Q. When will your next book be published?
A. In early 2017, This Was a Man – the final volume in the seven-book series, The Clifton Chronicles – was published in paperback, and I also released a new collection of short stories, called Tell Tale. Please visit the Books and plays section to learn more about the series. You can also watch a documentary about the series and read my blog for news of upcoming appearances and book signings.
Q. Have you written any short stories lately?
A. I’ve written a new collection of 12 short stories called, TELL TALE, which was published in November 2017, and is now available in all formats. I really enjoyed getting back to writing short stories some seven years after my last collection, and I was inspired to write these new tales from the places I’ve travelled and people I’ve met over the last few years.
Q. Are your adaptations available on video or DVD?
A. Kane and Abel was made into a CBS television miniseries in the US starring Peter Strauss as Rosnovski and Sam Neill as Kane. It was subsequently made into a television mini-series by the BBC in 1986. This original series was released for the first time on DVD on 18 October 2010 in the UK, and in Australia in early 2011. First Among Equals was televised by ITV in the same year, and Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less was televised, again by the BBC, in 1990. Unfortunately, these are no longer officially available on either video or DVD. As for films, I’ve never had a film made of one of my books but I remain hopeful.
Q. Have you ever written a screenplay?
A. I’ve written two – “Paths of Glory” about George Mallory, which is also the title of my latest book – all we’re looking for now is the finance. I’ve also recently finished the screenplay for False Impression.
Q. Of the books you have written, who is your favourite character and why?
A. Miss Tredgold in The Prodigal Daughter. She was meant to be in the story for just a few pages, but she ended up dominating half the book.
Q. Is it true that you often don’t know how a book will end?
A. I usually know the first four or five chapters in detail, and the next 10 in outline, which will take me to the middle of the book. Then it’s time to pray. As I write, I’m wondering what will happen on the next page. My theory is: If I wonder what will happen on the next page, there’s a good chance you’ll wonder what’s going to happen on the next page, as well. If you know exactly what’s going to happen two chapters down the line, you’ll give it away. If you don’t know, you can’t give it away.
Q. Do you write with a specific reader in mind or do you write for yourself?
A. I write what I feel at ease with, and then hope that it works for the reader—it might be a saga, or a thriller, or short stories.
Q. Do you prefer writing novels or short stories?
A. I enjoy them both but for different reasons. As I mentioned, with a novel, you haven’t got a clue where you’re going—you look up there and you pray. With a short story, you have to know the end. It’s only 3-5,000 words, not much in between. You begin and you know what the last line is going to be.
Q. What is your writing day like?
A. I am very disciplined and usually go abroad to write to eliminate any distractions. I work in two hour blocks – and I have a huge hourglass, which was a present from Mary, on my desk to ensure that I work for the full 120 minutes of each session. I write from 6.00am to 8.00am, then break for two hours for breakfast and to read the morning newspapers, or catch up on the cricket scores around the world; then from 10.00am until 12.00pm, when I break to go to the gym or for a long walk before a light lunch. Back to work at 2.00pm until 4.00pm, after which I might relax by watching an old episode of my favourite TV show, The West Wing, and then my final session is from 6.00pm till 8.00pm. For the next book, during my breaks I’m planning to catch up with the new series of The Crown. I find that my morning sessions are usually the most productive.
Q. How long does it take you to write a book?
A. I normally spend a year doing research, followed by a year of writing. I follow that schedule above, and it normally takes me about six weeks to produce a first draft. I then take a four-week break and get away from it. I come back and do another draft. That takes another four weeks, and I handwrite the whole thing out again.
Q. Is it true that you still write your books by hand?
A. Yes! I can’t type- I can just about switch a light on. My ability with anything mechanical is almost zero. I handwrite every single word.
Q. What are your favourite books?
– The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
– The 39 Steps – John Buchan
– A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
- A Diamond As Big As The Ritz – F Scott Fitzgerald
- The Prodigy – Hermann Hess
– Sword of Honour – Evelyn Waugh
– Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
They all have one thing in common, not only are they good writers, but great storytellers.
