Sam Baker has spent 20 years in magazine journalism, editing some of the UK’s biggest magazines, including Just Seventeen, Cosmopolitan and Red. In 2015, she co-founded and launched The Pool, with broadcaster Lauren Laverne, with a mission to celebrate and amplify women’s voices. An award-winning digital platform for women that has been described as redefining women’s media, The Pool was recently awarded Best Mobile Lifestyle Site/App at the Webbys (also known as the highest honour the internet can bestow). Here Norah Myers interviews Sam about The Pool and her role as a judge for the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Last week I was lucky enough to receive a VIP behind-the-scenes tour of Blackwell’s flagship store in Broad Street, Oxford. The point of the exercise, led by Kate Stilborn, Blackwell’s Customer Service and Operations Director, is to build stronger connections with publishers, in order for all of us to work better together. And sell more books, of course.
I expected a whistle-stop tour, but in fact I was greeted with a full day’s programme, prepared by the shop’s Customer Service Manager, Nicky James, which included meetings with lots of different staff members, and the opportunity to get to grips – literally – with the books themselves. By the time the day ended – with an unexpected fire alarm and al fresco goodbyes – I had aching feet and an even greater appreciation for the dedication and passion of our bookselling colleagues.
So here’s a snapshot of my day at Blackwell’s, plus some – ah – snapshots. (Sorry.)
The first stage on my tour was the Gaffer’s Office, furnished just as it was in Basil Blackwell’s day, and now used as a reminder of former times and as a green room for visiting speakers. But this step back in time is no indicator of the company’s direction of travel. They’re currently in the midst of a Revolution in Customer Service, and they’re in the process of transition to an employee partnership model similar to John Lewis’s.
In an age when online shopping is so easy, Nicky James explained that Blackwell’s is aiming to provide a wonderful customer experience every single time. They have a programme of ‘mystery shops’, leading to feedback on how customers are treated, with an emphasis on learning rather than blame. I love the fact that there’s a box to tick on the mystery shopping questionnaire for ‘moments of delight’ – that moment when a bookseller goes above and beyond the shopper’s expectations.
The theme of autonomy came up again and again during my time at Blackwell’s. In a booklet containing 10 Great Ideas for Giving Outstanding Customer Service, Toby Blackwell gives staff freedom to bend or break the usual rules in pursuit of excellent service – an approach I find outstanding.
After meeting several booksellers from different departments (quite a few of them called James), I found myself in the breathtakingly book-filled Norrington Room, in the care of David Kelly, the store’s Sales Manager. I know this room well from my earlier life in Oxford, but I didn’t know until now that it covers come 10,000 square feet and contains an outrageous three and a half miles of bookshelves.
David also revealed another fact that surprised me, when he told me that the booksellers for each department make their own decisions about what to stock, meeting reps personally and negotiating terms specifically for their lists. My experience of the bookselling world from the publishing side of the net has been one of increasing centralisation and lack of empowerment at the individual shop level, so this was a true surprise for me. Each bookseller organises the displays in their area of the shop with care and attention, and they invite visiting speakers and academics from the university to curate thematic collections – as you can see on the tables in the picture below.
Yes, David agreed when I questioned him on this, it would be more efficient to negotiate with publishers centrally – but the benefits of empowering staff to make their own decisions about which titles to promote and how to promote them cannot be underestimated.
How can we, as publishers, make David’s work easier, I asked. His answer, without hesitation, was that we should stop jumping on bandwagons such as colouring books and children’s book parodies. In his view, it ‘saturates the market and makes books less special’ – it’s like copying another bookshop’s window display: unimaginative and backward-looking. New ideas, please!
I emerged from the bowels of the building into the bright light of the ground floor, the home of fiction from 1960 onwards. I met James Orton, a star of the bookselling team whose love of books positively radiates from him, and I saw just how much freedom the staff have to curate collections of titles, enabling them to share their passions and participate in topical cultural moments.
Eye-catching shelf displays present customers with hand-picked selections of the booksellers’ current favourites – and what really struck me was that booksellers (just like normal booklovers) get just as excited about books published last year, or fifty years ago, as they do about the latest new releases.
