The hardest books in the world to find

When David and I set up Godstow Press, we knew quite a lot about publishing and almost nothing about selling. Seven years later the situation has barely changed except that we now know a little bit more about publishing.

At the time it was easy. It was early days for Amazon and, to kid everyone that they were the biggest bookshop in the world, they offered to supply anything with an ISBN. So for a year or two we were on their virtual shelves. Then our books became ‘difficult to obtain’ and bore a surcharge. Now they are unobtainable, except through Amazon marketplace.

I was unaware of all this until a reader in Canada phoned to tell me that I had no right to be unobtainable. Oh, I don’t know, playing hard to get works well in social circles, why not in commerce? There is a certain lustre, after all, to your books having astronomical secondhand prices while the great and the lauded see their books selling secondhand at a penny a time.

The problem is somewhat exacerbated by the first edition of Tabernacle still being on the Amazon listing when it truly is out of print.

But then there came a stream of customers – OK, a trickle – to our site, gasping as if at the end of an adventurous quest. We gave them tea and buns, virtually, and sent them their desired book. A while ago it was Columbia Museum, deploring our hard-to-getness when they wanted A Tabernacle for the Sun for their reading group. We sent them ten copies at trade discount. Now, this week, it’s Georgetown University, who (and here I begin to dribble with envy) have acquired a Renaissance villa on the slopes of Fiesole. The programme’s director loves my books and recommends them to all the students, except, except…  But that one’s easily solved, since the whole trilogy is on sale in an enlightened bookshop in Florence (three cheers for BM Bookshop!).

So, hold on America. We’re taking next week off to try and tackle this problem of distribution. It will be very sad to be no longer as elusive as the holy grail, but generally available in a common sort of way, and my secondhand prices plunging to a penny, but in a world where we think if it isn’t on Amazon then it doesn’t exist, we have to come down off our high horse, if we can without compromising our principles on quality of production.

I apologise for the self-promo of this post  but I often wake up with a blog in mind, and this was what was there this morning.

So here are the three hardest books in the world to find, unless you’d like to click

‘Finally, I cannot close without thanking you for the Botticelli trilogy.  It is one of the most enjoyable, indeed often gripping, accounts of the period I have read, and your fidelity to historical fact in a superb fiction is extremely gratifying.   I recommend it to my students, and it’s unfortunate that it is so difficult to come by in America.’ Penn Szittya, Georgetown University.


Looking a gift horse in the backside

Every year I volunteer to help out at an art show for four days; every year I think I’m losing four days’ writing time. One of my more pernicious self-deceptions. None of the best stories come from the keyboard. Some come from reading, some pop on like little light bulbs while you’re out walking or stripping paint,  but the best play out in front of you.

So there I was, an attendant in the sculpture tent with my view blocked by the boot of a Bentley. I realize that for most men on this planet, that is on a par with gazing at a very beautiful bottom for several meditative hours. So what’s the problem? But to me it was just the boot of a car. The men coming to it like wasps to a honey trap were more amusing, their bug-eyed envy and wistful stares, their hands hovering over the ‘Do Not Touch’ sign like those of a faith healer. Just a car, I thought. So what?

Dear Men, feel free to stroke your screens and/or dribble

It was only on the third day that I asked its owner the story of the car. It is a 4.5 lr engine, built in 1930. In the earliest days, you would buy the engine and chassis only from Bentley, and would have the body built to your own specification elsewhere. In 1919 an artist called F. Gordon Crosby made a speculative illustration of how a Bentley might look. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy and dictated the look of the car from that date forward. He even designed the winged mascot. And that was why cars had mascots, so that you knew what the engine was no matter what the body.

Worthy of Kipling or Aesop, that tale, and there it was, staring me in the face.

Here is a side view, for some serious drooling.


If plot is the body of a novel, then the theme is its soul. It is the subtle core, the message which the author wishes to convey. It is probably the reason the book was written in the first place, the motivation to spend so much time and effort in writing, that thing which you are driven to express to the world. What is your theme? You might like to sit and reflect on this one. You may come up with something along the lines of ‘Family is a Wonderful Thing’, or ‘Love Transcends Time and Space’. Reduced to their essence, themes can often sound trite or be clichés or proverbs: Crime Never Pays, Pride Comes Before a Fall, You Get What You Give. That doesn’t matter. Almost every piece of literature can be reduced to a line like this, and it’s good fun to find out what the line is.

Find your theme and you will find your book, its shape and the voice in which to tell it. This is just as important in historical fiction as in any other kind, perhaps more so, because it adds a new dimension, wholly unique to you.

Reduce the following to one thematic line (or make up your own list):

Romeo and Juliet
War and Peace
Lord of the Rings
Pride and Prejudice


‘Surviving wild adventures help you appreciate the little things of life, such as having a cup of tea.’ (Theme of Wind in the Willows and also The Hobbit).