Other favourites are Wisden – A Cricketer’s Almanack, any PG Wodehouse and How to be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle.
In 2000, The Guardian published a list of my favourite political books.
Q. What are your favourite films?
A. A Man for All Seasons — for the magnificent direction of Fred Zinnemann, incisive script by Robert Bolt, and superlative acting of Paul Scofield.
The Sting — witty, fun, and I don’t think there’s been a better ‘sting’ film since; fine performances by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and brilliant direction by George Roy Hill.
I enjoyed Shrek when it came out — I thought Eddie Murphy’s comic timing as the donkey was as good as Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen at their best.
Q. What’s your favourite music?
A. I’m a huge Sinatra fan, and have at least five of his CDs in my Mini, as well as Sammy Davis Jr, Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin. I’ve also recently discovered Lionel Ritchie, which is wonderful for playing in the car while I’m driving around London looking for a parking space.
Q. Is it true you had a cameo role in Bridget Jones’ Diary?
A. Yes, I had a small walk-on part. You’ll have to watch it again to see if you can spot me.
Books by Jeffrey Archer:
Sometime in early 2013, in Dallas, Texas, a generous reader donated his impeccable first-edition copy of Philip Roth’s Our Gang to the local Goodwill store, its royal blue dust jacket gleaming as brilliantly as it did in 1971.
There it sat on a shelf, priced at $1, until a semi-trailer from Books Squared whisked it away among 3,000 other leftovers. At the Books Squared warehouse in south-west Dallas, Our Gangwas checked and processed by receivers and a scrupulous quality-control team, who deemed the book “like new” before scanning it into their computer system to be sold online.
Dynamic pricing software cross-referenced every active listing of a used, like-new, hardcover copy of Our Gang across online marketplaces like Amazon and Abebooks, then matched the lowest price. Last March, four months after it was listed, I bought the book for a penny, and Books Squared shipped it to my apartment in Toronto. This handsome volume is sitting proudly on my desk right now.
Over the last year, to give you an idea of the riches for the taking, I’ve spent a penny each on Roth’s The Anatomy Lesson and Deception, Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark in hardcover, a first-edition copy of Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker, and one of Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things – among others.
Online, such literary treasures are in ample supply. But deals this good raise an obvious question. It clearly took a lot of time to usher Our Gangfrom the backrooms of Goodwill to Canada, where I live. So how does anyone make money selling a book for a cent?
Colin Stephens, founder and director of Sunrise Books in England, was thumbing through a charity shop’s bookshelf when the manager told him how much she’d come to hate used books. Every few days, she complained, she would have to load the trunk of her car with the shop’s excess donations and shuttle them to the landfill, in her own spare time and at her own expense.
Back then, Stephens happened to be out of work; he had long enjoyed buying and selling books on eBay, and suddenly saw an opportunity to turn his hobby into a full-time job. He told the manager that he would come by once a week to take the books and find them a new home. She was thrilled.
“The next day I got a call from one of her friends who manages another charity shop,” Stephens told me by phone, “and then another, and another.” He started selling these orphaned books online, out of his living room. Ten years later, Sunrise Books has four warehouses to its name, and is about to take over a fifth. “We have two vans out on the road every day that go around to charity shops on set runs,” he explains. They take in upwards of 20 tons of used books each week.
Charity shops are apparently inexhaustible wells, but sellers also turn to libraries, which sell or donate titles by the pallet; others head to elementary schools, where children’s reading material tends to be rebuilt semi-annually.
The only trouble is the low quality of that yield. Mike Ward, owner of Thrift Books – the largest of the used book sellers in the US and parent company to a number of subsidiaries, including Books Squared – likens the book collection process to “a very large salvage operation”. His network of warehouses is bringing in, on average, 15 semi-trailer trucks full of used books every day, but less than 20% of those books arrive in saleable condition.
The first thing Ward’s handlers must deal with is the garbage: “three-ring binders, Bibles, old Reader’s Digests, books that aren’t even books, books that are totally destroyed”.
