Q&A with Ian Billings

– Hello, Ian, and many thanks for enjoying the idea to answer a few questions for my readers! What Norvic Philatelics means for the British stamp collecting?

– At one time our website (not the blog) was the first place to look for anything about new stamps and special postmarks from Great Britain. Now the blog is more popular. Norvic Philatelics has always been internet-only: we have never had a shop and only had tables at two local stamp club fairs.  I was made redundant from my government job before I was 50 and thought that I might take my surplus stamps to local fairs, but the internet called me and I started a website by writing separate pages for each new stamp issue from March 1998. 

At that time of dial-up modems I used newsgroups to chat to other collectors – 30 years ago this year (I still have many emails from 1999). The subject of that first page – Lighthouses stamps – attracted the attention of thematic collectors all over the world, and I was able to help them add to their collections with not only the stamps and FDCs but special pictorial postmarks.

These days some collectors think they can start a website and immediately attract viewers (and maybe customers), but it is not as easy as that.  By including the website address in my ‘signature’ on all emails and newsgroup posts, I gained maximum publicity and our website was soon the number 1 on search engine results – but this was partly through exposure, and partly because there was very little ‘competition’ at the time. Now there are very many more websites and blogs – getting people to come to your site is much harder now.

– I guess you’re a passionate stamp collector! How did you start collecting? And how it looks your stamp collection now?

– Like many people I started at a very young age, but unlike many I never really stopped.  Although I rationalised by narrowing my fields of collecting to GB and Commonwealth, and Scandinavia, I had a number of extra side collections including 1960s Saudi Arabia. The interest in Saudi Arabia definitives was fuelled by reading some articles in Stamp Weekly in the 1960s/70s when the hobby could support several magazines. 

The stamps are very complex and interesting. Whilst collecting stamps has always been an interest I was increasingly drawn to postal history, much of which was relatively low priced at that time: I loved browsing through dealers cheap boxes, but also bought some better material just because I liked it.

Like much of the world I followed the events surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union with interest, and in early 1993 bought a batch of Soviet-type postal stationery envelopes with provisional postage markings from many of the new countries and was fascinated. I had never been interested in collecting the stamps of the USSR because there were just so many stamps(!), but I soon had started another sideline collection, with small boxes of covers from Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine etc.

The variety was enormous with different markings being applied in every town and city. I joined the British Society for Russian Philately, and the (new) internet enabled me to easily contact members of soceities in the USA, Canada and Australia. Now I have many thousands of covers but since my hobby turned into a business I haven’t had as much time to devote to studying them – and I’m running out of time! I shall be 70 this year.

– I also know that you’re a stamp dealer. How Brexit affected your business?

– The result of our referendum was a big surprise – to the politicians as well as the voters – and there has been no impact yet. Initially, of course, the value of the Pound Sterling (GBP) dropped making our stamps cheaper to foreign buyers. Things have changed in the 18 months since and settled down. Business continues at the same sort of rate. Currently some postage charges to EU countries are subject to VAT, so if we leave the EU those rates should reduce to the same levels as the rest of Europe. We may have to add Customs Forms to all mailings to current EU countries, but that is not a major problem – many orders are sent in ordinary letter post which does not need a CN22.

– Your blog, blog.norphil.co.uk, already had 2,930K+ pageviews! That makes it one of the most visited philatelic blog worldwide. What’s the secret?

– Luck and good fortune!  Three main things contribute to the numbers: new stamps – the introduction of security features on the Machin definitive stamps, which started in 2009 (the blog started in late 2008) – I was able to report discoveries as soon as they were found, if people told me about them; the contributions from readers about Machins, Post and Go, Horizon labels, and slogan postmarks; and the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games! 

Your readers probably know that Royal Mail produced special stamps to mark every Gold Medal won by TeamGB at the Games to be sold the day after the event. All registered dealers were able to access the design of each stamp on Royal Mail’s image library within one hour. So from the start I was doing live reporting on the Games, and posting pictures of the stamps as soon as I possibly could.

– What are the main skills every blogger should have in order to write better? For example, to catch a subject that so many people want to read about?

– If you are writing about news on the internet you will be ahead of the printed philatelic magazines. Blogs are not the place for long research papers, but a detailed look at new issue stamps will always attract attention. You MUST accept comments – after all you want to know what your readers think, and they may correct what you have written. I don’t believe I never make mistakes! BUT, you should always moderate comments and exclude spam. This has the added benefit that you always see comments being made, and you can reply if necessary. Discuss with your readers, but don’t argue or belittle them. After all, it is a hobby and there are almost no wrong ways to collect (although I do suggest that people avoid ‘illegals’ as defined by the UPU).

– Do you think it’s a smart idea to use social media tools for popularize stamp collecting among young generation’s members?

– I think social media is a good idea. I don’t use Facebook but I do use Twitter. It’s not just a way to engage with world youth – we are always going to struggle with teenagers – but it is a good way to engage with the increasing number of 40+ collectors. It is also a good way to contact postal authorities to follow up on stories.

– How do you see stamp collecting in the future?

– There is no doubt that stamp collecting will decline. We just can’t hope that people will join the hobby at the same rate that they are leaving through age. I do not think that we will attract many teenagers and 20-somethings, although some clubs and individuals are having success with this age group and I applaud their efforts.

But I think we can all use the internet and other means to attract the interest of the older age group who may not want or be able to engage in energetic physical activity and are looking for something to stimulate their brains. We should not say that ‘stamp collecting is educational’ because many kids hate school anyway, but if you can carefully and genrtly steer an adult conversation to philately then you may interest their parents or grandparents.

– Thank you, Ian, for these useful opinions! Please address a message to my readers!  

– Collecting and studying stamps has been a most rewarding hobby for many people. If you happen to make it a financial success as well, then you have a bonus. But the real reward is in looking at stamps, learning about them, and researching what is beyond the catalogue – the story of those countries, those people, and especially the postal history. And postal history is not ’19th century’ – it is here and now, and tomorrow.

© Copyright: Blog de timbrofil. The text can be read free of charge, but cannot be taken over or republished in print or digital format than in a written agreement and citing the source. Thank you for you understanding!

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