Learning

As a book moves out into shops, into the hands of readers, I feel I am learning.

I’m a single parent. When my children were young I found it so difficult when books were published and along with the book came lots of merchandising. Plastic, figures, pencil cases, things.

One of the things I love about The Lost Words is that much of the merchandising is free. Blackberries on the bramble bushes, acorns and conkers, the songs of larks and the bright song of wrens. Be outside. Go for a walk. Even in the inner city you might find a kingfisher on a canal bank.

There will, I am told, also be an otter scarf in Compton Verney.

And postcards, soon, soon.

But for now, the wild and the free, and flocks of goldfinches, starling murmerations, and the falling leaves of oak trees will remind people of our book. Wild magic.

 

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When wren whirrs

Robert asked if I had any film of me painting a piece for The Lost Words. I didn’t. Unlike my usual process much of the work I had done for the book was kept hidden from view until the book was ready for sale, so I just hadn’t taken pictures, unless it was to see things from a different angle. But we both wanted to do a special piece of work, centred on the book, featuring wrens, so I thought I would film it. The first film was a fantastic fail, as I put the camera over my right shoulder. Very good pictures of the back of my hand! So, using more thought I set the camera up over my left, like a little dark angel.

Then I painted a wren. And next I tried to work with iMovie to speed up and couple the film with the beautiful music of Kerry Andrew. Wow, she is mesmeric in her sound sculpted  song. Later Robert came to my studio and I filmed him writing the words on the piece, a long picture. The wren is a small island of paint. Writing moves across the page. And after the media team at Penguin took and crafted the film, this is the result.

Please share, and do go and listen to more of Kerry’s music. She also has a book coming soon, because she is a young and multi talented beautiful kingfisher haired genius.

She has a sound cloud, but if you love her work buy her cd on download or in the real. We all need audiences to keep us painting, writing, singing. You Are Wolf. Gorgeous.

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Questions: about a book

“What is your book?” he asked.

  1. At it’s most literal it is two boards between which are pieces of paper bound with a central spine. Contained on the pages are 26 letters of the alphabet, arranged in a certain and specific order and a series of images made from coloured water.
  2. It’s a creative protest against the falling away of the usage of certain words due to the attention being focussed in a different way and an attempt to refocus the minds of humans onto the everyday wild in which we live.
  3. It’s a series of spells that aim to conjure a love of language and wild things in the hearts and minds of young and old accompanied by images that celebrate the words, and so engage the percentage of our population who cannot read words.

“Why is your book?” he asked, and I could only answer with a kingfisher and a story.

I first met kingfisher in the pages of a book. A word. Ten letters.

k

i

n

g

f

i

s

h

e

r.

I came to reading late, but when I began to understand how writing worked it lit my child’s mind and filled my head with a new way of thinking, thou, still, I mostly thought in images, not words. The curious alchemical relationship of reader and text constantly amazes me.

Kingfisher. It seemed that in the world in which I lived there was a bird, a river dweller, coloured in the brightest blue, with a breast that shone like the setting sun.

Every time I have ever seen a kingfisher is written in my memory, not in words, but as a flashing image. On the riverbank in Evesham where I walked as a child. Along the canals in Bath, fierce arrows, ‘too fast to follow’, cutting a rent in the air above a golden river near Tarr Steps on Exmoor. And each time I saw a kingfisher flash, or ‘caught on the snag of a stick’, I felt a connection root through my being, a connection to a world of wild, inhuman, beauty. And because I had read of this bird I knew what it was.

Back to the first question. What is your book? It’s a harbour for the wild child, who feels uncomfortable in its own skin as it looks around and tries to make some sense of an adult world where grown ups say one thing and behave in a completely different way. It’s a soul song from two creatures who have grown up loving the world outside the human world, seeing the trees, birds, plants, creatures and loving them and their wild souls. It’s  celebration of word and image working in a symbiotic way to, we hope, delight the eye and ear. It is a catalyst for creativity, and already we have some beautiful music to accompany the rhythm of the words.

It is, for now, the best we can do.

It’s an acorn, a seed. If you water it with your attention we hope it will grow.

And one more answer to the Why? Because we have a responsibility to awe, or as Rebecca Elson said:

We Astronomers – Poem by Rebecca Elson

We astronomers are nomads,
Merchants, circus people,
All the earth our tent.
We are industrious.
We breed enthusiasms,
Honour our responsibility to awe.

