Helen Hollick, Twitter friend and writer of historical fiction, asked me some time ago to do a guest blog spot. I wrote about the frustrations of having to describe your book and the advantages and disadvantages of categorising books. Hop over to Helen’s blog to read on…
Today was a momentous day for me. Why? Because, I finally sent my email brochure, colourfully illustrating our Jack and Boo children’s books, to 490 independent bookshops in the UK! Phew!
But is it spam? Technically – well, yes but very polite spam. I checked with a number of bookshops on the etiquette of emailing details of books and all were fine with it – how else would I tell them about our fantastic books without a huge advertising campaign and Hollywood movie? It was interesting that many of the bookshops I contacted learned of books on Twitter and Facebook, as well as the traditional channels of reviews, the media and good old word of mouth. If it’s done politely, sensitively, stylishly, and from the heart, I think it’s a valid option for the micro publisher.
I have to say a huge thanks to my mum, who became an honorary member of Beachy Books, and spent the last few months adding bookshops to our database. I then went through the list and filled in blanks, got email addresses and networked on Twitter and Facebook.
It’s taken ages to compile the list and I admit I got very distracted visiting bookshop websites and Facebook pages, virtually browsing and marvelling at some of their cosy interiors, innovative marketing ideas and mouthwatering cakes in the bookshop / café combinations.
I might write a blog post or two on a few of the more innovative or interesting bookshops I’ve discovered in the future, but all in all, it was encouraging to see many of the bookshops obviously still thriving, despite The Booksellers Association reporting an overall decline, in 2006 there were 1500 independent bookshops, falling to 1099 in 2011. It was encouraging to learn 50 new independent bookshops opened across the UK in 2011, however 72 closed.
Most bookshops that seemed to be doing well were selling food, providing additional activities for customers and creating real community spaces. Inevitably there were many I came across that were no longer trading, the owner sadly having died or retired. One was now a tattoo parlour!
This’ll make you laugh (or confirm your view I’m an idiot) because a small batch of bookshops received an email addressing them as “Dear <INSERT NAME>” when I got briefly distracted by my daughter asking for a snack. When I returned to the computer I just sent the emails out! Doh! The lesson is, check your mailshot and then check again. Then check again. Then send it. And then don’t keep hassling them or put them on a mailing list. I sent mine from my email client in small personalised batches with a little message saying I’d never darken their email boxes again if they preferred.
And to my surprise I got some immediate responses complimenting me on my mailshot and our books. I’m happy to say I’ve also already had a few confirmed orders of Jack and Boo children’s books from independent bookshops! Whoop! I’m not planning to retire just yet as I know that a typical response rate from a direct marketing email campaign is around 3-5%, so taking the worst case, that’s a response from around 14 bookshops – assuming none of the emails were invalid, which some were.
Email responsibly kids…
With Christmas leftovers still in the fridge and my tuxedo hanging ready to dress me for a night of debauchery this New Year’s Eve 2011, I thought it time to write a quick post summing up the year for Beachy Books.
I have little recollection of what happened earlier in the year, and I’m assuming not much significant as the only blog posts this year start in May 2011. However behind the scenes much work was happening on figuring out what our next move would be: Is Beachy Books a one book wonder? What book should we publish next? How could we sell more of our first book?
Before we had time to think, our first children’s book, Jack and Boo’s Bucket of Treasures, won the Children’s category of the DSJT Writing Magazine Publishing Award. This really gave us a boost and we had some very supportive feedback and praise from our wonderful social network Twitter crowd, who have continued to grow and be brilliant throughout the year.
To celebrate the award, we republished a new cover (unfortunately it was too late to put “Award Winning” on the cover as we’d started the process before knowing we’d won). We received helpful feedback on our first book’s cover and also on the price from various people including book sellers and industry people. The feedback was noted and we created a fresh new look that would unify the design and work across future planned Jack and Boo sequels. Crucially, we dropped the cover price from £7.99 to a winning £5.99, which we felt was a better RRP to the end consumer, but allowed less room for trade discounts.
We published Jack and Boo’s Wild Wood (the difficult second book, as we made changes after getting constructive criticism from a professional – changes we think improved the book however!), an adventure inspired by our family love of wild woodland and celebrated with a fantastic foraging walk in the local woodland where some of the photos in the book were taken. I was invited into a local school to read the book, where I did a story and book making workshop with the kids and displayed their wonderful story books at the Quay Arts Book Fair. Oh and we met our wildlife hero, Chris Packham, who kindly wrote some inspiring words about the book, which we used on the back cover. We also got some great promo for the book in a competition in the Wildlife Trusts’ Wildlife Watch magazine.
