Book Review: How To Be Alone

Over the weekend I read How To Be Alone by Sara Maitland. The simplicity of the basic human desire to have time alone in order to ruminate on life or “recharge your batteries” is reflected in the unembellished book cover design and the unassuming title.

Part of the School of Life series published by Pan MacMillan, it explores the opportunities for solitude in our modern age and addresses the paradox presented by a culture that embraces personal autonomy, fulfilment and independence whilst at the same time often denigrating those who choose to live alone.  Maitland makes reference to an almost innate reaction we can sometimes feel when meeting someone who spends the majority of time in their own company; a sense perhaps of compassion or suspicion. The self help genre is one I tend to avoid, encompassing as it does books written by self styled experts who loftily advise on lifestyle amendments but I found this social study immensely engaging and thought provoking.

How to Be Alone

The book offers a number of convincing answers to the question of “why would anyone want to be alone?” In today’s fast paced and image absorbed world, modern life seems to present an omnipresent stream of mediated contact which keeps us connected to the virtual world. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? We seem to live exclusively in relation to others, the computer creates a web of interconnectivity and social life can often descend in to a tumult of petty concerns.

The act of being alone has been principally seen as a fundamental dimension of religious experience but it need not remain confined within religious parameters. Securing one’s self possession during moments of solitude, detaching oneself from the demands placed upon your time and emotions is so important. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Nowadays, it is difficult to be truly alone.

For more information on books in the School of Life series, click here


Defining Women’s Fiction

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, Yael Goldstein Love examined the question of categorising fiction into various subsections.  How does one define women’s literature? “Does it have to by a woman, about women (or) about domestic issues?” she writes. Rebecca Vnuk in an article featured in Booklist Online last year described the field as “novels that explore the lives of female protagonists, focusing on all kinds of relationships, be it lovers, spouses, parents, children, friends, or members of a community. The common thread is that the central character is female, and the main thrust of the story is something happening in the life of that woman as opposed to the overall theme being a romance or a mystery of some sort.”

In her essay, “The Second Shelf”, Meg Wolitzer brilliantly argues against the genre tag of women’s fiction for books which deal with topics such as romance and family while similar subjects explored by male writers earn the more gender neutral label of “literary fiction”. The genre of a book is meant to either encompass its subject matter or its author and the marketing of a particular genre is one way of connecting a book with an extensive audience. However, these arbitrary categories are in many ways restrictive as amongst women’s fiction alone there is such a variety of styles ranging from the comedic Bridget Jones who in many ways combined many of the concerns, joys and events which characterise the lives of twenty first century women to issue-led emotional drama in many different settings: contemporary, historical and fantasy.

Publishing is a business and it certainly makes a title easier to market if published works all subscribe to the same genre. I can understand why it is necessary to make use of sub-genres in bookshops for instance. A typical reader may not have an exact novel in mind. Instead, they may browse under the more general headings of ‘romance’ or ‘science fiction’ and gradually their search for a book narrows. Readers have particular expectations of authors and I would argue that if an author submits works under various genres, they run the risk of ‘diluting’ their audience.

That said, if a trend has come and gone, it may make sense for an author to venture in to new territory. Conversion to digital may well bring changes to the way in which authors are categorised and as ebooks are typically sold at prices on average 50-60% lower than their paperback counterparts and with the added benefit of ebook purchases not incurring additional shipping charges, readers may well be encouraged to buy more books on a broader range of topics. Amazon for instance often makes tailored book recommendations based on previous purchases.

Copyright in the Digital Age

The ideological underpinning of  intellectual property framework is that it is a means of encouraging the creativity of any qualifying person of any country by conferring a proprietary right in the end result of the creative process and as a consequence of their personal investment, the right to control the way in which that work is exploited. However, in addition to the continued debate on the value of copyright, new concerns have been expressed in relation to the application of copyright in the digital age and how it is perceived in society. And here we are confronted with the at least ostensible contradiction that copyright is considered by some to be in crisis whilst simultaneously underpinning the creative industry. In truth, this apparent paradox is a product of the ‘digital shift’. It reflects differing views on the function of copyright and an on-going process of change with regards to law, policy, business models and the way technology is employed to make copyright operate more efficiently online.

