Sunday, 2 October 2011
BOOKSELLER SUNDAYS - Gamekeeper turned Poacher, by Tamara Macfarlane of Tales on Moon Lane
One of a series of guest blogs by booksellers who work with children’s authors in different ways. These guest blogs are designed to show life behind the scenes of a crucial but neglected relationship – the one between a writer and a bookseller. These days, such relationships are more intense and more important, as increasing numbers of authors go on the road to promote and sell children’s books – a goal shared by the booksellers who will contribute to this series.
Tamara’s first book, Amazing Esme, is just out with Hodder & Stoughton.
My own first author event – as an author – passed recently in a blur. I have yet to recall a word I said, as all that passed through my head for the entire session was, repeatedly, ‘It’s just an hour of my life. If I’m still alive at the end of it, how bad can it be?’
I had taken all the necessary precautions and a few extra ones. I had guaranteed myself a full and willing audience: it was an hour out of lessons and school. I would have to be really bad to stop those advantages winning the children over. I had learnt how to use prezi.com and I’d created what I thought was a really impressive presentation. I had rehearsed, collected props, remembered a few golden rules from my four years of teacher training and seven years in the classroom. And then I had gone one step further and enlisted the help of one of the best children’s entertainers in town, Gilbert Giggles.
A little over the top perhaps, but having been in the fortunate position of being a children’s bookshop owner, one who had organised and seen numerous fantastic author events, I of all people knew that the stakes were high. I had observed giant bogies being bounced around auditoriums, been fascinated by virtual tours of exotic places, been entertained by re enactments of bloody battles, seen fake sick in a bag and watched countless teachers climb into wigs and giant pairs of knickers.
I have also, perhaps just as importantly, seen some terrifyingly dull events, the kind where you mourn desperately for the hour of your life that you’ve just had stolen from you, the kind where you daydream of piercing your own ear drums with a couple of HB pencils and you start wondering why the children haven’t realised that they’ve got the advantage in terms of numbers, and, if they got organised, they could overthrow the dull event that’s torturing them. Having resisted the urge to rally the children to arms, on the basis that it would be unprofessional, I resigned myself to using the time to work out how to avoid falling into the same trap.
At Tales on Moon Lane, author events are a vital part of what we do. Done well, they offer a rare kind of symbiotic magic where all involved parties come away happier people. They genuinely offer children an open door into literature by opening the book for them, showing them the way in and enough of the workings to create questions. They make the possibilities tangible and offer the idea that the hard work (that reading is for many children) might just offer them a genuine return of pleasure and interest.
For a generation of children, many of whom arrive at school without having ever owned a book, this experience isn’t just an escape from death by phonics. It is essential.
At the shop we also have a cosy little room at the back where we run a small after-school book club for especially keen readers. These lucky children are often addressed by the authors of the books they are reading. And we have been known to supply cupcakes with book illustrations printed on the icing, just to make the storytelling go down even more pleasurably. It’s little things like that which can make all the difference.
And so, with the weight all of this experience on my shoulders, I stepped out on to the stage at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and wondered what on earth gave me the right to demand these children’s time and attention – because on the other side of what authors bring to children is the fact that no other industry would conceivably be expect their top salesperson to be supplied with 300 children for an hour of direct marketing. Authors are after all also at author events to sell their books, not just to entertain. It is not heroin or junk food that they are peddling, but it is still a sales pitch. And on top of this authors are quite frequently being paid to stand there and sell their own merchandise. Does this view cheapen books? It’s a tough marketplace out there. A huge number of authors make their livings from events and yet the book sales at the end of the event would not cover their train fair in many cases. But I think that authors need to consider the other side of the picture when planning their events. Are they offering schools that can barely scrape together money for enough support staff true value for money? If not, what should this value for money look like?
At TOML, we spend a great deal of time going to watch author events and getting to know the schools with which we work really well, in the hope that when we stage one ourselves, there will a happy marriage of expectation and delivery. Many excellent author events have fallen on stony ground because the publishers have been misguided about the target age group or because the literacy co-ordinator was hoping for a session of deep literary insight and ended up in a giant pair of knickers. There are a few wonderful authors who can cross all these boundaries, but it is a lot to expect form anyone not trained at the RSC.
Have changed from gamekeeper to poacher, I’m understanding that a lot better these days.
Tales on Moon Lane website
Amazing Esme website