Monday, March 24, 2008

Plastic fantastic?

Just when we think we're getting to grips with this bookselling business, along comes something to trip us up, deliver some humility and remind us that there is still a lot to learn. So, to correct any misconceptions about the slick operation we run here at Mostly Books, a few weeks ago we discovered we were about to run out of plastic bags. More accurately, Nicki had been asking me repeatedly for some weeks to bring in more plastic bags from our garage (the unofficial 'mostly books' stock room extension) to which I'd been saying "I'm sure we must have at least another box down at the shop". You see, when we did our original bag order back before we opened, we had to order tens of thousands at the same time. Having loaded that little lot (paper and plastic) into storage, I couldn't believe that we'd managed to burn through so many since we'd opened. So, when eventually I'd hunted high and low at the shop, and reluctantly agreed that, yes, we did need some more, we were down to about 20 - and lo and behold, we'd only got paper bags left in the garage. Yoinks. However, this did provide us with a bit of an opportunity, as the thorny issue of plastic bags is a very hot political topic at the moment. Some towns have got rid of them completely, most retailers are looking at ways to reduce the number of bags they give out (spurred on by hints in the last budget of legislation in 2009) and even Gordon Brown has found himself allying with the Daily Mail to wage a war on plastic. Yep, plastic's hot at the moment. In Abingdon, there are a number of groups working on ways to eliminate plastic from shops - and having done quite a bit of research on this over the last few months, we've been submitting what we've found to various groups to work towards a solution. Here's some of the things we've found out, and what we're doing about it. Firstly, it's worth pointing out that not all plastic bags are equally bad. It depends on what they're made of, and how you use them. The worst offenders are the very cheap, flimsy plastic bags typically distributed by the major supermarkets. That weekly shop at Tesco can result in a whole load of these cheap carriers, which are difficult to re-use (they tear easily) and tend to get ditched straightaway. These bags are the ones that cause the most damage in the environment - wrapping around trees (creating "plastic forests" downwind of landfill sites) and choking wildlife in the marine environment. Any legislation aimed at reducing or eliminating plastic should probably target these types of bags first. Mind you, this would probably have a disproportionate financial impact on the big supermarkets. I wonder whether the government will do this first, mmm? The fact that these plastic bags are difficult to reuse is an important one. Re-using a good-quality plastic bag many times over is much better than binning it (it doesn't end up in the environment, and saves a goodly amount of energy) - and of course plastic can fold up pretty small for carrying around. Our view is - providing its used with responsibility, and the overall trend is for more alternatives to plastic, and people are educated to carry their own bags - then there is still a place for plastic. Many of our customers now bring their own cotton or calico bags (again, people that support local shops tend to be a bit more clued up about this, and go to greater lengths to bring their own bags. Another reason to go after the big out-of-town boys, eh?). We've noticed - even in the last few months - that increasing numbers of people are re-using plastic bags, and we have been giving give out less and less of them. Apart from when it rains. When it rains, everyone wants a plastic bag. I think this is something particular to bookselling: you might tolerate a few drops on your weekly shop, but books and rainwater don't go well together. When we did the booksigning at the Roger McGough event the other night, it tipped it down, and hardly anyone had come out to the theatre with a plastic bag tucked into their evening bag or pocket. People were buying books for gifts - they didn't want a paper bag. Also, book purchases tend to be heavy - and you need bags that won't break. We talked to our bag supplier (Selway Packaging in Reading) who were extremely helpful in working with us to find some solutions. When we asked if a strong paper bag might be a solution, we discovered that the ones available in the marketplace tend to be a) energy-intensive to produce, b) made in China and c) have card-reinforced bottoms which make them difficult to fold up. Hence they have a higher carbon footprint and tend to get chucked after a single use. So - taking all of these complicated factors into consideration (and probably rationalising our own position a bit given we had to make a final decision quickly!) here's our Mostly Books Bag Policy going forward: 1. We are committed to reducing plastic bags in the retail environment. To that end, we will continue to offer paper bags, ask if the customer needs a bag, and encourage the re-use of plastic bags as a first option. 2. If customers want a plastic bag, we now have 70% recycled biodegradable bags which are made in the UK. They are strong and emminently reusable, which we mention and encourage to all customers at the point of sale. 3. We are working with Selway to source and produce some organic, fairtrade cotton bags (printed up with our logo). We feel using existing bleached cotton has significant environmental impacts that make them unsuitable. So what do you think? Smug greenwash, or a genuine attempt to square the needs of the environment with the kinds of products we sell? We think plastic made of 70% recycled, biodegradable material is a good first step (taken with all our other measures - we did try to get 100% biodegradable but these, currently, are made of cornstarch and wouldn't be strong enough for heavy books). We'd certainly appreciate your feedback (although of course because we now have 9,500 '70% biodegradable recycled bags' sitting in our garage, if we have made a hideous mistake they'll be a certain amount of plastic egg on our faces...).

