‘Ethical’ Book-buying

I’ve been away for quite a while. I won’t bore you with the details but basically there’s been a whole lot going on, both personally and in the world, and not enough time or headspace for everything. But today I felt a little inspired and so decided to ignore the washing up and write instead.

This sunny Sunday morning I had the strongest urge to go be immersed in a lovely (fairly local) independent bookshop I know – The Chiswick Bookshop. I rarely get enough time to go out of my way and visit nowadays but when it opened last year I was so excited. Another indie publisher was taking the leap and opening a physical bookshop and this has been an obsession of mine…well forever.

bookshop

If you love books half as much as I do, you can imagine it was heart-breaking to arrive and see some of my most dreaded posters in the window; “We’re closing. Everything half price”. Needless to say, I went inside, pottered around, looked at every book and item on the shelves and felt genuine grief whilst listening to the staff explaining to the mass of customers that they had to close due to the high rent – the terrible epidemic across our high streets. I bought books and shared my apologies with the staff as the only gestures of solidarity I felt I could make. After all, book people are my tribe, and as book people we stick together anyway we can.

As I walked up the high road I got to thinking – about books, bookshops, publishers, about all the empty shops I passed and all the big chain restaurants, stores and bad coffee shops that surrounded me and I settled on something. I realised  my own personal sense of ‘ethical’ shopping, particularly shopping for books. This isn’t going to change anything really, it won’t force landlords to bring down rents so that we can continue to have the pleasure of independent shops, it won’t necessarily stop any businesses from going under, it won’t change the world that is for sure. But when I do shop, these small principles drive how I do it and I hadn’t realised before that they were even in my head.

  1. If I see a book I want (and can afford at the time) in a physical bookshop, I buy it.
    I’m in the bookshop browsing, using their resources and time, benefitting from their curation and expertise. The least I can do is buy the book I see and want in that environment from the people who allowed me to.

    rrp

  2. I try very hard not to take my phone out in a bookshop (but if I do, I will buy a book from the shop).
    Remember Bernerd Black’s rule – “No phones”? I got it then and I get it now. Perhaps it’s because I have worked in retail and have seen ‘show-housing’ from the business side but to me if you get your phone out in a shop it tends to look like your looking the product up online (perhaps an unfair generalisation but I have known people to do it…ALOT…with no reservation or embarrassment) or actually BUYING the book online where you stand! This is without a doubt the worst thing a customer can do in my mind other than spitting in your face (and I’ve had a few customers sneeze and cough in my face over the years) so just do me a favour and stop visiting shops if this is you!

    There is rarely a time you need to look at your phone in a shop, particularly a bookshop, books aren’t the sort of thing you can buy whilst staring at a screen. But fair enough you might get a call or text that you “absolutely must take” – you don’t have to take it in the shop though. So my rule is, don’t look at your phone, focus on what you’re buying and if you do ‘trip up’ then buy a book. You’ll soon spend less time looking at your phone in shops (it can get expensive)!

    mobilefirst_5

  3. For every book bought on Amazon or as an ebook, buy a book in a physical bookshop too.
    I’m not going to lie – I buy on Amazon occasionally and I have a Kindle (funnily enough I had avoided this like the plague until being surrounded by publishers who owned them, who asked if I had one “as it will make some of the work easier”). Actually, it’s rare I buy a physical book from Amazon (I don’t live so very far from several indie bookshops) – if I fancy an instantaneous read (usually late at night) then I buy an ebook. It happens. I have learned to limit my guilt by making sure for every book I buy in this way, I buy a book in a physical bookshop for balance soon after. It makes me feel better, it means I don’t get too lazy, I get to enjoy pretty books in their natural habitat and later implant them into my natural habitat – I feel it’s a win win situation.

    bookshoppaint

  4. I never argue about the price of a book (even an ebook).
    I never argue, I may decide not to buy, but I don’t go searching it out cheaper elsewhere. Books have a value – it should never come down to who is selling it cheaper (at least not for me). If I won’t pay what is being charged for it then do I really want it? Do I really need it? Probably not. If I want a book enough then I have no qualms paying full price for it or taking advantage if it so happens to be discounted when I do see it. Personally there are some books which, once read, I will say are worth far more than their cover price because of the enjoyment I got out of them or vice versa. The one thing I can say for sure is that a book must surely be worth more than the price of that coffee in town!

There you go – four points – as I said they won’t change the world but I feel better for acknowledging that they live in my brain, guiding my book shopping habits and I feel quite ok with telling you about them.

If you happen to be in Chiswick over the next three days, pop into The Chiswick Bookshop – show them some solidarity, either through a sale or your words. As I said earlier, we  book people need to stick together.

