In which The Author almost leaves a bookshop empty-handed
Yes, you read that correctly.
I've just returned from Pontyclun, where Fay J. and the regulars at the Brunel Arms have managed to raise a very respectable £31 for the Anthony Nolan Trust. This takes the pub's fund-raising total to over ninety quid. It's definitely worth making a special trip across country every six months or so to pay it in. In reality, I won't be able to pay it in until tomorrow, because Barclays no longer have a branch in Pontyclun. I could have walked the two miles or so into Talbot Green, but given the way the 'high street banks' are pulling out of the high streets, there was no guarantee I'd have found that branch open anyway. I'll do it in Aberdare and post the receipt to Fay, as usual.
And talking of well-known high street brands …
I had the best part of an hour to kill in Cardiff, so I walked over to Waterstones for a nose around. There was no sign of Jeff, as usual – he might have been on lunch, or in Newport, or in Abergavenny, or in any other branch within a train ride's emergency cover range. I didn't see any of the old gang, in fact. I headed straight for the Science Fiction section, eager to pick up anything by Paul McAuley, whose forthcoming book I finished proofreading on Monday. Or maybe on Sunday. Or possibly yesterday. It's a long story …
Anyway, Craig L., my contact at Gollancz, had mentioned Mr McAuley's novel Fairyland, which is published in their SF Masterworks series. That seemed a decent place to start exploring Mr McAuley's backlist. Therefore I wasn't especially surprised when I failed to find a single book by him. When Craig first mentioned this upcoming project about six weeks ago, I asked whether Mr McAuley was a new author, as his name didn't sound familiar. (He turns out to be quite the opposite – as a scientist turned writer, he's frequently mentioned in the same breath as Stephen Baxter.)
I emailed Craig back, joking that I never got to run the Science Fiction section because that particular role was always given to someone who never read books. Instead, it was the preserve of people who were into superhero films, computer games, and manga books. Even if they were fairly au fait with the genre (like Scott P. and Gareth M.), they were never given free rein to stock a decent range of backlist titles which would guarantee repeat business.
Now that Waterstones is run almost entirely by computers which decide a branch's stockholding based on the percentage of shelf space allocated to each genre, you can spot the winners and losers a mile off.
Take the History section, for instance. When I was in the shop a few months ago, I amazed myself by being able to find books on the Hundred Years War and the Crusades. Ten years ago I'd have lucky to find anything that general. I didn't want a huge tome on either – just something I could use to double-check names and dates if I get another historical novel to work on – and the two books I found suited me admirably. But I wouldn't have found them when I was working there.
When Louise was running the History section, her pet preferences (the areas she'd studied for her degree and her own personal heroines) decided what we stocked. Yes, of course we tried to take account of the school and university syllabuses. However, by and large Louise's choice of books was determined by a mixture of how interested she was in the topic, and how well she got on with the publisher's rep. When Russell was the rep for Routledge, you could guarantee finding pretty much every new title on the shelves within days of publication. When John took on the role as part of the ever-growing Taylor & Francis portfolio, T&F's titles dwindled almost to the vanishing point. You should never mix business with pleasure, especially when it comes to stocking a bookshop.
The new Waterstones History department is rather thrilling in comparison. Presumably there's enough turnover of titles to justify the increased shelf space and vastly improved depth of range.
I can only assume that Horror is showing the reverse of this trend. It's gone from being an entire island and a couple of bays to barely half a dozen shelves and half a table. It's no great loss, to be honest. The post-Twilight Vampire Romance bubble seems to have burst, thank Goddess, and now the section consists pretty much exclusively of James Herbert, Stephen King and Richard Laymon. It's business as usual. Never been a fan, don't care if they sell or not.
The Artificial non-Intelligence in charge of stocking the Science Fiction section seems to be one capacitor short of a full circuit board, though. I'll give you a theoretical example to begin with.
Would anyone, even in their wildest fantasies, ever stock The Return of the King without also having The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers? Who the actual fuck would start reading a trilogy with the last book?
