I wrote about sock-puppets only a few days ago, and the subject certainly hasn’t gone away since. Today, though, I’m approaching the subject from a different angle: we have found someone trolling the Amazon book pages of one of our authors, and I would like to explain how we came to this conclusion and what it means.
Lyn Gardner is the author of our highly-acclaimed Olivia books – a fantastic series of novels set around a stage school and its pupils, perfectly suited for performance-mad 9-12 year olds. Lyn is also a theatre critic for The Guardian, so she really knows her stuff – as well as being hugely enjoyable (and I say that as someone who is most definitely not a performance-mad 9-12 year-old) the books have an immensely appealing authenticity about them. Julia Eccleshare called Olivia’s First Term, the first volume in the series, “a gripping story with a sharp eye for the power struggles within the classroom.” For The Telegraph, Dinah Hall wrote that the book has a “timeless feel … It has all the classic ingredients for nine year-olds.” And The Stage called the book “A hugely enjoyable, escapist, quite traditional series of children’s books.” Earlier this year, Olivia’s First Term was also selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club.
Now, I don’t mean by all this that because The Telegraph and The Stage like Lyn’s books other people aren’t allowed to dislike them. But they have been well-reviewed and well-received, and I think that is important context for what is to follow.
There are five Olivia books on Amazon, and four of them have received a single negative review each. These four reviews are written under different names, and none of the profiles associated with the reviews have written anything else. They’re all of roughly equal length (a single paragraph) and, to my mind, are written in a generic style of all-purpose negativity – but we’ll come to that in a moment. The really interesting thing is that two of the reviews were written before the books had even been published. One of them (Olivia’s Winter Wonderland, the fifth book in the series) won’t be available for another month – it hasn’t even been printed yet – and already there’s a sniping review. It is categorically impossible for anyone to have read that book yet (we don’t tend to print uncorrected proofs for reviewers and booksellers beyond the first volume in a series). So the reviews on Amazon aren’t by someone who has seen the book. In theory, Amazon users should not be allowed to review books before they have been published, but because of a glitch in the system from which Amazon pulls its data, Olivia’s Winter Wonderland appears on their site to be available now (in fact, it will publish on October 4th).
Here is a review for Olivia’s First Term:
I don’t find anything about the book to be dull and self-important, but there we are. On its own there’s nothing to find suspicious in this.
Now, granted, this book is not Trainspotting, but “Middle Class” strikes me as a very odd complaint (almost – ha! – as if it has been made by someone who is only trying to be rude). The speculation that the other reviews were “left by friends” also seems strange.
You will notice that this review was posted on the same day as the first one, for Olivia’s First Term. It was also posted before Olivia’s Enchanted Summer was available (the book was not published for another week). Again, it’s written in a way that seems to me to be gratuitously negative without engaging with the book itself. Of course Lyn is not Roald Dahl. Her books are nothing like his. It’s a criticism which doesn’t reveal anything other than a general negativity.
Finally, here is a review for Olivia’s Winter Wonderland:
This is certainly the oddest review of them all. Whoever wrote this has absolutely not read the book. I’ve not read the book. It doesn’t exist yet. This review is totally without merit, and whoever wrote it has been caught in their lie.
I will concede that the evidence that all of these reviews are by the same person is circumstantial: they’re the only bad review for each book, written to a similar length and style (two of them not only use the word “embarrassing”, which stands out as a choice of adjective because it is so weirdly applied, but also do so in the context of forced analogies comparing the books to dancing), by people who haven’t reviewed anything else, and the names are generic. But there is cast-iron evidence that at least some of them have been posted by someone who hasn’t read the books.
I find this intensely irritating for several reasons. Firstly, because Lyn is a friend, and this is petty, malicious and totally inexcusable behaviour, directed at her. And secondly, as her publisher, this is potentially harmful to the success of her books. If these were genuine reviews, then that would be fine – that’s what happens. Lyn knows that better than anyone: she’s a critic by profession. But these are not genuine reviews, and this person is not practising criticism.
So we return to the question – what to do to fix this? As I said, the review for Winter Wonderland should not have been allowed and only was through an error in the metadata. But all that means is that we were able to spot the falseness of the review with greater ease: if it had appeared once the book had been published, it would be far harder to prove it to be fake.
