Bestseller lists: the envy of writers

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Some years ago I spotted an item in our local paper,
The Bath Chronicle, headed "This Week's Bestselling Books", and as writers do, I immediately turned to it to envy the bestselling authors listed, and to sneer at the poor taste of the deluded public who buy block-buster books not written by me.

Some years ago I spotted an item in our local paper, The Bath Chronicle, headed "This Week's Bestselling Books", and as writers do, I immediately turned to it to envy the bestselling authors listed, and to sneer at the poor taste of the deluded public who buy block-buster books not written by me.

I got the shock of my life.

The Number One Bestselling Book was one I had never heard of, called Corsham In Old Photographs. Now, most people reading this will never have heard of Corsham, let alone the book of old photos named after it. Corsham is a small town just off the A4 between Bath and Chippenham. It's pretty, but I could not for the life of me see why a book of old photographs of the place would be a national bestseller.

Until I looked at the bottom of the list.

It said: "Based on returns from the Bookshop, Corsham".

Of course! If you base a bestseller list on the returns from just one bookshop, then it stands to reason that a local bestseller will have a good chance of coming top of the list, above all your John le Carrés and your J K Rowlings. Go to a bookshop in Devizes and you may well find that Corsham In Old Photographs has not sold a single copy, but that something like Wartime Devizes: A Portrait is a rampant and runaway bestseller...

I like the idea of the localised bestseller. My local bookshop has got one on its hands at the moment. I am talking about Ex Libris, a favourite haunt of mine in Bradford-on-Avon. It stands in the little street known as the Shambles which is stuffed full of the sort of shops that people go to Bath for and have trouble finding. Ex Libris has new books in front, and secondhand books up the back in an old barn called The Old Barn.

The best reason, though, for going to Ex Libris rather than Waterstone's, say, is that Ex Libris can get any known book miles quicker than Waterstone's. It's true. I go to Waterstone's in Bath and, if they haven't got a book, they say they can get it in a week or two. I go to Ex Libris, and Roger or Jim say they can get it by tomorrow or maybe the day after. So I always get it from Ex Libris because they do not seem to be tied into one single distribution system which cripples them, as Waterstone's seems to be.

Anyway, Roger Jones, the boss, is also a publisher of enterprising local histories and books of walks, and recently he has published Avoncliff: the Secret History of a Hamlet in War and Peace by Nick McCamley. It is selling very well. It deserves to. I have read it, and it is a very funny, very informative and very page-turning account of a village in the Avon Valley which has had everything happen to it, including weird wartime goings-on down the old quarries. People in Bradford-on-Avon have actually brought it up in conversation with me in a way they haven't done with The Da Vinci Code. "Read the Avoncliff book?" they say. "Damned good, isn't it?"

So if The Bath Chronicle did a bestseller list based on returns from Ex Libris in Bradford-on-Avon, Avoncliff: The Secret History of a Hamlet in War and Peace would probably be number one.

If, however, The Bath Chronicle did a bestseller list based on returns from Waterstone's in Bath, the Avoncliff book would not appear in the top 5,000.

Do you know why? Because Waterstone's are now unwilling to stock anything published by small independent publishers, and Roger has received a letter from Waterstone's HQ telling him that his books will not be displayed or offered for sale in their shops.

More of this tomorrow.

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