Friday, July 25, 2008

Ah, Summer

This time last year: rain, floods, Harry Potter. This year, well - the weather hasn't been fabulous, but the warm sunshine of the last few days has been very welcome. I do like selling books in my shorts.

We ummed and ahhed about HP7 in PB. Pre-order months ahead, 10% returns, etc. In the end - we didn't order any. And after Asda's £1 stunt captured 79% of the market (or something) I'm jolly glad we didn't. Last year there was bad blood between Bloomsbury and Asda. I guess revenge is a dish best

Anyway, Nicki and I had a wonderful week away from the shop - and the shop ran like clockwork. Major kudos to everyone involved, and only one phonecall all week (although I did sneak away on the Tuesday of our holiday to attend a BA forum on social networking. Ironically my recommendation was to 'blog regularly' - a case of 'do as I say, not as I do' there methinks, as this blog hasn't been updated for a couple of weeks).

Last year we had a visit from a remarkable lady called Linda - read how we blogged this at the time (you'll need to scroll down to the bottom of the post) - who came into the shop, and asked us to recommend "books for someone who cannot read". It turned out Linda was completely illiterate. Linda was about to take part in a documentary following her progress as part of a new approach to teaching adult literacy, and last Monday the documentary finally appeared on Channel 4. "Can't Read, Can't Write" was an at-times difficult to watch (and emotionally intense) look at the progress made a group of adults learning to read. Linda is now reading voraciously - and I can recommend the documentary series to anyone who cares about adult literacy, and how literacy is taught in schools.

We made a brief appearance on the documentary - and we will also be on Thames Valley Tonight (I think it's called that - I can't quite keep up with the 'itv' rebranding) sometime this week. They did an interview with Geraldine McCaughrean in the shop last Thursday, and she was talking about why independent bookshops are so important:

Not sure when it will appear on the programme...

Yesterday we had an unexpected and delightful visit from Vanessa and Malcolm from the Children's Bookshop in Edinburgh. A few years ago (when I was involved in the early days of web publishing) we used to talk about 'web pilgrims', people who would suddenly turn up in real life having discovered you on the web. Having previously followed the exploits of Vanessa through the Fidra Blog, it was really nice to meet them over a cup of tea in the garden. We were able to swap bookshop 'war stories', and - more importantly - discuss ideas for events and recommendations for children's books. I have an open invite to visit the shop in Edinburgh, so some advance planning may be needed for this. Incidentally, they have a brilliant children's author booked for an event in the autumn, and although I can't reveal to much about who it is, I'm jolly envious 'cos he's one of my favourite authors...

Back to events in our shop. We've got a whole series of children's events coming up over August (more about this on our events page) but tonight we welcome local author Sarah Stovell, author of Mothernight. Published by the wonderful SnowBooks, Sarah intriguingly has a background as an antiquarian bookselling (something which I'm interested to know more about, not sure if anyone else will though). Mothernight has been garnering some impressive reviews since it's release earlier this year - take a look here, here and here. And also read the recent interview by Andrew Ffrench in the Oxford Mail. The whole thing kicks off tonight at 7.30pm, and we do have a few tickets left, although you may be perched on the counter stool if you turn up too late ...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Nicola Beauman and Persephone Books

Question: how do you get 44 people into a small bookshop?
Answer: you take out all the books!

(Well, the book tables anyway). Oh, and you invite a star guest to speak - and on Tuesday evening we welcomed Persephone Books founder, head and guiding light Nicola Beauman to Mostly Books to talk about the company she founded, and the books that it publishes - and she so obviously loves to bits.

We discovered Persephone Books just a couple of weeks before we opened the bookshop - on our pilgrimage to the then independent bookshop of the year, Wenlock Books in Shropshire. We hurried back to Abingdon, got our order in - and Persephone Books were a range we stocked from our opening day, and has (with Eland travel books) been one of our signature ranges ever since.

Simon Thomas over at Stuck In A Book was off the mark quicker than me (which isn't hard at the moment) in blogging about the event - and it's an excellent write-up - so mine will be brief.

Nicola talked about how she came to found Persephone, the nervous start-up phase when she feared it wouldn't work, up to how the Persephone Classics came about and plans for the next three to be launched (more below). We had a good debate about the grey cover versus Classics cover, with several of our regular Persephone 'groupies' claiming that they would stick to the grey covers - simply because it matches the other books already on their shelves (I for one am very grateful for the Classics, because their keener price-point means that, for example, we can suggest one for our bookgroup. I think it gives a wider number of people the chance to discover these books, which I guess is the whole point).

