Critical review of critics

From an author’s perspective, Amazon can be seen as having democratised the way in which a book is reviewed, with reader assessments more representative of the book-reading masses and less obliged to conform to a pre-determined consensus. The internet has provided a means for an ever increasing, easily accessible and vital exchange of opinions in literary criticism. As advertising budgets are slashed in smaller publishing companies and revenue models in the industry adapt to counter the dominance of Amazon, it would seem that reviews have never been so crucial as a way of increasing the exposure of a title at no cost to the publisher. Amateur critics undoubtedly have insights and recommendations which can significantly impact the success of a book and for smaller independent publishers, this word-of-mouth marketing is key.The more books there are, the greater the necessity for a way to navigate the field. Thousands of books are published every year while at the same time pages in newspapers and magazines dedicated to reviewing new releases is diminishing. On the internet, however, every literary niche has its community of readers and critics.

Whilst I acknowledge that there is a case for critical analysis which elevates any discussion of a novel from that of personal taste, the point isn’t that traditional critics are always wrong and bloggers or Amazon reviewers are right, or even that these comments are overwhelmingly negative but rather that authority has migrated from critics to a much wider audience. We live in an age of cultural populism – an age in which readers are not only entitled to their view but are encouraged to share it.


Changes to the English Literature GCSE syllabus

Last week saw the unveiling of amendments to the English Literature GCSE syllabus texts and a renewed focus on British writers. The course, from the OCR examination board, has been designed to give students a proper grounding in the “literary heritage” of Britain. The government has defended the changes, arguing that they will ensure that a more diverse range of literature is studied with courses now incorporating a 19th century novel, at least one Shakespearian play and fictional prose or a drama from 1914 onwards.

I would have liked to have seen To Kill a Mockingbird continue as required reading. It is a profoundly moving tale with a strong emphasis on moral courage and the ability to relate to another by putting yourself in their skin and walking around in it. It is a novel which contains themes with which all students can empathise; regardless of their ability or background and this level of accessibility ought not to be underestimated; particularly at a time when the popularity of reading for pleasure is in such rapid decline amongst school age children.

Curtailing the remit of GCSE literature risks a disengagement with books and the study of the text being reduced to a discussion on themes in contextual isolation. The appeal of literature relates to the way in which it encourages the reader to think beyond the boundaries of their own lives, and cultural and geographical circumstances. To restrict this is counter to the essence of education which should be about being made aware of new ideas, fostering free thinking and awareness of wider social and cultural issues. The ‘English’ part of an English literature course should be adjectival; not prescriptive and I would question how teachers are expected to engage their pupils with the nuances of English social classes which are central to the discussions revolving around Pride & Prejudice.  In addition, of course, classrooms are increasingly multicultural and to some extent the curriculum must reflect this reality by paying  attention to the acute cultural sensitivities playing out in the political and social arena. Should Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare be included? Yes, of course, but alongside Zadie Smith and Meera Syal. How, I hear you say, will material be selected? One criterion for which books, poetry or plays are included must surely be their ‘teachability’, the extent to which the text stimulates classroom discussion.The second, I would suggest, must have something to do with a literary experience as opposed to the rather tedious analysis of a book’s themes. And this is where To Kill a Mockingbird comes in as an extremely relevant example of how the words on a page can transcend what is studied in a classroom environment and have a lasting influence on a life. For me personally, having studied the book for GCSE eight years ago, the following line still resonates with me:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Focus: London Book Fair 2014

The London Book Fair surpassed all my expectations. The venue was Earls Court, a vast space in which the buzz of deals being made, the showcasing and exploration of the latest innovations and the sheer excitement about the future of this industry were palpable. As the events draws to a close this year and having scoured every free catalogue and industry news pamphlets, I thought I would share some highlights which piqued my interest.

Market Focus on Korea

“Technology is now integral in helping to break into new territories”

The objective of the Market Focus is to draw attention to the great potential of certain territories in conducting business on an international basis. According to a an article in Publishing Perspectives, Korea has proven to be an increasingly important market for UK publishing with a reported 22% growth in exports over the last decade. The latest tools designed to enhance reading experiences were truly phenomenal. Tabon Books based in Korea specialise in the creation and distribution of ePubs and provide a range of enhancements, for example, animation, interactivity and text searching.  I was interested to learn that this year they plan to launch the Tabon eBook Shopping Mall concept which gives publishers their personalised “shop front” identity plus the additional benefit of having the freedom to sell their eBooks the way they want.  IPortfolio and Y Factory respectively focused on transforming the educational learning environment and the mental development of children in encouraging a curiosity about the world. I am personally delighted to see such commitment to the promotion of learning. The London Book Fair is the global marketplace for the negotiation of rights as well as the sale of content across a range of mediums. What was particularly evident to me was the evolving landscape of opportunity which makes for a very exciting time to be in publishing.

