Bookshops are shops that sell books

When people come into the bookshop and ask for a specific book the ideal is that we will have that title in stock and be able to sell it to them there and then. If the book is not in stock we can order it and get it in a couple of days. (Unless the book is out of print, or the publisher is out of stock, or the book does not have a UK distributor.) Customers sometimes act incredulously if we don’t have the book they want. They are shocked that such a large bookshop does not have a copy of “Whatever The Book Is” and wonder why not. We can’t stock every book in print. Even though we have five floors we do not have enough room. But, we will order it. We will obtain it for you if it’s at all possible. We are happy to do that. We want you to have that book. We love books. We are booksellers.

A guy asked me what he had to do to get his book on our shelves. I asked him who his publisher was and he said “Me.” We could not stock all the self published books, could we? Where would we put them? Who would buy them?

I still find it astonishing that so many authors think the secret of success is getting their book on to a shelf in a book shop. They imagine then it’s just a matter of customers seeing their book and ta-dah, they will buy it. I’ve seen books, good books, books I have read and enjoyed, sit on the shelf for years. I’ve seen them promoted and discounted and still not selling. (And yes, there are others, the ones that sell and keep on selling with no promotion or fanfare, because they have that indescribable something that works, but I’m not talking about them today.)

Here’s the thing – bookshops are shops. They exist to sell books. They are a business, so they need to sell books to keep their business going. It seems to me that some people ignore that fact and view bookshops as a public service. A bookshop is not a library, and it does not HAVE to sell any book it does not choose to, does it? Perhaps the bookshop did stock that book at one time and it took months to sell. Perhaps we just sold out of it? Perhaps it’s an interesting new title that we will pass details of to the buyer.

To those that say there should be more books about  *insert person’s pet thing*, I want to ask why? Because you say so? Because you happen to write books like that? Because you like them? I happen to really like Tivall vegetarian schnitzels. When I lived in London it was easy to find them, but here in West Sussex it’s not. A large branch of Waitrose sold them for a while, but they stopped. I did enquire in store and I filled in an online stock request, but they never got them back in. I assume it was a decision based on sales. It would not occur to me to insist that they should stock it simply to please me and any other customer that might share my taste. Recently my local Holland and Barrett has stocked them. They are way more expensive than they were at the supermarket, but it’s my choice whether or not I buy them.

Similarly, if you go to the bookshop and they don’t have the book you want, you have choices, you can order it from them, or online, or shop elsewhere, so where is the Big Bad?

What if there is no conspiracy? 

 

(Of course, these are my personal musings and are in no way meant to represent any official view from the company I work for.)

Matt Kinnison

Matt died six years ago. Ghastly fucking anniversary. My world remains all the poorer for the lack of his friendship. I am fortunate that I have letters, emails, cards, drawings, online stuff, that bring him back to me. He had such a distinctive style; I only have to read a couple of sentences he wrote to hear him. 

I have an A5 envelope that he marked “For the attention of:      ” with a wee cartoon face that he drew to signify me. It has a few bits and bobs from him inside and I keep it on my writing desk. It’s not a talisman or a lucky thing. I don’t keep it to memorialise him. It’s just there, next to me. I look at the envelope often, the contents rarely. 

Six years on I discover I can’t make peace with his death. We say, “It’s a blessing” when someone is released from the agony they are in, but obviously it’s not a fucking blessing they suffered in the first place. What a shabby platitude “It’s a blessing” is. I think we live trying to convince ourselves that things can be fair and logical. We cushion ourselves against the reality of mortality. We’re all going to die. It’s the 3 AM terror that pitches at me through the darkness. Some of us die sooner than others. Some of us die of old age, in our sleep. Some die sudden, violent deaths. Some get terribly, dreadfully, fatally ill. Fuck all to do with fair.

There are expectations about grief. A hierarchy of grief. A sense that a death belongs to so and so more because they were xyz to the deceased. They have an ownership of that loss. Yet each death ripples out to all the people who knew that person. Each grief is unique and valid. Time heals. And it does. Thank goodness for time. With distance our losses become manageable. I don’t think about Matt every day, instead he floats in and out of my mind in a beautifully natural way, as and when. Remembering him doesn’t hurt. He’s part of my past, part of my history, another person who shaped me. Tonight though, I’m fucking furious that he’s dead. 

