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Comment from the book world in January 2003


'A revolting act of patronage'

22 December 2003

'The one defence that can be made of The Big Read is that it has boosted reading. Never mind that the programmes have been nothing less than "car-crash TV", as one book-trade commentator put it. Anything at all that gets more people reading is good, isn't it?

No, it is not. It is possible to make programmes promoting books that are so demeaning they do more harm than good. Far from easy, but possible - and The Big Read has pulled off this amazing feat of debasement.

In any case, it turns out that it is not reading that The Big Read has primarily promoted but watching: yet more watching. According to the online booksellers Amazon, sales of DVDs and videos of the featured titles have increased far more than sales of the books...

And as for the result ... It was clear as soon as The Big Read was announced earlier this year that Tolkien would win, just as he won a similar Waterstone's poll, even before the movies were made...

The Big Read - was a revolting act of patronage from our most powerful medium. Here, literature has been refashioned entirely in television's terms: turned into film; reintroduced to us by television's own transient little celebrities; then fatuously voted on by viewers, some of whom may be readers, some not.

There's no harm done to books. We can all pick up any book we like, the next minute, without thinking of The Big Read. But harm has been done - to the standing of the BBC.'

David Sexton in the Evening Standard

Literature versus commerce

15 December 2003

'I don't regard literature, which he spoke of in a perjorative way, as a competition - it is so vast. We have this marvellous language, and we are so lucky it gives us a huge audience. If we were writing in high Norwegian we'd have mostly reindeer for readers.

'I don't think giving us a reading list of those who are the most read is satisfactory. I don't see that we should read this or that. We should bring our own individuality, our own intuitions, towards what we want to read. In America, we're drowning in explanations. What we need are more questions. Explanations - the official ones - are not leading us to good places.'

Shirley Hazzard, winner of the National Book Award in the US, responding to Stephen King's speech at the awards

Writing a novel

8 December 2003

'I found that I could write poems and short stories at the same time because they required the same sort of effort. But once you're writing a novel it's a larger undertaking and it does take up quite a lot of 'head space' and I've found that poems and novels don't go very well together for me. Writing a novel is a different process and part of what's different is the day-today lifestyle. You can compose poetry and short stories while you're walking, on a train, or a plane, although walking is better, sometimes even when you're asleep. but with a novel you need to get down to it and have a place where you can do it, with piles of books around you for research.'

Tobias Hill, author of The Cryptographer, interviewed by Jane Ellis in Publishing News

'Book buyers who see books as very cheap'

1 December 2003

'We are creating a whole new generation of book buyers who see books as very cheap. We do the reverse of so many industries: when we have a valuable brand, we tend to discount it more; elsewhere, they put up the price. What we're facing is retailers fighting for market share and using discounting as a way to do that, and we publishers have to protect our authors' position and our own position. The US board, on which I sit, is staggered at our level of discounts - in the States the average is well below 50% and the 60%-plus discounts that have recently been demanded here by some supermarkets are unheard of.'

Victoria Barnsley, CEO of HarperCollins UK in an interview with Liz Thomson in Publishing News

'Different worlds'

24 November 2003

'Reading is an especially focused experience, unfolding in private time, and that makes a fundamental difference. A play cannot be stopped and reprised in the way that pages can be reread, whether to relish something good or understand something better. A novel is all present at once, and can be gone over and back, re-entered, skimmed, sampled or devoured, just as required...

'The better the novel, the richer the possibilities it offers in this as in all its other dimensions (of pleasure-giving and the like). Perhaps "great literature" is literature which, among its other qualities, best discloses to us different worlds, or deeper aspects of our own world, and teaches us how to feel more generously, discriminate more finely, and understand more comprehensively, as a result.'

A C Grayling in The Times

'A snobbish distaste for popular writing'

17 November 2003

'If you write the kind of contemporary women's fiction I do - light, commercial and prettily packaged - the assumption is that it can't be much cop. Barely a week goes by without some sneering reference to chick-lit which has become all but a term of abuse. Why this should be is not clear - simple envy, perhaps, at our huge sales and concomitantly large advances. Or the belief that because these books are easy to read, they're easy to write. They're not. But I think there is something much deeper at work: a snobbish distaste for popular writing full stop.

