Bookselling and publishing

A Q & A with Nick Clee, the founder and editor of Bookbrunch

More than most industries, publishing and bookselling depend on the oxygen of publicity for survival. They rely on the support of friendly journalists who present them faithfully and without exaggeration or malice. The industry is lucky to be represented by Nick Clee, a distinguished news publisher who understands it inside out. Here, he kindly responds to my questions.

Q: Before you founded BookBrunch, you were the editor of The Bookseller, so you moved from a very established old-school type of publishing to something much more dynamic – and perhaps, nowadays, more resilient. Did you set out to do this? What was your rationale when you first set up BookBrunch?  Has it evolved in the way you thought it would?

A: I left The Bookseller in 2004, and went freelance – in those days, still just about a feasible pursuit. In addition to journalism, I wrote a couple of books. I had delivered the second of them when Liz Thomson, editor of the recently defunct Publishing News, phoned me to ask whether I’d join her in a new, online venture, which had private backing. It wasn’t exactly what I had planned, but I had a space in my schedule and hated to turn down jobs. We had no coherent mission statement for BookBrunch: we simply intended to provide a news service, selling it on our long experience of the trade.

Q: Did you get a lot of support from the industry in the early days?

A: In the internet era, you can get known fast, particularly in a trade such as the book industry. People signed up enthusiastically.

Q: Are you a journalist by profession? Has your whole career been spent in journalism? Is there a reason why you have focused your efforts on publishing industry news for so many years?

A: I fell into it. I got a job as maternity cover at The Bookseller; twenty years later, I was still there. I’ve been very lucky.

Q: How do you gather information for BookBrunch?  Do prospects mainly come to you with items they want you to publish or is it the other way round? Do you have ‘roving reporters’ to cover events etc?

A: I have to admit that most of our stories arrive on a plate, by email. (By the way, I’m now joint editor with Neill Denny, another ex-Bookseller editor. I work two days a week and he covers the other three; Lucy Nathan is reporter; and Julie Vuong contributes twice-monthly interviews or features.) We try, on our limited resources, to get out to conferences, launches and so on. Occasionally, we commission features – but the budget is limited. 

Q: What is the business model? How do you get paid?

A: We carry some paid advertising, but get almost all our income from subscriptions. Our salaries are very modest.

Q: What kinds of support are you able to provide for authors?

A: We have discounts for freelancers and for Society of Authors members. Not all authors are interested in trade news, but some are.

Q: How did you survive during the pandemic? Were you forced to change the way you operate? If so, are you more or less back to normal now?

A: The pandemic was/is an awful thing, but looked at only in commercial terms it turned out to be not unfavourable for our business. Subscriptions went up. It hit networking on the head and is still doing so, in my case – I remain cautious.

Q: Gazing into your crystal ball, what do you think the publishing industry will look like in five years’ time?

A: I’m not qualified to talk about the academic publishing world. In general books, we appear to have reached a relatively stable balance of digital and print formats. If further disruption is imminent, neither I nor anyone else can foresee what will cause it. The pandemic confirmed to us – because it hastened them – things that were already apparent; among them were the decline of the High Street, an alarming trend for publishers as well as retailers.

Q: Do you enjoy reading? If so, what kinds of books do you like?  Do you have a favourite author? Do you have other hobbies?

A: I read a lot of crime fiction, ranging from American noir to police procedurals to psychological thrillers. A favourite recent example is Simon Mason’s A Killing in November. In literary fiction, I go for writers who are interested in the domestic: Katherine Heiny has been a delightful discovery this year. My favourite author is John Updike.

I play tennis, and follow sport. I’ve been lucky enough to make horseracing my work as well as a hobby: my second book was a racing history and I’m writing another racing book at the moment.

The gold of reader loyalty

Val Poore

Were I to say that readers are not unimportant to writers, I’d be providing you with an extreme example of litotes. Readers are an author’s lifeblood. If a novel has no readers, it barely deserves to be called a book, just as a portrait kept forever in the dark is scarcely a picture. I feel blessed that as a crime writer I have been ‘discovered’ by some loyal readers who have subsequently read and reviewed all my books. No one has been more staunchly supportive of my work or sympathised more with what I have set out to achieve than Valerie Poore. Recent posts of mine have featured Fraser Massey, a fledgeling crime writer and Mickey J Corrigan and Sarah Stephens, two established writers whom I’ve never met in person.  Similarly, I have never met Valerie (a couple of times, on my way through Holland, I tried to visit her on her vintage Dutch barge in the Oude Haven in Rotterdam there are two links here – but, sadly, on those occasions she was not there). I know she supports other authors as well as myself. I have asked her to write a short post on why she is so generous with her support for others – and how she finds the time to do it!

For several consecutive years, I’ve looked forward eagerly to each of Christina James’ nine crime novels. If I remember correctly, In the Family, her first DI Yates book, was also the first crime fiction I’d ever read from a novelist who wasn’t already widely known in the genre. I was a detective novel fan of old and had read most of the big name authors: PD James, Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, to name just a few. But at some point, I found the plots becoming ever more harrowing and disturbing – so much so that I stopped reading crime fiction for quite some time.

As a result, I was somewhat hesitant to start down the detective novel path again, but after meeting Christina James on Twitter and enjoying our interaction, I decided to give In the Family a try. To my delight, the book ticked all my mystery-solving boxes and I can say with some conviction that Christina gave me back my taste for crime (so to speak). It was an extra benefit that having ‘met’ her on Twitter, I could also continue to interact with her and support her writing on social media.

