An insight into the publishing world…

Posts tagged ‘children’s literature’

Introducing Library Assistant Rebecca Morris

Today I’m interviewing Rebecca Morris, a fellow Hull University English graduate and currently working as a library assistant near Cambridge while studying for a Masters degree. I lived with Becky for a year and her love and passion for reading and books rivals mine – and that’s saying something! I’m very excited that she’s attending this year’s London Book Fair with me. Here in this interview she discusses her love of literature and shares her experiences and views on how libraries are coping in this challenging and ever-changing industry…

Showing off her knitwear!

Showing off her knitwear!

Talk to me about your background in English and writing.

I’ve enjoyed reading books and writing stories ever since I was a child. English was always my favourite subject at school although I hadn’t originally planned to do it for my degree. At first,  I was planning on studying law at university as I felt it would set me up for a future career but when I started my AS levels and ordered some prospectuses I couldn’t help reading the sections about the English courses and my instinct told me to go for it. Looking back, it was definitely the right decision. Even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I would do with the degree, I felt it was important to do a subject I genuinely loved, and I would advise others to do the same.


What made you come to Hull University for your degree?

Choosing universities to apply to was a very difficult task especially for my course as you could do it at about 120 institutions so I couldn’t possibly read every single prospectus. I asked family for advice and I found out one of my aunts had gone to Hull University. After checking the English department’s website, I felt reasonably confident that I could achieve the grades they asked for and I liked the look of the course as I had the opportunity to choose all my modules in the second and third year. I loved that aspect of it because I was able to choose several interesting modules from the Victorian period and twentieth century. I did have to do some pre-1800 modules but I enjoyed the ones I took. I am pleased I made the decision to go to Hull.

A library provides an extremely valuable service and can be a lifeline for people who are lonely or might not have a lot of money.


What do you most enjoy reading?

I am prepared to give anything a go. As I’m studying children’s and young adult literature, I do feel it’s important to read books from that genre. I’m currently reading Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel, a fantasy novel set in Victorian England. I’m quite into historical fiction, particularly texts set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though I tend to vary what I read a lot. I think the most important thing for me isn’t necessarily the genre but if there is a character I can strongly empathise with. When I was reading the last Harry Potter book, I remember getting very emotional and not wanting to read the end because I was convinced Harry was going to die. I practically begged my sister to spoil the ending for me just so I knew but I was glad I was brave enough to read on in the end!


Talk to me about your MA, and why did you choose to study that subject?

I was in my final year as an undergraduate and had to decide what to do after finishing. I actually came close to opting for law again as I found out I could do a conversion course for a year after finishing. However, I felt that it was a shame to leave studying English behind, as despite doing it since school there still seemed to be a lot to learn so I decided to apply for an MA course at the University of Hull. I had a choice of different programmes but because I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to specialise in at that point I chose the generic English Literature MA. The modules I took were in my favourite periods of study, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I even developed an interest in art, as one of my modules examined the relationship between Victorian art and literature. My favourite module was Modern Children’s Literature and that inspired me to start exploring girls in children’s books for my PhD topic.


You are now currently studying for a PhD. Did you always want to stay in academia?

Whilst doing my first degree, it hadn’t really occurred to me that I would stay in academia but after starting my Masters, I thought that I would like to continue to PhD level and see if I could get into lecturing afterwards. For the first year of doing my PhD, I had been looking at potential conferences and journals to apply to so I could get relevant experience and I still do so now but I think I’ve changed my mind about academia. I don’t regret starting my PhD and will continue to study afterwards but I am hoping to pursue other career options.

What do you love most about being a PhD student?

Definitely being able to revisit old books from my childhood and read ones I missed out on! I’ve written two chapters so far. The first one compared Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz and the latest chapter analysed Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series. I particularly enjoyed this chapter and I hadn’t read the sequels as a child so it was lovely to get an opportunity to read one. I also learned more about Alcott when reading her diary and letters which was fascinating. Aside from the studying aspects, I enjoy the fact that I’m doing it part-time as it makes it easier for me to work, volunteer and pursue my hobbies. It means it’ll take longer but I feel the extra benefits make it worthwhile.

There is no substitute for a physical book


You currently work at a library. Tell us more details about this.