But the universe has moved a long way off.
Sometimes, I confess,
Starlight seems too sharp,

And like the moon
I bend my face to the ground,
To the small patch where each foot falls,

Before it falls,
And I forget to ask questions,
And only count things.

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Where I am, and will be.

 

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Lost Words, Found Friends.

It seems a long time ago. It certainly is many paintings back in time. Robert Macfarlane and I tentatively began a working relationship around the re-wilding of language. At least I think that is what is was about. I know the roots of  the book stretch deep. I can only speak now of what it has done for me.

I’ve worked as an artist all my life, as a writer for some of it, but I have never worked like this. People ask me sometimes if I went to college or am self-taught. I do not really understand the definition. I chose the route of college into becoming an artist and was guided by tutors, and I am still learning.

This is what The Lost Words has given me, taught me: a sharper focus on the world around me, the wild at hand, from listening to and hearing the background of wrensong as I write this, to looking at the individual plants that make up a field, a hedge. I’ve learnt the shape of a dandelion seed, the scent of a conker, the space an otter takes in a river, the parts of a feather, how the shell of a guillemot’s egg is being used in textile science to make coats more waterproof. Focus. It has given me focus, on the shape of a wren, the flight of a raven, the song of a lark. And when your research is walking and listening and looking, growing the brambles in your garden, watching as magpies come and build your research outside your studio window, you know your heart is in your work and wild magic is your companion.

Next week The Lost Words comes out into the world with a flight of finches. It’s a heartsong from us both. Robert has written a wonderful essay about the roots of the book and the why and the wherefore. He references academic studies that will make you weep at the disconnection that has grown up between ourselves and the world. Our hope is that, with many of the other wild writers out there, from Nicola Davies to Gill Lewis and SF Said, Mimi Thebo, Katherine Rundell, so many more, we can turn this tide and help people to see the real gold in the world.

If you can, please go to Compton Verney to the exhibition of work from the book. It’s a perfect marriage of images and words in a beautiful setting. Check their website for opening times. The exhibition will be moving to The Foundling Museum in London in February and hopefully will tour to other venues.

And what else have I found in the making of The Lost Words? Well, new friends. Hamish Hamilton have at all times been a joy to work with, listening at all times to mine and Robert’s vision, giving us the tools and the time to make it and shape it into a reality. From the moment Simon agreed to publish this book, so unlike anything that ‘fits his list’ ( oh how many rejection letters have I had that say “thank you but your work, your book, your idea, does not fit with our list”), with Hermione’s wonderful project management of both myself and Robert, the design team, everything, and Anna and Rosie working away, Alison who designed the Lost Words typeface, so elegant, and all the media team helping us to make the book visible in a sea filled with new books being published, it has been a pleasure. Team work. That’s what makes a book. Together we hope we have made something that will sing to the wild dreaming hearts and minds of others. It may be mine and Robert’s names on the cover, but this book comes from all of us.

Robert and I have met only twice. Once in London when we first took our work to show to Simon and Hermione in Penguin towers, meeting beside a polar bear then navigating our way through city streets. The second time was last weekend when he came to stay and we walked with The White Cat, went to The Pale Moon Cup, talked in conversations that were punctuated by pointing to ‘heron’ ( flying over Abereiddi), raven ( all around), wren, dandelion, starling and the biggest charm of goldfinch, until I felt as if we had made the largest I Spy book in the world.

In London we were both so nervous. In his small notebook was the first spell, Kingfisher, unfinished. In my big folder, tucked under my arm were two paintings of kingfishers. Two, because I was unhappy with the first. Always hard taking those first steps into a book and even at this early stage emails had flown back and forward as we tried to catch sight of this wild thing we were trying to work on.

How I loved that Robert, too, was so nervous of showing this early work.

I brought out my kingfishers. He was reluctant to read his writing, saying, it’s not finished, it’s early stages. Desperate to hear the piece I asked him to pass me the notebook, but though I could make out the word ‘kingfisher’ the rest was impenetrable. So Robert had to read it. There was a silence in that room that was very special. Even in its early, unedited form I knew that I was going to have such words to work with, and as they landed over time in my inbox, and we shaped and grew the book, and resonated image and words, well, words fail me. Doesn’t often happen. But I guess it’s because everything is in the book. It’s a wild thing.

