David Robinson

About the author

David Robinson is a renowned journalist and the former books editor of The Scotsman for more than 15 years.

He was convener of the judges for the 2016 Satire Literary Awards and is also the author of In Cold Ink, a collection of essays and author interviews taking you straight to your best-loved authors and helping you discover new favourites!

Northerners: The making of a non-fiction bestseller

Oct 4, 2023 | Guest Writers | 0 comments

Go down the Yorkshire coast from Middlesbrough to the end of the railway line, turn a couple of corners in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, and you pass the main window of the bookshop Jenna Warren has run for the past eight years. Last time I looked, Brian Groom’s Northerners had pride of place in the centre of her display.

How does that happen?

How does that happen? How does a book make it not just to the tables and shop windows of the city centre chain bookshops but to a small, somewhat out-of-the-way independent like Jenna’s, where bestsellerdom is a matter of selling half a dozen copies?

It helps, of course, if your book is the first history of the North of England for a generation, if its publication is timely (the ‘Red Wall’ has made the North more politically important), if it is stylishly written by a knowledgeable author and goes on to garner adulatory reviews. All of which is the case with Groom’s debut book.

But what else in late spring propelled Northerners into Warren’s Saltburn shop window – as well as the No 3 slot in the Times’ non-fiction charts and the top-ranking English history book on Amazon?

When choosing what books to sell, Warren admits to being rather more influenced by social media than the Bookseller’s monthly previews or the buyer’s notes in her wholesaler’s catalogue. Northerners struck her as a title worth stocking (“I’m a northern bookshop after all”) when she saw it on new imprint Harper North’s Twitter feed, as a result of which she started following Brian Groom on his.

Northerner of the Day

At HarperNorth, commissioning editor Jonathan de Peyer encouraged Groom to expand his Twitter profile by introducing a ‘Northerner of the Day’ feature. He originally planned to write 30 of these (15 before publication and 15 after) but people seemed to like them so he carried on until the end of last month. Although a few of the subjects are famous names  (St Cuthbert, Gladstone, Victoria Wood),  quite a lot aren’t. It’s a quirky, wide-ranging and intriguing list, and even among the historical celebs, he always makes a point of adding some lesser-known fact. Take Septimus Severus. Assuming that you already knew he was a Roman emperor based in York, did you realise  that five others also ruled the continent from there – or that he himself was African?

“Northerner of the day is designed for Twitter, where I have 19,000 followers, probably more than half of them northerners,” says Groom. “I also put it out on Facebook, but that’s a tiny number by comparison. I have 318 Facebook friends and the book page reaches only a few more than that. I also post in some Facebook nostalgia/history groups around the North, which has led a few people to say they’ll buy the book.”

Events, Events, Events …

But this is only a small part of the work that Groom – a former editor of Scotland on Sunday and assistant editor of the Financial Times – has done in promoting Northerners. This month alone he will  be attending three literary festivals (Manchester, York and Bradford) and in the last couple of months he has already done 36 different book events. “I have at least another 40 on his calendar by June next year,” he says.

“Originally, I thought I would be doing well if I got 20 events, but it’s just snowballed. It’s the kind of book that is particularly good for local history societies and U3As.” While he fixed up most of these himself, HarperNorth helped out with bookshop events, and this is where the best of the sales have been. Attendances have been relatively modest, but a high proportion have bought the book. “At Bookends in Carlisle, for example, the audience was 25, but 15  bought the book on the night and most of the others had already bought it.”

In the last month alone, Groom has done 12 book events, talked about his book on seven podcasts, given ten other interviews and written seven different articles for websites ranging from Northern Soul to Politico, and signed copies at seven book shops all over the North of England. These days, it isn’t just the area’s history that he knows about, but its transport links too. Between Derby and Carlisle, Hull and Newcastle, he seems to have been everywhere promoting his book. Everywhere, that is, apart from Jenna Warren’s bookshop at Saltburn-by-the-Sea –  and even that may be just a matter of time.

Northerners, by Brian Groom, is published by HarperNorth, price £25.


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