After the conflicting claims about the way in which Waterstone's deals with literary fiction not backed by big marketing budgets (see Stuart Jeffries versus Waterstone's MD Gerry Johnson and writer and Waterstone's employee Sara Crowley), it's been a bit hard to know what to believe. So, for what it's worth, here's my own experience of visiting branches of the chain bookshops in central London this week, and asking if they would order my new novel, Too Many Magpies (published by independent Salt which doesn't have the resources for big marketing budgets).
Borders, Charing Cross Road. I set foot in this shop with a sinking heart: it doesn't really look like a book shop, more like a W H Smith's, a big gift shop, basically. I approach the information desk with my book and a sheet of information about it, and ask if I can speak to the relevant person. I am given the immediate and unequivocal answer that I need to ring Head Office and swiftly handed the number. I leave the shop, efficiently dispatched.
Foyles. Now this should be more promising: after all, Salt have done a reading here in which I took part. At the information desk I am told by a rakish-looking young man with a beard that the fiction buyer is not available, and I should email him for an appointment. I explain that I'm only in London that day (Tuesday) and the next, and am told that I should still email him and ask for an appointment next day. He adds that this is a very busy period, Christmas. I'm pretty sure I'm being cynically fobbed off, but for the sake of thoroughness, I repair to a cafe and do so. Now, at the time of writing, it's late on Thursday, and I have still had no reply, and of course I am back in Manchester.
Blackwell's, Charing Cross Road. The academic bookshop which you might expect to be interested in serious literature - although of course they probably rely on the academic rather than the general market. This time I can actually speak to the fiction buyer, a nice bearded young man. He hears my spiel, he looks at my book and the information sheet, and the review quotes for my story collection on the back cover. He looks very embarrassed. He is silent. He bites his lip. He says, 'Er...' He is silent once more then he says: 'But will you be getting broadsheet reviews for this?' I say, 'Well, it's certainly been sent out to them for review!' But of course we both know how difficult it is to get reviews nowadays, and the unspoken knowledge swells between us. He starts to go red. He looks as though he'd rather die than be dealing with this. I feel tremendously sorry for him. He bites his lip again, and then he shakes his head. 'I'm sorry,' he says - and I can see he really is - 'but it's so difficult to sell anything that hasn't already had broadsheet reviews.' And that's it. He can't stock my book.
Now 7 branches of Waterstone's:
Waterstone's Trafalgar Square. I'm feeling pretty cynical as I enter this branch, which I imagine caters to passing rather than serious literary trade. But when I speak to Stephen on the front desk, he turns out to be not only one of the fiction buyers, but to know all about Salt, to be really interested in the fact that they have now published a novel (my book), and in my book, and orders two copies on the spot! Wow! Thank you, Stephen!
Waterstone's Gower Street. Once again the first bookseller I speak to, Verona, turns out to be a fiction buyer and orders a copy of my novel there and then. Double wow! This Waterstone's also has a 'small press' section, I notice, in which books by Dedalus and another small press are given a magnificent display. Thank you, Verona!
Waterstone's Covent Garden. Triple wow! Without any ado Gabie, the knowledgable-looking woman on the front desk, orders a copy of my book as I stand there! Thank you, Gabie.
It's the end of the day now and I finish on a high and I'm back in love with Waterstone's.
Waterstone's Oxford Street Plaza. Next day here in the retail heart of London my renewed affection is perhaps inevitably in for a bit of knock. This is a far more commercial-looking branch, 'Best sellers' flagged like mad at the entrance. I must say, though, that the young man I speak to is wonderfully attentive and enthusiastic: he insists on taking me upstairs to the fiction buyer, and all the way up the escalator he asks me about the book and takes it in his hands and strokes it and seems mightily interested and impressed. He introduces me to the fiction buyer and stands by waiting. She is an extremely polite young woman, who tells me most pleasantly but briskly that at this time of the year unless I am a local author or the book has a specifically London connection, they are unable to take it as they can't give it the profile it requires, with face-out displays and Staff Recommends. I say that I wouldn't necessarily expect the book to be given a high-profile treatment, but she insists on her point, perhaps understandably, and says that now, in the run up to Christmas, all the Staff Recommends are hardback (my book is a paperback). Maybe I'm being unfair, but now I'm getting the feeling I'm being fobbed off. She does take my information sheet and tells me that in the New Year they'll perhaps look at the possibility again. And the young man insists on taking me downstairs again and all the way to the front door, with almost ostentatious solicitousness, and, maybe I'm completely wrong, but I can't get rid of the feeling that they saw me coming (or at least read my statement on the web that I was coming).
Waterstone's Oxford Street West. This branch is if anything even more commercial. I speak to a young woman who says the fiction buyer has just popped out, she'll go and check. I can hear her reporting my request to a man who comes back and tells me that there are no fiction buyers in the shop today. He says he'll pass my information sheet on to them, and I'm out of the shop in five minutes flat with the complete certainty that nothing will come of it.
Waterstone's Piccadilly. Here in Waterstone's flagship store is the first table I have come across dedicated to collections of single-author short stories, but as far as I can see (in my by now worn-out state), they are all by well-known or classic authors in editions from mainstream publishers (which would appear to make Brighton Waterstone's, with its specialist short story section, something of an exception). The person I speak to is the crime buyer, who says he will deal with me because the general fiction buyer is busy and not available. He looks doubtful. I push my spiel. I point out my nice comment (re my short stories) from ex-Waterstone's Scott Pack. He says, in such a mumble that I have to ask him to repeat it, that they only deal with official reps from publishing houses. I explain that my publishing house doesn't have the resources for an official rep, and then get the feeling that I've thereby condemned myself and my publisher anyway. He takes my information sheet to pass on, but once again it doesn't look in the least promising.
Waterstone's High Holborn. This is the last shop on my list. It's late in the day, dark, I'm exhausted and hungry - I didn't have lunch - and it's a long trek up to High Holborn from Piccadilly. Is it worth it, when Waterstone's has been so disappointing today? But me, I'm like a dog with a bone, I've got to finish this job. I set off for High Holborn. When I get there I find the branch is tiny. The fiction section is miniscule. I say to the young man at the desk: 'Is that your whole fiction section?' Yes, he tells me. 'Well,' I say, hardened and cynical now, 'then there's probably no point my asking if you'll stock my new novel.' He says he'll go and ask James. James comes up. James instantly hits the buttons and orders three copies of my book. I nearly fall off my blistered feet to the floor. Thank you, thank you, James!
Hatchard's, Piccadilly. Before leaving Piccadilly I turned into Hatchard's (owned, like Waterstone's, by HMV). Oh, wow. Here it was, a truly traditional bookshop, oozing the glamour of intellect and of tradition and modernity in collision which I have always associated with bookshops, and for which I think we're all in mourning. Downstairs in the fiction section which was hushed with a kind of lush intellectual expectancy, Margot received me and my book with warm enthusiasm and ordered four copies, the biggest order of all, and told me that she will give it attention and display it face out. Thank you, thank you, Margot.
So what can be concluded? If my experience is anything to go by, the other big chains are a dead loss for no-budget literary fiction, but Hatchard's and some, though not all, of the Waterstone's branches are great. And that Waterstone's just can't be characterized by any single one of its variable branches.
And, for the sake now purely of promotion, here are the branches where I know my new novel is available:
Hatchard's Piccadilly and Waterstone's in Brighton (Thank you Sara!), Trafalgar Square, Gower Street, Covent Garden and High Holborn.