Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cover Story: The Abingdon Carnegie Forum 2008

In a review of one of the titles on the Carnegie Shortlist, one young Shadowing Group member started by writing in big, bold letters "DON'T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER". Which is excellent advice. Hoary old chestnut that it is, it's a sound piece of folk wisdom nonetheless.

As long as it's you following the advice.

If you work in publishing, however, it's actually better if you completely ignore that piece of wisdom - because it's utterly useless. Almost everyone DOES judge a book by its cover - and the penalties for getting this wrong can be costly. This is doubly true for children's books.

I dwell on this because covers - their design, how the get chosen, their suitability for the titles - loomed large at the annual Abingdon Carnegie Forum. I had the honour and privilege of being a judge at the event today - and it was a lot of fun, but quite an eye-opener.

I tend to obsess about what people think about books, especially when it's me who's done the recommending. How nice then to have a list of books recommended by other people - and then have the chance to eavesdrop on a series of heated debates and impassioned presentations that formed the core of the activities at Abingdon School.

The Forum itself was run with a precision and attention to detail that you would expect from the involvement of (as far as I could tell) eight current and retired school librarians (there may have been more). The Abingdon Carnegie Forum involves the six secondary schools in Abingdon: Abingdon School, Fitzharry's, John Mason, Larkmead, Our Lady's Abingdon and St Helen's and St Katherines.
In welcoming the students to the Abingdon School, Mark Turner (Abingdon Schools' headmaster) set the scene with some impressive statistics: in the 8 weeks or so between the shortlist being published and the Carnegie winner being announced, over 90,000 students will have taken part in the shadowing around the country (and one imagines, in a few locations elsewhere in the world). Yes, there is no getting round the fact that it's an institution, and not as sexy as some of the other awards out there, but for all the sniffy accusations of 'worthiness' it represents an important quality benchmark in children's fiction. And anyway, from what I saw today, there was plenty of buzz that should keep the marketing folk at the big publisher very happy, thanks very much.

The kids that take part in the shadowing have to get through the shortlist at a fair old crack (I know, I've had to read the books in the last few weeks). They then submit reviews, which are whittled down by the respective school librarians and submitted for judging - which was our role today.

For those that haven't seen the list, here it is:

Gatty's Tale - Kevin Crossley-Holland
Ruby Red - Linzi Glass
Crusade - Elizabeth Laird
Apache - Tanya Landman
Here Lies Arthur - Philip Reeve
What I Was - Meg Rosoff
Finding Violet Park - Jenny Valentine

We were also very lucky to have one of the shortlisted authors addressing the forum. Linzi Glass - author of Ruby Red - gave a short speech and then took questions from the audience. There were some good ones: was the main character based on her ("no, well not much"), did she pick the cover ("no, that was her publisher, Puffin"), what were her favourite children's books when growing up ("Folk of the Faraway Tree - and others"), was she writing another book ("yes, one children's book, one book for adults").

(She was pressed again on the cover by another young interlocutor - this time giving an extremely diplomatic answer about "trusting that the marketing department knows what they are doing". We always ask authors who come to mostly books about covers, and almost invariably it's been a bit of a fight, with some suspicion raised that perhaps the marketing people are not always right. The only authors who get to change their covers of course are the big names...)

Linzi was genuinely impressed by the questions - many focusing on aspects of the book and its characters which were perceptive and original - and I got the impression she would have loved to have carried on for a while longer - but we were on a tight schedule!

The students were broken up into groups, and whilst we judges were marshalled into a small meeting room with plenty of coffee to discuss the reviews, the groups set about discussing their particular book - with the end goal of preparing a presentation to convince us which book deserved the medal. Listening in on some of the disussions was very revealing; as well as the ever-present cover discussions, one theme I heard being discussed on more than one table was "is this a book for boys or girls".

Following the review judging, we then watched the presentations - and then had to decide on a winner from all the groups. Given that groups were mixed between schools, and they had had very little time to prepare their presentations, the standard was very high - and the case was made for the book on grounds of style, character, readability and plain old enjoyment. It was good to see.

Whilst we were away finalising the winners, all the students had a chance to vote on the book they felt deserved to win the medal. Perhaps swayed by the appearance of Linzi, Ruby Red pipped Finding Violet Park by a short head.

For what it's worth (and we'll know in a few hours time, making this bit somewhat superfluous) I reckon Crusade will win, with Apache as my each-way bet. But what do I know - my favourite was the Meg Rosoff, and I did wonder - as some of the reviewers did - whether this should be classified as a young adult or an adult book? And in any case, whichever book wins is not really the object of the whole Shadowing exercise - it's understanding that, whilst you might get to appreciate why a book is a great piece of literature, in the final analysis, it's what you think of the book that's important - and makes it a worthy winner. But, you know, if that cover isn't right, it can really put you off reading a book in the first place...

