How to help save your local bookshop by looking like an idiot
"See you again next year," the bookseller said, "if Amazon hasn't done for us by then."
It was the last event on my publicity tour of the Wales/England border for the new novel which, like most of them, is set in that general area. I did signings at bookshops from Abergavenny to Oswestry, some very encouraging, one a bit disappointing but, as usual, they all added up to an enlightening experience.
Since last year, one of the regular shops had shut down and a new one had opened - but for how long? Nobody feels secure any more in the book business, which is currently changing faster than any comparable industry.
The usual story is that small independent bookshops are being badly hit by the chains and their special offers - three for two, buy-one-get-one-half-price, etc. But things are not so good for the chains either. I spent two hours in a branch of Waterstones and watched people come in, scrutinize a couple of books and leave without buying anything - possibly to go home and compare prices with Amazon, the internet giant.
All the vowels in Amazon make it a difficult word actually to spit out, which probably annoys high street booksellers no end, and you can only sympathise. My hardback novel, like lots of others, is currently selling at almost half-price on Amazon, which no high street bookseller has been able to match.
And if you want to buy it electronically for your Kindle e-reader, it will cost you just over a third of the full retail price of £18.99... and you can have it sent to your Kindle inside a minute.
Of course a Kindle edition is, essentially, worthless. It has no second-hand value and it's difficult to give as a present. You don't even really own it and Amazon, in theory, could wipe it from your device in seconds. But it's still catching on big time, with thousands sold every week, and could, in theory, eliminate the book - particularly the novel - and therefore destroy every bookshop in the country.
There are, at present, however, still a large majority of readers who find the actual book more sexy than this fairly prosaic-looking bit of kit. And if you want to buy the actual book and get it today, the high street is still the answer.
That's not much of an advantage, though, is it? Which is why booksellers are considering their options - one of which includes more contact with actual authors than they've ever had before. There was a time when, unless you were a serious Name, bookshop owners would peer at you contemptuously over their half-glasses and put on rubber gloves before handling your work. Now they regard you as a potential saviour.
Not that Names aren't still important. The Local Celeb is the first person to be drafted into the war against the net. Only Fools And Horses and Green Green Grass star John Challis lives close to the Powys border, and his local shop currently has a window devoted to his book, Being Boycie, which includes Marlene-style leopardskin and a bottle of Peckham Spring water. On a good day, you might even spot the man himself as he slips in, with that familiar furtive smirk, to sign a few more copies for stock.
But you don't actually have to be famous these days to get recruited. You don't even have to be local. One independent bookseller told me how his shop had adopted a guy who'd self-published his first children's book. Even though he wasn't local, they thought the book was really inventive, put on a big display and spread the word to every customer. Eventually they had kids queuing round the block to meet the author... who soon acquired a real publisher.
The high street's other weapon is the The Signed Copy. A couple of years ago, the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood launched what was known as The Long Pen - a device for signing books online, which has never really caught on like The Old Felt Tip. So authors are hitting the road as never before to provide what Amazon can't offer - a squiggle which can make a book into a collector's item.
One day a few weeks ago, I crossed the Welsh border six times, eventually arriving at a bookstore with a coffee shop (something else you can't experience online) to find rows of chairs set out, mainly for customers who'd never heard of me. I had one hour to sell the book to people already softened up by the promise of tea and cakes and a book that might actually escalate in value.
The downside of an exercise like this is that your new fans all have cameras, and you'll wind up on the net looking like an idiot.
Looking like an idiot (again)... Phil Rickman with fans at a recent book-signing
But it can seriously swell your ego, if not your wallet, when, as I did last week, you walk into a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye to find one of your signed first editions on sale for (swear to God) £650!
I pointed out to the manager that I had a couple more at home which I'd be happy to sign and sell to the shop owner for only £300 each.
'He'll offer me a tenner won't he?' I said.
She nodded grimly.