Thursday, September 08, 2005

"What a geographical oddity this place is... two weeks from anywhere..."

Mes Amis

I've been thinking. About books. I mean that's nothing unusual but I've been thinking about how I buy books. Following a conversation at B'Con with a very well respected author where I think I almost insulted him (or at least confused him) by saying I couldn't find his books in the UK ("But I have a UK publisher!") I've been considering a few things.

You could probably buy the guy's books in London. And that counts as major UK sales because, lets face it, everyone in the UK lives in fuckin' London.

I now know you could buy them in Glasgow. But not exactly easily. And besides not every Scots person spends their whole fuckin' time there (I suppose its Scotland's London; if its not happening there, the media types believe it may as well not be happening anywhere)

As if to try and teach me a lesson, Ottakers in Dundee had one solitary copy of a book from his backlist when I went in yesterday. But this is unusual.

Other than that solitary book, which I might not have seen if I had not been in on the right day, but for the internet I wouldn't know about the guy. And that's a shame because he looks right up my alley. I mean, I have put it on the old pile of books to be read, but I checked out the first few pages and, man, I'm stoked to read this. And he's been up for and, at B'Con, won an award.

UK distribution for most books is appalling outside the larger cities. In Dundee we're lucky that Waterstones recently brought in three of the Bruen backlist but no one here knows who he is (I have started spreading the word, of course!). We have two major bookshops (Waterstones, Ottakers), a university bookshop, three "bargain" style bookstores and a brilliant second hand shop. And yet they all sell the same shit. Rankin prevails in the crime section. Grisham runs a close second. Authors who have a smallish, word-of-mouth buzz are granted one or two copies at best. Scottish Authors get a slightly better deal (Ottakers have Al Guthrie's TWS prominently displayed right now). But that's because they're Scottish and probably got major coverage in the Scotsman (you just have to be scots and preferably named McCall-Smith to get in there). We've even got Perth nearby and they're worse than us (forget the rumours about Perth having money; people with cash who claim to come from Perth generally live in the surrounding areas) with an incredibly underwhelming selection of books.

Look at it this way: we're lucky if we get three titles by Walter Mosely. Luckier still if we can get more than two JLB's and really cooking up a storm if we get, say, Stark or Willeford (Its happened a couple of times). Now, the booksellers are often lucky if they know who these guys are. After all, they're being made to push the biographies of Jordan and Jodi and probably, soon enough, the Hoff (who'll be able to give even those a run for their money in the big tits department). Ottakers is a little better than the big W, but with the big W set to horn in on Ottakers I'm getting worried. You see, I could order a lot more books off the internet, but I like to physically pick up a book before I buy it. Its an odd thing. I like to see it, feel it, take a gander at the first few pages. Reading "inside the book" on Amazon is no substitute. But its harder and harder to do because wee places like Dundee are ignored by distributors. The shops in the larger cities can take a chance on authors that might not do so well for them as, say, Grisham, Rankin, Slaughter, Reichs and Kellerman (who sells amazingly well in Dundee). But in smaller cities, faced with the horrific regimen of the modern bookselling giant (who are starting to increasingly model themselves after Tescos, selling only books they know will shift in certain quantities, not waiting for word of mouth to take over on certain titles), less risks are pursued, smaller publishers are shafted (I can't think of the last No Exit or Do Not title I found on the shelves here that wasn't Bruen's Last Call to Louis MacNiece bundled at the back of Waterstone's increasingly paltry crime section).

Ottakers claim they want to be about the readers and, even in Dundee, they've been known to get in a few less well known or more risky titles. But the point remains: having a book out in the UK probably means you'll see it on the shelves in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and that's about it. I don't think the situation in Dundee is unique, sadly, and I do hope that Ottakers regains its strength because if they fall under the umberella of the increasingly corporate W-Lads, I cannot imagine what the book distribution situation will be like. There is a lack of independent sellers in the UK, or at least in this part of Scotland. Where are the people who champion the books they love? Some of them work for the big stores, sure, but they're bound by margins and all that other shit. They're bound by what they're told will sell. And Jordan's biography does sell. By the bucketload. But I bet you'd get in the real bookbuyers again if you just sold some real books.