Since then, I’ve added several other, mostly independent, authors to my list of favourite crime fiction writers, nearly all of whom I’ve discovered through Twitter and book bloggers. And even though I’m not a crime writer, it’s still the fiction genre I read the most, so I love being able to support their books as a reader, reviewer and tweeter.

So when Christina asked what motivated me to help other authors through social media support, the answer came easily: it’s because I was an avid reader long before I became an author myself. Without exaggeration, I can say I’ve loved immersing myself in books my entire life and nothing gives me more pleasure than reading. I also appreciate others’ excellence in writing, so if I read an author whose prose, dialogue, plot development or even turn of phrase I admire, I instinctively want to tell the world about them and share my enthusiasm.

As a student and young adult, I could talk books for hours with my friends – I studied English and French literature, which helped, of course. These days, that appreciation is more easily conveyed through social media, as I no longer have the time to linger with fellow readers to the same extent; nor do I live in an environment which would tempt me to do so. My home for twenty years has been on an old barge in the Netherlands among folk whose passion is restoring historic vessels. Welding, not reading, is what lights their fires. And although I’ve written about these colourful neighbours in my memoirs, I cannot talk books with them.

My solution, then, is to share my reading discoveries on social media where I can promote and interact with the authors whose books I enjoy. But there’s a spin-off benefit too: I now belong to a community of readers and authors, many of whom reciprocate by reading and sharing my books too. Promotion, I discovered, is reciprocal. What you give is what you get, a further reason (as if I needed one) to share and share alike.

So, there you have it: someone who loves crime fiction and promotes it, brilliantly! I should add that Val is a writer of memoirs other than those of her experiences on the canals of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, for she has lived in South Africa, too. I’m adding the link to her fascinating blog so that you may wander with her if you wish! I’ve also provided two links to my posts about my visits to the Oude Haven, if you’re interested. I’ll finish with a photographic flavour of her watery life and her books about it:

At the wheel of her vintage Dutch barge
My review of this is here

Pinter’s Plea for Peace

Dr Frances Pinter

It may seem strange to publish a piece on peace (if you’ll forgive the wordplay!) to celebrate Crime Reading Month. However, taking the big picture approach, the worst murders are committed during wars – as the conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated yet again. Wartime atrocities emphasise that peace is vital and, as Dr Pinter says, generations who have grown up knowing only peace lose – dangerously awareness of the calamity of war. On the smaller canvas, classic crime fiction always ends with a denouement in which normality is restored – as peace follows war.

Dr Frances Pinter, who is currently Executive Chair of the Central European University Press [CEUP], is probably best known by readers of this blog for her outstanding – and continuing work to promote Open Access models that work for academics, readers, librarians and publishers equally. Frances is passionate about achieving the fair dissemination of knowledge and equally committed to working towards world peace, and particularly the maintenance of peace in Europe. These two ambitions are, of course, not unrelated.

When Frances was writing her PhD in the early 1970s, she came into contact not just with academics but also with practitioners in the study of conflict and research into peace. These were very new academic disciplines. Frances, who was totally committed to the concepts, found herself meeting all kinds of unusual academics. She understood that there was not sufficient understanding of the processes that needed to be worked through to achieve the satisfactory resolution of conflict – something she learnt while studying the conflict in Northern Ireland for her PhD which included pub crawls with the IRA. As a result of many studies that she and others later published, we now have a corpus of vital information on the subject – although politicians are not good at deploying it.

Frances founded her own publishing company at the young age of twenty-three. This happened by accident: she was still working on her PhD when she “ran into someone whom I thought would write a wonderful book and decided to try my hand at publishing”.

Although for a short time she subsequently took a job as an academic, she carried on with the publishing and loved the whole process. She also decided that she would make a much better publisher than an academic, but if she wanted to expand her publishing activities and therefore leave academia, she “needed to find a way to have enough money to eat”. Her solution was to take out a mortgage, buy a large house in Oxford and fill it with tenants. It was a period of high inflation, so she was able to keep on borrowing against the increasing value of the property and use the money to invest in the new publishing company, which was originally called Frances Pinter Publications and then simply Pinter Publishers. She gave the company her name because she wouldn’t then have to carry out a search to see if another company was using the name she chose – which would have incurred an unnecessary expense. She became a successful medium-sized Social Sciences and Humanities publisher.

The company was twenty-one years old when George Soros invited Frances to work for his foundation. He had contacted her to suggest that it would be a good idea for the Social Science and Humanities classics of the West to be translated into all the languages of the post-Communist countries; and could she do it? Although Frances saw instantly that this would change her whole life, she accepted the offer and sold Pinter Publications.

Working from Budapest for the Open Society Foundation, she began the translation programme. This turned out to be just part of the work required. Soon she had set up the Centre for Publishing Development, whose mission was to help the new private publishing sector that was emerging in thirty post-Communist countries. She visited all the countries that were being supported and worked in all of them. Budapest acted as the hub for the programme; each country had a publishing officer and Frances worked through them. She ceased working full-time for the Foundation at the turn of the millennium, but continued in her capacity as adviser for a few years afterwards.

