24 November 2011

Welcome to Beachy Books!

I met Philip on Twitter - his tweets made me laugh, I looked at his website and his books - and was so impressed I asked him to be a guest: 
So please welcome Philip Bell Of Beachy Books

Pick a category: How would you describe your book?

I was asked the other day how I would describe our Jack and Boo children’s books. I answered by saying they were nature-led stories for children that combined fact and fiction, with spotter guides! Not exactly as catchy as Don Draper from Mad Men would have come up with, but it did start me thinking, was it an accurate description of the book? Just what category or genre does my writing fit? Do categories matter anymore? How would you describe your book? I don’t have definitive answers, but these are my musings...
I’m going to start by defining what I mean by category. I’m basically talking about the genre, the subject I guess. I didn’t use genre as it tends to only refer to fiction and most booksellers define it as category anyway.
The wonderful thing about being independent is you don’t have to fit into any particular category, genre or adhere to a publisher’s list. You can write the most unfashionable book ever if you so desire, you can splice up the genres, you can even mix fiction with non-fiction – shock horror! However, from a booksellers point of view, this can be a nightmare, as you may find retailers scratch their heads over where to place your book. My books have been found in various locations around the bookshop, from Local Interest to Nature sections, to Activity Books, and, only very occasionally, in the actual main children’s book section! But then, what sub section to put Jack and Boo in? Children’s picture books, early readers, spotter guides? And they are written in a poetic style – part free verse, part prose poetry, part my style – so why not the Poetry section then?
And don’t get me started on what age range they are for. I’m not a fan of age guides printed on the back of a book. As a child, I’d not want to be deterred from reading a book that a publisher thought wasn’t age appropriate for me or, worse, be put off a book that might turn out to be a gem, just because I thought it might be too childish for me. I came across this problem the other day when my 7 year old son frowned at me when I suggested we read (the original) Winnie The Pooh by A.A Milne for bedtime reading, saying he thought it was a “baby book”. Fortunately I insisted we read on and he soon found he was chuckling away. In many cases the sub text went way over his head (and mine at times!) making me laugh and prompting questions from him – all great food for the mind. I must admit this edition dared not to have a reading age on the back, but it was more his perception of the book, from a time when he was younger when I’d tried to introduce him to it. Only you know what level your children are at. And anyway, sometimes it’s nice to blow their minds – in a literary sense.
Of course, as a parent myself, I can see the benefit of being able to quickly choose a book for your child by going to a handy category or age range, and especially when trying to buy a present for another child, but it all depends on the child – we are all individuals, with our own needs, desires and interests. I’m not a number, I’m a free man!
A category can be a straitjacket. It can narrow down the topics that writers think they can write within. How many ideas have you disregarded just because you thought your subject wouldn’t fit neatly into a category? It’s a publisher and bookseller controlled model of the world, which I’m glad to see, with the advent of independent publishing, eBooks and online bookshops, is fast disappearing. Of course, as has always been the case, any good, independent bookshop will steer you towards the more interesting books that sit in the blend between hard categories. For the writer too categories or genres can also soon typecast you. You become known as one type of writer. It’s no wonder many authors have pseudonyms when they publish books different from the genre they’ve become known for. And some authors (or is it their publishers?) keep strictly within their category, even though their books are ostensibly in another, and in turn, would attract a different set of readers if they were. An example is the brilliant and diverse, Margaret Atwood, who is known as a “literary” author but who writes many speculative books, like The Handmaid’s Tale, that some would classify as “science fiction”.
I do think search engines have helped liberate readers (and writers). There’s no excuse now not to write the book you want to write, for the audience you want to write for. All that book buyers have to do now is use a search box to type in the subject they are interested in, and they can even get recommendations based on their previous searches and purchases.
I find it difficult to categorize my books, which is no surprise because, when I conceive them, I just write what I enjoy. It’s only when I come to redraft that I think about how a child or parent would perceive it, or where it may be stocked, and then decide if I should make any appropriate changes.

I’m about to publish the third Jack and Boo book in the series, a winter book called Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day. By now, I have a good idea of the audience, as I’ve had a chance to speak directly with parents and children who have bought our previous books. One thing I’ve learned is our books cross a wide spectrum of ages and subjects. They have been chosen by parents and grandparents of toddlers and young children for bedtime reading, as well as, teachers of reception to year 3 classes, who use our books across a range of curriculum topics including, nature, wildlife, conservation, the seasons, literacy and poetry. The feedback I’ve received has helped me shape this new book, and in turn, broadened the subject matter. As a result, it’s probably even harder to find a definitive category for our books, and for that I’m glad – at least we’re different and diverse! So, I now ask you to pick a category: How would you describe your book?
Helen has asked me to choose 10 guests of my choice – alive, dead, or fictional, with reasons, if I were having a dinner party. I was daunted by this, as I do agree that, as a general rule, you should never meet your “heroes”. But, just for fun, here is my list...

Chris Packham – I’ve briefly met Chris Packham at IOW Zoo, where he does much fundraising work, and he was kind enough to endorse our Jack and Boo’s Wild Wood book with lovely words. He’s always been a passionate environmentalist and communicator of conservation and wildlife knowledge, starting when I was a child on the Really Wild Show to Autumn Watch today. He’s also a great photographer and has brilliant music taste too – so he could supply the sounds!

Caroline Lucas – I’d love to meet Caroline Lucas as I have total respect for her in becoming the first green MP in the 2010 UK elections. I think she’d have many interesting things to say about how we could run the country in a more sustainable way.

Brian Cox – Brilliant physicist and intelligent communicator. I think it would be fascinating to chat to him about the universe, but please don’t bring any D:Ream Brian!
(HH: ooh can I come - I like him!)

Micky Flanagan – His London accent, jaunty comedy and brilliant stories would have us all in stitches.

Adam and Joe – They really count as one, so they can share a chair. Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish, comedians, actors, film directors, and creators of the funniest radio show ever. Intelligent and hilarious conversation, or just idiocy.

Hunter S Thompson – Late, writer of one of the funniest books on the planet, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, and creator of gonzo journalism. He was supposed to be a bit unhinged at parties, so perhaps it would be best to leave him outside?

Roger Deakin – The late, founder member of Friends of the Earth and nature writer. I’ve just discovered him from reading one of his books, Waterlog, where he swims the lakes, rivers and seas of the UK, ruminating on wildlife and conservation issues. It’s comforting to know there are other people out there who care.

Father Christmas – Errr, I’d just like to ask him how he does it all.

Jamie Oliver – He gets a lot of stick, but he also uses his fame to try and spread a positive message about good food and healthy eating. I’d rather he cooked dinner though!

David Cameron – I should start by saying he is not a hero. I’d like our PM at the dinner party so I could look him square in the eye and ask him why he isn’t doing much to protect the environment? Oh and I’d get all the other guests to educate him and grill him on the subject!

Thank you Philip - that was interesting and entertaining.
Buy the books my dear readers - ideal Christmas presents for putting in those stockings!
(I've bought them for my step-great-grandson....ssshhh! Don't tell him!)

Philip Bell is a writer, publisher and dad of two. He and his illustrator wife’s latest book, Jack and Boo’s Snowy Day, is out now, priced at £5.99 and published by Beachy Books – the perfect winter book for nature loving children everywhere! 

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Next time:  Karen Charlton author of Catching the Eagle

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