I pulled my weight for a short while and earned the right to wear my Bookseller badge by filling a table with books for James’s Dirty Realism display. This is the point where I learned that there are books everywhere in the shop, stacked under tables in orderly piles, and that booksellers are black belts in the art of carrying armfuls of books without bumping into anyone or falling over – fates I narrowly avoided.
After working with Maria, Lorna and Jade in the first floor Literature department, my day ended with a chat over coffee in the café with Beth from Events and Aleida from Sales Development. Blackwell’s run a programme of successful book-related events throughout the year, and they also provide bookshop services for many of the academic conferences that take place in Oxford.
Beth loves hearing from publicists, and it’s a useful reminder to us publishers that we have to stay alert for every promotional opportunity. There are more organisations than we may realise who are keen to meet our authors, and whose audiences are ready to buy their books. If they don’t come knocking on our doors, it’s up to us to make the introductions.
Aleida explained that proof copies are invaluable in building up staff enthusiasm for forthcoming titles – you’ve probably got the message already that the team at Blackwell’s are mad about books, and Aleida told me all the staff read the proofs the shops receives. So it’s worth splashing out on some digital copies of your forthcoming titles if you can find room in your budgets.
What would they like from us, as publishers? Beth and Aleida gave me their wishlist:
Speaking of moments of crisis, our meeting was interrupted at this point by a fire alarm, and I joined book browsers and booksellers in the sunshine on Broad Street for a last chat and goodbye before heading home.
Meeting the staff and seeing behind the scene of one of my all-time favourite bookstores was a treat that I will treasure – and I hope the experiences I’ve shared here have helped to shed a little light on the mysterious world of bookselling that exists between us publishers and those even more mysterious people: the readers.
Many thanks to Kate Stilborn for inviting me, Nicky James for planning the day, plus David, James, Miguel, Maria, Lorna, Jade, Beth and Aleida for sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm!
Abbie Headon has worked in editorial and digital roles at Summersdale Publishers and Oxford University Press, and is now working for a range of publishing clients as Abbie Headon Publishing Services. She’s available for all kinds of publishing projects and spends too much time on Twitter at @abbieheadon.
As the Book Bulletin online catalogue crowdfunding campaign for reading recommendations and gift suggestions comes to an end on International Book Giving Day (also known in some quarters as ‘Valentine’s Day’), Christopher Norris from the Jolabokaflod Book Campaign asked friends, fans and followers of the initiative how they would feel about exchanging books with significant others on 14th February. Here are some of their answers.
As a crime writer, it would have to be something from my genre. Despite all the murder and mayhem associated with it, at its best, it’s a genre of great heart and hope. I’d share a book by George Pelecanos, as he writes about families and relationships with great compassion and clarity.
I would give a loved one three books, because I am usually over the top. They are Amanda Jennings’ In Her Wake, Su Bristow’s Sealskin and Louise Beech’s The Mountain in My Shoe, because they are ultimately about the power of love and its ability to offer redemption.
I would either give my partner a romantic story, because it’s Valentine’s Day, or something about marketing since he’s extremely interested in that subject at this time.
If I gave a book to someone on Valentine’s Day I’d probably want to give them a second-hand first edition of a book with a great dust-jacket. If they didn’t agree with me about the content I’d be hoping they loved the look of the book. Otherwise, I have always loved my grandfather’s book, Love for Lydia, so that would make a perfect gift.
I love fitting books to people, finding a subject they like and hopefully getting a new fan for the author. If I find people who have an interest in Germany, both during the war and post war I always give them a copy of a Philip Kerr, Bernie Gunther book. So far, everyone has enjoyed him and bought the rest of the series.
Loving, and with thought for the recipient.
Absolutely marvelous. A book is a gift that requires thought and insight and is reserved for those close to your heart, be it lover, relative or friend. People don’t give books to someone they don’t like.
Catherine Clover, author, forthcoming multimedia Aldus Cervus series:
Having been given children’s books by my parents on Valentine’s Day when I was young, I know what a blessing it is to have such an intimate and lasting token of their love. To this day, when I read the Valentine inscriptions written lovingly in my now deceased mother’s hand, it makes me feel so connected to her. I feel that there is nothing greater to bring us together with our loved ones than sharing a bound copy of a book.