Anyway, I don't have no solution to this. Its just something that annoys me. I feel when I walk into a bookstore these days I've read everything there. At B'Con in the dealer's room, I was filled with excitement; I wanted to buy ninety percent of the stock (and I almost did).

But, hey, maybe its my fault for living in a place like this. Maybe Dundonians, maybe they just don't like to read.

Au revoir



Sarah said...

A propos of v. little, have you read Carol Anne Davis's books? She's another Dundonian, and jesus, are her books noir as they get. If you haven't, you must.

Russel said...


I've read her true crime works but not her fiction. I intend to check it out, though. I love her true crime stuff and have a feeling she'll be very good at dealing with the darkness. Again, though, I can't even find her work in her home town!

Al said...

I was just saying this afternoon that what Scotland needed was a crime bookstore. It's the kind of independent that would flourish here.

Aldo said...

OK, I'm looking for an investment opportunity. Any partners? Besides, I could write off the air travels from LA to you guys.


Ray said...

Scotland definitely needs a crime bookstore. That's a given. And with HMV apparently poised to take over Ottakars, a bookstore I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of until relatively recently (we don't have one in Newcastle - we have 2 Waterstones about two minutes away from each other), it would appear that another chain that could do something a bit interesting will bite the dust.

What we need, gents, is a huge cash advance for El Badgerino so he can open one. I'd gladly work in it.

Russel said...

I wish I was the guy to do it, but after having dipped my toes in the waters (its how Crime Scene got started) I know I'm not. We need someone cash savvy to get the actual business going and then the ideas people (now there I could help out a little!) to keep it going. But I feel that at least I tried and that someone with a bit more nous than I could take the idea and run with it. Not even neccesarily a crime shop, just a *good* bookshop where the idea is not just to shift bestsellers but to create word of mouth about decent books, too.

As to Ottakers, Ray: they're great. I mean, they're still conservative and a bit of a chain, but they try. I met one of the high heedjuns at Harrogate and he was so enthusiastic about books it was wonderful. They also sponsored the festival, something I doubt you'd see the big W do, at least not out of the goodness of its stone-cold heart. I didn't realise they were in any kind of trouble from that meeting, though.

Charlie Williams said...

Ottakars in Worcester have been the only shop in that town (my home town) to support my books. They did a book launch for Deadfolk there, let me sign books when I go in, leave beermats etc... (Actually they probably all hide when I come in.) Anyway... point is, they found a local author and gave a shit about it, whereas the "other place" did not.

Oh, and they have a MUCH bigger crime section that the other place.

But alas, it is all likely to be lost.

Russel said...

Our local Ottakers is moving locations at the moment. Should be re-opening next week at some point. Looks like bigger premises which is good.

But, yes, "the other place" is really poor for supporting writers/readers etc. It always seems to be Ottakers who get involved in sponsoring events etc (Like, of course, the Harrogate festival and even, iirc, Richard and Judy's wee bookclub).

I don't know whether W's bid was succesful. But I really hope whatever happens, Ottakers can keep up their support of writers/publishers/readers etc. But with HMV in charge, all that is sadly, likely, to be lost.

Anonymous said...

I feel I should apologise for Dublin airport but as they treat me like shite too, I cant.
Todd, the Thug lit guy said of you........There's a great dude and I fully endorse that
Ken Bruen

that girl said...

I'm gonna chip in. I live in Glasgow and tend to haunt the aisles of Borders, ottakers and Waterstones- And they're all shit too. I had badgerman on my mobile in borders, giving me recommendations for books I might like and i think they only had like 2 authors out of the many , many that badgerman suggested. Still I found 'Cold Granite' which rocked.Even though I was breaking my rule about not buying anything with a Rankin mention on the cover.