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What Price Culture?

A few days ago, a customer approached our counter. She had in her hand the just published, new edition of that wonderful reference work ‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.’  Endlessly fascinating, it is an idiosyncratic treasure trove of word history, culture, folk lore and legend – and one of my favourite books. At £45.00 the price was rather more than our customer was expecting. I encouraged her saying that, running to 1600 pages, it’s a monster of a book and one that will be used time and time again. For the right person it will become a loved friend in the bookshelf for a lifetime. Looked at in those terms, £45.00 seems less daunting – more an investment for a lifetime resource.

However, it seems a less worthwhile investment when the Book People and Amazon are selling it for £12.99.

I am well aware that since the demise of the Net Book Agreement every retailer can set their own prices for all books. I also recognise that, like supermarkets, some retailers of books might sometimes choose to sell at an unrealistic price as a ‘loss leader’. However, we also all know that there is some relationship between the discount a publisher gives and the price that a company can realistically sell at.

I think it is clear that selling new book at over 70% discount (plus free postage on a heavy book) is way beyond normal discounting of new titles and one can only presume that the publisher, Hachette’s, John Murray, has given a discount which allows this. If so, then surely it is short sighted. It undermines sales through High Street shops which are under enough pressure anyway. Shops who support and sell across the range of John Murray’s books.

If you consider the publisher’s earned income from a title across different market sectors, then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that in reality High Street bookshops are subsidising the discounts given to online and ‘direct to consumer’ operations like the Book People.

We and our customers, by paying the full price, are treated like mugs.

‘Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’ might be a relatively recent addition to the list but I believe at least six generations of John Murrays will be turning in their graves!

Published in ‘The Bookseller’ magazine November 2018.

World Book Day Books and children of fathers in prison.

As enthusiastic supporters of World Book Day we are involved with several local schools and always tend to order too many copies of each yearly crop of fantastic WBD titles. After all, the last thing we ever want to do is to run out! It does mean that after the dust has settled on the WBD events we are always left with extra stock. We have found some good uses for them over the years but the latest is maybe the best – a link with the local library service who take books into prisons.

For children, the occasional visit to their father in prison can be a difficult, awkward and daunting experience. The unfriendly formality of the visiting hall is not a helpful environment for a quality time together. Essex County Libraries have recently started to run Family Library Time sessions in Chelmsford Prison where fathers can spend time reading with their children in a much more welcoming environment. It is a place where children have a chance to relax and actually enjoy the time with their fathers. Our surplus WBD books mean that prisoners can give their visiting children a book to take away. A book to read and enjoy which is also a tangible reminder of their visit with their absent father.

Research has shown how important it is for parents in prison to maintain family relationships. It plays a big part in reducing the likelihood of reoffending. So, this is a brilliant partnership. Over 500 surplus WBD books, built up over years, are out of our stock room and getting into the hands of children – and in the process strengthening the family ties that help keep society healthy.

Here is a link to Essex County Council’s website post on this initiative.

Sex and the Picture Book Universe (or where have all the little girls gone?)

This piece was originally published in The Bookseller trade magazine in February 2014

What have the following in common? ‘The Gruffalo’, ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, ‘Guess How Much I Love You’, ‘Where’s Spot’, ‘The Snowman’ and ‘Elmer’? Well yes, they are all amongst the most loved and most successful picture books of the last 50 years. But as well as that they all feature a main character that is male. There is strong bias in picture books towards male protagonists. It is so prevalent and has been with us for so long that, as a book trade, I don’t believe we even notice it let alone wonder if it might be worth redressing the balance somewhat.

You may say these are books from an earlier era and that today’s new titles will be different. But no. Sue Hendra’s brilliantly colourful and wacky stories may not feature boy heroes but her ‘slug with the silly shell’ is Norman and the amazing ‘fish with fingers’ is Barry. The latest of Oliver Jeffers’ quirky, sophisticated and original stories, 2013’s bestseller, ‘The Day the Crayons Quit’ features crayons belonging to Duncan. And David Walliams, the latest big hitter in children’s books produced his first picture book last year – ‘The Slightly Annoying Elephant’. Well yes, you’ve guessed, the elephant is a he (aren’t they all). And it is at Sam’s house he makes his unexpected appearance on the doorstep. It is as if little girls only make up 10% of children in the picture book universe. And it’s the same story with non human characters. Nearly every animal, dinosaur, robot and alien also seems to be male! If you still doubt this then booksellers go through your picture book shelves and publishers check your most recent catalogue. Furthermore, in those picture books where we do find a girl as the main character she is mostly typecast as the pretty princess/ballet dancer/fairy in books where the covers are uniformly pink and glittery and the content mostly predictable. Of course, there are some notable exceptions, but the trend is undeniable.

The question then is does this matter and and if so what can we do about it?

Well, we think it does matter. Gender stereotyping in children’s toys has hit the news recently with Elizabeth Truss, Minister for Education and Childcare, condemning the segregation in children’s toy departments. Picture books an important way in which we introduce our very young children to the world around them and surely they must pick up the subtext alongside the story. And the shortage of girl characters must mean that we are encouraging a more passive role for girls in which the expectation is that they will sit and read about the boys doing all the exciting and adventurous stuff. Over 50 years have passed since the start of women’s liberation movement. The book trade would generally characterise itself as being forward looking and a champion of equality and liberal values yet here we are reinforcing the same stereotypes two generations later. So yes, it does matter.

And so what can we do about this? Well over to you children’s publishers and authors – only you can make a difference…… unless other booksellers like us start employing a little reverse discrimination and only buy in new picture books featuring female lead characters!


As booksellers who love real books printed on paper the advent of e-books has not been a welcome development. And the Kindle in particular as it binds users in to a certain dominant online retailer. Here’s a couple of anti-Kindle limericks which I hope may cause a smile.


A spy novel lover called Jane

Found her Kindle it drove her insane

For the battery failed

as the spy was unveiled.

Now she’s back reading real books again!


A lass of a ‘certain age’

Stamped on her Kindle in rage.

For it wouldn’t display

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Now she’s back with the printed page!

Sandi Toksvig at University of Essex, 7 March 2013


Sandi Toksvig drew a near capacity crowd to the University of Essex’s Ivor Crewe Lecture Hall for one of the biggest events in 2013’s Essex Book Festival. And the audience were not disappointed. A very relaxed Sandi Toksvig strolled onto the stage and with a witticism addressed to some one near the back of the theatre had the audience onside before she had even been introduced.

Continue reading Sandi Toksvig at University of Essex, 7 March 2013