June 13, 2018

A whirlwind week - and a big thank you

I can confirm it is a nail-biting time waiting for your books to be officially published and to go on sale for people to (gulp) actually read it.

As an author you are lost between simply hoping that people will actually hear about it, want to read it and go out and buy it - and enjoy it!

So this week I have lost count of the number of 'firsts' I have done. Got my first book published. Thank you Chicken House. Done my first school author event. Thank you Thomas Reade Primary School. Done my first book signing. Thank you Mostly Books. And received my first reviews. These have been so lovely I have pulled them together in one place to share, and have even found reason to have a brand new 'review' tab on this website here.

And the lovely Lilley Mitchell from BBC Radio Oxford was kind enough to invite me onto her show. If you want to hear our chat about The Last Chance Hotel and get my amazing writing tips, then you can listen here. I arrive at 2 hrs 8 mins (between Prince and David Bowie no less).

A really huge thank you for everyone who has supported me in so many ways - and who has bought The Last Chance Hotel.


June 04, 2018

Welcome to the Last Chance Hotel

I have the great news that my debut novel The Last Chance Hotel will be published on June 7, 2018.

Apart from making it a beautiful book anyway, with the exquisite artwork by Matt Saunders, my wonderful publishers, Chicken House, are doing limited print run of an exclusive edition.

This edition will be on sale only through independent bookshops.

Don't miss out on this exclusive edition! 

It will be published to celebrate Independent Bookshop Week in June, so please contact your local bookshop to reserve your copy as the edition with printed edges and absolutely stunning.

If you are an independent bookshop and you will be stocking the limited edition I'd love to feature you here and will try to list everywhere that is stocking the exclusive edition.

Where you can buy the limited edition:

Mostly Books, Abingdon
Kenilworth Books, Kenilworth
The Mainstreet Trading Company, St Boswells
Seven StoriesThe National Centre for Children’s Books, Newcastle Upon Tyne Learn more: http://www.mattsaunders.ink/

April 27, 2018

The Last Chance Hotel - hot off the press!

Becoming a published author has already given me the chance to do some things I never would have dreamed of . . . and one of the first was heading to CPI Print in Chatham, Kent, to see my book being printed. All I can say is Wow

It all starts with a lot of paper. One roll is enough for 700 books and will fly
 through that first machine in a staggering 15 minutes.

 The pages are printed on large sheets, then it's a matter of a lot of cutting, binding, pressing, buzz saws, hot glue and giant guillotines to turn them into the right size. Honestly, a printers would be a great place to write a great scene with a really evil baddy.

CPI print 100 million books a year so this paper will barely last a day.

Covers are printed elsewhere. Yes, these are just the covers. Some exciting names to be printed alongside I can tell you.

My guide, Kevin Martin and my excited smile as I take on the scale of the whole process.

Everything whizzes past so fast you can barely see it, but this is The Last Chance Hotel going into production.

Lots of printing, binding, gluing and cutting and the books are nearly ready.
The pages are bound in sections and put into place. I spy my lovely inside pages. I spy Nightshade!

The whole of the inside of the factory is my book, whizzing on conveyor belts in every direction as my book fills the whole room as it flies through varies parts of the printing press.

And this is where the finished copies appear! (Note my excited smile as I see them for the first time.)
My first ever copy of my first ever book. In my hand.
Thanks to all at CPI for giving me an Inside the Factory day to remember. It was amazing!

April 25, 2018

Killer covers

It’s a well-known say that you should never judge a book by its cover. But where did that saying even come from?

Just how much more important could a book jacket possibly be?

It is the very first thing that attracts any browser (potential buyer/reader) in a book shop. 

The cover design, the blurb on the front, the description on the back are doing the job of convincing someone that if they spend a few hours of their precious time reading these pages that they won’t be disappointed.

And particularly for a debut author, no-one is picking up that book because they know your name.

So how did book jackets go from being something you should never judge the contents by – to being so important? Check out this cover.

If you did a random quiz and asked folk to guess the story, having removed the title and author, how many would ever get that this is the very first Miss Marple mystery ‘The Murder at the Vicarage’.

And what is with that giant ear? 

The one for The Caribbean Mystery is too gruesome to even want to show here. Sure I don’t remember it being quite that nasty!

Book jackets are as much victims of changing tastes and ideas. My own bookshelves act like a potted history of jacket design.

You can read the minds of some of the early jackets designers. It's the lure of a splash of blood and a dead body that are bringing in the readers - right?  So  that's exactly what you need on the cover.

They must have been thinking you entice in those pulp fiction readers who are after the thrill of the chase, a smoking gun and a damsel in distress.

So ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.

You’ve got the world’s most famous, iconic detective, you’ve got an inheritance, Dartmoor, a prison and rumours of a killer gigantic hound.

