-walleted witch would like to hear about a new, perfect book, even if I then have to dodge the issue of [not] buying, there is one thing I really don’t like.

And that’s having hinted at me that there is going to be a book out soon; one that will be the next Harry Potter or sell as much as Harry Potter, or something like that. But they can’t (=won’t) tell me about it.

To me that is playground tactics. ‘I know something and I’m not telling!’ What they do know is that the publisher’s rep recommended the book, and maybe they have read a proof. What they should do is tell you about it. If I get excited about it, I can wait a few weeks. It’s generally not a secret, either that the book is on its way or what it is about.

Spread the word and there could be many loyal customers queueing to buy when the day comes.

I did the opposite. I was so disgusted by the secrecy and the smugness of the so-called ‘handselling’ that I never read it. I believe the book did really well, so it’s not as if my reluctance prevented its success. I merely felt the need to take a stand against such tactics.

And whatever you think of Amazon vs Waterstones vs independent, I am unlikely to get this playground behaviour from the first two.

What about an actual bookshop?

The alternative to the scrunched-up but cheaper book arriving from Amazon, is to go to a bookshop, if you have one nearby.

I don’t often do this, but just before Christmas Daughter was seized by a sudden urge to give her dental nurse a book about planets, so we repaired to Waterstones. She found one that fitted the bill, and bought it. Meanwhile I rested my tired legs sitting in one of Waterstones’ armchairs, within eavesdrop distance of the till.

Thus I overheard three conversations with potential customers asking about various books they wanted, with all three being told that unfortunately they didn’t have it in stock but could order it for them.

This is both helpful, and not. You get to talk to a human and you get information, even if it’s negative. It’s a pleasant sort of place to be in, and as I said, they have armchairs. If you don’t mind coming back, and have time to do so (this was on December 21st), then having the book ordered for you can be useful.

Or you go home and order it online. I would only go to the shop to browse, or in the full expectation that I could get my book there and then. If not, online buying allows me to sit in my own armchair, and there is still a delay in obtaining the actual book.

What Waterstones did have on that day, was a lovely selection of books that you buy when it’s Christmas, but that no one needs or knew they wanted. Plus a bookish lot of jigsaw puzzles and other more gadgety gifts with a book theme.

This is nice, but it’s not really what I look for.

I hear of authors going into their local shop looking for their own books, and being told they can order them.

Physical shops are good for browsing and finding something you might not have known you wanted. But these authors’ books will not be browsed and bought by happy coincidence. You need to know from the outset that you want to buy, and decide whether to shop online, or to visit your local shop twice to make the purchase. The latter is a lot of work in order to ‘support bookshops’ that appear not to stock what you’re interested in.

I don’t know what the solution is.

Who to buy from

Where to get your books, once you’ve decided to buy?

Well, between us, in the autumn Daughter and I ordered two books – one each – from Amazon. She got a book for someone else, and I bought the Resident IT Consultant’s Christmas present.

Both books arrived damaged. I assume this is ‘unavoidable’ or ‘to be expected’ when robots pick the goods. I also assume that Amazon still save money on the combination of robots plus sending out replacement goods, making using human employees a more expensive alternative.

The main problem for the customer is having to go out to return the goods, after parcelling them up. I know it says to use the same packaging, but that does not always work. And if you bought last minute, you might not have time to wait for a replacement.

In both our cases the books were gifts, so you really don’t want to accept the robotic folded down cover (paperback) or the scrunched up dustwrapper (hardback).

The first book I returned (paperback) on Daughter’s behalf, was replaced with a new copy that arrived in perfect condition. I fondly believed they might get a human to pick a book someone had complained about.

Hah. The second replacement arrived slightly damaged as well. But I just couldn’t face sending back yet another one, so took the executive decision that the damage wasn’t too dreadful and the price was favourable compared to buying from a ‘real’ bookshop.

What (not) to buy in 2018?

It was the Resident IT Consultant who mentioned it first. He noted that that David Walliams seemed to be everywhere in the top 100 books sold in 2017. I wasn’t surprised, but wish I had been. I’ve not counted the DW books on the list. Daughter did, but reckoned I probably didn’t want to hear how many.

I am pleased that a children’s book came second on that list. (Also pleased that it was – considerably – outsold by Jamie Oliver.) But I really would have wanted it to be a different book. I know; it’s good that children read. Or at least that someone is buying the books, whether or not they get read.

If it was any other book, I’d also be happy for the author who was financially rewarded, along with his or her publisher.

To return to my previously mentioned lesson learned from Random House, we should be grateful these books make money, because they help publish other books that simply don’t sell in great numbers. Well, all I can say is that on the strength of the DW sales, HarperCollins should be able to support an awful lot of ‘smaller’ books. Children’s books at that.

I don’t know this, but how much of such revenue goes to happy shareholders? Instead of being re-invested in more book products. I’m aware that DW has a past of doing charitable things, even if that was a stunt requiring other people to cough up the cash. Does he support any worthy causes with the income from his books?

In the same Guardian there was an article about a businessman who has received rather a large bonus, an amount of money that it was suggested could do a lot of good if used to solve the sad state of the homeless. My guess is he won’t do this. (Although, think of how he’d be remembered for all time – in a positive way – if he did!)

So, DW and publisher: Is there any likelihood of you doing this kind of good deed? We only require so much money for our own needs.

But back to the list. I’ve not read much on it. This is usually the case, as most of the big sellers are generally adult novels I don’t have time for, or recipe books and biographies of or by people I’ve barely heard of.

This year Philip Pullman is in tenth place and I’ve read his book. Of older books there’s obviously Harry Potter, and I have at some point looked at a Where’s Wally and the Wimpy Kids books.

