Friday, 1 July 2022



My understairs cupboard is awkward. Reaching into it meant stooping, cricking my spine and banging my head. The boxes at the back seemed forgotten, yet I knew they were there, behind the carpet sweeper, the vacuum cleaner and ironing board. A slightly uncomfortable legacy. 

                                            Penny Dolan | Authors Aloud

This time, I edged past carrier bags hooked on one wall, swivelled away from the electricity meter on the other and tried not to hit the one dim light bulb with my head. And there they stood: several boxes, containing copies of my books. Once I would count the contents out and counted them back in again after every visit. Now the books were merely reminders and remains of an author's travelling life. It was time to think again.

                                     Mr Babbit's Rabbit: Level 2 (Reading Corner) by Penny Dolan Hardback ...

I extracted the small boxes of early readers, left over from school and library visits, and sorted and matched the titles once again. Some were from a more generous era when educational publishers sent me several spare copies on publication. Other copies might have been purchased ready for a run of school visits, with me acting as middleman. 

Back then, I carried this stock because experience had taught me that there was no other way copies would be there on school visits. Non-specialist booksellers told teachers that the educational titles were complicated to order individually and the teachers told me on the day of the visit, and that is why I began taking the books along with me.

                                                       Penny Dolan | Authors Aloud

These early reader books were a joy to work on, with their bright, colourful covers and illustrations by an interesting range of artists. Unfortunately, because the books were sold as a block package deal - six at this or that level, say, to schools - once a title had sold out, there was no chance of an individual title reprinting. 

Although my own favourite titles soon disappeared sales-wise, for a long while afterwards I could read my own copies to school groups and enjoy sharing them with children, often aided by songs and my school visit basket holding toys, interesting items and a puppet or two. Time and the last few years had rather spoilt that pleasure. Shrugging, I packed the now-orderly copies back into a bigger box, ready for their next home.

The other book boxes were a tougher task, holding multiple copies of a paperback series. I had loved working on these books and had had great fun going around the UK and beyond, talking to children about the stories and illustrations. So many good and happy memories! Even so, as I counted the copies, I was reminded about the fickle nature of publishing, the economics of school visits, and the uncomfortable publishing lesson that was hidden within the boxes. 

                                                            Big Bad Blob (Leapfrog): Penny Dolan,O'Kif,A O'kif: 9780749677961 ...

Here is how it began. I was three days into a small book-tour down south, standing in a primary school hall, waiting for the next eager set of children. There was an unexpected phone call from the bookshop supplying stock for the schools. The bookseller was anxious. She had - somewhat late - rung the publisher's warehouse to order even more copies. Her helpful contact had said that the only way she could complete the order was by taking copies from the author's reserve of twenty copies. Could I phone, I was asked, and agree to that release?

I called the warehouse number. What "author copies?"  Sympathetically, she explained that a special set of twenty copies were reserved for an author when their title was about to go out-of-print . . . thud! thud! thud!. . . and not be re-issued. 

"Of course you can have a few," I said, laughing lightly as my doom descended. Sick at heart, I smiled my way through the sessions with the children, realising that, one after another, all my titles were about to disappear.   

                                                    The Signalman: Two Ghost Stories Band 14/Ruby by Penny Dolan | Buy ...

At the time, series were the fashionable thing with editors and publishers. Single titles had falling out of favour, except for the big names, Instead, publishers wanted authors to create their own six-or-eight-book series of character-led titles. There was a lot of hope and talk and offers of sparkly covers. Some publishing imprints developed their own concepts, collecting a small team of authors to write a new best-selling series under one fictitious but appealing name, able to come up with as many fresh paperback titles as readers were keen to collect.

The harsh reality was that, unless the first titles were seen as a success, both project and promotion stopped. With the first titles effectively frozen, any later books became harder to sell. How tough must it have been to work on when your original characters were about to go to the great bookshelf in the sky!   

                                            Få Reading Champion: Fly Home, Blue! af Penny Dolan som Paperback bog ...

Back to my small series and my personal cupboard of history. Within a short time, the publisher offered me my stock at a specially reduced rate.  My school visits were increasing then so a stash of saleable copies made sense. Didn't it?

Here is where I want to call blessings down upon all those schools and teachers who helped and encouraged children and parents to buy my books, often helping in the most practical ways. You were great! And the same to all schools and teachers doing the same now, and for any author or illustrator now visiting them.

                                      Winter Cave (Forest Family) (9780750260374): Penny Dolan: Books

 However (of course, there's a "however") a new bookselling army had appeared, rolling and clanking into school halls and corridors. In rolled the mighty steel cabinets of the variously-named bookfairs, both a good thing and a bad thing. The good was, they declared, getting more books into the hands of more children more cheaply. The bad thing? Ask the smaller children's bookshops, if you can still find them.

Although schools were happy to ask me in, how could one author's books count against a heavily-promoted fiesta of popular titles and sparkly stationery spread out after school in the hall each day? Not as easily as one hoped. I was not, either, someone who wanted to turn my visits into full book-plugging sessions. 

                                       Leapfrog: That Noise! : Penny Dolan : 9780749694791

Besides, sulking about lost sales was not totally logical. Some of the profits from that Big Bulging Book Fair were paying for my Author Visit, and at an essential financial time home here. 

Nevertheless, stuck at a remote table down an adjoining corridor, I did feel dismissed, even though I smiled gaily on. I'm sure I wasn't  - and am not - the only author to face dark moments of the soul at a table surrounded by the scent of stale wellington boots and lost property.

                                                      Mrs Bootle's Boots: Dolan, Penny: 9780749694364: Books

Consequently, my boxes of stock never diminished as fast as I hoped. "Failed, forgotten," the pages whispered whenever I reached into the cupboard for the carpet sweeper. Sigh. And time moved on. And on. 

And there were many more changes in the world of publishing, printing and bookselling.   

                                                           Little Troll (Tadpoles): Dolan, Penny, Smith, Lisa: 9780749671501 ...

At long last, after the pandemic, something clicked free in my mind and I started to wonder why I kept the books. What use were they to me? Selling them would be far too complicated and long drawn out, I knew, but suddenly it was a good time to empty that cupboard and get the books ready for departure. 

Where to? Too many for a local charity shop? Too likely to get pulped via Oxfam?  A few here and there? That would take ages! What about the local school that had taken some children's poetry books the term before? 

A reply came back that same Friday afternoon. The head teacher was eager and happy to have all the boxes. They would use copies in school or give books to their children or even let other schools know about the offer. I could hand on my stories to young readers at last.

On Monday, I loaded the car up and drove to the school. The head teacher came out smiling and carried with my labelled boxes energetically through to her office to sort through. As for me? I drove away feeling satisfied and glad the boxes were gone and free.

Now those books no longer whisper incriminatingly from the cupboard. The almost-empty space feels friendly and positive. Other people are, I hope, making use of the stories I created. After a long block of silence comes a new thought. Well, what are you going to do now? 

Penny Dolan

                                      Penny Dolan | Authors Aloud





Joan Lennon said...

I recognised every one of those experiences but the one that made my heart clench was that sudden sideways discovery (at a school) that a book has gone out of print - and they hadn't bothered to tell you. Been there, bought the t-shirt, cried into the t-shirt (afterwards - we're professionals, after all). And still we write, eh? Looking forward to your next!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for the fellow feeling, Joan.
It's a hard fact to get used to, isn't it?

However, I don't know if this post gave the true sense of how pleased I was to get rid of the book burden, and of having recognised the negative and depressing effect the boxes were having.

Lynne Benton said...

The school must have been thrilled to have all those books, Penny! It's always so sad when a book goes out of print, but I didn't realise they were supposed to tell us before it did! Hmm. Really interesting post. Thank you.

Susan Price said...

Ah, the high of decluttering! -- Good for you, Penny, and for doing something so useful with the books.
And what a wonderful array of engaging, attractive books in your blog!
What are you going to do next? Well, if the rights have returned to you, dare I whisper... Self-publish?

Sue Purkiss said...

So many books! Great that they're going to have a second life.