After an hour I curtailed the 'formal' part of the evening - there were a few very flush looking people in the audience given the slightly muggy evening, and I wanted to give people the opportunity to pop out for air before they keeled over. The rest of the evening had people chatting to Nicola - and to each other: there were several people who had only ever met 'virtually' through blogs, and it was nice to see the bookshop putting people together in the real world.

I reprised the frenzied bookselling role I had performed at the weekend, until - pausing only for the obligatory photo (I'm looking a bit flushed meself in that one) - I had the pleasure of giving Nicola a lift to the station, and a chance to chat about some of the practicalities of ordering books from the various wholesalers, amongst other things.

I took a sneaky shot of the covers of the next three Persephone Classics (due to be launched in the Autumn). These are (from left to right) "Mariana" by Monica Dickens, "Kitchen Essays" by Agnes Jekyll and "Little Boy Lost" by Marghanita Laski.

Nicola was an utter joy to have as a guest, and I am very hopeful of tempting her back for another event in the not too distant future. A very sincere (and big) thank you to Nicola for coming all the way out to the sticks for what was a great event.

Nicki and I go off on holiday for a week from tomorrow (in fact, looking at the clock, we set off in just over 8 hours - which means I definitely need to go to bed). It's another important milestone for us - as the shop will be staying open (unlike last year). Alison, James, Julia and Karen (not to mention Yaxkis, who will be doing work experience all next week) will be ensuring Mostly Books runs smoothly all next week. We do have the most amazing staff - good luck everyone (we'll try not to phone all week!). Oh, and "Little Boy Lost" is one of several books on my holiday reading list...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Summer of Love - bookselling at the RNA Conference

We've just spent an exhilarating (if somewhat exhausting) weekend bookselling at the Romantic Novelists Association's (RNA) annual conference in Chichester. As an organisation the RNA is second to none in promoting the romance genre in all its incarnations. The association - and the conference - generates a tangible energy which serves both to bolster the activities of its published members, and inspire those who aspire to write romance.

We first got involved with the RNA at the beginning of last year, with a series of events in the shop in the run-up to Valentine's Day. So when we were approached earlier this year to sell books at the conference, we jumped at the opportunity.

Like a lot of events we get involved in (the Children's Food Festival last year springs to mind, but there are others), our initial idea of what might be involved was slightly off the mark. Thinking initially we might have to get a couple of dozen author titles in, we started receiving calls and emails from attending authors in April, and by the time we received the final list in May it became clear that out of the 120 (ish) delegates, approximately half were published authors. In estimating the number of books we would need, we discovered that many of the authors were published by specialist publishers (some of whom are not distributed in the UK). Authors were coming from Australia and the US.

We consequently threw ourselves into getting hold of everyone's books, and although we screwed up on a couple of the US publishers (apologies to those authors who had to bring their own copies), we did manage to get at least two titles for most of the authors attending (including all the Mills and Boon titles - thanks to the splendid efforts of Emma Skilton at Harlequin, Mills & Boon even though we only gave her a very short amount of time to track down titles for the author list we'd sent).

Friday morning two cars loaded with romantic fiction (and a few how-to books) made the trip down to Chichester. We set up on the Friday afternoon. What I hadn't appreciated was that we would do this in full view of everyone arriving and registering for the conference: cue a few anxious authors asking where their books were, or organising the display for us as we unloaded the boxes. Or indeed the hardened book buyers demanding books from the get-go (note regency-style resplendent waistcoat - or perhaps not).

The rest of the weekend proceeded at a cracking pace. I was giving a "Shelf Secrets" seminar on the Saturday morning as well.

So who was there during the conference? Here's a few of the names - some very well-known, others less so - from the photos I took once we'd set the stall up:

The Little Black Dress titles proved popular over the three days. This was because we'd managed to get a few titles ahead of their publications dates, and also (I got the impression) there is lots of desire from wannabe authors who want to be published by LBD. Here are a few more:

We recently invested in some display racks for events - stupidly I had left said racks back at the shop on the Friday, but thanks to a dash down the A34 from James on Friday evening, we got the racks set up on the Saturday morning. Check out the Mills & Boon display, plus the hardbacks:

Whaddya think. Saucy, eh? OK, I'm being a bit sad...

Thanks to everyone who came and supported the bookstall over the weekend, it did seem to create quite a buzz, and we appreciated the comments on the range of books.

The combination of plenty of energizing talks and sessions, and awards for new writers, really made the conference come alive - and the RNA committee (led by the redoubtable Catherine Jones) are a large part of this success. They are all novelists, and they campaign tirelessly and passionately for their genre (not to mention taking part occasionally in a few crazy stunts such as getting to the final of University Challenge The Professionals).

