I’ve been a bookseller for two and a half years, plus the three years I spent working in a bookshop on the weekends in high school, but I have absolutely nothing on my colleague Karin, who worked at Hatchards for four decades before coming to us at Heywood Hill. When Karin tells you a bookselling story, it’s a good idea to listen. One of my very favourite of her anecdotes concerns an author—she’ll never tell me his name, though I do know it was a man—who came to sign some stock. It was his second book, maybe; he wasn’t a huge celebrity, but he’d had some success. Throughout the signing, he was condescending, rude, and imperious to the bookshop staff (who, naturally, stewed in silence. You don’t generally get to snap back at people if you work in a shop, unless you’re the owner, and/or a living embodiment of Bernard Black.) At the end, somewhat incredibly—and, I imagine, not really believing he’d get an answer—he asked Karin for her best piece of advice for a working writer.
“Be nice to us,” she said. “Be nice to booksellers.”
He boggled, apparently. “Why?” he asked. “Booksellers don’t really matter. Everyone knows you only get sales from newspaper reviews anyway.” (This was before the days of social media, you’ll infer.)
“Look,” she said. And then she took all of his books—everything he’d just spent an hour signing—and she rearranged the display so that they were on the bottom shelf, tucked out of sight right by where a customer’s feet would be. “Do you honestly think,” she said, “that anyone is going to get down on their knees to look at that shelf? Maybe one customer in a hundred.” She didn’t add, Good luck making sales with an invisible book. She didn’t need to.
We’re not vindictive (usually), I promise. But it’s a salutary lesson: be nice to booksellers. The question is, how? How do you do that as an author, as opposed to a sales rep or a publicity director? How do you do that when you don’t necessarily get to decide whether to send the nice limited edition proofs, or to invite us to the launch party?
Mostly, I think, an author has a chance to show pleasantry when she comes in to sign. That’s how authors are most likely to come into contact with booksellers on their own terms. There are two sets of behaviour here: the essentials, and the nice-to-haves. The former, the essentials, are the actions you really must take. Most of them, hopefully, won’t be all that surprising, since they fall into the category of “how to behave in polite company” that is generally drilled into us all as children. The latter—the nice-to-haves—are the small, kind, personal things that various authors have done that still, even now, make me smile fondly when I think of them. And believe me, in an industry saturated with constant new releases and a permanent background buzz of publicity and hype, you really want booksellers to think of you, and to smile fondly when they do.
So, the basics:
- Shake everyone’s hand. Everyone’s; not just the shop manager or the senior bookseller, but literally every staff member you meet from the front door to the signing table. Look in their eyes. Smile at each one of them.
- Thank them for liking your book enough to ask you to sign. (Even if they didn’t like it, they reckoned they’d sell enough copies to risk not being able to return unsold signed ones to the publisher; that’s a mark of enormous trust.)
- If someone offers you a drink, either decline it gracefully, or accept it using a sentence that includes the words “thank you” somewhere.
- When the booksellers form a signing line, try not to get impatient if one of them fumbles handing a book to you, or if there’s an occasional pile-up. You’re all human, performing repetitive manual tasks is tiring, they’re not doing it to annoy you.
- Try to make small talk. We want to think of you as a rock star, a hero; you wrote a book and got it published, for God’s sake. Think about how you looked (or still look) at your heroes. Say something about the weather.
- Respond gracefully to compliments about the book.
- Sign a proof copy when a bookseller proffers it with embarrassed smile and slightly quavering voice.
- Try and remember everyone’s name until you’ve left the building. Shake everyone’s hand on the way out again, too.
So far, so good; you do all of that and you get proper display space with the little SIGNED BY THE AUTHOR belly-bands on all the copies of your lovely book.
(A quick, though non-comprehensive, list of Bad Signing Experiences I Have Known: the author who initiated a conversation about King Lear primarily to hear himself speak, who responded to my excited comment on a recent production I’d seen with a silent and indifferent stare. The author who fluttered into the shop all surface charm and blinding teeth, but who brushed off two booksellers who told her how excited they were about her book, how they were particularly interested in it because of their own backgrounds. The author who called to reschedule her signing twice and blamed her disorganization on having to accompany a disabled visiting friend around London, the heavy implication being that the disability of the friend was an irritating inconvenience with which she—the author—heroically put up.)
But then there are the nice-to-haves:
- A Booker Prize winner drawing a separate little doodle in each of his signed copies, telling us funny stories and commiserating about US politics, days before he won the prize.
- A Pulitzer Prize winner’s benevolent bafflement when faced with three young women in their twenties, all describing in detail our favourite bits of his book; it was as though he couldn’t quite understand why anyone would like it so much.
- A historical novelist whose debut I adored, chatting quite openly about the fear and exhaustion and sheer graft that went into her book, seven years in the making.
- An eminent historian telling us with great excitement—evidently unable to hold it in any longer—that he was going to be on the radio with Angelina Jolie.
- A crime writer who’s since gone on to enormous success, sipping a cup of tea and describing with pride and wonderment his wife’s first pregnancy.
- Every author who has ever responded with grace and humility to someone saying, “You have no idea what your book has meant to me.”
No one has to do any of this, of course. You only need to shake our hands, look into our eyes, remember our names, and thank us. We will thank you in return, and mean it. But a little gesture of more—even if that’s the common, and effective, bribery of something edible—we’ll remember that.
If we like your book, we’ll hand-sell it almost regardless of you, with the passionate glint of the faintly unhinged in our eyes. (Never ask a bookseller to recommend you something unless you want to see this glint, but if you do want to see it, what they say to you next might change your life.) But if we like your book, and you’ve come in and been kind? Been funny? Been interesting? Respected our work? We’ll move heaven and earth for it. The matter is in your hands.
Eleanor Franzén was born in America and spent her formative years in central Virginia. She is a dual citizen and has lived in England since 2010. In 2017, she landed at Heywood Hill Bookshop, where she is now a personal bookseller in the Subscriptions team. In 2017 she was a judge on the Young Writer Award shadow panel. She is also a part-time classical singer and has just finished her first novel, Hungry Generations, which is currently out on submission to agents.