Thanks to everyone who made it a very successful day - and to my fellow judges, thanks for tolerating my request for a group shot at the end (and many thanks to whoever it was from John Mason that I press-ganged into taking the photo!)

(Update 2013: see what happened at this year's Carnegie event with tear-stained pages and some good deaths...)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Meg Rosoff: What She Is

An invitation to sell books at a school talk given by Meg Rosoff is the sort of invitation you don’t so much need to think about as jump at. Meg Rosoff is author of some stunning young adult novels and has a rare talent that balances quality writing, memorable characters and plots that can fly off in such unexpected directions they can plummet into fantasy or leave you reeling from the brutal reality.

It’s hardly surprising that Meg Rosoff has been showered with awards and she was in Abingdon to talk to some school girls about books and the writing life in general, just before the final judging takes place for this year’s ‘children’s book of the year’ – which will be awarded the Carnegie Medal.

She was in Abingdon as the town’s schools have a growing reputation as one of the places where schools do Carnegie shadowing really well (a national scheme where schoolchildren read the books on the shortlist and learn to judge and review them). In Abingdon it’s a big thing – involving both state and independent schools, where judging takes place on which schools and individuals have performed well in written reviews and presentations, and prizes given.

As a recent survey showed many school librarians don’t read around children’s books and recommend only a narrow band of authors, it’s great to be in a town where the opposite is true. And this is particularly true of St Katherine’s and St Helen’s School, where the librarian, Donna Bell, gets her children reading all sorts of new and exciting writing.

This year’s Carnegie shortlist is also particularly strong with a choice of books that must surely have something for everyone, from epic historical battles to sensitive issues of race and class.

Meg Rosoff writes books where teenagers are often thrust into a world where they have to survive without adults. But her stories are not of long summers of picnics and freedom where the children round up a few baddies after a few scrapes. All sorts of horrific things happen to her young folk. But the thing they all discover is that they are survivors.

Her first, How I Live Now, was showered with awards, and her appeal has already spread into adult readership.

Her second, Just in Case, could have been the difficult second book after such a debut, but switching her voice to a teenage boy and involving fate as a character, made it just as original and succeeded in winning the Carnegie Medal last year.

Whether What I Was will make it a Carnegie two in a row will be decided on June 26.

Her audience on Thursday were treated into some great insights into her writing processes, including how and why she came to writing so late – an inspiring talk about following your dreams. She was in her forties and had never even tried to write, when her sister’s death from cancer made her realise she really ought to start doing what she wanted to do.

The result, she said, was a horse book that ended up having lots of sex in it, which got her an agent, but instructions to go away and try again. She was also given the advice not to ‘read around’ too much. She writes for a ‘young adult’ audience – a niche that is newly invented and her books do manage to successfully bridge that tricky gap by having as much appeal for adults as children.

This is probably why Meg Rosoff is also at the forefront of being one of the few children’s writers who have come down firmly in favour of age banding on books. She feels very strongly that children over a certain age will get a lot more out of her books.

It’s no real surprise to hear that she doesn’t plot her books implicitly beforehand, as they tend to fly off to new places with little sympathy or preparation for the reader. The cornerstone of the afternoon’s session, with an older and more feisty audience, was a masterclass in not being intimidated by the blank page.

She says her friend still has the email she sent while writing How I Live Now in which she said she felt things were getting a little boring and how she thought she’d introduce World War 3. As part of the lively afternoon session she also regaled her audience with plenty of entertaining stories about what life in advertising is really like.

Her vivid talk inspired bristling questions – from does she write her own blurbs to has she re-used characters in any of her books. And there was a scramble for books and signings for a full hour.

The ability to generate so much enthusiasm for taking a book away and reading it is a rich and rare talent. Those girls will take away so much from those books – whether they particularly love them or not – they will think about what went into them and all the other great and wise things the author said.

It was one of those occasions which reminds you that bookselling is such a pleasure and a privilege. So thanks to Donna, all the girls who took part, and to Meg Rosoff for such a brilliant and inspiring day.

It’s great that Abingdon’s efforts in this have been rewarded with such supremely good authors agreeing to speak to the schools. Another shortlisted author, Linzi Glass is to speak on Carnegie Day as well.

This year Mark has been invited to be on the judging panel and is really looking forward to being part of it all.