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The Chiswick Bookshop

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After a number of years watching independent bookshop numbers decline in the UK we are finally starting to see a number of new independent bookshops opening their doors, from Rogan’s Books in Bedford to the unnamed bookshop/venue aimed at millennials to open on Brick Lane. Though I consider any new bookshops opening to be a treat and a overall a good sign I have a favourite newby – one that just happens to be on my doorstop. This is The Chiswick Bookshop on Turnham Green Terrace. Don’t get me wrong, the surrounding area has a number of wonderful bookshops, and I feel insanely lucky to live so close to Richmond and Chiswick, where I believe I can now count at least seven amazing independent bookshops within easy reach but as newcomers go I have a real soft spot for The Chiswick Bookshop.

The Chiswick Bookshop comes to us from publisher Hyde Park Editions and is run by the publisher’s sales manager, Emily Crane. One of the most beautiful shops on the road, it offers a range of beautiful books as well as gifts and offers that tranquil atmosphere I remember from bookshops from my youth. From the moment you walk through those doors there is no pressure, you are free to browse and enjoy the many books on display as well as have a friendly chat with Emily behind the counter.

What I love most perhaps is that this is another book shop coming from a publisher (and in fact Hyde Park Editions is based in the back office). This is by no means a new idea, there are in fact many out there who do it, including; Daunt Books, Persephone Books (both in London) and Shakespeare and Company (in Paris) to name a few. Years ago this was in fact pretty standard practice for many publishing houses but it has fallen away over the years, yet this is a business model within bookselling that I have been determined for some time will continue to expand. As they say you have to “look to the past to see the future” and it in this instance that I believe the publishing industry should sit up and listen. After all, this is one sure fire way in which you can learn what your customers and potential customers most desire. Booksellers are at the frontline of the bookselling process. Many have given the opinion that publishers should offer stronger support to independent booksellers but I am of a slightly differing opinion, that they should be joining forces.

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I hope very much that this is a trend that we continue to see in the bookselling world and one that I hope will thrive for those who have already stepped forward. There are many other adjustments that I believe it is necessary to make to the standard bookselling business model but this, in my opinion, seems the logical first step and one of the strongest possibilities out there. It is a step I would make in a heartbeat and maybe one that I will have the opportunity to take for myself…

Follow The Chiswick Bookshop on Twitter and show them some support @chiswickbooks

Publishing With XML: Structure, Enter, Publish by Bernard Prost

Publishing With XML

Publishing With XML: Structure, Enter, Publish

We live in the digital age, even us publishers who still hold a love and respect for the physical book, and that being said I doubt there are many publishers out there fighting against the implementation of XML. XML is said to ‘future proof’ us in the publishing industry. It does this by allowing us to ensure our content is ready to be transformed into whatever medium we may so wish to produce it into.

With this in mind I have been studying XML and HTML to a further degree than my previous experience and I happened upon this book by Bernard Prost (recently translated to English from the original French edition) entitled Publishing With XML: Structure, Enter, Publish. Unlike much of the information out there on the internet, this book directly relates XML to the world of publishing and I would highly recommend it for those wishing to understand both the potential and the deeper workings of XML within the publishing industry. It seems to me a great book for beginners and the more advanced alike as Prost clearly lays out even ideal work flows for those incorporating XML into their process.

Translated from French, there are instances in which the expression of the content doesn’t seem to flow at it’s best. There are also some issues in reading the information boxes that are scattered throughout the book (an issue that I’m sure anyone who has read a textbook on their phone or e-reader has come across before) that makes me cry out for a physical copy of this book. However, you are warned at the outset that the book is optimised for larger screens so I accepted that it was my own fault for attempting to read between my phone and Kindle Paperwhite. As it is I can only find the English version on Kindle and it costs £6.49. If, however, you can read French rather well I would urge you to pick up the physical copy entitled XML Pour L’Edition: Structurer, Saisir, Publier (which currently sells in paperback for about £17.93 on Amazon at the moment. The French Kindle edition also sells for £19.99 on Amazon ).

My key advice – take it slowly. The information starts out slowly and easy to understand but if you are a speedy reader as I am you can suddenly find yourself quite lost of all understanding. This being said, I went back and re-read those pages I raced through and the information really did make more sense than my initial scan.

Chapters in this book:

  • Separating content from format
  • The main structural components
  • Writing/Designing a DTD
  • Entering XML
  • Preparing and managing XML mark-up
  • Proofing your XML
  • Transforming the XML with XSLT
  • Publishing for electronic media
  • Publishing for paper

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)

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