Thursday, February 23, 2023

The future looks bookish.

I recently received this email from David Shelley at Hachette Publishing, along with many other contributors to the book industry, and am sharing it here as it contains some beautifully positive, useful and curious insights into the landscape of books right now, as we move away from a pandemic into a different set of 'challenging' circumstances.

As you will know, I love books - buying, reading, designing and illustrating them - and people sometimes ask me whether 'books are dead', or on the decline; the rather simplistic assumption being that digital advances have somehow pushed paper books off the shelf.

One of the loveliest highlights is learning that things are actually rather good in the book world. Not fabulously, sunnily glowing, but productively optimistic, fuelled by a return to reading courtesy of pandemic-enforced hibernation, and a significant growth in the numbers of younger readers.

It's long, but well worth the read if, like me, you're a bit soul-tired of bad news, sad endings, scary AI stories and financial and political developments which feel at best threatening, and at their worst (usually at around 3am), malevolent. Take some joy from David's words as he talks about the growth in reading, strong book sales in Ukraine, Tik-Tokers' love for books - and an uptick in the manufacture of book cases!

(I also noted excitedly that Hachette have bought Paperblanks, whose delicious, bejewelled notebooks I have bought for years. Having not seen them around recently, I'm glad to hear they're still going to be there for my fevered collector's hands.)

Enjoy this chunk of gently uplifting news. It has been lightly edited for brevity.


Dear authors, translators and illustrators,


I’m writing at the end of another eventful year to give an annual update on the current books market, to share some information about what’s happening at Hachette, and thoughts about what 2023 might hold for book publishing. 
As I think it’s important to find reasons to be cheerful right now, I thought I’d start with a few pieces of positive information about the overall state of the books market. Firstly, the data to the end of October shows that print book sales in the UK slightly increased in 2022 on 2021 – which was already a buoyant year for sales. Our figures show that audiobook sales have also shown some growth, and that ebook sales have remained steady.
Given the economic challenges in the UK, this is extremely heartening to see. There is a truism that two products are more able to withstand recessions than most – books and chocolate, because both are affordable luxuries that repay investment with great pleasure. For the hours of enjoyment that one gets from books and the depth of their emotional impact, I think they are terrific value for money compared to many other forms of entertainment (gaming, cinema, TV), and this year’s robust sales bear this out.
It is even better to see because, as has been well-documented, there was a boom in reading during lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. The fact that the market has remained strong – and a long way up on the pre-Covid sales of 2019 - suggests that even after lockdowns had ended, people have kept up the reading habit. Looking back in history, there is precedent for this: there was a marked and permanent jump up in sales of novels after the Second World War as it was a habit that many acquired during that time. The hope is that these readers acquired during the Covid era will remain with us in the future.
In terms of trends in the market, the other thing to feel hopeful about is the boom in younger readers. We are seeing TikTok as an incredibly strong driver of book recommendations and sales, and much of this market is made up of teenagers and twentysomethings. Their preference is predominantly for physical books, and there is great focus from this market on the production values of books and an emphasis on collectability. One nice side-effect is a boom in the production of bookcases after gradual decline in previous years; many teenagers now have a large collection of books and want to display them. Plus there has been a real rise in the popularity of subscription boxes, where readers get a book every month; it feels like another testament to the power of curation, and how much people like having a book chosen for them.
Some key themes in fiction include novels that feature or combine romance, fantasy, suspense and that have inclusion at their heart. It’s always hard to generalise but a lot of the bestsellers recommended on TikTok feature worlds and experiences that are different to the reader’s own. I think we’re also seeing a (welcome) dissolving of borders between genres. Research has long shown that readers often don’t read within narrow genre parameters – ie wouldn’t categorise themselves as a ‘crime reader’ or ‘science fiction reader’ and that seems to be more true than ever for younger readers now who are more influenced by story and character than genre. As someone who used to work as an editor predominantly within a genre (crime) and was frequently annoyed by the way this was used by those outside it to compartmentalise or reduce the impact of it, I couldn’t be more pleased to see this largely artificial industry system start to crumble.
In non-fiction we have seen a real rise in our specialist publishing. Even though the internet holds information on every conceivable subject, people are increasingly turning to books to give them trusted, fact-checked and detailed information on a particular issue that they are invested in. One example of this is the success of our Jessica Kingsley list, which is the world’s leading publisher in the fields of autism, arts therapies and gender diversity and sold more books than ever in 2022.
One other very positive phenomenon is the continued rise of independent bookshops, not just in the UK but also in India, Australia and other key markets. The rise of ethical consumerism and localism seems to have grown during 2020-21 and we are seeing more consumers who want to buy their books from local and independent retailers. It’s something we’re keen on here as the hand-selling independent booksellers do can often launch an author’s career, and it’s why we’re proud to work with the Booksellers Association and to be the official sponsor of Independent Bookshops Week which had its biggest and best year yet in 2022.
The Future
I think it would be probably be reckless right now to try to predict what even the near future will hold for our industry as things are changing so fast. But the things we are gearing up for in 2023 are a continuation of the supply chain and consumer confidence challenges I mentioned earlier – none of these look set to get any better in the immediate future – yet also, I hope, a continued recognition that books are a vital way of getting through difficult times. Thinking about the books published across our lists, they variously provide escapism and entertainment; an educational route towards success; a means to help improve health, wellbeing or life satisfaction; a deep dive into complex issues that cannot be adequately covered in a social media post or newspaper article; a route into other people’s psychology; a source of joy for adults and children alike; and a vision for a better future.
Lastly, I just wanted to share one interesting export sales statistic with you, which is that we have observed that book sales in Ukraine were at exactly the same level in 2022 as in 2021 this is in addition to various charitable books contributions. I think this is a striking testament to the bravery and tenacity of Ukrainian booksellers, a number of whom came to the Frankfurt Book fair and whom we met with there, and to the enduring power of books.