Monday, March 17, 2008

Roger McGough at the Abingdon Arts Festival

The evening was dark, wet - but no fret. We were prepared, jumped in, round the corner haired.

The books were safely in the car, and the Amey Theatre - well, it wasn't far.

The show began at 7.45. So when, just after seven, James and I arrive, the assembled committee are looking worried. I took the hint - we hurried.

Got the books out of the car, and our bookselling paraphernali-ah.
At a quarter past, our books were out, impressive looking. The audience were arriving now, dressed smart (if slightly dripping).

Some pre-show interest, admiringly looks. Some flicking through the assembled books. Many were checking, and wanting to know: "Would Roger be signing after the show?"

Yes sir, yes madam - but over there. The smart black-felted table (and chair).

Applause. Announcements. We're off, it's go. Time to sneak in and catch the show - but b*gger, all our planning is undone! We've not bought bags, we'll have to run back to the shop and get 'em, how on earth did we forget 'em? The rain demands this, a safe bet. No-one wants a book that's wet...

James goes off, my nerves rise a notch. Still, time to sneak in the back to watch. As soon as people start to clap, I'm out the door, and quickly back, to the book stand where I stand and wait, how many books do you reckon we'll sell, seven, eight?

Chaos. Pandemonium ensues. Floods of people, jostling queues. Everyone wants a book to sign, we're doing our best, but interval ticking fast, the warning bell is rung. And suddenly - everyone's gone. Silence. Panting, we survey the devastation, wrought upon our bookselling station.

Right- sneak back in to watch the master. He's in full flow, effortless, faster than I want him to go, it's over before I know. But no time for whining, we need to set up the signing...

But need we have worried? Absolutely no - of course he's a total pro. There in a flash, purple pen cutting a dash. The queue is long, it snakes around (people are asking why his collected poems can't be found. Sold out, so sorry, please blame me. But take a copy of his autobiography).

The queue shrinks, it'll be gone in a tick. I shuffle up and request an obligatory pic.

The committee stand around for a final shot. They're happy - so's Roger - the show was hot. The organisers did everything right - a fantastic end to a brilliant night.

(With apologies to anyone of a poetic sensibility)

Last day of the Abingdon Arts Festival: Part 1

After a few days to get our breath back, we launched into the last of the events for this year's Abingdon Arts Festival. The final few days had a number of different events, organised by various groups throughout Abingdon, and - judging by the feedback we've had in the shop - many of the events had very healthy numbers attending, to the delight of organisers and performers alike.

It seems to have been a great success this year - and everyone has plans for bigger and better things in 2009, us included.

On Saturday, we were back in the Roysse Room at the Abingdon Guildhall for our Baby Bookworms event - an interactive story session for parents with babies which sold out (our apologies for those that we had to turn away). Anu did a sterling job, running the event with baby-for-hire Timothy (his second Baby Bookworms event). Everyone had great fun, particularly the little people who could get up close and 'interactive' with the special books. We had one lovely email from a new mum saying how much she and her little girl "enjoyed the book-chewing event" on Saturday!

We then welcomed back Judith Blacklock for another floral design masterclass.

Knowing what to expect, and having watched her at the event we held at the shop back in November I was still completely mesmerised, and the whole event was a joy to watch. Judith is a natural educator, with a special combination of passion and excellence and a genuine desire to share her tips and skills.
We were particularly chuffed to have nearly 40 people attending, including a fair few experienced flower arrangers, as well as a number of beginners. No men though, so come on chaps, don't be shy...

I won't write too much about the event itself - apart from a comment that when I tried to being it to a premature close at about 1pm, there was a fairly vocal (and unequivocal) response which led to me sit down and shut up! I shall instead let the pictures from the afternoon tell their own story.

Here's Judith in the process of making one of her most striking displays:

To create this:

Here it is on display (in front of one of the Roysse Room's decorated windows):

In a little over 1 hour, Judith had created eight displays, each of which was admired by the assembled audience. Those buying copies of books after the event got to take home a display.

Thanks to Judith for again making the journey up from her flower school in London - and we wish her the very best of luck for the opening of her second school in New Covent Garden Flower Market. Thank you also to everyone who came, contributed questions and made the event such a success.

It remained for us to pack up our stand, get back to the shop, and prepare for Roger McGough in the evening...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Some spring cleaning

We've given our website a bit of a spruce up, as it hasn't really changed since before we opened. Let us know what you think. Talking of spring cleaning, we need to get out in the courtyard garden, do a bit of weeding, scrub down the tables and get ready for the Summer season. But not in this weather...

