Mark Constantine: From bath bombs to birdsong

Mark Constantine shook up the beauty world with his wacky cosmetics company, Lush. Now he's taking on the book trade with an innovative birdwatchers' guide. Hester Lacey hears his game plan
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The Independent Culture

Poole High Street in Dorset has been a fragrant destination for the past decade or so. It's here that entrepreneur Mark Constantine founded Lush cosmetics, and perfumed wafts from the Lush premises drift appealingly down the otherwise undistinguished thoroughfare. Lush, the self-styled "cosmetics grocer", has become a household name, and there are now over 400 Lush stores worldwide, despite the fact that the company neither advertises nor franchises. Now that Constantine has supplied the globe with fresh, hand-made, organic, minimally packaged, non-animal-tested fizzy bath bombs, soap and shampoo, he is turning his mind to knottier problems. Be honest, now: when you meet a chiffchaff, can you tell the Siberian version from its Iberian cousin?

Constantine's latest project, run from a small back room at Lush's Poole premises, is book publishing, and his first title, The Sound Approach to Birding, draws on his long-held passion for birdwatching. This publishing enterprise, which shares its space with the bike Constantine rides to work, largely consists of an Apple Mac, several cartons of books, and an enthusiastic young sprig called Matthew Fairhall, fresh out of Reading University, whose main qualification for running the show is that he's best mates with Constantine's younger son Jack. At Lush, they don't go in for high-faluting job titles; with a twinkle, Constantine suggests describing 23-year-old Fairhall as either Senior Publishing Executive or Supreme Commander, whichever I prefer.

This cheerfully direct, unorthodox approach seems to be working surprisingly well. Constantine and Fairhall have shifted close to 1,000 copies of The Sound Approach to Birding since it was published five months ago, a very respectable figure for a volume that costs close to £30 and could fairly be described as a niche title. It takes an entirely new approach to bird identification, helping experienced birders and beginners alike identify birds by their song, using sonagrams, which translate the different calls into graphic illustrations. "Bird sound has structure, but you can only see it in a sonagram," says Constantine. "Learn to read a sonagram and you are on the road to success. It's rather like a magician's trick; once you know how easy it is to do, you want to do it yourself."

The book, which comes with two stereo CDs, has taken 17 years to put together. Constantine works with a number of other experts, including sound recorders and photographers. The resulting Sound Approach database is the fourth-largest natural sound archive in the world. He first became interested in birding at the age of 21, encouraged by his wife; seeing gannets on the coast of Ireland was one of the highlights of their honeymoon. "It's all down to girls with me," he says. "Cosmetics are a good reason to talk to girls as well."

Compiling the book has taken him to some extreme places. He has sweltered in a tin hut in Spain, looking for vultures, and shivered in minus-17 degrees of cold in Finland, in a makeshift hide made out of an old packing case, waiting for the white-tailed sea eagle to deign to descend to a bait of frozen pig carcases. "I'd heard that the Swedes have heated hides, but the Finns just thought that was soft."

Some of the most beautiful songs, however, he says, come from more familiar friends: the song thrush, the blackbird, the mistle thrush. "Garden birds have the most complex songs of any European birds. People assume because they're common that their songs are simple, but they're not. Though I'm sick of robins, what a bloody boring song. They look great but the sound is like rubbing your finger across glass."

The Sound Approach has won the Best Bird Book Award from British Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology, the UK's top award in the field. Feedback from users has also been positive. "This book is an inspiration, the recordings are wonderful, the text educational and fun to read. I cannot recommend it too highly. Buy it and buy it now!" exhorts Surfbird.com. Birdguides.com is equally enthusiastic: "I can't remember the last time I was so impressed, entertained and enlightened by a birding product. Birders everywhere should get this."

This positive profile has been achieved despite a typically unconventional approach to distribution. "On the high street here, there's a branch of Waterstone's and three remaindered bookshops," says Constantine. "I think that says everything about publishing; they produce more than they can sell and it's got awfully crap. As far as I can tell, the distributors seem to decide what goes on the shelves, and the middle retailers take 40 per cent of the invoice price."

So The Sound Approach is largely sold direct, though Fairhall is battling doughtily with approaches to independent retailers. "Foyles are lovely, absolutely lovely, fabulous!" says Constantine. "We sent them one book and I thought I'd pop in and see if they'd sold it, so I could ask for it and maybe Matt could sell them some more." Unable to see his book on the shelves, in a classic JR Hartley moment, Constantine approached the sales desk and asked for The Sound Approach to Birding, by Mark Constantine. The search that ensued involved several members of staff, and, finally, calling the store supervisor at home on her day off, before the book was triumphantly brought forth. "They found it, and I had to buy it," wails Constantine, who happily had enough cash on him to avoid the embarrassment of showing the name on his card. "But they've taken more copies since."

Future projects include a second bird book, The Sound Approach to Petrels. "Petrels are so enigmatic," says Constantine. "They nest in such obscure places; sea cliffs and extinct volcanoes." The pursuit of the elusive petrel has already left Constantine's collaborator Magnus Robb temporarily marooned in Cape Verde; the new title should appear in August. A book by older son Simon, a Lush perfumer, is also in the pipeline; the idea is to trace how ethical buying works, from rose otto sold in Bulgaria in a valley that was taken over by arms dealers in the Communist era to the deforestation that can be caused by sourcing sandalwood.

Is this simply a case of vanity publishing that's a cut above the usual? Constantine laughs at the notion. "It's vanity publishing turned on its head," he says. "The book trade is sluggish and the internet blows the whole distribution system out of the water. You can reach the public yourself and I highly recommend it; it's very exciting."

To order a copy of 'The Sound Approach to Birding' by Mark Constantine (£29.95, including two CDs), with free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897; www.soundapproach.co.uk, 01202 676 622

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