Every writer must accept the short shelf life of her books. In a large book chain, there is generally a two-week window for a freshly-made book to go out on front of house display. I’m sure that I’m not alone in going into a book shop to see whether my book has made it to the table at the front. I’m sure that I’m not the only writer who has hovered by the table to see who picks up her book. I’m also sure that I’m not the only writer who has had to stop myself saying childishly: I wrote that. The book you are holding in your hands: that’s my work.
Naturally a short shelf life does not reflect the labour of love that put the book there in the first place. The book shop must display many new and competing books and to try to give each one its due moment to be seen in public in its brand new jacket is not possible for every book. There are many books that have the briefest of public outings. It shouldn’t matter because the true destination of any book is the mind of the reader.
I found out last week, though, that it does still matter what the book shops think. Book shops were a big influence on my writing life. I visited books shops in London to find out how to be a writer. Like a smitten film fan, I hung about on set, hoping that some of the glamour might rub off, or that I might bump into someone who felt about books as I did – that they were somehow as much a part of me as my blood and bone.I used to be able spend a whole day on Charing Cross Road just mooching about, but now the experience of going into a book shop – they are no longer even shops but stores – is more like visiting Tesco Express.
What has changed? Certainly not the merchandise; there are still lovely glossy books for sale with heavenly covers, or the young and enthusiastic staff. Some book shops even have coffee shops where you can browse a stack of potential purchases in comfort. It’s the tables in front of the shop that have changed: the blatant offers; the stickers; the three for twos; the new books for spring; the Richard and Judy recommendations; the Book at Bedtime books; the way that books are marketed like seasonal chocolates or flowers.
Last week at Exeter Waterstones, I noticed a shelf of Christmas-themed paperbacks destined for the return bins downstairs. Of course because it is February, there was a table featuring books to fall in love with. We have become used to this way of marketing. My local express supermarket has red balloons at the tills and the hair salon I drive past every day has changed its window display from ice white to scarlet rose. Even the library has recommended titles written on heart-shaped coloured paper.
I’m not sure that this kind of seasonal theming is appropriate for books because books by their very nature are timeless. My novel The Beautiful Truth was published in May last year, and that does not make it a ‘new book.’ That makes it one of the many hardbacks that have had their moment. By the new rules of marketing my book should not have been the first book I saw when I walked into Waterstones. It should not have been granted prime position on the very front table next to the new Dave Eggers.
The sight of my novel there on that front table made my week, more than that it strengthened my faith in the power of connection. The manager of Waterstones, who attended a talk I gave, had to make a decision to put my novel out on that table. He cared enough about it to ignore the rules and extend its shelf life. It made me realise that behind every piece of marketing there is a thinking human being. Someone has to decide to hang up the red balloons, or not…someone can decide that a book is worth marketing just because they believe in it. And that is worth everything to an author. If I could have found the manager, I would have kissed him.