Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 8)

In which The Author drops a few names

One of the few aspects of the book trade which I actually do miss was the chance to rub shoulders with some very famous people. The ‘author signing session’ was a welcome random factor in the otherwise fairly predictable ebb and flow of the financial year.
Sometimes the queue would be out of the door and down past the Post Office in Hills Street. On other occasions, pretty much the only people who would turn up would be the author’s family and close friends. When the visit went well, the sales figures reflected that and made the extra effort worthwhile. When it flopped dismally, we often wondered if it was really Goddess’s way of telling us not to bother again.
Trish organised a signing session with Simon Callow, who had just brought out a book about his long relationship with the theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay. Mr Callow was in Cardiff, performing his one-man show The Mystery of Charles Dickens at the New Theatre, and generously took time out of his busy schedule to spend a lunchtime reading from the book, answering questions, and signing copies. I’d borrowed some old playbills and programmes from Geoff E. (see Television Killed the Variety Star) to create a backdrop, and the whole session was a great success.
On the other hand, Jo R. and I once arranged a morning visit from the former Welsh Secretary John Redwood, who’d written a book explaining his Eurosceptic opinions. The timing wasn’t great, as most people would have been in work, on the school run, and/or sorting out child care. I think we sold two copies. Mind you, it was still a considerable improvement on Graham Swift’s lunchtime signing of Last Orders, where the poor chap sat alone with a pile of mint copies and a glass of wine for a full hour.
One lunchtime, I managed to catch a brief glimpse of Joan Collins, beautiful and tiny, as she battled her way through the crowd who’d packed the shop for the signing of My Secrets. Another surprisingly petite figure belonged to the TV chef Nigella Lawson, whom I passed on the stairs when she was on her way to the ‘green room’ (the hastily-tidied cash office). Another morning, I was on my break when former Leeds United and Cardiff City manager Peter Ridsdale came into the staff room and introduced himself to everyone. That was an unexpected meeting over the Guardian crossword.
I think the biggest crowds I can remember must have been for the late Douglas Adams, when The Illustrated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came out, and for Sir Terry Pratchett, a few years later. My colleagues told me of huge turn-outs for Michael Palin and Sir David Attenborough, too. When you see the sort of queues that you’d normally expect outside a rock concert, you know it’s going to be something special. I only got to speak to Mr Adams briefly, but I did manage to get a photo of him from the stairwell a bit later on.

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This was the start of the decline of serious bookselling, and the start of the era when the best way to sell a book was to have a TV series to accompany it (or to have your face on TV, at least.) I was lucky to have met one of the least likely TV stars, though, when he paid a visit to Cardiff as part of a promotional tour:

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The last huge signings I can remember took place after we’d transferred to the other shop in Cardiff. The first guest was Billie Piper, fresh from her starring role in Doctor Who. I don’t go for blondes, as my regular readers already know, but she looked extremely glamorous and sexy. I think it must have during the school holidays, as I overheard a awestruck little boy telling his mother that ‘Rose’ was sitting at the table just inside the door.
The other big signing was another Cardiff coup. The former world boxing champion Joe Calzaghe had written his autobiography, and as a (fairly) local lad – he originally hails from Newbridge – he’d agreed to come to Waterstone’s. There was a bit of a muddle to begin with, as the South Wales Echo originally printed the wrong date for the signing. For about a week, it seemed as though every other incoming phone call was from someone wanting to know if Mr Calzaghe was coming in – and we had to explain that the paper had made a cock-up. (Oddly enough, most people weren’t especially surprised when we told them.)
Finally the day arrived, and a massive queue of people had piled into the shop. Meanwhile, Mr Calzaghe, his girlfriend, his publicist, and Mike M., the publisher’s rep, were all in the office with David (the store manager) and Jason D. (his deputy).
I should mention here that Jason is a tall, skinny lad of about my height. We both look as though a gust of wind would blow us over. As they all tried to squash into the small space between the office and the shop floor, Mr Calzaghe accidentally stood on Jason’s foot.
Straight away, David said loudly, ‘Go on, Jase – you can take him!’
Everyone piled onto the shop floor roaring with laughter. It was a most unusual start to a signing, but it put everyone at their ease. Mr Calzaghe couldn’t do enough, generously posing for photographs and chatting casually with his fans. As he said at one point, he was free for the rest of the day and had plenty of time to spare.
As well as the author visits, our shop used to co-host public lectures in conjunction with Cardiff Law School. These were usually well attended and great fun, giving us a rare chance to chat informally to some of the great minds of the current era. Three of these stick in my mind: Professors Steven Pinker (the cognitive scientist) and Steve Jones (the geneticist and broadcaster), and Steve Grand, the computer programmer and pioneer of artificial life research. Chatting to Prof. Pinker during the signing session, I mentioned that I was interested in linguistics and psychology – two subjects which he’d explored in his latest book Words and Rules. He suggested that it might be a good reason to return to higher education and explore my interests further. When the opportunity to leave the book trade arose a few years later, I remembered Prof. Pinker’s advice and went back to university. By then, I was ready…
There isn’t a great deal I miss about the book trade, but the author visit is one aspect. I just wish I’d had a decent camera in those days, so that I had a few more photos to show you.
By the way, in case you’re wondering what’s happened to today’s Photo101 blog – I’m still waiting for the email with the inaugural subject to arrive. It occurred to me last night that when the organisers said ‘midday’, they probably meant ‘midday Stateside time.’ If they did, then I’m going to jump ship before the month even starts. I won’t be able to pick up an email which arrives this evening (or possibly even tonight), and even if I could, it would be too dark to take any photos anyway.
It was a nice idea while it lasted, though. Maybe next year I’ll do NaNoWriMo after all. I bought a non-fiction book at the weekend which has opened up a whole can of worms in my mind. Watch this space (or possibly an adjacent one) this time next year…
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