Ian B Wilson

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I am a retired secondary headteacher. I began to take up writing seriously in 2009 when I realised that an experience I had when I was thirteen could form the basis of a Young Adult novel; this event became the opening of Cover Story. Since that time I have been a member of three writing groups. I have now written three YA novels and have started an MG novel. Having had some encouraging feedback I am now seeking an agent for my work. 

In my writing I am influenced by the multicultural environment in which I’ve worked. Many teenagers want gritty novels but their parents, particularly in ethnic minority communities, feel uncomfortable about buying them adult books. I've sought to write YA books that are thought-provoking and controversial, but without sexual content or swearing to give them a wider appeal. 

 I came to headship from a background of music teaching. I am a published composer and have been a semi-professional conductor of choral and orchestral societies.

 My sport of choice is marathon kayaking, a field in which I have been a qualified coach. I love being on the water, where the cares and woes of being a Southend United supporter simply fade away

Ian B Wilson Discussions
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Hello all,I wonder if anyone can give me some suggestions on the start to my first novel for Young A…
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  •  · There's a lot of potential in that opening, but as the previous reviewers mentioned already, there a…

Thanks Julie. Interesting points. I do want to start with a bang and was trying to mix that with subtle character signalling but it might need a rethink. And yes, Alien Hand Syndrome is a thing. My idea was to use it as a symbol of involuntary action. How much are we really responsible for the things that we do? 

Thanks Rick. I'll have a think about those suggestions.

Hi Rick and Julie. 

I think you've both articulated my problem better than I could. The father has a protected identity which Tom's discovery eventually uncovers. His crime was that he killed a child when he was a child himself. So I have a problem. If Tom were to be 17 or 18 he would almost certainly ask his father about the marriage certificate. He needs to be younger and to be too embarrassed by his searching for presents to enquire, so that I can build the tension as the revelations gradually arrive. But the crime itself (although it is never graphically described) is probably too disturbing for an MG novel. So I think I've written myself into a corner.

The event with the marriage certificate happened to me when I was a kid, although the truth, when my dad finally told me, was far more prosaic. But in the two years in which I didn't ask him I constantly wondered whether I had brothers or sisters that I didn't know about. In writing the book, I wanted to explore the sense that children have of being unsure whether their family is really as it seems, as well as exploring the age of responsibility, which is another area of fascination for children. 

One agent told me that I should rewrite it for adults and make it darker. But I'm not sure I can do that because childhood identity is at the heart of the book.

I think I that my personal history may be clouding the issue and it's been really useful to get everyone's reactions to what I've posted.

Thanks Kate. That's really encouraging. I wish someone in the industry felt the same way....

Hi Rob. Thanks so much for taking the time to read. Unfortunately the plot rests on Tom not having it out with his dad due to his embarrassment over how he found out - I'd have to rewrite the whole thing if changed that. This exact situation happened to me when I was a kid - maybe I'm too close to it. 

Gosh. Thanks so much for that. After some very positive crits when I finished the novel (including a Jericho Writers editor) I submitted to every agent and publisher I could find. There have been lots and lots of false dawns. Now I'm at the stage where I've had so many rejections from agents and publishers that I'm looking to self publish. Usually the feedback is along the lines of "you write well but we can't sell YA" or "we don't like the voice" or just a plain "not for us". You've given me a much-needed confidence booster. 

Please do send me the latest version of the start of your novel as I'd love to return the favour. 

Hello Rob. 

Thanks for sharing the start of your novella. I think it has all the right ingredients for a good teenage novel - a girl adrift after losing her mother, the tension with her grandmother, the mystery of the crystals etc..

The first thing that intrigues me is that you're going for the shortened format rather than a full novel. I say that, because you introduce a lot of information in this extract (the mother's death, living with the grandmother, the plague house, the crystals, the healing of the cat etc.). When reading it, I enjoyed your writing but I wanted you to take your time a bit more and flesh out the ideas. A good example of this is the healing of the cat, which is a miracle and needs a strong reaction from the characters but is over in a paragraph. 

