The literary world got together last week for the London Book Fair, the annual publishing jamboree that decides what will be in our bookshops in the coming year. Like most print media, publishers are feeling the heat from the digital revolution, and one of the questions on their minds was simply: “How do we stay in business?”
There are, it seems, two answers to this. The obvious one, of course, is for some big-name publisher to buy the film rights to my own two books, which, with the right Hollywood treatment, would surely gross enough to keep the entire publishing industry afloat indefinitely.
But until that moment of enlightenment arrives, the other bright idea is getting authors to go on “rock star” style tours, according to this piece in last weekend’s Observer. Caitlin Moran, the Times columnist and author of the bestselling How to Be A Woman, is apparently blazing the trail, with a gig-style reading tour that has already sold more than 10,000 tickets.
Having dipped into my missus’s own copy of How to Be a Woman, I’m sure Moran will do well. Her book is a splendid read – Bridget Jones meets the Female Eunuch, only dirtier and funnier – and it’s already sold more than half a million copies. That’s the equivalent of platinum status in album terms. With Moran’s vast army of adoring female fans, I guess her tour will be rather like an early Rolling Stones gig, only with rather more feminist consciousness-raising.
However, the idea of promo-tours is hardly new. Even the most minor-league authors get out and about these days to flog their books, and the growing number of literary festivals across Britain – about 350 at the latest count – gives them no shortage of venues. The problem is though, that just as not every band can be the Rolling Stones, nor can every author be Caitlin Moran. For any author who isn’t a household name – and that’s most of us – putting in any kind of promotional appearance at all is the literary equivalent of being in a pub rock band. Forget about filling Wembley or the Hammersmith Palais. You’ll be lucky if you fill a library or village hall.
I should know. For I speak as someone whose first-ever gig was as Kate Adie’s “warm-up” act, at the Chorleywood Literary Festival 2008. And this, in terms of glamour, is about as big-time as my “book tour” career has ever got.
For those of you have never heard of Chorleywood (I hadn’t), it’s a nice little town in Hertfordshire where the local bookshop puts on a literary festival every autumn. To be fair, they got a pretty good turn-out for Kate. Her days as a war reporter for the Beeb have given her an army of loyal fans, and when I turned up in Chorleywood on a wet Sunday afternoon, the venue was packed with several hundred people, mainly well-heeled pensioners.
That in itself might not seem like too much of an intimidating prospect. But when they’d actually come to Kate speak, not me, it took a certain amount of nerve to get up on stage and tell them why they might also be interested in my book about Iraq. Especially since I only had a few minutes, part of which had to be devoted to bigging up the headline act.
Further damage to my fragile literary ego awaited at the book signing session afterwards. While Kate’s pen was working overtime, a lengthy queue stretching up to her table, the few who came to mine appeared to be doing so mainly out of polite interest. Afterwards, as Kate jumped into her car and shot off to speak at another event, I counted that I’d sold about a dozen copies. Which, after overheads, royalties and other factors were taken into account, probably netted me about minus £10.
My experiences, though, seem to be fairly universal. Take, for example, Andrew Mueller, a friend and fellow foreign correspondent who wrote the war-zone travelogue “I wouldn’t Start from Here”. His book contains some of the sharpest, funniest travel writing have ever read, and received very good reviews. Yet in his follow-up tome, where he happens to have a section on book tours, I was delighted to learn he too has done gigs where the sales can be counted in single figures. At one event at Borders on Charing Cross Road – in what should be the bookshop world’s answer to Ronnie Scott’s – only three people turned up. It was such an “intimate” gig that he abandoned his plan to do a formal talk and just chatted to them instead.
The lack of financial recompense is not the only problem. Pub rockers at least generally gig in licensed premises, where the audience can simply turn away and get on with drinking if needs be. So too, indeed, can the band. Book talks, by contrast, tend to be in libraries and book shops, where the silence and sobriety offer no refuge to the nervous author. And if hardly anyone’s turned up, it feels all the quieter, and all the more awkward.
Nonetheless, few authors ever find it that painful being asked to talk about their own books. And while there’s always the chance of being grilled by the local library “crazy man”, the pleasure of having people show an interest in your work is worth a thousand book sales. Well, a hundred at least. Since my debut at Chorleywood, I have done everything from Barking Library through to Guildford High School and various friends’ book clubs in their own front rooms, and never regretted one of them. I’m even due to give a talk about my book on Somalia to a Somali community group in Bristol sometime soon. It will be a bit of a trek, but worth it.
Besides, just like rock’n roll, all authors have to start somewhere, and the odd moment of humiliation keeps the literary soul lean and keen. Which authors, after all, do not check the book sales rankings on Amazon.com at least five times a day to see how well their book is doing? Which authors do not also check the sales ranking of rival scribes, in the hope that they’ve plummeted to 500,000 or below, nestling alongside the European Accountancy Handbook 1998? And, let’s face it, which authors have not, while browsing in their local Waterstones, picked up a few copies of their own book and quietly shifted it onto the “Bestsellers” or “Waterstones recommends” section?
Okay, maybe that last one is just me. But take my word for it, fellow authors, your books can usually get at least an hour in the prime selling slot before getting rumbled by a shop assistant. By which time, you might have sold two or three copies. Either way, it’s an easier gig than doing your local library…