This is RNA chairman Catherine Jones awarding the Elizabeth Goudge Trophy. I'm hoping someone will post a comment about who it was who actually won (sorry, I was focusing on taking the picture!)

A special mention must go to Jan Jones who organised the conference, and helped move the entire stall away at the end of each day - and helped put it out again each morning. There were others who helped in this regard - which was a big help.

To all those authors who came and signed copies of their book - we now have a great display in the shop. I'll try and take a few piccies for my next entry...

I'm hoping for a few more RNA conference report from other authors, but for a flavour of the conference Susie Vereker was quick off the mark, and there's more from Kate Walker, Kate Johnson, Nell Dixon (our first sold-out title), Debs (who posted copious notes from the sessions), and Jane-Wenham Jones (who gives a hint at some of the fierce drinking that goes on in the evenings)...that should give you a good start!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Birthday the second

Two years ago we opened the doors of mostly books - it was a scorcher, and I was in my shorts. Last year we celebrated our first birthday, and the weather couldn't have been different - it hoiked it down all day.

Today is was nice and sunny for our second birthday. Which was nice.

We had a very low-key day. Our first birthday was an important milestone (and fell on a Saturday) but we had a big celebration recently for the award, and besides, Nicki and I (and everyone else for that matter) have been involved in a lot of events, activities and planning recently - and we're a bit shattered. So as I say, low-key.

Lots of good stuff to tell you about though.

Yesterday I had the very good fortune to meet the wonderful David Fickling (he of David Fickling Books) at his offices in Oxford. The offices are just what you'd expect of one of the country's most dynamic and fun children's book publishers - bookcases everywhere crammed with books, posters everywhere, The whole place - and David himself - oozes a passion and love of reading for kids, I've never quite visited a place like it.

I can't say too much about the meeting at this stage, but I did have the opportunity to find out all about this:
The DFC is now in its fifth week - and as someone who was brought up on The Beano and 2000AD, the comic is a revelation and everything you'd expect from a project which involvs (amongst many others) Philip Pullman and Nick Sharratt. Imagine being a kid and getting this through your letterbox once a week. Fab. Having had to 'dispose' of various cheaply-printed, nasty-plastic-toy-mounted rubbish which has, from time-to-time, been bought for Alex from supermarkets, etc, having a comic printed on quality paper, with literate stories from exciting new artists - utterly brilliant. Its sales deserve to go ballistic...

Anyway, that was yesterday. For our birthday proper we welcomed Helen Rappaport to the shop for an utterly compelling evening event which (given the fine weather) we did in the garden.

For those who don't know, Helen Rappaport is an extremely talented historian, Russianist (and Russian speaker) and a very fine writer. Her previously book on women serving in the Crimea was critically acclaimed, but tonight she spoke about her latest book: Ekaterinburg - the last days of the Romanovs.

I'd finished this on the bus back from Oxford the day before - and (genuinely) missed my stop, so engrossed was I in the final part of the book. Even though you know what's going to happen, Helen does such a good job of making you intimate with the Romanov family, that you feel compelled to read about their brutal (and it is exceptionally, and unflinchingly, horrific) assassination.
The book focuses on the final 14 days of the Tsar and his family, a period which becomes increasingly desperate and claustrophobic as the Romanovs - incarcerated in a city under siege - increasingly become not just a political problem, but a threat to the whole Bolshevik revolution - a problem that eventually can have only one solution.

For me, there's lots of parts that I found fascinating - particularly the entreaties made to the then US president Woodrow Wilson to interceed on Russia's behalf. The feeling was that the arrival of US troops would mean a people rising spontaneously up and toppling the Bolshevik dictators. Mmm, sound familiar?

And what of the role of our own Royal Family (and George V) in refusing asylum to their cousin? Here, Helen explains the complicated situation that existed in this country at that time:

Helen (as befits an ex-actor) is a wonderful and passionate speaker, but this evening you got a sense of the emotional attachment she has to the Russian people and to how the almost-cult of the Romanovs is closely wrapped up in Russian identity and post-communist culture (the entire family are now saints and have been canonised in the Orthodox Church). It's a moot point about just how much of paradigm shift the assassination of The Romanovs represented in terms of the bloodshed of the 20th century, but with Russia a resurgent - and increasingly assertive - nation once again, it does us well to remind ourselves about this particular bloody episode in its history. Helen's book is an excellent place to start, and I really thank her for coming along and making it such a memorable evening