Sunday 5 May 2013

Buying Crocodiles on eBay – Michelle Lovric

In a former life, I was a book packager. Outside of the publishing industry, we packagers are shadowy figures. So let me explain. A packager is someone who conceives, formats, costs, writes, designs, prints and delivers finished copies of books to publishers (with the publishers’ logo and ISBN) – in short, doing everything except marketing and selling the book. Publishers generally outsource to packagers the kind of books that only obsessives can be bothered to take on in terms of research or fiddly production values, but which work well on a general list.

As a packager, I produced highly illustrated gift books, often with novelty elements tipped in, like meticulously accurate facsimiles of historical love letters including reproductions of the original wax seals. I was forever doing the origami that precedes proper paper engineering, trying to reduce everything down to a maximum of ten hand ‘moves’ for the printers’ workers in China. My books had embossing, die-cutting, ribbons, pop-ups. One, The Miseries of Human Life, even had a ball and chain, originally modelled in Play-Doh and sent to China by my wonderful printers, Imago, for briefings I could only imagine.

Now that I write novels, I miss working with my hands. But my children’s book publishers, Orion, kindly indulge me. For each of my four children’s books, I have produced a window display kit for up to eight independent bookstores. Here (at right) is the one I have made for The Fate in the Box, published on May 2. It's a dark gothic story set in an alternative eighteenth-century Venice where the rich and noble have lost the use of their hands and hearts because everything is done for them by picturesque automata. The poor, meanwhile, are starving, and their children are inevitably chosen for a sacrificial ceremony known as The Lambing ...

To create my bookshop displays, I source small, vivid and decorative objects that occur in the stories and which can be arranged around stacks of books in a coherent, intriguing kind of way. It's important that nothing looks home-made or makeshift. Independent booksellers are a classy lot and are perfectly capable of making excellent window displays of their own so it is important to offer something special.

My first task for The Fate in the Box was to track down sixteen plastic crocodiles of the largest possible size on eBay. These were simulate the two ‘Sea-Saurs’ who are unlikely heroes in the book.

While I accumulated crocodiles over the weeks, my cats enjoyed wresting toy mice and biscuits from their plastic jaws.

Meanwhile, from Amazon, I sourced white surgical mittens for dipping in fake blood. (Not what the television people would call 'A Good Bake'). These represent the discarded white gloves of the ‘Winder Uppers’, a slave population forced by my villain, Fogfinger, to power up the automata with which he has seduced the lazy Venetians. Every night the Winder Uppers wear their fingers to the bone, and  the only evidence of their existence are the bloody gloves they leave behind.

It was in a Chinese shop in SoHo, New York, that I found white paper parasols, miniatures of the kind beloved by the spoilt vicious little noblewoman, Latenia, who wears only white.

The insects with whom a poor girl, Biri, communes, came in packets from Venetian news stands. That cockroach really is as big as the palm of your hand.

Masks come into the story too. The pointy red masks, sourced in Venice, of course, represent the Pantaleone model worn by Fogfinger when he needs to go into hiding.

The background poster is a blow-up of the jacket wrap.

I also commissioned some blue glass seahorses from Marco Vettor. These were based on reproductions commissioned a hundred years ago in Venice by Edward Lovett, an English folklorist who owned a vast collection of charms and amulets. The blue glass seahorses are talismans of the Piccoli Pochi, the freedom fighters in The Fate in the Box.

For the finishing touches of the Fate displays, I took myself to one of my favourite places in London – the East Street Market near the Elephant and Castle – to source lengths of Grand Canal-coloured silk. East Street’s a jolly mixture of Arabic home stores, African vegetables, cockney fabric sellers, fish, clothes and kitchen equipment. The soundtrack is the intermingled accents of Africa, the West Indies and the Middle East, and pure Sarf Lunnun too. As I paid for my green and blue silk, I heard one elderly Londoner say to his Lebanese friend, ‘Oh well, me old mate, gotta go home and feed me rat.’

