A substantial part of this was written some while ago. I thought, however it might be of interest to any of you who are not members of the Private Library Association, who kindly published it with illustrations in their quarterly magazine (Autumn 2010).

On re-reading this, I find that things have moved on a little. I have changed branches and no longer work in Harrods. A sad change as the store was unique in its challenges and its pleasures and I still miss it, some two years later.

I have added a few references to titles that I have enjoyed since I wrote this, and have taken the liberty of indicating this were necessary by adjusting the script to italic and placing these more recent thoughts in brackets.

I have also adjusted the odd bit of language that wasn’t quite right.

I hope you enjoy my musings…


I am one of those people who are lucky enough to legally deal in the drug on which they are hooked. I have been selling children’s books for some years now, originally I sold and bought them in Hatchard’s under the care of Mr Joy, more recently at Waterstone’s in Harrods.

It is an expensive game. I should by rights be purchasing books that I need, perhaps buying the odd volume for a holiday read. I should not be buying them for the pure joy of having, owning and loving the pop up of Oliver Jeffers’

The Incredible Book-Eating Boy.

I introduce customers with whom I make contact to ‘friends’ of mine. As though we have met accidentally as we wander around the book department in Harrods. The pleasure of ownership and of introducing two prospective friends are similar. For me a good sale (by that I mean one where I know the reader has just bought a book I know they will love), is just as good as a good buy, though very different.

It is why I do my job.

There are people who just collect books for the pleasure of purchasing the full set. An expensive addiction should your daughter start on the Rainbow Series, at present with over 100 titles in print. These are bound in covers that are glossy with bright colours and they have the added attraction of the possibility of finding your name on the spine.

There are customers who try to encourage their daughters to try and sample something else. Which can be difficult, especially if there is no thought to just diluting the series with another book. A little bit of the Rainbow mixed with a book to be read to the recipient. Perhaps The Wickedest Witch by Martin Howard, with its witches’ stockings spine.  If that is too much, there is always Olga da Polga by Michael Bond.

There are others who just want a good story. A really good story, something that will make them worry about the characters if they have to stop for school, or because their parent’s will insist on a reasonable amount of sleep each night.

Others want, need or demand pictures – often large and with as much detail as possible. Some would like thin books or short books where the pages number only double figures. Some would enjoy reading, but for various reasons find it harder than others to just sit down and read. Some would prefer to have books read to them and aren’t really interested to learn for themselves. Others start their reading lives with bath and board books.

Bath books for the youngest potential collector have very little text and most lie flat in the bath. It must be a disappointment to have your book about a frog, lie flat down under the waves somewhere near the plug, when obviously it should float and the frog should rest serenely in the centre.

There is a publisher who is aware that though a bath book is a book, with pages, they are also, for our younger budding collector someone to take to the bath and they should float. Upright.

I know of two such titles that have been weighted in the bottom so that the pirate ship and the duckling float erect, and don’t sink beneath the waves to lie languishing with the seaweed-flannel and the pebble like shampoo top.

Pram and cloth books are practical purchase on the whole, though some do have an attraction all their own. Usually when the characters and illustrations are taken from well-established books

Board books are a glorious introduction to the wonders of the page. Almost

multi-purpose; good for looking at, chewing and throwing out of a pushchair.

Parents who remember them from their own youth buy board books that have turned into ‘classics’ – The Very Hungry Caterpillar and other titles by Eric Carle and Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo are examples of this.

Some are sold in several formats, bath, board, noisy, and picture books.

The Gruffalo and the rest of the Julia Donaldson books, seem to sell in all formats – her name almost a guarantee of sales.

I must admit that the Gruffalo is as good as some titles by other authors, but being a ‘known picture book author’ does not in my opinion mean that your latest book will be as good as the best you have produced in the past. The classics will always sell, and are remembered with great affection.

It is always, however a good idea to read the book, appreciate the language, the story, the illustrations, and the twists. Some that have lasted may not be right, just now, and the new book by a good author may just have missed the unexplainable ‘it’.

Chris Wormell’s books include some lovely fables and an alphabet book (Mice, Morals and Monkey Business & The New Alphabet of Animals) in board book form – with absolutely fantastic linocuts both bold and beautiful.