Hope that makes sense and is helpful. Good luck with your writing.

Added a forum 

Hello all,

I wonder if anyone can give me some suggestions on the start to my first novel for Young Adults that I'm intending to self-publish? I'm worried that I'm trying to do too much with it. Any thoughts or suggestions on clarity and pacing are most welcome. And I don't mind if feedback is brutal.....

Chapter One


The yellowing piece of paper wants to tell me something. I just know it. It pushes its way past the other papers that are falling from the metal box.

Pick me up and I’ll open your eyes.

So I do. The paper crinkles in my hands to reassure me that I’ve done the right thing.

There are two signatures on the bottom. 

Peter Thomas Smythe                         Sarah Brenda Hayward

It’s a marriage certificate. And, of course, it belongs to my mum and dad. Not exactly a surprise, since I found the box underneath their bed.  

Dad’s handwriting curls and loops like a rollercoaster – he’s the only person I know who can use a fountain pen – but it’s the writing under his name that makes me almost drop the paper.

Previous Marriage Dissolved

A flickering feeling starts up in my belly. I mean, I understand the words. But they don’t make any sense when they’re put together like that.   How can my dad have had a Previous Marriage? Has someone said something about this when I wasn’t really listening? Even my lousy memory would have clocked that. And how can you dissolve a marriage? Surely dissolving means tablets fizzing in water or an image crumbling on a screen. Can two people’s happiness just dribble away to nothing? My brain’s getting pins and needles. Things in my family are supposed to be simple; I’ve got a dad, a mum and a little sister, so there’s a boy and a girl, just like the average family, but now there might be complications. And I don’t like it. 

Under Mum’s name it says Spinster, which sounds like she makes clothes, but I’m pretty sure means that Dad’s her first husband. Shouldn’t Dad’s bit say Batchelor or something like that? 

Previous Marriage Dissolved

The dust from the papers is starting to tickle, so I hold my nose because I don’t want anything in the universe to notice I’m here. Outside, there’s a gust of wind, and my body coils, ready to run.

If someone catches me, I’m in trouble. You know when you look under your parents’ bed on a Sunday afternoon when they’re not around, just to see what’s there? That’s all I’m doing. Well, almost. I’m actually looking for my birthday present. Fine if you’re seven, but not if you’re almost fifteen. If Mum finds out that I’m doing this, she’ll put on her I’m-not- disappointed-just-angry face and ask me why on earth I couldn’t wait like a normal person. Still, nobody’ll notice if I put everything back as I found it, although it seems like I’m the first person to go under the bed in years – the musty, mouldy, manky smell is still creeping round the bedroom.

This was all part of a plan I’ve been working on for weeks. It’s amazing how many times you can get the word birthday into family conversations if you really try. Every time the latest games console ad has come on the TV, I’ve sighed, “I’d kill for one of those! Did I mention that my birthday is coming up?” I need to know if my parents were actually ignoring me or whether they were secretly taking it in and nudging and winking at each other whenever I left the room. What I’d hoped to see when I looked under the bed was the blue and white box from the front window of every games shop in town.

 Previous Marriage Dissolved

In school, they’re always telling us that there are lots of different kinds of families and they’re all okay, and I sort of know that, but I don’t like secrets because I like to know what’s going on and now I’m starting to realise that there might be lots of scary gaps in my life that I can’t fill. 

A loud click comes from the hallway. I almost wet myself. Without pausing to think, I stuff the box back under the bed. 


 Okay. It’s just the boiler switching on. Only Dad would put the heater on a timer in February when everyone else in Scotland has it on 24/7.

Breathing heavily, I pull the box back onto my lap. Surely I’ll hear their car coming along the driveway? After all, our bungalow’s at least a hundred metres from the main road. I remember Dad saying to Mum once that the reason he wanted us to live here is because it’s away from the town.