I repainted the kingfisher a third time, placing it, caught on the snag of a stick. He edited it again, again, again..

We are both still learning, every day. New ways of looking and seeing.

We walked with The White Cat, Ivy and Crazy Pi and Mr Robin.

Rob searched the hill top where raven pellets can always be found, feather and fur, skin and bone.

Rob did a bit of work in my studio, writing on a painting for me. It seemed much more fitting, this meeting of minds in the wilder places. And Robin cooked us wonderful food and knocked up a mean gin and tonic!

Oh, and we popped down the mill to do a guerrilla book signing. Lovely that Robert’s first meeting with the book in number was in a wild place. And Anna had dressed the mill so beautifully.

Anyway, soon it’s time to travel. I don’t want to use up all my words about the book. Just to say, it’s good to find new friends, and reading this article in The Guardian I feel rather proud of my friend.

 

 

 

 

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All that glitters

When I was young I had few books. The Orchard Book of British Folk Tales was one. This book of birds was another.

I loved this book so much, the illustrations which I would slavishly copy, learning the shape of a bird, the words. And now I wonder, is this one of the things that influence me towards the idea of having no title on the cover of a book? Perhaps. It’s so old now that the rich brown tawny owl colour has faded leaving only black and white. The spine is broken, pages falling from it. And I wonder if in 50 years time a grown up child will look back at The Lost Words in the way I look back at this, with love and that link to my child self that still lives so strongly inside me.

Published in 1967 this book links to The Lost Words. When I was a child there were more birds. Pesticides, pollution, cars, cats, hunting, trapping, all have taken their toll. But these small, wild creature survive around us and some even prosper despite us.

Soon The Lost Words will be released into the wild and I am going on tour for the book, to London, Cornwall, Compton Verney, through South Wales. I’m taking a painting to Dulverton. Last year it was seven rooks. This year it’s a charm that connects with the spells and the gold of The Lost Words.

I started painting it a few days ago, tweeting a bird here, there, building it slowly, drawing out the design as I went, with only the idea of teasels, finch and seven in mind.

  

Part way through the piece Chris from Storywalks sent me some words. The Seven Rooks had been an answer to something he had left in my studio. The original was long ago sold, but Number Seven have prints of them, will have prints of this.

 

Seven quick finches go teasel threading

Carding their quivers at the weavers wedding

Widdershins working before loom-ward tending

Seven quick finches come teasel threading.

I will be in the shop in Dulverton on Friday 27th October, painting, reading, talking. Do come if you can. It’s the most beautiful emporium of delights, and Dulverton in autumn is just gorgeous. The finches will have flown before me, and will be for sale in Number Seven, and prints will also be available.

 

Now, time to paint more birds.

 

 

 

 

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Think of a book as being like a pie.

Ever since I began working on my first picture book 25 years ago I have been learning my craft. When I first began I saw this simply as the art of drawing a story, responding to text, shaping a page, a book. Then it was about working my own text and pictures together. And people would say how lovely it must be to work in the children’s book industry, as if somehow that wonderful time when you snug up with a child flows back to the process, and to the beginning of an idea. And yes, it’s wonderful to be able to make objects of desire, which is what I hope my books are. But it is work. It is an industry. And it’s not always nice.

I’ve two kids and a mortgage, though my children are grown now. I began my first book the week after my son was born. Since then I have learned a lot.

So, think of a book like a pie. Not a pie made by one person. There’s a whole team behind a book; author, illustrator, editor, designer, agents, production team, printers and binders. There’s shippers and sales teams, and warehouses and storage. And  then there are bookshops and other booksellers. All of these people need to receive a share of the pie.

So, how is the pie cut. Well, author/ illustrator share 8-10% ( . although there are now publishers offering less these days to their ‘contributors). This is on the price the book sells to the bookshop/outlet, NOT as most people believe, the cover price. Agents get between 15-20% of that 4-10%.

A publisher will sell at full price from their website, though sometimes you will find the books offered at a discount from publishers websites. This, to my mind, undermines high street bookshops. They then deal with different customers. Now, I’m not party to my publishers’ deals, but it seems to me the most common price is 50% of the cover price. If they are lucky. More and more bookshops ask for 60-70%. If publishers sell through a distributor then the discount is 60-70% because the distributors have to earn their piece of pie too. The distributors offer a good service to the publishers, making it easier for them to get their books into shops, which is what we all wish to happen. And then there are sales teams, and if they are freelance then they too get a pie slice. For smaller publishers their share of a book profit, after production and shipping and design etc is around 10% also.