If you’ve read the Olivia books, we’d love it if you would consider leaving reviews for them on Amazon. And if you haven’t read them yet, you can read the first chapter of each on every book’s page of our website.
Over the weekend, all four of the negative reviews have disappeared from Amazon.
Well, the truth is that I have had a horrid cold for a ridiculous two weeks. The whole family’s been down with it, but the adults have had a particularly lingering version. This has meant that I haven’t been so up-and-at-‘em with my blog posting as I’d like to be.
We kicked off on the first weekend with a lively Pip and Posy event led by Axel Scheffler, reading the stories, drawing characters suggested by the audience from scratch and answering questions with a little help from – ahem – me and an appearance by Pip and Posy themselves.
Nikalas Catlow and Tim Wesson with their picture of a mashed-up character suggested by the audience: Zic Zac Zoo is a Zampoid (a vampire/zombie combination with one granny leg and one chicken leg) who eats rotting human brains and likes talking to ladies at the bus stop and playing golf
On Sunday, I spoke on a panel at a Business Breakfast about the Future of Books with James Daunt of Waterstones (whose comments were reported here), Dylan Jones of GQ, and Simon Morrison of Google.
And, finally, Helen Peters, who’d hoped to make a long weekend of it and had hired a tepee for her whole family, ended up taking shelter from the floods and wind with us for a couple of nights before sharing the autobiographical inspirations for her debut novel The Secret Hen House Theatre.
Helen Peters singing copies of The Secret Hen House Theatre in the signing tent
Hand-drawn thank you cards from Helen’s children
The festival was a triumph of organisation (thanks to the indefatigable Peter Florence and children’s programme organiser, Sophie Lording), good spirits and committed reading over bad weather. We had a great time, as authors, illustrators, publishers and, for those of us who squeezed in a few events as punters, as enthusiastic audience members.
There few things more pleasurable for a children’s author than fan mail. In my day job, as a Guardian theatre critic, the mail is more likely to bring brickbats rather than bouquets. But no child ever writes to tell an author that they hated their book. Although one little girl did take the trouble to write to tell me that I was her third favourite author. Ever. I thought third was fantastically good-going, particularly as God (cited as author of the Bible) was in the number one spot, closely followed by Jacqueline Wilson.
So when the letters arrive, via the Nosy Crow address, I always look forward to reading them. They seldom disappoint, and often they are deeply touching labours of love and invention, full of intricate drawings and brilliant suggestions for plots lines that I wish I’d come-up with myself. Not all of them have a terrific grasp of the daily realities of the life of an author. One recent missive expressed doubt that I’d reply personally on the basis that it was probably my butler who dealt with all my post.
As a child I wrote letters to my favourite writers, and I remember my daily haunting of the letter box while waiting for a reply, and the massive excitement when one came. I was hugely disappointed by E. Nesbit’s failure to write back. It was only years later that I realized she couldn’t as she was dead. I reckon answering the letters is as much part of the job of writing for children as actually writing the books. Like school visits, it’s energising and provides a wonderful insight into how children think and express themselves.
But technology is fast changing the traditional methods of communicating. Now days I’m likely to get more communication via my Guardian email address than I do via Nosy Crow. My Guardian job makes me pretty easy to find, and if the emails come without the delicious drawings, an email exchange has its advantages too: often allowing for an on-going conversation with a child over a longer period of time. Even Twitter can play its part. I’m going to a school in Yorkshire later in the month to talk about the Olivia books, a visit that was arranged entirely as a result of a Twitter exchange. That’s fantastic and I’m delighted by such approaches, but nothing quite beats the grubby envelopes addressed with rainbow pencils and covered in glitter and stars and pictures of Olivia risking life and limb on the high wire.
Back in August, we blogged here about a trip to London to meet Lyn Gardner, author of our Olivia series, that two lucky competition winners took part in.
We didn’t say what magazine the competition was run by in our last post so as not to spoil the surprise, but now that it’s hit the newsstand I’m very happy to reveal that it’s Animals and You.
