Beachy Books Review of the Year 2014

Santas Cat by Philip Bell Copyright 2014

It wouldn’t be Christmas without me looking back over the year and thinking how little I achieved, but realising I did some amazing things and then summing it all up in a blog post. Did I achieve all the things I set out to do? Did I do things I never expected? What were the successes? What were the fails?

I’ll start by reading what I wrote last year, however I notice that really that’s a 2012 review and after writing my 2013 resolutions I didn’t then write a review of 2013. This must have been because at the end of the year I was so busy trying to publish Jack and Boo’s Dinosaur Island! And I also notice that I only managed to complete one of my five resolutions. Hey ho, better one than none.

As a blogging year, it was my most pitiful yet, with only a handful of blogs published. The truth is, blogging is my least favourite form of writing. But, I still felt the urge to communicate with you all, and I thought an interesting way might be via a podcast. I almost gave up on the idea because I realised it would take too long, until one day I had the stupid idea to just record the nonsense churning around my head during my daily walks in the country. The result has gained a small but appreciative audience. The podcasts are about my thoughts on writing, my current projects and other topics on the writing life. I haven’t a clue who it’s really aimed at and I admit it is a touch idiosyncratic, but it’s all you’re getting for now. I hope to continue podcasting in the new year, so If I’ve piqued your interest then listen and subscribe here: Beachy Books – Beachy Rambles Podcasts.

Most of my time this year has been taken up with continuing my successful Beachy Books Community Book Publishing Projects, which enabled me to work with some amazing people from my local community and help them create their own community books, while having loads of fun and hopefully imparting some skills I’ve learned along the way.

The projects resulted in 4 amazing books, which I have now published under a newly created community imprint Beachy Community Books.

The books are Your Journey Into Ryde, Over The Bridge to Gunville, Freshwater Reflections and Animals Never Judge Me. I also published Addicts’ Anecdotes, a community book from 2013, via this imprint as our first community book.

All of the community books have sold at least 100 copies, most hundreds, and one, Freshwater Reflections, 700 copies! After costs, all profits go back to the groups who created the books to support their own causes.

During the delivery of my courses I was also observed by OFSTED and they gave me a GOOD rating, which is good, I think.

Unfortunately, due to the community book projects taking up so much time, we (the wife and I) failed to create another Jack and Boo children’s book this year, and also shelved a number picture book projects we had planned due to lack of time to dedicate to them. Perhaps a new book will surface in the new year if we get time…

I did manage to finish a short-ish children’s chapter book. I thought it was amazing. I loved it. Then I read it to my children. Their reaction was lukewarm. I have decided to shelve it for a bit and return to it another day. It took me ages to finish but I just don’t think it has the X Factor. Bit gutting really, but I’m just not feeling any love for it. I may be able to resurrect it one day. But if I don’t, it was just another step along the way.

And so, in the closing months of the year I have wrapped up my community book projects and finally had the time I was craving to go back into the study, close the door and start writing again. I discovered a half finished manuscript in the loft, which I haven’t been able to shake from my head so I’ve resolved to finish it in 2015. I don’t want to reveal too much at the moment, except that it’s not a children’s book. Of course, that’s not to say it won’t be childish. Only time (and my 2015 review of the year) will tell if I finish a publishable draft.

I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas in 2014!


A Snowy Day Off School

Sledging on Isle of Wight photo by Philip Bell Copyright 2013

On Friday the long predicted snow finally fell on Isle of Wight. To be honest it was bad timing for me because I had to cancel several book project sessions due to my children’s school being closed. Needless to say my kids were very happy to have a day off school to use sledges that had been gathering dust in the loft.

So I trekked out in falling snow and a brisk wind  in search of a big hill, dragging my children behind on sledges. Unfortunately all the big snow-topped hills around us seem to be owned by people, so we headed to a gentler hill along a footpath. I was initially worried about the narrow slope with a fence and brambles either side, but my kids ignored the danger and leaped on and slid away and before long epic snow fails and laughter ensued.

My kids building an igloo photo by Philip Bell copyright 2013

Eventually the snow seeped into our bones and made us cold so we trudged home and draped our gloves and socks on radiators and sipped hot drinks. But no sooner had I thawed my children begged me out into the white stuff again. In our back garden my daughter found a plastic box and started to make snow bricks. My son had the idea to make an igloo with them. Presently I got involved and soon I was making the bricks, while my daughter collected snow and my son placed snow bricks in a circle. As we played, we discussed a range of topics from how the inuit traditionally constructed their homes in the ice (and still do when off hunting), the nuances of good brick laying and how to make an arch that stays up. It was clear we were not experts in any of these topics as we had a number of collapses, then we ran out of daylight and energy and didn’t quite finish our igloo, but the learning and fun on the journey was invaluable.

