Look through a basement window in my corner of north London and chances are there will be someone sitting behind a laptop, chewing a pencil and contemplating the wreckage that is chapter five. There are certainly more people writing books than reading books, which would explain the expressions on the faces of the people who work in my local bookshop.
They probably thought their job was selling books. In fact it is to move books back to where they are supposed to be from the prominent position in which their author covertly placed them five minutes before. It is also to deal with customers who ask if a book is in stock, and who, when it isn't, won't place an order but instead start sweating, because they are of course the author pretending to be a normal person.
There are many thousands of us, and we are all gradually losing our minds.
My case may be more extreme because I had another book out at the beginning of the year, so this has been going on for months. In April we went on holiday to Cornwall, and when one of our housemates announced that she was going to drive 45 minutes to Truro, I went with her, purely in order to see how many copies of my book were in Ottakar's and, if there were any, to move them into more prominent positions. (There were four. One I shifted from Pregnancy & Childcare to Humour, just in case.)
And what if your book isn't in a particular bookshop? This may explain that man you saw in Waterstone's the other day breaking down in tears at the Military History section. Later on, pouring red wine down our throats with a funnel, we try and rationalise it all. Maybe they have sold out. Maybe all the bookshops are selling out and the publisher is reprinting and it's all going so well that no one has got round to telling me yet. Or maybe they have already given up on it. (Not wholly unlikely. I know someone whose latest novel had amazing, career-defining reviews. The first print run sold out, but the publishers aren't reprinting, because they don't think it will sell any more. Which it won't if it's out of print.)
Then there are the sales ranks on Amazon. It astounds me that no one has sued these people for mental cruelty. Because the rankings are updated hourly, there is no escape. Right now your book might be 1,024th. At 3pm it'll be 4,678th. I went on a TV show to plug my book and had another tentative look. Up to 60th. Several hours later 36th. Next day it edged up the chart to a peak of 29th, a number I will remember until I die. Then I looked one time too many: 536th. My publisher says that a sales rank on Amazon is the author's equivalent of those little mirrors they put in budgies' cages. You think it's your best friend but in reality it's completely meaningless.
What of reviews? Julian Barnes says he never reads them, good or bad. This may be wise, because you only ever get unequivocally good reviews once, usually at the beginning of your career. As soon as anyone knows who you are, the tenor of reviews changes subtly, and sometimes not so subtly.
I should say that I don't read my reviews either. I should say it, but it's not true. I sprint up to the newsagents every morning and leaf through all the papers just in case. Good reviews I learn by heart. Bad ones make my muscles burst through my shirt and my skin turn green. Last week some old fool in a review called me "a Tory". I wrote maybe a dozen letters to him, many of them at three o'clock in the morning and all of them insane. If I didn't have a book out I wouldn't have given a monkey's. Fortunately there is one significant way you can help me: buy all my books today.
Marcus Berkmann's 'Fatherhood' is published by Vermilion at £10.99; his 'Zimmer Men' is published by Little, Brown at £16.99Reuse content