All my best,




Avon Called!

Cosmetics, jewellery and perfume mail order behemoth Avon asked me to create illustrations that worked with and around the model for their new fragrance range last year, in a campaign which has just gone live.

The 'Eve Become' quartet of fragrances consists of Truth, Privé, Confidence and Eve; each created to reflect a different aspect of the wearer. Taking their cue from womanhood and everything the word can mean, and presented in beautiful, contemporary glass bottles, the scents offer alternative vibes depending on your mood on the day. The company needed a collection of images that spoke to the changeable nature of femininity. 

Working with UK-based One Production, I went to London on the day that the PM resigned - definitely the topic of the day while we had our introductions - to be present at the campaign's photo shoot. Peering 'behind the curtain' of the hours-long process was a thrilling treat - I've been on site for all sorts of ad and photography-based things, but not a shoot quite like this. After a coffee or two I got to work sketching live on my iPad as the models went through their day, having makeup applied, hair tweaked and clothing pulled into place around them (with two very appealing dogs to entertain us in between takes - see below). Those girls were impressively professional - young, skilled and infinitely patient!

Surrounded by a team that included photographer, stylist, lighting team, director, photo editor and a catering and logistics squad, I wove my way in and out of the action Procreating spontaneous sketches. Not intended to form part of the final ads, these were made to capture a vibe that would inform the work later, back in the studio:

(Her name was Margeaux, and she was enormous!)

Back in the office week or so later, the selected photos were sent over to me and the work began. We'd already explored some ideas - two sets of suggested looks, one digital and one ink-made - so we had an array of looks to base the final pieces on. Here are some of the analogue tests:

And here's a handful of the digital pieces. These ones I absolutely loved, because they're very much in the realm of the kind of work I'm really into at the moment - free, energetic, and with a delightful amount of spontaneity!