What would you put on the cover . . . ?

Second-hand books generate a whole feeling that can bring back memories of a book instantly. Not only the crack of old glue on an ancient spine, the way the pages might fall may tell you how much this book has been enjoyed before. But I also love looking at old covers. 

There was a noticeable vogue in the fifties, sixties and into the early seventies, for crime fiction to feature a series of artfully arranged props possibly (or not) referred to in the story.
I loved the story in Mrs McGinty's dead and I sure remember that giant fly on the jacket - but would that make you want to buy that book if it wasn't by Agatha Christie? (And do I remember a fly in the story . . . ?)

But some are also brilliant. 

My favourite crime fiction jacket of all time has to be for Death in the Clouds. 

This time a wasp really is a pivotal part of the plot (genius story with that genius cover featuring a giant wasp attacking a plane).

You can notice the evolution of an early Inspector Morse jacket, and how the publishers and designers slowly wised up to the fact that it was largely the puzzles twinned with the intellectual setting of Oxford that was bringing readers to these books.

And now murder mysteries for children have really taken off, bringing a whole new challenge to murder mystery jacket designers (as well as authors).

Robin Stevens' ‘Murder most Unladylike’ series are brilliantly plotted puzzles, featuring proper dead bodies and blood. Children (even pretty young children) have totally fallen in love with this series.

The book jackets, featuring Hazel and Daisy have already become an iconic design, already much imitated.

Another thing that has noticeably changed is the fact that it is possible to discover who designed that jacket (Nina Tara) – but it has proved impossible to find any jackets getting credit at all until recently.

This long overdue and very welcome change. Because, I think we can all agree, jackets tell stories in their own right.

Finally, the jacket for my own debut novel, The Last Chance Hotel.

This so neatly builds on all of those jacket journeys that have gone before. It is beautiful in its own right and makes the book such an object of beauty I defy anyone not to long to pick it up.

It cleverly features the setting in a rather lovely Morse/Oxford way, gives a lovely spooky and mysterious feel, which is perfect for the story. 

And also features a couple of good props  – the forest and the cat (and, of course, the hotel itself), all help to tell the story that appears on the pages within.

So my heartfelt thanks goes to Matt Saunders for such a beautiful design. I feel sure will definitely make people want to pick it up in a bookshop and to hold it in their hands. And to Rachel Hickman and the team at Chicken House for steering the design.

It is just one of the many ways that the journey to being a professional author is very much of a creative process that involves being part of a team because I could never have possibly dreamed up such a beautiful and brilliant jacket as that.

November 29, 2017

The importance of bookshops and author diversity

I was extremely proud to be invited to speak at this year's Oxford Children's Book Group AGM, which hosted an inspiring range of talks that underlined that stories are most definitely alive and thriving across Oxford.

As well as authors Tom Moorhouse and Julia Golding giving insights to the art and the craft of writing for children, the Story Museum gave an update on their refurbishment and outreach plans and how stories don't even have to be written down to be worthy of a place in a museum. 

The OCBG members have been busily creating imaginative story sacks for sick children and it was joyful to hear just how valued these are in local hospitals and learn the value of the power of stories to engage children of all ages in really challenging situations.

The incredible thinking behind the Roald Dahl dictionary, published by OUP, was another inspiring insight into endeavours into why we should prize the world of children's books. It was fascinating to hear how the words children use can tell us so much about their lives. I could have listened all day to the story behind the incredible academic precision, planning and creativity that went into bringing this most child-centred celebration of words out into the world. Riveting. Or should that be gloriumptious.

Next I told my own story of how a lifetime love of books led to my first opening a bookshop, and now getting my first book for children 'The Last-Chance Hotel' published next year.I was honoured to be asked to join such a great day.

October 09, 2017

Opening a new library at Manor School

Being asked to open a new library gives you many reasons to celebrate. And seeing the excitement of the faces of the children at the Manor School, Abingdon, as the new library was unveiled, was just one of them.

The library has had a complete refit and is now a beautiful space with books easier to find, cosy nooks to sit and read, a rug for sharing stories and a wonderful mural that celebrates some of the best characters in children's fiction. If there is a space that will inspire children to pick up a book, a wonderful library like this is it.

But snipping that ribbon wasn't the whole story.

Mark and I were asked to judge the short stories written as part of a national competition in which children at the school were challenged to imagine a world one thousands years into the future.

Reading those stories was terrifically inspiring for us. The imagination and engaging descriptive writing made it incredibly difficult to choose those to get prizes.

But as well as reading all those wonderful entries, we were able to give children a view of what it's like as a writer working in the book trade and how publishers get their books into readers' hands. We had to answer plenty of eager questions!

