Surely reading in the bath is one of life’s great pleasures? In fact I’d argue that this is one of the best places to read a book. Wallowing in warm water, perhaps scented Neal’s Yard bath oil – though I certainly don’t insist on that – maybe with a glass of wine or, better, an icy gin and tonic, at one’s elbow – what could be more sybaritic? Though actually it is only plenty of hot water and a book that are essential as a way of combining two of my favourite things. Looking back at my first term at university I see myself in a bath on the top floor of Latimer House, a fine Edwardian building in the grounds of College Hall in Leicester, reading Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy for what in retrospect seems hours on end. Did my fellow students get to the point of slipping notes under the door? I rather think they did. I was doing a degree in English Literature, which also encompassed Greek tragedy, American literature and so on, so I suppose I could argue that it was work in a way. But really I was reading widely and voraciously just for pleasure and eighteen is a great age for that. I still read in the bath, though it is rarely for hours these days, and it is one of the foremost reasons why my ebook reader will never completely supersede the printed book. I have been tempted once or twice, but I so far have managed to refrain from reading my Kindle in the bath. That way disaster lies. No, the answer is to have at least two books on the go – I sometimes have more – and make sure one is always appropriate for bath-time reading. So currently I am reading as a paperback, Tail of the Blue Bird by Ghanaian writer, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, in preparation for next week’s meeting of my book group. On my Kindle I am reading Seventy-Seven Clocks by Christopher Fowler, the third in the Bryant and May series.
There is a wonderful organisation called The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society which collects photocopying rights on behalf of authors. Every year they send me some money – not a great deal – but as with Public Lending Rights, it does mean that I am getting a little extra payment, maybe £100 or £200 for all those copies that end up in libraries or which, for some reason, are photocopied. Some months ago I was surprised to find that a sum several times larger than usual had appeared in my bank account. When the statement came from ALCS it showed that the entire amount came from photocopies made in Denmark, simply listed as ‘Crime in Fiction.’ Mystifying. I bunged the statement into my intray, meaning to follow it up, but only today got round to ringing ALCS. In my heart of hearts I wondered if it might be a mistake and the money might be owed to someone else. But no, it was mine alright for photocopies of a short story, ‘The Lammergeier Vulture,’ that appeared in a CWA anthology CRIME ON THE MOVE in 2005, the first one I ever had published, and also for copies from my first novel, DEAD LETTERS. It is a strange thought that somewhere in Denmark – probably in some university – someone has made all those copies of my work, presumably for teaching purposes. It’s one of those unexpected and quirky events that gladden the heart of the writer and that makes me wonder where the other copies of my books have ended up. Messages in bottles, most of them. Now and then someone gets in touch to say that they’ve read something of mine and liked it, but mostly the books and stories just disappear off into the blue and all I can do is hope they find friendly readers.
For quite a large proportion of my life there have been only two ways to get hold of a book that one wanted to read, either through a library or through a book-shop, which essentially meant W. H. Smith if you lived in the sticks or maybe a second-hand book shop. No remainder book shops, no charity shops, no internet. My recent experience of reading the work of one particular author, new to me, has been a thought-provoking contrast. The first novel by Christopher Fowler that I read was THE WATER ROOM, which I bought a couple of years ago in a charity shop in Bristol, encouraged by my friend and fellow writer, Kate Ellis, who said she liked his books. I did enjoy it, but didn’t seek out any more. Then a month or two ago I spotted another of his, THE VICTORIA VANISHES, in my local Oxfam shop, remembered it had a nice review in the Guardian, and bought it. This one I enjoyed a lot: it reminded me of Edmund Crispin’s novels with its echo of THE MOVING TOY-SHOP and its range of eccentric characters but it also had an atmosphere all its own. I was contemplating buying another, when quite by chance I popped into a remainder book shop in Bakewell and found two more for only £2 each: BRYANT AND MAY ON THE RAILS and BRYANT AND MAY ON THE LOOSE. Both are excellent and I was hooked. By now I had four books in the series and I was feeling a bit guilty that the writer isn’t benefiting more from this so I bought the next one, BRYANT AND MAY AND THE PROPERTY OF BLOOD, as an ebook from Amazon for around a fiver. However I was still feeling a bit guilty because I had resolved to cut down on purchases from tax-dodging Amazon, so for the next book I went into Waterstone’s in Sheffield. I was disappointed to find they had only the books I’d already read. However the following week I found WHITE CORRIDOR in Foyles on St Pancras station and bought that. So it’s only on the sixth book I actually bought a hard copy from a proper, old-fashioned bookshop. Incidentally, I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect the writer will get a better royalty from the ebook than from the paper copy. Several other thoughts occur to me. Amazon has a big advantage because it can stock so much more than a bricks and mortar bookshop and if you buy an ebooks you can have it in seconds. I don’t have a bookshop within walking distance so that is a factor. Same is true of the local library, though I could have gone when I was in Bakewell. I intend to buy the other books in the series in some form that will put money in the writer’s pocket, because I really like them and think it’s only right. But part of the reason that I feel that way is because I am a writer, too. If I wasn’t, that might not even occur to me. On the other hand, anyone might buy a book in a charity shop, reasoning that they haven’t lost much if they don’t like it, and then go on to buy the author’s other books (or even decide to make a TV series of them – as happened with one of Anne Cleeve’s books). So it’s a complicated picture, though it strikes me that as more and more people buy ebooks – sales have already overtaken hard copies – there will be fewer and fewer paperbacks for charity shops or second-hand book shops. It will take a while to make an impact, but I think it must in the end. For now though it’s the case that books have never been available so widely or cheaply. For the reader it is great. I am not so sure about the writer.