Friday, June 20, 2008

On Events

A few months after we opened (two years at the end of June – zowie!) we had a call from an author who wanted to do an event in our shop. I almost dropped the phone with excitement. When we opened Mostly Books, holding great evsents was #2 on our list of shop USPs – but with the rush to open the shop, with the learning curve we found ourselves on, our focus on the bookgroups, coffee, etc. we hadn't spent a great deal of time inviting authors (or at least, any author that anyone had heard of). Anyway – I said ‘yes’ to him immediately over the phone, and our fledgling publicity machine swung into gear (i.e. a mailshot to our small but growing mailing list, and a PR piece to the local paper). We also put up posters in the shop, posted a piece on the blog, handed out fliers, etc. And then we waited. And waited. Not a sausage. It didn’t help that no-one had heard of the author, but then – we had no track record either so enticing big names to Abingdon was proving difficult. But we’d canvassed opinion about events when we first opened, and we knew that our customers were overwhelmingly in favour of them. One week before the event we’d sold two tickets. We were frankly in a bit of a panic. At this point the second (and thus far unused) part of our publicity machine got going: cajoling and outright bribery. We evangelised to anyone who came into the shop about the event, we offered free tickets, we walked around and handed leaflets to people, we even engaged in a publicity-raising prank aimed at the local mayor which backfired spectacularly. On the day of the event the author himself phoned up to say that he was bringing some people with him (thank goodness) and even my Mum drove the two hours down from Cambridgeshire (and brought a friend). The guy who lived above the shop was suddenly available and he came down with his girlfriend. Eventually, by the time the event started we had 15 people – which became our baseline for an event that isn’t classified as a total disaster. What we discovered was that although people generally liked the idea of events, when it came to buying a ticket there was always a reason why they weren’t able to make it to that particular event. Slowly, over the next few months, we discovered a few home truths about book events in independent bookshops. At one point last year we sat down and looked critically at our track record on events and these were the fairly grim realities:
  1. They take a lot of effort – especially to do them well
  2. They don’t make any money (more on that later)
  3. Unless the author is famous, no-one comes
  4. Unless you have a track record, it’s difficult to get anyone famous (see 3 above)
  5. The kinds of people who are most likely to come to events are those people who already have packed diaries – or they are stretched with busy lives, families, long working hours.
  6. Lots of people are intimidated by ‘literary events’ and that puts them off
This last point was a real surprise to us. We discovered this when we accidentally talked to one of our customers at the start of last year, and realised that they weren’t sure what a book event actually was. Based on this, and for an event last February, we sent out a very low-key email to our list inviting people to a meet-the-author event, and explaining a little bit about what they might expect. We had one of biggest turnouts. Slap! Anyway, having sat down and reviewed the situation (cue song) we started to do things a bit differently with our events. And that has made all the difference (cue poem). So here’s how we do events now:
  • We’ve discovered that running events in a regular ‘slot’ (where possible) really helps attendance.
  • We have started to get our customers involved in the authors that we approach – we will be doing an event in July with Sarah Stovell and in August with Jane Brocket: both of these events have come about in part from talking to customers and canvassing their opinion.
  • As time has gone on, as our mailing list has grown, as we’ve gotten to know the best ways to promote events, this has also helped grow our catchment and attendance - also we now have a small group of regulars who look forward to our events.
  • Ticket sales tend to be in a 'u' curve - we sell some when the event is announced initially - and then we have last minute sales from people who are either a) unexpectedly free, or b) only hear about it when we're doing our last-minute push.
  • The most important point – we have got to know the idiosyncracies of Abingdon in terms of what works (and doesn't work) for events. For example, we’ve started to hold events at alternative venues in Abingdon (churches, schools, retreat centres, open-air stalls – we’re doing one in a pub in August!). We also do a lot more events for children during the day - this is much more convenient for busy Mums and Dads.
This isn’t just about helping us – it’s about making the events worthwhile for authors as well, who sometimes travel a fair few miles to be with us. I think all authors have horror stories concerning at least one event they were involved in - hopefully there hasn't been a Mostly Books horror story so far... So, the big question, are our events profitable? Some definitely are. For many, however, if you take the extra staff costs, time, promotional costs, costs of ordering in (and sometimes returning) stock – on a strict bottom-line analysis: probably not. But that – to use a colloquial phrase - is so not the point. Doing events is critical to the future of the shop, because of a number of intangibles that are not easy to measure but we know are there. Many of our customers – even those who have never made it to an event – support the shop, and enjoy being part of the shop community because they know we are doing events. It’s an important part of ‘buying into’ what we are trying to do. Events also create buzz – which, let's face it, is a nebulous concept much used in marketing jargon, but one I think everyone knows the meaning of intuitively. When there’s lots of things happening, you create a special kind of energy in and around the shop, and this definitely lifts the numbers of people visiting and buying books generally. When we are doing events, we sell more books even if they don't occur at the same time. (Saying that, a few weeks ago we did five events in 8 days which was a bit extreme even for us). And then there are those special events which just come together perfectly and remind you why you opened a bookshop in the first place. Recently, a customer of ours who has supported the shop since we opened, who we’ve got to know very well as a friend, made it to her first event. We know how difficult it is for her to get to events, and she has tried several times before. She was just so thrilled to have made it, had a great evening, and we were so happy she was able to come. We have some cracking events coming up over the next few months – more details on our events pages - but we're particularly excited that on Tuesday, July 1st we welcome Helen Rappaport to the shop to discuss her book Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs. Having appeared at the Oxford Literary festival, and Hay-on-Wye, you can read more about the book when Helen recently guest-blogged about her book on dovegreyreader. The book is a gripping, shocking account of what you might think is a familiar story - the death of the Russian royal family after the Revolution. We expect Helen - as a former actor - to spellbind the audience when she comes. A week later we welcome Nicola Beauman – founder and head of Persephone Books – which will be a very special evening for a number of reasons, maily because Persephone Books are one of our signature ranges that we have had in the shop since opening. We have already sold plenty of tickets, and I'm now worried we may need to move to a bigger venue... So – if you’ve never been to an event at Mostly Books before: can we tempt you over the next next few weeks? Over a glass of wine, in a very relaxed environment - let us know if we can reserve you a ticket...