Much better than receiving chocolate-cream-filled profiteroles with pink, sugar hearts or any of the other sickly things on sale at this time of year!
You can ready the full list of responses on the Jolabokaflod site.
Christopher Norris is the Founder and Curator of the Jolabokaflod Book Campaign (twitter: @Jolabokaflod). There is still time to make a contribution to the Book Bulletin cause and receive promotion for you and your passions, projects and interests. Please give generously by the 14th February 2017.
A new initiative hit the book world this week: BookGig, ‘all the events from the authors you love’.
What’s interesting about that?
Well, it’s one of the few initiatives launched by a publisher (HarperCollins) that isn’t narrowly focused on that publisher’s own lists. ‘Publisher agnostic’, they’re calling it. Which is exactly what readers are, of course. HarperCollins have recognised that to do anything worthwhile they need scale, and to get scale they need comprehensive coverage. (Their reward, apart from the kudos and the opportunity to promote their own events and authors, is of course the contact details of hundreds or thousands of book lovers aka potential future customers.)
It’s also interesting because of the way it zooms in on a key point of differentiation – in a book ecosystem dominated by Amazon’s sheer scale, author events are a blue ocean of opportunity. (BookMachine fans know the value of a good event better than most, of course.) They’re also a win-win-win scenario: for the author, the opportunity to convert readers into raving fans; for publishers and booksellers, the opportunity to sell significant quantities of books; for readers, an experience that gives depth and texture to the book itself.
I’m fascinated by the range of events already featured – not just your traditional author readings and book launches, but book clubs, business breakfasts, workshops, even a walk. The possibilities are infinite: masterclasses, demonstrations, debates, all-night readings, fan fiction competitions, maybe a sneak preview of a new book with the opportunity to contribute or collaborate?
This for me is the most exciting space for publishing in the digital age – brokering not just a transaction but a relationship between author and reader.
Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com.
Podcasts are becoming more and more popular, and it’s time we all started paying attention to them, as publishers and authors. In this first interview in a series called Talking Podcasts, Abbie Headon interviews Amy Baker and Rosy Edwards about The Riff Raff podcast, which focuses on debut authors.
Sheila O’Reilly is the Events Manager Village Bookshop in Dulwich Village. She is a bookseller with over 18 years’ experience of running bookshops and author event. Passionate about running hugely successful events that customers enjoy she also loves reading well written stories. Here she shares her top tips for running bookshop events.
Many writers work other jobs in order to afford to write. The Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes are designed to give writers of all kinds the financial freedom to focus on the writing that matters the most to them. Michael Kelleher is a poet and the founding director of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale University. Norah Myers interviews Michael to find out more.
I think the prize can help the prize recipients in several significant ways. First, obviously, there is the money. $165,000 can buy a writer a lot of time — even in London or New York. There is nothing more precious to a writer than time to write. All of the writers have told me that they feel free to write what they want with the money, rather than what is expected of them.
Second, it calls attention to the writer and to the work. In some instances, it might shine a spotlight on a writer who deserves a wider audience. In others, it might be the cause a subtle shift in the way the critics receive their work. Readers often need a reason to pick up a literary work, and sometimes the recognition of a prize like the Windham-Campbell Prize will be the difference in selecting one book over another.
2) Why is it important for the prize to recognize playwrights?
Well, playwrights are writers, too. Plays are a significant part of our literature. So that is one reason. Another is that Donald Windham was himself a sometime playwright (who once co-authored a play with his close friend, Tennessee Williams), while Sandy Campbell was an actor. It was they who made the decision to award playwrights, based on their mutual love of theater.
3) What’s the most exciting part of the prize’s accompanying festival?
The festival is a chance to bring a group of great writers together and to hear them speak about themselves, about their writing, about the various things they like to think about. And we, the audience, are given the opportunity to think along with them in a warm public setting. I am especially fond of the group reading on the final night, when everyone gets ten minutes to show off their writing to the crowd. These have been some of the best moments of the festival. Of course, the prize ceremony is also fantastic. Each year we invite someone to give a lecture on why they write. This year it was Patti Smith. Next year it will be Karl Ove Knausgaard. All of them are different, all of them profound.
Judging by the fact that many publishers have started writing “Winner of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize” across the covers of their books, I would say that they see an opportunity to promote their authors by calling attention to the prize.
