bookselling

Richard Reynolds: the pure genius

Books, bookseller and bookshop, inextricably bound!

As John Aubrey, the seventeenth century polymath, bibliophile – and bookseller – observed, “to read a book is demanding, for one must stay awake; to write a book is more demanding, for one must stay awake and think; but to sell a book – ah, that is a work of pure genius!”

I’m starting this series of celebratory posts with a piece about Richard Reynolds, the undisputed doyen of crime booksellers. Why begin with a bookseller? Because without the services of the bookseller, the entire creative process that concludes with the finished book would be pointless. Bookselling is an art under-rated by everyone who has not practised it.

Richard began his working life in September 1976 as a ‘classical music consultant’ at Hardman Radio in Manchester. He loved reading and would trawl new and secondhand bookshops and market stalls in the city. In early 1980 he spotted a job advert in Jardine’s bookshop, applied for it and began his bookselling career a few months later. In 1981, he was appointed buyer for the sports section at the famous Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge, progressing to travel and biography and then to the literature department, which boasted an impressive twenty-five standard book ‘drops’ (book cases).

Richard’s manager knew he was a crime fiction buff and encouraged him to use a small space under the ledge near to the stairs to develop a crime fiction section. As sales took off, crime was promoted to more prestigious areas in the shop.  

Heffer’s is famous for its crime fiction events. Richard explains that these began in a small way in 1990 with Bodies in the Bookshop. Heffer’s put on “a wonderful display of crime fiction titles and ephemera on the platform halfway down the central staircase. Penguin Crime Classics sponsored a competition: the winner to supply the scream in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. I still have the poster! Heffer’s first crime fiction catalogue was produced at the same time. Five authors came to sign books on the last Saturday of the month: Colin Dexter, Lindsay Davis, Reginald Hill, Minette Walters and Michael Dibdin.”

Sixty authors took part in the last of these events, for which, for seventeen years, Richard compiled the catalogues. He still receives ‘heartening’ requests for copies from readers trying to fill gaps in their collections. As the numbers of authors increased, what had been a single annual event became three separate ones: What’s Your Poison, Murder under the Mistletoe and Murder Will Out, now organised by events manager Kate Fleet.

Since the COVID restrictions were lifted, events have resumed but been smaller: a launch party for After Agatha, by Sally Cline, Kate Rhodes in conversation with Sarah Vaughan about her book Reputation, and a launch party (with jazz quartet!) for Peter Morfoot’s Essence of Murder. On June 23rd, Financial Times reviewer Barry Forshaw and Kate Rhodes will discuss Simenon: The Man, The Books, The Films and The Devil’s Table, the fifth of Kate’s Scilly Islands series.

Richard finds it very difficult to name an individual crime writer as his favourite. During lockdown, he re-read the whole Scilly Isles series, as well as books by Nicola Upson, Rennie Airth, Barry Maitland and Charles Todd. In 2019, as he approached his fortieth year as a bookseller, he compiled his personal list of 100 Favourite Crime Novels. If pushed to choose he says his favourite book would be The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and his favourite author Agatha Christie.

Richard is still a bookseller, but he now combines this with editorial and publishing activities. This began when he suggested to Penguin Random House which authors they should reissue under the Vintage Crime imprint. He has acted in a similar capacity for Ostara Books, Oleander Press and Clerical Crime and assisted with the publication of six Gold Age titles under Oleander Press’s Oreon imprint. More reissues are planned in the coming months.

He says he is grateful to his wife, Sally, for tolerating a house full of books! His small attic study is stacked high with collections of Penguin Green Crime, Gollancz yellow jackets, Golden Age titles, Cambridgeshire crime fiction, translated crime fiction, historical whodunnits, much recent detective fiction, a substantial collection of crime reference books and… and… and..!

Musing on his career, he says, “I suppose specialising in crime fiction is like being paid to pursue a hobby. Badgering publishers to re-publish good authors is a privilege. I enjoy working out the best fit between the author and the publisher. I serve as chairman of the CWA Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of the year, for which there have been 260 submissions this year, making it hard to create the long list. The winner will be announced on 29th June.”

For aspiring booksellers, he offers the following message: “The late John Cheshire, a chatty, encouraging and supportive Heffer’s shop manager, told me not to spend my small salary on books but instead ask reps for proof/reading copies so that I could help publicise them. I have kept to that advice – and I’d like to thank all the reps and publishers who’ve kindly kept me supplied with reading material. And it’s important for booksellers to keep on reading ephemera about books: articles, reviews, blogs, information on publishers’ and authors’ websites.”

Asked what his advice to someone just starting out on a crime fiction writing career would be, he says that as writing is a solitary occupation it is important to chat to local booksellers and meet other authors, especially at events or festivals such as Crimefest and the Harrogate International Festival or one of the many good smaller festivals that now exist. It’s also a good idea to attend other writers’ launch parties, read widely – and try not to overwrite! Having some bookmarks printed is an inexpensive way of getting noticed – it’s easy to underestimate how useful they can be.

As an author, I am inexpressibly grateful to Richard and all the booksellers who make it their life’s work to support writing and reading. He is a man who practises sheer genius every day! If he were still alive, I know John Aubrey would be the first to agree.

Tomorrow’s post will be about an aspiring crime fiction writer, Fraser Massey, who is already a distinguished journalist.

Almost Love: Publication Day

Almost Love AI

Today is the official publication date of Almost Love.  It is almost midsummer and the sun is shining; the cuckoos are still here, though they’ve changed to cuk-cuk mode now (it’s been a particularly good year for cuckoos in Yorkshire this year). It’s a complete contrast to the day on which In the Family was published, when the leaves had fallen, the shooting season was in full swing and we were heading for the winter solstice.  November seemed a good time to publish then, because it was still far enough away from Christmas for the book to feature (as I know it did, and am grateful) on some Christmas wish-lists.  June also seems a good time, as I’m hoping that at least a few people might want to take Almost Love on holiday with them.

Some authors talk about their books as if they’re babies.  This particular baby, although it’s been born today, is still in the incubator.  The books were delivered to Salt and its distributor yesterday, but have yet to be despatched to the shops; this will happen on Monday.  Yet I’m not impatient or disappointed that I don’t yet have a copy in my hand; on the contrary, I’m profoundly grateful to both Chris and Jen at Salt and to TJ International Printers of Padstow for pulling out the stops so quickly after MPG Printers went into receivership just as Almost Love was going through the press.  Thanks to their Herculean efforts, the delay has been minimal – much slighter than we’d feared.  And yesterday’s blog-post attracted so much interest that I feel that it acted as a ‘virtual’ launch.  Thank you very much to everyone who read it, spread it or contributed comments.

Thinking again about The English Bookshop and Jan’s explanation of why he chose Almost Love brought home to me the crucial role of Advance Information (AI) sheets in helping authors and publishers to sell their books.  AIs have improved tremendously over the years.  They started out as Gestetnered sheets. (Does anyone remember Gestetners?  They took ages to set up and usually suffered a paper-jam within five minutes; you got ink all over your hands and, if you were unlucky, your clothes.  The only good thing about them was the pink correction fluid, which could give you a temporary high if you applied it when standing in a confined space.)  These were sometimes almost illegible and contained little except the ISBN, a two-sentence blurb and the publication date.  There was no picture of the jacket.  However, by no means all publishers used to produce AIs.  Those who didn’t often sent out spares of the actual jacket with the date of publication stamped inside.  Booksellers therefore never received a complete set of information: you either got an insubstantial blurb with no jacket, or the jacket and not much else.

By contrast, today’s AIs – at least the ones that Salt produces – are works of art.  Author and publisher work closely together in order to wrest benefit from every centimetre of the space on a single A4 sheet.  They include a fine picture of the jacket and all the information that the bookseller needs, yet can be read in less than a minute.  Sometimes several hours are spent on developing an AI.

I thought that you might be interested to see the AI that was used to sell Almost Love into the shops, so I’ve included it here.  I hope that you will like it.

Fiona Malby (@FCMalby) offers me the chance to post on her blog today!

Take Me to the Castle

Author FC Malby (‘Take Me to the Castle’) has given me a precious place on her blog today, March 11th 2013, to write about something very special to me: The Fine Art of Bookselling. Sincere thanks to her for this hospitality!