Friday, March 07, 2008

The only place to be this Saturday... here. From everyone here in Abingdon, we wish Tim and Simon a brilliant opening day. One question though: where's the bubble machine?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A week of stories

After our heady series of events on Saturday, it was Wednesday bookgroup last night, and today (Thursday) we ran two storytimes to coincide with World Book Day. The 2pm session was a very tight squeeze in the children's room, so for the 3.45 session we decamped into the main part of the shop. Thanks to everyone who came along, and listened to Alison and I reading some of our favourite children's stories, we hope you enjoyed our selection!

The big event this week, however, was our Spread The Word: Books To Talk About event on Monday. Of the ten authors shortlisted for the £5,000 first prize (announced today), we were honoured and delighted to welcome two of them - Angela Young and Eliza Graham - to Abingdon for the evening.

It was a small triumph that - considering both are first-time authors - we were able to fill the shop on a Monday evening, testament to the success of the Books To Talk About competition, and the quality of the books themselves. Both Angela and Eliza are hugely erudite and entertaining speakers, by the way, and talk about their writing lives with a great deal of passion and honesty.

I'd pitched the event as a chance to hear two first-time authors talk about their experiences of getting published, and the impact of being shortlisted on their writing careers, as much as being about the books themselves. Both authors willingness to be extremely candid (!) together with plenty of interaction from the audience combined to create a great deal of energy throughout the evening, making it possibly the most enjoyable (and certainly the most satisfying) event we've ever run in the shop.

We also had at least three bloggers at the event (that I know about, and not including the authors!) and Simon Thomas has written a wonderful review of the event, which will probably put my ham-fisted, sleep-deprived prose to shame - but here goes.

I asked both authors to first give me an overview of their "route to the shortlist" - how they got published, how they got on the longlist, and the impact of being in with a shout of the prize on Thursday.
Eliza is now published by Pan, but she came up originally through Macmillan New Writing, Macmillan's groundbreaking publishing initiative once cruelly (and very inaccurately) dubbed the "Ryanair of publishing". In fact, her experiences very closely mirrored those of Jonathan Drapes, another MNW author, who we had at Mostly Books last year: wonderful support, excellent editing, a publisher using revolutionary 21st century technology, such as email submission of manuscripts - fancy that!

Having had "mixed" experiences of an agent previously, Eliza appreciates the straight dealing with Macmillan. As you'd expect from one of publishing's aristocrats, they were very smart in marketing her book. It narrowly missed being on the Richard & Judy list, and was then submitted for the Spread The Word 100 Books To Talk About.

(BTW, the *original* list of entries was actually 500 long - I wonder what that's called, a longlonglist? - which was whittled down with the help of agents, authors, librarians and readers. Be interesting to know how this process was organised, and who was involved.)

Angela on the other hand has been published by Beautiful Books, a tiny independent publisher based in London. Her route to the shortlist couldn't have been more different - and it's very revealing in what it says about the realities of an author getting their book noticed even after it's been published. Authors (even those who have achieved some success) are increasingly expected to market (and sometimes even sell) their own books. Angela's experiences show what you can do by getting creative if - crucially - you have a quality book, and you have belief in it.

Angela originally googled "small, independent publishers" and chose seven from the search results. One of them happened to be just around the corner from where she lived, they loved her book, and it was published in hardback midway through last year.

Angela also searched for resources on marketing her book - including all the awards available to first time authors - and worked very closely with her publisher on submissions to several awards she thought the book was best suited to. One very strong element for Angela is the cover design - in fact, Waterstone's admitted that (prior to the shortlisting) the cover design was a huge factor in selecting her book.

(Some people might be appalled by this, but as a bookseller, it's a fact of life. Some books that deserve to do well don't because they have appalling covers. 'Don't judge a book by its cover' is great advice to follow yourself, but don't expect anyone else to do the same...)

Having got on the shortlist, life has become pretty hectic for the two authors. Eliza admitted that it's helped her internally within Macmillan, being summoned to a few more marketing meetings with the reps. For Angela, the effect of being shortlisted is a huge vote of confidence for a book whose journey has taken several years. And of course all the publicity should ensure healthy sales - nothing less than both of them deserve.

(Both admitted to an obsessive checking of the comments on the Spread The Word website - and the obligatory checking of Amazon rankings. Well, just for the record, on Thursday evening both books are currently in the mid 1,000s on Amazon sales list, which is highly respectable, and I'm intrigued that both books have been paired as perfect partners...)

Both writers also admitted cheerfully to innovative (but ethical!) techniques to maximise their chances of winning. The feeling was that this aspect of the competition - what is essentially a "Pop Idol" of books - has some weaknesses and does leave the award open to criticism (Candi Miller recently blogged about this for the Guardian). Both had suggestions of ways the competition could improve next year, and if you think about it, changes might need to be made. Next year everyone will be in on the secret and looking to 'game the system'.

Having discussed how the books got on the list, I thought it best if we found out some more about the books themselves - here are both authors reading extracts, courtesy of YouTube.