It is useful to consider how other areas of the creative industry are responding to the issue of copyright infringement. Streaming has established itself as a free source of musical content. Spotify for example, launched a few years ago, was ad-funded which allowed the creators to provide access free of charge. Upon establishing its reputation and in their users’ lifestyle, it started charging for unlimited access and mobile use. This would suggest that consumers are shifting from “owning” to a “having access to” behaviour which ultimately may result in fewer cases of file sharing.

As we negotiate the continued transition in to digital, content control is becoming increasingly important given the ease of access to copyrighted material and technology which allows for illegal activity. Reacting effectively to piracy and copyright infringement is an ongoing challenge, with the digital environment developing on a regular basis as a result of new technologies and emerging markets. One of the recommendations outlined in the Hargreaves review of the intellectual property framework was the development of a Digital Copyright Exchange, whereby content rights could be traded freely with digital rapidity and across global markets. This would result in markets becoming more accessible, which in turn could improve market signals for buyers, sellers and investors. In addition amendments to copyright laws with regards to exemptions appear to be expanding to allow for maximum access of digital content. It is anticipated that the exemption of data analysis will bring the UK more in line with the reality of common digital activities such as data and text, so as to provide thorough support to research organisations.


A View of Publishing in 2014


With between 15 % to 25% of book sales shifting to digital format by 2015, the book industry is having to adapt to a whole new digital environment. The digital transition has forced authors, publishers, distributors and retailers to re-evaluate business models and relationships with one another. Several significant challenges will have to continue to be addressed such as pricing policies that secure the changing sources of profit and the redefined networks of distribution that maintain format diversity. More readers demand material which will provide an interactive experience. The Times and Sunday Times pioneered digital subscriptions and since February 2012 the number of people who receive a digital version of the newspaper has risen by 20%. Scholastic recently published findings of a study carried out which found that since 2010 the percentage of children aged 9 to 17 who have read an e-book almost doubled while the number who say they’ll continue to read books in print instead of electronically declined from 66% to 58%.

So, I thought that I would share some thoughts on what the current publishing picture looks like, what changes have been demanded from the industry and the trends that were highlighted in 2013.

  • Printed content love affair

There were many of us who thought that the start of the digital age heralded the end of the printed copy. In the same way that valedictories for the radio were proved to be somewhat premature with radio now continuing to thrive in the age of new media, publishers have responded with more and more experimenting with innovative cover designs and layouts in a bid to encourage readers to buy print over digital. Penguin have reproduced classic texts in a range of collectible books which feature designs from Jessica Hische and which include the work of authors whose surnames begin with a beautifully illustrated letter.

In addition, the fact that an e-book cannot be given away or sold once it has been read may also reduce the perceived value of the product. I think that what has become increasingly evident however is that for a publication to be viable, printed content needs to also be available online.

  • Metadata and consumer data

It has become very important for publishers to make effective use of data detailing readership and consumption as unless they can identify who is reading the content, it is difficult to tailor specific marketing campaigns. Data analysis serves as a tool for gaining insight into consumer behaviour and preference. Without data, publishers will be uninformed as to the wants and requirements of the market as we shift towards a digital retail environment.

The book­shop has traditionally been the primary means of book discovery but in view of the fact that sales are increasingly being made online, bookshops will come to have a much reduced role in the way in which books are sold and marketed with search optimisation and social media taking precedence.  In the online scenario, a reader is confronted with an limitless selection of books. Results are based on rec­om­men­da­tion and search algo­rithms dri­ven by key­words and the metadata of a book which consists of author biography, sample chapters and reviews.

  • Reader Interaction and Social Media

Amazon has forced publishers to raise their game in their relentless engagement with readers. Publishers do not have access to the same levels of data and consumer information as Amazon and are now having to fully utilize social media for content marketing, search visibility (e.g. on Twitter) and development of relationships between the deliverers of content and the readers themselves.

  • Crowdfunding

Arguably the most significant trend in 2013, it will be interesting to see how this new platform for publishing work is factored into the landscape of 2014. At once a funding platform and a publishers, Unbound has placed books “in the hands of” the readers. The founders of Unbound say that it “democratises the book commissioning process by enabling authors and readers to make the decisions about what gets published”.