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I am a keen follower of https://www.ted.com/: the website devoted to ‘ideas worth spreading’. Recently, the following video, entitled ‘My year reading a book from every country in the world’, caught my eye:

From the description:

Ann Morgan considered herself well read — until she discovered the “massive blindspot” on her bookshelf. Amid a multitude of English and American authors, there were very few books from beyond the English-speaking world. So she set an ambitious goal: to read one book from every country in the world over the course of a year. Now she’s urging other Anglophiles to read translated works so that publishers will work harder to bring foreign literary gems back to their shores.

I am very fortunate to speak several languages, which allows me to read books from a range of countries in their original language. But I do also read translated works. From my armchair in Kent, England, or my patio overlooking the Med in the South of France, I can travel the world and learn about its peoples, and I am certain that doing so makes me not only a better writer but also a better person.

Would you follow Ann’s challenge? What world literatures most interest you? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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If you love reading and you want to share your passion with the world, how do you do so? How do you identify yourself as an ardent bibliophile?

Until a few years ago, the answer was most likely to entail words. You showed your love of reading by writing about what you read, either keeping a writing journal online, establishing a book blog or posting reviews with popular book retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

These days, however, book lovers are going pictorial; they are expressing their passion for books, and endeavoring to inspire that feeling in others, through images, either static or moving.

The development of the social media side Pinterest helped to spark interest in the visual – not just cover art of books, but books as art themselves. Countless boards have been created devoted to books, beautiful books, and I for one find browsing them wonderfully soothing and inspirational.

Then you have Instagram, which has become so popular with readers that an entire sub-genre has been created by users, named Bookstagram. Readers post pictures of their current reads ‘in situ’ – and that ‘situ’ is often something quirky, fun and beautiful relating to the literary world, or something straight out of the pages of a lifestyle magazine. Prolific ‘bookstagrammers’ can achieve hundreds of likes for a photo snapped of their new read on a gingham tablecloth with a flower, a cake and a cup of coffee, and the most active compete for likes, one-upping each other on prettiness of shot. Those liking the photos are in effect declaring their passion for reading; it’s one big, happy club.

Moving beyond static images – and neatly skipping past GIFs, which are becoming de rigueur in the reading community on platforms like Twitter – we come to YouTube. For the reading community, the BookTubers are in the limelight. These are avid readers who share their passion for reading in general and their latest reads in videos, invariably filmed before a carefully laid-out bookcase that showcases their reading tastes and design skills.

All of these new pictorial angles embraced by readers are creating a new culture, which is not just making those in the reading community sit up and take notice, but also those in the publishing industry.

BookTubing, for example, can be big business; those who are most prominent have large followings and can monetize their videos. And of course publishers are keen to join the revolution. HarperCollins recently launched a dedicated YouTube channel called Book Studio 16 and launched a contest to entice readers to post a ‘shelfie’ – a film of them in front of their bookshelves explaining their love for reading. The top prize is $500 worth of HarperCollins books, and there are five $300 prizes for runners-up (details here: http://harper.hc.com/shelfiecontest).

What do you think of this new language for book lovers: of shelfies and Bookstagram and BookTubing? Do you follow any such bibliophiles, and if so what do you enjoy about their pictorial content? Does it make you want to buy books, buy bookshelves, buy coffee – or, crucially, read more?

The word that springs to my mind is community. Through such sharing, readers are building bonds with each other, and forming an every-growing and ever-stronger community worldwide. No longer need the reader be a lonely individual curled up in a chair in a quiet corner someplace; the reader can be curled up in a chair in a quiet corner someplace and simultaneously belong to a thriving, supportive, inspiring community of like-minded individuals. Booktastic!

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‘Learning language from the language of love’: That was the headline that caught my eye in the news recently.

Have you heard about Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) engine, and its new reading material?

Some time ago, Google realised that the conversational skills used in its many products were somewhat lacking: the language was stilted and dull. So the research team decided to feed text into the AI engine in an attempt to teach it to ‘be more conversational, or have a more varied tone, or style, or register’ (source: BuzzFeed).

The Google team decided on a particular type of writing to ‘feed’ the machine: romance novels, some 2,865of them in total. Because romance is based on core stories, the AI can find common ground between the books and match up which sentences have the same essential meaning, thereby learning how to say the same thing in different ways based on the many linguistic examples. The result is a more nuanced comprehension, and the developers say that in testing the AI is now writing better sentences for itself, with more personality.

Setting aside the obvious discussion on AI and whether this engine could now theoretically write its own romance novel, what fascinates me about this story is that the romance genre was selected from all other book genres as the one to educate the AI. What does this say about romance novels?

Of course the core plots come into play, but this is an exercise in teaching the AI to ‘speak’ in a more natural, friendly, lively way; to ‘writer better’. Ergo: romance novels are well-written.

The romance genre is the best-selling one worldwide, and yet it has long suffered from disrespect and even derision from a small group of literary elitists. A news story like this is like a shiny gold trophy for all romance authors and all romance readers. If the language of love is good enough for a futuristic, intelligent, cutting-edge AI, it’s absolutely good enough for we humans!

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Digital publishing is still in its infancy. Developments are quick, and frequently surprising, because ebooks are breaking new ground. With anything new comes a desire to forecast and predict trends, but sometimes, when the pace is fast, there is a tendency to make assumptions rather than carefully analysing exactly what is happening and why.