After finishing my MA I decided to do my PhD from home as I felt I would have more opportunities to work and still spend plenty of time with my family. I went onto a volunteering website and saw that my local library were looking for volunteers so I sent an application in. My role was a Self-Service volunteer and I was responsible for shelving returned books and helping customers find books or use the library equipment. Eight months ago, I acquired a paid Saturday job there. I have more responsibilities on the front desk and I am getting more confident using the library’s circulation systems. I still do my volunteering there as I love my job so much. There is something really special about being around books and seeing customers with huge armfuls to take out.

What do you most enjoy about working for a library?

That’s actually a really difficult question to answer because I love all aspects of my job. I like being able to interact with the customers and I find it very satisfying when I am able to help them find the books they’re looking for. I also enjoy the shelving, as I’m really interested to know what other people are borrowing and it’s given me a few reading ideas. My to-read list has become very long since working at the library!

Is there a real community atmosphere there?

I would say so. We have a lot of regular customers who come in to borrow books, use the computers and attend activities, which is lovely to see as you get to know people and what their interests are.


What do you feel a library needs to do to keep the interest and involvement of the local community?

I think it’s important to ensure that customers are aware about the services libraries have to offer. The system we have at our library is excellent as we are able to order books from other libraries in the county free of charge if a customer is unable to find them on the shelf. Stock displays are useful to help people find inspiration. I have recently organised one in the children’s section to do with witches and wizards. We also have several regular activities for the children including a Rhyme-time session for toddlers and babies and a Summer Reading Challenge for those in primary school. For people over 50 we have an Engage talk once a month and there have been discussions on a wide range of subjects including local history, health and crafts. I am a regular attender of the knitting group and we usually have a large number of people particularly in the evenings. I think all of these things help to encourage people to come to the library, as they have opportunities to meet people and the activities are free unless people choose to make a small donation for tea and coffee.

Do you find that there is a particular kind of literature or publication that is more popular than others in your library? Why do you think this is?

Crime and adventure seem to be the most popular genres with our customers at the moment. Not having read a lot of crime myself, I can’t really comment as to why but I imagine that the novels have a very gripping plot. Our cookery and craft books are also frequently borrowed. I think people have been inspired by programmes like The Great British Bake Off and Sewing Bee. Our knitting books in particular are always appearing on the returned books trollies which is always nice to see as I’m a keen knitter and I like to think other people enjoy it too.

It’s important to ensure that customers are aware about the services libraries have to offer.


Where do you stand on the debate that is currently raging on whether or not prisoners should be allowed books in jail? Do you agree that books/education/reading can be vital to to a prisoner’s rehabilitation, or do you believe that they, as criminals, should not have access or the rights to books?

This is a very difficult question as I know that this subject divides opinion. I believe that prisoners should be treated humanely but I think there does need to be restrictions on privileges such as televisions and Playstations. However, I do feel that they should have a right to an education and to work whilst inside, as the vast majority of prisoners are going to be released into the outside world and there is a chance they could end up reoffending if they have no purpose once they come out. I believe that having educational opportunities could potentially provide rehabilitation to criminals and if they had something to do in prison it might stop them from committing other crimes whilst inside. I appreciate this wouldn’t work with everyone but even if it only made a difference to one person’s life, I’d still be in favour of prisoners having books.


Where do you stand on the argument that libraries are becoming obsolete in the current market?

I don’t feel that is the case with our one as the people in the town make use of it but I know that libraries in other areas of the country, particularly rural ones are having difficulties as I have seen several petitions about saving them on social media. I strongly believe that a library provides an extremely valuable service and can be a lifeline for people who are lonely or might not have a lot of money.


Tell me about your thoughts on borrowing/lending e-books and how this might affect libraries moving forward?

Our customers have the option to borrow e-books e-audio and e-magazines if they own a Kindle Fire, iPad or tablet. I own a Kindle myself and find it is useful for my studies as I have saved money on classic texts and been able to read books that are no longer in print. However, I feel that there is no substitute for a physical book and I’m sure that a lot of customers would share my belief so I think the digital books will help the library to move forward, as it will give people more opportunities to borrow books and they can have them in any format they prefer.


What are your goals for the future?

I still have three years to go on my PhD so I will be spending a lot of time focussing on that. I hope to pursue a career in librarianship once I finish it so I probably will start applying for courses once I’m in my final year. I have also had a novel idea for ages but I haven’t started writing yet so I think I’ll probably try to make some time for it and at least get something written this year!

Becky's display at the library - encouraging children to read!

Becky’s display at the library – encouraging children to read!