 

Smash Lits with Robert Williams

1)What is your favourite tree?

The one on Corkland Road in Chorlton, outside our old flat. I have no idea what type it was but it was very big.

2) Do you know anyone called Tarquin?

I’ve met one Tarquin. Years ago my band came down to London to do a showcase for record companies. Hardly anyone showed up but a man called Tarquin from Universal, or somewhere like that, came in the room and sat down. We played three songs and then he left. He never said a word. He was wearing pink socks. I still find myself wondering what Tarquin might be up to these days.

3) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

Horizontal stripes. Red, yellow and blue. Classy.

4) What is your default pub drink?

Beer

5) What was the last text you sent?

‘Just seen that Mark bloke from the Essex programme at the station.’

6) What colour is Wednesday?

Purple.

7) What is your favourite swear word?

Fuck.

8) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

Absolutely they can.

9) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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I’m very disappointed with myself that I’m not vegetarian. Bacon wins but morally tofu wins.

10) What is your funeral song?

I don’t want any songs, I don’t want anything to drown out the hysterical mourning. But if forced, to really bring people to their knees, I want three – Atmosphere, Joy Division into Bridge over Trouble Water, Simon and Garfunkel, into Do You Realize?? The Flaming Lips. That should do it.

11) Did you have an invisible friend?

I think I tried but then Phil would knock at the door and we’d go and play football instead.

12) What’s the best book you’ve ever read?

Lord of the Dance by Michael Flatley. Look at the cover!  On slow afternoons we used to read passages to each other in the bookshop.

 I’m unfamiliar with that, but it looks like maybe there’s an updated version due

13) What’s your favourite sweet?

I don’t like sweets. I don’t understand why anyone with taste buds would. Have they not heard of curry?

14) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I’ve given this question a lot of thought. Old Neighbours – Daphne. Current Neighbours – I don’t know her name in Neighbours but she used to be Sophie in Home and Away. My girlfriend is obsessed with Australian soaps – I only ever glance you understand, too busy writing.

Ah, you mean the lovely Rebekah Elmaloglou. And Daphne? Daphne?

15) How do you organise your bookshelves?

We’ve only just got shelves fitted after years of books in boxes. I just fling them on there. I used to work in a bookshop, so it feels good to break the rules. Also, you don’t want people thinking you’re fussy.

16) Can you make up a poem about trees

Yes – Look at that tree standing there. What a big, tall bastard.

Marvelous. 

17) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic in the forest with Margaret Atwood?

This feels like a trick question. I wouldn’t make any sandwiches. I feel like whatever I did I would disappoint Margaret Atwood.

18) Do you have any writing rituals?

I don’t.

19) Who is your writer crush?

Wells Tower, Kent Haruf, Claire Keegan, Ali Smith, David Almond, Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler, Roddy Doyle.

20) What question should I have asked you?

This one. (sorry)

 

You can read my review of Robert’s terrific new novel here and were you to need any further persuasion may I draw your attention to:

‘Now and then I encounter a novel that carries me so completely inside its own world that I wake the next day expecting to find myself there. INTO THE TREES, by Robert Williams, is exactly that sort of novel—lyrical, sharply observed, with the punch of myth and plenty of drive.’
Daniel Woodrell

Into the Trees by Robert Williams

Into The Trees by Robert Williams

When their apparently healthy baby won’t stop crying and they have exhausted all the usual solutions, sleep deprived parents Thomas and Ann become desperate. By chance, Thomas discovers that if he takes Harriet into Bleasdale forest she calms. Raymond, a giant of a man who works as a farm hand, walks the forest at night, glad to escape his damp smothered home in Etherton. Keith goes to the forest for entirely different reasons. From each of their perspectives Williams shows how their lives become entangled.

I worried at the start that there’d be some mystical forces at play, but thankfully no, this is a very real story, shot through with William’s customary insight into the human condition. Unexpected strands are brought in and woven seamlessly into the narrative. Williams does a grand job describing Ann’s first love and the passion that’s missing from her marriage. It was Raymond and his awkwardness who captured my heart though. I know a Raymond or two, and the author’s understanding of what it is to be an outsider, what it’s like to feel so alien in the world, is quite special.

