An insight into the publishing world…

Posts tagged ‘London’

Introducing Hollie Belton, Founder of Books on The Underground

I’m really pleased to host this week’s interviewee – the woman behind Books on the Underground, one of the not-for-profit companies that make me really want to live in London! Read on to find out more about the phenomenon that is gripping the commuters of London, and soon, hopefully, beyond…


Hollie wanted to share her love of books with the rest of London!

Hollie wanted to share her love of books with the rest of London!


Please introduce yourself, and the others behind Books on the Underground, and give us a brief overview of your careers?

I’m Hollie, I started Books on the Underground in November 2012. I’m originally from Lincolnshire, but I moved to London 7 years ago after graduating from university. I’m a Creative at an Advertising agency, where I’ve been for the last 4 years. I met my BOTU partner, Cordelia, on Twitter. She reached out to me to to help out and now has become an integral part of the project and we’ve been doing it together ever since.

Please can you explain the concept of Books on the Underground to those who are unfamiliar with it, and the logistics of how it works?

The idea in a nutshell – I leave books on the London Underground for commuters to take, read and then leave back on the tube for someone else to enjoy. The idea lives on Twitter, where we update people on the latest book locations. It’s like a mobile library, without the late fees 😉

How did this brilliant idea come about and how did you set about kick-starting it?

Well, I have about an hour commute to work everyday, from Dalston to West Kensington, so reading is a nice escape for me. One day, I finished the book I was reading on the tube and just thought what a lovely surprise it would be for the next person to find. That day I didn’t leave my book, because I realised there were a lot of hurdles to overcome and I didn’t want it to be just a book out in the world alone, I wanted it to be part of something bigger. So I designed and printed the Books on the Underground stickers, started leaving my books and that’s how it started. It’s really simple, I place a sticker on the front of the book and leave it either on the train seat or the station benches and tweet where I have left it. I use the #booksontheunderground hashtag so people who find the book can let me know.

How has it developed and grown since its conception?

It has grown slowly over the last few years. I started it with my own books, then started raiding charity shops to replenish my stock, so at first it was very small. But then publishers and independent authors started hearing about it and wanted to get involved. And we’re now getting a lot more books sent to us, it’s practically turning in to a full-time job. We have over 8,000 followers on Twitter and we’re booked up everyday until mid August. We recently set ourselves up as a not-for-profit company. So we get people to pay for the stickers and then any profit leftover we donate to reading charities within London, such as

Was the concept well received when you first began? What kind of reception and feedback did you get from it?

It has always been well received. I don’t think I’ve heard a bad word about it. The first time someone found a book I screamed out loud in the office. The tweets are normally so positive. I think it’s because finding a book feels so special to you. It’s still on a small scale, in relation to the amount of Londoners who commute everyday. So you have to be super lucky to find a book.

How do you measure your success?

When I started, I said if just one person finds a book and tweets I’ll have succeeded, so I’m over the moon that so many people know about it and not only that, want to get involved themselves.

Some of the big names in the industry have written about you, including the Guardian. Does this exposure help boost the popularity of your organisation?

Yes definitely. I think it really took off when we got mentioned on the ‘London for Free’ Facebook page. And then Timeout got in touch and our followers have grown from there.



Has your new Book Club, the Underground Book Club, enjoyed success since you started?

Yes. It’s been ace. It’s been running for a year now. And we still meet once a month. It’s been so rewarding, bringing together a group of people who I didn’t know before. All of them are from Twitter, and it we meet once a month to discuss a book and normally stuff ourselves with Thai food!

What have been particular highlights for you so far in launching this initiative?

Last October, I was asked to be a speaker at Chicago Ideas Week about the Sharing Economy. I didn’t even know I was part of the sharing economy until they invited me! I also got to launch ‘Books on the L’ in partnership with Chicago Ideas week whilst I was there. And they made an awesome little film about me too, I was so flattered.

What’s next for you?

I’m moving to NYC at the end of August. So I will be helping Rosy, my American counterpart to get more exposure for Books on the Subway and make it as big as Books on the Underground is in London.

Finally, what are you both currently reading?

I’m currently reading animals by Emma Jane Unsworth. Bloody hilarious! Discussing it at book club this Monday, July 27th.


To find out more about Books on The Underground, click here.

Follow Hollie on Twitter @holliebelton

Follow Books on the Underground on Twitter @BooksUndergrnd

The Humans by Matt Haig

I bought this book as a treat for myself on the way back from the London Book Fair in April. It’s a long wait and a long train ride for me to get home. What way is more perfect to pass the time than a bit of reading? I’ve heard a little rumour that Matt Haig might be coming to Hull for an event in the near future, so thought I’d give one of his titles a try in advance!