'It is as though there is this wondrous thing called "literary fiction" that is pure and untainted (however dreary), against which all massmarket fiction is set. When people ask me what sort of books I write, I reply that they are romantic comedies about self-deceiving women - women who fail to acknowledge the mess they're making of things - because that's precisely what they are.'

Isobel Woolf in the London Evening Standard

'Too far apart from the mainstream'

10 November 2003

'Perhaps one reason the publishing industry is enjoying only slow growth is that we do not listen closely enough to the market, because we read too far apart from the mainstream of the market...

'Any doubt that a gap exists between the reading habits of publishing pros and those of the general public can be dispelled with a simple test. The adult fiction authors most widely read in the past two decades - that is, the authors who have sold the most books - probably have been Nora Roberts, Dean Koontz, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, Michael Crichton and Stephen King. And then there's the fresher crop of blockbuster commercial authors like Michael Connelly, David Baldacci, Laurell K. Hamilton and Jan Karon. How many books by each of these authors have we read? If the number is few or none, perhaps it would be wise to read more of them, in order to understand, to appreciate and even to learn to love what so much of our market loves.'

Jeff Zaleski in Publishers WeeklyInternational news website of book publishing and bookselling including business news, reviews, bestseller lists, commentaries

'Publishing is a business'

3 November 2003

'Publishing is a business and therefore what is wanted is books that will sell. The difference between the commercial writer and others is the former writes for a readership and others often just for themselves. A book has to be shaped to fit market needs and has to be of interest to as many people as possible. It is difficult to anticipate trends in publishing, not least because the book commissioned today may not be delivered until next year and published the year after that. That said the boom in history and especially narrative, military and social history, popular science and literary fiction continues. Some 100,000 books are published each year so there is plenty of scope for variety.'

Agent Andrew Lownie in Writers' ForumBritish writers' magazine which is highly recommended for all writers. It features wide range of news and articles which help writers to improve their work and get published:

'Taking the prosaic and making it extraordinary'

27 October 2003

'Having kids, I became a whole new person. It changed me, enabled me to write to the extent I associate babies and fiction. Far from feeling held back by children, I felt they catapulted me in to it...

'I love taking the prosaic and making it extraordinary. Writers don't get enough credit for that... I don't want to glamorise. I want the reader to say, "Oh, that's just how it is." I love writers who take my breath away because they've pointed out something I've felt and didn't realise I did. I'm constantly striving for that as a reader and writer.'

Julie Myerson, author of Something Might Happen, interviewed in The Times by Candida Crewe

'Bookshops have never been this good at selling books'

20 October 2003

'You need to forget all the doom and gloom about tough trading conditions and remember that British bookshops have never been this good at selling books. Not in living memory has the public profile of books been this high. New books by certain authors make headline news and the quantity of major book prizes and commercial promotions has escalated to the point where we seem to have one a week... Books have not been rendered obsolete by competing media but reinvigorated by them.'

David Blow in Publishing News

On writing for children

13 October 2003

'I'm a children's writer. It seems like a simple, elemental thing to be. I feel as close to parents telling stories in the dark as I do to the world of printed literature. I write for young hearts and minds, for readers who are still close to the start of things, who experience elemental joys and fears, who haven't grown tired and cynical, who are still excited by the newness of their world. At the best of moments I feel as if I draw, like the storytelling parents do, on ancient energies'"

Children's writer David Almond in The Times

Reflections on poetry for National Poetry Day

6 October 2003

'We were really identified as being the publisher that helped to bring that generation (the 80s and 90s poets) to a wider readership. and it was really that generation of poets that took poetry out of the academic surrounds and into the wider community...' The male intellectual clique is 'a major problem at the moment, and a lot of poetry's not getting any coverage because a lot is being skewed towards these intellectually minded male poets. The poetry they admire is very good, but it's only a small part of what's going on.'

Neil Astley, MD of Bloodaxe in Publishing News