2011 saw the first time I’d been kindly asked to write guest blog posts. Some of the highlights covered my most cherished childhood picture books, how I introduced my son to the joys of Fighting Fantasy books and a ramble on book categories. Thanks to all who asked and I look forward to future offers!
We didn’t want to wait long to get on with the next book, and besides I needed something to distract me from the slog of trying to get our books into bookshops and other retail outlets – no easy task! So, In October Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day was published, just in time to go on sale for Christmas. One of the highlights was getting a call from the manager of our local Waterstone’s telling us we’d sold them all on Christmas Eve and did we have any more? Unfortunately, we didn’t have any stock in at Beachy HQ due to all our other books getting sold at various events and to other shops – doh! Must order more stock next Christmas!
To finish the year I did a reading of Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day and some activities at a local school, which was scary but an incredible experience – one I’ll be hopefully repeating in the new year.
I wonder what 2012 will bring? In spite of the world being on the “brink” of financial ruin, the planet continuing to heat up and the prospect of wall-to-wall Olympic coverage in the media, Beachy Books is going to push things further and really make our mark. To whet your appetite we have the following new year resolutions:
- Publish a new Jack and Boo book.
- Publish a new fiction book for children that’s nothing to do with Jack and Boo (shock!).
- Commence an exciting publishing project with a local primary school.
- Jack and Boo wild walks for the 2012 Isle of Wight Walking Festival.
- Start Project X (not even I know the exact details of this).
- Save the planet.
Happy New Year to all our friends, family, Tweeps, supporters and fans! We love you!
Last week I visited Newchurch primary school to read our new winter children’s book called Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day. In fact, it was more than reading the book, it was a half-day marathon session of discussion, questions and winter activities with four classes from reception up to year 3. I’d only read the book in a school once before, so I was still very wet behind the ears. To add to my apprehension, the headteacher had also invited in parents along to sit with their children and listen in. Eeek!
I’d prepared loads of research material, read the book aloud a few times and planned things to do, plus I’d set beeping reminders on my phone so I could dash in time from one classroom to another. Fortunately my job was made easier by the headteacher who based me in one room and arranged for each year group to shuffle in throughout the morning.
My heart was pumping as the first class from year 3 walked in along with a few parents. I had wanted to use the electronic whiteboard to display a digital copy of my book, complete with turning pages. Unfortunately – or typically – the laptop took ages to do anything and I couldn’t control the pages directly on the whiteboard. As I waited for the technician to help me sort the laptop out, the class sat in embarrassing silence on the floor – it was unbearable, so I suddenly announced, “I’ll do it the old fashioned way!” and sat down and started to read from the book. Before long, the class was captivated (mildy interested) and I was away. Soon hands fired up as I turned pages and we got into a great discussion about winter wildlife.
I got so engrossed I hadn’t realised the electronic version was now working on the whiteboard behind me, so when I saw it I proceeded to read from the book, but this time with the benefit of the huge stadium version on the board – very useful to point out things in the book dramatically. There was soon a sea of eager hands waiting to get involved.
For years 2 and 3, I used the themes in the book – winter wildlife, hibernation, migration, snow – as the basis of a quiz, which really got the kids thinking. A child threw out a great fact about stoats that I didn’t know, which prompted me to remark: “That’ll teach me to stand up here pretending to be Chris Packham!”
I ended each reading and discussion with a “make” by showing the class how to make a plastic bottle birdfeeder and gave out instructions so that the children could do the same over the Christmas holidays.
Year 1 and reception were amazing fun too. They got so involved as I read the story and it was fascinating to hear the difference in questions they had. Sometimes a hand would fly up to answer a question, I’d look at them to answer, but they’d suddenly drop their hand and say, “I’ve forgotten now!” and giggle! More often than not, a child would ignore my question and tell me an anecdote about how they made a snowman once – brilliant! I found I got so involved in talking to the children I forgot I’d read a page of the book. A particular highlight was hearing the reception children call like two tawny owls, “t-wit” and “oo-oooo!” It took me ages to get them to stop calling. Great fun.
To finish, I had brought in some ice – not just any ice, Beachy Books Christmas Ice! This was an icecream tub filled with garden leaves, berries and sticks, a few shakes of glitter and then popped into the freezer over night. I was suddenly surrounded by a sea of hands all wanting to touch the ice. They went mad! One boy asked me, “Is it REAL ice?” It was even more impressive when I removed it from the tub and held it aloft for all to see the frozen layers while melting water dripped into a bucket on the floor. Before long we got into a mini science lesson discussing what was happening to the ice and how it felt to touch.