One of the things I'd offered to do as part of this job - in fact, something I offer all my clients now - is capture the process of making the work. This is a brilliant thing to do for two reasons; first, the client gets to see the process, which can not only help to shape the final outcome but can be really useful for communicating how long something might take, and what's involved in adjustments, and second, small snippets of film can add incredible value when it comes to social media and passing those 'peeks behind the curtain' into the client's audience and customers. So the pieces for this campaign were captured at almost every stage, in closeup, for integration into the final ads:

The process of developing final pieces was a delightful sequence of back and forth between myself, art director Rich Gent and the Avon creative team, wrestling with the edges of ink, line quality, and just how organic the art should be. In the end, the final pieces were a mix of real sloppy ink on paper and digital work - maybe you can see which is which, maybe you can't!

This little gif was a tidy example of how the team blended my
live capture with video and stills from the shoot.

Thanks to Rich, Lottie, Lesley and Melanie for involving me, and to my agents at CIA through whom the job arrived. It's become one of my favourite jobs ever!

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

"I can't imagine a life without music."

Gordon Hayes, owner of Nervous Records, the longest-serving record shop in Hinckley, died on Monday, and a town is in mourning.

Gordon was our friend, and was thought of as a friend by most of our small Midlands town, it seems. With sparkling blue eyes behind spectacles gently channelling those of his idol John Lennon, he wielded the exuberance and sparkle of someone much younger than his date of birth might suggest; sharp of wit, firm in his beliefs, he was unfiltered in his kindness and generosity.

So far this sounds like the kind of write-up that would have him cringing, batting it away with a checked shirt sleeve while offering you a cup of tea. I can hear this distinctive voice tutting and laughing as I'm sitting here grappling for phrases that don't succumb to cliché. You can hear that gentle voice in this interview.

I grew up next door to Gordon's Dad, Eric, who lived at No. 4 Hays Lane. It was decades before I was corrected in my belief that the lane was named after Eric; it wasn't, as Gordon pointed out one day, because his 'Hayes' has an 'E' in it. Gordon would arrive at No. 4 in a rocker's jacket with long hair, cool specs, looking grown-up and dramatic, and I would watch as this elongated, slim 'youth' wandered up the drive. That's Gordon, my Mum and Dad would say.

He opened his shop in the 70s, and its history is the subject of this documentary. And although the shop's breathtaking longevity is impressive in itself, surviving recessions, streaming, online shopping and pandemics, this blog is about the man who ran it.

He bought our records, we bought his; he ordered in the rare things for us. We sold him records, he sold our 45rpm adapters during the years that we made them. He bought our vegan solid chocolate eggs and we drank tea. There were all the conversations in the Co-op; the joy over their vegan doughnuts, when such things were still a distant fantasy for us. His horror when it closed down - how far was he going to have to walk now! I still refer to brussels sprouts the same way as him, my fellow sprout-lover— ‘little cabbages’.  I even designed him a new shop logo once; I think he used it on paper, but it never made it to the shopfront (why would it, when his hand-rendered type stands as bold and clear today as the day it went up?)

And he was our biggest cheerleader when we released a 12" with Sage Francis:

Gordon came to our gallery events and surprised me with his never-diminishing interest in my work. I worried I was boring him if I went off on a work chat, but he was always curious. Maybe I was still the art-school teenager in his eyes; the one that would have walked into his shop asking for awkward records when I could easily have sought them from the 'other' record shop - the one I didn't like to go in, because the staff could be aloof and they never had what I wanted.

Speaking of work, his DIY ethic was front and centre, and a significant contributor to our own modus operandi. Of particular charm were Gordon's hand-drawn shop signs. Long ago established as a way to save cash, his beautiful, almost casually-calligraphic letters were called upon to write every sale board and every poster. He somehow managed to master kerning and justification without resort to digital means - no small achievement. The little stars too; check out the little stars!