I don’t think it was such a bad thing that the kids had a day off school. I think they learned more about the world on our snowy day off school. And even if they didn’t learn anything we all bonded and had a good laugh.

It reminded us all of a similar happy time a few years back when we made our winter children’s book Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day.  We hope our fun and learning captured in the book will inspire you and the kids the next time you wake to a snowy day.

Beachy Books Wins and Fails of 2012 and New Year Resolutions for 2013

It’s New Year’s Eve 2012. Jeez! Where did that year go? I thought I might have a look back over the year and ponder the next…

Looking back at my Beachy Review of 2011 and a brief look ahead it might be worth seeing if any of my bold 2012 New Year Resolutions actually came to fruition:

“1) Publish a new Jack and Boo book”

Ah…er… well I didn’t actually publish any new Jack and Boo books – or, indeed, any books!

To be fair that was actually due to a change of strategy after I’d made this resolution.

I felt I hadn’t marketed and sold our existing books (or my skills!) enough and really wanted to explore different ways to sell, promote and market our books. And these are some of the ways I attempted this…

I promoted our books in local schools and worked with children to help them create their own story books and got them thinking about nature and wildlife mentioned in our books – Jack and Boo visit Holy Cross School and Poetry and story writing at Hunnyhill Primary School. I really enjoyed visiting schools and I hope some of the children were inspired. I seemed to get a good response but it would have been nice to have official feedback from the schools and perhaps photos of finished books or comments from the children. I would advise authors to try and get feedback on-site before you leave as teachers are busy people.

I did a few author interviews discussing my writing and some of our books – Author Interview on and Interview for IOW Makers and How would you describe your book? and The Next Big Thing Blog Hop – Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day and finally here Stork Press Twenty Questions.

Me and my illustrating wife attended our first literary festivalBeachy Books goes to The IOW Literary Festival and I did a little writer-in-residence spot Jack and Boo go to The Needles Old Battery.

I launched Beachy Books Training and Beachy Books in Residence with great (modestly small but promising) success, but I had a bit of a fail with an idea to get other fans of our books to sell them with my Beachy Books Seller Scheme. I did it because I wanted to try it out and some people had suggested the idea. I didn’t advertise it much but I didn’t have much of a response in any case. I think I need a bigger catalogue of books to make this work, so I aim to try again in the future.

We got some lovely reviews of our winter book Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day, which has helped promote the book and Jack and Boo brand on the web. Thanks to all reviewers!

I completed an epic task (with the help of my fabulous mother) of contacting loads of independent bookshops to tell them about our children’s books. It took ages and as a result we got some great feedback from booksellers and some bookshops ordering, so it was worth the effort.

Oh and even though I didn’t blog about it the most rewarding promotional activities I did were talks to local groups where I read out our books and talked about how they were made. I sold more books at these two events than any other!

“2) Publish a new fiction book for children that’s nothing to do with Jack and Boo (shock!).”

Er… well, yes, as I mentioned above, I didn’t do this either. But I am working on a number of children’s books. I have a picture book idea about half-way through and a novel-length project on the go. My issue is, do I publish these under Beachy Books or go in search of a publisher. I’m still not sure, but it all depends if I think my finished stories are appropriate for a particular publisher’s list. I think a healthy mix of traditional publishing and self-publishing is the future. I do love indie publishing but it’s such an uphill struggle if you want to even attempt to compete with the “establishment”. The pros and cons of indie publishing are a big subject and I’ve learned loads, so I’ll follow this up in a future blog post.

“3) Commence an exciting publishing project with a local primary school.”

I did this one! Hooray! Read all about it: Beachy Books and Newchurch Year 5 children publish a book for Reception. This project lead me to be awarded some grant money from the local council to deliver 3 book publishing projects working with community groups in 2013: Beachy Books Awarded Community Book Publishing Grant.

“4) Jack and Boo wild walks for the 2012 Isle of Wight Walking Festival.”

