Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sultry Summer Reading: The BBC Afternoon Bookclub for August

I'm in the middle of a reading marathon at the moment, as I'm one of the judges for the Costa First Novel Award. Over the next couple of months, I'm picking one of the books that I've particularly enjoyed as a selection for the Book Club - although my final shortlist selection has to remain a secret. There are very clear judging guidelines for the award - so just because I like a book, it may not make my final list...

As always, you can listen on iPlayer for the next week (until Aug 4th) - you'll need to fast-forward to about 1 hour 10 minutes into the show...

Here are this month's picks:
  • Brontorina by James Howe, illustrated by Randy Cecil (PB, £5.99, Templar)
    Publishing)When Brontorina Apatosaurus turns up at Madame Lucille’s Dance Academy for Girls and Boys, she dreams of being a dancer. And Mme Lucille tries to help. But after a ‘jeté’ incident, and a few close shaves with the other pupils (not to mention the piano), Mme Lucille realises more drastic steps are required to accommodate her biggest ballerina. A very original, exquisitely illustrated story of the power of dreams, inclusion and acceptance - and I particularly liked Mme Lucille's eye for a business opportunity at the end of the book!
  • The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit (HB, £18.99, Bloomsbury)
    Niki Segnit deserves several medals, not just for coming up with the concept of a flavour thesaurus, but also for the frightening amount of work, effort and scholarship distilled into this incredible reference book. Quite simply one of the most original - and inspiring - cookery books to have come out in recent years. Buy it for the cook who has everything, but also for anyone who loves to experiment in the kitchen. Like a real thesaurus, it's not designed to be read cover to cover, but dipping in provides so many useful ideas, recipes and inspirations of flavour combinations you might never have considered that I defy anyone not to run to the kitchen to try some of them out!
  • Death in Holy Orders by PD James (PB, £7.99, Penguin)

    One of our most venerable and respected crime writers, Phyllis Dorothy James (better known as PD James) was born in Oxford 90 years ago on August 3rd, and we've selected what Nicki considers one of her finest books to celebrate. Featuring James' reserved yet respected detective, the iconic Adam Dalgliesh, 'Death in Holy Orders' centres on a murder investigation at a remote closed monastic community in East Anglia. Well-plotted and atmospheric, PD James manages to recreate the unreality of the monastic life and religious hierarchy, in which values become distorted, and someone is driven to commit a desperate act. If you've never tried PD James before, raise a glass on August 3rd to say happy birthday, and settle down with this cracker.
  • A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah (PB, £7.99, Hodder - published 19 Aug)

    Sophie Hannah is one of our most talented contemporary writers. She is a bestselling author and poet, a published translator and an award-winning short story writer. Her latest novel "A Room Swept White" is one of her trademark psychological thrillers, featuring all the elements that have won her accolades for previous books: a complex plot, masterful storytelling, fresh, modern female characters and moral complexity. Here, TV producer Fliss Benson reluctantly (in the face of a very personal tragedy) agrees to work on a documentary involving cot death and the release of three mothers initially accused of the murder of their children. When one of the women dies, Fliss finds herself up against the police (including Hannah's regular police team of Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse) and a murderer who gets uncomfortably close to home. Forced to use all her guile and cunning to catch a murderer, there is a great (and genuinely scary) twist at the end.
  • Sabra Zoo by Mischa Hiller (PB, £10.99, Telegram Books)
    This is my Costa pick for this month. Sabra Zoo is a powerful, remarkable debut novel from an author to watch - Mischa Hiller. Set against the backdrop of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut in 1982, this novel - whlst not shying away from details of the event - nevertheless is a life-affirming story written with a lack of polemic and also admitable restraint. Through the eyes of translator Ivan - an 18-year old Danish-Palestinian who hangs around and assists a variety of Lebanese, Palestinian and Western medical volunteers in the camps - we watch events unfold with a grim inevitability. However, this book ultimately shows that ordinary people with courage, even in the midst of atrocity, can plot a path to a more hopeful future.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How to self-publish a book

I'm going to tell you a story about an author which is as unlikely as it is remarkable.

At Mostly Books, we get approached by many authors who ask us to stock their book. Many of these books are self-published. This started happening almost as soon as we opened four years ago, and as a result of observing many different approaches - and realising that there was very often a link between the *approach* and the eventual success (or otherwise) of sales of the book - we developed a course for authors called Shelf Secrets, which we run roughly twice a year (the next one being in August).

The relationship between bookshops and self-published authors is not an easy one. Often authors self-publish because they have not found success with mainstream publishers (for a variety of reasons) and so there is a perception that shared ground exists with independent bookshops. Some authors feel an affinity with independents - they see us all as being part of a team, the little guys against the status quo, etc.

Unfortunately there are many reasons why independent bookshops cannot stock a particular self-published book, and it is often for the same reason that we can't stock a particular mainstream published book either. It may not be right for the shop, we think it won't sell, we don't feel we can get behind it, etc. It may not be a problem with the book per se (although many self-published books just don't cut it from a quality perspective) but it suffers by comparison to all the other books we think we have a chance of selling.

(As an aside: Do you really need to spend all that time, effort and heartache trying to get your book into a bookshop, possibly the most hyper-competitive place in the world for a book to survive on its own merits: cover, blurb, price. Might there be alternative retail outlets for your book? This is really worth meditating on if you are a self-published author...)

Having said all that, we've always tried to be supportive of self-published books and authors in the past - and although I can sympathise with the exasperation that led to this post, I know how incredibly difficult it is as an author to publish, market and sell your book - and we do try to be supportive of authors who come in even if we don't take their books.

Anyway, if you are an author who is self-published, or are with a small publisher, or are mainstream-published but have to do a lot of your own marketing (that's most of you) - and particularly if you are an author writing for children - you may want to read the following very closely. If nothing else, given the bewildering speed of change in the publishing industry today, it shows what can be done - and possibly provides some clues for what you'll need to do to thrive in the future...

Here we go...

Last September, I was invited to speak in Nottingham by New Writers UK, a fantastic and extremely dynamic writing group, centred in Nottingham but with members increasingly further afield. Once per year they organise a New Writers Festival which takes place over two days at Nottingham's County Hall. It generates buzz, attracts visitors, authors promote and sell their books, and guests from the publishing world come and speak.

It's a great vehicle to market and sell members' books - definitely worth thinking about if you are in a writing group and have a book to sell.

Whilst I was there, I took some time to chat to a number of the authors, although many of the books I looked at I felt we couldn't sell in the shop. One book stood out however. Author Catherine Cooper's book 'The Golden Acorn'. The book itself was well-designed, and everything about the way it was presented smacked of professionalism and quality - from the quality of the production (it looked like a mainstream-published book), the use of wording on the spine (i.e. it would attract even when spine-out on a shelf), the price point (believe me, we can never sell paperbacks by new writers which retail for more than £10). There were design themes picked up and used consistently through supported bookmarks, posters, even the cloth covering the table. What this said to me - here is someone who is serious about this book, and worth investigating a bit more.

It turned out that Catherine was a teacher who - having taught at primary schools level for almost 30 years - had had to retire through ill-health, and had decided to start writing (has it ever struck you how many good children's authors are ex-teachers?). She told me about the book - not in a breathless, this-will-change-your-life kind of way, but just in that quietly passionate tone that all good salespeople adopt - those that genuinely believe in what they are selling.

She also told me about the events she had done, and the website she had set up, the way they had been collecting feedback from children and the positive response that it had received.

(This of course is nothing revolutionary - as an aside, and for those interested take a look at Kit Berry's Stonewylde website, or read Scott Pack's post on the experience of John Howard and The Keys To Chintak).

She also told me how much writing had gone into the book. She had rewritten several times, got feedback from a published author, rewritten again, got feedback. Again, over the last few years, I have been struck by the number of authors who rewrite incessantly, and the quality of the books that result.

Catherine kindly gave me a copy of the book, which I read on my nightmare train journey home, and I liked it. But I'm always a bit dubious about my own taste in books, and I wanted to get a second opinion. I lent the copy to two children we know who come into the shop, who are voracious but critical readers (one boy, one girl), and the response that came back couldn't have been more positive (the girl in question had been so inspired that she dressed up as one of the characters at her school's World Book Day event recently).

So we ordered some books, and started selling them. They are great books to recommend for 8-10 year olds, particularly those kids who have burnt through many of the bestselling series and who are looking for something a bit different, perhaps gentler than some of the breathless, issue-driven stuff creeping into children's books at the moment. It's a pleasure to recommend it - and we get good feedback.

The book was out 6th bestselling book in all genres during June BTW.

All this isn't particularly earthshaking, but unbeknown to us, Catherine submitted The Golden Acorn to the inaugural Brit Writers' Award. She made the shortlist for the Children's Story award. And lo and behold, at a glitzy award ceremony last Thursday at the O2 centre in London, she not only won the children's award, but was crowned Unpublished Writer of the Year, a £10,000 prize and a book and film deal.

It's the stuff of dreams - but it is very well deserved and we were delighted that Catherine dropped in to see us yesterday to tell us all about it!

22,000 books were submitted for that prize BTW, so that's what you are up against. But pick through the bones of this post, and ask yourself: could you do what Catherine did?

