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How not to serial 4


This is the fourth excerpt from David Armstrong's wry and entertaining How not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author

4. Bookshops

'to the big bookshop in NottingHillextremely depressed by the number of books in the shop and left immediately. ' Simon Gray


One of the pleasures of being a writer, surely, has to be a visit to the bookshop? Like an athlete at the gym, the car salesman on his windy lot, this is, after all, our home from home.

Well, maybe. Of course, if you're Nick Hornby or Ian Rankin, you must be delighted that in any W H Smith's, Waterstone's or Dillons, you'll stumble over a pile of your prominently-displayed new book, and the adjacent shelves will positively sag beneath the weight of your backlist.

If you're a ‘midlist' writer, though, you're more likely to creep into the store, approach the shelves with dread, and anticipate the worst.

You'll rarely be disappointed.

Well over 100,000 novels were published last year in the UK, and it often seems that only 9,999 of them are available in any bookshop that you enter.

But major bookshops - with very few exceptions - will rarely stock the hardbacks of little-known writers like myself, no matter how prestigious or big your publisher.

Regrettably, for the midlist author, the tide is now, apparently, also turning against the paperback. It used simply to be the case that stores couldn't stock, (because they couldn't sell), relatively unknown writers in hardback.

But if a writer wasn't known in hardback, how is he/she suddenly going to get noticed in paperback? Unless there has been some huge publicity push, or the book has come to very wide notice (it has to be notoriety, good reviews alone won't do it) since the time of initial publication, there will not - even for an accessible six or seven pound paperback - be a queue at the bookstore till.

For some years, less commercially-driven bookshops have had shelves of paperbacks by little-known writers that were not really selling. Eventually, like some ever-spinning wheel, these books would be returned to the publisher to meet their uncertain fate.

Nowadays, some publishers have a policy of not putting many of their titles into paperback at all. It costs little more to print and publish a hardback than it does a paperback of the same title. It's reckoned to cost only about a pound to give a book a hard cover and a slip jacket. But the profit on a seven pound paperback is much less than that on the £18 hardback edition.

When my first four titles were in paperback, it meant that I would, occasionally, see them in bookshops as far apart as Penrith or Torquay. The chances of this little frisson of joy happening now have all but vanished…

There's only one thing down from the gaudy show of the remainders shop. The author's stumped up a few quid and bought a garage-full of his novel to dump on unsuspecting friends. But there's still a couple of hundred copies that neither the outlet shop wants, nor the author can take. And they have a final journey to travel. They are destined for the ultimate ignominy. The place whose name we cannot speak for very shame: all that work, the plot, the prose, those silky words and honeyed phrases, tipped into the bubbling cauldron, rendered down to a yellowing mush, stripped and shaped and cut anew, made ready for someone else's words. Pulped!

So, if you're thinking of becoming a writer, like the TV ad used to say, don't do it, eh: just say No. Think of it as doing a public service. After all, not everyone feels that they can paint or sculpt or dance, so why should everyone appear to believe that they can write a book?

Every other person I know, is either writing, or has written, a novel. And worse, contrary to everything I have already said about) the miseries of doing it, trying to get it published, reviewed, distributed and sold, my overwhelming impression is not only that many of these writers are being published, but they're on the very bookshelves where I, in a just and fair world, so obviously should be.

We all know that there are far too many books in the world. So why not help the cause? Do the right thing. Please, don't write that book.

Tips and Summary:

1) Don't do it.

2) If you're a midlist writer, avoid the deeply depressing experience of visiting bookshops.

3) If you're unpublished, visit bookshops frequently. It should cure you of your fanciful and misguided notions.


The next excerpt from How not to Write a Novel will be in the August Magazine.

About How Not to Write a Novel

The first excerpt
The second excerpt
The third excerpt
The fourth excerpt
The fifth excerpt
The sixth excerpt
The seventh excerpt
The eighth excerpt
The ninth excerpt
The tenth excerpt
The eleventh excerpt
The twelfth excerpt


© David Armstrong 2003

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