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The Launch Pad

Much as I hate round robins, or anything resembling the celebration of good news, I can’t resist a reflection or two on the launch of Touching Distance, a week rich in laughter, sales, and the glad company of strangers.


Monday took me to a pub on the outskirts of Sidmouth for the weekly meeting of the Sid Valley Rotary Club.  These guys come from various corners of deepest East Devon, have busy busy lives, yet still find the time to put their collective energies at the service of the community.  Last weekend saw them mount a successful picket of the local branch of Waitrose.  Fired by news footage from the Phillipines, and armed with a bucket apiece, they braved the chill Sid Valley winds and collected an astonishing £3,500 for Shelter Box.  The business of writing crime fiction pales into insignificence beside efforts like these, yet they were warm and responsive audience and we had a fine time.


Tuesday was, if anything, colder and I spent a surreal early evening in the iciness of the chapel at Taunton School.  This turned out to be the final event of the Taunton Literary Festival and – to my numbed astonishment – went extremely well. More details on my last post.


On Wednesday I took a breather but Thursday, with the temperatures plunging ever lower, I was back in Sidmouth to test the central heating at the newly refurbed library.  Carol Pentecost and her team had laid on wine for the occasion and yours truly did the rounds with a couple of bottles before kicking off the evening’s entertainment.  I’m glad to report that nothing beats Chateau Lafosse as an ice-breaker.  Lovely audience.  Great questions.  Real warmth.


Friday?  Definitely the big one.  Exmouth has two bookshops.  One of them is WH Smiths which – despite stocking a decent range of crime fiction – couldn’t find room for copies of either Western Approaches or the newly-published Touching Distance.  Both books are set in and around Exmouth but enquiries at the store drew blank incomprehension.  Ordering is handled centrally.  Not our problem. 


The other bookstore is private owned and run by the redoubtable Wendy Pilling.  Downstairs Best Books offers a range of heavily discounted best-sellers,  acquired from the nether regions of the publishing biz.  Upstairs, a stroke of genius, she’s created – yes - the best coffee shop in East Devon.  The Book Rest features home-baked cakes, superb coffees, and milk shakes that have become the toast of the town.  It’s also a superb space for social chats,  chance encounters and – yes, yes – book launches.  That warmth again.  In spades.


After the hardback publication of Western Approaches back in January, I sold over a hundred copies to various mates, many of them from the rowing club (which got the proceeds).  With a handful left, I rocked up to Best Books,  introduced myself, and wondered whether Wendy would like to try her luck with a local author.  She took five and – to her slight surprise – sold the lot.  More orders followed and by last week she’d gone deep into three figures and become the champion retailer nationwide for copies of Western Approaches.  When it comes to selling, Wendy favours the direct approach – a lethal combination of charm, conviction, and martial arts.  This undoubtedly seeds the most effective selling tool of all:  word of mouth.


And so it was that Wendy – not me – floated the idea of a home-grown book launch for Touching Distance,  a thoroughly Exmouth event scored for wine,  laughter, old mates,  new friends, book-lovers, a speech or two, and – yes, yes, yes – yet more cakes. 


The evening, I’m glad to report, was a huge success.  Despite the weather (by now sub-arctic) a small army of locals emerged from the freezing darkness, headed for the wine counter, demolished cake after cake and had a fine time.  Yours truly has weathered dozens of book launches but this – by a country mile – was the best of the lot:  informal, attentively lubricated, mega-cheerful, without a hint of pretension or disappointment.  A brilliant evening, entirely Wendy’s fault.


Then came this morning.  The invitation was to guest at an RNLI fund-raiser in nearby Budleigh Salterton, a gig I was only too happy to attend.  There’s a little bit of history here.  For my sins, I’m Chairman of the Exmouth Rowing Club.  I’m passionate about coastal rowing and have the luck – along with Lin – to belong in a veterans’ quad crew which puts to sea twice-weekly and rows silly distances,  fuelled by Italian-roast coffee and cakes from the WI.  Some of these outings are fairly wild (14K in falling snow?  Are you serious??) but we never hit the beach without a smile on our collective face.


Thanks to an ambitious (nay, visionary) plan for the re-development of Exmouth seafront, the club has been given notice to vacate our current premises, a non-descript portacabin on a patch of equally non-descript wasteland off the seafront.  Our near-neighbours have always been the RNLI.  The Lifeboat Station lies within spitting distance of the beach though recently – after the opening of a brand-new lifeboat station half a mile away - it’s only been used on a seasonal basis by RNLI lifeguards. 


We’ve naturally coveted this wonderful old building and when we nailed a £50,000 grant from Sport England back in the summer, there was every chance that we might even make it happen.  The impossible now looks like coming true but the RNLI, as you might imagine, are less than pleased.  Thus it was,  as a modest gesture of sympathy, that I said yes to the fund-raiser.


And funds we certainly raised.  Thanks to some inspired PR by Emma Tarling and her team, plus the fruits of many talks I’ve given to various groups in the area,  the event drew a decent turn-out.  Prizes in the raffle included the biggest cauliflower I’ve ever seen, a variety of fluffy toys, and – yes, yes. yes, yes – a donated copy of Touching Distance.  Raffle winners were invited to choose their prizes from the goodies on display and – to my chagrin – the cauliflower and the fluffy toys were grabbed long before my solitary tome.  The good news?  The central heating worked a treat.


So what has this frenzy of self-publicity achieved?  Add in last week’s talk to the massed ranks  of the Exmouth branch of the University of the Third Age (at least eighty in the audience!) plus an evening event at Exeter Central Library, and you’re probably talking three hundred plus readers who’d taken the trouble to find the venue,  cock a listening ear, and make a decision about whether or not to buy.  Given the local setting, and the pre-Xmas pressie trauma, sales have been more than satisfactory. 


But that, I’m fast realising, isn’t the point.  Time after time over the last ten days or so I’ve found myself deep in conversation with people who really care about books.  About books in general and about my books.  East Devon, I’m astonished to discover, is full of readers who have read the lot – not just the Pompey series (Faraday and Winter) but all the one-off thrillers which came before.  Result?  Well…yes.


For any writer, absolutely including this one, these moments come as a huge endorsement of what we do.  Writing is a solitary business.  It’s the most difficult, and the most rewarding, challenge I’ve ever undertaken.  It makes you rich in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with money.  It opens your eyes to the way people really are. It gives you a ringside seat at the on-going drama of the lives – far from modest – of those around us.  And it armours you against the barmier aspects of a fast-changing culture.


Snow next week.  And polar bears.