The perfect example is the readership for romance novels in ebook format. We all know that romance is the strongest digital genre. But do we all know exactly who’s reading in the genre?

When I first began writing my debut novel Burning Embers, the culture of e-reading was far less established than it is today. I, like so many others then (and even now), assumed that e-reading was for the technology-embracing young; those who love gadgets and gismos; those without reverence for print books.

Then I got my own ereader, rationalising that I would use it only occasionally when a print book would be cumbersome (when travelling, for example), because I would never be parted from my beloved books.

Around the same time Burning Emberswas published in print, and in ebook format. Whom did I imagine reading the ebook? Certainly not a woman like me – and yet, in the months that followed, I realised that I was reading ebooks, a lot of them.

I began speaking with friends, and following stories in the news, and realised that a cultural shift was underway. Ebooks aren’t remotely just for the Apple generation; they are for everyone!

Last month, a particular news item caught my eye. The Guardian reported on a study by ebook retailer Kobo of its customers, which found that ‘the digital reading revolution is being powered by “prolific” readers who are predominantly female and over 45’. Here are the most interesting findings:

  • Of the most active readers (those who spend at least half an hour a day reading ebooks), 75% are women, and 77% are aged 45 or older.
  • The average prolific reader buys 16 print books a year and 60 ebooks. They read most days, for around 90 minutes.
  • 16% of customers buy a book nearly every day.
  • Romance is by far the favourite genre (more than double the sales of the next best performing genre, general fiction).

So why exactly is digital reading being powered by prolific women readers in their forties and beyond?

  1. An appreciation of e-reader functionality. Many readers, myself included, have come to appreciate how portable the ereader is, and how intuitive it can be; for example, the capacity to change the font size (suddenly, the font in print books appears tiny in comparison). Easy linking to explore and/or purchase more books by the author or in a similar vein is also very helpful.
  2. The ability to read voraciously. Unless you can afford to buy paperbacks at a pace to suit your reading (and have room to store them all), before the e-reader your best approach was to visit the library. But libraries cannot offer the range of an online bookstore, and nor can you always get the exact book you want to read when you want to read it. There’s a fantastic immediacy with ebooks, and that makes for prolific – and speedy – reading.
  3. The range of books available. Even the best bookstore struggles to offer in print all the many romance books available online. The ebook romance reader is offered plenty of choice – and we women are all individuals, with differing tastes: we need the choice!
  4. Frugality: Quite simply, ebooks are cheaper, and I believe that more mature women are less frivolous and more mindful of how they spend. In addition, the price of ebooks makes it easy to try new authors and new sub-genres, with the knowledge that if you decide the book isn’t for you, you can simply delete it.
  5. The anonymity, and subsequent freedom, of e-reading. Last, but by no means least, e-reading allows women to read discreetly, without those around necessarily knowing their reading tastes and habits. Yes, I am thinking of the Fifty Shades phenomenon and the subsequent rise of the erotic subgenre, but I am also thinking about the simplicity of buying ebooks versus print books. Put simply: think how many print books a woman can bring home before her family questions her spending, and then think how easily a woman can fill an ebook library. The ebook is the ultimate self-indulgence – and mothers and wives and businesswomen richly deserve that!

What do you think of e-reading? Do you think mature women romance readers really are the backbone of digital publishing? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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On every romance bestseller list in the UK right now (and, indeed, in plenty of countries worldwide) you find After You, Jojo Moyes’ sequel to her internationally bestselling Me Before You.

Although Me Before You has been out – and raved about – for some years now, I have only just read it. As readers we cannot chase every trend, but the popularity of the book, together with the publicity drive for an upcoming movie release, made me sufficiently curious to buy it and try it. Here is the trailer for what looks to be a warm, funny and moving film:

Now, I have a confession to make. I did not know a great deal about Me Before You before reading it, other than that it was a romance novel about a quadriplegic and the young lady hired to be his carer. Often, I prefer to read a book without examining too closely material such as reviews that may contain spoilers. I like to come to a book as a blank slate, ready to be pulled into an entirely new story that will captivate and surprise me.

I was captivated for so much of the book. Then, towards the end, came the surprise when the truth dawned on me: the ending of the book was not, as I had assumed, going to be happy. It was going to be terribly sad.

Was it naive of me to assume the ending would have been happier, a future for the main characters – love and togetherness? Perhaps. Or perhaps not, given that the book is marketing as romance. As Dr. Laura Vivanco, an independent scholar of popular romance fiction, told the Huffington Post: ‘as far as regular readers of novels which are marketed as “romance novels” are concerned, the definition of “a romance novel” does include a happy ending.’

In recent years there has been a move toward more transparency in the ever-growing romance genre in terms of content. Cover art for books with erotic content make clear that the story is sensual. Some imprints promise happy endings; some, like Clean Teen Publishing, promise stories with no bad language or sexual content.

I wonder: should there also be transparency concerning romances with unhappy endings? Here is why:

  1. Many readers view romance as intrinsically escapist and uplifting, and therefore expect a happy-ever-after of some sort in a book marketed as romance.
  2. Readers who expect a happy ending but encounter a sad one may be disappointed or, worse, upset.

Do you think it would be beneficial to readers to introduce a categorisation system, much like the film industry uses, to allow readers to know at a glance the basic content of a book? Or do you think readers must accept that unless they want to research a book before reading it (thereby knowing the ending before beginning to read), they will sometimes be left upset by an ending? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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