Tabloidese - what would we do without it?
The truth is that on Friday, we had a visit from Oxford-based author Sam Jordison, in our first "return" of an author since we opened. When Sam visited us last year, he'd just published "Bad Dates" and his latest book, "Annus Horribilis" takes the idea further, with a collection of generally bad things that have befallen the famous (and not-so-famous), one for each day of the year (hence the title).
So why controversial? And what was the storm?
Sam originally shot to fame (or, more accurately, infamy) with a book called Crap Towns, which he wrote whilst working as a journlist on the Idler magazine. Memorably described by the Sunday Telegraph as "The Domesday Book of Misery" the book listed the 50 worst places to live in Britain. The inclusion of Hull near the top of the list was perhaps not surprising, but the inclusion of home town Oxford was. However, at #20 on the list was our geographical neighbour Didcot.
Didcot gets a bad rap around here, mostly because of the iconic Didcot Power Station which can be seen from large parts of Southern England and thus rather dominates most of the town.
When we first publicised Sam's visit, an organisation called Didcot First heard about it, and invited Sam to visit Didcot before the event to spend a day sampling the delights that the town has to offer, and to try to convince him that Didcot isn't actually that crap. The Oxford Mail trailed the visit (as well as listing ten reasons why Didcot isn't crap - some of these look a bit dodgy to me...)
This explains why, at 5pm, Sam (right), me (left) and local MP, Ed Vaizey (middle) can be seen hanging out together at Splitz in Didcot, drinking champagne, eating canapes and getting along famously. I took the opportunity to sell copies of Sam's book to the assembled throng of Didcot luminaries, and judging by the take-up, decided that Sam must have won over the townsfolk during a successful charm offensive.
It was then a quick car journey up the A34 to Abingdon for the event itself.
I think there is probably only one major faux pas which must not be committed when you organise an author signing. Assuming you actually turn up to open the shop, you can probably get away with all kinds of gaffes - including, perhaps, getting the author's name wrong in the intro, or forgetting to bring any wine. No, I think the only thing you might do that would cause you all kinds of "swallow-me-now-earth" shame and humiliation is not to have any copies of his latest book to sell...
(This happened at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2006 to Melvyn Bragg. Myself and over a thousand people packed into a large marquee being told they could fill in an order slip for a copy once it arrived from the publisher).
...OK, it wasn't quite that bad, but thanks to my persuasive sales patter over at Didcot, I realised with mounting horror that we didn't have that many copies of Annus Horribilis in the shop. Of Sam's other books, Crap Towns was only available on Amazon, Crap Towns II was RPU, and The Joy of Sects (Sam's account of inveigling his way into a number of religious cults) couldn't be had anywhere. This ensured that I sweated profusely as the event progressed, awaiting the signing with a growing sense of dread.
At least no-one had started digging up the road...
Sam is a fantastic raconteur - engaging and disarming, with anedotes peppered with the crazy stuff he does to research his books. Sam started with a few tales from Sects, followed by stories from his recent year in the US, trying to get under the skin of small town America (and succeeding by all accounts).
It was then on to Annus Horribilis itself. Here's Sam explaining how the book came about:
We finished the evening with the dreaded signings - and, yes, we ran out of books. Luckily, Sam is such a nice chap, he came back with his girlfriend yesterday and signed some more. And luckily we have such lovely customers, they came back in today to buy them.
And hopefully, both forgave the bookshop owner for being a bit, well, crap.
We got some good coverage in the Oxford Mail and (gasp!) the Abingdon Herald (or perhaps the Didcot Herald, I can never work out just how different those two papers are...).