Let's get the book on the road

Getting published isn't enough. Now novelists have to charm the booksellers. Peter Guttridge went on the schmooze with The Future of Fiction, four writers in search of a window-display

The Future of Fiction is stuck in fog on the M6. A group of writers selected by publisher Hodder & Stoughton as its brightest literary hopes are en route in a minibus to Manchester for the first gig on a tour of Northern booksellers. Gig? Ok, so literature isn't rock 'n' roll and we're talking mints and chocolate eggs not Jack Daniels and coke on the bus but yes, Gig. This disparate bunch of men and women, who look at first sight like a multiple blind date gone horribly wrong, are expected to put on a show to convince booksellers to stock and sell their novels.

This kind of thing never used to be in a writer's job description but the four authors on the bus - they'll be joined by two more in Manchester - seem quite sanguine about it.

Eric Zancey, a relaxed American academic in his early forties, has already promoted his debut novel, Panama, in the US where it has been a substantial critical and commercial success.

Amanda Brookfield, who has received outstanding reviews for her work since her debut 10 years ago at the age of 25, is a former ad executive and wife of a diplomat-turned-banker. She is well used to meeting and greeting.

Henry Sutton looks like he just got out of bed. A rumpled, somehow other- worldly figure in his early thirties, his Gorleston came out before Christmas to excellent reviews. "It sold 550 copies in the local bookshop in Gorleston,'' he says. "The bookseller told me: 'I did my double glazing with that.' ''

Only Kate Mosse shows any sign of tension. Whey-faced and wired, she has spent the past few days putting the finishing touches to preparations for the launch of the Orange Fiction Prize, which she is administering. Aged 33, her first novel Eskimo Kisses is a moving story about adopted sisters which has already been snapped up for television.

The four authors are chatting amiably about the relative merits of Marmite and haggis (Zancey's American freinds have warned him to steer clear of both on the trip), when the bus driver interrupts them and, as they approach the outskirts of Manchester, proceeds to give them a pep talk about the evening ahead. The driver is Sheena Walshaw, their Hodder handler and PR minder, and the brains behind The Future of Fiction. This is her third roadshow, so she gives the authors the benefit of her experience: they are, above all, to keep it brief. When they get behind the microphone they are not to break into a spontaneous reading of their favourite passages, nor are they to start raging against the end of the net book agreement or calling for an end to the Rushdie fatwa. This is no poetry slam or awards ceremony. They are simply to introduce themselves to the assembled booksellers then get down to the core business of talking to them individually. "You've got a minute each, no more,'' Walshaw warns. She's determined that if anything should glaze the eyes of the audience, it should be the free booze and not the egotistical blatherings of some people she could (but won't) mention from previous outings.

At the hotel, the writers meet in the bar at 6.30. Chaz Brenchley, an established horror writer in his late thirties, joins them there. In black shades, baseball cap and beard, he looks like a serial killer, but sports a black cat badge on his shirt front to remind him of the pets he's left at home in Newcastle. The shades are welcome protection from the sight of the sixth author, Adrian Mourby, whose floral waistcoat, red bow tie, blue shirt and red jacket work better on radio (to which he is a regular contributor).

The writers pile into taxies and 90 seconds later pile out again, rather sheepishly, as they reach their destination some 500 yards down the road - a cafe bar that is already filling up with booksellers. Waterstone's and Dillons are at tables down one wall. Against the other wall is a table from another Waterstone's branch. The writers are warned, sotto voce, that the two Waterstone's branches are deadly rivals.

"Is Manchester Airport here yet?'', Walshaw asks Hodder's regional sales rep whose job it will be to follow up this evening with firm orders for the books. The WH Smith branch at the airport is probably the most important in the region. The writers are looking a good deal less comfortable than they were on the bus. The airport people arrive along with a Liverpool contingent from John Menzies and a station bookshop. The writers are gathered to make their addresses to the assembled throng.

They introduce themselves in alphabetical order. They keep to their time limits. Then for the next two hours, the authors move from table to table, getting down to business. They have to work hard. The booksellers - despite the tender years of many of them - are a jaded lot. At a table by the door a triumvirate of women, their table awash with spilt red wine, summon the writers imperiously one by one to entertain them.

Next day en route to Leeds, the writers compare experiences. "Somebody asked me if I had deliberately chosen my name so that my books would be next to Anita Brookner on the shelves,'' Brookfield says. (Her name is her own.)

"That couple from Liverpool said that if they had their way, authors would have to bungee-jump naked across the streets to promote their books,'' Sutton remarks with a frown.

The affable, still brightly dressed Mourby keeps a slight distance. He comes in for some good-natured ribbing for working on his laptop and fielding mobile phone calls during the journey. He is also teased for apparently noting down the names of all the booksellers he talked with in Manchester.

The evening in Leeds is more intimate, more subdued. In a restaurant by the river there are about 25 booksellers, nearly all sitting in a line with their backs to a wall. As in Manchester, the staff from the two Leeds Waterstone's sit about as far apart as they possibly can.

Half a dozen sullen young men and a couple of young women are determined to remain unimpressed. "I'm here because the rep asked us to come to make him look good in front of his bosses,'' one says. But they all love books. They must do - nobody works in a bookshop for the money.

Sutton reassures an elderly couple from Wetherby there will be "no geriatric sex, no octogenarian Mickey Rourke'' in his second novel as there was in Gorleston. They seem rather disappointed.

"People usually think you are writing about yourself'' Brookfield tells an attentive group. "For my first novel I wanted to write about an episode where a respectable woman is mistaken for a whore. I was 25 at the time so nobody thought to say it was me - they all said it was my mother.''

A journalist friend of Mourby's from Sheffield turns up midway through the evening a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other and she starts to tell a funny story, liberally spiced with expletives. For those who have read Mourby's first novel, New Man, there is something naggingly familiar about her. She is, she is happy to admit, the thinly disguised original of a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, hard-drinking but good-hearted character in Mourby's novel. It's a neat little stunt: whatever you think about Mourby as a novelist, any man who can bring a fictional character to life has all the makings of a brilliant self-publicist.

Back in the bar in their hotel, the writers ponder whether the tour will translate into book sales. They all want to sell well but, Mourby included, they are all a bit iffy about how far they're prepared to go to sell themselves. "One of the Manchester booksellers says she always gets a nice postcard from Maeve Binchy - whom she's never met - when a new book is due out," says one. "I heard Edwina Currie keeps little index cards with personal details on them about all the people she meets so she can ask about their families next time she sees them,'' says another. It all sounds a bit too much like hard work.

But they're learning fast. Before they leave Leeds the next morning each one of them asks Mourby for a copy of the list he has supposedly made of the booksellers they've met. Perhaps it was their little joke. But then again, perhaps not.

n Chas Brenchley's 'Dead of Light', Eric Zancey's 'Panama' and Henry Sutton's 'Gorleston' are all out now

n Adrian Mourby's 'We Think The World of Him' is published early February; Amanda Brookfield's 'A Summer Affair' is published 7 March; Kate Mosse's 'Eskimo Kisses' will be published in June

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