It’s a terrific exploration of fear in many of its guises. There’s no fussy writing here, just clean, clear prose. Williams’s best novel yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The WoMentoring Project

From time to time I’ve thought how wonderful it would be to have a writing mentor. I know other writers who have been mentored and found it enormously helpful. Then I’ve looked at the cost and dismissed the idea. In January this year I was involved in a twitter conversation with Kerry Hudson and a few others and Kerry suggested there should maybe be a peer mentoring site for women writers as a way of supporting them, and them paying it forwards and so on. What would be the tweeting equivalent of thinking aloud? Well, she was doing that, and she ended by saying she was totally going to do it.

Because Kerry is amazing, she has launched The WoMentoring Project today, not even three months later. Here are some details:

About?

The WoMentoring Project exists to offer free mentoring by professional literary women to up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities.

The mission of The WoMentoring Project is simply to introduce successful literary women to other women writers at the beginning of their careers who would benefit from some insight, knowledge and support. The hope is that we’ll see new, talented and diverse female voices emerging as a result of time and guidance received from our mentors.

Each mentor selects their own mentee and it is at their discretion how little or much time they donate. We have no budget, it’s a completely free initiative and every aspect of the project – from the project management to the website design to the PR support – is being volunteered by a collective of female literary professionals. Quite simply this is about exceptional women supporting exceptional women. Welcome to The WoMentoring Project.

Why do we need it?

Like many great (and not so great) ideas The WoMentoring Project came about via a conversation on Twitter. While discussing the current lack of peer mentoring and the prohibitive expense for many of professional mentoring we asked our followers – largely writers, editors and agents – who would be willing to donate a few hours of their time to another woman just starting out. The response was overwhelming – within two hours we had over sixty volunteer mentors.

Our mentors are all professional writers, editors or literary agents. Many of us received unofficial or official mentoring ourselves which helped us get ahead and the emphasis is on ‘paying forward’ some of the support we’ve been given.

In an industry where male writers are still reviewed and paid more than their female counterparts in the UK, we wanted to balance the playing field. Likewise, we want to give female voices that would otherwise find it hard to be heard, a greater opportunity of reaching their true potential.

Applications

In an ideal world we would offer a mentor to every writer who needed and wanted one. Of course this isn’t possible so instead we’ve tried to ensure the application process is accessible while also ensuring that out mentors have enough information with which to make their selection.

Applicant mentees will submit a 1000 word writing sample and a 500 word statement about why they would benefit from free mentoring. All applications will be in application to a specific mentor and mentees can only apply for one mentor at a time.

Why our mentors are getting involved

The reason I’m doing this is simple: mentoring can mean the difference between getting published and getting lost in the crowd. It can help a good writer become a brilliant one. But till now, opportunities for low-income writers to be mentored were few and far between. This initiative redresses the balance; I’m utterly delighted to be part of the project.

Shelley Harris, author of Jubilee

I have only achieved the success I have with the help of others, and now I am keen to pass on that help. I particularly want to reach out to those who don’t have the privileges of wealth, status or existing contacts, but who have so much to gain and to give.

Marie Phillips, author Gods Behaving Badly

I’m so pleased to be involved in the WoMentoring Project, and I can’t wait to meet my mentee. I know from my own authors how isolating an experience writing can often be, especially when you’re just starting out, and so I really wanted to be involved. I hope that knowing that there is someone on your side in those early days will give writers courage and confidence in their work.

Alison Hennessy, Senior Editor at Harvill Secker

The WoMentoring project is the kind of opportunity I would have relished when writing my first novel. It’s founded in the spirit of paying it forward, and I’ll take real pride in sharing whatever experience I’ve gained with a mentee. I’ve benefited from the advice and encouragement of some truly inspirational writers, the right voice cheering you on can make all the difference when you’re in your solitary writing bubble. The formality of the mentoring arrangement also gives a sense of responsibility and focus – something that’s invaluable when you’re lost in the sprawl of a work-in-progress – and it’s beneficial to mentors too.

Amylia Hall, author of The Book of Summers

My career as an editor has been immeasurably enriched by working with inspiring women writers, yet the world of publishing would have been inaccessible to me without the time and support I was given when first starting out.  The WoMentoring Project is a wonderful, necessary thing and I’m very proud to be taking part in it.

It all sounds bloody marvelous. If you are interested in applying to be a mentee (is that the word? It looks really strange) then head over to the site and check out all the ace people who have volunteered to mentor. And three cheers for Kerry please.