I try to slow my pulse so I can read the paper properly. Whoever stashed it in the hidden compartment didn’t want it to be found, but when I’d first picked up the box, I’d noticed from the polished black surface that there should’ve been more room inside. Holding it in both hands and twisting the sides made the front slide away and some sheets of paper drop out.

Tom – the Master Spy.

And now I’m gripping Mum and Dad’s marriage certificate.

14th May 2004. Peter Smythe and Sarah Hayward. Married in Glasgow.

Everything normal, apart from those words beside Dad’s name.

Previous Marriage Dissolved

People are always telling me I’m smart, but I’m still staring at the certificate like it’s a nightmare algebra question. But something is quite clear. My dad has a secret ex-wife. Or…a dead wife.

Someone before Mum.

Or is SHE my real mum?

My eyes jerk across the paper to check the wedding date. 14th May 2004. I don’t need to count back.

Panic over.

I was born two years after they were married. So Mum is definitely my real mum. It might’ve been cool to be chucked into a parallel universe where I’d have to tell my little sister, Becky, that we’ve spent our whole lives with a stepmother. We’d argue about our real mum. Could she be a member of the Royal Family? Or a famous scientist? Or a rock star in rehab?


It wouldn’t be cool at all. Even thinking about Mum not being my mum is like standing on a rope bridge in the middle of a hurricane. Still, there’s someone new in my family’s story. She’s there, at the back of the stage, but there isn’t enough light to make out her face. Have I met her before without knowing it?

I pick up the next piece of paper. It’s an official typed letter. There’s a crest at the top beside the words Parole Board. My eyebrow shoots up. What now? Isn’t it bad enough that my dad was married before? Surely neither of my parents went to prison?

I let go of my breath and my shoulders relax. I don’t recognise this name at all. 

Ashley Whittaker

 Whoever she is, she must have got herself in a lot of trouble.  



A panel of the parole board considered your case on 11th December 1990 and found you suitable for release.


And that’s when I hear the low grumble of tyres in the driveway.

Chapter Two

I leap up and lose hold of the box. OH NO, OH NO, OH NO…. Papers fly everywhere. Dropping to the floor, I try to scoop them up. But my right hand starts grabbing the papers and throwing them back down again. It’s doing a horrible dance that’s got nothing to do with me.

Not again.

“Stop it!” I hiss to my right hand, but I know it won’t listen. The fingers are wriggling around like maggots on a dead body. The doctor called it Alien Hand Syndrome. You know when a little kid gets hold of the handset for a remote-controlled car and starts sending it all over the place? It’s like that. My right hand grows a mind of its own and stops following my instructions. It’s like I’ve got an alien on the end of my wrist. If you get something like cancer you know there are lots of people out there trying to find a cure. But hardly anyone gets Alien Hand Syndrome. Everyone thought I’d grown out of it. Including me. Stressful situations used to bring it on. And this is definitely a stressful situation.

Mum must be inside the house by now. I’m trying to prod the papers towards the box whilst pushing my right hand out of the way and I realise that I can’t remember what order they go in but it’s too late to care so I force them in as fast as I can even though they don’t want to be shut away. Slipping through my fingers, the papers won’t make space for each other and poke their tongues through gaps in the lid.

“Tom, where are you?”


How did she get here so quickly?

Back in the box. Almost there…. Last one! Forget about the bit sticking out – just get rid of it!

Ramming the whole thing under the bed, I freeze as I realise that one of the papers has fallen on the floor. There’s no time to put it back.

Somehow, I manage to squash the paper into my pocket and race for the bedroom door. I want to ease it open, but my right hand keeps trying to shut it again and the door jerks and groans like a madman as my left hand throws it back. Then I’m through, closing it behind me with my foot and stealing into the dark hallway.

The bright fluorescent tube shows how dirty our walls are. There’s no sign of Mum. I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear the front door squeak. Could she have spotted me through the bedroom window?

