There’s no snob quite like a book snob

The book fair crowd was streaming past me on their way to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. That evening, in another part of the city, I would be performing a musical show about writing and the life of an author as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. I had thought, in my innocence, that readers and writers of books might be interested.

I was wrong. Anyone trying to persuade people to come to a show in Edinburgh becomes used to getting the brush-off, but the snottiness of the book crowd was in a different league.?

Not for the first time, I wondered why the world of books is such a snooty place. Snobbery is in the lifeblood of publishing. It swirls about at the grander literary parties. It even, as I discovered in Edinburgh, infects readers. The subtle, constantly evolving gradations of bookish superiority would probably require a lifetime of study, but those playing the lead roles are not difficult to identify.

The Book Trade Worthy. He was once a publisher at a now-defunct imprint but, for as long as anyone can remember, he has been a stalwart of the trade. He has chaired sub-committees investigating this and that. Every new report on the state of publishing will include his measured, predictable, slightly dreary thoughts on ‘the trade’.

A legendary luncher, he likes to have earnest discussions of a general nature with other Worthies, , but he refuses to take part in any discussion that includes the word ‘digital’ in its title.

The Rather Bored Agent. In press profiles, she is dutifully reported to be ‘fiercely loyal’ to her successful clients, and a good friend to the small number of publishers she deems to be worthy of her time and attention. The rest of the book world she regards with a cool, blank stare which strangles any conversation at birth.. Life’s too short, she has concluded, for  people who are less important than she is – that is, almost everyone.

The Chippy Bestseller. He could write a literary novel, of course he could. He would be puffed by the usual pompous asses in the Sunday papers, and sell 3000 copies to hairy types living Hampstead, but what’s the bloody point?

He prefers to earn a very comfortable living by writing what Johnny and Jenny Average-Punter actually want to read – a thumping good yarn that keeps them turning the pages. Frankly, he’s got no time for writers who fret about words and whinge about the state of publishing. It’s done him pretty well, thank you very much, and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.

The VIPR. Do you matter? I mean, really matter in a serious cultural A-list sort of way? If not, the Very Important PR person will not even see you. Elegant, soignée, she is widely rumoured to be having an affair with a senior person at the BBC – or was it a government minister? Perhaps both. Her talent is for catching a phrase or idea of the moment, , and then dropping it into the conversation with a knowing smile.

She has not actually read an entire book, in the traditional, non-skipping sense, since 2002, and feels none the worse for that.

The Very Grand Literary Personage. When one happens to be writing for posterity, certain ground rules need to be established. No interviews with the Today programme or Newsnight unless they are about one’s work; no bookshop appearances except the Hatchards Author of the Year party; no festival appearances unless interviewed by Alan Yentob, Professor John Carey or Dame A. S. Byatt.

When obliged to meet those who are not quite in one’s literary class, one wears a distant, forbearing smile, as if forming in one’s brain another of one’s famous, perfect paragraphs.

The Legendary Bookseller. He has had some of the greatest names in his shop, and has often been mentioned in the books of his clients – John Julius, Paddy Fermor, dear Iris, Ferdy Mount and, of course, darling Jilly. He has been known to ask customers to leave his premises if they are wearing what he calls ‘gym shoes’ or are carrying a mobile telephone, and replies to enquiries from anyone aged less than 50 with a look of some disdain.

Frankly, you should regard yourself as privileged to buy a book from him.

The Supergeek.  Life’s changed, right? We’re talking a whole new fast-moving, suck-it-and-see audience, for whom the idea of turning over a page made of paper and covered in words, is as alien and obsolete as a wind-up gramophone. The Supergeek knows what’s exciting in the content-providing world: democratization of the means of production, disintermediation, algorhythm-activated consumer analysis, the book as widget.

If you don’t know what he’s talking about, you are almost certainly part of the problem, and he’s not about to waste any more of his time on you.


This article was published for the Endpaper column in the autumn issue of the Society of Authors magazine The Author. My Endpaper columns, dating back to the beginning of time and covering more than you should ever want to know about the business of b0oks and writing are to be found here.