Hip hip…

Smash Lits with Dan Powell

So, the first person to face my Smash Lits questions is Dan Powell.

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His debut collection of short fiction – “Looking Out Of Broken Windows” – has just been published by Salt. I got to read it before it was published. (Yeah, I’m showing off.) Dan was entering it into the Scott Prize and I told him “It’s a winner for sure” and “I fully expect you to win this competition”. I have NEVER said that to anyone else. I mean, what a thing to say! But, that’s how certain I was. That’s how good his stories are. All of them! He’s consistently excellent. Fanfare please, Salt loved it so much they published it and I think you should probably buy it. Or you can enter a competition to win a copy by commenting here or on any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet this March, or you can “like” the Looking Out of Broken Windows Facebook page. All the names will be put in a hat for the draw which takes place on April 6th. Anyway, enough blurby stuff, on with the questions.

1) How do you organise your bookshelves?

I keep all my short fiction collections together on a series of shelves, but beyond that it is all chaos. I buy too many books (just ask my wife) and now there are stacks on top of stacks. I may have to start double layering each shelf but I am currently resisting that. It feels wrong.

2) What is your favourite biscuit?

Custard Cream. A design classic. The Helvetica of biscuits. They’re everywhere.

3) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

All of my electronic devices have the same digital wallpaper. Clouds against a blue sky. Very calming. So that. Walls and ceiling, please.

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4) What was your favourite book as a child?

Treasure Island. It’s still in my top ten. Perfect boys’ own adventure. Funny and thrilling and at times very, very dark.

5) Your writing is music, what style is it?

Instrumental mood music. Somewhere between Lowercase Noises and Explosions in the Sky.

6) Are you in it for the money, fame and glory? Or?

I’m in it for the words. Just the words.

7) You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

I’d swap places with Jonathan Franzen and use his computer to set him up an official verified Twitter account. I’d tweet a few for him, then sit back to watch the literary back room of the internet explode.

8) What makes the wind blow?

Those little sighs that toddler’s give when they are sleeping. That’s the starting point. It’s a butterfly flapping its wings thing.

9) Do you have a favourite pen?

Yes. My fancy-dan Fisher Space Explorer Pen. It writes upside down and in space. Just in case I’m ever upside down or in space or upside down in space. Can you be upside down in space?
(I am so jealous. I really want one of those. I asked for one for Christmas but nobody knew what I meant apparently.)

10) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

Probably not. But some probably should.

11) Have you ever written an angry letter/email to a magazine or newspaper?

No, but my first ever published writing was a letter in the UK Transformers comic. I seem to remember winning twenty pounds as the writer of that week’s star letter. That’s better than you get for most short stories these days.

12) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

Not seen this since the early nineties. My sister watched this and Home and Away avidly. I caught glimpses up until I left for Uni. I’ll say Mike as he grew up to be Guy Pearce which was kind of unexpected.

13) Would you rather be a bee or a wasp?

Bee. No one likes a wasp.

14) If your life story was made into a book, what would the title be?

Looking Out of Broken Glasses or No More Books.

15) What did you do last Saturday night?

Read some Karl Ove Knausgaard and watched Wes Anderson’s first movie, Bottle Rocket, with my wife. Not at the same time.

16) Do you have a writer crush?

I have a bit of a thing for Amy Hempel. She’s broken my heart many times and keeps doing so. I keep coming back for more.

17) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins and why?

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Bacon. Streaks ahead of Tofu.
(Streaks. Haha.)

18) Have you ever seen a ghost?

No. I am planning on being one though.

19) Are you Looking Out of Broken Windows? What can you see from your window?

I’m on a train as write this so I’m looking out of a wide, dirty window. I can see the suburbs of Nottingham. Uniform houses all in rows. Boxes with triangles on top. Punctuated every now and again by an industrial estate.

20) Can you make up a poem about broken windows?

The window broke
All by itself
It popped and snapped
It had no help
I tried to put it back in place
Tried but could only fail.

Is that a poem?

Oh yes, I think so. Very profound.

Thanks for answering my questions, and I wish you many sales and much success. I’d also like to say thank you for all the work you put into supporting other writers.