Yet that's what Waterstones seem to be doing at the moment. Having finished John Hornor Jacobs's Infernal Machines (for pleasure and profit) about six weeks ago, I was pleased to find one of the preceding books on the shelf. Only one of them, though: Foreign Devils. There was no sign of The Incorruptibles, which is where the whole saga begins. I checked the tables to make sure I wasn't just missing it, but it was nowhere to be found.
I moved on. Ben Aaronovitch's occult police procedurals featuring the young Met copper Peter Grant have really made an impact since they were first published. (It was my close reading of Foxglove Summer, the fifth Peter Grant novel, which opened Gollancz's doors to me in the first place.) I wasn't surprised, therefore, to find the series opener Rivers of London face out on the shelf, along with two of the others, but not necessarily in the right order, as Eric Morecambe might have said.
I moved on again. Gavin G. Smith's The Beauty of Destruction was the first proof I ever worked on. I found that on the shelf, but neither of the books which precede it. What's the fucking point of that?
Jon Wallace's Rig, my first copy-editing job, has recently come out in paperback. Craig very kindly sent me the first two as preparation for the typescript, so I was eager to see the finished book. I found it all right – beside Barricade, which opens the story. There was no sign of Steeple, though. Ever get the feeling you've missed something important?
Skimming the rest of the display, I spotted the distinctive yellow jacket of a Gollancz SF Masterwork among the Ps. It was The Prestige by Christopher Priest. There were none of Mr Priest's dozen or so other books on the shelf, though. His first novel, the hallucinatory and terrifying Indoctrinaire, was published 45 years ago. He's generally regarded as one of the elder statesmen of British SF, along with Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock. There was one of Mr Aldiss's books on the shelf (got it), and a collection of Mr Moorcock's short stories. Yes, you read that correctly, too. Just the one. Mr Moorcock's published works would take up least two shelves by themselves.
The Prestige first came out in 1995; Greybeard is thirty years older, and Mr Moorcock's short stories were published sporadically through the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Messrs Moorcock and Priest have both had novels published by Gollancz within the past couple of years, and both were acclaimed in the SF magazines. I've got them at home, but only through the good offices of Waterstones in London. If I was relying on the Cardiff branch, I'm sure I could be forgiven for assuming that they'd curled up their tootsies and shuffled off this mortal coil (to quote a line from another classic comedy routine).
I wandered over to the music section. We've recently marked the fiftieth anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Cub Band, so I was sure I'd find a plethora of books about that musical landmark. Not a fucking sausage. In fact, there was only one book about the Beatles, and I've already got that at home. Does anyone read the fucking papers any more?
I was about to leave empty-handed when I spotted a face-out copy of All the Madmen, Clinton Heylin's recent(-ish) book about the uneasy relationship between British rock musicians and mental health. I say 'recent(-ish)' because according to the title page it's been out since 2012. I've never seen it in Waterstones before. If it hadn't been face out, I wouldn't have seen it today either.
I've necessarily based this entry on a cursory examination of the shelves in one 'flagship' branch of Britain's only surviving national book retailer. I've worked on a small sample of authors whose books I've worked on over the last couple of years, too. It's a reasonable basis for further study, I think. I've been out of the bookselling game for over eight years now, as Facebook reminded me over the bank holiday weekend. It was, as I said at the time, 'the end of an error'.
With the benefit of twenty years' experience at the sharp end – and when I walked away, I went with half a dozen colleagues whose time in post was comparable – I think it's fair to say that Waterstones are missing us more than we miss them. I wonder how long it'll be before the smaller branches start to wither on the vine. There was a time when every town worth its salt had a branch of at least one high street bank. HSBC closed its doors in Aberdare last year. NatWest are going at the end of the summer. They've all pulled out of Mountain Ash already.
In the same way, all but the most piss-poor of towns had a bookshop. Given what I've seen today, I can't help wondering how long it'll be before Waterstones starts going the way of Barclays and the others of the 'Big Four' banks.