First Eliza read from Playing with the Moon. Here Military Police quiz one of the characters in the hunt for a missing black GI during World War II:

Then Angela read from Speaking Of Love. She reads the opening of Redhead, a story told by one of the main characters, Iris:

After more questions, we did what we always do at Mostly Books events and break the formal part of the evening, allowing people to talk directly with the authors, refill their wine glasses and get books signed. I was particularly pleased to be able to introduce various people who, before Monday evening, had only swapped comments on blogs. The Internet can be a heady experience for authors, but it is always nice to be able to step out of the sometimes ephemeral and transitory world of blogs, websites and emails, get to the know real people and make proper connections in the flesh - John Naisbitt's "high touch" against the "high tech".

It really was a great evening, and I'd like to thank everyone who came and contributed. Everyone was very complimentary about the shop and the way the event was run, so it was unfortunate that I completely forgot to ask either author to sign books for the shop at the end of evening. Thanks to Angela for coming back in the next day to remedy this (Eliza will be coming back Saturday morning). Room for improvement there I feel.

This morning Jonathan Trigell's Boy A was announced as The Book To Talk About 2008, but you know, I don't think it's going to matter too much to the other authors on the list. The shortlisting itself has given all of the authors a chance to set out on extremely successful writing careers, and both Angela and Eliza have earned their opportunity through sheer talent and merit. I hope they enjoy the ride.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Abingdon Arts Festival 2008 - First Events

After month's of planning through the busy Christmas period, and the dark days of winter, the Abingdon Arts Festival burst into life on a bright, brisk, swirly day in Abingdon, centred on the Guildhall (at the other end of Stert Street from the shop).

The start of the day saw artists descend on the Guildhall for the Bigging Up Holbein event (more on that later). They were upstairs in the Abbey Room - we were downstairs in the Roysse Room - a wonderful old schoolroom at the bottom of the building.

It was very fitting that first up was children's author and illustrator (and Abingdonian!) David Melling. He gave children and adults alike a master class in drawing some of the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit his books, including the cabbage-smelling, oily-skinned characters which feature in his latest collection of books: Goblins!

After trying their hand at a bit of drawing on their own (and a few prize draws to win Goblins goodies) David drew an enormous dragon and everyone helped to draw what they felt it would eat - it was great fun, and now we have to find room to unfurl it somewhere in the shop!
David passed around his sketchbook, told a few of his stories, and stayed to talk to fans and aspiring authors alike.

Whilst this was going on, the ladies of Dunmore Pre-school started setting up all kinds of crafty items on tables at the back, and we effortlessly (!) segued into our "make-a-card for mother's day" event.
This was a supervised card-making glueing and sticking extravanganza, which was fantastically planned by Lindsay and the team, with plenty of things to make a vastly superior Mother's Day Card - stick on shapes, coloured card, poems and even vouchers for things like tidy bedrooms, washing up and hugs - rounded off with a camoflaged bag to smuggle the final creation past Mum and into the house for the big day.
Everyone had a great time, and it was the perfect way of harnessing all that creative energy and inspiration from David's event into a little masterpiece for little ones. We'll definitely be doing this again.

There was a fair old amount of clearing up to do - before getting the room ready for our final event: an audience with Barbara Trapido.

James single-handedly held the fort in the shop, so Nicki and I could both watch the event as well. We welcomed Barbara and over 50 guests to the Roysse Room for what turned out to be everything we hoped for when Barbara originally agreed to appear at the Festival back in November.
Some authors are very slick when appearing at events, whilst with other authors you know this isn't their forte and they would much rather be at home writing. But with Barbara, you have someone who is by turns laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, painful honest - but utterly compelling.

We heard about her torturous writing regime, the characters that inhabit her books, her writing life and experience with publishers. Best of all, we were treated to extracts from her next book - and she generously stayed to talk to the audience, sign books - and then came back with us to the shop.

James and Simon helped pack up, then were able to leg it upstairs to watch the piecing together of Holbein's "The Ambassadors" which took place at 4pm (much more of this over on the Abingdon Blog - but here's our picture of the artists in front of the finished picture:

We drove back to the shop, decanted all our event detritus, and helped to finish what had been a very busy day back at 36 Stert Street. Abingdon definitely had a feeling of a place buzzing...

As with many of our events, it was a lot of work, but well worth it. I'd like to thank David, the Dunmore Pre-school team and Barbara for giving up their time and helping to make a very special day - and also, to Alison, James, Maurice and Simon who worked very hard throughout the day - both at the Guildhall and in the shop.

Next up tomorrow night (Monday evening) we welcome Spread The Word-shortlisted authors Angela Young and Eliza Graham to Mostly Books at 7.30pm. We predict a big future for these two first-time authors, and both are in with a good chance of taking the Book To Talk About Award for 2008. It should be a very exciting event.