Monday, June 16, 2008

The worst of times, the best of times

One of the great things about running the bookshop is the lifestyle side of things. Essentially Nicki and I job share, splitting working in the shop with spending time at home with the kids. That's the theory anyway. The reality is lots of rushing around once the kids go to bed, having late night 'meetings' and trying to cram in all the crazy things we've got planned for the next few months. The whole thing generally works well - but last week we were all ill. Anyone who has young kids will tell you what an utter nightmare this is (why governments spend time researching into germ warfare is a mystery to me - simply expose opposing armies to gangs of sniffly toddlers and watch them drop like flies). As a family you kick into a very basic 'survival' mode. It was all a bit grim and I think I'll simply sign off on a disaster week by saying that we're all better now. And sorry a lot of email has gone unanswered... Luckily we now have some truly exceptional staff who stepped into the breach at short notice. But had we been feeling better, we would now be celebrating our nomination in the Bookseller Retail Awards for the Walker Books Children's Independent of the Year. Hooray! We wish all our fellow shortlistees the best of luck:

Coincidentally, we've just been putting the finishing touches to a whole Summer of children's events - take a look at our updated events pages to learn more. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible...

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Grape Britain

Somewhat after the event, but now with some excellent photos kindly supplied by Harriet - on Friday May 23rd we did our first ever wine event in the shop - and it's something we'll definitely do again, if only because it was a lot of fun.

I'm sure that if we'd have done a straight wine-tasting (with a few wine books dotted around the place) it would have been a decent event. Similarly, if we had done a straight author event, possibly with a bit of English wine to taste, that would have been OK too. But doing them both together worked extremely well. It helped that the two people we had - Richard Liwicki (from Bothy Vineyard) and David Harvey (author of Grape Britain) were so passionate about English wine, and were such great speakers on the night.

On arrival, everyone was welcomed with a glass of Bothy's Oxford Dry. Honestly, you just cannot believe that wine of this quality, which one of our customers (who knows about these things) favourably compared to a good Sauvignon Blanc, could be produced less than five miles from Abingdon. Fantastic.Richard kicked off proceedings introducing this wine, and a red from another English vineyard. The pleasant evening meant we could make full use of the garden to ensure a relaxed tasting environment.

Then it was time to introduce David Harvey. David's story is really inspirational. He worked in a branch of Oddbins in Leeds, and was amazed to discover a great little vineyard close-by. This epiphany made him give up his job, and - completely off his own bat - chose to spend a year travelling around the country visiting as many vineyards in Great Britain as he could (in his battered Corsa, largely cadging places to stay from friends, etc.).

The result - published in May by Angel's Share, an imprint of Scottish whisky publishing specialist Neil Wilson - is Grape Britain, a wonderfully-produced guide to many of the now almost 300 vineyards in this country.

The book has developed a bit of momentum since its publication. David had just found out that the BBC had requested a copy of the book as a reference for Oz Clarke and James May's next series, a road trip around Great Britain. He confessed beforehand that he wasn't great at public speaking, but he needn't have worried - the guy has so much enthusiasm for - and is so knowledgable about - English wine, that he was very entertaining to listen to. We then had the final wine from Bothy - the extraordinary Paradox (visit Bothy's website and click on "our wines" to learn more about how the disastrous 2007 Summer floods played a part in its creation).

The evening continued with more tasting, and David signed copies and chatted about wine for the remainder of the evening.

Thanks to Sian and Richard from Bothy for working so hard on organising such a wonderful tasting, and to David for travelling up from London and making the event such a big success. Thanks also to Alison for putting together some exceptional nibbles in the children's room. As I say, we're definitely doing this was too much fun!