Sunday, 16 October 2011

BOOKSELLER SUNDAYS - To Be Free or Not To Be Free, by Elaine Penrose of Books at Hoddesdon

The third in our warmly-received 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

Never has there been such a volatile time as now for independent bookshops. Every week we hear of further closures. The net is tightening. I have worked in our local and now only independent bookshop in East Herts, Books @ Hoddesdon, since it opened in 2005 and we strive to maintain our presence when others are folding around us.

Not a day goes by without us being reminded of the increasing competition. We are fully aware that some of our most loyal customers are now buying from other sources and have succumbed to the Kindle. We can’t offer books at the same prices as supermarkets, or big internet sites! Unlike them, career booksellers can offer customer service, and that’s what keeps people coming back. We don’t just say, ‘the computer says “’no”’. We say, ‘You can only remember a few words of the title ? Half the author’s name? You mean x, perhaps? Sorry, that’s not in stock but we can order it for you. Yes, we’ll let you know when it’s in. And meanwhile have you seen this book by the same author? It’s really good.’

Customer service goes beyond the shop. Books @ holds regular ‘Meet the Author’ events at local theatres, village halls and even in restaurants. Many writers, both famous and emerging, have now given our audiences an insight into their worlds. We work hard. And, like children’s authors, we booksellers also wonder why it is that television producers seem almost exclusively prepared to promote authors who write for adults? What about publicity slots for children’s books on peak-time shows? We may see an occasional children’s author on breakfast TV. Yet we know that the public is enthusiastic about children’s literature from the queues at the many book festivals around the UK, and from the people we meet in the shop.

Adults may read on Kindles, but let’s hope they will still recognize that children need to handle books, turn pages, smell a new book and feast their senses on picture books. We need to encourage all reviewers of adult literature to consider featuring children’s books as well, and giving them a bigger share of the review space. Why do we have a Bestsellers List of books for adults but none with such a high profile for children? The answer is that it’s adults who buy and the impulse, other than for titles such as Harry Potter, never occurs with children’s books until the child comes of an age to express a true interest. When will we see a billboard featuring the work of members of the Scattered Authors Society? If Martina Cole, Jackie Collins, Ian Rankin, or Sophie Kinsella were to venture into children’s books it might just happen. But there is already enough talent out there to justify it, without celebrity authors from the adult world …

Children are our future readers and we should raise the profile of all children’s books, starting with those for the very young. Many parents have no idea what to buy, other than the books they remember from their childhood. It’s great to sell the Classics, but we need new books to offer a wider range – these could go on to be future classics. We need such greats as We’re All Going on a Bear Hunt, The Gruffalo and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, but what about the hundreds of wonderful new titles that yearly get lost on the shelves? It’s a sin.

Parents and families need to be better advised of the choice available to them. Booksellers need to rise to the challenge and make people aware of the vast number of wonderful children’s books on offer. Otherwise, we are doing ourselves a disservice. We try to display all new titles in the bookshop, but space, of course, is an issue. We’d love to work together even more with authors and publishers in raising awareness, in contacting local papers, local schools.

If you are a real bookseller, you don’t park your passion for books when you shut down the till. Career booksellers work in their own time to host events and organise festivals. Our work invades our bedside tables, as we try to read all the books we want to promote, and in order to be able to have sensible, welcoming conversations with our visiting authors.

And this raises a thorny question.

I know everyone wants and deserves to earn a living but sometimes giving time for free gives authors a valuable chance to promote their work. It’s a tricky issue for authors, and one that needs more open discussion between booksellers, publishers and writers. What do the Scattered Authors think? What do other readers, publishers and booksellers think?

Books @ Website

Picture shows Elaine Penrose reading Icky Sticky to nursery children at Duncombe School, Hertford, with author Claire Burgess demonstrating each page.


Abi Burlingham said...

This was such an interesting post, and a subject I could talk about indefinitely. From my point of view as a children's author, I have noticed a distinct difference in the way bookshops are now trying new things to pull customers in. Where there was a lack of interest in arranging for visiting authors only a couple of years ago, I have now seen a complete turn around, which is more than welcome. Yes, we as authors do need to give our time for free in order to increase people's awareness of us, but we also need to earn a living too, and as a fellow writer and professional development worker said to me not so long ago, you wouldn't expect a plumber to come and fix your toilet and not pay him, would you?

Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting - and you're so right; there are so many gorgeous picture books, but they're usually crammed together all on a couple of stands. And yet there's such a variety - some are for toddlers, others for bigger children; some have a lot of text, others rely more on the pictures; some are scary, others are sweet - and you need to know your way through all of this when you're looking for the right book for the right child. Yesterday I was looking for books about colours and numbers for my grandson, who is 5; he's trilingual, so not surprisingly has trouble with finding the right words. But he's very bright, so the book has to appeal to his imagination. I'm sure there are such books - I would have loved some expert help in finding them! (Any suggestions would be VERY welcome!)

adele said...

I feel that if the bookseller is close by, or if the publishers are willing to pay for a writer to travel to a bookshop, then it's okay to do a session for free PROVIDED THAT an audience is in place and there are LOTS of books around. To be sold to the children or to be signed for the shop. I have done a few events for free in shops where NO ONE HAS COME. The whole thing has been a waste of time. This is, to be fair, not the case with independents, who generally know what's what. But a terrible hour or two at WHSMith (at the behest of my adult publisher) allegedly to sign books SOLD NOT ONE SINGLE COPY and indeed no one came near me the whole time I was there. Sometimes, a school can be brought into the shop and they could be asked to pay the author something, perhaps? They'd have to do it if the same writer came into their school and the shop is facilitating it. Just at thought. In general, where everyone else in the whole chain is being paid, it seems wrong for writers to do it for nothing but for good sales and good audience, that's a bit different.

Leila Rasheed said...

I was nodding my head throughout, in particular at this:

'It’s great to sell the Classics, but we need new books to offer a wider range...what about the hundreds of wonderful new titles that yearly get lost on the shelves?'

One of my frustrations with Waterstone's (not so much when I worked there, as our branch had leeway to opt in and out of promotions) is the constant pushing of the same old classics. It's so dull! And when new children's publishers are popping up left right and centre (who can say that about adult publishers?)surely the booksellers should reflect that energy.
I have a lot of sympathy with what you say about giving time for free. I think authors have to get realistic. If an author can get schools to pay £300 a day to have them in, good luck to them. But most venues can't afford that, and if the author has a good chance of selling books (e.g. at an event in a bookshop) I would think it reasonable for them to go for free. Of course most of us can't afford to travel miles and miles just on the off chance anyone will turn up and buy a book, so any event does have to be very well organised on both sides. I think it would be great if authors could build relationships with their local bookshops and schools, not necessarily on a monetary basis, but giving their time so they can build an audience. Things are changing, as you say, and we have to change with them.

Penny Dolan said...

Hmm! Free visits? A very complicated subject. Personally, I feel sure that many authors would be happy to do an occasional promotional event for a nearby bookshop (ie from home or when travelling) if only they were more encouraged. It's quite tough to be greeted by a look that says "Well, you aren't exactly Darren Shan/ Jacqueline Wilson/ etc are you?" or to ring up to offer your services to get the "Don't ring us we'll ring you . . .maybe next year?" response. I have met some totally brilliant booksellers who I'd do anything to help, but it's hard to know how pushy - I mean, publicity conscious - to be when booksellers are such busy people and we don't want to burden them with unsold stock. (Greetings to Hoddesdon by the way - a long ago haunt!)

Leila Rasheed said...

Yes, it takes two to tango and it is true that some booksellers can be very unhelpful. It is worth remembering also that booksellers are usually on minimum wage and if doing events outside shop hours are not paid for working those hours. That was the case at W/stones anyway and at the independent bookshop I worked at - I assume it is the case in other shops. There is no point in a bookseller doing an event unless they think they will really sell books. Obviously a positive, friendly attitude costs nothing though.

Book Maven said...

I can't remember EVER having been paid for a session in a bookshop! It's always been part of promotion, whether just signing books or giving a talk.

I wouldn't expect to be paid for a bookshop event but I would expect payment for a school one. Festivals can go either way, with Edinburgh, Cheltenham etc. paying in the region of £150 and others asking you to do them for free.