Business Models in Publishing

One of the advantages to studying towards an MA in Publishing is the rapid realisation that having an understanding of business terminology is fundamental to the industry and that publishing is as much about business as it is about nurturing and promoting creative talent. With an assessment which requires us to plan an affinity scheme which connects publishers with the readers of their books firmly in mind, I attended the Big Debate which took place at the LBF. In order to remain profitable, publishers as content providers have sought to address the wide gulf which has traditionally existed between these two components of the process by acquiring customer insight via data. This enables publishers to construct a reader profile which can serve to market titles more effectively. Harper Collins, for example, have set up a “consumer insight” department while some trade publishers have partnered with companies such as Oyster in order to share built-in audiences. The interesting discussion point was that research conducted by Publishing Technology last year suggested that online communities are a growth area in the marketing of content and that a news and fan portal would be valued by publishers and readers alike.

Children & Books

WORLD BOOK DAY takes place today; a celebration of the joy of reading. I can remember as a child cherishing the book tokens and the subsequent deliberation over which book to choose. I thought today would be a chance to write about a topic which I believe presents an often underestimated challenge to society, namely the decline in the number of  children and teenagers who read for pleasure. One manifestation of this issue is the impact it has on a child’s ability to research. Having worked for a time in education after leaving university, I was able to observe how frequently students used the internet to access vast amounts of free information; often typing word for word the title of an essay on Google search and then expecting the answer to be as easily obtained. There was very little desire to explore any given topic further and one has to wonder what effect this will have in terms of their further education, ability to demonstrate initiative and think independently.

The title of my blog reflects the course of events in my own life, the start of a career working with books but also indicates a love of ‘travelling’ by way of reading a book. It is a free form of entertainment being able to absorb the descriptive passages of a novel and view unfolding events through the eyes of a character in a book or discover new facts or places in nonfiction books. It is possible to travel around the world and trace the developments leading up to the modern world through the pages of a book. I believe that sense of wonder is worth attempting to instil in the children of today.

The main objective of World Book Day, this being its seventeenth year, is to encourage children to discover books and a love of reading. Now that publishers are embracing the digital age, I would hope that many more children, a new generation of readers, learn to love books in many different ways. A book is a friend for life so the sooner children start to handle books, look at the pictures and notice the symbols on the page the better. Of all the skills which small children learn from their parents, the most useful one which sets a steady course for successful access to the curriculum and familiarity with words and therefore learning, both in school and the wider world, is the ability to understand and handle language in its written form. Reading to children, however small, teaches them to focus, use their imagination and creates a curiosity for further investigation and experience in a huge range of subjects from astronomy to poetry and from historical epochs to lively fiction in all its forms.

A life without books is a sterile world. Children should be encouraged to read whatever their interest from comics to the great novels of English literature or from an encyclopaedia containing ‘mind-blowing facts’ to the latest teen read. Without books, children’s imaginations are stunted. The demands of the education system move swiftly and those who have not been introduced to books before they enter school are often at a continual disadvantage.

What is the future of the independent bookshop?

Much consternation has been expressed recently about the future of the independent bookshop. With rising rents and parking charges, many modest former staples of the high street are struggling to survive. For bookshops in particular there are the additional challenges from increased demand for digital and large online retailers.  According to figures released by the Booksellers Association, there are now fewer than 1000 independent bookshops remaining. This is depressing news indeed.

During a discussion broadcast on Radio 4 earlier this month, the CEO of Harper Collins, Victoria Barnsley, suggested that bookshops charge for the privilege of browsing and that bookshops become more of a ‘club’. Her fellow industry professionals agreed that the future of the bricks and mortar bookshops would undoubtedly depend on their ability to adapt and create a unique cultural experience.  I would have to agree.

Independents will have to alter their business models to really build on their strengths and compete in a changing climate. So, how can a small business adapt?

1.Identify what the needs of consumers are

The sole raison d’être of bookshops is no longer just to sell books in much the same way that coffee chain retailers are not just about coffee.  Starbucks and similar outlets provide internet access, reading material (newspapers, magazines) and create an ambience in which people want to relax with friends. I think what still draws people to bookshops is the chance to discover new titles that may be on display or a new author, information by way of reviews and recommendations and there is an element of escape involved too i.e. a place to sit and browse in comfort

2. Monetise consumer requirements

Bookshops allow consumers to browse and receive recommendations for free and this practice adds considerable weight to the suggestion advanced by Barnsley in the Radio 4 debate. In other words, charging a fee to consumers to avail themselves of all that bookshops have to offer (and possibly more interactive services) may ensure their survival.

3. Offer unique experiences

It is important to offer something which cannot be provided by Amazon or online digital bookstores. This may include creating different environments within a store that are appropriate to the genre or events such as cookery lessons or talks given  by leading academics on a wide range of topics. It may mean providing additional services such as childcare whilst you browse or making an area suitable for exhibiting art work.

To conclude, bookshops are worth saving. They are incredibly important hubs of information, allowing interests to develop and offer the chance to escape for a while from the fast paced lifestyles many of us live.

To find about more about how you can support independent bookshops, visit:

The Bookseller Association have produced a statement in support of bookshops: