Like many people I have my favourite authors and I like to think my favourites can tell a good story without becoming too formulaic, lazy or, frankly, full of themselves. I used to work in a book store and, upon reading the first couple chapters of a very famous and commercially successful author’s latest book, announced to the then manager, sitting in the staff room with me, that this latest book was, well, rubbish! I think “Total tripe, don’t know how it got past the editor” may have been my actual words. The author in question normally wrote thrillers (naming no names here…just in case I ever get published) but this book was more a very light weight meander through a family history, somewhat autobiographical. I told the manager that when talking to the book buying public, I was tempted to, but didn’t, commit retail suicide…tell them what I really thought of the book! The manager just smiled, a little nervously I thought. He finally said “Doesn’t matter if it’s the worst book ever written, it has their name on the cover, it’ll sell by the bucket load.”
I was a reasonably chatty person and you get a sense for telling whether a customer is happy for a quick “Hi, how are you today? That’s a great choice of book.” or if they just want to buy the book and go. So when I saw people excitedly bring their copy of this particular author’s book to the checkout and hand over their money, I didn’t say “Great choice Sir/Madam!”, rather I just said “Thank you, anything else I can help you with today?” (I tried to say it in a chirpy way but this is Scotland, not America, I can’t do the ultra happy voice, come on!) and made no comment on the book, hoping they wouldn’t ask my opinion. What I wanted to say was something like “I know that author is usually great but this one’s a dud, choose almost anything else on the shelves and its an improvement. In fact I’ll jot down a few sentences on the back of your receipt just now and that’ll be better.” But I wanted to keep my job so didn’t and anyway, reading taste is so subjective that for all I knew the customer would love the book, or at least not hate it.
Neither did I know the author personally and certainly never to talk to. I don’t think they’ve ever visited the delights of down town Glasgow on a damp and rainy afternoon (most afternoons) and given their home in far sunnier climates, I don’t blame them (dropping very vague hints as to the author’s identity here). For all I knew the author could have had a burning desire to tell a personal, more autobiographical story, for a long time and had finally taken the time and effort to write it. Maybe it had been a bit of a risk being so far removed from their usual style, maybe the publisher wasn’t sure but gave the go-ahead because they knew, like my manager, that the book would sell because of the name on the cover. Maybe writing it had been a painful but cathartic experience for the author, maybe, whether it sold well or not, it would prove to be the book they were most proud of. I didn’t know whether any of that was true. Maybe if I did then, even if I didn’t like the story I would have been more sympathetic to it, made more of an effort to persevere. But I didn’t. It did make me think though, what difference it might make to a reader if they knew the author, if not as a personal friend then at least to say hello to at a signing event or watch them interviewed in an arts program or similar.
I was at a signing event recently, for John Connolly’s new Charlie Parker book The Wrath of Angels, and his editorial collaboration with Declan Burke, Books To Die For. John Connolly is one of maybe four or five of my favourite authors, the only authors whose books I will buy in Hardcover if I can afford it, rather than wait for the paperback, the only authors I will try to get to a signing event for. I don’t know him personally but, from even brief chats at events and from general reputation, Connolly is one of the nicest, friendliest, most amiable and accommodating authors you’re likely to meet. He always seems happy, jovial and approachable (even when like me you’re standing in line waiting to get a book signed and feel almost overcome with self-consciousness and its an anxiety stricken inner fight not to put the book down, or at least buy it without getting the authors signature, and run for the door. I’ve always found it somewhat ironic that Connolly’s jovial, upbeat personality contrasts so much with some of the dark material he writes about. His books are a joy to read though even if he does deal with some extreme characters (both his good and bad guys can be quite terrifying!) and dark subjects.
Then there’s the other side of the coin. Again, naming no names, there’s another very famous and commercially successful author who writes funny fantasy books. Going back to the book store I worked in, this author had a new hard cover book released, so the store got incredible numbers of his back catalogue delivered because they knew they’d sell. I’ve never met the guy although I’ve seen him interviewed on television. I commented to staff that the guy was incredibly prolific and wrote some brilliantly funny stuff. Someone replied that when you’ve met alot of the authors your opinion of them sometimes changed. They said that the author in question had once come to do a signing event and the staff had put in a huge amount of effort into displaying the books, organising the event and generally making it run smoothly and making the author feel welcome. They said, though I wasn’t there so can’t verify it, that when he arrived, he was abrupt, rude, arrogant and gave every impression in the world that the staff were mere minions and barely deserved to be in his presence. It left a sour taste in the mouth and the negative impression had stayed with the staff. It left its mark. Now I’m not saying authors don’t have bad days, maybe running late, maybe got out of the wrong side of bed, maybe just grumpy, maybe stubbed their toe that morning…but when you are meeting the staff who make every effort to sell your books to customers (even if the books would sell themselves anyway), if would be nice to think the author would at least make an effort to be amiable, or at least not rude. I have read a few of the author’s many books but there’s always a little part of my mind that thinks of his poor personality, on that day anyway. Having seen him interviewed on television I could actually imagine him being ‘hard work’.
There was another author, well known if not perhaps so commercially successful this time, who was due to the store to sign his books. Not a public signing, just signing to have signed copies on the shelf. Staff still made an effort though, nice section of the shop floor tidied, comfy chair, cup of coffee waiting, several pens in case one ran out, staff member at his beck and call etc. Then he arrived, looking dragged backwards through a hedge bedraggled, very unshaved, ultra grumpy and with the attitude of “Where are the books, let me sign them and go.” I could forgive the rough appearance in all honesty, maybe it was part of the folklore of a writers appearance. It was the ‘can’t be bothered’ attitude that got to me. I had never read anything by him, hadn’t really been interested yet just because it would be a signed copy to add to my signed copy selection, I had put one of his books aside for myself, waiting for his arrival. I probably wouldn’t read it but as I say, it’d be signed. After meeting him, seeing his attitude and generally ‘can’t be bothered’ demeanor, I retrieved my book, put it on the general pile to be signed and shelved and forgot all about him. I’ve never been remotely interested in him since.
Such is the effect an impression can have. Maybe you’re the type of person that doesn’t really care what the author is like as long as the story is good. Maybe you will buy any book with the author’s name on the cover no matter if its good, bad or indifferent. For me, I hate to say it, but it does matter whether or not I know a little about the personality of an author. That’s probably not a good thing, I should just be interested in the story, but the truth is that if I know the author is known to be a grumpy so and so, then it would make me think twice about buying their book, even if it had brilliant reviews.
That’s just me.
Thanks for reading.