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Monday, 11 June 2007

Top shelf shuffle

I'm not sure whether it's just me, but since I've been writing I seem to have developed this masochistic streak. It manifests itself most acutely in my inability to walk past a bookshop without popping in to see if they have my books in stock.

It's a thankless task. If they don't have them, it depresses me. If they do (which to be fair to Harper Collins is increasingly the case) they are more often than not at the back of the shop and displayed spine on, which triggers a renewed bout of angst and soul-searching.

But it also gives rise to that most common of authorial afflictions - the top shelf shuffle.
I'm talking here, of course, about the practice of slipping unnoticed into a bookshop, casually locating your books, and then subtly redeploying them (apart from the one copy you leave behind, face out) at other, more prominent locations. In the chart, for example, or on the Summer Read or Special Offer tables at the front of the store. Anything to get it out in front of the paying public. Ask any writer you know - they're all at it, and they often rope their family and friends in too. My wife, for example, once peeled "three for two" labels off someone else's books and then stuck them on mine so she could upgrade me to a special promotion. What a trooper!

It is, of course, a Sisyphean endeavour. No sooner have you carefully (and surreptitiously) moved the books to a new location, then the staff, fired by some strange missionary zeal, scoop them up and cart them back to the familiar obscurity of the general fiction shelf. You'd think eventually they'd just give up, but no - they seem to fight for every inch of those little front tables as if their lives depended on it.

They must get p***ed off by writers coming in and screwing up their displays. In fact I'd be surprised if my local store hadn't performed an exorcism on its crime and thriller section, given the poltergeist-like activity that leads to my books spontaneously materialising twenty feet away from where they are meant to be. Maybe they view it as a game, but to most writers it is a war. A war of attrition where neither side is prepared to give up.

Of course deep down, all writers know that all this skulduggery makes no difference to their sales. We do it, because we are all victims of the random vicissitudes of the publishing world, where neither successes nor failures can be predicted and careers are made or broken on the back of distribution agreements and marketing spend.

Moving the books to the front tables or turning them so that they are face out, is a way of taking a stand. For a few precious minutes, we actually believe we've done something that might help influence our fate. Right up until the shop assistants gather us up and the dance begins again!

Friday, 1 June 2007

Summer Dreams

Just back from a mini-break in (of all places) Marbella. I say mini-break because, according to the wife, it doesn't become a holiday until you are away for more than 5 nights - I wish I'd understood this subtlety when I booked it, as apparently this means we still need to go away again on a "proper" family vacation! More money...

Anyway, technically speaking we weren't in Marbella, but down the road in Puerto Banus where a friend of ours lives. Strange place. The harbour is encrusted with million dollar yachts and the quayside embroidered with Bentleys and air-conditioned designer stores. And yet walk a few streets in, and you find strip bars and souvenir shops jostling for position with "genuine" Irish pubs serving all-day breakfasts. As the sun sets, the streets swarm with baying packs of pink-skinned adolescents playing drinking games and urinating in doorways. Later, as the moon rises, the girls swoop down, skirts hitched and tops pulled down low; teeth bared, they sniff out their prey according to their key fobs - the more expensive your motor, the better your chances.

There's money here, but all of it's new and in your face - the biggest decision one of my friend's neighbors faced every day was whether to drive his black Hummer, yellow Lamborghini Gallardo or red Ferrari 360. The men wear diamond encrusted gold Bulgari watches and Hackett polo shirts, their prison tattoos lost in the matted hair of their tanned forearms. The women are teak coloured with Barbie blonde hair, three grand handbags flung casually over their shoulders, their boobs as plastic as the food in the photos that adorn the menus of the harbour-front restaurants.

Given this, I had slightly mixed feelings about the local taste in books, as the local English language bookshop had copies of The Black Sun in their Bestseller section. Given my previous rant about not being stocked abroad (see
Batteries not Included), I could hardly complain, although I did slightly question if this was what Bruce (my editor) had in mind when he referred to my "target demographic". Perhaps there was another factor at play - after all, over 80% of the global supply of 500 Euro notes are apparently to be found along the coast of Southern Spain. Why? Money laundering; lots of it. Maybe I have a growing fan base amidst the Costa de Crime’s criminal fraternity!

Anyway, the best part of the holiday / mini-break was that for the first time ever, I saw someone reading The Black Sun! Friends have told me they've seen people reading my books before, but I've never actually seen anyone myself. The fact that they were on a beach, sipping a Mojito, made it even better. You see I always read thrillers when away, and I took the decision to start writing whilst on a beach in Bora Bora on honeymoon. So seeing someone lying on a sun lounger, engrossed, gave me a real sense of having closed the circle; of achievement.

However, having learnt my lesson from the time when I accosted someone at Gatwick who was leafing through The Double Eagle and excitedly announcing that I was the author (he immediately returned it to the shelf and backed away fearfully), this time I didn't say anything and just walked on with a smile. Besides, it was getting late, and I wanted to get to O'Grady's for a “full English” before they stopped serving!