And so, before I knew it, the half day was over, and the last class skipped out chanting “Jack and Boo! Jack and Boo! Jack and Boo!” – I kid you not! I got some great complimentary feedback from the headteacher, teachers and parents and I even sold a few books to parents for Christmas surprises. Later in the day I had children greeting me as “Hello, Mr Bell!” which was very odd and a few saying they’d enjoyed it, so I guess I must have made an impact. I only hope the children learned as much as I did. To paraphrase Bruce Forsyth: “Keeeeeeeeeeeeep learning!”
Look out for Jack and Boo visiting more primary schools in the new year.
I was asked the other day how I would describe our Jack and Boo children’s books. I answered by saying they were nature-led stories for children that combined fact and fiction, with spotter guides! Not exactly as catchy as Don Draper from Mad Men would have come up with, but it did start me thinking, was it an accurate description of the book? Just what category or genre does my writing fit? Do categories matter anymore? How would you describe your book? I don’t have definitive answers, but these are my musings…hop over to historic novel writer, Helen Hollick’s blog to read my guest blog post on the conundrum of categories… (extreme author photo warning!)
Before embarking on your adventure to read this blog post, you must first determine your own strengths and weaknesses. You have in your possession a sword and a backpack containing provisions (food and drink) for the read. Use the Adventure Sheet to determine your skill, stamina and luck. If you encounter any spelling errors you may slay the author. If you want to escape at any time you will have to Test your Luck, but you may get flicked on the ear as you run away into the forest. Now read on brave adventurer. Turn to Ali Baker’s website to read the rest of my guest blog post on how I introduced my son to Fightning Fantasy books…
My son was overjoyed to finally find a mermaid’s purse the other day on our first visit to a small stretch of shingle beach along East Cowes esplanade, on our lovely Isle of Wight. He has eyes like a hawk, and spotted it amongst shiny black bladderwrack. Inspired by my first find of a mermaid’s purse years ago, I used it as inspiration for a page in our seaside children’s book Jack and Boo’s Bucket of Treasures:
I spot sea glass
for my bucket
a lost jewel
from a mermaid’s
Mermaid’s purses are the egg cases of skates, dogfish and rays. I think the one my son found is from a common British shark, known as the lesser spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula) or commonly referred to as a dogfish. Egg cases are laid by female dogfishes in shallow waters and the tendrils help them to attach to seaweed. After they hatch, the egg cases are often washed up on the coast for small children to find. The Shark Trust’s Eggcase website is keen that you go to their website and record any mermaid’s purses you find, as numbers of rays and skate have declined in recent years. There’s loads of information on egg cases and if you find one on a beach they have a great identification page to help you classify it.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out on the beach and start hunting for mermaid’s purses! But if you find a mermaid’s handbag, please don’t look inside as the contents are a closely guarded secret. Happy treasure hunting…
I usually try to get a morning walk in across the fields, through woodland, along footpaths, when I can, after doing the school run. It banishes low feelings, exercises the body and gets me thinking about the day ahead. It’s especially useful if I’m working on a new Jack and Boo book, which are all set out in nature. A writer needs to observe the world and then try and describe it anew. I try to do this when writing Jack and Boo books. I try to think about how I can describe something we might see everyday and take for granted, in a new way. Our autumn book called Jack and Boo’s Wild Wood took ages to write despite its brevity. This is partly because I’m the world’s slowest writer, but mostly because the story follows the adventures of Jack and Boo in a wood from spring through to autumn. It’s a challenge to write about a season or event you are not directly experiencing, so I make notes through the year and then later refer to them. Ultimately, you cannot beat getting out into nature and observing. But, please do watch out for cows.
On my frosty walk today I encountered a herd of cows blocking the style I needed to cross. Bearing in mind this is the same field I got chased by sheep in during summer, I really didn’t fancy my chances, so I opted for the country lane instead. Still, all grist for the mill…coming soon… Jack and Boo’s Terrifying Run from a Herd of Evil Cows!
