An insight into the publishing world…

Posts tagged ‘literature’

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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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Sorry for the delay in blog posts, readers. I have been extremely busy recently – with  a number of job interviews! One of them, in fact, turned out to be successful and I am now officially an Editorial Assistant!

However, this won’t stop me maintaining this blog. I am passionate about books and will continue to write about them. So, onwards and upwards for me!

Okay, so I know I promised you guys a review of a book that didn’t have a ridiculously long title – but it happened again. My next book choice was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler:

 

Yep. Another one with a long title.

Yep. Another one with a long title.

I actually bought this book from a shop in King’s Cross station waiting to come home from one of my interviews. My 24th birthday, which occurred on the previous Friday, had provided me with a little stash of money in my purse which was BEGGING to be spent in a book shop. I may have also bought this little beauty from Paperchase:

bookjournal

I now have a book to write all my book reviews notes in as I go along. Result!

While I’m more inclined to buy and try books that aren’t necessarily in the charts and/or might benefit from a little more exposure, I loved the sound of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and I just couldn’t put it down and buy another instead. So it became my little companion on my four-hour trip home to Hull.

I also really want to publish a book review for a book that didn’t win me over completely, as I want to show that I actually do have an opinion other than ‘OH MY GOD HOW FABULOUS WAS THIS BOOK?’, but unfortunately…that’s not going to happen this time either. I absolutely adored this novel.

The great thing about this book is that I actually can’t spend time writing out the plot for you (which seems pointless to me anyway) as it would completely ruin the twist (and also, as the front cover hosts a quote which says “‘One of the best twists in years'” I am not spoiling it for the reader when I tell you that there’s a twist). All I can do is tell you what the book did for me, and why you absolutely need to buy a copy and start reading it straight away.

Rosemary is growing up and has finally made it to college. However, she struggles to commit herself to the future when she has so many unresolved issues and unanswered questions lurking in her past. She knows that her psychologist father used her childhood as an experiment. She has almost forgotten some things, and continuously represses others. She hasn’t seen her older brother Lowell in ten years, and her sister Fern disappeared when Rosemary was five years old. She cannot move forward with her life until she goes back, until she finally understands what happened all those years ago.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel which concerns itself with child and adult psychology, the difficulties in identifying real and false memories, and the art of storytelling. It explores language and how it can shape human perception. It is both hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

“Language does this to our memories – simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”

The novel begins with the narrator insisting that she will “Skip the beginning” and “Start in the middle.” This becomes a theme and technique throughout the book, to highlight to the reader that the exact same story can be retold in different ways in order to glean information that will help form a good understanding of Rosemary’s life story. As the novel moves along, we realise that Rosemary is on a path of discovery just as we are. As she retells her story from different perspectives, she begins to remember facts and events that she has long ago forgotten or repressed. She explores how language and the retelling of stories can affect how a person remembers events themselves. She shows how an event can change from what it once was to what the person wishes it to be, and how false memories can affect a person’s outlook on life.

“Why are there so many scenes I remember from impossible vantage points, so many things I picture from above, as if I’d climbed the curtains and was looking down on my family? And why is there one thing that I remember distinctly, in living color and surround-sound, but believe with all my heart never occurred? Bookmark that thought. We’ll come back to it later.”

Rosemary often refers to human psychology and development throughout the book, and her outlook is largely influenced by her father, who is a psychologist and scientist. She often disagrees with her father’s methods or opinions, but she can’t quite help exploring her world and the world around her through scientific studies and experiments. Perhaps that is what seems normal to her, although she wishes this wasn’t the way things were for her and her family. You can almost feel Rosemary’s internal struggle. The reader sympathises with her attempts to fight her instincts and behaviours which she formed due to her father’s treatment of her and her siblings as they were growing up.

The novel deals with sibling love and rivalry in a way that I’ve never experienced before. It demonstrates the fragility of human nature and how difficult it is to trust your own memories and your own perceptions. It encourages you to come at stories from a number of different angles, and to form your own understanding. It prompts you to think differently about your own behaviours and perceptions of your own world.

It is fresh, breathtaking, and utterly unique. I fell in love with this book. There is no wonder that it was longlisted for the Man Booker prize this year. I have a number of friends and family members who want to try it. I suggest they buy copies because it will take a number of readings, and each one will be different. I suggest you do the same too.

You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

You can buy a copy of the book here

Follow the publisher Serpent’s Tail on Twitter here.

Publisher’s website here.

Karen Joy Fowler’s website is here.

 

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson

This novel came into my hands in quite a different way to the usual trip-to-the-bookshop routine. Anyone who looks on my Twitter or Facebook feeds for more than 30 seconds will know that I’m currently searching for a job in publishing. As such, I decided to become more actively involved in the literary scene in my home city of Hull (incidentally, the City of Culture for 2017!).