Did this one too! See here Spring Wild Wood Walking Festival Walk! and I also did the Autumn Walking Festival but it was wet and there was a poor turn-out. Next year I’m doing guided walks with activities. The idea came from me working with a local school to take the children out and challenge them in a wood. They had a great time, their parents got involved and they (and I) learned a few things: Wild Wood Challenge – Learning in Nature.

“5) Start Project X (not even I know the exact details of this).”

I cannot remember which one of my many projects was Project X to be honest but this was alluding in general to brand new writing projects that had nothing to do with Jack and Boo or, in some cases, not even anything to do with children’s writing. In that department I had a good mini-success and more projects are on the boil.

“6) Save the planet.”

I’m still working on this. I like to think a book can change a mind, so I live in hope.

“7) Tweet!”

Any of my followers on Twitter will be aware I continued to tweet, often inappropriately and at times when I should have been doing other things.

My 2013 New Year Resolutions…

See, I did do a few things I said I would. I think it’s much more likely I’ll get something done, achieve a goal or meet a target if I write it down. And sure, they’ll be lots of things I won’t get done in the time I said I would, and they’ll be some things that won’t go so well or even fail in a most spectacular way, but that’s all part of trying to be ambitious and successful. Or did I just expect far too much of myself or set impossible targets?

So, with that in mind these are my 2013 New Year Resolutions

1)  Deliver 3 exciting Community Publishing Projects working with local groups on Isle of Wight.

2) Following my successful pilot of some private Beachy Books Training courses I aim to offer and deliver training courses on various subjects, such as blogging, twitter, aspects of writing, publishing, and creating presentations.

3) Work with schools and community groups to offer my services to them.

4) Publish a new Jack and Boo picture book under Beachy Books – This WILL happen, I promise.

5) Complete a new picture book and either publish under Beachy Books or send to another publisher.

6) Finish a workable draft of “the children’s novel”.

Happy New Year All!

What are your writing resolutions?


The Next Big Thing Blog Hop – Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day

I’ve been tagged in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop by fellow writer Helen Hollick. Her website is and her blog hop post is here and she writes historical fiction and pirate-based adventure. Helen reached the USA Today Bestseller list with her novel The Forever Queen in 2011.

I’ve been instructed by Helen to tell you all about my next book by answering these questions and then I’ve tagged 3 other writers who will tell you about their Next Big Thing. So here I go…

Jack and Boo's Snowy Day

What is the working title of your next book?

I’m working on several new books and all have working titles but I don’t want to jinx any ideas before they are ready. But the book I’m promoting at the moment is our children’s Christmas book: Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

One day a few years ago I woke to find the world covered in snow. The book is inspired by going out into the snow with my children. There’s a surprising amount of nature around in the depths of winter.

What genre does your book fall under?

Children’s picture book for ages 3-7 that will entertain both toddlers up to children in primary school year 3 or so. It’s written in poetic prose with references to wildlife.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ha! I wish! Er… I’d love my own children to play the characters as they are the inspiration for Jack and Boo.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Follow Jack and Boo out on a wildlife adventure in the country playing in the snow and seeing how wildlife survives the winter. But I think the opening lines inspire more:

Snow-bright light behind
the curtain wakes us early
to a crisp white world
silent free falling
paper tissue flakes
sledging down
powder white hills
blackbirds startle
spring from branches
sprinkling dusty rain.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I prefer the term, independently published – I really did do it all myself. Well, with my wife, who illustrates and our children who inspire! With Jack and Boo, I like doing it myself, being in control and keeping it alternative.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

It all actually happened very quickly. Probably not more than a few weeks for the first draft and then as it goes into the design I revise it, which is one of the advantages of doing all the stages yourself.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

A parent and teacher who came to one of our book readings compared our books to “Charlie and Lola” as she said they captured the play and imagination of real children. But they are so different in visual and written style, combining real photos, illustrations and poetic prose. Any person who wants to be inspired by nature will love Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day. I believe our Jack and Boo books are totally original. But I would say that.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

My children, my life experiences. Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day is our third Jack and Boo book, and, to some degree, having feedback from an existing fan base helped influence our next book. I actually made a rough draft of the book in 24 hours, following our day out in the snow, and published it as a quick eBook. It got a great response so I thought I’d make it our next published Jack and Boo book.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Many children’s picture books are tedious to read over and over at bedtime (not that it’s just for bedtime!). We hope Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day will be a pleasure to read over and over by adults. It’s also challenging reading for key stage 1 early readers and a great teaching resource for poetry and seasonal themes. Oh and it’s got wildlife to spot all through, and a spotter guide and family ideas of things to do on a snowy day. Although it’s based on UK scenery and wildlife we’ve had many people buy it for children in America, Australia, Europe. I could go on…

Our books are available on Amazon and other retailers. Find out more, have a look inside and buy Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day – the perfect Christmas gift to inspire a child to learn and play in nature.