I’ve spent an intolerable percentage of being a parent sitting in soft play centres. We only had hard play when I was a child. Hard being the type of fall you had when you fell out of the tree you were climbing or the wall you were balancing on. Today children can play “safely” in a world made of padded scaffolding, banging into millions of other children running in the opposite direction, screaming loudly while tired, sweating parents chase around after them banging into areas so low you have to walk like a chimp to navigate them. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there are soft play birthday parties now where your child can run about and get sweaty with all their school or nursery mates before sitting down to a vile burger and chips and a lovingly bought Tesco birthday cake. I’m sick of them, but I know my children get lots of enjoyment from them so, for the immediate future at least, I’m going to be seething – er I mean sitting – in more of them.
Some time ago I was asked by Beth Cregan, a teacher and writer, based in Australia who runs a great educational/writing company called Write Away With Me that inspires young people, children and teachers to educate through story telling. She asked me to write a blog piece about my inspiration for writing our books. I’ve reproduced it here with some edits in case you missed it, which include some insights into how we create our books:
I’ve always loved picture books. Like most children, picture books were my first introduction to the world of literature. I have wonderful electric feelings of being read a picture book on the sofa or at bedtime by my mum and grandma. My favourite picture book, or at least the one that resonates most from my childhood, is Cuthbert and the Thingamabob by Kim Chesher, illustrated by Yasuko Kimura, and a sequel, Cuthbert and the Sea Monster, now both sadly out of print. (Interestingly, there are other versions published where the name Fergus is used in place of Cuthbert?)
This story and the images in the book stayed with me until I had children of my own, when I was delighted to find out my mum had kept the luminous green, well worn, hardbacks to give to me to read to my two offspring. To my surprise, one of the books even has some of my first attempts at writing – T’s and H’s scribbled at varying size and my attempt at drawing the eponymous Cuthbert of the title in red felt tip all over the interior title page. On first discovering this, I thought the graffiti was the work of my young daughter who regularly fills paper pads with letters and drawings. It reminded me that picture books, the shape of letters on the page, the rhythm of hearing our parents read them, are an essential step in learning to read and write.
And so I rediscovered my childhood favourite, but this time as an adult, and now a writer, seeing other layers to the simple story of how Cuthbert searches for a special Thingamamob that reminds him what kind of animal he is. What chimed most as a child was the picture book images, the monstrous versions of familiar animals, although on re-reading (especially reading to my children) I noticed the author’s writing, the style, the flow and rhythm. This is normal as a child does tend to focus on the illustrations, especially at pre-school age. But words are just as important and must work together with the images, often with a subtext flowing through both. Words and pictures have to compliment one another, but can also subvert to create humour or surprise.
To write picture books you have to read them to understand how they are constructed. It’s only then you can find your own likes, dislikes and develop your own writing style. What initially put me off writing a picture book was the picture bit, something that obviously makes up a considerable part. I’d known through my research that publishers tended to only accept picture book text from writers, sent in without pictures, and if you were lucky, good enough and fitted into their existing list, they’d match an illustrator to your words. Obviously if you are a writer and illustrator, and you have a truly original style in both – greats like Quentin Blake spring to mind – then you’re laughing.
I was fortunate that my wife was handy with a pencil and taking inspiration from our own family adventures with our two children, Jack and Boo, the characters in our book, were born. We wanted our book to easily stand alongside other published picture books, so we chose a popular modern format and went for a standard 32 page interior. (Basically picture book page counts must be divisible by 4 i.e. 4 pages to each sheet of paper.) When I wrote various drafts I’d just write the text on a new page in word, to represent each picture book page. It was a long process finding the right style and what really helped was creating several “book dummies” made from plain sheets of paper folded and stapled, to get a visual feel of where things should go, how the story should flow – essential to simulating what a reader experiences as they turn the pages.
To keep things simple I chose a standard format of text on the left, with an illustration on the opposite page. I particularly like free verse and prose poetry and, as the idea was to capture a family day out, I wrote it in this style, as though writing a diary using poetry, but from the child’s point of view. While going through old photos we hit upon the idea of using them in the book as we hadn’t seen that style before. My wife’s illustrations reflect a snapshot in time, like a photo, but don’t necessarily represent the exact actions of Jack and Boo described in the text – the picture or text should bring something new to the party. Often the text talks about a moment just before or just after the snapshot, and in this way I hope children enjoying the book will imagine what happened leading up to the event, or following the event, sparking their imagination.
Jack and Boo’s Bucket of Treasures, or our new book Jack and Boo’s Wild Wood, are nothing like the Cuthbert stories, but I hope I’ve captured the spirit of it in my own style. Now when I sit down to write a story, I start by rereading a childhood favourite to remember how it inspired me. When I write I then try to recreate that sense of magic, wonder and discovery that I felt.