All these activities were either directly or indirectly focused on peace. Frances says her family history – some were victims of the Nazis in the second world war – has played its part in her recognition of the most profound importance of peace. Sometimes this made her prescient. She knew when she was working in Eastern Europe in the ‘90s that some of the West’s approaches to bringing ‘democracy and capitalism’ to the East would backfire. Former Communist states were presented with an ideal, but the reality they observed – generated by hubris and hypocrisy – was far different and generated an enormous amount of resentment. “We were rich and they were poor and much that has happened since stems from this. It pained me terribly – I could see the parallels with the resentment felt in Germany after World War I that led to the rise of Hitler. It got worse after the financial crash of 2008. Transitional and developing countries suffered far more than we did.”

Like Frances, I was the child of the generation that was shaken by the Second World War and vowed it would never happen again. She observes that, inevitably perhaps, we were followed by a generation of Europeans who didn’t think about it so much. “Suddenly, people ARE thinking. Now is one of the saddest periods of my life – to see what we were building in the West unravel.” In this, she includes Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. During the referendum, she reminded British politicians that, fundamentally, the EU was a peace project, created to maintain peace in Europe. Every politician under the age of sixty-five scoffed at the idea that Europe might engage in another war. “They knew the facts but didn’t feel the weight of them. Now they bloody well should. Europe has been deeply destabilised because so many people didn’t understand.” She feels that pro-Brexit comments are frivolous. Britain has weakened its power to promote peace in Europe by standing outside the EU.

Frances visited Kiev a few times in the 1990s, during the period in which Judith Heneghan’s novel Snegurochka is set. One of her abiding memories is the very keen desire of the Ukrainian people to have the books she was offering them translated into Ukrainian, even though everybody could read Russian.

On a positive note, Frances believes that the current generation of young adults is again engaged in searching for profound truths. Recently, in Vienna, she met a colleague of Linda Kinstler, a young American journalist who has written a book entitled Come to this Court and Cry. The book describes Kinstler’s quest to establish whether her Latvian grandfather was really working for the Nazis or the Russians. “The truth is shrouded in secrecy, but all the time she is digging into it.” Truth leads to peace.

Making crime fiction happen: the Marketing Manager’s story

Hannah Deuce is the Marketing and PR Manager for Bloodhound Books.  In this post she tells her story.

“I love the variety involved in my work. My role embraces marketing as well as PR and publicity, which means no two days are the same! My key responsibilities include the creation and execution of marketing campaigns for all the books published by Bloodhound. This means designing the graphics for publicity, gathering reviewer quotes for marketing materials, generating digital advertising campaigns and reporting on the data gathered so that we can do the very best for our authors.

“I am one of the main points of contact for Bloodhound authors. I work with press outlets as the opportunities arise and oversee brand management for Bloodhound. The marketing side of my work is highly strategic, whilst the PR and publicity require creativity and the ability to act quickly. 

“After gaining a Masters degree in History from Goldsmiths, University of London, I worked for PR companies and at magazines. These jobs gave me invaluable experience of the broader PR and marketing landscape. Next I studied for a Masters degree in Publishing at City, University of London, to hone my understanding of the industry and help me break into what I knew was a highly competitive job market. It was then I fell in love with the complexity and creativity of marketing and PR. I was lucky enough to be appointed Marketing Executive at Hachette UK, based in London. I learned so much there and became even more passionate about my work, but at the same time grew weary with big city life. A few years working in central London is enough for anyone! So I applied for posts with independent publishing houses that weren’t based in London, which led me to Bloodhound’s door!

“While I was studying for my Masters degree, I supported myself financially by running my own business. I offered my services as a digital marketing manager for companies working in the creative space (e.g., photographers and makeup brands). During this time I developed my own distinctive take on digital promotion, utilising cross-channel attribution (this means cross-referencing social media channels to complement each another) to create effective promotional opportunities. I brought this experience to Hachette and developed it further, so that when I moved to Bloodhound I was able to merge my own methods with the Bloodhound team’s existing frameworks and knowledge to create the publicity techniques we use today. 

“Bloodhound is perceived to be a specialist in the crime and thriller genres. However, we also publish historical fiction, women’s fiction and, occasionally, so-called ‘chick lit’. I love the variety of what we publish and feel that it provides me and consequently Bloodhound authors with an advantage, as I am able to recognise trends developing across different genres in both the UK and USA. I can then adapt my work and techniques accordingly. 

“Though all Bloodhound crime authors may be working in same genre, I believe that every book we publish should be treated individually. We design separate marketing and publicity campaigns for them, adapting reader targets, visuals and the language we use to maximise the opportunities offered by the storyline and author’s style for each one. We therefore create a bespoke package for every book to help it to achieve its full potential. 

“My advice to new authors would be, first of all, to build a social media presence. Even if technology isn’t your best friend, social media is here to stay. Platforms may evolve and change, but the best thing you can do is establish an author profile online by setting up a blog or website, and then create pages on the key social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter and maybe Instagram). When you have done this, continue to update them regularly with news about your books, any events you’re attending, what you’re working on, etc. Don’t be afraid to have fun while you’re doing it: social media is designed to have a casual feel, so post what you think you yourself would like to see or read, update your accounts regularly and let your readers engage with you directly. 

“I am an insatiable reader myself, and enjoy books from multiple genres, written by authors from all walks of life. I love a book with a twist that I can’t guess, or an ending I didn’t see coming! I don’t really have any favourite authors within the crime genre as I read so widely, but if pressed I would say my all-time favourite author is Kate Mosse. I would read her grocery lists!

“I live in a village on the outskirts of Cambridge with my partner Jon. My favourite way to pass time when I’m not working or reading is to train with my horse, Vince, a Danish Warmblood Dressage horse who has been with me since he was a youngster. He and I now compete nationwide, riding at national level, and we enjoy nothing more than just relaxing in the yard together.

“To anyone who is looking for a job like mine, I would say don’t give up! But be aware that it is possible to over-romanticise working in the publishing industry. People thinking working among stacks of books every day must be heavenly (it is, but it has its white-water rafting days, too!). Roll up your sleeves and keep applying for jobs, as no one simply walks into this industry. I sent off more than 100 job applications before I got my first job in publishing, so keep trying, even if you don’t get an acknowledgement after you’ve put your all into applying. Keep your CV up to date and do things which make you stand out – for example, run a book blog or book Instagram account; take a short course in creative writing to help understand authors better, or a Masters if you have the resources to do it. Network at every opportunity and build your LinkedIn contacts, keep up-to-date with books in the charts and make sure you understand the unique characteristics displayed by different publishing houses. Finally – and I would say this, wouldn’t I?! – consider working at an indie publishing house rather than one of the ‘big five’: we’re a lot more fun and you will learn so much! 

I’ve certainly benefited from Hannah’s expertise!

Fight for your rights and be free!

Many authors are mystified by – and sometimes afraid of – the seemingly arcane world of rights. Interestingly, as internet books sales have boomed and the RRP is merely a guide to how much the book will cost, many readers also feel frustrated by their lack of understanding of rights and sometimes ask if authors are getting a good deal. In this post Lynette Owen, editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements, explains what rights are and how they should be used.

In the world of publishing, rights – sometimes referred to as subsidiary rights – can be something of a mystery to authors (and indeed to some staff working in other areas in publishing houses). Rights are ways of exploiting the intellectual property in a literary work by licensing the content – perhaps to be published in an overseas market, published in translation, or used as the basis for a stage, television or film adaptation. These rights normally belong in the first place to the author (and perhaps also to the illustrator where relevant) who may then choose to specify that all or some categories of rights are handled by their literary agent or their publishing house. The share of revenue paid to the author from licensing arrangements will be specified in the contract between author and publisher; for deals handled by a literary agent, an agreed rate of commission will be paid to the agent.

As General Editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements: A Book of Precedents (11/e, Bloomsbury Professional, January 2022), I receive mixed feedback on how the contractual precedents are used. Many small publishers use the downloadable templates verbatim, whilst larger publishers may want to tailor the wording to reflect company practice in terms of royalty models, warranties and indemnities, accounting dates etc. Some publishers incorporate selected wording from the Clark templates into their own contracts.

How an author chooses to grant control of rights in their work will depend on individual circumstances. If represented by an agent, the agency may make separate publication arrangements for separate markets, e.g.  the UK and Commonwealth with a British publisher and separate arrangements with a US publisher.  The agency may have specialist departments to handle translation rights or film and television rights, so those categories would be withheld from the English language publishing house/s. If no agent is involved, much will depend on the geographical territories granted to the publisher and the resources of the publishing house to exploit rights, something authors should discuss before contracting. These days, many larger publishers will expect e-book and audiobook rights to be included as part of their primary publishing rights. If some categories of rights are withheld from the publisher, authors do need to consider carefully whether they have the time and expertise to handle rights negotiations and contractual and accounting arrangements themselves.

The role of a literary agent is to act in the best interests of the authors they represent; however, not all authors are represented by an agent and it is rare for agents to operate in the areas of educational, academic and professional books, where contracts tend to be directly between author and publisher. If authors are concerned about the fairness of some elements in the publisher’s contract, they should first clarify any points with their editorial contact in the publishing house, who should be able to explain the reasons behind the contractual requirements. It is also worth noting that the Society of Authors can offer advice to member authors, although they probably do so more frequently for trade (general) authors than for educational and academic authors whose contracts usually differ from trade contracts to reflect different market conditions. Any formal legal advice on a publishing contract should be sought from a firm specialising in intellectual property matters.

I first joined the publishing industry immediately after graduating from London University, starting work in the London office of Cambridge University Press, and came to work in their rights department almost by accident – rights work was little known as a career path back then. In 1973, I moved to set up a rights department at Pitman Publishing, then spent a year at trade publisher Marshall Cavendish before joining the multinational publisher Longman Group Ltd (now Pearson Education), latterly as Copyright Director. I was fortunate to be able to travel extensively to sell rights, both at international book fairs but also on sales trips and publishing delegations – educational and academic publishers were early entrants to challenging markets such as the former Soviet Union, central and eastern Europe and mainland China. Space here precludes recounting many strange experiences in those markets, some of which I covered in my recordings for the British Museum Book Trade Lives project! Since 2013, I have worked as a freelance copyright and rights consultant, providing advice on rights and contracts to smaller publishers and also running training courses for publishers and degree students on rights in the UK and abroad. In addition to my work on Clark’s Publishing Agreements, I am also the author of Selling Rights, now in its eighth edition (Routledge, 2019) – as far as I am aware, the only book on the subject.

I think the most attractive aspect of working in rights is the opportunity to meet a wide range of publishers from all over the world and build up long-term relationships with them; a great deal of rights business hinges on personal relationships. It is also challenging and hugely rewarding to negotiate rights deals on behalf of authors and to tie up those deals in legally sound licence contracts, fair to both parties. By contrast, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of rights is that senior management in some (but not all!) publishing companies still do not recognise the value of the rights function, both in terms of generating revenue for authors and publishers but also in terms of the PR value derived from broadening access to publications through licensing.