Here are some lovely authors I’ve tagged to tell you about their Next Big Thing!

Love struck, rom-com writing Louise Gibney‘s blog

Zombie mad, short story writing Jody Neil Ruth‘s blog.

School for Supervillians writing, children’s author Louie Stowell’s blog.

My thanks to Helen Hollick for Tagging me in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop. Facebook: Twitter:

Bridging the Gap – Longer Picture Books

Sunday morning I tweeted this:

@BeachyBooks: Morning. Woke early, been writing. Slow going. New book is giving me doubts about its final form. Comes with the territory. Onwards…

This was born of my current frustration with my new children’s book project. It’s turning into a fairly long story, made significantly harder as it’s based on a true story, but I’ve been agonising over what form it will take for months. And by form I mean, will it be a picture book (mostly picture-based, not more than 750 words or so) or a chapter book (usually smaller paperback format with black and white pictures inside)?

But, I’ve been thinking the ideal form should be a longer picture book – a picture book with a longer narrative and aimed at older children (or younger children with longer attention spans or ability).

I have some ambitious plans for the visuals but I still want to get across a larger chunk of narrative. That’s fine, I can do what I want, in theory, but the business “publisher” part of my brain is saying: “Who is the book aimed at? What section of the bookshop will it sit in? How much will it retail at? Will parents buy it? Shall I give all this up and become a banker?”

I’ll come back to this later, as it got me thinking about how my 8yo – a confident reader now who does read on his own – has been losing interest in books since we left picture books behind. He loves to be read to but he hasn’t quite embraced chapter books. And I for one do not blame him. I do find many chapter books aimed at early readers somewhat of a disappointment after the visuals and writing of some picture books. I’m deliberately making a sweeping exaggeration as there are of course those that have piqued his interest but not for long. I can see why many children find TV, films and video games more appealing than books after they begin to feel picture books are too “babyish” for them. Perhaps interactive books will inspire this age, but I leave this point for a future post.

Looking at comments on this thread other parents feel similar concerns:

@sewjustinesew: I must say its an area I’m struggling with! My 7yo son is a great reader but does not read out of choice 🙁

@BeingMrsC: have heard others say similar before. Not at that stage yet ourselves though…

This all got me thinking about how I wished that longer picture books could bridge the “gap” between picture books and chapter books.

I then tweeted:

@BeachyBooks: Long picture books, as in longer stories with pictures. Great for 5+ & older but market, parents & peers can put kids off them. I love them.

And then finally this:

@BeachyBooks: From observations of my own kids the jump between picture books and early reader chapter books can lose their interest in books.

My last tweet above sparked a great conversation amongst my followers and was then helped by Kate Wilson from @nosycrow widening the debate by retweeting. I had some wonderful contributions and opinions from parents, writers and teachers throughout the day on the subject of longer picture books.

So how long is a picture book? Current advice from publishers, and through studying the market, will tell you they “should” usually be between 500-750 words long, often shorter, some with no words at all and some longer. Each publisher has its own style and preferred length depending on the type of picture books they publish and the age range they aim at. And if you publish yourself then the world is your oyster, but you may find you feel pressure to conform to the current fashion of the market, which tends towards the shorter picture book.

So, longer picture books have text greater than 750 words or so, usually with smaller print, perhaps with more pages, often hardbound and importantly the stories are more challenging in content and themes. It’s a funny category and not one that usually has its own section in the bookshops. It can be much maligned it seems as parents have increasingly steered their children towards chapter books as soon as their child can read or is learning to read.

I for one have seen parents verbally and physically discourage their older children from looking at the picture book section in bookshops. While selling our books at a stall at an event one day I had a parent openly tell their child, who had come up to look at our books, “Picture books are for babies!” It’s over a year old now, but this New York Times story on decline in picture books highlights some of the current stigma towards picture books.

The following tweets attest to this:

@Pollylwh: Just returned from fab @PopUpFestival overheard no less than 3 sets of parents in bookshop steering kids (6/7?) away from Picture books; ‘No, we don’t need any more of those. I’m only buying you CHAPTER books’. made me sad.

