Monday, 9 April 2012

A new blog baby: Jen Campbell, "Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops"

A blog baby is a writer who got a book deal or agent deal while following my blog, and who believes that the blog helped. I'm very proud to be the blog mother of lovely Jen Campbell, author of the new Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. Jen says, "Your blog was very helpful when submitting to agents. You are a lady of wonderful knowledge! All writers should listen, and listen carefully." *bows proudly*

And I am interviewing Jen here today. Her publisher, Constable, has generously offered a free copy to one of you. All you need to do is comment below and one name will be picked randomly. Deadline Thursday 12th, 5pm GMT. 

About the book
"Can books conduct electricity?" "My children are just climbing your bookshelves: that's ok... isn't it?" A John Cleese Twitter question ["What is your pet peeve?"], first sparked the Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops blog, which grew over three years into one bookseller's collection of ridiculous conversations on the shop floor. From "Did Beatrix Potter ever write a book about dinosaurs?" to the hunt for a paperback which could forecast the next year's weather; and from "I've forgotten my glasses, please read me the first chapter" to "Excuse me... is this book edible?" This full-length collection illustrated by the Brothers McLeod also includes top 'Weird Things' from bookshops around the world.

A huge welcome and mahoosive congratulations to Jen Campbell! Jen grew up in the north-east of England, graduated from Edinburgh University and now lives in London where she works in an antiquarian bookshop. She’s a published poet and short story writer.

NM: I know you work in an antiquarian bookshop now but when you worked in a general bookshop, what was the most annoying sort of author behaviour, the sort that would stop you wanting to stock the book?
JC: Most authors are perfectly well behaved and lovely [yourself included!]. There have been occasions where authors move their stock so it’s facing out on the shelf or on the display table, but that’s harmless. This happened once:  
customer: You don’t have a very good selection of books.
bookseller: We’ve got over ten thousand books.
customer: Well, you don’t have the book I’ve written! (storms out) 
There have been authors who leave a copy of their book, or post a copy of their book, to the shop and then call up a couple of days later to ask if the bookseller has read it and if they liked it. I completely understand that writers want feedback (we thrive on it!), but pestering is never good.
Basically, be a nice person. Be understanding. Be considerate - this will get you so much further than being pushy. And, as much as we booksellers like chocolate and wine, you don’t need to bribe us with those, either [though a part of me wishes this weren’t true].
NM: Publishers are the ones who are supposed to get books into shops. Do you think there's a genuine role for authors in that respect? What sort of things would you advise authors to do when they go into a bookshop?
JC: Hmmm. I’m torn here. I think it’s up to the individual author and how they feel about that. Personally, if I went into a bookshop and they didn’t stock my book, I wouldn’t go up to a bookseller and tell them that they should be stocking it. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong; I just know that I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it. Booksellers are obviously always looking out for new and exciting things to stock, but to have the author him/herself telling you that their book is amazing is not the same as lots of other unbiased people telling you that. I’d rather promote my book via my blog etc a way that doesn’t force people to listen, and then hopefully more people will stumble across it, read it, talk about it and in turn more bookshops would hear about it and stock it, too.
NM: “to have the author him/herself telling you that their book is amazing is not the same as lots of other unbiased people telling you that” – oh, hear hear! And this is the problem that self-published authors have: you need a credible judgement by someone else.

What do you think authors and customers most misunderstand about the business of book-selling?
JC: Hmmm. Let me demonstrate this through the mode of quotes:
1. customer: Have you read every single book in here?
bookseller: No, I can’t say I have.
customer: Well you’re not very good at your job, are you? 
2. customer: If I give you these three paperbacks, will you sell them and give the money to charity?
bookseller: We’re not a charity bookshop.
customer: Oh. Where does your money go to?
bookseller: . . . It goes into keeping us in business. 
We all love a bargain, but I think that a lot of things have happened in the publishing industry to make people think that books are things that should be cheap. It’s easy to forget how many people have to be paid for one book: the writer, agents, editors, marketing people, designers, proof readers, wholesalers, bookshops. Those bookshops in turn have to pay rent, business rates, their staff... the list just goes on.
I think we all know [because it makes sense] that if we don’t shop in bookshops then bookshops will close, but it seems [as with a lot of other things] we’re waiting for other people to rush to the rescue. That isn’t going to happen. If we want to keep bookshops then we have to support them. Otherwise we’ll all be like the Waterstones’ apostrophe - looking for a new job in a sausage factory.
NM: Entirely agree with all that. Fably put.

