Thursday, 25 July 2013

What's the point of book launches?

Last night I was one of  thirty or forty people attending the book launch of my friend Michael Eaton's translation, The Priest of Nemi, by Ernest Renan. This philosophical drama was first published in 1886 and has not, according to Michael, been performed since then. The work - in its day - had a big influence on The Golden Bough, the study of magic and religion which once was seen on the shelves of every bibliophile of a certain age. This, then, is not a book likely to appear as a three-for-two. It's good though, with many colour illustrations, made possibly by the low print run!
At the end of Michael's introduction to the history of the play, and the Nemi remains currently on exhibition at Nottingham Castle after a generation hidden in their stores, he said - I paraphrase only slightly - "Right, lots of you are authors. I've come to your book launches and bought your bloody books. Now it's your turn, buy mine." And we did. Nobody minded Michael's exhortation and all the copies brought along by Shoestring Press, his publisher, were sold.
Over the evening I had a glass of orange juice and half a glass of rotten win (Shoestring, honestly!), had a long discussion with the publisher, a further long discussion with a Five Leaves writer about a forthcoming book, exchanged some trade gossip with another publisher, nagged someone to finish their contribution to one of our forthcoming books and passed briefer moments with people I'd known for years. The venue, Bromley House in Nottingham, is perfect for small launches - many of those present are members of this private library. So a pleasant couple of hours, including a stint washing the wine glasses at the end.
Michael's work was duly honoured, the publisher had (what Peter Mortimer of Iron Press described as the purpose of a launch) a financial lining on his stomach for bringing out the book and twenty or so people were a tenner poorer than when they arrived.
We will, I hope, all be pleased to see the book out. The author was probably well-known to most of those there, the remainder were either camp followers of Shoestring or the usual flotsam and jetsam of literary Nottingham reinforcing our friendships, seeing and being seen. At worst, no harm to it. At best, further reinforcement to our local literary culture.
But it means that twenty or so houses have yet another book, and we will all turn up next time to do what Michael said - we buy each other's books. Is this just an in-group ritual? Actually, no. For many of the books launched at such events it may be the only time the author gets to speak to a good crowd, books that we would never see on High Street bookshop shelves get an airing, and a selling. It does support the publisher financially to enable them to turn outwards. And it is part of the personal price we pay - a tax if you like - to be part of a literature scene. Anyway, a good night out for a tenner with a book to read afterwards is pretty good value. Meanwhile, over at Waterstones, 66 managers have had the boot, including many with long service to the trade. I can't work out the connections between our generally supportive literature scene and the hard commerce of the big boys. Perhaps there is none.

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