You can follow Becky on Twitter @xBecki_Morrisx

Introducing Bookshop Owner Joanna De Guia


Victoria Park Books
174 Victoria Park Road
London, E9 7HD

@VictoriaParkBks

joanna@victoriaparkbooks.co.uk
www.victoriaparkbooks.co.uk

I am so pleased to be able to feature an interview with a bookshop owner; it’s always been kind of a quiet dream of mine to work in a bookshop. Today’s interviewee is a children’s book store owner who is located in London and who is very passionate about books, children’s literature, and the world of publishing. A vital cog within the publishing machine, the bookseller is one of the most important and influential people in inciting passion and enthusiasm for reading. To be able to do that for children must be a wonderful thing – if I am an example of how childhood reading can play a part in a person’s future career, then encouraging children to read, and to love to read, is essential.

Joanna De Guia, owner of Victoria Park Books in London, has very kindly conducted this interview with me and gives a fascinating and illuminating look into the world of book selling and how the publishing industry has changed things massively for the bookseller over the years..

When you convert a child to reading you know you are potentially having an effect that could improve the quality of their life and job opportunities.

I notice you used to work for Waterstones. What would say are the main differences between working for a chain bookshop and your own, independent bookshop?

When I worked for Waterstones it was still a small personal chain owned by Tim so it felt like a local bookshop.  I was in the High St Ken branch and we bought stock with our local customers in mind.  There wasn’t a core stock list then or centralised buying.  That all came in much later.  The main difference then was that we weren’t set up for customer orders as we were so big the idea was that people came in and would find something that would fit their requirements in the shop.  As a small independent we can’t do that as we don’t have the room or the capital.  So our customer ordering is key.

You first worked for Waterstones in the 80’s. How would you say things have changed in the industry between now and then?

It has changed beyond all recognition. The number of books published has increased exponentially so it is now necessary to return stock.  This wasn’t necessary when I worked at Waterstones and in my Mum’s shop, or indeed allowed. Once a book became old stock you put it in the reduced section as there just wasn’t that much in the way of new titles to keep up with.  There were several high street chains then (Smiths, Ottakers, Dillons, Books etc).  Now there is really only one, which is Waterstones.  There was a NET Book Agreement which meant that no retailer could undercut on price except if they were prepared to take a hit on their own profit margins.  There was no Amazon; no online.  The High Street was King.  Books were proportionately more expensive but people didn’t expect them to be rock bottom prices.  There were several bookdata providers so all retailers had equal access to a list of books in print (on a microfiche!).  Now there is a monopoly of provision –  Neilsen – and small retailers can’t afford to purchase that online access except through a wholesaler which means that information can’t be put onto their websites to indicate their ability to provide any book in print.  There were no e-books so there wasn’t the huge discrepancy between the offer from indies (unable to make much of a profit on e-books as there is no satisfactory scheme for selling e-books available to us) and that from chains and Amazon.  In short the playing field was much more level and the main difference between walking into an indie and a big provider was that you might have to wait 24 hours for a specific title from an indie if they didn’t hold it in stock.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Undoubtedly it is effecting an introduction between a reader and a marvellous book.  This is especially satisfying when one is dealing with kids as there is now so much competition for their free time and when you make a convert to reading you know you are potentially having an effect that could improve the quality of their life and job opportunities. I love inventing and running reading festivals and events and reminding children of how much fun reading can be.

Have you found that having your own children allowed you to understand the demands for quality children’s books?

Without a doubt! It is like working in a sweetshop when you have kids and if something especially delicious is shown there is always “one for us” added to the order.  Plus I know how deadly dull the process of learning to read is now in schools with everybody required to teach phonics and only phonics.  Being able to show children that books are actually a source of pleasure and not just something you have to do to pass an exam ensures lifelong reading and opens up a whole world of enjoyment. 

You have recently branched out into selling e-books. When did this begin and has this been successful so far? (If it’s too soon to tell, how successful do you expect it to be?)

I don’t think we have sold a single e-book!  The e-book market has been completely cornered by the cut-price big players (Amazon beyond everything and then Waterstone’s and Foyles and Blackwells – all online).  Indies get a laughable cut of profits – between 5 and 15% – and so even if you offer the opportunity to buy on your website (and we do) why would anybody do that when they could buy it from one of the others for so much less?

How important is it for your business that the customer trusts your staff’s advice? Do you find it has a big impact on sales?

My staff read a lot and have opinions about what they like and don’t like and they recommend titles happily.  Recommendations are crucial for indies.  A customer may come in for something specific which we are very likely not to have (given the number of books published and the amount of space and money we have). We can suggest other similar (possibly better) things and thus ensure a sale.  The people who use us best are those who are happy to be open to something new and unexpected rather than somebody coming for something specific which is immediately available.