So, are you looking forward to going into bookshops, finding your book there and agonising about whether to pluck up courage to speak to the bookseller? What will your opening words be? Or will you run away, as I usually do?
JC: Well, if the book wasn’t there then I would run away. However, if it was there, I’d probably also run away. Ha! I am looking forward [a lot!] to seeing the book in bookshops [eek!]. I’ve also got a few events lined up to talk about ‘Weird Things...’ and sign some books: I’ll be at The Edinburgh Bookshop on the 10th April 5:30-6:30, and I’ll be at Blackwell’s in Oxford on the 17th April, all day as a writer in residence, with an event in the evening where I’ll be talking about ‘Weird Things...’ and also reading some of my poetry (an interesting combination, there!). I’m very much looking forward to those.
NM: What has most surprised you about the process of becoming published? What has been the hardest part? The nicest?
JC: This is a tough one! The nicest part was probably seeing the book in the flesh for the first time. I can’t really describe that feeling. It was amazing. I have to say probably the most surprising thing about getting published was... getting published! Being a writer is all I’ve ever wanted to do [apart from a brief period when I was five and I was convinced I wanted to be a lollipop lady], and I’ve dreamt about it for so long that it doesn’t quite seem real yet. Also, ‘Weird Things...’ wasn’t initially a book idea, so the fact that it became a book was also a lovely surprise. At the time, I’d just got myself an agent because of my fiction, and we were busy discussing that when I was approached about writing ‘Weird Things...’.
 The hardest part is not to do with ‘Weird Things...’ in particular but relates to the whole of becoming published/being a writer and that’s the hard slog - all the work you put in before any of this happens: editing your work, trying to make your writing better, believing in yourself and holding on to the possibility of getting a publishing deal. Now that I have one book deal, I have to make sure that I work even harder. 
NM: What is your favourite Weird Thing?
JC: Ah, that changes all the time. But here are three for now: 
1. customer: Do you have any books on star signs?
bookseller: Yes, our esoteric section is over here.
customer: Good, thanks. It’s just I really need to check mine – I have this overwhelming feeling that something bad is going to happen. 
2. customer: Do you have a book that has a list of aphrodisiacs? I’ve got a date on Friday. 
3. customer: What’s your name?bookseller: Jen.
customer: Hmmm. I don’t like that name. Is it ok if I call you something else?
Thanks, Jen! It's a lovely book and will definitely make people laugh. It would make a fab gift. Shame it's not Christmas but I'm sure your publisher will still be pushing it then! And I adore the cover. 

[Edited to add - AND I'm mentioned in it, in one of the quotes! I hasten to add that it wasn't me being weird, but a customer referring to my book, Write to be Published. Which is not, in itself, a weird thing to refer to, except that in that case it was a weird comment.]

Don't forget, people: comment to win a copy. If you're picked, I'll contact you for your address to give to the publisher. And I'll announce the winner on Twitter.



catdownunder said...

Jen shared some of these wonderful snippets on her blog and my father is eagerly awaiting one of the two copies I have ordered. (The other is going to the local indie bookshop with an elephantine hit that they should then stock it!) I have very occasionally needed to guard the bookshop for a short time and, should anyone doubt it, I can assure them that people really do say weird things.

Amie McCracken said...

Sounds like something to make me laugh. I always need things that make me laugh.

Elen C said...

I'm an occasional jen-campbell-blog reader, so I'd love to read all the bon-mots in one go! Yes, please.
Also, she sounded lovely on Open Book.

Anonymous said...

This book is on my 'Defo' list for the South Uist house, where time is kind to me, even if the Hebridean light shows up my dire housewifery skills.

Sally Zigmond said...

Having worked in various bookstores over the years I can categorically confirm that customers do indeed say the weirdest things. Sometimes I even manage to decipher them.

My coup de grace was this.

Customer. Do you have that novel by a well-known writer whose name I've forgotten about a violinist?

Me. (Sudden equally weird brainwave that came out of nowhere.) Do you mean The Travelling Horn Player by Barbara Trapido?

Customer. That's the one!

AND we had it in stock. AND she bought it. Result!

Funnily enough, she didn't seem impressed. Presumably bookshop assistants she knows do this kind of thing all the time.

Bernadette said...

I saw an article about this book in Saturday's FT and thought then how fab it sounded. Funny and sad indeed.

When I worked in a book shop a long time ago a customer asked for recommendations for a young relative. I gave some suggestions, then she asked me whether the girl had already read them. I couldn't help there!

NOIVA said...

Sounds like just what I need to cheer me up. Huge congratulations to Jen.

Catherine Hughes said...

Let me try that again and see if Google will display the correct name!

Dragonrat Jewellery said...

Working with the public is never boring, that's for sure. I'm very much looking forward to reading 'Weird Things'.

Jen Campbell said...

Many thanks to Nicola for having me over for a natter!

I meant to say in the blog post, and completely forgot to, that If anyone's in Edinburgh tomorrow [10th] - I'll be talking about 'Weird Things...' and signing books at The Edinburgh Bookshop 5:30-6:30pm. :) If you're nearby, pop along and say hello. :)


Anonymous said...

This sounds brilliant! The sort of book I wished I'd written.'d ever worked in a book shop of course..!

Karen said...

The book sounds great. I work in a library where customers say equally weird things!

David Griffin said...

"Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops": what a fun idea for a book; it looks to be really entertaining!

The only thing is, will the book spine match the colour scheme in my living room?

Erin Latimer said...

Sounds great! I'll keep an eye out for it when it hits book shelves.

Also,does it come with a scratch and sniff section?

Book Maven said...

I wish I'd been in time to send Jen this genuine exchange, overheard in Notting Hill Waterstones last weekend:

Customer: Do you have How to Kill a Mockingbird?
Bookseller: It's just "To Kill a Mockingbird" but I always make that mistake myself too.

Jen's book is not the first on this topic however. We kept in our loo in London for years one called Bookworm Droppings on exactly the same theme. The bookshop concerned had once been a dairy and customers still came in asking for cream and cheese even though there were nothing but books to be seen.

Sadly that book has fallen apart but was much loved.

Kirsty said...

I'm halfway through the book and loving it (so don't need to be in the freebie comp thanks).

Jen that was a fantastic interview, some great insights there.

Nicola I'd never heard of the blog baby/blog mother thing before. It's so sweet - your website is (and books are) great I've been finding them soo helpful. Thanks.

widdershins said...

Sometimes I really do wonder how the human race has managed to get this far without extincting itself!

beccabrown said...

Love Jen's blog and I'd love to win a copy of the book. Excellent interview :)

Cameron Writes said...

Loved the excerpts Jen and huge congrats. Must find your shop so I can come in and ask for "Ethel the Aardvaark Goes Quantity Surveying" - no people really do think it exists.

Wanna be a blog baby!!! Have followed all advice & even SP is not shifting - that advice of needing unbiased opinion is SO true ... and so hard to come by without shelling out.

Thanks both of you - made the start of my day.

Laura Mary said...

Spookily enough Nicola, it was the 'weird things' comment mentioning you and WTBP that sent me to this very blog! And I'm very glad it it did :-)
Always looked forward to the Weird Things updates on your blog Jen, will be giving your book as birthday presents to everyone this year!

Nicola Morgan said...

Laura Mary - that is spooky!

Kirsty - thank you :)

Widdershins - indeed!

Thanks, everyone. Gosh, I would love to do a "Stupid things aspiring writers say in covering letters" book, though. You would actually be amazed. There are a few agents, editors and booksellers who regularly send me examples. Jaw-dropping. It puts Weird Things in the shade, but would be too cruel.

David Griffin said...

Hi Nicola,

> "I would love to do a "Stupid things aspiring writers say in covering letters" book, though ... Jaw-dropping. It puts Weird Things in the shade, but would be too cruel."

I don't think it'd be cruel at all (providing no real names were given) -but definitely interesting! Go for it, I'd say! :-)

womagwriter said...

Don't add me into the draw as jen's book arrived in the post today and I've read it already (when I was supposed to be working). It's hilarious - can't believe people are so stupid and so rude! I'll just leave my toddlers here to play while I get my nails done - is that all right?

Anonymous said...

My friend mentioned this book to me a couple of days ago; she said it was rather fabulous. And, since my very first job was as a Saturday girl in a secondhand bookshop, I know the mad things customers can say (actually, it was generally people who thought their filthy, tatty wrecks of books were worth enormous quantities of money due entirely to their revolting condition)!

Georgina Blair said...

Heard about this book on the radio - really want to read it!

Super interview - thanks.

Nicola Morgan said...

Catherine Hughes - You won! I'll let Jen know and she will be in touch for your address. Hooray!

To everyone - thanks for entering and commenting. Better luck next time :)