Two major changes are occurring with the March 1 announcement. We are adding poets for the first time, and we are increasing the prize value from $150,000 to $165,000. We are very excited to include poets among the winners. Over the next five years, we plan to keep developing our public programming to include literary festivals and other events that will help make audience engagement and interest in the prize a a year-round affair.
As part of Academic Book Week, on Monday 23rd January, Emerald Publishing hosted a debate called ‘Creating the Future of Academic Publishing: Strengthening the Research Ecosystem‘. It was held at London South Bank University and organised by BookMachine.
The event was compered by Richard Fisher from the Independent Publishers’ Guild (IPG), with panellists Martin Eve, Professor of Literature, Technology & Publishing at Birkbeck University, and Katherine Reeve, Publishing Course Leader at Bath Spa University.
No holds were barred as Fisher opened the evening’s discussion with a frank assessment of the academic sector as being tricky to transform. “Academics don’t want to innovate. There’s a massive conservatism in the system.”
Though Reeve agreed, she also went on to say that publishers need to get better at presenting the value they have to offer the academic world, highlighting the importance of commissioning editors in particular. Controversially, she added, “they’re not gatekeepers, but quality control.”
Having said that, she admitted that editors need to make efforts to develop a better understanding of digital and think more innovatively about format. They also need to be given more time to actually edit and work on the text, especially when it comes to trade non-fiction.
Eve didn’t shy away from controversy either, opening his ten-minute talk by saying that “researchers get paid in order to give their work to publishers effectively for nothing.” Academic publishing, he said, is a “strange model” that you wouldn’t find elsewhere: universities pay lecturers to produce work that publishers print for the universities to buy again.
Currently, this is a closed publishing system, but Open Access changes that and makes academic content more accessible, expanding the reach of an article too. This last is particularly crucial: “Just because books aren’t widely disseminated under the current system doesn’t mean they’re not important,” Eve noted.
However, Eve admitted that “Open Access is not a panacea for the many ills of universities, which are many and proliferating.” Open Access is currently facing problems, the biggest of which is publisher renumeration.
“Something free to read was not free to produce,” Eve explained, “We need to have a sustainable publishing model with pay for labour underwriting it.”
He also raised concerns about Open Access’ ability to preserve data in the long run. Though print media can be accessed and read by academics hundreds of years into the future, who knows whether the same technological systems that enable Open Access will still be running in a decade, let alone a century. Innovation for innovation’s sake, without proper thought and consideration, could in fact be detrimental to the academic system looking to the future.
“We need to ask why are we innovating and who for,” Fisher agreed, although Reeve made it clear that patience is also required, as our current digital inventions are a phase, not a final result.
After the debate, the audience and speakers moved into a series of smaller group sessions: Impact, Innovation and Interdisciplinarity. One of the big themes which emerged from these sessions is that, particularly in the academic sphere, innovation doesn’t have to be about big technological change. It could be as simple as a new format.
Equally, work must be done to bridge the gaps between disciplines. “It is always easier to preach interdisciplinarity than to practice it,” Fisher said.
As with Open Access and the value of publishers, these problems cannot be fixed by new digital technology alone, but by careful thought, planning and human understanding. Machines, it seems, are not always the answer for our academic problems.
“I really hate the word innovation,” Eve finished. “Change means nothing alone – you have to have a reason and a desired result.”
Crystal Mahey-Morgan is Founder at OWN IT! Entertainment Limited. OWN IT! is a storytelling lifestyle brand, telling stories across books, music, fashion and film. At the heart of everything it does is a desire to share, empower, celebrate and inspire. We wanted to find out more about Crystal and her vision.
My journalism for me was about sharing my passion about things I loved and expressing an opinion about things I cared about. For The Face Magazine, I wrote about music, fashion and the creativity that was coming from the underground sub-cultures that surrounded me growing up in London. For The Guardian, I wrote articles which included exploring gang culture and the negative effects an irresponsible advertising industry was having on young women growing up. The thing that helped me was everything came from the heart and nothing was forced. I think the best way for budding writers to perfect their craft is not to write what the think will make people like them but to have the confidence to stay true to their ideas, stories, characters etc, as this will probably result in better content.