We bookshops I do feel we are all in this together. Travel expenses could be paid by the publisher and if not even that, at least you cam claim them against tax.

Linda Strachan said...

Great post. It sounds like a lovely shop!
I don't think there is an easy answer for the payment issue. It is not just travel costs but the lost writing time, and that is harder to quantify.
But these days writers need to look at being their own publicist and with all the new titles coming out each year, it is one way to get your book visible, for a short while at least. Befriending and helping the bookseller, who is or can be working on your behalf to recommend your books, can be to great mutual benefit!

But not everything a self employed plumber does is paid for. There are parts of every job that are those times when someone goes above and beyond to make things work or to publicise their services - or in our case, our books.
One problem is that for some reason the popular misconception is that an author's earning are huge and that selling books means we get whole of the cover price! Either that or people have just not thought about the economics at all!
One thing I often do in schools is to give an idea of the many people it takes to produce a book, and that all of them get paid out of the cover price, not just the author and illustrator.
Invariably there is at least one teacher or librarian who will come up and say they had no idea there were so many people involved.
When schools have to pay for an author visit there is also that mixed message when they can come to a bookshop and get that facility free.

One the subject of books and colours, Sue, could I suggest my picture book What Colour is Love? Pub.Bloomsbury. It is not about numbers but it does introduce a range of colours, and is suitable for a 5 yr old.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Linda - that sounds perfect!

Stroppy Author said...

So many people want authors to give their time for free! Bookshops, schools, emerging authors, wannabe authors (those with no track record of even trying), publishers (development work, events, publicity), festivals, university events and conferences. We can't do all these, and it's not easy to say which is more worthy or worthwhile.

We all do our own platform/promotional stuff, and that takes time - this is more promotion, and to benefit someone else as well. We do have to earn a living, look after our children, bla bla. People forget that writers generally earn far less from their writing than even people working in a bookshop. The bookshop staff are not giving their time for free at these events, are they? They arrange and attend the event in the time for which they are paid a salary. If bookshops did not think their takings would be increased by doing these events they would not do them. It maddens me that it is ALWAYS the author/illustrator who is expected to give time for nothing and never ANYONE else in the chain.

If there were a bit more give and less take (I don't mean specifically in bookshop events here, but in all 'free' events), it would be nice. Yes, of course it is good to promote our books - but even a small payment, or a basket of free books, would make it a bit more balanced.

Linda B-A said...

"We’d love to work together even more with authors and publishers in raising awareness, in contacting local papers, local schools." Absolutely. Most of the time publishers, sellers, writers and consumers of children's fiction are singing from the same hymn sheet and finding ways to collaborate that are imaginative, effective and mutually beneficial is key. As authors, we value the experience gleaned by specialist booksellers like yourselves - particularly with relation to school events. It's great, too, for authors to work with bookshops that are local to them so that they can build up a special relationship. Experiences such as the one Adele describes are dispiriting all round, but there's nothing better than the kind of well-publicised, well run events that create a buzz.

Carole Anne Carr said...

A very encouraging post, though it is always a very long time before I receive payment from booksellers...

adele said...

I should add that like Book Maven, I've also never been paid to go into bookshops. It's generally as part of a publisher's promotion. I do see the force, though, of Anne Rooney's argument. It IS always the writer who does stuff for nothing...hmm.

Emma Barnes said...

Hear hear! I agree that independent bookshops are vital for getting out the word about new - or just slightly different - titles. There are so many parents, children and even teachers for whom the world of children's books is Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton - with maybe some Jaqueline Wilson thrown in - but who would really like to look beyond that.

And I wouldn't charge a bookshop for an event. I suppose it is a trickier area if the bookshop is essentially facillitating a schools event, but still...I did a lovely event at a bookstore recently and was thrilled that they bought my family and me lunch!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

This is a double-edged sword. We all want a fair wage. But booksellers are an author's interface and a local independent bookshop event should be free. If an enthusiastic bookseller organises a great event there's nothing better than facing a real flesh and blood audience, rather than those out there in cyberspace.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Sadly my nearest towns have no independent book shops. The two indies I've worked with (for free)are both some distance away and my publishers don't pay the travel expenses. While I'm happy to do some events for free, I'm finding that my expenses have risen dramatically over the past year and the time I have spent on promotion has meant that I've not even begun my next book.
Meeting my readers is really important but so is earning my living. Somehow, I have to get the balance right.