I was emailing him a week or so ago, as he'd sent me his annual home-produced birthday card - always funny. His last words to me were "Again, just the one at the back!" - I chuckled, but it wouldn't be funny here even if I tried to explain it. Gordon's desire to argue his point was strong and informed, but he was also a listener. His lapel badges and posters were a neat non-verbal heads-up to his stance on a way of life - which you could choose to engage with or not - and wherever you stood on the spectrum of those issues, he'd talk with you about them all. His influence was such that, having had to give up dairy in 1997 as an already non-meat eater, I was inspired to cut the remaining animal-based foods and products from my life, like Gordon. We continue to live that way today, and in further examples, we're able to reflect back on our music-buying and identify the things that came to us through the Nervous sphere of influence.

In the hours after the news of his death was made public, Gordon’s many customers began deploying the word 'legend' - and when I looked it up, I realised it wasn't a lazy superlative; it actually fitted like the proverbial Smiths' Hand In Glove:

His legendary status came from his humility, his wealth of knowledge, his ethical stance, his humour and warm welcome. There’s more, but they’re all quality traits in a human. His existence on earth spanned seven decades, so not only did he possess a musical knowledge that was empirical and encyclopaedic, he had a customer base that was multi-generational: people all over the area knew him, but so did their Grandpas, their Mums, Aunties, siblings - and then their children. The poet Buddy Wakefield, seen with Gordon in the photograph above, said "truly humble people don't use the word humble"; Gordon's humility first and foremost seemed to shape everything else he did and was.

He's gone. But someone on Facebook said that they thought Gordon "was just always going to be there" - and in all the ways that truly matter, he will be.

~ The growing collection of tributes outside Gordon's shop today, 18th January 2023. ~

Photos: First (Will Johnston/Leicester Mercury) and last photo of Gordon borrowed from The Hinckley Times where I briefly worked as a typesetter of obituaries for a while. All other photographs are my own.

The Annual Fist Fight.

I've just seen someone talking about a website called My Future Self where you write to yourself privately and check back in later - either much later, or just a few months. The potential for encouraging, moving, sorrowful or grateful readings years later is all there, and it seized my imagination in the moment. What a novel idea, I thought.

But then I remembered I've been writing myself a letter every single year for the past 16, 17, 18 years - I can't remember how long, as I don't always keep the letters. I do it once a year, and I always do it as I'm taking the Christmas tree down, filing the letter in a sealed envelope deep in the decorations box. Then, when it's time for the decs to be put out once again, the letter is there, and I'm able to review where I was - and see where I am, in comparison.

Every single time I forget a letter's going to be in there, then I laugh at my own surprise, and then I see it and I put off reading it because I'm a sombre little sod with a leaning to the saturnine, especially at the turning of the year when Christmas is over and I've a whole year yawning out before me. No-one reads this letter, and I wholeheartedly don't want them to; I can't bear the idea. It's addressed to Moley, because that's what Leigh calls me and it's what I feel is most purely and entirely Me. And usually, in that moment, I'm feeling a bit small and mammalian with trouble seeing into the distance.

Moley's usually a bit sad, and the letter's always long and a bit rushed, because I write it between dusting and wrapping up decorations. I never thought I did journaling - I react to the word with the cynical lip-curl of a teenager who thinks All That Stuff Is Bollocks (which is a cringingly obvious sign I probably should be doing some of it) - but I realise this is what this is, albeit with entries a year apart.

What do learn when I read these letters? 

Well, I learn that I love to moan it all out onto the paper. All the things I can't say to anyone. I am very cross with myself, often. I definitely swear a lot and I stay angry about things. not exactly grudges, but if I spot something that seems to be afflicting me fro one year to the next, I can see that I get really f*cking angry about it. I like to take it all out on myself. I like to take it out on others, too. I like to choose a different sparkling fountain pen ink to do it with, the glitter gel pens of the same eye-rolling teenager much in evidence. And I also see that the struggle is real when it comes to giving gratitude: these letters have shown me year on year that I can only see the things that aren't sorted, that weren't done, and that still need work.