More about the upcoming Shelf Secrets Course on August 24th can be found here...

Thursday, July 01, 2010

4th birthday honours list: The BBC Oxford Afternoon Bookclub for July

It occurred to me that today is our 4th birthday. Yes, on July 1st 2006 we opened our doors, and whilst we'll think of something suitably celebratory to do *next* year (he said optimistically) for number five, it's nice to report that things are continuing to go well with the shop - if a little hectic as always.

Anyway - yesterday was the BBC Oxford Afternoon Bookclub for July - as always, you can listen here on the BBC iPlayer for my words of wisdom (available until next Wednesday - you'll need to fast forward about 1hour 12 minutes into the show), and five cracking holiday reading for children and adults.

In my book, holiday reads should be a) escapist and fun, b) features individuals and characters you might want to take on hiliday yourself, and c) leave you a bit of changed/inspiration for when you come back. So with that in mind, here's a summary of the books I recommended for July:

  • The Quest of the Warrior Sheep (Egmont, £5.99, PB)
    When a shiny metal object falls from the sky on to a sheep called Sal, it seems that an ancient ovine prophecy is about to be fulfilled. And so a ragtag group of rare-breed sheep (‘The Eppingham posse’) must travel North to aid Lord Aries in his battles against Lambad the Bad. Of course the ‘shiny object’ is actually a mobile phone dropped by a couple of high-tech thieves and they need it back rather desperately. This is mad, (lam)bad and very funny – with plenty of in-jokes about the fantasy genre, which should prove popular with children 7+. Think Shaun The Sheep meets Lord of the Rings...
  • The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean (OUP, PB, £6.99)
    What happens if someone told you something about your future, and you believed it completely? When Pepper Roux is born, his Aunt fortells that he will be dead before he reaches 14. So when his 14th birthday arrives (and with his family behaving as if ever-so slightly embarrassed by his still being alive) Pepper decides to cheat death, and stay one step ahead by jumping into other people’s lives. With a cast of rogues and thieves, and many twists and turns on water and land, this is a wonderfully original book whose madcap plot belies more serious questions of the effects of what we believe – and how people see what they choose to see. Geraldine McCaughrean is one of my favourite children’s authors – and she is never afraid to write different, challenging children’s literature that deliver the essence of good storytelling – you have to keep reading!
  • The Garden in the Clouds by Anthony Woodward (HarperCollins, HB, £16.99)
    ‘What d’ya want that old place for? You a farmer?’
    ‘No, I’m a writer’
    ‘Are you, bloody hell’
    Thus begins author and journalist Anthony Woodward’s attempt to ‘live the dream’ – and make real the ‘garden in his mind’ at Tair Ffynnon, a derelict Welsh smallholding high up in the Black Mountains, a place he fell in love with through a bizarre series of protracted ‘viewings’ whilst on brief visits from his home in London. There is of course local opposition, naive financial planning, ambitious plans that can never work. What marks this autobiographical tale out of the ordinary, however – and eventually wins you over – is the wonderful quality of the writing, and Anthony’s endeavours – through various Proustian visits to childhood memories – to understand what exactly drives him – and others – to reconnect with landscape and memory, and to make a garden.
  • “Dark Vineyard” by Martin Walker (Quercus, PB, £7.99)Set in the fictional Périgord town of St Denis in the Dordogne, this is Martin Walker’s second novel involving the laid-back but quietly effective Captain Bruno Courrèges. As in his first book (Bruno, Chief of Police), Courrèges attempts to balance the traditions of rural France against the march of progress, along the way dealing with hapless EU bureaucrats, Parisian politicos, and a delightful range of characters which stay just on the right side of stereotypes. This time arson seems to point to desperate attempts to stop a Californian winemaking scheme, but things are just a little bit more complicated. This is gentle, good-humoured crime fiction – but one with an undoubted love of France that let’s you get under the skin of this famous wine-growing region of France. One to pack if you are off on holiday to France this year...
  • “Chowringhee” by Sankar (Atlantic Books, PB, £7.99)
    A wonderful, escapist read from Sankar, one of Bengal’s most celebrated modern novelists, Chowringhee is set in Calcutta in the years following the end of colonial rule. Through the eyes of its young narrator and his fall from lawyer’s clerk to destitution, we then follow his rise as the newest receptionist at the Shahjahan, one of Calcutta’s finest and most opulent hotels. But behind the glittering facade, things are not what they seem. With beguiling prose, and improbable characters, this sprawling tale conjures up the sights, smells, climate and memories of another time and place, and - with a nod to traditional Indian fables - this newly published translation of a 1960s masterpiece is a holiday treat.