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!

February 09, 2017

A long love affair with bookshops

When it is so easy to reach quite so many people so effortlessly on social media, why should an author go to the bother of making friends with a bookshop?

Haven’t we all been told endlessly that bookshops are a bit quaint and old-school, a dwindling part of the reading landscape where the brave new world of shopping is both digital and instant?

Didn’t the number of independent bookshops drop to below a thousand in the whole country for the first time a couple of years ago, proving that their time has passed?

These are all good questions. And, with all the hundreds of books and authors out there, you might also ask - does a bookshop really need a relationship with another author?

Ultimately, is the author/bookshop relationship really one that is worth the effort?

I would like to convince authors of the beauty of being part of the love story with bookshops and answer Yes! It is a relationship that is thriving and has benefits on both sides. But like all relationships  it is always helped by both parties trying to understand each other.

Walk into a bookshop, particularly an independent bookshop and it is quite possibly small. It is possibly on a side road, and not even in a main shopping area. Quite possibly, it won't even have that many books on its shelves.

But what you are seeing is a portal to a wonderful, vibrant reading community that gathers around bookshops. And to fully appreciate that portal you need to be part of it.

Perhaps the easiest place to start in learning to love bookshops is understanding who is going to bookshops, and why, in this increasingly frenetic, digital world (although the clue is probably in the question).

It seems to surprise folk to learn that around half of books in the UK are bought in physical stores, even though the UK is the country in Europe with the highest percentage of online shopping.

From the dark days of the financial crash, high streets in crisis and inexorable rise of the popularity of e-books, those bookshops who have weathered these storms have done so by focusing on what they do well: promoting three strong values of community, expertise and curation.

These three values are only growing in importance in our fractured times.

Community


Bookshops are recognised as being a favourite ‘third place’ – somewhere that is neither home nor work. Bookshops are valued as a haven for those seeking a connection in an ever-more isolated world.  But bookshops are not church or pub, they are places where people gather united by their love of books and of reading.

Bookshops are trusted places for parents with children with huge appetites for books who need to know they are reading the right things, for reluctant readers, for gifts buyers, teachers, school librarians and, yes, authors. Anyone who likes to be part of that conversation about books is drawn to a bookshop as the beating heart of a vibrant book community.

Expertise

Pretty much anyone working in a bookshop is doing it because they have a passion for books. They spend every hour of their working day talking to people who want to buy books, about which books they should buy.

Talking enthusiastically about books is what booksellers have chosen to do as their job. The sort of people who like to go to bookshops are drawn there happy in the knowledge that the bookshop is full of like-minded people and expert advice. It’s a bit like shopping with a friend.

Forget the smell of books (do books really smell that amazing - did you ever buy a book because of the smell?). I’m more sold on the look and feel, the beauty of books. What about the thickness and the love and attention a publisher has clearly put into the format and the jacket or those sprayed edges? That tells me a lot. I want that book on my shelves and I want my customers to pick it up and love it as much as I do. That's what brings people into my shop.

Curation

How important is browsing?

Statistically and consistently, bookshops remain by far the biggest factor responsible for people trying and discovering new authors.

It is estimated that serendipity and discovery generate as much as two-thirds of UK general book sales – so most people do not expect to walk into a bookshop and just to leave with what they set out to buy. They actively want to engage – with the curated stock choice, with the experts working there and they like to walk out with something unexpected.

The internet has proved itself excellent at delivering books. It’s a wildly impressive achievement.

But is it enough for book buyers?

Internet shopping is fine as long as you know what you want or are happy just to buy 'more of the same'. This may be part of the reason we have so many incredible bestsellers which just sell more. The ‘fat-middle’ (or mid-list which is where most authors are) might find they are not as well served by a platform which delivers almost unlimited choice without curation. They might be hard to find.
Many book lovers have found this is not satisfying either. They are excited by discovery and serendipity.