A great day of celebrating the many wonders of stories. Thanks to Manor Prep

February 18, 2017

Seven secrets for supporting bookshops

The question I get asked most often by authors is: 'How do I go into a bookshop I don't know and persuade them to support me and my book?'

You'd love it if they stock your book, love for them to recommend it to people. You'd love it even more if they organised an event . . . and if they recommended you to schools and to libraries . . . 

How (the author asks) do I get all of that started? 

I am not surprised when authors go on to tell me how nervous they get wandering into a bookshop geared up to do their pitch. Turning yourself into a salesperson, doorstepping someone you've never met before and asking for their help and support - how do you do all of that?

But they are always surprised when I tell them simply: 'Don't!'

Don't do it - or, at least, don't do it this way.

I wish I had the magic formula for a pitch so that you really could walk into any bookshop and say the right words that will instantly unlock a longing to stock your book. 

What I do suggest is try understanding how to look at it from the bookshops' point of view. What does a bookshop really need from an author?

1. Bookshops talk directly to readers - be part of the conversation

One of the great things about bookshops is that they are open to the public to sell books. Authors love books, right? So your starting point is right there for a warm and fruitful relationship -  in the diversity of where you actually shop for your books. 
Bookshops help create a reading community -
Hugless Douglas meets young fans

What this means is that the very simple place to start in developing any sort of relationship with bookshops is to become a bookshop customer. 

(Bookshops can always cope with more customers.)

There are many places to buy books. Bookshops are under intense commercial pressure to survive.

Supporting diversity in book-buying is good, particularly for authors because physical bookshops are still the number one place where people discover a new author.

Make sure you do not wait until you have a book published to start a relationship with any local bookshops you are lucky enough to have in your area. 

Please, please, please don't make your first visit to your local bookshop the one where you are asking for their support because you have a book out. Bookshops need you right now - and then they'll be there when you need them.

2. Respect each other’s business - er, ok, so what do bookshops actually do?

Every bookshop really only has one focus - survival. Booksellers have to be almost superhuman in how they operate their businesses in a ultra-competitive world.

Bookshops survive by being a cultural hub. They recommend to readers, definitely, but who else is coming into bookshops? Bookshops are a hub for schools and librarians, for recommending authors for school author visits - the reach of a bookshop has a reach a long way beyond that small shop you see just off the high street. 

And that stock of books is also not the whole story. Most shops don't keep a huge stock, but this does not mean to say they don't know about your book. They might be often recommending it to people they think will like it and can usually order things in for next day. You don't have to feel they are not supporting you and your books if your every title is not displayed on the shelf.

Booksellers are knowledgeable and expert at matching the right book with the right reader. A huge amount of book business is done through this recommending and next-day delivery – bookshops excel at this sort of service in order to keep readers happy because lots of people want different books and it's pretty impossible to stock everything

Bookshops are pretty brilliant, actually, at chatting to people and matching the right book with readers. They attract exactly the sort of people who like to be part of the conversation about books, those people attracted by the values of community, expertise, and curation that bookshops are brilliant at. Really, authors and bookshops do want the same thing, but for some reason that doesn't always come across.

3. Bookshops will work really hard to sell your books. Help them to help you.

Not everyone has a really local bookshop. But if you want to develop a long-term relationship I do urge you to find out which is your nearest one that you would like to support. Adopt a bookshop.

Have you got one within an hour of your home? Can you go and hang out there once in a while? We have customers who visit from very far away, maybe quarterly, because they have adopted us because they like our book selection and advice. We have visitors who come once a year from abroad to stock up. 

Never lose the chance to make friends and develop relationships. It can be a springboard to all sorts of other things.
Making it fun, and making friends - author Paula Harrison goes back to school

But surely I can just walk into a bookshop and tell them about my book? Surely that is exciting news for them and they will want to support me? Particularly if I am local? An author with a new book out is great news, right?

Of course you can. Authors do it all the time. But, again, try to see it from the bookshop's point of view . . . that atmosphere, the haven of peaceful book-browsing calm, that knowledgeable staff member, that selection of stock, that busy events programme - none of that happens without a lot of work going on behind the scenes.

4. Don't get between a bookseller and her customers

That staff member you have waited patiently for to be free, does not seem as keen as you thought to hear your long and amazing publishing journey. She does not appear to be leaping at your availability for a book signing.

But bookshops need authors for survival don't they? 

I run a very small bookshop and in any given week I will get an author calling in personally most days and all want to tell me of their amazing publishing journey. Of course we love authors and we are interested. But our customers and our business will always come first . . . and if you cause a queue at the till telling of your amazing publishing journey . . . 

So, it is quiet . .  I can tell of my amazing publishing journey now? I am dying to tell as many people as possible.

