The Waterstones 11 is an annual list of the debut novels that the book chain think will not only win the most prizes but also generate the most sales. Managing director James Daunt is clearly aware of the important role that booksellers play in terms of the influence they have over readers’ exposure to new titles. The books we see on the tables and chart shelves when we enter the bookshop are often the ones we go for first. The choices the booksellers make for their shelves are crucial to a book’s success – especially one written by a debut author that readers have no experience of. Last year the Waterstones 11 included The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman – perfect examples of the success a book can have if it is correctly promoted and advertised by the bookseller.
Very few of the books on the list have actually been released yet, but they have all received advance praise from the book publishing industry. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach has received particularly good reviews, despite it being a novel about baseball. However, Harbach has stressed that the novel is about more than that, being about male friendships and the way they are depicted in society. Given that the novel is based around an American sport, Harbach and his publishers (Fourth Estate) hope that this will not alienate British readers who are not familiar with the game. Similarly, the book may seem male-orientated, but has proved popular with women so far in the US. With all this success under its belt, plus a recommendation from none other than Jonathon Franzen, The Art of Fielding looks set to be another Waterstones 11 success story.
However the most notable factor in this year’s list is that eight of the eleven debut authors are women. The chair of the committee, Janine Cook, commented that the high number of female writers coming to the fore in 2012 could herald a ‘golden age of female writing’. This is certainly exciting news. With debates about gender equality in the literary world raging last year – particularly around the media circus of praise that Jonathon Franzen’s Freedom received – it is reassuring to have so many talented new female writers brought into the spotlight.
Given that Waterstones were recently criticised for dropping the apostrophe from their name, the announcement of their 11 chosen authors is well-timed. Regardless of grammar issues, they are a tireless and continually successful bookseller, outlasting Borders and other bookshops that have bowed out during the recession. Amazon and other online retailers may seem to dominate the market but actual bookshops are just as vital as they ever were. Readers still value the face-to-face customer care that comes with visiting the local Waterstones (or indeed, independent bookshop), as well the sensual experience of walking along the shelves, looking over the covers and picking up the individual copies, flicking through their pages and examining the contents. Bookshops are an integral part of the extended reading experience, as well as having more influence than we may think over the choices we make about what to read next. The fact is that sometimes our choice of book is a little random, based more on appearances than anything else. Books that look attractive and are attractively arranged and presented are much more appealing to bookshop customers than grim little books hidden away at the back of the shop. The Waterstones 11 is a vitally important list that not only promotes these lucky debut novelists but also reminds us of the significance of the physical experience of choosing, buying and reading books.