Pull yourself together, Tom.

I press hard on the kitchen door until it bursts open. And there’s Mum, filling the kettle, the back of her woollen dress turned towards me. Shopping bags are scattered all round the sink. I can’t let her see my squirmy fingers or she’ll realise that something is very wrong, so I use my good hand to hold my bad hand behind my back and edge up to her.

She spins on her feet immediately. “Well?” she asks, head on one side, eyes digging into me. I step back a bit. 

Uh-oh. Does she know what I was doing? Is it so easy to tell? What do I say now? 

 Her nose points accusingly at me from underneath her glasses.


She puts her hands on her hips, and I can feel disappointment daggers flying at me.

She knows. She always knows. I should just tell her.

Then she bursts out, “My hair? My nails? Haven’t you noticed?”

Posing like a model, she shows off her wavy new hairstyle. The relief is so great that I almost melt into a pool on the floor. How’ve I missed it? She’s got a blonde rinse to hide her grey hairs. Tiny stars from her purple nails are catching the light. 

“Ahhh, yes! Of course I noticed. You look great, Mum! And the winter theme you’ve got going on with your nails! So – seasonal!”

Tom – the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

“Thanks!” She looks a bit suspicious. “I got them done while Becky was at choir practice.”

“I thought it was your rehearsal today. I was – expecting you back later.” Mum’s an oboe teacher and she’s always rehearsing.

“Didn’t you listen to anything I said this morning?” 

“I was listening, Mum. Honest. But I thought you said that Dad was dropping you off and picking you up?” 

“He was.”

“So where is he now?”

“He’s gone straight to the garage to finish his table.”

Typical Dad. First priority, the Man-Project. He’s carving a dinner table and it’s starting to look like something from a proper furniture shop. Once he’s got an idea like this, he can’t think of anything else. Until the next idea comes along. He won’t be asking me, “Hi, son! How was your afternoon digging around under my bed?”

Mum cleans her glasses on a tea towel, pulls a jar of spaghetti sauce from one of the plastic bags and starts making the tea.

“Your dress looks really nice too, Mum.” She almost drops the jar in surprise, and I decide it’s time to can the flattery. I need an escape strategy so I can let my hand settle and try to understand all of this, and there’s one place, apart from the toilet, where I do all of my best thinking. “OK, I suppose I should have a bath now. I haven’t had one for a few days.”

 My sister, Becky, runs past, mousy hair covering her pale face. She wrinkles her button nose and shouts, “Sounds like a plan!”, her grey eyes glinting, before disappearing into her bedroom. Ten years old but still quicker with the one-liners than me. 

I lock myself in the bathroom and lean my head on the mirror above the sink. My sigh of relief mists the glass.

We, the jury, find the defendant, Thomas Smythe, ‘not guilty’ of the crime of looking through his parents’ private papers.

Straightening up, I splash some cold water over my face and test the fingers of my right hand with the towel. It’s beginning to calm down, like the final twitches of a dying ant. The thought of Alien Hand Syndrome moving back into my life makes me collapse onto the toilet seat and fold in on myself. The last time I had an attack was three years ago, when I found out that we were moving to Scotland. None of my Scottish friends know about it, which suits me just fine. I’d become obsessed with the blogs that I read on the internet from people who’d had to deal with it for their whole lives. Hands that slapped their owners’ faces. Hands that unbuttoned their clothes. Hands that poured cups of coffee onto the ground for no reason. 

 As I lift my head, I hear a crinkling sound. It’s the paper that I’d crammed into my pocket. I’d forgotten all about it. 

Wait a minute. Do I really want to look at this now? What if it’s another family secret? What if it sets my hand off again?

Curiosity gets the better of me. Soon I’m easing it out of my pocket and opening it up. 

Another letter. Handwritten this time. It looks like one of those fake treasure maps we made in primary school, browned at the edges and covered with smudges. The letters fall over each other, as though the writer couldn’t get to the end quickly enough. It’s addressed to Peter. 

My dad’s name.  


5th August 1983

Dear Peter,

I’ve had enough. I know things are tough for you, but it’s not my fault. I can’t stand 

that place. Why should I put myself through it? You don’t need me there anyway – 

you’re a big lad these days and you’ve got friends.




What’s that about? I can feel the beginnings of a headache behind my right eye. Getting worked up again so soon would be a mistake, so I decide to save the letter for later, folding it up awkwardly and sliding it back into my pocket. Will anyone miss it if I don’t return it to the box? 


I pour a deep, roasting hot bath with plenty of bubbles and try to calm my bubbly thoughts. Soon I’m sinking into the foam and closing my eyes. I feel the heat stroking my hand until it relaxes and sinks to the bottom of the tub. For a while, it’s bliss. But there’s no way that I’m risking my phone around water when my hand can’t be trusted, so I get bored pretty quickly and climb out. So much for baths. 

Back in my bedroom, I find it easy to dry myself and get dressed now that my hand is back to normal. When I’m done, I flop down on my bed. Maybe this is a better place and time to make sense of everything. Sticking my pillow behind my head and steepling my knees, I go over what I’ve found out. I’d set out to find my birthday present, but I’d discovered three pieces of paper instead. 

 A marriage certificate.

A parole letter.

A letter to my dad.

Hmmm. I pull the letter to dad out of my pocket and smooth it out. It’s signed, Father. So, the person who wrote it must have been Dad’s dad.

Grandfather Smythe.

Then I notice the date. My dad was only nine in 1983. And yet the letter reads as though he was living somewhere different from his father. Was my grandfather separated from his family in some way? 


I’ve had enough. I know things are tough for you, but it’s not my fault. I can’t stand 

that place. Why should I put myself through it? You don’t need me there anyway – 

you’re a big lad these days and you’ve got friends.


It sounds as if my grandfather is giving up on my father.

That can’t be true.

Can it?

My memories of Grandfather Smythe are thinner than candyfloss. I remember that he emigrated to New Zealand before I was born and I’m pretty sure I’ve never met him. Somehow, I get the feeling that we don’t like him, but I’ve no idea why. Or where the feeling comes from. Have my parents’ faces gone all hard whenever they’ve mentioned him, or am I making that up now I’ve seen the letter? Thinking about it makes me tired, so my grandfather’s weird message to my dad gets filed away in a corner of my brain like an old school report.

Hi Dave,

Thanks for sharing this. I particularly enjoyed the meeting with Miss Titcombe which is well described. I liked the phrase, "and had almost collected him".

I agree with Libby that you might be starting in the wrong place. Describing a sense of ennui at the beginning of a novel is really dangerous, unless you do it with a good deal of engaging humour, as it may make the reader decide not to continue. If it were me, I think I'd start with the cross dressing, which I found intriguing. 

I think that you need to think of the geography of the room carefully. When you described Mrs Blatherwick's scent, I wondered how Gerald could pick out her smell when she was sitting opposite him and wasn't the only person in the room. Maybe better to say that she always smelled of....? Small point, but it took me out of the story.

I agree with Libby about the name 'Titcombe', in the context of Gerald's surname 'Kneebone', as you also have Gerald describe the girls as 'heifers' and 'sows'. I realise that misogyny may be essential to Gerald's character but I fear that you might lose readers early on with this.

I hope this helps. Good luck with your writing.

Added a post 

Of all the writing habits I have, one of the worst – the worst from good financial sense point of view – is that I like writing LONG books.

My first novel was a spine-breaking 180,000 words. Not one of my novels has ever been less than 110,000 words. The first “short story” I wrote was 8,000 words, which is to say miles too long to be an actual short story. Heck, even this email is likely to be far longer than any other email you get in your inbox today.

Ah well. There are some things you can’t fight, and my addiction to length is one of them.