The Humans by Matt Haig. Already well used...

The Humans by Matt Haig. Already well used…

After an ‘incident’ one wet Friday night where he is found walking naked through the streets of Cambridge, Professor Andrew Martin is not feeling quite himself. Food sickens him. Clothes confuse him. Even his loving wife and teenage son are repulsive to him. He feels lost amongst a crazy alien species and hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton, and he’s a dog.

Who is he really? And what could make someone change their mind about the human race?

The Humans is a hilarious and thoroughly philosophical examination of the human condition and the human way of life. I won’t be spoiling this for you when I reveal that Andrew Martin has been replaced with an alien, because you find this out in the first page. What this gives us is an outsider’s perspective on humans and all of their eccentricities. In a very amusing but also very clever way.

The alien, whose name you never find out, is on Earth attempting to hide a secret that Professor Andrew Martin had – a very valuable and, in the aliens’ eyes, very dangerous secret that must not be told or discovered. If it does, it will set the human race on a path to self-destruction.

Emotion and anything outside of rationality and logic are completely unacceptable. Anything even remotely human-like, from the human form to the way humans live their lives, is utterly repulsive and baffling to him. And yet he must now live among them and get away with fooling people that he is Andrew Martin. Cue the hilarious mistakes and misunderstandings. Some of them had me in fits of giggles. I won’t spell them out as it would ruin it for you, the reader, (who will of course go straight out to buy the book after reading this review) but it’s the first time I’ve laughed out loud and for so long at a book for a long time.

Although the book is very comical, it also does more than a good job of reminding us how we have failed as a race and failed our planet. It points out many of our flaws and our mistakes. (I perhaps found the passages where the aliens discussed these failures and just generally communicated with one another a little over-dramatic and a bit too Hollywood, but it in no way damaged the book as a whole.) The narrator makes us evaluate ourselves, our mindsets and our beliefs.

The humans are an arrogant species, defined by violence and greed. They have taken their home planet, the only one they currently have access to, and placed it on the road to destruction. They have created a world of divisions and categories and have continually failed to see the similarities between themselves.

Matt Haig takes what we all know and think but manages to express it in such imaginative and clever writing, which is truly a brilliant achievement. Take the following passage for instance:

She said being human is being a young child on Christmas Day who receives an absolutely magnificent castle. And there is a perfect photograph of this castle on the box and you want more than anything to play with the castle and the knights and the princesses because it looks like such a perfectly human world, but the only problem is that the castle isn’t built. It’s in tiny intricate pieces, and although there’s a book of instructions you don’t understand it. And nor can your parents or Aunt Sylvie. So you are just left, crying at the ideal castle on the box which no one would ever be able to build.

This is such a profound commentary on the difficulties of life and building the ideal ‘life’. While I do believe that if you work hard enough, you can get what you set out to achieve, the passage is so true in terms of how helpless and lost people can feel going through life. Haig takes characters within the novel and uses them as embodiments of the fear, insecurities, and also triumphs within human existence. The above passage is one character Maggie’s view of life, but it is a view that many readers will relate to.

Naturally, the longer the alien spends on Earth among humans, the more he can relate to them and he starts to enjoy the experiences of life, something he does not have on his own planet.  He begins to enjoy music, food, wine, love, laughter, and companionship. He does not have happiness, or love, or pleasure on his home planet. All he has back home is logic and mathematics, and he soon begins to realise that despite the pain, and loss, and disappointment of human life, it still has so much beauty to offer.

He understands that we are strange, self-destructive, impulsive and reckless race, but it’s these very things that redeem us in his eyes. He knows that humans contradict themselves in every turn, but eventually he loves that about us.

“Don’t you think that there is something beautiful in these contradictions, something mysterious?”

Two reasons that the main character takes such a U-turn in his feelings towards humans are Andrew’s wife and son, Isobel and Gulliver. Each character is going through their own pain and internal struggle, mostly caused by Andrew Martin himself. Our protagonist has to deal with this and try to make amends for Andrew’s behaviour, all the while knowing that it isn’t one of his priorities or objectives. And for this reason, as a reader I began to empathise with the alien who believes that humans are so imperfect as to be doomed. I genuinely couldn’t help but feel for Isobel and Gulliver and I often found myself wishing that the alien could right Andrew’s wrongs. Whether or not he manages this is something you’ll have to find out for yourselves.

The Humans is a brutal evaluation of human life, but it also celebrates it. Haig made me take a critical view of myself and the human race but also made me realise just how brilliant we all can be. We get out of life what we put into it. The book is incredibly funny, and sad, and heart-warming, and entertaining. I strongly urge you to make this book your next purchase.

Introducing Bookshop Owner Joanna De Guia

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


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!


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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