An independent bookstore owner explains why shops like his are a magical part of childhood
Twice winner of the Bookseller Industry Award for the Independent Bookshop of the Year, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, Somerset, is almost as much a reason to visit that famous city as the Roman Baths themselves. Invitingly laid out with cozy reading chairs and peaceful cream and taupe decor, it is the ultimate mind spa, and the source of many of my favourite picture books.
Founder, Nic Bottomley, opened Mr. B’s after working for eight years as a derivatives lawyer at magic circle firm, Allen & Overy. So I was eager for his take, as a businessman, bibliophile, and father of three, on the contemporary children’s book market, how authors can partner effectively with independent booksellers and why parents should take their children to bookshops.
Mr. B is offering a 5% discount to Mums Write! readers for books in Mr. B’s Christmas catalogue. (Catalogue books are already discounted by 10%.) To use this offer, contact Mr B’s by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 01225 331155 with your order, citing Mums Write Promotion.
Your bookstore has always felt to me like as much an experience as a place to make a purchase — i.e., a place to explore wonderful reading possibilities in a beautiful setting. How do you enrich that experience for the picture book sector?
We’re very much of the belief that if people are spending time in our shop, it’s a good thing. It doesn’t really matter if they are buying books that day. So like the whole shop, the kids section is set up so that you’ll enjoy spending time there. There’s a giant claw foot bath, and you can rip the taps off. My childhood reading chair is in the corner.
And we want to do more. American children’s writer, James Patterson, has donated half a million pounds in grants to bookstores who want to boost children’s writing and literacy, and we’ve got a very generous grant to put in a big seat where a parent and a kid can sit together and “try on” a book and hopefully, a striking chair that will double as a book display. We’ve also hosted story times for preschoolers. And most importantly, we spend time recommending books, that hand-selling thing. As I’m talking to you, I can hear the floorboards creaking in the children’s section upstairs, with people browsing away and having books recommended.
If there’s a kid in the shop, I’ll say, “What do you like? And if he says, “dogs,” I’ll find something he’s going to love, and I’ll read him a few pages. It’s nice if they go home with a sackful of books but it doesn’t have to happen every time. I want them to come away with a book that they’re really going to love. Apart from the lovely altruistic element that you’ve helped a kid enjoy reading, that’s very important because then, you’ve got a customer for life.
Since launching Mr. B’s, you have become a father to six-year-old Leah, and three-year-old twins, Aidan and Jessica. How has parenthood affected your bookstore’s approach to selling picture books?
It’s had a huge effect. Nine years ago, when we set up the shop, I was far away from children’s books. We recognized what looked like a good children’s book, and had a pretty good selection, but until you read them repeatedly with a child at your side, you’re either being nostalgic or looking at them through an adult eye.
There are a lot of children’s books out there with brilliant illustrations, but they are written for adults. That doesn’t mean there isn’t merit but it’s a different target market. I don’t want to be recommending a beautiful graphically designed book as the ideal book to read to a three-year-old if he is going to be bored by it. Now I’ve read hundreds of picture books and I’ve tried all the ones I had when I was kid, and all the ones I missed out, and all the new ones as well. That definitely shapes the section.
What are your tips for parents seeking quality books with strong re-read potential?
It varies. If you’re choosing for a one-year-old or an 18-month-old, it’s so important to have something that has a rhythm of language that you can sing along with, for example, The Giant Jam Sandwich, by John Vernon Lord, a 1980s classic that we still sell vast numbers of.
Also, the Hairy Maclary books by Lynley Dodd – Hairy Maclary and Zachary Quack in particular. There’s a line in there — “Pittery pattery, skittery scattery, ZIP round the corner came Zachary Quack.” I remember reading it to an eight-month-old and you could see his eyes pop open at the sound of the language even before he understood the words.
When kids are older, a lot of it comes down to their sense of humour, though not all books have to be funny. Children’s picture books cover a huge gamut of emotions and styles. Once you’ve found one that works for your kid, go to a bookshop and ask for others like it.
…And why should parents take their children to bookshops?
