The Publishing Profile speaks to Maria Vassilopoulous about her collection of historical books and her extensive knowledge of bookshops.
I am a Sales and Marketing Manager at British Library Publishing but I have worked in the book trade for the last 15 years. I am also a PhD student at UCL and am writing about the Victorian and Edwardian book trade. I am involved in background industry research such as The Bookseller's #30from30 award and writing book chapters and interviews. I am writing a book about the Society of Authors for their centenary. I am the archivist for the SYP and write articles about the archive for their members' magazine.
Has your role in publishing widened your reading taste, and how has it changed your attitude to different genres of books?
I have to say that it was my role in bookselling that did that. As a bookseller, I was actively introduced to books through my colleagues, customer orders and shelving stock. All of this organic book recommendation moved me from fiction to biography, history, travel writing and children's books. The best feeling is selling a book which you have read and loved.
What reading formats do you prefer? Do you prefer hardbacks, paperbacks, eBooks, audiobooks, library books, or a mixture?
I don't really care too much. If I want to read a book I will buy it in whichever format it comes in. With some of the books I need for my PhD, they are often self-published with rubbish covers. In that context, it is the content that interests me. With older books though, a lovely hardback binding, a dust-jacket that has survived decades, a peek at the paper used to bulk up the spines, old library books, all of that, please.
Is there a book that you have worked on that you are particularly proud of? Why is that?
As a salesperson, I can't say that I have worked on a book in the same way as an editor and therefore I have a different relationship with books. I have influenced their covers and titles and subtitles in order to make them more commercial so I am proud when each new title comes out and I know I had an impact. In sales, the job is to please the buyers as well as the end consumer so it is always interesting to hear feedback from them and our reps.
What is your most-read genre? Do you have niche sub-genres that you are often attracted to?
It would have to be book and book trade history as that is where my head has been for the last six years. A lot of second-hand, ex-library stock, primary sources and archive materials has led to me taking over a whole section of the living room in our flat - oops. Other than that I like popular history, biography, diaries and social fiction.
Where do you buy or access your books?
I buy most of my new books from independent bookshops. Some favourites are Woodbridge Emporium, Sam Read Books, West End Lane Books, Kenilworth Books and Mr. B's in Bath where I used to live. I worked at Waterstones and still have many friends there so I will always pop into the Bath store when I am back in the West Country to see ex-colleagues and my old manager. I love Heffer's in Cambridge and Blackwell's in Oxford and Hatchards, all of which has helped me with my bookshop research. There are also fantastic English bookshops all over the world who I will buy from when on sales trips, like Shakespeare & Co. in Paris and Athenaeum in Amsterdam. Having worked in bookselling and sales for 16 years these are not just shops, they are friends, some of whom I have known for years, people who trained me when I started.
Second-hand-wise I buy online from Better World Books and Abe Booksellers directly. My favourite second-hand bookshop is Book Barn International down in a small village near Bristol. It is amazing and I have been going there for years. I also love charity shops, and any second-hand bookshop I may stumble upon.
What childhood books have you kept on your shelves?
I cannot throw them away so I have the Usborne Guides to Nature and Space, Richard Scarry's ABC, a book called The History of Everyday Life and some books which I was illustrated in when I was a child called I Wonder Why Soap Makes Bubbles and I Wonder Why My Tummy Rumbles (both by Kingfisher Books).
What is the oldest book on your shelf?
I bought it from the Book Barn and it is a Cyclopedia for 'the useful and domestic arts' published in 1824 by G. and W. B. Whittaker. They operated in Ave Maria Lane, which is on the same street as Stationer's Hall in the City of London. The insides are hand-written pieces of paper where the owner had copied out certain directions, which is a lovely extra.
What’s the most beautiful book you own?
It is a book called The Pig Book published in 1905. After research, I found that being blindfolded and drawing a pig was a popular Edwardian party game. The first edition is very very rare and the one I found has a whole host of blindfolded pig drawings inside with the names of the artists and the dates when they were drawn. Each blank page is decorated with pig illustrations and little jokes and it is bound with a gold pig on the front. It's beautiful because it was meant as a throw-away gift and has become a time capsule with posh binding and endpapers - something the owners would have opted for from their bookseller.
Who is your most read author, and why?
Muriel Spark. I have read everything and love her style.
What surprises you about your shelves? Is there a book you own that you were surprised to love as much as you did?
My bookshelves contain a history of my life. You can start at my childhood in the 1980s and 1990s and see how I was into non-fiction at a very young age, climb up through my teens with The Diary of Anne Frank, Adrian Mole and into my English degree with Dostoevsky, The Colour Purple and Austen and the Bronte family. Then in my twenties, Bridget Jones and Harry Potter, a bit of Twilight and the bookshop years of Muriel Spark, Katharine Mansfield, Truman Capote, Bill Bryson and so many others. Around this are biographies of authors, essays, books written and signed by friends and ex-colleagues and then the books which I have represented in the publishers I have worked in. Cookery books are all in the kitchen and my book history shelves are separate. My partner Emma's book life is intermingled with mine on the main shelves (we met as booksellers) and she has a set of shelves dedicated to art and anatomy as she is an artist as well as a salesperson in publishing like me.
What are your favourite books of 2020 so far?
Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and A Place for Everything by Judith Flanders which is a history of alphabetical order but told in a really accessible and interesting way.
What are your most anticipated reads for the rest of 2020?
Not really one book in particular but I aim to read more books by black authors, especially on black history so that I can better educate myself as a historian, and also more books from independent publishers who produce some amazing debut fiction from much more diverse audiences. I am looking forward to starting Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo next.
What book should everyone read?
The Diary of Anne Frank. There is a lot in there for all ages to learn from.
You can find Maria online at https://bookhistorybite.wordpress.com/ on book trade history and she is also part of The Bookselling Research Network. You can find her on Twitter @Bookhistorybite.