Monday 19 March 2012

Hints for authors from Waterstones' Martin Latham

by Teri Terry
Martin Latham is the longest serving Waterstones Manager, having been appointed by legendary entrepreneur and founder, Tim Waterstone. He has authored 130 entries in the Oxford Guide to English Literature, and regularly features in the Bookseller. If that isn't enough, he somehow found the time to start a highly successful writing group at his Canterbury Branch, and author a few books himself. 
Martin recently came to speak to the Chiltern Writers on getting your book featured in a bookstore and how to promote it. I was there, pen in hand. Slated is out in 44 days, after all...not that I'm counting. So any tricks of the trade I can learn are very welcome! I even broke my usual 'don't sit in the front row' rule in the aid of accurate blogging. More amazingly I not only remembered to take my camera along, I also remembered to use it.

Canterbury Waterstones opened in 1990. Since then employees have included Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell; Hollyoaks script writer and author Matt Evans; James Henry, co-author of scripts for Bob the Builder, Smack the Pony and many othersand an ever growing list of literary notables (more here). 

Neil Gaiman: sigh....
And the building has history: a Roman bathhouse floor and medieval wall in the basement, and what is believed to be the oldest working escalator between London and Paris. Past author events have included Bill Bryson, Nigella Lawson, and Neil Gaiman. I'm sure the authors I picked to name say something about me: more examples are given here and it is quite a list. Children's authors along have been J.K. Rowling (for book 2), Philip Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson, Louis Sachar and Michael Morpugo. WOW.

Looking at the names might make a new author nervous: can we get our foot in a door like this? Should we even try?

Martin's answer is YES. Local authors are particularly welcome. And this is in part due to this:

The biggest change in the book trade in the 20th Century? Publishers aren't in charge anymore. 

Martin says the balance has changed. In years gone by, publishers would tell them what books they were going to stock and how many of them they were going to get in. Not so anymore. 

Top tips for getting yourself and your book in your local bookstore:

  • no stalking allowed: booksellers are stressed and hard-pressed. Email the manager first. Follow it up if you don't hear back, arrange to go in and give them a copy of your book or proof
  • NEVER bother them in December. They're busy
  • don't be too pushy; always be professional
  • manners count: be nice to the staff. Hearing that an author was rude to employees will not make a manager favorably disposed to you or your book
  • make fliers on your book to be placed near the till: they'll generally take them!
Top tips on bookstore events:

  • signing sessions don't work unless you are famous: you need to stage an event. Give a talk, or hold a launch party. Also note that you may not manage to persuade press to come along, but if you send them a report with photos, they may very well report on the event
  • plan at least 2 months in advance: booksellers need that kind of notice
  • readings are not always the best idea: unless the author can read with dramatic flair, they may fall flat
I'd love to tell you some of Martin's author anecdotes, but I couldn't possibly. It would be horribly indiscreet. Suffice it to say that not drinking wine before giving an event sounds like a very, very good idea


  1. I want to have a go on the escalator that goes between London and Paris! Sounds much more fun than Eurostar. Maybe I could have my launch party on it? Better get planning . . .

    Terry, I'm looking forward to coming to your launch!

    1. I'd come to a launch held on an escalator: what an adventure!

  2. My local waterstones is always very supportive of local writers and local writing events. We couldn't manage without them!

  3. Thanks, Teri -and Martin. Our local Waterstone's has been fantastic. We hold our critique groups there, I had my launch there (with another coming soon-ish), I've done events and they really support them. Long live Waterstone's.

  4. Thanks for the tips Teri and Martin.
    This is obviously something I haven't tackled yet but I have played dodge the dodgey author in bookshops. I'm not sure accosting the innnocent public with 'look, I've written a book, please listen to a ten minute pitch' can be good for sales but some authors do it, don't they? I often say I'll buy it and then quietly put it on a pile somewhere else, is that terrible of me? Yes? No? Maybe? But what if I'm late for a cappuccino and they won't stop talking?

    1. so funny! that has never happened to me, but I'll try to avoid that approach

  5. That is so uber useful! A real sign of the times that Notes from the Slushpile is featuring booksellers! So did you slip him your phone number?

    1. Who, me?!
      Of course not. I just gave him my email address, Slated promo card, a proof....

  6. My goodness Waterstones! Hope they ride the economic storm and remain open with lots of print books to sell! :-)

    I hope wine is allowed AFTER an event! :-)

    Take care

  7. Brilliant, Teri! I used to run bookshops and hosted many events including one when the nameless author turned up after been wined and not dined - lots of very dubious jokes and scrawled signatures. Good advice.
    I might add. Never dress up as the BFG on a hot summer's day in a shop with no air conditioning unless you want to traumatise young children.

  8. As ever, bang on the zeitgeist Slushpilers...interesting article about Waterstones by Mary Portas in this weeks Telegraph - got to love a good bookshop. ( Can't quite get used to leaving out the apostrophe though....)

  9. Thank you for these tips! Great stuff. I never would have thought of the flyers, but especially for local bookstores, that is an easy step to help encourage sales.



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