As well as tickets to see Shrek: The Musical and copies of Olivia’s First Term and Olivia Flies High, part of the prize was the chance to interview Lyn, and Manon, the winner, asked some great questions – she even managed to extract an exclusive from Lyn about the fourth Olivia book! You can read the whole feature in the latest issue of Animals and You.
Our other exciting Olivia news this week is that we’ve just had copies of Olivia’s First Term with a brand new cover (and more purple). This one, we think, fits in a little better with the style designer Sarah Coleman has developed across the series:
We’d run a competition with DreamWorks Theatricals and a popular girls’ magazine – I don’t want to spoil it by saying which one! – for two of their readers to come to London to see Shrek: The Musical and to interview Lyn Gardner, the author of the Olivia series. Lyn, of course, is entirely at home in the theatre, being the Guardian’s theatre critic, and the theatre setting suited the dramatic aspect of the Olivia books perfectly.
It was a great day! The winners, Manon and Holly (pictured above, with Lyn), came to London from Wales, accompanied by Manon’s mum, Sally. They were absolutely charming… and very photogenic.
The girls’ questions for Lyn were first rate – they’d won the magazine competition on the strength of them – and they’d even rehearsed a dance routine to entertain Lyn with. Not only that, they made up a routine to teach to Lyn, too!
Cue some CRACKING photo opportunities…
I can confirm that Lyn not only gave excellent responses to the excellent questions, she also demonstrated herself to be pretty nifty on her feet! The step-shuffle-glide-together proved absolutely no problem…
The venue for the interview and impromptu dance lesson was the theatre’s Royal Retiring Room. It was breathtakingly grand. The theatre team took care of us all (BIG thanks to our magnificent red coat, Anthony, who was assigned to look after us) and our treatment throughout the day was every bit as royal as our retiring room. I want to give a massive thanks to Lyn for being so brilliant and game, to Dominic for taking such great photos, to Manon and Holly for being so utterly wonderful and professional, and to Sally for being such terrific company while the others were interviewing/tap-dancing/getting ready for their close-ups.
I didn’t get to see the play, but I know from Lyn’s tweets and a very thoughtful ‘thank you’ e-mail from Sally, that Shrek: The Musical was a hit with everyone. So, the day was over – a fat lady hadn’t sung, but a fat monster had – and now we just need to see what the final magazine feature looks like! Watch this space…
Now that Summer is most certainly upon us (evidenced at Nosy Crow by the fact that almost everyone is on holiday), the ritual of reading round-ups has been getting its yearly airing in the press. Without wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth – we’ve been very pleased with the inclusion of our books in so many round-ups – there seems to me to be something a little… unsatisfactory about the criteria for these lists. Surely, in order to qualify as a great Summer read, a book ought to have more going for it than a recent publication date.
There is, of course, all kinds of ways one could choose to define a good Summer book. Some – like our Mega Mash-Up series – are brilliant for keeping children occupied on long journeys or during days at home. Others, like Noodle Loves the Beach and Bizzy Bear: Off We Go!, evoke Summer quite literally. And stories like Dinosaur Dig! somehow encapsulate the outdoorsy, spirit-of-adventure feeling that Summer represents when you’re young – or, as Camilla put it to me in an email from the road, “Summer is about liberation isn’t it – from school, parents and routine, and in theory, the weather.”
When I asked for everyone’s suggestions here (before they all left), we decided to restrict ourselves to books that actually take place over the Summer. Needless to say, as with every previous discussion on the subject of favourite books of one sort or another, the debate swiftly dissolved into endless one-upmanship, but out of this, I’m pleased to say, came some truly excellent suggestions.
As ever, we’d love to hear your favourites, so please leave your comments at the bottom of the page or on Twitter.
Dom, pipped to the post for The Wind in the Willows, chose Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, saying that, “Some of the scenes from that book were so vivid, they’ve become practically my own memories. It’s the book equivalent of Inception!”
Camilla’s first suggestion is The Enchanted Wood, by Enid Blyton – and she has exactly the measure of a lot of Blyton’s books:
“Ginger beer, doorstep sandwiches and smugglers coves – in fact the very holiday I am just embarking on, though of course it never seemed to rain and I bet they didn’t spend hours sitting in a traffic jam on the A30.”
