Iain Murray: Bookselling sucked into the void of celebrity envy

Bookselling is not what it once was, and fame’s fickleness is a factor in deciding if a book is a hit or will fall victim to the Anthea Turner Equivalent

As any bookseller will tell you, reports that the Hubble telescope may have found the first evidence of a black hole, after detecting two blobs of gas being sucked into a massive invisible object in space, are erroneous.

An identical phenomenon was seen here on Earth before Christmas, when two blobs of gas known as Anthea Turner and Grant Bovey were sucked into a massive invisible object believed to be their popularity. Experts now agree that it never existed and that the star status accorded to Anthea had been mistaken. That she is merely an insignificant lump of rock drifting through a void was confirmed when the title of her autobiography Fools Rush In proved fallacious. Only 450 confirmed fools bought copies, leading booksellers Waterstone’s to coin the acronym ATE (Anthea Turner Equivalent) to describe a book which, despite the best efforts of the publicists, is destined to be a flop.

The book trade is not what it was. It was once a calling for gentlefolk. Every town in the kingdom used to boast a bookshop, usually run by an eccentric man or woman of middling years, who felt that being alone amongst the diverse pursuit known as “trade” bookselling had respectability.

It was the products that conferred special status. The bookseller could sit in the corner of his muddled shop, sipping Earl Grey from a cracked mug, swathed in the printed and bound creations of the finest minds down the centuries. Books were written by intelligent people for intelligent people, and to sell them for a living was, itself, a sign of intelligence.

If ever there was a labour of love, this was it. But it had its compensations. For man or woman of the peaceful, contemplative turn of mind that others mistake for indolence, running a bookshop had much to offer. Hours might pass undisturbed by the bell that heralded the ingress of a browser. Hours which the shopkeeper could pass in vacant mood. The companionship of giants combined with solitude seldom found in this bustling world. If physical exercise were needed to supplement the spiritual succour of the place, all one had to do was lift War and Peace, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the Collected Works of Dickens on to a top shelf.

When the curfew tolled the knell of passing day, all that remained for the bookseller to do was put down his crossword, turn off the lights, dust the cobwebs from a long forgotten customer, shut up shop and go home.

Now that genteel somnolence has gone, swept away by the onward rush of marketing, and the noisy clamour of a dumbed down world. The shopkeeper must contend with pushy reps, lurid point-of-sale displays and computerised stock keeping. Such respectability as was once attached to the business is difficult to maintain, among shelves stacked with The Little Book of Farting, The Ultimate Book of Farting, and the Little Book of Complete Bollocks, all current best sellers.

Today’s bookseller must have a hawk-like eye for tomorrow’s winners, a keen sense of sales trends and, above all, an ability to take the pulse of popular taste and plumb its depths.

It was into this maelstrom, this seething cauldron of blood-soaked commercialism, that Anthea launched her misbegotten oeuvre. In bookshops up and down the country the air stank with the aroma of burnt fingers.

Fran Massey, manager of Peak Books in Chesterfield, told the Bookseller that she was surprised by the flop. “We ordered a lot and sold one. We’ve had to reduce them and we’ll send back what’s left.”

The Bookseller knows where the blame lies. “The fickle finger of Fleet Street.” The problem faced by booksellers is, “how do they judge which celebrity will remain in fashion with the media when ordering in advance?”

This rather misses the point. It assumes that those whom Fleet Street chooses to take up and publicise are liked by the public.

For instance, it has become an orthodoxy that Anthony Blair is the most popular prime minister since time began; but, as Keith Waterhouse keeps pointing out in his column, no one you meet can stand the sight of him. In the age of celebrity it is possible to be popular but not liked.

Because Anthea Turner enjoys a sort of reclaim it does not follow that she is admired, still less that anyone should want to read her life story. The reaction to celebrity is an envy that borders on hatred, and there is no sound sweeter than the crash of a ruined reputation. Of course, instant fame excites instant celebrity, but only of a kind that is instantly satisfied. The prospect of Anthea, unrelieved and unremitting, between hard covers proved resistible to millions.

In creating the ATE effect, Anthea and her publisher Little, Brown have done the book trade a service. From now on there will be no excuse for confusing celebrity with popularity or megaphone marketing with success. Not that that will stop people trying.

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