I had a very enjoyable Saturday, touring around a number of bookshops in, or just outside, the Lake District. The trip had been arranged by my publishers, and I had the pleasure of signing plenty of books – which is always something an author enjoys! But an even greater pleasure proved to be the chance to meet, and talk books with, quite a number of very likeable people.
The tour began in Lancaster, a city I know reasonably well from many visits over the years. In fact, it was over a restaurant dinner in Lancaster that I had a conversation that gave me the idea for the sub-plot of The Cipher Garden. This time I was calling at the Marketgate branch of Waterstones, where I had the chance to talk to both readers and members of staff, including Penny and Lynn.
Waterstones has changed over the years, and for quite a period of time it was difficult to avoid the feeling that there was heavy emphasis on bestsellers and "three-for-the-price-of-two" offers. Mid-list writers like me, who were given great support by Waterstones for many years, found it increasingly difficult to feature on the shelves. But things seem to be taking a real change for the better, following the change in ownership of the company. The impression I have is that the people at the top are taking the business in a new direction, not necessarily trying to compete simply on price with Amazon – which strikes me as a losing battle – but offering a crucial personal ingredient in bookselling with enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff. I'm sure that this is the right way to go from a business perspective, and it also makes Waterstones increasingly attractive to book buyers. I'm not saying the price isn't important, especially in tough economic times, but it is not the only factor that matters.
Then it was onto Kendal, one of my favourite northern towns, and one which features regularly in the Lake District Mysteries. Once again, the local Waterstones featured knowledgeable and – so very important – enthusiastic staff, managed by Caroline, who is clearly a real book lover. We all know that things are difficult in the retail sector these days, and staff who have a genuine passion for the products they sell are the key to making a success of any retail business in competing with online stores. Amazon reviews and ratings have become really important for writers – perhaps disproportionately so – but there's no doubt that word-of-mouth recommendation from readers and booksellers remains enormously valuable.
All in all, I was greatly heartened by these visits to Waterstones, not just from a personal perspective, but more generally as a book fan. And after that, it was on to two independent bookstores of great appeal – more about them soon.