Cliff Wright’s bear books are beautiful examples of an artist whose work has not yet received the full recognition they deserve. They really are superb books with gorgeous watercolours.

Two of my favourite authors of picture books and board books are Jeanne Willis and Emily Gravett.

Jeanne Willis wrote the first picture book that I ever came across that has no saccharine or sugar in the book at all.

The Tadpole’s Promise, is illustrated beautifully by Tony Ross, and is a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions. So much so at least one of my colleagues won’t sell it. The book has life, romance, broken promises and the food chain.  The story revolves around a tadpole and a caterpillar and everyone should read it. The book needs to be ‘hand sold’ to have a chance of a sale, and to the right sort of customer is almost invariably a hit, causing gasps and laughter. To the wrong type of person, only the gasps are similar.

It can be purchased from the Waterstone’s at Harrods straight off the shelf. I try to make sure we are never out of stock. I will be very happy to reserve copies.

Other picture books by Jeanne Willis include Who’s in the Loo? Brilliantly rhyming with a large selection of weird and wonderful creatures, and a fun use of language. It is a must read for people of a certain age.

Big Bad Bun, again illustrated by Tony Ross is a lovely reflection of childhood, and school reports. It really should be available with a small rabbit wearing a ‘Hell Bunnies’ jacket as a special edition and it would repay the expense of production with ease.

Emily Gravett wrote Wolves a few years ago. She illustrates all her books beautifully and in this there is a superb image of an oblivious rabbit walking along the back of a wolf, with fleas and ticks bouncing around him. This is another book with a possibly tragic finale. There is a disclaimer, though, and an alternative ending which should satisfy the faint hearted. It should be noted, however, that the last page shows Mr Rabbit’s front door and the post waiting to be opened, which indicates that he hasn’t been home for some time….

Odd Egg is another of Emily’s books not to be missed and once again it’s the illustrations that meant that I had to have it.

Her book Spells, really should be purchased in hardback. It’s about a frog, looking for a princess and love of his life – who finds a book of spells. The book is fantastically illustrated throughout showing the results of his various enchantments.

The picture of a prince, with the tattoo of his mother is, quite frankly, wonderful.

I have mentioned Oliver Jeffers already. His watercolours and tales are of a different type all together. Beautifully produced in hardback with dust jackets and a pleasure to handle and have.

Lost and Found was animated a few years ago and the short film showing the work that he puts into his illustrations gives some idea as to why they are so popular and are so beautiful.

My collection of picture books was started when my father introduced me to The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, The Peacock Party, and The Ship’s Cat, all illustrated by Alan Aldridge. The Tyger Voyage, illustrated by Nicola Bayley, is one of the earliest books I was given and I have a special edition of her illustrated edition of The Jungle Book. I was also encouraged to look for Joan Walsh Anglund books, always with the necessity of their condition being as near perfect as I could find. Though my small collection of The Brave Cowboy books, purchased whenever I find them, and treasured for their bi-coloured illustrations, cannot be said to be anywhere near in mint condition.

I have always wanted a good collection of Arthur Rackham, however the exorbitant prices charged for even late reprints has prohibited this. I had some of the Orlando (Kathleen Hale), books as a child, and have kept and loved them. Though they are sadly not quite in the condition they should be. More recently I have kept an eye out for good copies and where price allows I have bought titles I haven’t already got and second copies for those more worn than they might be.

This could become a just a list of gloriously illustrated stories for children, so I suppose I should call a halt having mentioned just a few.

Picture books seem to be collected by adults, rather than children, unless they have already been genetically infected with this collecting affliction at an early age.

Often they are purchased at book events with the request that the author and or illustrator sign them. I think, on the whole, though these bought by fans, rather than the trade are often bought more for the love of the book, the writer and the illustrators’ work, rather than for the monetary value they may gain in the future. Mine certainly are.

The first ‘chapter books’ are to my mind a bit of a mixed bunch. This is the point at which publishers can hope to have a series bought by young readers. The Rainbow Fairies and The Beast Quest books while not stretching their reading, have a place, if that is all that will be read, though there is the danger that the whole series has to be bought, (irrespective of whether the reader is able to read more challenging and more interesting titles). This can cause distress to the purchasers (if parents) and then to the recipients. There are a number of good authors, however that are bought and collected that are superbly produced for this age group.

