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Boxing Clever

The author as travelling salesman

Box

‘The proprietor shall be entitled to receive on publication ten presentation copies of the first edition of the Work…and fifteen copies of the mass market paperback edition of the Work.’

That’s a clause from my latest book contract, and it will be familiar to most writers, I’m sure. Having paid too little attention to the contracts I’ve signed over the years, I have only gradually become aware of such standard terms, and when – thirty years ago – I first received from a publisher a box of my own books, it came as a surprise, and a very pleasant one. I suppose I thought of it as congratulatory, or ‘complimentary’ in both senses of the word, and I remember hunting in the box for a billet doux from my editor: something along the lines of, ‘Don’t these look lovely, Andrew? Thanks for letting us be your publisher.’ I now know that the only document to be found in the box is some incomprehensible docket from a logistics company, and the books join the parade of other Andrew Martin titles in what was formerly – until my wife and I became empty-nesters – the bedroom of my youngest son, and which is now becoming a smaller simulacrum of the warehouse from which the books emanate, except that this one only has books by me.

On a good day, those bookshelves seem like a benchmark of my achievement. I’ve written twenty-six books. I have managed to offload some of my free copies, but there are about 150 volumes in that room even so. On a bad day, they look like my tombstone, and I wonder what my children will do with them after I’m dead. On such occasions, I notice that some of the books themselves are dying: warping slightly from damp (we don’t generally keep the heat on in that room) or fading – becoming ‘sunned’, as the bibliophiles have it.

When I receive the free books now, it’s as though the publisher has outrageously called my bluff: ‘You wanted us to publish this; as you can see, we have done. What do you suppose is going to happen now?’ Let’s say there are a dozen volumes in a box delivered a week after publication day. As I unpack them, I’m wondering how many more than this have so far sold. Books should be the opposite of boomerangs. They should be widely dispersed and making their way in the world; you don’t want them coming back to you. And are the booksellers receiving this same title looking at the cover with the same wariness as me?

Perhaps I flatter myself that they should be thinking any such nuanced thoughts. All books are a speculation, and what keeps me writing is what keeps my publishers publishing: the thought that any given new book could be ‘the one’. If the thought falters, it never entirely goes away, and has been sustained recently by the unexpected successes of a couple of author friends, both of whom have transcended all the familiar bugbears (the relative unmarketability of the relatively old author; the collapse of book prices etc) and moved metaphorically out of Grub Street, and literally into large new holiday homes in Spain and France respectively. Thus, magically refreshed, they have probably reverted to regarding their free books as a tribute to their talent, whereas I have come to see mine in a more practical light: as part of my payment. This is a cheque that has to be cashed, however. You must monetise the books; they must be worked.

After the first phase of displaying them on the shelf like trophies, I began trying to sell my free books. In those days when any secondhand bookseller would be willing to sift through a rucksack load of books with a view to buying some of them, I would slip a couple of my own into that rucksack, which otherwise comprised review copies, books sent speculatively by publishers, or simply books that had overstayed their welcome on my shelves. The bookseller would sort my offerings into two piles: wanted and unwanted. They might have guessed which book I had written by the tension radiating from me as they wavered between the two piles with my book in hand. If it went down on the unwanted pile, I would form an instant hatred of the bookseller and would be monosyllabic as the transaction concluded.

The rejected book had become tainted as a physical object. I would drop it into a charity shop – where there was no risk of rejection – on the way home. Even now, I sometimes do give one of my free books to a charity shop, and partly out of charity, but mainly in the hope of seeing it in the window when I next pass by. And sometimes the book does materialise in the window, but perhaps because it is a brand-new book rather than a book by me. There’s a cupboard outside a church near me where people are encouraged to leave charitable donations, such as tins of beans. I always donate a book of mine, and the thing is not to go back three days later to check if it’s gone — that would be as inadvisable as googling myself.

My secret hope is that one of my charitable donations will be picked up by a film director, and optioned. I construct elaborate fantasies about this. Peter Jackson, say, is giving a press conference after the successful premier of his blockbuster version of one of my novels: ‘I only went into that Oxfam bookshop to get out of the rain, and I only saw Andrew’s book because it was in the wrong place on the shelf…’

I have occasionally tried to send my free books to filmmakers, but you always have to send via their agents and, never having had any such submission acknowledged, I have given up writing things like, ‘…and I would be very grateful if you would pass it on to Mr Eastwood…’

Incidentally, I stopped trying to sell to secondhand bookshops a couple of years ago, when I walked into one near me with a rucksack containing laundry. Our washing machine had broken, and I was on my way to the laundrette. I decided to buy a paperback thriller, and when I took it up to the counter, the proprietor said, ‘Thank God…for one awful minute, I thought you were going to try selling me some books.’

A fellow author advised me on the best use of my free books: ‘You arrange to give talks, at which you sell them.’ Pre-Covid, I was giving a talk every couple of months. It’s very satisfying – like getting a good review – to walk into a church hall with a rucksack full of books and leave with a near-empty bag and a wallet full of tenners. At first, I would offer heavy discounts on the books, but I learnt to charge at least the bookshop price. The punters might even be willing to pay more, because they find the conjunction of book and author glamorous, and of course, you can sign the book for them. Post-Covid, I am trying to renew this kind of business. I gave a talk in Wiltshire recently, to the Pewsey Vale Railway Society (some of my books are about trains) and as I loaded the books into the rear of our Audi hatchback, I was reminded of those slightly rackety characters of my seventies childhood: the travelling salesmen, who kept their wares in the backs of their Ford Capris.

This is one way forward, for the modern mid-list author. In the absence of a substantial income, you exploit the nominal status of author, which is impressive to many non-authors. It can open doors to journalism, broadcasting and teaching as well as public speaking. If invited to any sort of authorial gig, I will take one of my free books along, using the book as a sort of business card — not as a product in itself, I mean, but as an advert for the product, which is me.

Andrew Martin writes fiction and nonfiction books. His nonfiction has often been about railways, and his novels include a series of historical thrillers set on the railways of the early twentieth century. His latest standalone novel is The Winker.

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