 

 

 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I’m not writing a review of this. I’m not going to analyse or quote. This novel was such a treat: Absorbing, beautifully written, huge, well paced, a page turner, a triumph, a joy. And currently it’s half price at Waterstones. £10! A bargain, and the perfect Christmas present for anyone.

Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland

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I couldn’t finish this book. Really, I just couldn’t. Somewhere around page 150 I flicked forwards and saw more of the same and I just could not be bothered. I’ve read every one of Coupland’s previous novels. That’s 14/15 of ’em? And whilst he is, I think, inconsistent, he has long been someone who I will always always read. Of course it’s all subjective, but, for me, when he gets it right he’s not just spot on and zeitgeisty, he’s also a writer of depth. My favourite novel of his is Hey Nostradamus! Worst. Person. Ever is definitely my least favourite. It is, apparently, “written to be funny. That’s all it’s about. It’s not going to give you special meaning about the universe.” which is fine and dandy, as long as it can sustain the humour. 

It’s written from the perspective of Raymond Gunt (ooh, look, I nearly wrote Cunt) an unemployed camera man who agrees to shoot a Survivor type show in Kiribati. His despised ex-wife is his boss. He hires a homeless man to be his assistant as he has nobody else he can ask. He’s friendless, penniless, without morals, misogynistic, and chock full of all kinds of hate. 

It started well I thought, taking me by surprise with the hilariously descriptive line:

There I was, at home in West London, just trying to live as best I could – karma, karma, karma, sunshine and lightness! – when, out of nowhere, the universe delivered unto me a searing hot kebab of vasectomy leftovers drizzled in donkey jizz.

But x amount of pages of the same unrelenting, shockingly rude for the sake of being shockingly rude, prose becomes quickly tiresome. Gunt seemingly abuses an obese fellow plane passenger to death. He lusts after women in the basest of terms. He gets into trouble. He’s rude. Again. And then again. 

There are still some familiar Coupland moments. He describes a waitress as having “…her mind full of pseudonews” – that babble of 24 hours news streaming. He provides wry footnotes. He does write some bitingly funny lines. However, the novel read to me like a writing exercise: Write the most obnoxious character you can think of.  The hideous sexism was hard to cope with, even if it is meant to be ironic, it’s still hate. Ultimately though, the book bored me. Shame. 

 

The Deaths by Mark Lawson

Four wealthy families live in four exclusive listed houses in the countryside, a half hour commute from London. From the outset we know that one of these families has been murdered, and Lawson’s novel keeps the big reveal of who and why until the end part of the book. Instead he introduces us to each of “The Eight” as they commute, work, shop, drink, eat, and holiday together. On the surface all is perfect, inevitably, not far beneath those glossy veneers, all is far from ok.

The difficulty with having four sets of couples is in establishing distinct personas for each. Max, Jenno, Emily and Jonny seemed more vivid to me than Simon, Tasha, Libby and Tom. Added to their voices are those of the children, Nick (a fellow commuter), the investigating police officers, a female vicar, a nanny. Lawson’s cast is large, as is the novel, and I don’t think he manages to capture all the voices. His attempt at teen speak is rather clunky:

“Jeez, this is awks… He’s really old (thirty?) but dead fit and definitely gives her the full body scan, even though Mumsie made her wear a body-burka and what she calls the Sensible Coat. Tilly was, like, I’ll be inside all day but she was only on transmit as usual. Troll.”

He does, however, excel at pompous men whose speech is still peppered with juvenile public school phrases.

It’s not really a murder mystery, although of course it is that; it’s a satirical look at life now, a social commentary for the middle aged. Smart phones, Waitrose, drinking too much, children speaking in faux gangster styles, the economy, hypochondria, internet porn, coffee culture and so on. There are funny lines such as “Simon blames Top Gear for the fact that so many British men now regard conversation as violently belittling banter.” There’s also a lot of sex talk, and some sex scenes that may surely be nominated for this years Bad Sex award. (I can’t be bothered to flick back through the whole book, but I think there’s even a reference to the penis as truncheon.)

I wanted to know what had happened, but I did become somewhat bored and took to skim reading occasionally. It’s all a bit of a romp, with some brilliantly well observed lines skewering the white, middle classes. My favourite line:

 “A black maid is doing something complicated with pastry. The lives of these people.

“Monifa, my wife,” Mortimer identifies her.

Kate tries not to show that she has been humiliatingly out-liberaled.”

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