Tarts. That’s what we are, really, us writers. Not just in the general sense of loving attention – also in the more specific, ‘professional’ meaning of the word. Our living depends on how good we are at attracting people’s attention and, more importantly, their money. We deploy all sorts of tricks to achieve this, above and beyond the actual content of our books. They’re the literary equivalents of fishnet stockings and bright red lipstick. It was only chatting to a friend recently that I realised just how many tricks there are.
Travis Elborough and I had met for a drink, and he arrived bearing a copy of his new book, London Bridge in America. Travis had been keeping me updated as he researched the story of how London Bridge came to be bought in 1968 by a multi-millionaire American, then reassembled in the Arizona desert. So I was intrigued to see the final product.
‘Great cover,’ was my first comment. It superimposes a black-and-white picture of the bridge in its London days (complete with horse-drawn carts) on a colour picture of the desert, the title bursting out in vivid red, white and blue, the subtitle drawing you in further: ‘The Tall Story of a Transatlantic Crossing’. Travis and I agreed that there are few proverbs more vacuous than ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. What else, given three seconds in Waterstone’s, are you going to judge it by?
Then, turning the book over, I read the quotes praising one of Travis’s previous books, Wish You Were Here (about the English seaside). ‘I see that the Sunday Telegraph called you a “cultural historian”,’ I said.
Travis nodded. ‘But I think you’ll find, should you read on, that they added “although that seems too pompous a phrase for such an amusing and sprite-like writer”.’ A polish of his nails on the lapel of his jacket, then Travis was off to the bar to get some drinks in. There was time when he was gone for me to flick through and pick out a few details from the text itself, most memorably that one of the performers at the bridge’s 1831 opening had an act that consisted of ‘playing tunes upon his chin with his fists’. But when Travis came back the conversation turned to all the peripheral things – like the cover and quotes about previous books – with which writers and publishers try to hawk their wares.
Celebrity endorsements are a key tool. British publishing has now reached the stage where you’re astonished to see a book that doesn’t have praise from Stephen Fry on its cover. Tim Bentinck, who as well as acting in everything from The Archers to The Thick of It also found time to write the biography of French poet Paul Déaveroin, cashed in on this by putting ‘I haven’t read it – Stephen Fry’ underneath the title.
Acknowledgements are another arena where you can display a turn of phrase that might charm the casual bookshop browser. This time Travis has thanked someone for ‘proffering fish and chips in Hollywood’. Nothing worse than authors who insist on doling out thanks to those ‘who helped this book be everything it could’, or a spouse for ‘nourishing my soul with her every deed’. Author biographies are another area where things can go wrong. An editor and I once caught sight of a novel whose writer was said to ‘divide his time between London and New York’. We both involuntarily emitted the same two-word phrase, fifty per cent of which was ‘off’. ‘You’re just never going to warm to someone like that, are you?’ asked Richard. We’d have far more respect, we decided, for an author biog reading: ‘He divides his time between Wetherspoon’s and Ladbroke’s.’
Then, of course, there are a book’s illustrations, as well as its contents page, useful for displaying curiosity-piquing chapter titles. Travis has a whole chapter on whether we should believe the famous story that the Americans actually thought they were buying Tower Bridge – he’s called it ‘TB or Not TB’. In my next book, currently under construction, I’m also adding chapter subtitles. The ones you get at the beginning of the chapter in question, not on the contents page, the kind that every book had in centuries past: ‘In which our hero travels to x, does y and meets z.’ I got the idea while reviewing Rod Stewart’s autobiography for the magazine a couple of months ago. Every one of his chapters has them, including ‘In which our hero recounts a visit to Buckingham Palace in unconventional neckwear, and rules out golf.’
Another less obvious device is the index. In the old days these were dry and academic, and if anything liable to lose rather than gain you potential readers. But then along came Willie Donaldson. The cross-referencing in his Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics was nothing less than a work of art. A typical entry ran: ‘Jesus, believing oneself to be having carnal relations with. See Edinburgh, Prince Philip, Duke of.’ It inspired a whole generation of writers who, like Travis and me, write books that don’t really need indexes but put them in anyway in the hope of grabbing people’s attention. One of mine included: ‘Blair, Tony – inclination to shoot Clare Short, 192 – uses own fingers to count with, 281’. Travis once wrote: ‘Mockney indie acts – see Blur’. He deliberately didn’t include an index in Wish You Were Here, though, figuring that if someone looked up their own home town and found it wasn’t there they’d instantly lose interest.
So as far as writers are concerned, a book is never just a book. It’s a series of tactics to try and get you to buy the book.
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