Are The Days Of Bookshop Readings Ending?


david front1

There was a time when it was very common for the bigger UK authors to tour American bookshops. Over here I spent part of every year touring UK bookstores giving talks, conducting Q&As and signing, but never got offered a US tour. Knowing you can’t pull a big crowd certainly stops you from getting a big head.

Around five years ago the American PA book tour circuit started developing holes. Then much of it dried up completely. Now, very few UK authors do tours in the US. They say what happens there happens here five years later, and lo, it is coming to pass. This year, Norwich, usually a reliable indicator of the reading public, failed to sell enough tickets for me to attend. Other writers have found events under-attended too. We’re still selling books, it’s just that people don’t necessarily want to sit and listen to an author talk.

And yet, as with all other branches of the arts, the superstars remain capable of filling halls. JK Rowling brings kids, Brett Easton Ellis brings out old punks, writer/TV presenters like Simon Schama and Mary Beard can instantly fill halls. If you’ve been on TV you can always bring in punters just because of the ‘Oooh look, it’s her/him in the flesh!’ brigade.

So where does that leave writers who just write books? Well, we can read via online videos or we can conduct blog tours. Or we can visit less obvious venues, like the superb David’s bookshop in Letchworth, Herts, where I received a wonderfully warm welcome from the staff and guests, bought a ton of books and had a great time. So there are still catchment areas that make it work. It helped that David’s is laid out so seductively that I would defy you not to leave without buying a book.

But audience ages are definitely on the rise; it’s very rare to see young faces in the crowd now unless you’ve written YA or children’s books. Could it be that older people have more elongated attention spans? Or simply more time on their hands? Last night one lady confided that she had read 18 books last month alone. I wanted to hug her.

I’m a book obsessive, but I know I’m not alone. Now more than ever it seems like good value for money and a wonderful way to spend your life – in the calm, cogitative company of words.

17 comments on “Are The Days Of Bookshop Readings Ending?”

  1. Jan says:

    Do you ever wonder what the magic of people being on the telly and then seeing them in the flesh is REALLY about? Is it just as simple as that magicked from tube to life or is there something else happening?

    I think there might be something worth pondering there but as i’ve just written a short novel on your previous post am not going to hang about.

    I wonder WHY folk want to see film and tv faces for real?

  2. Jo W says:

    Jan, I haven’t the foggiest idea why some people want to see ‘him/her off the telly/film’ ,they must be that sort of person. You know,the ones that take selfies with a ‘celebrity’ or even believe anything told to them in an advertisement.
    I am a person who can be walking around the streets of London and see the face of someone and then spend the rest of the day trying to think where I might have seen or met them before. It can sometimes be a couple of days before the penny drops.
    If famous people want anonymity, I’m the one to hand it to them. 🙂

  3. Ness says:

    I served Geoffrey Rush just after he had won the Oscar for Shine. No one else knew who he was. I did, but I also chose to hand him some anonymity. It’s why Australia is famous for tall poppy syndrome.

    I’ve dealt with a lot of soapy and drama stars. When they resort to “don’t you know who I am?” I choose not to, especially to those behaving badly. The real stars would never behave so needily.

    I love writer’s festivals because I like to hear the voices of writers. I don’t want to hear about the process, just get a small insight into why they keep writing. Now I am a redundant librarian, replaced by self checkouts I still love books and enjoy the company of words. If we all looked up from our emojis and emoticons occasionally the world would be a happier place.

  4. Colin says:

    I have always found them very interesting, the Q&A especially.
    I remember going to one with a well know crime writer who really belittled a teenager who attended and asked a question, merely because the answer was in one of his books.
    I remember thinking it will put him off going again.

  5. Jan says:

    Oh Ness didn’t know you were a librarian (now a librarian at leisure) that’s what I wanted to be but I only got C.S.E. grade 3 French! That was lovely what you said about hearing the voices of authors.

    I dunno what it is but loads of people want to see a telly face. When the bloke who was Jack Duckworth in Coronation Street (William Tarmey?) opened a bed shop in Wealdstone Middlesex it was practically a riot. A very lively afternoon was had by all – women of a certain age turned out in great numbers. Lots of frightened young bobbies realised that as the actor was being kept out of harms way the focus of these ladies turned on them. Very comical.

    I suppose regional panto is what keeps the soapstars of yesteryear going. The telly face being a powerful draw.

    It’s probably nothing at all what draws people to telly faces but it’s a pretty powerful nothing at all.

  6. Karen Jackson says:

    I’m not far from Letchworth, so I think I’ll have to pay a visit soon.
    There is or was a second hand bookshop in Brentwood about 10 years ago that was amazing. Books filled every space in a health and safety hellish nightmare. They didn’t have a phone. The owner used to only handle enquires by post I do hope it’s still around.

  7. Steveb says:

    I grew up in Norwich!
    In Frankfurt in Hugendubel the author appearances are free. I was quite surprised to read the the UK shops sell tickets.

  8. snowy says:

    I could wax on [and on and on and on] about all the difficulties of running these sort of events, but it would be more interesting to hear from other members of the commentariat; about their experiences. [There must be lots of you, lurking about.]

    Particularly the problems they had getting the events running and why they eventually give up.

    And also from those people that like ‘the idea’ of going to such things, but never actually get round to it. What gets in the way? [Don’t feel your answer has to be a well constructed essay, a laundry list of reasons will be just as illuminating and take less time.]