My rights-related tips to authors would be:

  1.  If you have a literary agent, talk to them about rights possibilities and be prepared to assist with promoting rights if required.
  2. If you work directly with a publisher, find out how they handle rights and make contact with their rights staff.
  3. But do try to be realistic in your expectations for rights deals – not every book is a candidate for the silver screen!

For publishers, my tips would be:

  1. Time and effort expended on the promotion and sale of rights will produce results, even for smaller publishers with limited resources, and will enhance expertise.
  2. Rights selling depends on building long-term relationships with compatible publishing partners – these take time to establish.
  3. To publishing management – recognise the importance of a rights operation, both in terms of revenue and PR value to author and publishing house alike.

© Lynette Owen

In tomorrow’s post, Hannah Deuce, Marketing and PR Manager for Bloodhound Books, describes how she works with authors.

Richard Reynolds: the pure genius

Books, bookseller and bookshop, inextricably bound!

As John Aubrey, the seventeenth century polymath, bibliophile – and bookseller – observed, “to read a book is demanding, for one must stay awake; to write a book is more demanding, for one must stay awake and think; but to sell a book – ah, that is a work of pure genius!”

I’m starting this series of celebratory posts with a piece about Richard Reynolds, the undisputed doyen of crime booksellers. Why begin with a bookseller? Because without the services of the bookseller, the entire creative process that concludes with the finished book would be pointless. Bookselling is an art under-rated by everyone who has not practised it.

Richard began his working life in September 1976 as a ‘classical music consultant’ at Hardman Radio in Manchester. He loved reading and would trawl new and secondhand bookshops and market stalls in the city. In early 1980 he spotted a job advert in Jardine’s bookshop, applied for it and began his bookselling career a few months later. In 1981, he was appointed buyer for the sports section at the famous Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge, progressing to travel and biography and then to the literature department, which boasted an impressive twenty-five standard book ‘drops’ (book cases).

Richard’s manager knew he was a crime fiction buff and encouraged him to use a small space under the ledge near to the stairs to develop a crime fiction section. As sales took off, crime was promoted to more prestigious areas in the shop.  

Heffer’s is famous for its crime fiction events. Richard explains that these began in a small way in 1990 with Bodies in the Bookshop. Heffer’s put on “a wonderful display of crime fiction titles and ephemera on the platform halfway down the central staircase. Penguin Crime Classics sponsored a competition: the winner to supply the scream in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. I still have the poster! Heffer’s first crime fiction catalogue was produced at the same time. Five authors came to sign books on the last Saturday of the month: Colin Dexter, Lindsay Davis, Reginald Hill, Minette Walters and Michael Dibdin.”

Sixty authors took part in the last of these events, for which, for seventeen years, Richard compiled the catalogues. He still receives ‘heartening’ requests for copies from readers trying to fill gaps in their collections. As the numbers of authors increased, what had been a single annual event became three separate ones: What’s Your Poison, Murder under the Mistletoe and Murder Will Out, now organised by events manager Kate Fleet.

Since the COVID restrictions were lifted, events have resumed but been smaller: a launch party for After Agatha, by Sally Cline, Kate Rhodes in conversation with Sarah Vaughan about her book Reputation, and a launch party (with jazz quartet!) for Peter Morfoot’s Essence of Murder. On June 23rd, Financial Times reviewer Barry Forshaw and Kate Rhodes will discuss Simenon: The Man, The Books, The Films and The Devil’s Table, the fifth of Kate’s Scilly Islands series.

Richard finds it very difficult to name an individual crime writer as his favourite. During lockdown, he re-read the whole Scilly Isles series, as well as books by Nicola Upson, Rennie Airth, Barry Maitland and Charles Todd. In 2019, as he approached his fortieth year as a bookseller, he compiled his personal list of 100 Favourite Crime Novels. If pushed to choose he says his favourite book would be The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and his favourite author Agatha Christie.

Richard is still a bookseller, but he now combines this with editorial and publishing activities. This began when he suggested to Penguin Random House which authors they should reissue under the Vintage Crime imprint. He has acted in a similar capacity for Ostara Books, Oleander Press and Clerical Crime and assisted with the publication of six Gold Age titles under Oleander Press’s Oreon imprint. More reissues are planned in the coming months.

He says he is grateful to his wife, Sally, for tolerating a house full of books! His small attic study is stacked high with collections of Penguin Green Crime, Gollancz yellow jackets, Golden Age titles, Cambridgeshire crime fiction, translated crime fiction, historical whodunnits, much recent detective fiction, a substantial collection of crime reference books and… and… and..!

Musing on his career, he says, “I suppose specialising in crime fiction is like being paid to pursue a hobby. Badgering publishers to re-publish good authors is a privilege. I enjoy working out the best fit between the author and the publisher. I serve as chairman of the CWA Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of the year, for which there have been 260 submissions this year, making it hard to create the long list. The winner will be announced on 29th June.”

For aspiring booksellers, he offers the following message: “The late John Cheshire, a chatty, encouraging and supportive Heffer’s shop manager, told me not to spend my small salary on books but instead ask reps for proof/reading copies so that I could help publicise them. I have kept to that advice – and I’d like to thank all the reps and publishers who’ve kindly kept me supplied with reading material. And it’s important for booksellers to keep on reading ephemera about books: articles, reviews, blogs, information on publishers’ and authors’ websites.”