The usual suspects such as Lee Child, Jodi Picoult, John Grisham, Dan Brown, are there; but interspersed with countless DW titles. Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson, often the biggest contributors to children’s books on the list of bestsellers, are at the bottom end. There is Wonder, which presumably has reappeared because of the recent film.

While horrified in general, I am hoping that this willingness to buy lots of children’s books will continue. And I’m hoping for more diverse purchases, which will be made possible only when publishers don’t only push celebrity titles. I’d like for there to be more excellent children’s titles, but the truth is that there are countless terrific books already in existence. They ‘merely’ need to be sold to the buyers of books. Use some of that money on telling the world about your other writers.

I’d like to mention a few recent HarperCollins books here as examples, but I’ve not been told about many. The new Oliver Jeffers book was ‘sold’ to me. I asked about the Skulduggery Pleasant book myself when I discovered its existence. I was offered an adult crime novel on the suggestion by the author. And someone emailed me to say she was leaving the company. This is not to say there weren’t heaps and heaps of great books. Just that there was no publicity coming my way, and possibly not going to others either.

Happy New Reading in 2018!!!

They’re all women!

They all seemed to be women. Or perhaps I merely happened to choose Book Week Scotland events that featured women. I picked what interested me, and what was nearby enough to be doable, and at times convenient to me.

Four events, though, and a total of nine women speaking at them. Only the last one, about gender violence, had a subject that determined who was likely to be taking part.

The audiences were slightly different. For Mary Queen of Scots there were three men. The gender violence had one man in the audience for part of it, one man to operate Skype (!) and one man who seemed to be working in the room where we sat. Several men for both Lin Anderson and the autism discussion, while still being in a minority.

Three events were during daytime, but that doesn’t explain the lack of men, when the women were mostly well past 70.

Do they read less, or are they not interested in events? Or do they go to the ones with men talking? (I’d have been happy to see Chris Brookmyre, but he didn’t come this way, or James Oswald, but he was sold out.)

Anyway, whatever the answer to that is, over on Swedish Bookwitch we have women today. My interview with Maria Turtschaninoff is live, and it’s mostly – just about entirely, actually – about women. And it’s in Swedish. Sorry about that. (Translation will follow.)

Spicy autism

You’ve heard of having mild autism? It’s a ‘kind’ way of describing someone as almost not autistic but nearly normal. Well, we won’t have it, so how about a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Spicy autism’ instead? Can you take it?

Monday night’s event for Book Week Scotland at Waterstones was like coming home, where I was surrounded by like-minded people, and they were clever and amusing and weird enough that they appeared normal [to me]. It was great. And we need more of this.

Nina Mega, Rachael Lucas and Catherine Simpson

The conversation between Rachael Lucas, who wrote The State of Grace about a teenage girl with Asperger Syndrome, and Catherine Simpson, whose adult novel Truestory features a boy with Asperger’s, was chaired by Catherine’s daughter Nina. I can’t think of a better combination of people to listen to on this subject.

It was Nina’s first experience of chairing, and her straightforward style and intelligence was just what was needed. When she was younger she caused Catherine much worry, mainly because neither the health service nor the education authorities were helpful or sympathetic. (I’ve been there. I know.) And there was one thing Catherine told us, which was uncannily close to what I’ve felt myself.

Rachael Lucas and Catherine Simpson

Rachael had spent a lot of time pointing out her daughter was unusual, but it still took ages for a diagnosis, for both of them. As is often the case; if one family member is diagnosed, another might be next.

With such interesting lives to discuss, I had very little need to hear [the usual] details about their books. It’s their lives we really wanted to hear about. This doesn’t mean that books about aspies are not needed, because they are. People like to find themselves in books.

‘Coming out’ as an aspie when you write a book about it, was both necessary and difficult for Rachael. Her daughter’s autism was not recognised because she didn’t line up her toys, and because Rachael helped her in trying to be normal. That in itself seems to be a sign of being on the autistic spectrum.

Catherine Simpson

Catherine needed something to do when she was stuck at home because of Nina, and eventually hit on writing, and did a course at Napier, before writing her novel which among other things features the f-word (as she discovered when starting to read to us), and growing cannabis. (It sounded much funnier when she said it. I suspect you need the book.)

Rachael decided to write about a teenage girl, partly because she had one herself, but also because everything people know about autism tends to be about boys. On the other hand, Catherine wrote about a boy, so people wouldn’t assume it was about Nina, but she regrets this now. And anyway, Nina has often been described as masculine, which is another situation I recognise. You can still love My Little Pony. And Doctor Who.

Rachael Lucas and Catherine Simpson

One side-effect after reading Grace has been that some people have got their own diagnosis, which both writers agreed was excellent, but they also pointed out quite how hard this can be to achieve. The internet is mostly for the good, and it suits autistic people well. You can pause your life briefly when online, and take a moment or two to think about how to respond to what someone has said. (Rachael aptly called this her ‘buffering.’)

And you don’t have to smile to look friendly (Rachael’s husband asked her what she was doing, and when she said she was trying to avoid looking scary by practising smiling, he asked her to please stop). Nor do you need to worry about eye-contact online.

These two women are funny. But it seems their books have too much of a happy ending. Autistic people are only ever allowed to be ‘tragic and inspirational.’ Happy is for neurotypicals. But when you’ve had your mothering skills questioned by (possibly well-meaning) staff at your child’s school, then you are surely permitted to rebel? “Have you tried the naughty step?’

Nina Mega

Looking at how Nina turned out, I’d say Catherine did as much right as any parent. And I’m sure the same goes for Rachael’s daughter [who wasn’t present]. There were lots of questions from the audience, but in case there hadn’t been, Nina was prepared with more of her own, as any good aspie would be.


And yes, balloons are frightening things. The Bookwitch family has at least one member who always tenses up, in case a balloon will pop unexpectedly.