So what else happens in this marvellous magical portal?



Bookshops are definitely about creating a calm space in which to browse, but there is an awful lot more going on under the surface that draws people to this beating heart.

In their role of trusted experts, bookshops are often putting together events to promote new authors that have a good fit with their customers. They are putting together lists for library supply. They are curating lists for book fairs, recommending book club choices, reviewing and recommending all the latest and new books and generally acting as a hub for all things book-related.

For every book on the shelf, a bookseller will always know about and be able to recommend dozens more. And for every customer through the door, there are dozens more reached through recommending to other book enthusiasts. A bookshop is often the first trusted port of call for schools looking to bring author events to their school or wanting bookfairs and in this way we will be reaching thousands of school readers even if those children never themselves to get the chance to set foot in a bookshop.

And being part of that wonderful book-loving community means it is really satisfying for a bookseller with a strong, personal relationship with a local author to be constantly working to find that author new readers - hand-selling their books in the shop, getting them events, putting their books into book fairs and recommended reading lists. If you know an author this is even more rewarding than simply recommending a book that you love. We really value those relationships too.

Bookshops play a unique and important role in the world of books and this is the story of how they have survived. What would be great would be to encourage all authors to adopt a bookshop and to build a relationship that is great for both sides.

I’ll leave you with my first tip.

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

Visit bookshops and take advantage of their great enthusiasm and passion, offered free of charge. And buy your books there!

It could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

June 17, 2016

Exciting and inspiring – enjoying the day as a shortlisted author


Thank you very much to Chicken House for choosing 'The Firefly Cage' as the winner of this year's The Times / Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition.

It definitely has not yet sunk in at all that my book was chosen as the winner and I expect normal reality to resume sometime soon.


Being involved in the competition has been a pleasure. Thanks to all those involved in the organisation and the judging.

A big thank you and congratulations also to all the short-listed authors (Janine Barnett-Phillips, Tracy Darnton, Julie Mee and Jamie Smith) who have been on this journey with me and to whom I wish every future success.

June 03, 2016

Writing quotes - great for sharing

Some of my favourite authors seems to be inspired to put into words what they love about writing and wanted to share a couple.

"I hadn’t found profound happiness and intellectual stimulation in the act of writing, then I would long ago have abandoned the whole adventure. The fact is that I love doing it and am never happier than when embedded with a complex narrative, slowly revealing itself over great gulps of time" - Rose Tremain

And the second from Meg Rosoff, recently he laureate of the 2016 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 

“I think that writing comes from a very deep place, from the unconscious. I imagine it to be a great big dark place from which you sometimes can cross a bridge to the conscious mind. Writers spend a big part of their lives in that dark place and get more and more used to crossing that bridge”.

And the final one I was reminded of the other day - it's an oldie but a goodie

 "Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." - Gene Fowler.

And it never gets any easier does it.

April 26, 2016

Carnegie shadowing - reading together the hottest children's books around

Each year I am proud to join in with the Space on the Bookshelf blog, where we join schools around the country reading all of the shortlisted titles for the Carnegie Medal and posting reviews.

Then we try to pick the winner. Sometimes we get it right!

Carnegie Shadowing is a great way to introduce children to 'grown up' books, new authors and titles they probably wouldn't discover themselves. Discovering more about the world through books is a way you can relive other people's experiences through stories and talk about them - and it is this spirit of discussion and sharing that really makes the Shadowing such a great experience.

I run a bookshop, Mostly Books in Abingdon, and we are proud that all the schools take part in the Shadowing. A group of children from each school gets together to offer their views, reviews and present which they think should be the winner. We even get involved with the judging day and offering tips on how to do good reviews!

It creates a huge buzz around books in the town right at the start of the senior school years and we particularly love it when parents read the books too. It's a real showcase for the talent that exists in writing for children today.

It's all great, except I find it just too difficult to choose a winner. So glad I don't have to be a judge.