Asked what his advice to someone just starting out on a crime fiction writing career would be, he says that as writing is a solitary occupation it is important to chat to local booksellers and meet other authors, especially at events or festivals such as Crimefest and the Harrogate International Festival or one of the many good smaller festivals that now exist. It’s also a good idea to attend other writers’ launch parties, read widely – and try not to overwrite! Having some bookmarks printed is an inexpensive way of getting noticed – it’s easy to underestimate how useful they can be.

As an author, I am inexpressibly grateful to Richard and all the booksellers who make it their life’s work to support writing and reading. He is a man who practises sheer genius every day! If he were still alive, I know John Aubrey would be the first to agree.

Tomorrow’s post will be about an aspiring crime fiction writer, Fraser Massey, who is already a distinguished journalist.

National Crime Reading Month and www.christinajamesblog.com

The Crime Writers Association (CWA) and the Reading Agency have built on their brilliant lockdown idea of designating June as Crime Reading Month (CRM). This June, crime writing of all kinds will be celebrated in bookshops, schools, libraries and museums and at special events. CWA members are all encouraged to engage in some kind of activity to celebrate crime writing and reading, however small – it could be something as simple as encouraging a local library or bookshop to mount a crime fiction display – or large – the festivities culminate with the announcement of this year’s Daggers Award winners. More information about individual activities and events can be found at Events – National Crime Reading Month. It is worth checking this site every day, as exciting new projects are continually being added.

I think CRM is a very exciting concept and I am planning to participate by offering a new blog post every day during June on some aspect of crime writing, reading or publishing. Most of the posts will take the form of interviews with people prominent in these areas and I have many great interviews already lined up: for example, with Richard Reynolds, the doyen of booksellers specialising in crime fiction; Dea Parkin, the secretary of the CWA; and Lynette Owen, the distinguished editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements, as well as authors, book lovers, bloggers, librarians, publishers, policemen and more booksellers. I have been invited to take part in several events myself and shall be covering these, too. There are still a few spaces left in the latter half of the month, so, if you would like to take part in an interview for the blog, please let me know.

I’ll write one or two posts about certain aspects of my writing. Questions that I have been asked are: ‘Why do your books describe the towns and villages of Lincolnshire as they were when you were growing up, even though the novels themselves are set in the present?’ and ‘What is the fascination that Lincolnshire still holds for you as an author, when you say you moved away many years ago?’

I’ll pick up on this later in the sequence. In the meantime, I do hope you will find time to follow the posts and enjoy them. The series will begin tomorrow with the Richard Reynolds interview. Why have I started with a bookseller? The post itself explains.

The Sandringham Mystery and some personal memories of places and people with a part to play in its creation

When I was a child, the motor car was the ultimate status symbol. Families aspired to own one and felt they had ‘arrived’ when the car did, however shabby or humble it might be.

Our next-door neighbours, Harry and Eileen Daff, were the first in our street to bring home a car. Theirs was a forties Morris with running boards which looked as if it belonged on a film set, but that made it yet more glamorous in the eyes of the local children. The Daffs went out for Sunday afternoon rides in their car. Mrs Daff – ‘Auntie Eileen’ – was always promising to take me, too, but the invitation never materialised.

My father acquired our first car about three years afterwards, when I was nine. It was a two-door Ford Popular which we nicknamed ‘Hetty’. I can remember the registration number: it was HDO 734. Hetty, like the Daffs’ Morris, was not only second-hand but practically vintage. My father had saved hard to afford her and had still needed a loan from my miserly – but loaded – Great Uncle David to complete the purchase.

Great Uncle David lived – indeed, spent his every waking moment – working in the convenience shop in Westlode Street which he had inherited from his parents despite being their youngest son, presumably because he had scoliosis and was considered ‘delicate’. My paternal grandmother kept house for him. They were only a short bike ride away.

My mother’s mother, however, was the paid companion of a very old lady and lived in Sutterton, nine miles distant, which meant that in pre-Hetty days visits had to be accomplished by bus. It was usually she who visited us, invariably spending the morning of her day off shopping in Spalding and then walking to ours for lunch. Post-Hetty, we were able to make more frequent visits to Sutterton. However, I was still sometimes allowed to travel there alone on the bus. It was nearly always on a damp, foggy day when the sun never broke through the Fenland mists.

The house she lived in was the house I have called Sausage Hall in The Sandringham Mystery. It was a big, gloomy red-brick house in considerable need of repair. Sometimes she occupied the breakfast room when she had visitors, but her natural habitat was the kitchen with its adjoining scullery, in both of which roaring fires were kept burning night and day throughout the winter months. The kitchen fire had a built-in oven in which she would bake perfect cakes. Lunch would be tinned tomato soup and bread, followed by a big hunk of cake. Cherry cake was my favourite.

Her employer’s name was Mrs James. My grandmother always referred to her as ‘the old girl’. Mrs James’s first name was Florence and she was one of a large family of sisters, the Hoyles, who had been brought up in Spalding in extreme poverty. One of the sisters still lived in what could only be described as a hovel in Water Lane and occasionally, after one of my visits to Sutterton, I would be sent round with cake or chicken. Miss Hoyle never invited me in. She would open the door a few inches, her sallow face and thin grey hair barely distinguishable from the shadows of the lightless cavern behind her, and reach out a scrawny hand to take what I had brought, barely muttering her thanks before she shut the door again.

