Paris and the Bibliophile’s Love Affair

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I was recently in the eternally beautiful city of Paris where I haven’t visited for many years. I found myself preparing to leave with what could be considered a severe case of the ‘holiday blues’ at the prospect of returning to an increasingly chain-store orientated London, shared housing and a job far from the industry that I am both qualified in and so passionate to be a part of. There were tears…a lot of tears…tears of rather embarrasing levels. This wasn’t, as may be the case for many, because of the romantic lure of Paris (though it was very romantic and a joy to explore with my rather lovely, fluently French-speaking boyfriend) but rather, because for a book-lover such as I, Paris remains a city of wonderful bookshops and independent Bouquinistes lining the Seine. 

This is a city where small businesses across many industries still seem to thrive or, if not thrive, continue to fight for their independently localised highstreets in a manner that Britain seems to have given up on long ago. I became obsessed by this city’s varied independent businesses over chain-stores, with their wonderful customer service (which as a long time retailer still strikes me as the heart of a business) and with what seems like a healthy attitude to market competition. Here follows the things I saw in Paris which won my heart…

1. The number of similar stores in a single area

This is something that I constantly noticed and brought up (to my boyfriend’s dismay). In Paris there seems to be key areas in which certain types of businesses dominated. Much like days past in London there seemed to be particular areas you might go to for certain things. Walking from Monmartre, for example, we seemed to come across a wedding dress district and some time later a comic book district. Initially I questioned how any of the businesses could be doing well and I came to the conclusion that it was due to healthy competition. Each store must have to strive to do ‘better’ in some way than the shops before and after it. Before chain-stores came into play this was how business worked. It seems considerably fairer that several independents are competing with one another rather than trying to compete with the big-boys popping up all over the city.

2. Book shops filled with people

Perhaps this is the prospective publisher in me but I at least looked into every single book shop I saw if I didn’t enter it’s doors and what I saw was busy busy bookshops so unlike what I see in the UK nowadays. And what’s more, people were leaving with bags full of books! As we know many other countries feel entirely different to us Brits about spending full price on books. Sadly we cannot go back and reinstate the Net Book Agreement and there is no point in wishing we can but it was so nice seeing a city full of people who still respect the worth and value of physical books. This respect is something that I wish and I believe we should strive to reinstate in people in the UK rather than allowing other countries to fall into our own money-pinching ways. Afterall, when you are willing to spend £3-£5 on a coffee what is your complaint of spending little more than that on a physical book?!

3. Independent shops are the mainstream

Of course there are chain-stores in Paris but they are few and far between. I took great joy in trying a different patisserie every day and determining who produced the best baguette, who had the most pleasant staff, where could I not resist returning to, and so on. And if you really wanted the chain stores there were certain areas that you could expect to find them so it came down to a personal choice of which experience you preferred. This is something we are losing in the UK and something I dread will eventually disappear  in the rest of Europe. To me there is little worse in London than seeing a Tesco or Starbucks everywhere I turn. I want variety, I want the option to shop at any of the stores in a mile radius based on the quality of their products.

4.  Bookshops open late into the evening

Honestly, I only noticed that one bookshop opened to 11pm and this was the incredibly busy independent Shakespeare and Company, a wonderful cavelike bookshop selling English titles, which attracted tourists like bees to honey. For me the greatest potential for an independent business is that you can determine your own working hours to better benefit yourself and your customers. I have long been saying that if independent bookshops in the UK were to open later, offer a better variety of community events and stronger customer services, offering a different business model to what is already out there then they could truly compete with the likes of Amazon. This isn’t a new idea, it’s just one that seems to be ignored in large util around the Christmas period. By staying open later you are making yourself available to a whole host of potential customers who would otherwise be at work themselves during your standard opening hours. I always seem to bring up the film Empire Records when I talk about this. If you’ve seen it you’ll probably understand why, if you haven’t and you dislike the big stores as much as I do, well just go watch it.

5. Working in the service industry is treated with respect

Having worked in retail for most of my adult life this is something that I was quite jealous of. Retail workers and waiters/resses, at least, seemed to be treated with respect and in return the customer service given surpased (for the most part) what I have seen in most of the UK. In France these positions are treated as careers, qualifications are even earned relating to the specific field that you go into and therefore the wages are higher and there is even a sense of pride for the job that you are doing. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen great customer service in the UK (I count myself as one of those who gives such) and I also saw some bad customer service in France (i’m sure not everyone in the service industry is there out of choice) but overall it just felt different and better.