The window is already installed at the lovely Tales on Moon Lane bookshop in Herne Hill, London, where they have just instituted a clever new idea. The author whose book occupies their corner window also gets to curate some of his or her favourite books from their own genre on a special bookshelf shelf inside, which also features a photo and biography.  

In my Author Curated Case, I was delighted to include books by Mary Hoffman, Penny Dolan and Harriet Castor. Once my Case and window were installed, George Hanratty, the shop’s manager, also tweeted pictures of the window display, which were then retweeted, so the window display was working on social media too.

For Talina in the Tower, I roughed up some die-cut bookmarks that Orion were generous enough to produce. These were juxtaposed in 3D against copies of an old print that I had showing the multitudinous clock towers of Venice in the days before Napoleon waged a war of greed and indifference against the city’s churches: both these elements contributed equally to their literal downfall.

On the internet I found test tubes to daub with waxen ‘blood’ and label ‘Foul Philtre’, ‘Lockspittle’, ‘Vampire Vomit’ and ‘If in Doubt’, these being favourite potions of my magician, Professor Marìn. Cat and rat silhouettes came from a Halloween party supplier. I used my collection of 19th-century Venetian chromolithographs to design a label for ‘Golosi’s Mostarda’, wickedly rebranding some supermarket mustard. It was easy to find the glass jars and the sand but not so easy to find vivid-looking plastic scorpions. However, I did, in the end. To complete the display, I designed a bookmark of a gondola bearing a Ravageur, a hyena-like creature who is the villain of Talina in the Tower.

The Mourning Emporium is set in a Venice sealed in a dreadful new ice age. At the marvellous Acqua Alta bookshop, I found this poster of masked, hooded figures crossing a snowy San Marco. Photos of Queen Victoria, with whose death the story commences, were easy to find. I sourced ‘gilt’ frames from a party supplier, which also provided paper bats, toy skeletons and RIP gravestones. I romped blissfully in my font folders to make up white-on-black shop signs for the fictional funeral directors of my book, Tristesse & Ganorus.

And for the quack medicines used by the pale and languishing London mermaids in the book, I used my old archive of packaging and trade cards, such as the one for Dr Blaud’s Capsules, from the 19th century, scanned and printed out in colour.

Another party shop provided the corked hats for my Australian villains and a Pamela Anderson wig, which I dismembered, tying individual curls in satin ribbon as pseudo mourning keepsakes.

And East Street provided the white plastic roses, the gauzy black fabric and thick black ribbon for a stagey curtain. I sealed up each kit in a big sack with a ribbon and a rose.

I got a little carried away with The Mourning Emporium and trialled far too many handmade products, including Mourning Mints, Mourning Liquorice, Mourning Tissues, a Mourning Mobile and a stand-up paper ship’s cat, until Orion gently told me to cease and desist. I took their point.

And finally, for my first children’s novel, The Undrowned Child, it was more posters from the bookselling Lothario Luigi Frizzo at Acqua Alta, and some silk scarves that ripple like the Grand Canal, plus rolls of beautifully marbled paper from Alberto Valese in Campo Santo Stefano. There were white masks to represent those worn by the army of baddies in the final battle scene. My most extravagant purchases were three-pole bricole with seagulls on top. I am ashamed to say what I spent on them, but I couldn’t resist.

Here again Orion proved very generous. Early on I had mocked up a leporello showing teasing lines from the story with three dimensional tip-ins.

So there were genuine Venetian seagull feathers, collected from behind waddling birds, and genuine old Venetian keys from the Miracoli flea market. I boiled real bones from the Ginger Pig at the Borough Market to simulate the relics of saints, prompting my editor, Jon Appleton, to ask, ‘Is there nothing you wouldn’t do for children’s publishing, Michelle?’

I made tiny packets of mermaid chilli mix (as my sirens devour fiery curries). The spies in The Undrowned Child are scolopendre, nasty insects whom the mermaids term ‘Mahogany Mice’, shouting ‘yoiks!’ as they flatten them with the boots they have mounted on sticks exactly for that purpose. I was unable to find replicas of these millipedes so I bought plastic scorpions and hand-trimmed them to suit with nail scissors. I had little replicas made of the shiny silver comb that is the gondola ferro.