My grandmother, also the eldest of a large family of sisters, despised the Hoyles. Mrs James was not exempt. My grandmother’s father had been a farm manager, employed by a local magnate. He was a respectable, hard-working man of some substance in the community, unlike the allegedly feckless Mr Hoyle. According to my grandmother, Florence had ensnared Mr James with her pretty face, but that did not excuse her humble beginnings.

Florence, long widowed, had taken to her bed, for no other apparent reason than that she was tired of the effort of getting up every day. My grandmother delivered all her meals to her bedroom and sometimes sat there with her. When I visited I was expected to call in to see her before my departure. I never knew what to say. She would extend a plump, soft white hand from beneath the bedclothes and offer it to me. I’d shake it solemnly. Once, when I’d been reading a Regency novel, I held it to my lips and kissed it. She was momentarily surprised – I saw the gleam of interest in her eyes before her spirit died again.

Mrs James’s sons, both middle-aged gentlemen farmers, also performed duty visits. My grandmother and I were expected to call them ‘Mr Gordon’ and ‘Mr Jack’. In The Sandringham Mystery, Kevan de Vries, head of the de Vries empire, has his staff call him ‘Mr Kevan’. I lifted the idea from my experience of the two James brothers. I was about nine when I met them and could identify condescension when I encountered it.

Hetty broadened our horizons immeasurably. Instead of going out for bike rides at weekends, we drove to local beauty spots – Bourne Woods, the river at Wansford, Barnack – and sometimes on nice days even further afield, to Hunstanton, Skegness and Sandringham.

Sandringham, the Queen’s Norfolk estate, consists of many acres of forest, most of which were already open to the public, though the house itself wasn’t. It was possible to visit the church. Both local people and visitors would wait outside the wall beyond the churchyard for glimpses of the royal family when they were in residence. I saw Princess Margaret once. She had the most astonishing violet-blue eyes.

I associate Sandringham particularly with the clear bright cold of Easter holidays and the drowsy late-summer warmth of blackberrying. The blackberries there were enormous and my brother and I would scratch the skin on our arms to ribbons trying to reach the best ones. Parts of the woods were deciduous, but the blackberries seemed to flourish in the areas where the pine trees grew, planted in squares and divided up by trails (‘rides’).  When I was writing The Sandringham Mystery, I remembered vividly a clearing in the woods that had been made by the crossroads of two trails. In the novel, it is here that the body of a young girl is discovered, the start of a police investigation that not only reveals why she was murdered, but also uncovers some other terrible murders that took place in the past, in Sausage Hall itself. The Sandringham Mystery is published by Bloodhound Books today. I hope you will enjoy it.

Fact and fiction; fiction and fact – and ‘faction’ and ethics!

I spent the weekend reading a novel (no, not the one above, which I’ll mention later) that described a series of events with which I am personally familiar, although they happened more than ten years ago and my role at the time was very much that of bystander – I didn’t know most of the facts until some years later. I emphasise the word ‘facts’ – I’m not talking about a lookalike situation here. I didn’t know there would be any kind of personal connection when I bought the book. It is by an author whose work I have read before – mainly in the form of journalism – and I was curious to know how she had shaped up as a novelist.

As I embarked on the novel and the narrative unfolded, I was stunned to realise that this was an undisguised account of those very events. The only subterfuge the author had used was to give the main characters different names – though names very much in keeping with the originals.  She didn’t, for example, rename a Charles ‘Sidney’ or a Joanna ‘Edith’.

The novel tells the story of a love triangle. The three protagonists are a married couple and the man’s colleague, with whom he embarks upon an affair. Nothing special about that – it’s one of the oldest plots in the world. Think Jacob, Leah and Rachel or Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot. Think The English Patient. This novel’s uniqueness lies in the detail: the venue and circumstances of the lovers’ first tryst, the man’s family situation, the place to which he takes his by-now mistress for a holiday, his death by suicide. Yes, indeed – the man commits suicide, unable to extricate himself from the mess which he has made of his life. And my point is: none of this is fiction.

Let me wind back to my own very tangential participation in this tale. I have never met the author, who is the mistress in the triangle. I have also never met the wife. As far as I know, neither is aware of my existence. I knew the husband as a professional acquaintance during the last months of his life – although of course neither he nor I knew that they were. I had just set up a new freelance business and I was working on a project with him. Out of the blue, his PA called me and told me he had “died suddenly”. I didn’t know it was suicide until some years later, when I worked on another project with another of his former colleagues, who had by now moved to a different company. We talked about his death and she described to me more of the details that led up to it.

As a result, and belatedly, I am much more clued up now about the course of events than I was immediately after they took place; and what strikes me very forcefully is that most of what I have just read in this ‘novel’ is not fiction at all. Except for the passages that conjecture what the main actors were feeling (including the wife, who, unsurprisingly, is not portrayed with much sympathy until the end), it is a blow-by-blow, more or less verbatim account of what actually happened. It may very well have been cathartic – and even lucrative – for the author, but what about the emotions it will have triggered in the other players in the story, particularly the wife? How could she have felt when she realised the hugely distressing events that had changed her life forever had been dragged into service as ‘fiction’? What about the two sons, now young men, who were teenagers at the time?

