On Wearing Two Hats
Being both a writer and a bookseller often sits weirdly with me. Not quite as weirdly as the personal trainer who told me he was moonlighting as a pastry chef, but there’s definitely some conflict there. “I’ve met lots of authors who are also booksellers,” another writer friend tells me. “Surely it’s all part of one long process: you write your books, but you also get the excitement of receiving them in the shop, putting them on face-out, talking them up to customers. Plus, as a bookseller you’re perfectly placed at the front-line of publishing to see what’s selling, the surprise successes, the unexpected failures. This would help your own writing, wouldn’t it?”
Perhaps. If you’re a masochist.
The schizophrenic reality of wearing both a writer’s hat and a bookseller’s hat goes something like this.
Customer at counter: Do you know much about these two novels?
Bookseller Me: Yes. This one is nominated for the Miles Franklin. It’s had fabulous reviews. My colleagues and I all loved it.
Customer: What about this one?
Writer Me: Well, yes, I know that one too. I wrote it.
Customer: (laughing) You. Wrote. This?
Writer Me: Yes.
Customer: (looking over my shoulder, presumably for the real author to appear). Oh my God. Seriously? That’s great. You must be very proud of yourself?
Writer Me: (aside) Actually, I think I could do the next one so much better. I kind of wrote that one blind and off the seats of my pants.
Bookseller Me (aside): Just say thanks, you idiot.
Writer Me: Thanks.
Customer: I’d better buy it now I’ve met the author, hadn’t I?
Writer Me (guiltily): You don’t have to, really. Don’t feel obliged.
Bookseller Me (gagging Writer Me): But I think you’ll enjoy it. And I can sign it for you if you’d like.
Or sometimes it might go more like this:
Customer: I’m looking for a new book for the holidays.
Bookseller Me: What sort of novels do you like reading?
Customer: I like books with a proper story, some action, a bit of romance, but not too fluffy. Some travel in it is good, or something cultural.
Bookseller Me: Historical?
Customer: Oh yes. I love historical fiction.
Writer Me (aside to Bookseller Me): That sounds like our book.
Bookseller Me (aside): It does. Let’s show her our book. She’ll love it.
Writer Me (aside): No, no, don’t do that. It’s so pushy and self-promoting. It makes me cringe.
Bookseller Me (aside): But that’s my job: I push and promote books. I do it for other authors all the time, why not us? If the boot fits …
Writer me (aside): But what if she hates it? She might come back into the shop and you’ll have to ask her if she liked your own book and she might say no. I’m not sure I’ll be able to write tomorrow with the weight of that on my shoulders.
Bookseller Me (aside): Would you just man up? Anyway, it’s your day off. I’m working now, so zip it.
Bookseller Me (to customer): I have just the book for you.
Customer: Have you read it?
Bookseller Me: Actually, I wrote it.
Customer (looking me up and down and nodding thoughtfully): Wow, that’s great. Well done. I’ll keep it in mind while I have a look around.
Writer Me (aside to Bookseller Me): See I told you so.
Bookseller Me (aside): What?
Writer Me (aside): She’s doing the frown.
Bookseller Me (aside): What frown?
Writer Me (aside): The frown that says, “It can’t be that good. You’re still working in a book shop.”
I often tell my creative writing students (my third part-time job, but that’s another story), if you really want to know whether you’re cut out to be a writer, get a job in a bookstore. Working in a bookstore is a baptism by fire: burn up or be converted. In a bookshop, you will be surrounded by the reality of receiving hundreds of new books a month, sometimes by authors who’ve had two new releases published in the time it takes you to write one chapter of your draft novel. You will face the ongoing dilemma of shelving limitations, the pain of having to bump recent novels by your favourite writers off the New Releases table to accommodate yet another Patterson or Archer or Rowling. You will learn with horror that new fiction (which may have taken two or three years to write) has a shelf life similar to a pot of yogurt in the supermarket, and you will be heartbroken every day returning your friends’ debuts not because they weren’t fabulous or you didn’t flog them harder than a horse in the Melbourne Cup, but simply because they were unknown commodities with few marketing dollars behind them facing readers who like to stick to the familiar. If after all of this, you still go home, open your novel and keep typing, then you really have got it bad. Writing is in your blood and there’s not a lot you can do about it. You keep your 5am appointments with the desk, you keep opening those ADS and UBD deliveries at work, and one day, hopefully, you’ll open a box and take out your own book (which is pretty bloody satisfying, I have to admit). Then, maybe, the debate will go something like this:
Bookseller Me: Wow. Our book. It looks great. Quick. Let’s get it face out and in the window.
Writer Me: No, don’t do that. It’s so pushy and self-promoting.
Bookseller Me: Shut up. We need to sell it. You wrote it for people to read. You deserve it to sell.
Writer Me: Yes, I do … but, you know what? I probably would have written it anyway.
Jo_Riccioni is the winner of the 2016 Margaret River Short Story Competition for her story Shibboleth. Her stories have appeared in Best Australian Stories 2010 and 2011, The Age, and literary journals in Australia and the UK. Her first novel, The Italians at Cleat’s Corner Store, won the International Rubery Award for Fiction in 2015. She is currently working on her first short story collection, Can’t Take the Country out of the Boy, the title story of which has been optioned for a short film.
Image credit: ‘Books, Book Store’ via Pixabay