A kid who comes into our shop gets to hang out with a bunch of adult geeks who wear their hearts on their sleeves about loving books. In a digital age, they get to see that adults are excited about these oversized things with words, and that inspires them. When you’re in the phase of life when your child thinks you’re king of the world — it lasts maybe until they’re eight or nine, if you’re lucky — they watch what you do. Taking them to a bookshop, and getting excited about it is the best way to get a child to think, “Wow! I may be able to get a lot of pleasure from reading.” You don’t get that from browsing online. And you don’t get that from going into less personal shops. It’s that personal connection, and the personal recommendation, to get the right book because of that personal connection.
We have one customer who lives up the road. She’s nine, and Mr B’s is the one place she’s allowed to go without her parents. She wrote us this incredible letter saying that just hanging out with us and talking to us and buying from us had made her into a better reader. That’s the best correspondence any of us have received in our book lives.
How would you describe the contemporary picture book market?
I think it’s vibrant, really vibrant. There are great small publishers doing really interesting things in the UK and US. A lot of good stuff is being translated, and a lot of classic stuff is being re-published and given another chance. That’s a trend that started in the adult picture book market and has caught on with picture books.
Maybe it would be interesting, though, if we had a couple more new heavy weight children’s picture books writers, so that there would be a lot of excitement when their books came out.
We’ve had Oliver Jeffers and Julia Donaldson. I’m wondering who’s coming next. There are authors who deserve it, like Helen Stephens (How to Hide a Lion). But the publishers need to smell the possibility. Once you’ve got the big names, it opens the market for everyone else who wants a go, as we saw with JK Rowling.
Any interesting trends?
Let’s think about that. I think there is a move away from gender stereotypes. Punchy heroes for girls is a big opportunity, and we could use more. We’re seeing them appear in graphic novels and comic books, like the Hilda books by Luke Pearson, such as Hilda and the Midnight Giant. Hilda is a brilliant kid who lives among the Norse trolls. The books are based on old Norse myths.
Then there’s Zita the Space Girl by Ben Hatke. What a brilliant role model: A girl who finds a button and presses it and it takes her into a space world where she teams up with underdogs to find a way back home. These kinds of heroines, we need more of them — even a bit younger. It would be great to have picture books for younger girls that aren’t so … pink.
Have e-books had an impact on the children’s book market?
Low impact, I’d say. In the industry as a whole, we’re seeing a settling down of e-book sales. Poetry, children’s books and coffee table photography books are where e-books have the least penetration. I have yet to see anything terribly worrying that suggests that parents have any appetite for reading a kid at age two a book on a Kindle.
What advice would you offer to authors trying to break into the picture book market?
I’m not involved in publishing, but I can talk about the next phase – How to get your book out there.
The big challenge is to not let the book get lost in the sea of books out there. You’ve got to work hard at getting people inside bookshops to champion it. Authors have to play a part in that because publicity departments in publishing houses are overstretched.
There are fewer independent shops then there were, but the ones that are out there are better than they ever were, and Waterstones is a lot better than it was two to three years ago. Those bookshops are capable of championing books. They can get them into schools.
Bookshops are very receptive. Not every book will work for every shop, so what you want to figure out is why you think your book will work in a particular shop, If your book has been bought by a mainstream publisher, you can identify the type of book shop that will sell it. If you’re walking into bookshops and you’re not seeing your book in shops where it should be doing well, ask — Could I send you a copy? I will look at it, and I will rectify the situation, because it takes me no time and not very much money to order one copy for the following day and see if it sells.
What other advice would you give to aspiring writers seeking to write marketable books?
My main piece of advice, if you’re starting from scratch, would be to read, first. Go to a bookshop and say, “What are the 10 most interesting children’s books you’ve got? Then go to another bookshop, and go online and find the best selling picture books in your genre. Read them, and try to work out what works about them. You have to be aware of what’s working. If your book is nothing like any of those books, you have to have real conviction in what you are doing, and understand the market.
…So what are your top ten picture book author and book recommendations?
Andrea Beaty Iggy Peck, Architect, and Rosie Revere, Engineer
Peter Bently, Those Magnificent Sheep In Their Flying Machine
Benjy Davies, The Storm Whale
John Fardell, The Day Louis got Eaten
Kes Grey & Jim Field, Oi Frog!
David Litchfield, The Bear and the Piano
Gary Northfield, The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs!
Linda Sarah, On Sudden Hill
Jamie Smart, Bunny vs. Monkey (two volumes)
Briony May Smith, Imelda and the Goblin King
Olivier Tallec, Who Done It?