I once stood with my son for forty-five minutes in a snaking line of parents and toddlers in order to get Francesca Simon to sign six “Horrid Henry” paperbacks. When we got back to the car, my son asked me who the lady was and I explained (for the twelfth time) that she was “the nice lady who wrote the stories.” He, frankly, didn’t give a fig and it transpired he had been expecting Miranda Richardson who had voiced the audio-books. Cue heaven-wards look of exasperation.
For a brief minute it looked like gardening was to become the new rock ‘n’ roll, but no, turned out it was writing and literature. All hail the rise and rise of The Literary Festival. They’ve sprung up all over the place (in much the same way as you can’t move in the summer for music festivals: find a farmer with a muddy field and you’re away). We rush to Cheltenham and Hay-on-Wye to hear our favourites reading from their latest tome, then spend twenty minutes in line for a quick greeting and a hallowed signature (and maybe even a photo on your mobile). And all the while you just know you could pick up the thing for half the price on Amazon. But, let’s face it, there is a certain credence, a certain (dare I say it) style in paying the full retail price and lugging that 400-page hardcover all the way to the front of the queue to obtain the authorial flourish
From the author’s point of view, selling books directly at a book-signing or literary event, yields a greater return than simply waiting for one’s publishing royalties to arrive in the post. Reading a few extracts, meeting the public and squiggling “all the best” for a half-hour is a better way of shifting units than hoping someone in Waterstone’s is going to pluck your offering from the shelf. This tactic is something that jobbing musicians have been employing for a while: folk artists have long followed a tradition of being “of the people” by communing with their audience to discuss Arran knitwear (only kidding) and to sign copies of their latest disc. In these days of Amazon and iTunes, it’s a personal touch that seems to resonate, judging by the number of acts that now take to the road surrounded by boxes of CDs and DVDs. Obviously, Bono is not going to stop for long round the back of Wembley Stadium to flog a few more copies of “The Joshua Tree” but in the world of normal, it’s a practice that has become commonplace.
Publishers are increasingly seeing the manifold opportunities in getting their charges in front of the paying public. Independent bookshops are often effectively invited to tender for book-signing appearances – a friend successfully “bid” for Charley Boorman to do a three-hour “meet and greet” in his shop and flavoured the shebang by arranging a “ride-through” (forgive me if this is an incorrect biking term) by the Oxford branch of the BMW Bikers Club. And it paid off too – he shifted over eighty books to a steady stream of customers (all signed by Charley) and received much welcome publicity from the whole event. So everybody goes home happy. It’s a win-win situation.
At this point in proceedings, as I merrily tap away, I’m sorely tempted to bang on a bit about how the likes of the Cheltenham Literary Festival increasingly appear to be relying on the pulling power of mainstream culture (television, film, sport, politics), to put bums on seats, rather than actual poets, authors or playwrights. Sorely tempted, but then I realised that I would be forced to instigate an argument with myself. It’s unlikely to be our nation’s finest authors attracting the longest queues, it will be the “celebrity writers,” those who have successfully plied their trade elsewhere and have gone back to write about it. Surely (I would say with a smug smile), the shedloads of fans who wait for hours to get Katie Price to autograph her new, ahem, novel, are not there because they think she’s a brilliant writer? But then I would have to confess my duplicity: Martin Jarvis signed three dog-eared “Just William” hardbacks one year that had been my Dad’s (well, I couldn’t get Richmal Crompton could I?) and my wife “did” Brenda Blethyn, Terry Jones and Leslie Phillips in two (expensive) days. Uh oh. Cue unsavoury incident between pot and black kettle.
So far, so what? Big deal. “Celebrity” will sell everything from books to game shows to fridges. And it’s a two-way street: Sue Cook, the journalist and former BBC television presenter (who in 2009 published her second novel “Force Of Nature” and is currently at work on her third), readily admitted that having been a “face” on television was undoubtedly helpful in securing her publishing deal. So is it the notion of celebrity we actually value? Are we getting our books signed because we like the written work or because we’d like to meet the writer?
Authors rapidly grew wise to the individuals who would arrive at the desk holding six or seven copies of the same book and ask for a signature with no message or named greeting – these were destined to be on eBay before the ink was dry – but publishers have not been adverse to maximising internet potential themselves: whenever there was a lull in proceedings, Charley Boorman happily signed extra copies that were earmarked to be sold over the internet and by mail order as collectibles. At a signing by Rita Marley (promoting her book about her life and marriage to Bob Marley), two rather-large security men prowled the line of expectant fans, informing us that Rita would not (and that was a very definite not) be signing anything other than copies of her book. This rather upset the plans of about 90% of the queue, judging by the number of album sleeves, tour posters and flags in abundance and frankly seemed a tad churlish, bearing in mind that she was surely only able to get the book published due to having lived and sung with one of the twentieth-century’s most important musicians. I wonder what would have happened if the entire queue had said “fair do” and gone down the pub instead. But of course the large men won; I and most others, duly paid £16-99 for the book, got it signed and kept our Wailers’ CD booklets in our pockets.
So I guess we’ll buy the books we want, for whatever reasons we want and, if the mood takes us, put the cream on the cake with an autograph. The price of a signature is whatever we choose to pay and it is generally a genuine pleasure to meet someone whose work you admire, be they author or television personality.
I was ever-so-pleased when my wife bought tickets to see Michael Palin reading extracts from the latest instalment of his autobiography at the Oxford Playhouse. I was even more-so-pleased to find out that our “special” ticket included an hour in The Green Room, where we would get to meet Michael; “we” turning out to be about fifty souls who’d paid “upwards” of the normal price for this privilege. Forty-nine normal people and one carrying a Tesco’s bag bulging with “Around The World..”, “Pole To Pole” et al and a Python book. My wife was not impressed. “Will you put that bag down,” she hissed repeatedly as we loitered self-consciously near the bar, pretending not to watch as Michael professionally “worked” the room. When he finally made his way to our neck of the woods, he was apologetic about how long he’d taken: “Sorry to keep you waiting” he said, smiling and perhaps noticing the large bag propped up on the bar. “Don’t worry,” I replied, “I once waited forty-five minutes for Francesca Simon….” Which is, I believe, where we came in.
Copyright owned by Nicholas John
This feature was first published in the Stow Times in 2011