When some books are sold in large numbers and then fail to sell a publisher will be expected to pay for their return, or the books will be pulped.

And then there is Amazon. The only way they can offer books at the discount they do is to push as hard as they can for the biggest discount they can. When it comes to paying tax Amazon are careful to stand on the right side of the law but the taxes they pay as peanuts compared to their earnings, and they get huge tax subsidies to set up warehouses, tax breaks on rates, government money given to them without even a guarantee of a living wage being offered to their staff.

Amazon pay 11 times less corporation tax than high street bookshops.

Many people think it’s the seller who takes the hit when a book is discounted. It isn’t. It’s the publisher and the author. So why do so many authors still partner their websites with Amazon?

Project Goldcrest. Worth having a look at.

The problem with this is that bookshops can’t compete with the massive discounts, and many of them don’t want to. They understand that authors, illustrators, publishers need to earn a living. Also small publishers find that they are increasingly expected to offer the big discounts to bookshops and there’s no understanding that the unit costs for them are higher so the profits are lower than for the big publishers who can print in larger numbers.

So why do all publishers sell to Amazon? Well, they don’t. But if something has an isbn it will inevitably be listed on Amazon. They list everything registered. There was a time when bookshops subscribed to the Nielsen listings. Maybe this was before the internet. But this costs money, so now many small indie bookshops use Amazon as a database. If your book isn’t listed on Amazon it then becomes invisible and no amount of marketing, appealing to readers, will make it show up. Not only this, but some bookshops will then see that Amazon are offering the book at a higher discount than they can buy it for from their wholesaler, and will order from Amazon and sell on to the customer. Who can blame them as they try so hard to make a living ( and how many bookshops have had people browse, photograph books and then walk out saying  they would get it cheaper on Amazon. My worst case of this was a man explaining, or mansplaining, to Nick in Mr B’s how he should become an Amazon reviewer because they would send him books for free that he could then sell on in his shop. Argh. FACEPALM!)

If you are still with me, still reading, then you need to know that while some authors, a very few, earn a lot of money, many more who work very hard are struggling. These days sales are considered to be ‘good’ if you sell 2000 copies. If you take the sums above and do the maths it will give you an idea of average yearly earnings. Many authors supplement this income with school visits, and it’s good that now most literary festivals offer a fee. When people offer you ‘exposure’ as your fee at a festival think of mountaineers. People die of exposure. Exposure doesn’t pay the mortgage, rent, bills.

There is a movement towards fairer contracts for authors, illustrators. The Society of Authors is asking publishers to sign up to this.

 

So, when I say on twitter, please don’t buy my books from Amazon, but from your local bookshop, this is the longer argument.

I realise not everyone can get to a bookshop. I realise that for many books are a luxury. That used to be what libraries were for and perhaps if Amazon took their tax liability more seriously perhaps the public funding of services would be stronger. I don’t want to make anyone feel guilty. I just want to educate people into understanding the implication of the choices we all make.

A book isn’t a pie. I’ve read books that have changed my life, filled up my heart, challenged my thinking, soothed my soul. A book isn’t a product.

I’v met so many wonderful readers, booksellers who work so hard to make a living, keep their staff employed. We need to work together to level out the playing field before it’s too late. If we want diversity in publishing we need to share out that pie in a fairer fashion. Bookshops aren’t individual shop windows for Amazon. They are experiences. I’ve been to so many now as I travel the country. They have their own character, individuality, beauty.

I’m off on the road in the month of Oct, to London, Cornwall, through Somerset, across South Wales. In November I am heading to Lake District. My schedule is packed, but if you have an indie bookshop enroute then contact me via publishers and I will do my best to call in and sign stock for you. This is a link to my travels.

Thanks for reading ( a bit longer than 140 character tweet). All this talk of books makes me want to go and read. Please leave comments to add to this debate, whether you are a reader, a bookseller, a publisher. We need to keep talking, because we need to make changes.

 

 

 

 

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The Mill and The Lost Words

A few days ago I posted a tweet requesting that if people wish to buy my books they do it from their local bookshop, please.

It struck a chord with bookshops, authors, illustrators, but also drew some negative comments, which I did try to take on board, but at day’s end, I stand by what I said. If you can, please, support your local bookshop, bookseller.