I have asked these questions rhetorically, but I am genuinely interested to know what others think. I am aware that authors have sometimes been taken to court for writing about characters who bear too close a resemblance – or even the same name – as someone who exists. For example, the first printing of Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (great novel if you don’t know it) was recalled after an acquaintance of his objected to his use of her name and he had to change the name. Conversely, I know some authors make fictional use of their own experiences but relate them to characters who are quite different from the originals. None of my own characters is recognisable as an individual who truly exists, though I have observed and written about unusual characteristics in people I know to make my characters more interesting.

When does something billed as fiction actually become ‘faction’ – and how much should an author be allowed to get away with, not just legally, but also morally speaking?

I have chosen not to name the title of the novel I’ve been discussing here or identify its author. I do not want to add more oxygen to the publicity it has already received. I don’t wish to sound sanctimonious, but reading this book has made me feel very uncomfortable indeed.

Love is the answer

I must confess I am not a connoisseur of ‘Young Adult’ (YA) novels. I was a student when everyone was reading Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, so they didn’t appeal, but at the time there was in any case no question of their being aimed at teenagers. They were books for adults – hip, trendy adults, the same ones who liked Monty Python. YA as a genre had yet to be invented. It still lay in the future when my son was born a decade later. And, although eventually I read to him ‘The Hobbit’ and the Narnia novels, they were not billed as belonging to the YA genre. As a bookseller, I was responsible for cataloguing fiction and the genre in which we placed them was firmly labelled ‘fantasy’. Fantasy was science fiction without the science. C.S. Lewis was considered ‘a good thing’ by the librarians who were my main customers because his novels were allegories of the Christian condition, but they bought the Narnia books for the under-twelves, not for adolescents. I’ve read Steinbeck, of course (but long before some of his works were hi-jacked from mainstream adult and appropriated as YA), and I’ve read and enjoyed some of Philip Pullman’s and Jacqueline Wilson’s books, but there my acquaintance with YA ends.

Or, ‘had ended’. This summer, I read a book called ‘Love is the answer’ which took my breath away. Its publisher, QuoScript, classifies it as YA and, although I would agree that this is the primary genre to which it belongs, I’d also say it is a ‘crossover’ book, i.e., one that holds appeal for all readers from the age of twelve onwards.

‘Love is the answer’ is the debut novel of Ben Craib. It’s about loss, grieving, going off the rails and, above all, the value of love in all its true forms – love of parents, love of friends, legitimate love of self. It distinguishes between these ‘pure’ forms of love and the false and destructive love that springs from self-doubt, spiting former partners by shacking up with a ‘rebound’ lover and using an unsatisfactory relationship to bolster self-esteem. This makes the novel sound sombre and moralistic, but in fact it is the opposite – vibrant with some of the best dialogue I have ever read, extremely funny in a sitcom kind of way and lyrical without being precious.

‘Love is the answer’ tells the story of Scarlett, whose mother has died of cancer by the time the novel begins, though she appears in some flashbacks. Scarlett, who has clearly now arrived at the angry part of the grieving process, is reluctantly (and badly) keeping house for her father, who is himself floundering in grief. Although he clearly loves Scarlett, he shows it in all the wrong ways, coming across sometimes as heavily dictatorial as a Victorian papa, sometimes ridiculously over-indulgent (because he doesn’t want to lose his daughter) and always as out of his depth emotionally as Scarlett herself.

Other important characters include Elliot and Bad Ben, Scarlett’s two college friends, whom she all but abandons when she meets Hayden, her first proper boyfriend, and Jennifer, Scarlett’s father’s new girlfriend, a slim, elegant ballet teacher who seems to hold all the cards when Scarlett herself holds none. Scarlett resents Jennifer and rejects her genuine concern. She does not recognise the deep affection in which she is held by Elliot and Bad Ben. She fights against her father’s protectiveness and instead throws in her lot with Hayden, believing that she has not only found her soul-mate, but, through nurturing their relationship, the solution to all her predicaments.

That’s certainly enough of the plot, though I’ll just highlight a few of the other riches within this poised and light-of-touch but very accomplished novel.  First of all, the characters: all the leading ones are complex and self-contradictory – at times, noble and brave; at times, absurd and cowardly. Ben Craib is a master of characterisation, a gift which he extends to the minor characters, too. My favourites among these are Cenk, the thuggish Cockney/Turkish owner of Scarlett’s local convenience store, and Mikey Miles, the ageing, pathetic – but extremely wealthy – pop star whom Scarlett and the other residents of Hayden’s squat treat as a sort of demi-god. And the sub-plots are fascinating: Ben Craib wears his knowledge lightly, but he is clearly expert on  contemporary music and – more originally – superheroes, the comics in which they feature and the strange fantasy world which their fans inhabit. Ironies abound, some so subtle that it takes two or three readings to recognise the nuances in the masterfully constructed narrative. As I’ve said, Craib also has a natural ear for dialogue. I won’t elaborate further – I’ve said my piece. I do encourage you to read this book, whether you identify as a YA reader or one of more mature years, especially if, like me, you have always thought the YA genre is divided between ‘Frozen’-style fantasies and gritty, if hackneyed, works about modern teenage angst. ‘Love is the answer’ has so much more to offer than this, to readers of any age. It is the novel that has persuaded me never to pass by the YA sections in my local bookshop in future. There may well be other masterpieces hiding there! And I look forward with impatience to reading Ben Craib’s next book.

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