Friday, February 12, 2010

What working in a public library taught me

Spend a year working the loans desk in a public library and you will learn a lot about what people like to read.

You see who gets checked out over and over again, whose backlists get chased up by readers who, having discovered a great storyteller, then want to read everything they've ever written.

You notice whose backlists, though they may have departed the scene in the pressure-cooker world of the book shop, have settled into a long loan life on the library shelves.

You notice the titles and authors that you constantly seem to be re-shelving, only to be checking them out again a few hours later.

Working the loans desk of a public library taught me that people like to be told stories.  Maybe it's in our DNA. Maybe it goes all the way back to caves and fires and who spun the best yarn about that day's hunt.

The punters in the library taught me a few things. They'll read badly written books that tell good stories, but they get really excited over well-written books that tell good stories.  If you think that they can't tell the difference between those two kinds of books - you'd be wrong.

"Beautifully written" books, but ones that bring no plot to the party, or contain unbelievable characters, or where the writers seem to be more interested in being difficult, or clever, or showing off for a small coterie of critics,  well, they arrive with a buzz and sometimes a hold list, then get returned with a sigh, their spines barely wrinkled.  They sit on the shelves, pristine, to await the dreaded weeder. If they're lucky, there's always the chance a book club will set them as homework.

And all this is a long way of recommending a couple of interesting reads on this very subject.

For another salvo in the ever popular argument about whether "good" books = "difficult" books. Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard according to Lev Grossman in the Wall Street Journal, discovers - again - that people love plot.


James Patterson was one of those writers I'd curse as I tried to shove in yet another copy onto a shelf chock-a-block with his healthy backlist, only to find the shelf emptied out a few hours later. So if you want to know how that happened James Patterson Inc. tells the story of a man now too busy to even write his own books, he has "people" to do that!  That's what I call writing to a formula.

Thanks to Lenny Bartulin for the Grossman link and to thanks to Call My Agent for the Patterson link.

There are other things I learnt working in a public library - and once I've finished therapy I might tell you about them.

Now - back to copy edit ................  I'm just going outside; I may be away some time