  9. Helen Martin says:

    The Writers and Readers Festival should be about ready to start here. There is a printed schedule so you can order tickets and the crowds are usually pretty good. It is planned to occur during the week when all the schools have a professional day so they can attend (without teachers). That day always has experimental poets and the older teens crowd it.
    My son had read a book by an Australian author who was visiting our library. A librarian cornered him to see if he was planning on hearing the reading and persuaded him to go so there would be at least one kid. (Sutherland, Southlands?) A writer of sea stories with one name for his Napoleonic stories and a different one for his WWII ones was appearing at a North Vancouver book store. I wanted a gift for my dad and thought it would be nice to have an autographed copy. There wasn’t anyone else while we were there. If I’d been organising either of those events I’d have been tearing out my hair.
    I had a few authors visit our school to mixed results. Local writers who wrote for the under tens went over fine and all the teachers brought their classes to hear and see them. The kids loved discovering that their books were written by real live people. With the older grades teachers weren’t as likely to bring classes if they weren’t familiar with the books. (The idea of introducing their class to a new author didn’t seem to make sense, apparently.) The 9-12 year olds still found it interesting to meet a “real” author and sometimes had very good questions for them. Sometimes they just sat with mouths hanging open, sometimes they wanted to know what being an author really meant. That is what is behind those “where do you get your ideas?” questions. I found I was usually rushing a bit at the beginning making sure the person had a comfortable chair, a good light, a respectful reception, and a good cup of tea in a nice cup and saucer. I made sure I had a runner available to make sure classes arrived on time because we often did two or more separate sessions to make it a little friendlier.
    That is a different sort of event because it is a captive audience but providing copies of their books for teachers to show their classes ahead of time made a lot of difference in increasing interest in the audiences.
    The CBC sponsors author sessions sometimes and those are well attended because they happen as part of the book programs so audiences are ready to come.
    “Commentariat” is a perfect word. It doesn’t have an E at the end, does it?

  10. Ken Mann says:

    I love readings and would attend more if I could. Hearing Susanna Clarke reading extra footnotes to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was particularly enjoyable (later published in Ladies of Grace Adieu). For some deceased authors I feel grateful to have had the chance to hear them – some voices I hear in my head when I read their work, others not. It may work better for genre fiction but I’ve not idea why that should be the case (if it is).

  11. keith page says:

    Nice to see an interesting alternative to the ubiquitous Waterstones.Pity there aren’t more like this one.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    In the late 1980’s, I worked in a tiny bookshop in Ripon, North Yorkshire. We sold a lot of specialist books – Architecture, History, etc., which we did have a market for. We sold a lot of small press, and short run books, too, and we had a very good order service. Our shop was in sight of the Cathedral, on Kirkgate, if anyone knows Ripon. Up on the Market Square, a new branch of WH Smiths opened. I was in our shop, when a lady came in, and said to me: “You might like to look in the new Smiths on your lunch break – you’ll be surprised.” I did look, and how strange! There was a chainstore selling all the niche items we did, so people didn’t have to go all the way to the end of town to get their books. A year later, when our shop had gone the way of the dinosaurs, did they still stock any small press or limited run items? Guess.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, that market building technique I equate to corporate assassination.

  14. SimonB says:

    For me it is partly a time thing – most events I have seen are at or just after the end of the working day and then have the awkward choices of whether to leave work early, nip home to eat and then come back into town; try to find somewhere to eat near the venue before/after or whatever. And of course whether I can face it after a day at the office.

    The only author events I have visited in recent years were definitely worth the effort though. One was a local author (Paddy Heazell) discussing his recent book about Orford Ness so fascinating to be able to discuss something I had a bit of knowledge about already. That was in a Waterstones. The other was with Sophie Neville – actress and author talking about her role in the 1974 Swallows and Amazons film and her book about making it plus screening and signing. Again, fascinating and a lovely experience (and she now follows me on Instagram!).

    It is odd – I work in Ipswich where we have Waterstones and WH Smiths plus the supermarkets, but live in Felixstowe which has an indie, two second hand bookshops, Smiths and a lively literary scene with a book festival in its 3rd or 4th year. This is bringing ever more “name” authors to come and talk, just nobody I have wanted to see as yet. Given the sizes of the towns you would think this would be the other way round. Maybe small towns are more conducive to getting people involved.

    Oh, and I used to live in Wlewyn Garden City and visited Letchworth regularly, another thumbs up for David’s from me.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Simon B – I love the second hand bookshop in Felixstowe – it’s a real TARDIS of a shop. It wanders delightfully onward, ever onward. My late mother was always amused by it’s proximity to Felixstowe’s library, and often wondered if perhaps… But for bibliophiles, it’s very harmful on the wallet. I went in there once to collect a book I’d ordered, costing about a fiver, and, whilst wandering around, found a pile of exquisitely produced, and horrendously desireable Japanese ‘Bookazines’ covering the work of the brilliant Gerry (Thunderbirds) Anderson. I had to have them. Fifty quid, cheers. Not the first time that’s happened to me, and I fear it will not be the last.

  16. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – it was simply devastating. It ruined my life, as I’d moved there to work for my friends, and it ruined their lives as they had sunk a lot of money into it. I had to return home, as, at the time, there wasn’t a lot of work about. That was my favourite job, period. I met lots of nice and interesting people, and I was surrounded by ideas made flesh, which is how I’ve always thought of books. On returning home, I went into possibly, no, definitely the worst job ever – The Tax Office (don’t judge me!). Grey offices full of grey people, doing grey things. I knocked that on the head and went to work in a warehouse. Dirty, noisy, and I loved it. Would I work in a book shop again? Oh, god, yes.

  17. Paul Wallace says:

    Thanks for the plug, Christopher, and for such a lovely event. On the subject of running events I would just make the point that getting an audience isn’t as simple as whether the author is a “name” or not. Niche is good, and local networking is important.
    And are you sure you defy people not to leave without buying a book?
    Thanks again and hope to see you up here soon!

Comments are closed.