I used to be a publisher. Not someone who worked for a big international corporation, mixing with bestselling authors, famous film, TV and sports personalities and their less glamorous ghostwriters, but an important part – or at least I liked to think so – of a one-man operation.
Aside from an army of authors, artists, freelance proof-readers, designers, printing and binding workers, packagers and distributors, independent sales reps and PR prats, I was The Do-Not Press. I battled fearlessly against the publishing and bookselling establishments for ten years before I finally fell, fatally wounded, in 2004. My Waterloo was the Compass Spring Sales Conference. (Don’t ask).
I only mention this, not because I’m about to relate a whole series of publishing horror stories, but because the experience scarred me and changed my book-buying habits for life. Even now, four years, four months and six days after our last book hit the shelves (or not) of Britain’s major bookshops, I cannot bring myself to buy a book from W.H. Smiths or Waterstone’s. (I’m a bit iffy about Blackwell’s, but that’s only because in 1966 Sir Basil Blackwell tried to prevent the UK publication of Last Exit to Brooklyn. I have a long memory).
Whenever I need a book and I’m in central London, I’ll walk past all the fancy Borders, Waterstone’s and whatever and head for Foyle’s in the Charing Cross Road. Disorganised, badly laid out and ineffecient as they might have been back then, (they’ve improved now), at least they stocked almost all of our books – and even sold a few.
Being an independent publisher of some panache, you’d have thought independent bookshops would have been keener than the chains to stock our toothsome output of contemporary fiction and suchlike. Not a bit of it. With a handful of notable exceptions – Newham Bookshop, Murder One, Foyle’s, Housman’s and Bookseller Crow, being the only ones that spring to mind – smaller bookshops tended to avoid us entirely. One even went as far as invoicing me for the fax paper I’d used up notifying him of an impending publication by a local author.
In my experience, most independent booksellers are pompous middle-class twits who are dead keen to stock mountains of what’s on the top of the bestseller charts but will not risk upsetting their clientele by having anything vaguely “interesting” in the building. “Oh, that’s very hard to get,” is a common put-down.
Buying online is even trickier for me. Amazon have everything I need, it’s usually cheaper there than anywhere else, and the service is invariably second to none. And yet I feel guilty about feeding money into a US corporation with a virtual worldwide monopoly. Silly, isn’t it?
I get around this by buying from The Book Depository, whenever I can. An independent British operation (sorry international readers), The Book Depository offers free delivery and prices that undercut even their obese American rival. Plus they push the product of independent British pubishing at every opportunity. Well done, I say.
The Do-Not Press website still gets 100 hits a day and is at http://www.thedonotpress.com
The Book Depository can be found at: http://www.thebookdepository.co.uk