Marcus Sedgwick, an author who has become a well-known name for older readers has produced the first few volumes of the Raven Mysteries, the first of which is called Flood and Fang. Originally published in a hardback edition, this has funny illustrations throughout the books with the raven flying through from page to page. Sadly it seems the hardback of Flood and Fang is no longer available since the paperback edition has been published. A great pity, as they would sell very well as a set for collectors.

Chris Riddell, another author who has written a substantial series for older readers as well as picture books has now produced three volumes of a series set around Ottoline a determined young heroine.  Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, Ottoline Goes to School and most recently Ottoline goes to Sea are illustrated with his fantastic line drawings, which are full of detail. In Ottoline goes to Sea there are hidden pictures within the obvious illustrations, only spotted if the free special lenses are used. These have not so far, been published in paperback and I hope never will be.

(He has recently published Goth Girl another book bound beautifully, with superb illustrations, end papers to die for (decorated with silver skulls and cross bones) and all the pages are edged in a beautiful glowing purple. The story itself is glorious, a ghost story with many literary allusions to be savoured and loved.)

Paddington, and Olga da Polga, both written by Michael Bond sell very well, though Olga is less well known than Paddington. Peggy Fortnum illustrated the original Paddington books and it is interesting that many customers will buy these in preference to the younger picture books as they don’t feel that the new illustrations is ‘…really Paddington’, though it has to be said that many do buy the new picture books for younger readers. The publishers did do a 50th anniversary edition of the original Paddington – will coloured Peggy Fortnum illustrations – absolutely superb. With an audio of Stephen Fry’s reciting the book too, all for just under £15. Obviously I have a copy.

Madame Pamplemousse and her Incredible Edibles by Rupert Kingfisher was another hardback illustrated first of a new series. It was a slim volume, with lots of illustrations sprinkled throughout the book and had a lovely dust jacket.

Sadly they went on and published the book in paperback, and it lost some of its charm. Once again, you can no longer buy the hardback.

The Tom Trueheart series is another that is followed, and asked for. The charm of Ian Beck’s shadow illustrations is often a great attraction. The hardbacks, which are a lovely size, with their distinctive covers are appreciated.  The paperbacks have been well produced too, so though the hardbacks do have something extra, the paperbacks are not so detrimental.

Older children’s books are collected for the pleasure of obtaining the complete set and following the adventures through from book to book.

Enid Blyton still has a following with the Famous Five, the Naughtiest Girl and of course the Secret Seven collections always somewhere in the basket.

With a little bit of encouragement they can be introduced to John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice books. Brilliant adventure that can’t be put down.

As always it is a question of talking to the reader, and listening to what they say. Horse related fiction traditionally sells to young ladies, however if there is a long pause when you offer Blind Beauty (K.M. Peyton), its worth checking whether they are actually someone who enjoys equine related interests, especially if you haven’t discussed it with them before. It is worth remembering too that what is stated at the beginning of a discussion can be changed by the end. Sometimes young customers feel they should enjoy all genres you offer. Almost out of a misplaced form of politeness. This is to be discouraged and I am often heard to say something on the lines of

‘Don’t say you like something you don’t. Otherwise you will go home with something you don’t like….’

A badly designed book will not have the appeal of a good one. A good cover, with well-printed text and illustrations, page numbers and margins laid out correctly does have a positive result.

One book, Day of the Assassins by Johnny O’Brien was sent to me I thought, as a proof. It had no dust jacket, the boards that looked reconstituted, (as though they were pulped and then reshaped), the silver paint that covered half of it came off on my hands and the bullet holes only went through the boards – and didn’t seem to go anywhere from there. The paper on which the book was printed was horrible and the page numbers were so low down they looked as though they were about to fall off the page. When the book came in to stock, things hadn’t changed. The fact that it didn’t have a dust jacket wasn’t a problem – it just made the rest of the very poor production really obvious. The story however, was brilliant.

