Friday, 20 November 2009

Small but Mighty

I'm here to talk about being small but mighty, specifically in the book trade. Rather than, say, Persil, which is apparently small but mighty but in an area I know very little about. If you're not already familiar with the small but mighty force of The Big Green Bookshop, shame on you. Find out about them here: First, a little background about how I got involved with The Big Green Bookshop in a friend/supporter kind of capacity.

Two years ago I left my hometown of Swansea, where I was a Children's Bookseller at Waterstone's, to take up the post of Publicity Assistant at Little Tiger Press and Stripes Publishing. One day, I was perusing The Bookseller website, when I came across a guest blog by Simon Key (co-owner of the BGB). I believe they were at the stage where they were waiting for various bits of paper to be passed around before they could get their hands on the keys, but I forget as I was so intrigued that I hopped straight over to this blog: to find out more. I was more than impressed by what Simon and his partner in crime Tim West were doing and the exposure they were getting, so I immediately offered my services in whatever way I could.

When I told my friends I was going to help some people I had never met get ready to open a bookshop, I think they thought I was a bit mad, but they weren't particularly surprised. They'd written me off as bookshop obsessed long ago. A word about people who've worked for Waterstone's. Any two people who've worked for the big W will ALWAYS have something to talk about. So, surrounded by current and ex-Waterstoners, I knew I was amongst friends. Ever since this day, spent making green bunting (which still adorns the shop) and putting books on shelves, I have been hooked on the world of all things BIG and GREEN, because they are, yes, SMALL and MIGHTY. They prove that size should be no obstacle to success, and they aren't afraid to think big. Regular readers of Simon's blog will know that they were listed as one of The Bookseller's top ten independent bookshops, before they'd even opened their doors and they won a Haringey Business Award in their first year. Most importantly, they are probably the most innovative and forward-thinking bookshop I have ever come across, and I spend A LOT of time in bookshops all over the country. The entrepreneurial skills these boys demonstrate are just incredible. They are in constant dialogue with their customers and the trade about how they can improve and function more effectively as a business. They may be a small business, but this doesn't stop them from thinking BIG and more importantly, CREATIVELY.

The company I work for started out in a similar way. Little Tiger Press actually began as two brothers and an uncle selling a book (written by the brothers' mum) out of the back of a van. Over the past twenty-two years, this has grown to a work force of fifty, working across three imprints: Little Tiger Press, Stripes Publishing and Caterpillar Books. This year alone, Little Tiger Press has won the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal (the most prestigious award in the UK for children's book illustration) and published two of the thirteen titles selected for CITVs Bookaboo. This month it was announced that two of the nine books shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award were published by Stripes, a feat matched only by Macmillan Children's Books. All this goes to show that though small, we too can prove ourselves to be worthy opponents for the bigger publishing houses.

This month The Big Green Bookshop announced that they would be twinned with Gallic Books. This kind of original thinking is what sets them apart and makes them a force to be reckoned with within the industry.

I hope all this doesn't come across as a big gloat, that is not the spirit in which it is intended. I hope it is inspiring. I hope it gives people hope for the future of independent bookshops and publishers. I think it's good to celebrate success when so often people only comment on the downside of the industry. More than anything else, I hope it awakens the entrepreneurial side in others. I'm not sure I could do what my directors and friends have done, and at my age I wouldn't rule out ever working for one of the big houses, I'll try anything once. But I will never lose my sense of admiration and respect for smaller businesses that strive for mighty results!

The now infamous bunting outside the mighty Big Green Bookshop.

Gleeful co-owners Tim West (left) and Simon Key. 
Both now have considerably longer hair.

Stripey author Martin Chatterton does Big Green Wednesday.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

And . . . breathe . . .

Well, my poor little blog has been woefully neglected over the past month or so, but I literally haven't had time to think, never mind organise my thoughts into some kind of vaguely comprehensible narrative. It's ironic that when I have the most interesting news to report, I don't actually have any time to blog! So, where did it all go crazy?

It all kicked off at the beginning of October with the arrival of Children's Book Week. We had two authors out and about during this week, Guy Bass and Harriet Goodwin, but more about them in a little while. I was actually in the office that week ensuring all the preparations were in place for the Dirty Bertie Tour. There are so many things to think about before embarking on a tour and as much as you try to ensure that all will run smoothly, you have to rely on a lot of other people (booksellers, teachers, librarians, parents) to get things right too. It can be hard to remember that they've got plenty of stuff going on too and whilst your priority is the tour, it's not necessarily theirs. So I basically spent that week doing as much as I could to be prepared for any eventuality but, at the end of it, all I could do was get on the train to Liverpool and cross my fingers!

My big coup prior to the commencement of the tour itself was getting David Roberts a slot on the Billy Butler show on BBC Radio Merseyside. David (who is originally from Liverpool) has been listening to Billy's show since he was a nipper. He seems to remember Billy doing a birthday shout out for him when he was about eight years old. When he was living in Hong Kong in his early twenties, David's parents used to send him tapes of Billy's shows and just hearing the familiar Liverpudlian accent would transport him home. I am reliably informed (by David's dad) that Billy's accent is a proper old school Liverpudlian accent, "more Beatles, than Brookie." We had a fantastic time in Liverpool as we got to spend some time with David's extended family, who are incredibly warm and welcoming. In fact I'm always impressed by the warmth of the people of Liverpool. Even in shops and hospitality you get a totally different experience to the coldness of much you encounter in London.

Reading from the Dirty Bertie picture book at Borders in Speke

From Liverpool, we headed to Leeds. I can't speak highly enough of the team at Leeds Libraries. It was a brilliantly well organised event and the kids were lovely. One school was so patient and well behaved (David signed autographs for every child, and there were about 200 of them!) that I was compelled to praise them to their teachers. It wasn't just that they were well behaved, they were just really nice kids. I was chatting to them while they were queueing and you could have a perfectly mature conversation with them. Lovely.

We then headed on to Preston, where once again we were terribly well looked after by the Children's Libraries team. David gave a presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Lancashire Children's Book Group. There was such a lot of passion and enthusiasm for kids' books there, I really hope the group will go from strength-to-strength.

Wednesday night we got to sleep in our own beds - bliss! But on Thursday morning it was back on the road. We had to nip over to Tiger Towers in Fulham to pick up the Bertiemobile and then whiz down the M4 to Bristol where we picked up a pair of lovely Bookseller's from Waterstone's in Cribbs Causeway and headed off to a local primary school where we participated in a fire drill, before getting down to the business of drawing Bertie. Then it was back on the M4 to SWANSEA!!!

My Bertie
I don't think David Roberts has too much to worry about . . .

Oh, it was good to be back on the right side of the Severn (I'm from Swansea, you see) and we had a lovely tea with my mum, brother and sister, who were all charmed by the lovely David Roberts. The following day we spent the morning at Swansea Central Library and the afternoon at my old school, Terrace Road Primary, awwww!

Swansea Central Library

Last, but my no means least, we headed up to Cheltenham for their tremendous literary festival. It was a full day and I had four consecutive events to juggle with David appearing twice, the lovely Caroline Juskus leading a puzzling workshop for Minnie Piper fans and Steve Smallman warming all our hearts with his lovely bear stories.

Caroline Juskus and a Pair of Puzzlers

By the end of the day I was starting to feel a bit peaky. Disaster! I still had to drive back to London and in a couple of days set out on the road once more with the irrepressible Guy Bass.

To be continued . . .