I could actually keep on going but these were the key points that I have been considering endlessly. I have to admit though that these alone had me considering the potential to move to Paris in order to pursue my career – to run a successful publishing house alongside a bricks and mortar bookshop  – but I continue to love London’s great publishing tradition, it’s history, the many wonderful, exciting and innovative publishers that are popping up regardless of the many challenges that abound. I also am cynical enough to believe that all that I consider to be great about this industry in Paris has the potential to disappear almost over night. For now I will continue to practice my French and push for change on this side of the Channel and finally start writing that novel which Paris inspired. One day though, who knows…

You can make a book anywhere, so why London?

This is something I’ve been stewing on for a while and now I’m just going to say it…

Publishing needs to break out of London.

Don’t get me wrong, London is great; living in London you have access to almost everything you might desire. A hub for beautiful art, delicious food, thousands of events every single night, museums and architecture, history and a diversity of people I just haven’t personally seen elsewhere in the UK. It is loud and busy and full of life, there is a buzz, a tangible vibe, sometimes it has you grinning from ear to ear and sometimes it makes you wonder if you’re insane and really it is quite often frustrating as hell.

I grew up in rural Lincolnshire in a village with no public transport, eight miles from school and most of my friends. There was little for us to do apart from trips to the pub or the almost 30 mile journey to the nearest city. I’ll be honest, a trip to the supermarket could be considered an exciting day trip.

Lovely Lincoln

Lincoln City

When I was eighteen I headed south to study art and make my way into the creative industries. Everyone knew the south offered jobs and excitement and the freedom to dress and act any way you like. There are afterall no publishers in Lincolnshire that I know of. In comparison the south seemed to offer so much more. It still offers me enough that I’m sitting here watching the world go by, dreaming of my dream job in a London publishing house, only now I wonder if maybe it is time to realign the balance of those invisible borders.

Leeds Library

Leeds Library

It is quite strange for me now to feel so determined that north of the Thames is where the future of publishing may lie. Big businesses in other industries are already starting to make the move to Manchester as the Financial Times reported earlier this year, Government is promising to rebalance the economy by improving transport links in the north, and best of all, there are even places where you can still buy a lovely home for less than £0.5m…in fact a lot less.

London is home to approximately 300 of the country’s publishing houses, Oxford – 30, Edinburgh – 11 and Cambridge – 10, whilst everywhere else teeters down into the single figures. And I have been sitting for months now wondering if we are all missing a trick? Are we about to again be ridiculed for being left behind whilst the other industries move to where the cost of living is lower, the quality of life could be argued as higher and where, for you parents out there, you don’t have to choose six different schools and just hope and pray you get the good one you want. Is it purely out of a sense of tradition that we remain tied to a city that seems to be feeling smaller and more expensive every single day?

In this age of Skype and email, high speed trains and flexible working hours, a time when we are all squeezing ourselves into smaller and smaller spaces within the South East, why as publishers, for the most part, are we not looking further afield?

Sassy Sheffield

Sassy Sheffield

There are approximately 64m people living in the UK, reports say, approximately 8.6m of which are within London, less than half a million reside in Edinburgh and about a fifth of that number live in Oxford. There are approximately 9m people living within the publishing epicentres themselves and the rest of the UK is made up of a further 55m people. I can’t help but feel that with more and more students opting to stay in their university town or city and more still moving back home with their families I would say that now, more than ever, there are vast numbers of hugely creative, well-educated and forward-thinking individuals living outside the bounds of the industries who would so greatly benefit from hiring them.

Cities and towns nationwide are developing, expanding and looking to their future. They are industrialising once again and publishers need to be at the forefront of that happening in order to better reach their readers.

