The first book Alistair Simms ever read was one from the Harry Potter series. He was 13 at the time and, while he had listened to audio stories before, he’d never actually lost himself in the pages of a physical book. Three years earlier, Alistair had been diagnosed with Dyslexia which made reading and writing difficult. It also affected his memory- a problem that began to impinge more and more on his academic performance.
When it came to his GCSE mocks, Alistair scored mainly Fs and Gs. But he was determined not to let his Dyslexia stop him. With help from some inspirational teachers and a lot of hard work, he managed to achieve A to C grades in his final exams. He went on to do two A-levels before completing a degree in History and Archaeology at Bangor University. This was followed by a Ph.D. in the same subject, earning him the title of Dr in 2014.
It wasn’t just academia that Alistair enjoyed; he had become something of a bookworm over the years, with his favourite authors being David Eddings and Bernard Cornwell. The problem was, while there were Dyslexia-friendly publishers out there, most notably Barrington Stoke, their titles tended to be aimed at a younger audience. It was this revelation that gave him the idea to set up a Dyslexia-friendly bookshop that not only catered to children but also adults. In 2014, shortly after graduating with his Ph.D., Alistair and his partner Chloe opened Books On The Hill in the seaside town of Clevedon, North Somerset. The couple then established BOTH Press- an independent publisher that produces a mixture of both original and re-printed books, all in Dyslexia-friendly formats.
We spoke to Alistair about the response they’ve had and about why mainstream publishers must start to acknowledge the population of older readers with Dyslexia.
How do you adapt a book to make it Dyslexia-friendly?
It depends on your age, what you’re doing, and what publisher. But the way we do it is all our books have cream pages rather than white. This provides a greater contrast for Dyslexic readers to make out the text. We also have larger spacing between paragraphs and sentences, and a ragged edge so that it is left aligned rather than justified which allows all the spaces to be equal.
Ultimately, Dyslexia is a processing issue and it can get really overwhelming when there are too many processes going on. So by reducing those processes, it makes it a lot easier to read and follow the text.
Why is it important that people with Dyslexia can access physical books?
There are options out there for people with Dyslexia. Audiobooks are good because you’re not using your eyes; you’re listening which means less processing. E-books are also great because you can change the font and spacing. But we felt it was really important that our customers had a choice when it came to how they read. There’s nothing quite like holding a book and turning the pages. Studies have even shown that reading physical books can help with reading comprehension, self-esteem, and other aspects of life.
What do you think is leading publishers to forget about adults with Dyslexia?
There seems to be this idea that Dyslexia is something you grow out of. And it simply isn’t true. Dyslexia doesn’t go away. There are coping mechanisms that can help make things easier, but it’s always there from childhood, right through adulthood.
Because of misconceptions about Dyslexia, I think publishers are choosing to focus on children which means it’s really difficult for Dyslexic teenagers and adults to find books that are age appropriate for them. Here at Books On The Hill, we stock books for all demographics. Our titles published through BOTH Press are for 15 and up. And then we also stock books published through Barrington Stoke which cover children’s literature.
Since opening the shop in 2014, what response have you received?
It’s been huge. We have customers from all around the country, traveling miles to visit our shop. And I think for many, it’s been quite life-changing. We had one woman who came in and she started crying when she saw the books because she’d never been able to read a physical book for adults. Next year will be the shop’s 10th Birthday and in January we’re moving into bigger premises.
If customers are not able to visit the shop, is it possible to order books online?
Yes. We are stocked by the main book wholesaler in the UK, which means any bookshop that uses that wholesaler can order a requested title with next-day delivery. You can find our books listed on the websites of retailers such as Waterstones and Blackwells, alongside independent bookshops.