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Why book shops can be so much more than a sum of their parts

July 7, 2016

Book shops are just places where you buy books aren’t they? But recognizing that so much more could be made of the space they offer, book shops are now extending their role to do some very interesting things.

I talked to Dan Donson, the events’ manager at Waterstones Nottingham about this diversification into all things creative.

Tell me about yourself and describe your role as events’ organiser for Waterstone’s Nottingham (@WaterstonesNG)

As many of our staff do, I started as a seasonal temp bookseller at Christmas, ten years ago. It didn’t take me long before I became involved in the events programme. Some of our early events were with Peter and Dan Snow who were writing about Battlefield Britain which I found very exciting.

I thought there was more that we could do with a literary events programme in a flagship store like Nottingham that has a large venue room like the Sillitoe room. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing since then, except for a few other projects.

Like many booksellers at a book store like Waterstone’s, we all try and do as many jobs as we possibly can and this is something I’ve ended up specialising in, arranging a whole variety of literary and creative events. This isn’t just book launches, and question and answer sessions with authors like the recent one with Steven Dunne, but also talks, lectures, art exhibitions, writing groups. It’s really about any way we can engage with the community from the shop.

Although book stores may be there primarily are there to sell books, it does seem many have now realised they can also be places to bring people together.

Indeed. We also like to champion local authors, like Steven, throughout their writing career. He was originally a self-published author, but had a novel of such superb quality in terms of content and build quality as far as the book presentation was concerned. This was why we felt he was an author we could really get behind.

Many local authors supply their own books. We also get aspiring writers on our writing courses. So these literary events are a really good way to connect with the local community, rather than being just another retail outlet.

The thing that impressed me about Steven Dunne’s book launch was that you not only asked great questions, but you really cared about his books.

With Steven it’s probably easier to interview him than many established crime writers because I’ve known Steven and his character, Inspector Brook, since Steven promoted The Reaper, which was about eight years ago, and I’ve watched that character evolve. This was why I had a personal interest in interviewing Steven for the book launch of Death Do Us Part. It’s an event I’ve been working on for some time. Steven is a Derby author and we are Nottingham Waterstone’s. There is a friendly rivalry between the Nottingham and Derby stores, which means Derby should get him first. But I was determined to have the book launch at Nottingham.

How do you go about organising these events? 

I have a general strategy for the year. We have things like our LGBT events in the summer. I like to put crime panels on towards the winter and have other groups of events that give us seasonal variation.

In terms of how each individual event happens does vary greatly. Sometimes the process of getting from the ‘drawing board’ to ‘stage’ can either take months or a single conversation. An author might be available all of a sudden. For example, if I find a US author is touring in the UK, we can have the event booked the same day. On the other hand I can be talking to someone like Steven, a local author, quite some time until we get an event booked.

I get approached with about 30 to 40 e-mails a week from publishers or individual authors looking for ways to promote their book. Regrettably I have to say ‘No’ to the majority of them. But there’s always some scope for getting new events on.

What workshops have been run at the Nottingham store?

Most of our workshops are writer’s workshop. But we also do visual and illustrator’s workshops, as well comedy workshops.

For this we work quite closely with Writing East Midlands which is the largest employer of authors in the UK. These workshops are for any aspiring writers or someone developing a novel, or a non-fiction text, regardless of what stage they’re at, whether it’s still in their head, on a laptop somewhere or almost ready to go. Writing School East Midlands get established authors to come and teach them how to refine their work and how to look at it critically as well as how to take a lot of the editing process on board. This all makes it easier when it comes to publication.

We’ve had authors like Allison Moore, Victoria Villasenor, Paula Rawsthorne and Stephen Booth, who are all established authors in their particular fields.

What happens in these groups is that we run short sessions for anything from four to eight weeks at a time, during which the students get to bounce ideas of the authors and between each other, as well as received advice off the authors. It gives the students chance to really think about the way they’re doing things.

It all depends on your writing style. When I write something, whether it’s for copy or a review, I’m always tempted to go with that first draft, just because it’s ready. But if you rewrite it you’ll always have another perspective on it. So I usually find I put the third draft of whatever it is out there, because it’s the best one. I can only imagine the advantage you can have doing that with an author who’s been through the editing and publishing process professionally. It must be superbly useful.

What you’ve just mentioned is interesting because people think that writing is about writing stories or novels, and not about writing to provide information. In it’s own way you have to provide a narrative on the posters you create to advertise events, or for book reviews.

Much of the copy you see on the posters currently is largely mine. We also have a central design department who prints most of these posters for our events. Although I have designed some posters myself.

Usually, when I tell people about an event or a book, I analyse what it is about the event or the book I like about it and why I would want to go to the event or read the book. I want to put over what my reactions to the book were and then open that up to draw in a wider audience. The events are largely about me getting over the message of “Come and meet this fantastic author”.

Interviewing an author in a live event can’t be easy, how do you go about the process of preparing and doing the interview.

I used to take a very strictly structured interview approach. But I found that lacked what I was looking to put over about the author on the stage. It’s the type of approach where I might have just as well held up a list of cue card for the author to answer.

I’ve now started approaching the Q and A with an in-conversation format that is a little different to the ‘talking head’ approach. Although this can work well and there are certain authors, like Jeffery Deaver, for whom I would never want to use a Q and A approach with because his talks are superb. Why he doesn’t do standup I just don’t know, because he’s an absolutely brilliant speaker. In his case an interview would detract from that.

I moved away from structured questions to create more of a banter going on the stage. This was something that was easy with an author like Steven Dunne, because I knew the books so well. Others authors do need more research in advance.

So if I’ve not read an author before I will often lay out some structured questions or pointers for questions so, if any interesting answers arise from the questions, we can go off at a tangent and forget the rest of the structured questions. The pointers are useful, because I’m then never stuck for questions.

I always prepare for a Q and A, because occasionally an author can come along and not have a talk prepared, so you need to know some general questions that you can ask which can help to get things moving.

There are a certain core group of readers who come to many of our events as regulars who are interested in writers and writing. With crime and science fiction writers I often revert to their approach to research, because I know a certain percentage of our audience are always going to be pleased by those kinds of answers and interested in the author’s approach.

Clearly if you work as a bookseller you love books. What are you favourite types of books?

My default is crime. I’ll always go back to crime fiction, particularly because I started by reading Agatha Christie’s novels as a child. But every so often I deliberately push myself to go and get something in non-fiction or in literary fiction. I also occasionally grab a new piece of YA writing because I think that middle-grade and YA writing is the most challenging type of writing and reading that you can find. A well written children’s or YA book will stay with you for life. Michele Paver’s Wolf Brother trilogy being a case in point. It is stupendous and a book I always recommend to anyone looking for something new.

But when I’m at home or on holiday putting my feet up, I read crime.

Dan Donson

Dan Donson in front of some of his publicity posters

From → Interview

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