But that also means that when it comes to short-form copy, I’m at a loss.

I’m not especially good at book blurbs, which want to be about 100-120 words (depending a bit on layouts and where you’re expecting them to appear.) Since titles need to be short and punchy, I’m not especially good at those either.

In a word: I’m pretty damn rubbish when it comes to coming up with titles … and this email is going to tell you how to write them.

Which means if you want to ignore the entire contents of what follows, on the basis that I obviously, obviously, obviously don’t know what I’m talking about, then I have to say that the evidence is very much in your favour.

That said, I think it’s clear enough what a title needs to do. It wants to:

  1. Be highly consistent with your genre
  2. Offer some intrigue – for example, launch a question in the mind of the reader
  3. Ideally, it’ll encapsulate “the promise of the premise” in a few very short words, distilling the essence of your idea down to its very purest form.

The genre-consistency is the most essential, and the easiest to achieve. It matters a lot now that so many books are being bought on Amazon, because book covers – at the title selection stage – are no more than thumbnails. A bit bigger than a phone icon, but really not much. So yes, the cover has to work hard and successfully in thumbnail form, but the title has more work to do now than it did before.

Genre consistency is therefore key. Your title has to say to your target readers, “this is the sort of book that readers like you like”. It has to invite the click through to your book page itself. That’s its task.

The intrigue is harder to do, but also kinda obvious. “Gone Girl” works because of the Go Girl / Gone Girl pun, and those double Gs, and the brevity. But it also works because it launches a question in the mind of the reader: Who is this girl and why has she gone? By contrast, “The Girl on the Train” feels a little flat to me. There are lots of women on lots of trains. There’s nothing particularly evocative or intriguing in the image. I don’t as it happens think that book was much good, but I don’t think the title stood out either. (I think the book sold well because of some pale resemblances between the excellent Gone Girl and its lacklustre sister. The trade, desperate for a follow-up hit to Gone Girl, pounced on whatever it had.)

The third element in a successful title – the “promise of the premise” one – is really hard to do. I’ve not often managed it, and I’ve probably had a slightly less successful career as a result.

So what works? Well, here are some examples of titles that do absolutely nail it:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Brilliant! That title didn’t translate the rather dour and serious Swedish original (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor / Men Who Hate Women). Rather it took the brilliance of the central character and captured her in six words. She was a girl (vulnerable), and she had a tattoo (tough and subversive), and the tattoo was of a dragon (exotic and dangerous). That mixture of terms put the promise of the book’s premise right onto the front cover and propelled the book’s explosive success.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that the title also completely excludes mention of Mikael Blomkvist, who is as central to that first book as Salander is. But no one bought the book for Blomkvist and no one remembers the book for Blomkvist either. So the title cut him out, and did the right thing in doing so.

The Da Vinci Code

Brilliant. Dan Brown is fairly limited as a writer, but it was a stroke of genius to glue together the idea of ancient cultural artefacts with some kind of secret code. Stir those two things up with a bit of Holy Grail myth-making and the result (for his audience) was commercial dynamite.

And – boom! – that dynamite was right there in the title too. The Da Vinci part namechecks the world’s most famous artist. The Code part promises that there are secret codes to be unravelled.

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

This was Clare Mackintosh’s breakout hit, about a mother whose young son was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. The promise of the premise is right there in four very short words … and given a first person twist, which just adds a extra bite to the hook in question. A brilliant bit of title-making.


So that’s what a title wants to do. A few last comments to finish off.

One, I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite rare a title alone does much to propel sale success.

Because there are a lot of books out there, and because everyone’s trying to do the same thing, there’s not much chance to be genuinely distinctive. My fifth Fiona Griffiths novel was called The Dead House, but there are at least three other books on Amazon with that title, or something very like it. That didn’t make my title bad, in fact – it did the promise of the premise thing just fine – but I certainly couldn’t say my title was so distinctive it did anything much for sales.

