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Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Wizard of Books

My blog usually features writers, but I thought my readers might also be interested in hearing from someone who knows about the other end of the book chain. Peter Snell, an independent bookseller in my local town, Leatherhead, in Surrey, immediately came to mind. His specialities are a warm welcome for every customer, great service, the benefit of a knowledge of books he's been a lifetime acquiring and, last but not least, a mean chocolate cake on book signing days. How could I compete? After a few questions to spark off his ideas, I handed the blog over to him. This is the result:
Harriet asked me how I ended up as a bookseller. I have always been an avid reader and cannot remember learning to read. I do know that I could read The Times before I went to school. My working life was spent in the Insurance industry, covering marine, household, mortgages and pensions. I was also a teacher and worked for IBM. A period of major illness meant I had to start again and slowly fought my way back to health working ever-increasing hours in Corbett's Bookshop in Leatherhead until I ended up as the manager. My wife then bought the business, which I now run for her as Barton's Bookshop. 
My degree in History and time with IBM taught me invaluable database and research skills, which I can use when hunting down a half-remembered title for a customer. My wide-ranging reading over many years has made me into a passable generalist, rather than a specialist in any one field. This is incredibly useful when it comes to identifying just what a customer hopes to get from a particular book.
Apart from knowledge and research skills another difficulty for a bookseller is deciding just what books to have in stock. Obviously some will be very cheap and on special offer from online sources, national book-selling chains and supermarkets. Most of these titles will be best-sellers and are often cheaper for the public to buy from multiples and online than for me to purchase from trade wholesalers and distributors. Counter-intuitively, therefore, I do not tend to stock many of these titles. I feel that one of the roles of independents is to find and nurture new authors and I have a couple of strategies to further this end.  
I have gone through phases of reading different styles and genres over the years but now, apart from favourites like Tolkien, Douglas Adams and Lawrence's “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, which I re-read every few years, I have largely surrender my own choice in reading matter to the market.  I am supplied by publishers with review or proof copies of books three, six or even nine months ahead of publication. I do try to read as many of these as possible and can still manage four to five books a week. This enables me to identify books and authors I can recommend across a diverse range of styles and genres.
 One huge change to have hit the book world in recent years is the massive rise in self-publishing. Whilst ten years ago this was largely dismissed as “vanity publishing” that is now far from the truth. Some mainstream and previously conventionally published authors are producing self-published works. Many new authors have decided to take control of their own books and have pursued a huge variety of self-publishing models.
Some of the best reads I have had in recent years are from indie authors and I am happy to promote their books. Probably the best advice I can give to anyone thinking of self-publishing would be to discuss it with those who have already done it. There are blogs and advice pages online. If you want some contacts just ask me and I can put you in touch with others who have trodden this path with success and who are happy to pass on their lists of hard acquired do's and don'ts.
One of Harriet’s questions was what (if anything) is the single most important thing that attracts buyers to a book. My simple answer would be a trusted recommendation. However, the cover is vital. I know one author with two linked historical novels set in Roman times. One has a fantastic jacket and sells because of the promise of what is within. The second book, just as well written and just as good a read sits sadly on the shelf because of the uninspired jacket design. People do judge a book by its cover.
The great advantage of independent bookshops for customers lies mainly in the booksellers who are committed to finding the right book for you, based upon the sort of skills and knowledge I have outlined above. Parents will bring in non-reading children with a request for help. A prolonged chat enables me to hand-pick a few books for the young person to consider. If after reading the first page, or just a few sentences they reject a title this helps me refine my criteria and enables me to select engaging books... I don't like every book I try and read ( but I often find a second go is worthwhile when I am in a different mood and more susceptible to the volume in question)and I am a firm believer that those who are not readers simply haven't yet found the right books and authors for themselves.

If you want to talk, touch, feel, choose, smell or buy books do come and see me sometime.
Peter, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with readers; I’m sure they’ll find them as interesting as I have.
 (If anyone has any questions or comments for Peter, I’d be happy to pass them on and if you're ever near Leatherhead, why not drop in and experience a bit of Barton's magic for yourself?) 

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