Melodic Manchester

Melodic Manchester

I could probably go on with this for hours, linking research and figures and a lot more opinions but I will finish with pointing out that there are numerous wonderful publishing houses already working outside the traditional publishing epicentres of London, Edinburgh and Oxford and I have the greatest respect for them. They took a model and flipped it around and are doing it well. Some great publishers out there in the wilds include;

  • Myrmidon Books in Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Comma Press in Manchester
  • Salt Publishing in Norfolk

(All photos copyright free from Flickr)

The Benefits of an Arts Education

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Art. It is everywhere. It is treasured, it provokes thought, it has the potential to allow each of us to express our innermost feelings, sometimes it disgusts, but overall it is considered to be one of the key factors within a functional society

This is something that I have been considering for quite some time and it has been exacerbated more in recent months.

Having studied art in the past, and more recently an MA in Publishing, I have on many occasions felt the negativity aimed towards those studying or having studied art from those who have studied practically any other subject.

Years ago I read an article (that for the life of me I cannot now find) that clearly pointed out the benefits of an employee with an arts education for employers in all industries. As I haven’t been able to find the aforementioned article I thought I would take it upon myself to lay out all the reasons and skills that I personally believe those with an art education make great employees and why their choosing to study art can be a huge benefit within any industry. Believe me or not but based on my experience this is what I have found.

Artists have to use core employment skills right from the very start (not just in their final year).

In making art you most often spend a lot of time working independently and there are still deadlines and expectations as in the more academic fields. Artists ‘bumming off’ happens probably about as much as it does in any subject, perhaps less. These are usually people so passionate about their subject and art that they spend all the time they possibly can working on it. They have to learn early on to manage their own time, work to a tight budget (those student loans only go so far and art supplies are incredibly expensive), present their work to a large group of peers, take constructive criticism, project manage and keep records of practically every move they make (at least artistically) to then be dissected by tutors. They work independently and collaboratively and probably started being self employed long before they graduated. They design, communicate and market themselves at every turn. They work for clients, have been clients and have probably more experience in contracts because of this than many within academic subjects. The arts draws in a range of different people with a range of different interests and a range of different skills but an arts education definitely gives you the following:

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1. Effective communication and presentation skills (It’s not all visual you know)

Essays and dissertations are par of the course when you study anything at university level it seems. Just because we paint, draw, photograph or whatever, doesn’t mean we haven’t had to write thousands of words, compile a seemingly endless bibliography and create at least one academic piece of writing to wow our tutors. We can also use our words. Communication and presenting your work, pitching it even, on a regular basis is a large part of an arts education.

2. Facing and accepting constructive criticism.

I’ve mentioned it already but in the arts you are regularly expected to share your work with peers and tutors and face the criticisms that come your way. You are then expected to go away, reflect and react accordingly. Maybe this is similar in more academic subjects, it has been key in my MA, but what I have faced in that time will never compare with showing your art (some may say your soul) to others and hearing that it is “rubbish”, “brilliant”, “needs more work”, etc. This prepared me beyond belief for what I faced in the working world after education.

3. IT skills

Yes we live in the digital age and now it feels like everybody knows how to use computers and a range of programs extremely well. I will probably never have the computer skills that my eleven year old goddaughter will have but throughout my BA we were expected to learn so many computer skills that I find it hard to believe those in more academic subjects had to learn. Adobe Photoshop – check, InDesign – check, Illustrator – check, Dreamweaver – check, Microsoft Word – check, Excel – check, HTML – check … and that was whilst studying photography. My illustrator and video friends were skilled in using so many other programs I cannot tell you.

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4. Project management and teamwork

Have you funded, organised and run an exhibition of over 30 individuals who are all producing artworks of completely different size, media and let’s face it, with artists varying in levels of ego? Well this is all par of the course within the arts in the form of the ever-important final degree show and probably even before. More importantly these shows could be your big break so they have to be done to a professional standard befitting the audience you wish to be visiting. Though artists may be seen as insular creatures this is the time, if not before, when great teamwork comes into play. The whole show is dependent on the team working together effectively and regardless of any qualms.

5. Brand management and business management

You are defined by your brand and in the arts this could mean the difference between no work and no money to work and enough money to live on so nowadays you are trained in self-branding when studying the arts … whether you want to or not. Artists are all over social media, have often built their own website from scratch and are networking with the best of them. The same goes for business management. As an artist it is entirely possible you will be self employed down the line so yes, learning about taxes, contracts, copyright law and still managing to market yourself AND produce the works they’re being paid for. Can you say multi-tasking?!