Julia Golding said...

There can't be a rule on charging. I judge each event on the context. Time costs all of us (including the shop) but it is rare such events sell enough books to cover the true cost. I think of myself as a small business and such days are under 'marketing and publicity'. I am less likely to charge than say, for a day at a school where I am transferring skills in writing workshops where I do feel more like the above mentioned plumber. However, as Adele says, sometimes the arrangements at the shop end can be over optimistic about take up and then my ego takes a huge blow AND I'm out of pocket... Not a good day for anyone.

Penny Dolan said...

It's magical when the events work well though!

Mark Robson said...

Many will know that I do more events than most, both in shops and schools. I have ever been a supporter of independent bookshops, though I also work a lot with the chain stores. I've also never been paid for a bookshop event, and have done many school visits free of charge when organised by independent booksellers as a heavy sales emphasis event.

All of the books for my regular school visits are supplied by independent bookshops and I have often wondered about offering schools events on a graduated fee scale, dependent on how many books are sold while I'm there, charging a full fee for no book sales, with graduated reductions depending on how many books I shift. Maybe this financial incentive to schools to encourage book sales would make a difference. I might trial this next year to see what effect it has.

Elaine Penrose - Books @ Hoddesdon said...

I'm thrilled my bloog has opened such a debate. I actively work with all publishing houses seeking authors undertaking promotional events, thus "authors into schools" at no cost to the school. We then work closely with the school to promote the author & their books....we always discount the books we sell at such events to the pupils & school. Event book sales are always good.

We do also actively work with schools seeking authors for special school literacy events - thus authors receive a fee & travel costs. Maybe Mark Robson would like to endorse this from an event he undertook in Feb @ Richard Hale, Hertford.

I would welcome any author to contact us if they are keen to undertake an event with us.
We are always keen to promote debute authors as well as the more renown.

Authors who have undertaken events with us since Dec 2010
Steve Feasey, Emma Kennedy, Michael Lawrence,Sita Brahmachari, Kaye Umansky, Celia Rees, Steven Butler, Darren Shan, Beverely Birch, Lucy Jago, Chris Riddell & Paul Stewart, Nikalas Catlow & Tim Wesson, Charlie Higson, Cathy Cassidy,Gareth.P.Jones, Mark Walden. Coming up in November we have Curtis Jobling & Mark Robson.

Authors who have been paid for the services Lynn Garner, Nick Toczek, Mark Robson & again in Nov' Samira Osman.

The love & passion I have for books far overrides the payment I receive... just above minimum wage! So likewise I give alot of my time for free.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I have often had the same thought as Mark Robson (above), that if only you knew ahead of time how many books you would sell, you could charge accordingly. Earlier this year I visited a school where I sold so many books (a couple of hundred) that I felt really bad that I'd charged them at all. On the other hand, if you spend petrol and time driving half way across the country and perform all day to sell two books (which I've also experienced), you feel utterly betrayed. Then you need to be able to tell yourself that at least there was a fee.
It's tricky to know what to do for the best.

Leslie Wilson said...

I agree that these events need to be well organised. I've never done a bookshop event for free, either. If there is an audience, it's great, but if what greets you is a pile of copies, the need to go and buttonhole browsers yourself if you want to get any attention, and the remark: 'We had Jacqueline Wilson last week, the queue was stretching out of the door,' you do wonder why you came. Such an experience can be quite gruelling, actually. But I've done some great bookshop events, and none so good as the ones I've done either in or in conjunction with my own local bookshop.

Mark Robson said...

Following on from Elaine's comment, yes, I have done several paid events in conjunction with, and sometimes organised by, bookshops that have taken place in schools - the Richard Hale School event being a great example.

My comment about not being paid for any bookshop events referred to the 'in store' events where I come purely to sign books in store and talk to customers. I do a lot of this sort of thing, but these days I tend to stick to high footfall stores where I'm going to turn over large numbers of books. Even doing this does not pay for my time, and rarely even covers the cost of the travel. However, it does help build a readership and keeps the publishers happy as they see large numbers of books disappearing from their warehouse!