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.