I have just received my copy of 'The Bookseller' where the cover promotion highlights a book being published in April called 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops'.
Having had my share of misunderstandings and miscommunications in Browsers, this will undoubtedly touch a chord, not least because I wish I'd come up with the idea. I'll have to wait a few months to read the gems but I will use the interim to contemplate and collate my own experiences.
Just the other day a young woman came into the children's bookshop apologetically asking if I had a book called 'Normal is love in a silly shell'. "I've been given this title but it doesn't sound right," she said. Indeed it didn't but I thought perhaps it was a self-help tome and these often have quirky titles. I didn't want to quiz her too much initially as she was obviously quite embarrassed. But I had to ask her to repeat the title three times to be sure I had all the components correct for the search which wasn't offering anything along these lines. Eventually I heard her correctly. And the clue was that she had come into the children's bookshop: she was asking for 'Norman the Slug with a Silly Shell', a picture book by Sue Hendra.
A few days later, my colleague took a telephone query to source a 'Pastoral Bible'. She searched and searched and discovered a Pastoral Bible institute and foundation, and Catholic and Chinese versions, but no one edition to recommend to the customer. She decided to call the customer back to ask for more details. A couple of minutes into the conversation she started laughing - the customer was actually enquiring after a cookery book, 'The Pasta Bible'.
Publishers have always relied on booksellers to display, promote and recommend their titles. Today's technology, though, means the business is no longer about the physical book. According to Faber CEO, Stephen Page, it is instead about reading and writing. And the new task is to narrow the gap between the reader and the story.
Most book purchases have been mediated through another person, says Anobii CEO Matteo Berlucchi. The content is something people want to talk about and now publishers need to harness the conversation.
A recent conference on e-publishing speculated on what form this conversation will take. Perhaps the future will see readers offered rewards for finishing a book, it was suggested. And the big brand authors will be exploited to an unprecedented level. Publishers will need to work across every platform to reach the reader and to make the writer into something much more than they could be by themselves.
The possibilities are endless and, while exciting, also rather overwhelming. Where will we go for trusted recommendations? How will publishers overcome their commercial goals to enter into a valued relationship with the reader? What more do we want from the author and book? How will all this 'noise' of conversation sit with the personal, private and solitary act of engaging with a text, a story?
This year's Booker winner by Julian Barnes may have been a slim volume and much trumpeted by readers and reviewers, but I wasn't drawn to read it. It possessed, for me, a nondescript cover, and the blurb failed to capture my imagination. Only when the shop's last copy was passing through my hands did I think I should cut through my reservations and become better informed. I quickly skimmed through the opening pages before passing back to the customer. It didn't grip me so, when the book came back in stock, I still didn't read it.
A friend insisted I borrow her copy. It sat on my bedside pile for some days. Eventually I picked it up and was surprised to find those first few pages were more interesting this time round. Unfortunately, my enjoyment was shortlived.
I am never particularly drawn to the angst of a middle-aged, middle class man, and I didn't like any of the other characters either. The narrator reminded me of Engleby in the book by Sebastian Faulks. The reader never knew whether Engleby was telling the truth, nor did we know his motives or capability, and ultimately he proved a deeply troubling individual. Yet he was fascinating. Barnes's narrator left me feeling tainted, slightly dirty, irritated and rather bored by his preoccupations.
I'm concerned at my response to the book. I don't think I've seen anything negative written about it, and customers and friends seem to have enjoyed it tremendously. I'd read it again to be sure of my response - perhaps I just wasn't in a happy place when I was reading it - but there are so many other books I haven't tried...
For the past few years my father has wanted to give me a Kindle. He knows I love reading, so this seemed, to him, to be the ideal present. I resisted though, believing I needed to stand firm and loyal to the book.
Last week I was fortunate in being able to spend time with the author Sally Gardner. She was wonderful company and seemed to be someone who lived life to the full and grasped every opportunity. She admitted to having bought a number of e-readers, wanting to try them out at each stage of their development. She talked of their benefits and their weaknesses. And when we discussed our leisure time and both exclaimed about the wonders of radio over television, I had that lightbulb moment. Now was the time for me to ask for a Kindle for Christmas!
Reading the newspaper on Sunday, my decision was confirmed. An article in the New York Times reported how parents, converted to e-books themselves, still insisted their children read physical, old-fashioned books. "It's intimacy, the intimacy of reading and touching the world. It's the wonderment of her reaching for a page with me," said one parent. "There's something very personal about a book...something that's connected and emotional," said another.
Director of the Center for Teaching Through Children's Books in Chicago, Junko Yokota believes the size and shape of the book "become part of the emotional experience, the intellectual experience."
And a study commissioned by HarperCollins in 2010 found that books bought for 3- to 7-year-olds were frequently discovered at a local bookshop, 38 per cent of the time.
So e-books don't mean the end of the book as we know it, and nor do they mean the end of bookshops. They are in fact a means of making reading, stories, books, literature more available, valuable and accessible. I'll let you know how I get on in the New Year!
I'd forgotten what it was like to have a stream of customers coming through the door all wanting the same book, but that buzz is very special.
First, you sense the anxiety as they enter the shop, not knowing if there's a copy left, or whether the person in front of them in the queue will take the last one. Then their expression and mood lifts with the relief, pleasure and excitement of knowing they've got it, they've accomplished their goal.
These customers don't usually bother to try and find the book for themselves. Perhaps they don't even know where to look. They've just heard about the latest 'big thing' and need to be part of it.
It usually happens, if we're lucky, at Christmas. Remember 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves', the punctuation classic by Lynne Truss? Today of course, it was the Man Booker winner 'The Sense of an Ending' by Julian Barnes.
I confess I was rather disappointed when I heard the announcement last night. I had watched the BBC Culture Show special about the shortlist, where they had invited villagers in Scotland to vote for their winner. They had chosen 'Pigeon English' and I had been willing for that to win.
Sales in our shop started slowly, but gathered in pace during the afternoon. And, as I saw the Barnes book gradually diminish in number on the shop shelves, I thought I would have to take a copy home to read for myself, to have my own opinion on whether it was a worthy winner.
At 5pm we had just one copy left, and all our suppliers were sold out so there were none due in tomorrow. Imagine my horror, then, that a customer should come through the door, see our last copy on the counter and say 'oh, did that win? I'll have that' and then proceed to leave it with me while she browsed the shop. I wanted to hide it away from her, to say that she couldn't have it, and I half hoped that she would forget she'd put it aside when she came back to the till laden with her three other £20 hardbacks. However, while she'd been gone, I'd taken a moment to read the first few pages. And what a relief; I'm sure it's a great book, but I don't think it's what I want to read at the moment.