The murky world of the bookshop…

Top-slicing the profit

Top-slicing the profit

I have interviewed many would-be booksellers… and appointed quite a few.  Candidates often have a misconception of what bookselling is about.  Every bookshop manager will have experienced that sinking feeling when an enthusiastic prospect earnestly says, ‘I love books.’  Most bookshop-lovers will have had at least one experience of waiting patiently for service while the bookseller sits back from the till, absorbed in a good read. I’m not knocking booksellers, though – far from it.  I’ve known very many excellent ones and one or two who could be described only as geniuses.  Yet, without exception, however much they have loved books, their passion has been for serving real people from all walks of life, often by providing the book that is being sought, but also frequently by suggesting one that the customer would never have found without their expert skill and intuition.  Good bookselling is all about caring for the customer.
I’m digressing a little, however, because I meant to begin by saying that the popular perception of a bookshop is probably that it is a quiet haven of peace where nothing much happens, a place in which to relax and browse and take a little time out from the humdrum demands of everyday life.  And this is how it should be; I know many bookshops that can create such an ambience and I’d be proud to own one myself.
However, as with any other organisation or enterprise, within the inner life of bookshops is concealed – and sometimes, unfortunately, revealed – a maelstrom of human emotions and behaviour.  I think that it is likely that there is more intrigue going on in bookshops than in any other kind of retail business, because most booksellers are well-educated and well-read and excel at being creative with their time.  Mostly, this wealth of ideas and inspiration is channelled into supporting the shop and making it unique.  Very much more rarely, it assumes a deviant quality.
Theft is a despicable crime. It isn’t much written about by crime writers, perhaps because it isn’t ‘glamorous’ enough.  Persistent theft from a bookshop will kill it as surely as acute oak decline will fell a mighty tree.  The reason for this is that bookshops operate on wafer-thin margins.  Therefore activity that persistently undermines the profit of the shop will not only hasten it towards closure, but also demoralise the staff.  In most bookshop chains, the staff (not paid a fortune in the first place) are disqualified from receiving bonuses if so-called ‘shrinkage’ reaches a certain figure – usually three-quarters of one percent of turnover.  Some book theft is casual and opportunist; some is highly-organised.  One of the bookshops in East London that came under my aegis suffered for months from the carried-out-to-order stealing of the textbooks that supported certain courses at the local university.
Of course, there are sophisticated systems available which help to reduce the risk of theft, but it is surprising how wily some thieves can be.  A bookseller in another of ‘my’ shops apprehended a man who was wearing a specially-adapted overcoat that could hold twelve average-sized volumes at a time.  He was spotted spending an undue amount of time riding the lift, where he had gone to rip out the security tags.
Some bookshop theft, the saddest kind, is ‘internal’, i.e. carried out by one of the members of staff.  I hasten to add that it is comparatively rare, but when it happens it is the most difficult kind to discover, because the perpetrator is familiar with the shop’s systems and routines.  The largest bookshop that came within my remit, one that turned over millions of pounds a year, had been suffering from serious shrinkage for some time when we decided to fit tiny security cameras over some of the tills.  We quickly discovered that one of the cashiers had been operating an elaborate scam.  (I won’t say what it was, as it would still work now, if someone were prepared to try it again.)  She was brought to the manager’s office, told that the police would be called and asked if she wanted anyone to be with her when they arrived.  She asked for her husband and he was summoned.
I had thought that perhaps he had been her partner in crime, but when he arrived he was genuinely stunned to discover that his wife was a thief.  The police had yet to turn up.  We waited rather tensely.  I asked her if there was anything else that she wanted to tell us.
To my utter astonishment, she said that there was.  There has been a handful of occasions in my life when I have been truly gobsmacked, rendered speechless, shocked to the core, whatever the appropriate term is.  This was certainly one of them.  The shop was adjacent to a large university and an intranet had recently been set up to allow academics to place orders and ask for advice without having to leave their desks.  The woman standing in front of me now confessed that she had been using this facility in order to run a brothel.  Most (but not all) of the clients worked at the university.  Perhaps at this point I should pause to say that I am not exaggerating a word of this and, when an investigation was carried out, all of the details that she gave proved to be true.
The intranet was closed down immediately, though, on police advice, no further action was taken about the ‘business’ that it had been used to support, because the complications, notably the risk of implicating innocent people, were too great.  The bookseller was charged with grand larceny (far too aristocratic a name for such a tawdry crime) and, because she had stolen a large amount of money over many months, received a custodial sentence.
I still think of this quite often. She was a pretty, vivacious young woman who had a presentable husband, himself with a very good job.  It came out in court that she was not in debt and enjoyed good health and a comfortable lifestyle.  Why did she do it?  Why did she expend her considerable intelligence on working out two quite ingenious ways of making money illegally (one of which directly harmed her colleagues), instead of concentrating on developing her career or retraining if she felt dissatisfied with it?  Perversely, perhaps, there was something about her that stirred pity in me, too.  Did she survive prison well?  Was her husband waiting for her when she came out?  Did she succeed in rebuilding her life?  I shall never know the answers.

Finally, before you worry that I have taken to cutting up my own novels, this one was a stray proof.  I was asserting an author’s editorial privilege.

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