Two, if you’re going for trad publishing, it’s worth remembering that absolutely any title you have in mind at the moment is effectively provisional. If your publishers don’t like it, they’ll ask you to change it. And if they don’t like your title #2, they’ll ask you to come up with some others. In short, if, like me, you’re bad at titles, you just don’t need to worry too much (if you’re going the trad publishing route, that is.) There’s be plenty of opportunity to hone your choice well prior to publication.

Three, you don’t want to think about title in isolation. There should, ideally, be a kind of reverberation between your title and the cover. That reverberation should be oblique rather than direct. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go had for its cover image a butterfly trapped against a window – a metaphorical reference to the anguish of the book’s premise. If instead it had shown a mother obviously distraught as a car struck her son, the cover – and title – would have seemed painfully clunky and ridiculous.

If you get a great cover image that doesn’t work with your chosen title, then change the title. If you have a superb title and your cover designer’s image is too directly an illustration of it, then change the image. That title/cover pairing is crucial to your sales success, so you can afford no half-measures in getting it right.

That’s all from me.

My kids are making elderflower cordial and singing as they do so. They are also wearing helmets for no reason that I can possibly understand.

Till soon


PS: Want to know what I think of your title? Then I’ll tell you. Just pop your title (plus short description of your book) in the comments below. I’ll tell you what I think.

Added a post 

Usually, on Thursday afternoon or so, I start pondering what I’m going to write about on Friday.

This week: no pondering. There’s only one thing I could possibly write about.

The biggest book-related newsflash this week – or this year – is that Barnes and Noble is changing ownership. The ins and outs are a little complex (and everything is not quite settled), but if all goes according to plan:

  • An investment firm, Elliott Advisers, is to buy Barnes and Noble, in a deal which values that business (including its debts) at about $700 million.
  • That sounds like a lot of money, but given that B&N’s sales are $3.6 billion, the pricing actually feels pretty cheap – reflecting the dismal state of B&N.
  • Elliott is also the 100% owner of Waterstones, the British equivalent of B&N. Both those chains are proper bookshops, appealing to proper book lovers. In that sense, the chains are distinct from the supermarkets, who just sell a lot of books but don’t care about them, or the British High Street & travel operator, WH Smith, which is as much a stationer and a newsagent as an actual book store.
  • Waterstones was rescued from impending financial disaster by CEO James Daunt. It was Daunt who negotiated the sale of the firm to Elliott.
  • Daunt will now act as CEO to both firms – B&N and Waterstones – and will divide his time between London and New York.

As it happens, Daunt also owns and runs his own mini-chain of high-end London bookstores. It was his experience at those stores which won him the position at Waterstones.

So, assuming that all goes according to plan, James Daunt will be the book world’s second most powerful human, after Jeff Bezos.

So what does that mean – for readers? For writers? For publishers? For anyone?


It’s a big and important move. James Daunt has a huge reputation in the UK and it’s probably deserved. His secret sauce for success? Quite simply this:

There is no secret sauce.

In the UK, Daunt simply took everything back to basics.

He turned bookselling into a proper career. (Albeit, inevitably, a badly paid one.) He retained staff who cared passionately about books and waved good-bye to the rest, perhaps a third of them. He cut costs. He made his stores prettier.

And, in a move so radical that it shook British publishing to its core, he let each store manager select their own inventory. So, yes of course, every store was expected to stock major bestsellers of the moment. But beyond that, what stores sold was guided by local passion and local knowledge. From a reader’s point of view, stores got better. There was more energy, more passion, more commitment.

But publishers, for a while, didn’t know what to do. In the past, publishing worked like this:

  1. Publishers paid Waterstones a big chunk of cash to get into a 3-for-2 front-of-store promotion. So Waterstones was actually retailing its shelf-space. It wasn’t really curating its own retail offering.
  2. Some of those 3-for-2s did really well, and became huge bestsellers.
  3. Others didn’t, and the volume of returns was enormous (often 20% of total stock.)
  4. Publishers pulped those returns, ditched those authors and just made money from their mega-successes

That was check-book publishing and check-book retail.