From there the stock moves on to the receivers, who inspect each book’s condition and determine, by computer, its likely demand. “At that point they’re throwing away about 65% of what they touch,” Ward says – in part for the poor state many of them arrive in, of course, and in part as a consequence of supply and demand.
“There’s a limit to how many copies of Jurassic Park I can sell,” he explains. “If I already have a thousand in inventory and I think I’m only going to sell 500 in the next three months, I don’t want any more.”
In general, mercifully, Ward says Thrift Books “errs on the side of keeping more books than we need to”, and his software’s algorithms single out rare titles for protection even if market demand doesn’t warrant it. What they can’t sell, they recycle. That proves to be quite a few books: last year alone they recycled 130m pounds. What remains after a bookseller’s vetting process stocks their virtual storefronts.
Who’s buying? Richard Davies, PR manager for the popular online marketplace Abebooks, describes the customer base as rather broad. “There are people who just want a cheap book,” he says, “and the used book market fulfills that really well.” Others, meanwhile, have more idiosyncratic requirements. “The book they need is not going to be in a Barnes & Noble.” So they turn to online retailers, where the “breadth of inventory really caters to people who have got a demanding taste”.
Root through enough charity shops and library discard piles, and you’re bound to come across a few valuables. In such cases the used book seller becomes a sort of antique dealer: with a few keystrokes they can put a true rarity online where those most interested can find it. Perhaps that’s why Mike Ward says Thrift Books is in the business of “matching people up with the treasures they want”.
Chuck Roberts, owner of Wonder Book in the US, opened his first bookstore in 1980. He remembers the golden age of the mid-1990s: “We were in the boom of the modern first editions and people were buying Stephen King first editions for $35 that now would sell for $3 or $4 at best.”
One of Roberts’s employees suggested that he get Wonder Book started on the internet, and, though the business hardly needed the additional income, he was persuaded to wade in. He picked “40 weird books” from the brick-and-mortar inventory and threw them up for sale online. The next morning he took a look at his page and was astonished to find he had an order: a book on the history of cattle in Frederick County, Maryland – sold to a farmer in England for $45. “We couldn’t sell that book in Frederick County for $45,” Roberts reflects, “but a guy in England who raises that kind of cattle wanted it.” The experience “was like the proverbial light going off in my head: we’re international now”.
Penny books, of course, don’t seem quite so lucrative as a $45 volume on cattle. “If you talked to me 10 years ago and said that you’d be selling books for a cent on the internet, I’d have said that’s impossible,” Roberts says. But there’s some money to be made for those who are, as he puts it, “extremely efficient”.
The price point is partly a result of the market’s downward pressure: at a certain level of supply and demand the race to the lowest price swiftly plummets to the bottom. What remains inflexible is the $3.99 fee Amazon charges the buyer for shipping. From that $4, Amazon takes what they call a “variable closing fee” of $1.35. They also charge the seller 15% of the item’s price – which in the case of a penny book is zero. That leaves $2.64 to cover postage, acquisition cost and overhead.
“All told,” Mike Ward concedes, “we only make a few cents on a penny book sale like that.” Now that hardly seems like much, true. “But keep in mind,” he adds, “that last year we sold 11.5m books.”
As a result, literature is better off. These used book sellers are providing an indispensable public service: they’re redirecting the world’s flow of used books from extinction to readers who can care for and appreciate them. “Before companies like ours,” Stephens tells me, “used books went to the landfill. The charities tossed them or sent them to pulping companies.”
Charity is a big part of the used book market. Martin Mullen, head of UK acquisitions at Better World Books, tells me that the public good is at the core of the company’s business: to date they have donated more than 50m books, raised millions of dollars for literacy initiatives, and reused or recycled more than 153m books – books that for the most part would be decomposing right now had they not saved them.
“I think the impact of people not having access to books or being able to enjoy books is huge,” Mullen says. That enthusiasm for reading is common among all of the used book sellers I spoke with. I don’t suppose it would be possible to devote so much effort to rescuing literature from oblivion without some affection for what’s being saved. “We want people to read,” Mike Ward says. “It doesn’t matter how you read or how you get your books. It just matters that you read.”
And at a penny a book, just about anyone can afford to.