The push to move children away from picture books could also be affected by our current UK education system’s increasing pressure to focus on the text and teach children to read as early as pre-school age. A comment from a follower on Twitter chimes with this:

@suzimoore1: I’ve seen this in school so so day they have colourful wonderful pages and the next…werds werds werds

But then it only takes a good teacher to see the benefit in using picture books up to Key Stage 2 and beyond:

@Alibrarylady: We carry on with picture books through KS2 in our school – some lovely ones with plenty of text to challenge

@NosyCrow: @Alibrarylady @BeachyBooks I think it’s great that you use picture books in KS2 and some (eg Wolves in the Walls) really only work 7+…

@Llamagretch: love this [The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes]! Used in yr 4 when writing historical stories

@sarap4c: i use pic books with up to yr6 on regular basis plenty of stuff out there. Challenging doesn’t always mean more words

Of course every child is different, every parent, every teacher, every school. Some children will gladly ditch picture books and devour chapter books with no fuss. Some will keep an eclectic interest in all stories that interest them whether picture book or chapter book as these tweets illustrate:

@MarDixon: C is 10 and still buys picture books. It was never a ‘jump’ or change for her but somehow she got there. Exposure key.

@Elephantthai: That is sad. Even my 10 year-old still loves picture books.

There were many parents who tweeted with recommendations for longer picture books or heavily illustrated chapter books that had helped their children bridge the gap. And there are still good old fashioned comics (although current glossy versions are just vehicles for cheap plastic toys) and there are graphic novels and countless non-fiction books. There’s also resources on-line with suggestions for picture books more suitable to older readers at The Booktrust website. A current favourite longer picture book of ours is The Lion and the Unicorn by Shirley Hughes. Here are more gap-bridging book ideas:

@storyseekersuk: I found Anthony Browne books v good for this.

@5pigeonspress: we love Shirley Hughes esp Alfie and Annie-Rose! Great illustrations

@Alibrarylady: The Claude series by @Alex_T_Smith is fab for newly independent readers.

@whitehorsebooks: Have just read my 3 year old Fantastic Mr Fox. It was her first chapter book and she loved it. Short chapters and very funny.

@DeannaandNeil: Our boys made leap w chapter format & high graphic content (Captain Underpants & Big Nate) “which bridge gap well?”

@JennySarahJones: My 6yr olds likes picture bks which he can “perform”, so Bella’s Big Shouting Day, lots of Mo Willems, Emily Brown

@JennySarahJones: In our school library I’m finding that often comics are filling that gap, lots of Yr 2 readers love The Beano

@suzimoore1: I agree! the mousehole cat has lots more werds that a normal picture book and it is one of my favourites

@MsTick68: Agreed. Why writers like @andystantonTM, Kaye Umanskey, Dick King-Smith and Dav Pilkey are so brilliant-can bridge the gap.

Thanks also to other comments on the topic from @carylhart1 @damyantipatel @EmmaIllustrate @pamfic @DaniSacerdoti @Polishbooks @ScrappySPJ and anybody else I may have missed out!

Somebody suggested having a hashtag for this discussion. I didn’t think of it as it was all sparked from an off the cuff comment. Continue it on #longerpicturebooks or #lpb if you wish – original hey? Or perhaps it’s time to give longer picture books a proper name of their own? In the writing world brevity is king, so you don’t want to make it sound like the books are long and tedious. How about these for some ideas? “Storyture Books” or “Boundless Books” or  “Piction Books” or “Great Picture Books” or…er? Help!

So, what have I learned? To return to my current conundrum: To publish my story as a longer picture book or chapter book? It’s still a difficult decision. As a writer I’m usually ruled by my heart. My heart says (with heavy reverb), “Follow your original vision for a longer story set with pictures and designed as a picture book!”

My head says, “Woh there Shakespeare! How the hell are you going to sell this? Can you handle it when the bookshop manager looks at it and frowns? Everybody will block you on Twitter! How much money will it retail at? Will your target audience of older children be put off? Will parents just dismiss it for a “babyish” picture book? Give up now and become a banker!”

You can be sure with the passing of time I’ll decide what to do and I’ll let you all know about it. Needless to say, Beachy Books is usually ruled by my heart, as my bank account balance will confirm.

If you have any comments on longer picture books I’d be glad to hear them…

Direct Marketing to Indie Bookshops

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…