Daunt killed that, and terrified publishers. How could they market books if the key step wasn’t just throwing bundles of money at retailers? [and if you want a reminder of the different publishing options, you can get that here.]

Well, they solved that problem … kinda. But all they really did was turn their attentions (even more than before) to the supermarkets and other mass retailers. Waterstones’ local stores are great and feel like real bookshops … but they can’t build a bestseller as they did in the old days, because each store chooses its stock according to its own tastes.

Daunt’s path in the US is likely to follow the exact same route.

He’s commented that one of the issues he feels on entering a typical B&N store is quite simply “too many books.” Too much stock. Too little curation and guidance. Not enough knowledge from the booksellers. An atmosphere so flat, you could swap it for cigarette paper.

He’ll cut stock. Reduce staff, but retain the best and most passionate members. Eliminate central promotions. Get better terms from publishers. Sharply reduce stock returns.

Do the basics, but do them right.

The impacts, positive and negative?

The positive:

Elliott’s cash plus Daunt’s knowhow should save specialist physical book retail in the US. That’s massive. It’s the difference between a US publishing industry that operates much as it does now and one that would be almost wholly slave to Amazon. That also means that trad publishing is likely to survive in roughly its current shape and size, rather than being sidelined by the growth of digital-first publishers (notably self-pubbers and Amazon itself.)

The negative:

US publishers will have to learn the lessons already absorbed by the Brits. If B&N no longer operates national promotion systems as in the past, publishers can’t make a bestseller just by buying space. Yes, they’ll go on seeing what they can do on social media and all that stuff. But, as in the UK, they’ll be even more dependent on supermarkets. The make-or-break of a book will be not “Is this wonderful writing?” but “did we get enough retail space in enough supermarkets at a sufficiently attractive price?”

I know any number of authors where Book A did incredibly well, Book B did poorly … and Book B was better than Book A. The difference, in every case, was that the supermarkets backed A and not B, and there’s damn all a trad publisher can do once the supermarkets have said no.

Oh yes, and supermarkets don’t really give a damn about the quality of writing. They don’t know about the quality of the writing. They just buy on the basis of past sales (if you’re John Grisham) or a pretty cover (if you’re a debut.)

Of course, they’d say their selection is a damn sight more careful than that, and it probably is. But that’s still “careful by the standards of people who mostly sell tinned beans and dog food for a living.” That’s not the same thing as actually being careful.

That sounds like a fairly downbeat conclusion, but the Elliott-saves-B&N news is still a real big plus for anyone who loves traditional stores, print books and traditional publishing. It’s the single biggest win I can remember over the past few years.

What that win won’t do, however, is weaken the hold of supermarkets and Amazon over book retail. Those two forces are still huge. They’re still central.

And of course, talking about print books has its slightly quaint side. Me, I prefer print. I hardly ever read ebooks. I just spend enough time on screens as it is.

But print books constitute less than 30% of all adult fiction sales, and online print sales accounts for a big chunk of that 30%.

In other words, all those B&N stores up and down the US are still only attacking 23% or so of the total adult fiction market. However well Daunt does, that 23% figure isn’t about to change radically. (Or not in the direction he wants, anyway.)

But, just for now, to hell with realism. Let’s remember the magic of a beautiful bookstore.

Daunt does. Here are some comments of his from 2017:

“[there is a sense that] a book bought from a bookshop is a better book.... When a book comes through a letter box or when a book is bought in a supermarket, it's not vested with the authority and the excitement that comes from buying it in a bookshop. …Price is irrelevant if the customer likes the shop. The book is never an expensive item, [particularly for the many customers who] we know are quite happy to go into a café and spend dramatically more on a cup of coffee."

Quite right, buddy. Now go sell some books. The readers need you.

Till soon


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Ian B Wilson
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