Work itself, actually, isn't mentioned that much - a significant book publication or project might get a nod, but that's not what this is about; I have Instagram (for now) to show me chronology of professional high points. When it comes down to it, my assessment of the success of the year hinges on three things, and is seen through the prism of those: my relationships, my health, my mind, and the stuff I didn't do.

I still have a lip-curling teen reaction to the idea of journaling, of brag documents; I'm not comfortable with end of year round-ups of my achievements on social media (though we do that privately, making coffee and going over the previous year's wall planner before we put it away) but I wonder if I need to rethink my approach. Because left to my own devices, left to my own blank page, I only fill it with ire. And the amount of stuff to be grateful for, and celebrate, is actually overwhelming.

"Beating yourself up is never a fair fight" - Andrea Gibson

Thursday, January 05, 2023

In Spite Of It All, Life Is Beautiful.

For 2022's Christmas project I decided, in a break from 20+ years of massive annual mailings, that I wouldn't post anything - Autumn's Royal Mail overwhelm, the cost of postage, workload and the strikes led me to that decision. Instead, I decided to make an animation instead, and make a very small print run for only those people I could physically hand a card to.

As you may know if you've already seen my posts in December, I chose to illustrate this excellent line by the band Idles; it comes toward the end of their track 'The End', from their album Crawler. The end of the year, with its political, social, economic and emotional landscape almost begging to be served a reminder of this line's sentiment, was the opportunity to deploy the words we've loved since hearing them hurled out from singer Joe Talbot's passionate jaws for the first time.

They were printed in a single colour using one of my tiny Japanese Gocco printers, which use a system that's halfway between a screen print and a rubber stamp. The Gocco can be notoriously difficult to get a good outcome from, but this one came out right first time and was the perfect printing machine for this style of work.

I've been using Goccos for almost 20 years now, and have made myriad projects with them.

A relative of the Riso (it's actually made by Riso) the Gocco is a 1980s toy made for children, also used by adults and now something of a cult item, and is a gnarly, unpredictable and joyful little beast which uses small screens that are exposed with old-fashioned flash bulbs, similar to the kind you'd get with a separate flash unit on a 35mm camera. Battery-operated, the flash bulbs are single-use, as are the screws, so this is robustly not a great environmental choice - but it is obsolete, with consumables hard to find (I collect them!) that would otherwise simply be landfilled - but I've already got an alternative screen solution lined up for when that day comes.

A to-size original is printed by laser printer into white paper, which has to have a nice and deep, even toner application - this can alternatively be created to-scale using the carbon-based Gocco pens you can still find from time to time. A new screen slid into the holder, then placed under the plastic window where pressure is applied to the lid - this houses the batteries - and the popping flash bulbs expose the screen. 

The ink's then applied to the screen one colour at a time and built up once each colour dries.

Those are the basics, anyway. There's quite a bit more to it than that, but I'm going to save the detail for a video I'm making to accompany the still-sealed Gocco I have coming up for sale, if anyone is interested! I already have four...five is getting carried away...

I Gocco'd some envelopes too, and realised with horror that about 10 of our best chums were too far away to deliver by hand (I obviously didn't think it through all the way!) so did post a handful using these brilliant google-eyed fruit and veg stamps I'd saved for a rainy day - they must be 15 years old at least! But not the 1000 or so I would have posted in previous (aka 'pre-Covid') years.

I loved how these turned out, and although I adore Christmas and every speck of glitter associated with it, I sent them to people with myriad religious views and attitudes to the season of Santa, so I made them gently non-Christmassy. For that reason I also printed a heap of extras, to put in the shop, as they carry a simple message of affirmation, without the tyranny of the toxic positivity trotted out from so many memes and home decorations. You can find them at while stocks last.


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