For years now I have worked in partnership with Solva Woollen Mill. We have a glorious symbiotic relationship. They enable people to buy signed copies of my books, sending them anywhere in this world. All the books are sold at full price, there’s no mark up for signing and dedicating and over the years there is a growing and loyal band of people who have supported us in our endeavour. They package the books beautifully, and the postage helps to ensure the continuation of the local post office in Solva, supporting another local business.

So, let me show you the Mill.

You get to the mill, snug in the Middlemill valley, by crossing a bridge. It’s the kind of bridge under which trolls might dwell. Upstream, downstream, the water dances with light. The other day when I looked down into the river I saw a dipper! A dipper! Tom, the owner and weaver says that kingfishers flash up the river, otters live up the valley and one year they saw a baby otter.

Often a heron will stand at the weir sill, and an eel trap has been put in to enable the eels to swim upstream with more ease.

All of these, appart from eel, are Lost Words and can be found in The Lost Words, by Robert and myself.

Brambles grow around the mill, a willow tree, young, grows beside the river, ash trees people the valley and in the quarry opposite ravens nest. There’s also ivy in plenty, curling over old wicker baskets. Wrens weave in and out of the brambles and thorns. It’s almost as if the book is inside and outside the mill at the same time.

Inside the mill you can hear the sound of the looms moving and the weavers work, a steady rhythm, beautiful rugs and runners.

There are still about 30 copies of The Lost Words left that will have both mine and Robert’s signatures. We had 200 labels, thanks to Hamish Hamilton. Each book is also stamped with a unique stamp, designed by me, exclusive to The Mill and The Lost Words.

The Lost Words costs £20. It’s a big book, heavy. For the first run of books bought from the mill each purchase enters you into a draw to win the tiny finch painting, in watercolour and gold leaf.

The Mill have my other books too.

So, we are having a launch on 28th Sept. Come if you can. If not we will have camera ready to document the event. And you can order online here. If Hannah is around I will try and get her to make a film for us. In the meantime, I am hoping you’ve enjoyed a wander around the mill. And I would like to thank all those who have bought from the mill, who have supported us so far in our venture. People like you make it possible for me to continue to do what I do.

I’m taking a rest for a while. I have books waiting in the boundaries, stories wanting to be written, paintings to paint. Promoting these 4 books is going to be hard work for the next few weeks. I know it sounds naive, but when I stated working in books some 25 years ago publishing was a different world. I didn’t realise that in order to sell work I would have to do so much, away from home, appearing at festivals, book launches, talking about the work. I love the peace of home, the quiet of the studio, the wild of the hill and the feel of the sea on skin. I am looking forward to meeting people, very much. I’m also very nervous of events, speaking, talking. But I know I will meet many new friends, and, like I said, thank you. Without readers, without lovers of books, without people with a passion for words, for art I wouldn’t have been able to do the things I do. Thank you sometimes does seem like too small a word.

I do hope I get some time to paint over the next couple of months. I’ll be painting at Blue Ginger, near Malvern on Saturday. Come and say hi. They have artwork on show from One Cheetah, One Cherry.

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Mrs Noah’s Birthday.

Today is Mrs Noah’s birthday. Today she is launched out into the world. Here is more about her origins.

Mrs Noah quietly goes about supporting what she believes in. She doesn’t argue. The nearest she gets to preaching it to tell the children stories before bedtime. Magical stories she tells them, and one day perhaps James and I might do a book called Mrs Noah’s Bedtime Stories. Perhaps. Certainly Mrs Noah’s Garden waits in the wings.

The book is suitable for all ages, can be read to dogs, cats and other animals. It is beautifully illustrated, and is available in signed copies from Solva Woollen Mill. Also available from all good indie bookshops. On Saturday 9th Sept I will be talking about the book and its origins at Blue Ginger near Cradley, Malvern.

Between then and now it’s my birthday. But I would like to wish Mrs Noah a happy launch out into the floodtide of books. Long may she sail.

 

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Zoology: sending you to sleep with a dream of hares.

It’s late. I should be sleeping. Instead I am thinking of words and hares, and drawings. This haunts me.

At Edinburgh Book Festival I bought one book.

Listen, to the Brown Hare, by Gillian Clarke. It’s wonderful.

May she haunt your dreams.

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