6. Passion

Though not a skill, I think it’s worth pointing out that artists tend to be extremely passionate. If they are passionate about your company, your ethos or just the work that they are doing for you I think you have one very important factor covered. With passion comes loyalty, hard work and quite often a quality of work most befitting to the job in hand.

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7. Research

Art students don’t just have to produce a piece of work and that’s it. They have to back up their final works with research too. Research into techniques, artists with similar style or the general feel they wish to achieve through their own work, evidence of trial and error, the list can go on. In my case I once researched everything I could about electromagnetic cameras, including schematics, every failure I made in building one, all the various options for parts required, the history of such a concept, how they had been used in the past and the various ways in which they might be used by myself for my art. Research is a large part of any art, whether you consider it traditional research or not.

8. Professional development 

It seems to me that most artists are not comfortable with staying still; they are always experimenting, learning new skills and attempting to push further. This is a trait I would consider integral in any employee, no matter the industry, no matter the skill to be honest. Maybe i’m wrong overall but in the case of myself and those who I studied with I know this to be true. It was never enough to learn a skill and stick to that only, the real fun was in learning new skills, new systems, new ways to do things, whether it be coding, new software, new technologies, old technologies or even crafting artisan perfumes (I sometimes think I saw it all). This is something that has benefited me greatly in my working life and my personal life. I am endlessly curious about everything and learning whatever I can and I watch my university friends, now scattered across a range of industries and each of them has learned skills I doubt even they imagined they would go on to learn.

Crowdfunding, Superfans and the ‘Power of Free’

I thought i’d share a little blog post I wrote a few months ago that originally featured on the Kingston Publishing blog. This was something I wrote for my course but something that has been on my mind a lot over the years…

Social lending has been around for centuries – from the patronage of Renaissance painters, Charles Dickens, or Shakespeare – though it never caused the stir of worry to creative industries that it does today.

Of course, it’s understandable, the internet has taken the whole thing global; everyone has the power and means to ensure the development of projects they love. In return, they receive a token relative to their investment and if full funding isn’t achieved, well, you can just invest that money into another project. This is fantastic! This should be utilised by all industries as a tool, not feared or worse, ignored!

There are so many crowdfunding sites out there, best known perhaps is Kickstarter, but with publishing specific sites like Unbound and Wattpad too, creative industries should really be taking more time to utilise them. In 2014 there were 2,064 successfully funded publishing projects via Kickstarter, albeit with the relatively humble turnover of $21.8m. This is their third most funded category after Music (4,009) and Film and Video (3,846), which just goes to show that even with all the free content available people really are still willing to pay for their entertainment.

2013 saw two traditional publisher’s harnessing the power of crowdfunding – Britain’s own Canongate and USA’s McSweeney’s – in completely different ways. Canongate opened their own channel via Unbound, offering special and limited editions of some of their titles, most notably so far is Letters of Note by Shaun Usher. McSweeney’s, in a completely different turn, utilised Kickstarter to celebrate their 15th birthday with the goal to gain funding of the rather humble $15. In a sense they launched the most successful campaign ever – reaching 204,166% of its goal. Though a rather nonsensical campaign, it showed the power of the superfan and more still, that people will pay for what they believe is deserving of their hard earned cash.

Books like The Curve: From Freeloaders to Superfans by Nicholas Lovell and The Giftby Lewis Hyde have frequently been quoted, shared, and promoted (most recently at Kingston University by Faber’s own Stephen Page) within the publishing industry in the hopes that we can gain some insight into how to keep up with the times, develop our business models and embrace the many ways in which content is and could be distributed in the future. Further reading I would advise would be The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer, famed amongst her superfans, not least for her music, but more globally for her staggering $1,192,793 Kickstarter campaign and subsequently her Ted talk. Why this book? Apart from being a beautiful read it is a personal account from the artist, outlining not only how she built up relationships with her fans and how integral the trust between the buyer and the distributer is; this book relates as a participator, not just an observer, how every one of us should be utilising the changes that surround us to sell our work – be that artist, musician, author or indeed publisher.

Full Kickstarter data for 2014 can be found here.
A glimpse at how giving away books in 2008 lead HarperCollins to increased sales here
Watch Amanda Palmer here