When I talked to the publisher’s representative she said they knew but had wanted to get the title out. It was a great pity, and I told her that both the publishing house and the author would have done better to stop it, redesign, reprint and rebind. The paperback I am glad to say has a much better cover with maps on the inside and folded edges and is much easier to sell as a result.

Two books that have sold well for different reasons are Shamanka by Jeanne Willis (now sadly out of print) and The Undrowned Child by Michelle Lovric. Shamanka is a magical tale in more ways than one and pulls the reader into a tale of witch doctors, adventure, magic and an orang-utan. The Undrowned Child is relatively easy for me to sell. Most, if not all the customers within Harrods have been to Venice, or if not, want to go in the near future. I now ask every customer with whom I have any discussion about books of any variety, whether they have been and this opens up the opportunity to tell them about the book.

I have sold it to people buying books for a five year old, a gentleman who came in for the Koran, someone who had just returned from Venice, to people who had been, but have never taken their partners. These Venice-virgins if I may, complain that this is a place they have always wanted to go, and their partners know. Some claim to have taken lovers to Paris, and ask whether that would do. This often bemuses me and I encourage them to buy the book, as it is a lovely introduction to the city, its waters and its lives and then, to go to Venice.

I have had three customers who didn’t immediately go, ‘Yes of course, I love Venice, when asked.’ Two complained that it smelt, though only one admitted that it was so bad he didn’t like Venice as a result. One couple stated it was too full of people and that ‘…gondolas wobble….’ You can’t win all the time and something about leading horses to water comes to mind.

The cover of The Undrowned Child is suitably watery and Venetian in feel and this contributes to the sales. There is to be a series of books about Teodora, and I am sure that there are collectors out there waiting for The Mourning Emporium, the second in the sequence.

Robert Muchamore, Anthony Horowitz, and Charlie Higson have very large followings. All of them are mainly bought in sequence and are collections as a result, but not for the joy of ownership in the true book collectors’ way, more for as a result of where the tale will take the reader. Though it is true that some readers go on to read everything by an author.

Philip Pullman has of course sold his Dark Materials trilogy in various editions, along with the additional small ‘Lyra’ volumes. Some of the editions are illustrated wonderfully by John Lawrence, which makes another positive point for me when discussing the books. Design and illustrations matter.

Other authors are collected, not because of their series, but because their books are just plain good. I know that if I read a Kevin Brooks title, it will be brilliant, though possibly not as good as the first I ever read; Black Rabbit Summer, which is frankly superb.

John Lawrence also recently illustrated an edition of Treasure Island.  His pictures really suit the book and are brilliantly atmospheric. I often sell that with the comment that everyone should have their own copy of Treasure Island, and why not a copy with the best illustrations available?

There is an immense pleasure in meeting & speaking to their authors and to treasure the books that they have signed for you. They become very precious and valued for that reason. I remember once meeting Chris Riddell when he came and was signing and doing requested drawings in ‘his’ edition of Don Quixote – I asked him if he would be kind enough to draw a lion in one of the books for me – a perfect sketch he did in a matter of seconds – and the book is now carefully preserved on my shelf.

A signed book and bought without the author being present is good, but to meet them in the flesh is remarkably pleasing.

The secondary search for books signed by authors by fans has driven the prices ever higher for those found in the second-hand market. Sadly it has resulted in extortionate prices being asked for signed books that were sold the previous week at the retail recommended price. Which can mean that a true fan cannot afford to purchase one. I suppose it is market forces and that value is as always relative.

There is an added embellishment to this. Authors are asked to ‘sign, line and date’ books, in the belief that this will add value. Why the inscription of the first line should increase a book’s value is a strange belief. I haven’t looked into this and whether one just signed is less valuable than one with the first line and the date of the inscription is more valuable. I can’t really believe it does.

Non-fiction books are not so often collected, however one is purchased regularly in Harrods because of its design and beauty. Zoo-ology by Joelle Jolivet is a large format book with glorious illustrations of animals in it. The notes in the back are full of interesting facts and the whole thing is a fantastic volume.

Smaller reference and activity books are collected mainly by boys: The Horrible History Series, the I Spy books and more recently the Where’s Wally? books along with books attached to films, but these seem to be short term and not kept and loved in quite the same way.