My choices are, for much the same reason as Camilla, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, as well as A Spoonful of Jam by Michelle Magorian and Raspberries on the Yangtze by Karen Wallace, both of which have sort-of magical qualities about them. And finally, I believe I would be remiss not to mention the summer strips of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoons (pictured above), which, like all of our choices, cannot capture everything that’s wonderful about Summer, but certainly go a long way towards trying.
Now – over to you!
We’ve had some Twitter recommendations with the hashtag #summerreads:
@rogue_eight suggested The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by Alan Garner
Last week (ahem – apologies, but life has got in the way of this post) we published two great new novels in print and ebook formats.
The first is Olivia’s First Term by Lyn Gardner, theatre critic for The Guardian newspaper. This is Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers meets Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes with a bit of Pamela Brown’s The Swish of the Curtain thrown in for deliciously good measure. It’s about friendship, family and performing, and its target audience is girls of 9+.
Parents in Touch says it’s “the first in a very promising new series from Nosy Crow – a relatively new publisher. I can see the series being an instant hit with girls, who will love the thought of the glamour of stage school – or is it glamorous?”
The School Run says “Girls will love this book, it is a great story, with many messages within the story about friendship… I am sure this series could become as popular as Enid Blytons Malory towers and St Clare’s series! I for one am looking forward to the next in the series to be released.”
The second is Perfectly Reflected by S C Ransom, and is the sequel to Small Blue Thing. A paranormal romance for young teens and pre-teens with an iconic London setting – the focus of the action is the River Thames and St Paul’s Cathedral, it’s about teenage schoolgirl Alex, and her battle with the evil Catherine, who has managed to cross over to our world from the world of the ghostly Dirges, who are doomed to steal the happiness of others in order to survive. Catherine has a grudge, and is determined to make Alex’s life misterable, and what better way to do that than to keep Alex apart from Callum, who is trapped in the world of the Dirges? You can find out more about the books on the series website.
Networked Blogs says, “If Small Blue Thing was a paranormal romance, Perfectly Reflected is a paranormal thriller … There’s always a worry that the second of a series may not live up to the expectations created by the first – happily this is not the case here and the twists and turns will keep you hooked to the last page.”
Congratulations to Lyn Gardner and S C Ransom on publication!
These books bring our total number of print/ebook publications to (drumroll) 12.
The London Book Fair, which has less of a rights focus and more of an export focus and is a general (as opposed to a children’s books) book fair, is very much secondary in importance to the Bologna Book Fair for Nosy Crow. It was particularly tough to focus on it this year as it came so hard on the heels of the Bologna Book Fair. It’s a fair at which, this year and last, we haven’t taken a stand, though I think we may have to rethink that for next year, given the number of messages left for us with the kind people of the Independent Publishers Guild stand.
On Tuesday and on Wednesday (when Axel was, with Julia Donaldson, combined “author of the day”), Kate had a series of rights appointments. Some were with publishers who, for one reason or another, we were unable to see at Bologna, and some were follow-ups to Bologna apointments. We also had the chance to meet up with a few UK bookshop and other buyers.
Nosy Crow had been invited to participate in a Publishers Association presentation of key titles for the second half of the year to independent booksellers. We were the last of 12 publishers, and, the session was, perhaps inevitably, a bit of a “death-by-powerpoint” kind of thing, so we entirely abandoned our powerpoint, and spoke about just four things we’re publishing in the second half of this year, which I felt (on the hoof) gave some sense of the age-range and kind of books we cover: Pip and Posy: The Scary Monster ; Mega Mash-ups: Pirates and Ancient Egyptians in a Haunted Museum ; Olivia Flies High ; and our Christmas picture book, Just Right. Realistically, after seeing 70-odd titles, I thought that there wasn’t a chance of anyone remembering much about individual books, but I hoped that, by taking the less conventional approach, the independent booksellers would remember Nosy Crow, so that, when their Bounce rep came calling, they’d feel positively disposed towards the books.
