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Magazine

Beachy Books – a children’s publisher doing things differently by Philip Bell

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Article by Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin © 30 May 2012 Philip Bell .
Posted in the Magazine ( · Children's and Young Adult · Special Guests ).

I’m Philip Bell, writer, author and publisher at Beachy Books, a little family-run children’s books publisher based in the Isle of Wight. I’m not Irish but I’m married to a lovely lady called Eleanor, who is half Irish…

This is the story of how I found myself waking on a daily basis with a compulsive urge to get endless ideas out of my head and create stories and books. So here I go…once upon a time…

To cut to the chase I wasn’t born with a pen in my hand, but my mum (and my old Nan, RIP) always loved books, especially children’s books and picture books, and I have fond memories of being read to as a child. Unfortunately school quashed all that good start as none of my teachers managed to inspire me any further. I don’t remember having to ever write a story – it was all comprehension. I wasn’t allowed to do English Literature but I found my voice in Media Studies, where I loved analysing and writing essays on Alfred Hitchcock movies and making my own magazines. I left school thinking I wasn’t much of a writer and instead followed my self-taught love of computer programming –born out of wanting to code computer games– to do a Computer Science degree at university.

It wasn’t until I was a few years into the world of work, commuting daily, squashed together next to the dribbling and snoring, that I found time to read again and rediscovered my love of words. I bought myself a little laptop (I still have it and regularly use it for writing) that had an 8-hour battery, very basic, no Internet, and wrote every day. This was all before I ever went to a writing course or picked up a “How to Write a Bestseller” book. It was a golden time before the Internet had grown up and started showing off, or a writer could be easily distracted on Twitter, and when an eBook was just some text in Notepad.

I found as I got into writing I wanted to find out as much about the craft as possible so I did buy a few books on creative writing. The best told me to just keep writing but gave me some techniques here and there, the worst were prescriptive and told me that if I didn’t plan every plot point down to the last before I started I wasn’t a real writer! But eventually I tired of these guides and I craved meeting real people and inspiration from a mentor, so I enrolled on a university course in Creative Writing and learned wonderful things from published authors and died on stage a few times reading my work out to others for the first time, but picked up invaluable lessons in critiquing and finding my voice.

I knew my next goal was to gain what all writers who had trod before had got: a rejection letter! It was a rite of passage. And so I went in for any writing competition going and most I didn’t hear back from and then some I got shortlisted for and then finally the big rejections came. I had managed to finish a draft of a children’s novel and I naively thought it was ready to send – ha! I sent it to every children’s publisher and agent I could find in The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook of the time. And I waited. And waited. And then after several months the rejections came, one after the other, onto my doormat. They were all standard form, typed, rejections, mostly saying the agency was full or not taking on books of this nature or that they could only publish so many authors a year, blah, blah. I was disheartened.

And then one day I got one rejection that had been hand written on headed paper from a respected literary agent. It was very complimentary on my writing, but told me honestly that the story wasn’t commercial enough. They were right. I also got another saying how they liked it but had already taken on an author in a similar vein. I was both happy and sad. All that work, all those redrafts – for what!? But with some time behind the experience I learned it was positive and I was lucky to have received some personal feedback from a professional. I knew I was on the right track.

Some time passed… I did things… I got made redundant… I became a father… you know, stuff…and I did write on and off and kept reading and life and the need to work for money came first. But I found my writing experience helped me get work doing business writing, technical authoring, and I got some articles published, and then I got into copywriting – writing ad copy for clients like Microsoft and others. It was a blast and well paid but I still had a burning desire to write books.

I’m not sure exactly what inspired me to start Beachy Books, my own micro publishing company. I think it was my children and wife, Eleanor. She and I had always talked about how fun it would be to work together on a project, perhaps publish a picture book, with me writing and her illustrating. It’s probably the most competitive market to enter as a publisher, but we didn’t care as we felt we could do something different (perhaps an arrogant thought?) and focus on a particular family market and when I found out about Print on Demand (POD) it was a green light – no longer did you need vast sums of money to print thousands of books you might never sell.

Eleanor and I both shared a love for picture books and we were both reading loads every night to our two children (we still do). One day while we were out at the beach, watching our children running along the flat sand, jumping into the water and searching for mermaids’ purses among the pebbles, I got the idea it might be fun to base it all on our own experiences – write what you know, hey? It was only when we were looking through photos of our days out on the beach that we thought it would be unique to have the illustrations drawn over the photos, and bright and colourful. And I had really got into poetry and wanted the prose to be poetic in style as I was a bit sick of some of the uninspiring text found in “some” picture books.

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My experience and jobs in media, design, web and IT over the years served me well, as the skills were invaluable in creating the book and starting the business. I’d always been a bit of a creative DIYer and it felt so exciting to do everything ourselves. The learning curve, in terms of how the book and publishing world worked, was huge. And still is. Things are changing fast. Just look at the massive surge in eBook popularity!

And so to today. We have three children’s books published under our belt, all following the adventures of Jack and Boo, based on our family adventures with our children out in nature. We’ve gained loads of fans, won a self-publishing award and received fantastically heart-warming comments and feedback from children, parents and professionals. Amazing, considering we never thought we’d publish more than one book for a bit of a laugh!

Now the challenge is to innovate, to keep writing and publishing books, some picture books, and others, for older readers. We are still, effectively, self-publishing. I admit I shy away from the term, as there are still quality issues with many efforts, from what I have seen. We want to mine niches –and there are many– that commercial publishers steer clear of because it’s a risk, or might not gain a larger enough return considering the investment, or perhaps the idea cannot easily be translated to foreign markets, but mostly because they’re too busy (quite rightly from their POV) marketing and publishing books from established authors, who continue to sell in volume and have lucrative back catalogues. And I cannot blame them for that. We need traditional publishers but it’s also nice to have something a little different. And today people have the power, but with great power comes…well you know the rest. My advice would be to learn your craft first before you self publish and to really consider if you can do a better job. Every writer has a unique voice, we found ours, now find yours and exploit it. Oh and, you never stop learning…

I am proud of what Beachy Books has achieved. We choose to publish independently because we offer something different. We also love the pleasure (and pain) of publishing ourselves. If I write something I think a traditional publisher might sell better I’ll send it to them, but for now I’m happy doing it myself.