From my own archives, I reproduced the moneta patriottica, a paper currency that the Venetians printed themselves during the siege on 1848–89.

siege currency

  Launching The Undrowned Child also involved a mermaid dinner party for book trade people, with a spicy menu taken straight from the book.
The dessert was served in a miniature gondola. I customized even the napkin rings with mermaid quotations …

As you can see, I’ve had as much fun making these window displays as I had writing the books.

I guess other writers usefully turn themselves to gardening or cat-fondling or walking for exercise and relaxation, but this is my method, and I’m already planning the physical side of my next novel, and loving it.

Creating window display ephemera is also a way to escape the tedium of Times New Roman and get to grips with Black Sam’s Gold, Dark Horse Expanded and other thrilling fonts.

And it’s one way forward that does not entail a nervous author in ‘e’ or social networking or eventing, so I feel it is time worth investing.

It’s not for everyone, and not every publisher would be as sympathetic and appreciative as Orion or their hardworking reps and receptive independent booksellers.

Does anyone else have any unusual ways of infiltrating the market that they’d like to share?

The Fate in the Box is published by Orion Children’s Books on May 2.

Michelle Lovric's website is here

There are some brand-new web pages for The Fate in the Box.

Michelle Lovric is part of Venezia, Citta' di Lettori, the campaign to save Venetian bookshops. For more information about this cause, see here.


michelle lovric said...

Please don't take the strange formatting above as a reflection on my book design skills! Blogger, as many people know, is not making it easy to post pictures at the moment. And hyperlinks are an issue today too. Thank you for reading, anyway.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Breathtaking post. How long is your window display up in Tales on Moon Lane? Would love to see it. I love 'going down the lane' too especially to get plants and cheap veg

michelle lovric said...

Thank you, Lynda. The display will be up until Friday or perhaps Tuesday of the following week.

Jane Housham said...

I'm bowled over by every aspect of this post, it's just wonderful. Creating the displays that, in a sense, bring your books to life must be hugely satisfying and I can totally understand how it can become almost obsessive. Thanks so much for this insight.

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a creative talent you have! And it sounds like amazing fun too.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

This is absolutely amazing. Thank you for this brilliant post and well done on being so creative!

Penny Dolan said...

Have just popped back onto ABBA to re-read your lovely post, Michelle. So much care and creativity!

No wonder the bookshops welcome your displays and what an incredible range of supply sources you have gathered. That kind of shopping sounds fun. Not sure about the insect manicuring, though.

Penny Dolan said...

ps Thanks for the mention, Michelle!

Beth Kemp said...

Wow, what an interesting post! I would love to see one of your displays, but alas have no independent bookshops near me at all *sulks*. Love the 'author-curated case' idea too - a brilliant way of recommending similar/related genre titles!

Anonymous said...

Am gobsmacked, awestruck and amazed. You are just mindblowingly creative and inventive and painstaking and all the good artistic things. Have 7 Stories been informed about this? They will want your archive for the nation! I am about to tweet as much!
Adele Geras who can't put up a comment on my google account!

Sue Purkiss said...

Michelle, your creativity knows no bounds! How clever you are, to find all these amazing - and very relevant - artefacts. Phew!

Enid Richemont said...

Michelle - you are totally AMAZING! And thanks for those candles in Venice - he'd have been seriously chuffed.

Lucy Coats said...

Having seen at first hand the work that went into making up the 'Bookshop Window' packs for Fate in the Box, I can attest to the amazingness of Michelle's creativity. Brava, carissima! What a great post.

elaine penrose said...

What a delight this msut have been form those indies who ordered your books....I assume this was via an Orion rep?
Our books come mainly from Gardners so we missed out...shame they are delightful & would have been much appreciated when I change our windows....visual merchandising is my profession, I'm always planning ideas, but its also nice to be given themed material....Maybe I should blogg a few photos of past windows....

Elaine Penrose - books @ Hoddesdon