The photo above, which is as unflattering as it is grainy, was taken by Tom Bonnick, who’s interning with us. We wanted to check that his standards of photography are on the same level as our own if he is to continue to intern for us, and I am happy to say that they are! He did just take it with a phone, though, and from a long way away.
One of the great things about the publishing industry is how many people leave it.
They leave it, in that they leave big publishing companies and corporate life, and then they become experienced, highly-skilled and very creative freelancers.
Steph is our Head of Design, but that doesn’t stop us, and her, working with a range of different freelancers.
One freelancer that Nosy Crow has got very friendly with is Nicola Theobald, who’s worked at Random and Orchard and who’s been working on some of our fiction covers. Here she is (on the left) with Kirsty choosing foil for the cover of Adam Frost’sDanny Danger and the Cosmic Remote, the first book in a series that she’s desiging for us.
2. Kate’s notebook, open for the energetic but incompetent sketching to which she resorts when talking about covers, something that strikes despair into the heart of every designer she’s ever worked with
3. Cake. Almond and apricot. Very delicious. Made by Kirsty for the occasion.
“I was off to Waterstones today, to show them material on our books from May to August. May is the first month in which we have more than one book or pair of books from the same series, so that felt like a bit of a breakthrough.
Lyn Gardner is a terrific children’s writer and a Guardian theatre critic, who has brought her skill, her passion and her knowledge together to create the Olivia books, which are classy-but-commercial Ballet Shoes meets Malory Towers for today’s 8+ reader. The first book in the series, Olivia’s First Term publishes in June.
Dinosaur Dig! is Penny Dale’s innovative combination of two things many children, and many little boys in particular, love: dinosaurs and diggers. These dinosaurs are (spoiler alert!) digging a swimming pool and making a lot of noise about it. The book was inspired by Penny’s construction vehicle-obsessed grandson, Zachary, to whom the book is dedicated. The book publishes in May.
The Noodle books by French illustrator Marion Billet are touch and feel books with a very attractive panda character whose life reflects the daily activities and excitements of most babies under the age of 18 months. Two books publish in May and two in August.
Where possible, we try to make sure that books with a summery themes, featuring holidays, or swimming, or beaches, which are, therefore, possible summer reading promotion contenders, are published in these months, so the ocean setting of the third Mega Mash-up, the beach holiday theme of Bizzy Bear: Off We Go! and of Noodle Loves the Beach, as well as the swimming pool finale of Dinosaur Dig! all make them books we think babies and children would be in the right frame of mind for as the weather gets warmer. Trudging through the rain, weaving round discarded and desiccated Christmas trees this morning, it was hard to believe we’d ever see summer again, but publishing is always about thinking ahead: full-colour books take months to get from the printer to the warehouse, and we are selling rights and doing highlights presentations up nine months, and even more, ahead of the books being available to readers.
The first presentation – to Waterstones – went very well. Lots more presentations to come…”
Yesterday, Kate met up with Neal Hoskins (pictured) of Winged Chariot in the Crow’s Nest to talk about the opportunities for collaboration amongst apps publishers, and, specifically, children’s apps publishers. For all of us involved in apps publishing, the challenge is how people – parents in our case – find good apps among the ever-growing sea of apps on the store.
They also talked about the Bologna Tools of Change Conference 2011, which Neal is heavily involved in, and at which Kate will be a keynote speaker.
Then Kate and Imogen left for the Bounce Marketing sales conference for April to August titles in Islington, wrapping fizzy wine in the back of the car to give to the Bounce reps so they could drink to Nosy Crow’s first book (Small Blue Thing) being published on 13 January 2011. Kate presented to an enthusiastic audience of 18, and it was great to see how many of the reps had already read many of the titles: Bizzy Bear and Pip and Posy were being enthusiastically read by one sales manager’s two year-old. The six year-old “reluctant artist” son of one of the reps had loved completing his first Mega Mash-up book. And one of the reps told everyone how much she’d LOVEDOlivia’s First Term.
After a meeting at the Publisher’s Association about World Book Day 2012 (which’ll be the subject of another post), Kate met up with Imogen and Kirsty at Bounce’s Christmas Party, and Kirsty and Kate had to be asked to leave as the pub was closing. A fine time was had by all.