BACK in 1973, as a naif coming to London, all long hair and flared cords wondering how to get tickets for Led Zeppelin and Arsenal, I turned up to start a French degree at Bedford College in Regent’s Park, part of London University.
There, I was given a list of books I needed for the course. It was going to be expensive but in those misty-eyed fortunate days, I had a grant from Dorset County Council and felt I ought to buy them. And so off I trundled, through Regent’s Park, round Outer Circle and down to the Euston Road to save the tube fare, to the university bookshop, Dillons in Gower Street.
Dillons is now Waterstones. And it is strange how life pans out. Last week, more than 40 years on, I found myself in the basement there, not to buy French texts - few of which would be read (until much later in life) though whose very purchase gave me the comfortable illusion that I was a good student - but to take part in the inaugural Unbound Pledge Party.
What that? Well, eight authors had been selected at random from the Unbound list to pitch their books in front of an audience. A brave and talented group they were too; the other magnificent seven, that is – David Quantick, Emily Hill, Emma Jones, Henrietta Heald, Tabatha Stirling, Richard Todd and William Horwood. Do check out their books on the ‘Discover’ page.
The idea was that authors had five minutes to ‘sell’ their book, in what was billed as a literary Dragon’s Den. All of us were nervous. We are writers, not performers, after all. The last time I remember being so nervous was when I attempted stand-up on an open mike night at the old Comedy Store in Leicester Square in the mid-1980s…
It was late at night/early morning when I got on, after the ‘proper’ comics like Julian Clary and his then famous Fanny the Wonder Dog, Nick Hancock and Jeremy Hardy.
As I told the audience (at around 100, much larger than I had anticipated) at Gower Street last week, my most vivid memory was of two bored young women in the front row spitting at my shoes. It disconcerted me somewhat and within three minutes, I had been heckled off.
Afterwards, a sympathetic comedy writer approached me and said that some of the material wasn’t too bad and if I did want to go into the business, I should not charge less than £5 a minute. That’s time for a comedian to deliver the material, by the way, to those writers among us who struggle to get £5 an hour for what they do.
Thankfully, the audience last week was rather less, shall we say, rabid. In fact, they were very supportive, listening respectfully and even laughing at the right moments. Instead of three minutes, I made it through the full five.
At the end, I felt like saying: “Yo, Gower Street, Waterstones, Unbound, we love ya.” That moment just before the event - when I turned to a fellow author and said: “This seemed such a good idea when they asked if I was up for it,” and she replied: “Yes, and I agreed because I didn’t think it was going to happen.” – had given way to a feeling of relief.
I can’t, in all honesty, say it has resulted in many more direct pledges; just a few – all welcome of course. It also prompted me to pledge for somebody whose book I liked the sound of. The main benefits of the experience, however, were to expose me to fellow book lovers, with the comfort of camaraderie that evokes, and to give me new impetus to get my novel out there.
Since then, with the help of my wife Vikki, I have pushed it again and the result has been pledges pleasingly coming in over the last few days. The Outer Circle passed 70 per cent in the days after the event, the point at which the majority of books go on to get published on Unbound, I have been told.
The ‘Pledge Party’ also caused me to reflect on how things turn out… how I set the kernel of my novel in my favourite part of London – Regent’s Park, where I went to college, and whose nooks and crannies I know so well. Calling it The Outer Circle. And how that process took me back to the site of the old Dillons where I bought books, this time to try and sell one.
Unbound are planning to stage these pledge parties regularly and I would recommend that any author worrying about appearing at one should give it a go. People, I found, want you to do well. It was heartening. I was among fellow bibliophiles who understood your nerves and soothed them.
I thank them and will thank all who pledge for The Outer Circle. One thing I promise: you will not find the phrases ‘strong and stable’ and ‘coalition of chaos’ anywhere in its pages.
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