If the shop seems quiet I will be taking this quiet moment to rush along to do one of these things - curating and reviewing the choice of books I sell to keep my regular customers coming back (huge task - mammoth), organising events to help cement me into the local community so my services are valued (colossal task), or doing the mountains of paperwork that come with running any small business. It may not look like I am doing anything important, but I will be.

So timing is important, eg don't try to tell me about your new book in the middle of the December rush. And at any time, do ask if it's convenient.

And if you can tell me quite succinctly something enticing and different about your book that I think my customers will like then I will be even more keen. I am mostly interested in hearing about your book if I can immediately see the sort of readers who will buy it. You see, we do want the same thing.

Best of all, why not a quick and friendly hello and have material to leave? This is much appreciated. 

Have you got a flyer ready that you can simply leave with the bookshop? Much better than a business card. Can you leave something that details your name, books and contact info, copies of reviews, and any recommendations you might have had from events? That would be brilliant.

5. Don't forget to tell your adopted bookshop you have a book coming out!

It is really exciting when one of your customers sneaks up to you and tells you they are having a book published. Bookshops are brilliant well-wishers for authors. There are an awful lot of books published every year and bookshops can only ever support a tiny fraction. But they will be tireless champions of those they do.

Bookshops aren’t just part of a reading community, bookshops also talk to each other a lot. If you focus on one great relationship, word will spread!  Word of mouth recommendation has incredible value.

6. Do everything you can to promote your event and you will make very good friends with your bookshop

What do bookshops really need from authors? How can I understand and get it right? What are the best things I can do to make a bookshop keen to support me?

What about events? 

Events, yes events. Bookshops do events don't they? They need events? They must need authors to do events? Having author events brings people into bookshops and that’s how bookshops make their money, right?

Strangely, no. 

Bookshops have to fight for people’s time and attention like everyone else. Events, generally, are extraordinarily hard work for bookshops.

Building a literate community - a Barrington Stoke parents
evening hosted in conjunction with a local secondary school

Give me a book signing with Jacqueline Wilson and yes! It is not going to be difficult to get people to flock down and buy a book. These events clearly make the shop money. But most events??

The sheer hard work, inventiveness, skill, creativity, hours, sweat and expertise it can take to get any sort of audience and persuade them to buy books in an increasingly stressed-out world means bookshops choose events carefully.

Most bookshops know what makes them treasured and are mostly motivated by the wish to be a cultural hub – to get their reading community chattering and excited about books. They love getting readers interested in new authors, and shops will carefully choose authors whose writings are of particular interest to the shop’s community. Bookshops adore hand-selling authors that they admire and 'fit' with the shop.
Cas Lester talks space junk and intergalactic waste collection!
And bookshops tend to know pretty well what will work for them. For school events, in-store events, signings. Not all events will work for all shops. Not all authors will work. 

If you are offered any sort of event by a bookshop, don’t think 'great, job done' and assume the bookshop has some sort of magic formula to win an audience for you. Getting anyone to come to anything is hard work, getting schools ready for you takes hours - for shops and the school. 

Do ask if there is anything you can do to help – bring your friends, promote it, put up posters, enthuse on social media, contact the press. It all helps the bio-diversity of as many different books being made available to as many different readers in as many ways as possible if we all support each other in this way.

Check your website! Is it up to date? If I have twenty author letters to write to introduce authors to schools, can I easily find a really good biography, something snappy about your books, anything about you that will make the children keen to welcome you? Have you got a really handy list of your award nominations (this would be sooo helpful), or even your book titles? Check now!

7. Bookshop sales contribute to the bestseller lists - use them - get your friends to use them!

Is there anything else I can do to support a bookshop in supporting me as an author?

If you are doing an event, is a bookshop involved? Who is providing any books on sale? Can you invite a bookshop to provide stock for an event? Talk to them of the best way of doing this and see if they would like to be involved, and if so, how? 

Most bookshops contribute to Nielsen bookscan data. Books that go through a bookshop will show up, your sales will be visible if you involve a bookshop and your publisher will be happy. And other shops will see how well your book is doing.
Getting up close and personal with debut author Laura Barnett
Find every way you can to support that bio-diversity in bookselling because it helps everyone - and that definitely includes authors.

  • Talk to the staff about the books they are recommending (hopefully buy one!) 
  • Tell them about a book you have loved recently, be part of the buzz
  • Go to one of their events
  • Help out at one of their events
  • Spread the word about their events
  • Buy books from bookshops
  • Tweet about their great advice
  • Rave about bookshops to others – help them to find them new customers. Be a customer that is vocal in your support.
The bookshop world is a fairly small place and quite a precarious part of an already fragile eco-system. We should all do what we can to support each other in different part of this diverse eco-system to make sure each part of it survives and is healthy.

Please, please, please don't make your first visit to your local bookshop the one where you are asking for their support because you have a book out.  Support your local bookshop now!