Other books that are purchased to be collected include the wonderful pop-up volumes especially in the last few years the Mathew Reinhart & Robert Sabuda books. Their special editions retail at £100 – and are probably worth the money if you are hoping to make a profit at a later stage. Though it seems most people, just want to buy them, because they are so fantastic, and the specials are limited, signed and have an extra pop-up.

Some are mechanically not so inventive, and really are really little more complex tab books. Oliver Jeffers’ pop-up of The Incredible Book-Eating Boy mentioned above, and Mini Grey’s illustrated volume of Hilaire Belloc’s Jim are examples that come to mind.

The page where Belloc narrates:

Now, just imagine how it feels

When first your toes and then your heels,

And then by gradual degrees,

Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,

Are slowly eaten, bit-by-bit.

No wonder Jim detested it!

is illustrated with a drop down flap, which for some reason really makes this passage come alive in all its gory detail. Flap books often become a sort of lesser pop-up enjoyed no less because of the simplicity of their design and are collected and loved just as much as the more complicated and visually astonishing volumes.

Lastly, the only other type of books that I have collected (and sold with great success and pleasure) are those with sound – Maurice Pledger’s Sounds of the Wilds series, are landscape pop-ups with alternate pages of information and pop-ups. The recordings are accurate; owls hoot, whales call along with other diverse creatures’ noises with superb clarity.

The other noisy book I have is Eric Carle’s Very Quiet Cricket. As always with Eric Carle, it is superbly illustrated, and has in addition a lovely noisy end.

Most of noisy books now have a facility to change the battery, a vast improvement on the old designs.

Good book design for children is as essential as it is for adults. The Biggles books (W.E. Johns) are wonderful, full of adventure and facts. They fall down because the text is small and printed in a small block on a small page, without good-sized margins. This can and does put off potential lovers of these and it can be difficult for me to sell them. Especially to those boys who aren’t interested or need lines well spaced for easier reading.

(James Holland’s two Duty Calls volumes can often be offered in place of Biggles, along with Dan Smith’s My Friend the Enemy – both authors have been published in good-sized paperbacks and their stories are full of drama and adrenaline and are avidly consumed by small boys.)

The well-printed page, properly set out with margins that are adequate if not good, along with good paper make a difference. Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase are reproduced from an edition that had been, I think over inked, with the result that the text is almost blotchy and the pictures are obviously missing a lot of the detail. Children learn to appreciate good design if it is given to them. Chris Riddell’s Ottoline books (and now Goth Girl) sell essentially because of their superb illustrations and the design of the books. They are small hardbacks, with bright covers with Chris’ illustrations on the cover and have a gold or silver embellishment along the hinge of the spine.  What more could you want?

A book should not come apart in a child’s hands. I was once given a copy of a book about the Magic Roundabout and was greatly disappointed to have it fall apart in my hands. If glue must be used, it really must be strong enough to hold a book together, but be supple enough for the pages to turn; otherwise letters to publishers from unhappy young customers are the result.

Dad, of course spent some time in pulling the book together again and so the publisher’s offer to mend the book was superfluous. Anyway it was much too late.

Many years ago he gave me two tips amongst the many others parents give their children.  These two though, I have followed and may be of interest to those potential and even already addicted collectors.

When buying books or Netsuke, or anything else that is likely involve a good amount of money, mentally think about what you would be happy to give before you put your hands on it and find out the price. That way you don’t buy from immediate emotion, and later regret it. His last piece of advice about this was – Always buy for the pleasure it gives you now, not for the monetary value it may have in the future.

Finally there are a couple of books I would like to purchase, but haven’t yet, as it seems an indication of even further collapse into the book of addiction. Two lift-the-flap books published by Usborne for younger children (I really do feel that I am possibly too old for these) Castles and my favourite Pirates. These have buttons that correspond to pictures and flaps in the books.

One button shows a small graphic of a pirate firing two hand pistols, and really cannot be beaten.

Press it and there are a couple of loud bangs, followed by a very brief pause and than a satisfying, clear, loud and very positive cry of agony.