It was at a literary event named Head In A Book (run by the editor of local publisher Wrecking Ball Press) at Hull Central Library that I first heard about the book. I hadn’t read it before attending, and so I went into the event a little blind. The author, Kerry Hudson, was giving a talk with fellow author Russ Litten about this book and also about her newest novel, Thirst, which is on my ‘to be read’ pile. Immediately after the talk was finished, I went ahead and bought the book. There was no way I was leaving without a copy. Russ and Kerry did a great job of selling it to me!

First off, I should state that Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (I’ll refer to it as Tony Hogan for short from here on out) is unlike any other book I’ve ever read. In a good way! To use such a narrative viewpoint is extremely brave; Kerry Hudson said herself at the event that she expected to be ‘given a lot of stick’ for writing a first person narrative which begins in a child’s infancy (from the minute she’s born, in fact). When I heard about this, I was dubious as to whether it would work. My first thought was that it would lose credibility as nobody could physically remember things – in such detail, at least – from such an early age.

However, it doesn’t seem to take away from the book at all, at least in my view. If anything, it works to highlight how easily a young girl can grow up perceiving the poverty, conflict and brutality of her life as normal. It also helps solidify Janie’s bond with her mother, Iris. Despite Iris’ flaws and occasional neglect, Janie is utterly devoted to her as she is growing up. Iris is her lifeline and her only chance of survival, and in setting the book at the absolute beginning of Janie’s life, the author manages to convey that perfectly.

The Head In A Book event for Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. Yes, I will review books with short titles, too. I promise!

The Head In A Book event for Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. Yes, I will review books with short titles, too. I promise!

The novel follows Janie, ‘the latest in a long line of Aberdeen fishwives’, as she and her family go through life moving from council estate to council estate, in increasingly dangerous and deprived situations, struggling to survive in a state of constant poverty. But Janie is different. She’s seen her mother, and the generations before her, failing to make anything of themselves and she decides that she wants more from life.

Kerry mentioned in her conversation with Russ that one of her original titles for the book was Echoes of Small Fires (a line from the book), but the publisher decided against this as it was “far too literary a title” for a book with such brutal subject matter (and so much swearing!). Be that as it may, the book is filled with “literary” language that really sets the writing apart. Take, for example, this line:

It was so quiet I wondered if the people who lived there ever turned up the telly or stitched their sentences with shouted swear words aimed to wound.

The entire novel is peppered with beautiful and lyrical wording such as this, which works fantastically as it contrasts heavily with the harsh subject matter, making it seem even more shocking. Because of this, I found myself really feeling for Janie and her entire family. Yes, they are surrounded by drug takers, alcoholics and dole bums, but Hudson portrays Janie, her little sister Tiny and her mother Iris in such a vulnerable and tragically fragile way that you cannot help but want more for the family. Here it is not a case of rooting for the legally and morally perfect protagonist – there are none in this book. But Hudson managed to make me overlook the character flaws and wish for a better world for Janie, because in a better world she could become a better person.

The Observer reviewed Tony Hogan and described it as ‘colourful, funny, joyful and compelling.’ While it is definitely not ‘joyful’ throughout (in fact there are some pretty grim and upsetting scenes) it is ultimately a very realistic piece of work that grips you from beginning to end. It is funny, it is sad, and it is definitely compelling. The characters will stay with you for much longer than it takes to read the book. And considering how good it was, it didn’t take that long to finish.

Novels like Tony Hogan are what the literary and publishing world seems to be lacking for the most part. One of the main themes of Kerry’s talk at Head In A Book was the working class writer and the struggle to get published. Kerry and Russ talked at length about the difficulties facing working class writers due to elitism in mainstream trade publishing. Kerry argued that the publishing industry needs to introduce a wider spectrum of voices – including working class voices – into literature. She stressed that it is the job of publishing and writing professionals to break free of the mindset that some people of a certain type (i.e. working class or underprivileged, forced into a criminal lifestyle) ‘do not deserve to be seen in literature.’ These things DO happen, these people DO exist, and they have a right to be heard and represented in writing.

As a result, Kerry runs an amazing and inspiring project called the WoMentoring Project which offers ‘free mentoring by professional literary women to talented up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities.’ – womentoringproject.co.uk

This writer is not only speaking out and being heard on behalf of working class female writers everywhere – she is also paving the way for others to do the same.

You can follow these people on Twitter:

Kerry Hudson @KerrysWindow

Russ Litten @RussLitten

Wrecking Ball Press @wbphull and Head In A Book @hiabhull

Hull Libraries @hull_libraries

Hull City of Culture @2017hull

Website links:

Kerry Hudson

The WoMentoring Project

Head In A Book

Wrecking Ball Press

Vintage Books

Hull City of Culture

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