How do you measure your bookshop’s success? Hard sales, or customer satisfaction and loyalty? How do ensure you continue to be successful?

Both hard sales and customer satisfaction are crucial yardsticks. However without hard sales it doesn’t matter how satisfied customers are; we cannot continue.  So the final measure is whether we make a profit.  I don’t know if I would describe us as successful yet. Our customers definitely love us and so do “our” authors.  And some of our publishers love us too.  And we have a legacy already of reading events and children who without us would not have developed a love of reading.  But it is such a struggle and the industry is so clueless about how to deal with its independent sector.  And high street shopping appears to be dying a slow and painful death right now.  There is very little help out there for small businesses.  The banks are sitting on our money and refusing to lend it to ensure survival.  It is quite hard to see where the future lies. 

In what ways would you say your bookshop is unique? How do you go above and beyond for your customers?

All indies are unique.  That is what is great and what is annoying about them.  They reflect their community and the personality of the owners and staff.  We reflect this specifically in the stock we sell and the books which interest us.  We stock books which would never sell outside London or a big city; showing diverse communities and liberal lifestyles.  The events we run are very realistic in their aims, understanding that most of our potential customers come from very poor families (Hackney is the second poorest borough and Tower Hamlets is the poorest borough in the country – and we border both) and/or from non-English speaking families.  Therefore we need to evangelise about reading and ensure it is the most exciting thing those children encounter – more exciting than their Xbox or the latest Pixar movie!  We go above and beyond what is expected of a corporate bookshop which only needs to show a profit.  We feel we should be selling children quality and not the latest pap.  But the quality has to be fun to read and sometimes pap is necessary to entice children into reading something better.  We have a great responsibility to our young customers.  We know them all and have watched many of them grow from primary school to A Level students and make their move out into the real world.

Your bookshop is based in London. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?

The advantages are that reps still visit London bookshops regularly so we are more up-to-date on new titles; and we have a significant population.  However we are not on a high street as such.  Very few indies can afford to be placed so well now.  We are in a (lovely) backwater of boutique-y shops.  But this means we don’t get the footfall you would get on a high street, even one outside of a big city.  We don’t have the disadvantages of leasing our building – London rents are extortionate and I have no idea how anybody keeps going having to pay those – but our business rates are affected by the relatively high cost of renting and so we pay more rates. We didn’t have the problems of having to contend with out of town shopping centres…until they built Westfield 20 minutes away in Stratford.  Now we have a Foyles right on our doorstep, alongside a Primark and a John Lewis, etc, etc. So the attractions of mall shopping are becoming apparent. Mostly the advantages of being in London are personal; I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else!

What are your goals for the future?

Our goals are to survive.  And to continue to produce our reading festival at Shoreditch Town Hall – Town Hall Tales – and to make a success of our bookstall at the Half Moon Theatre in Limehouse.  And eventually to be able to pay myself a reasonable salary; nothing greedy mind, just enough to make a proper contribution to the household bills which are not particularly high!

What do you and your partner most enjoy reading? What do your children most enjoy reading?

I read anything at all.  But the things I have read recently which I loved are the new Michel Faber – The Book of Strange New Things – and a new book unpublished ‘til May called The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger.  I guess I especially like literary novels with a great plot.  And I love graphics – Fun Home by Alison Bechdel being one I read last year which blew me away. And then I love reading anything by Shaun Tan and good gritty kids’ fiction like Sally Gardner and E Lockhart.

Cris likes crime fiction and has just finished the Gold Finch by Donna Tartt.

Tilly and I are currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird and she loves graphics – Jane, the Fox and Me, for example. She gets the Phoenix comic every week – and she reads absolutely anything from picture books to teen novels to poetry.  She is obsessed with The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent trilogy and the Hunger Games.  And we are especially fond of Carol Anne Duffy. 

Which would you say has been your most rewarding job/career so far and why?

I have had many careers(!) and even more jobs.  I am quite old!  I have probably found the bookshop my most rewarding so far but also my most stressful because it is my thing.  I created it from scratch so its successes are all mine.  But so are its failures.  Mostly I am proud of every child we convert to reading for pleasure and every book we recommend which we get a positive report on!

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Have you shopped here before? What did you think of your experience? Or perhaps you know of a similar book store that you would like to recommend and publicize? Please, let’s get discussing and as always leave a comment below!

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