The blue plaque scheme in the UK is one of my favourite historical initiatives. It began in London, launched in 1867 by the Royal Society of Arts, as a means of connecting sites with people of historical interest. The first plaque was unveiled at 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square, the birthplace of Lord Byron. Since then, some 900 plaques have been established in London alone – and plenty more in the wider country – to mark the places that mattered to all kinds of people: from statesmen to soldiers, architects to inventors. But the ones that have always most captured my imagination are those relating to people in the arts. To stand before a house in which an admired author wrote is moving. You realise that the person who in your mind has become legendary was once a real person, once stood right here. The connection is powerful. Inspirational.
When it comes to literary heritage, a precedent has been set for not only marking the residences of writers but preserving them too. Many are looked after by the National Trust, and open to the public: you can visit, for example, Beatrice Potter’s 17th-century farmhouse, Hill Top, and Agatha Christie’s holiday place with a view, Greenway. Other homes have been made into museums: Jane Austen’s, for instance, and Wordsworth’s.
Now, The Blake Society is calling for donations to help it save the home of William Blake. A little cottage on the Sussex coast in Felpham, it is a place of huge historical import.It’s where the write penned the seminal poem ‘Jerusalem’, which became the lyrics for the English hymn so loved it’s a permanent and proud element of the programme at every Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall:
The Blake Society wants to buy the cottage and preserve it as a place of inspiration for writers and ‘anyone who shares with Blake a belief that imagination is Britain’s gift and duty to the world’. But the price tag is £520,000, and the charity has to raise all that money by the end of today! In the UK, you can support the cause by texting FEET11 followed by a number from 1 to 9 (which will determine how much money is taken, from £1–9) to 70070.
What struck me most about The Blake Society’s plea for support this week were these words in a statement from Tim Heath, chair of society: ‘Blake is unusual in our culture in that he’s everywhere and nowhere – he’s had great lasting influence but has no home here.’ We have a duty, surely, to commemorate those who contributed to our modern lives, through all aspects. I’d love to see more plaques. I’d love to imagine a future in which one can walk around a town or city for an hour, looking up at buildings and learning, and feeling connected to the late and great.
Reading is often assumed to be a quiet, sedentary, solitary pursuit. If you want it to be that – if you want some peace, a sit-down, a break from socialising with others – then reading can certainly be an activity for you and you alone. But in fact, reading has a long history of being a social activity, something to share with others.
Think, for a moment, of the old tradition of reading at the fireside. Sometimes this was done quietly, individually; but often a family member read aloud to a group. Watch a period drama, for example, and you may see a group of women sitting together, one reading while the others sew – and periodically the reading halts as the women discuss the content of the book. Early schooling quickly adopted reading as a group activity as well – children read aloud, and discussed text in groups. And of course the bedtime story has long been an essential element of a loving wind-down routine for families the world over.
Today, the concept of reading as a social activity is stronger still. A key part of educational syllabi is to encourage children to read together and to discuss stories and non-fiction texts. Book groups have soared in popularity – people are coming together to share books and their opinions in all sorts of places, from homes to coffee shops, and across all manner of genres as well.
But it is the connectivity and functionality afforded by technology that is creating the most exciting social reading developments. Sites like Goodreads are helping readers come together to discuss books and share recommendations. Anyone can share their thoughts on a book online, posting reviews on a blog or on one of the many review-sharing sites. And how about reading a book together online? SocialBook is a reading platform that allows small groups to read a book online and ‘talk’ about that book through threaded conversations that appear in the margins of the book. Bob Stein, consultant with the Institute for the Future of the Book, exemplified the concept inThe Bookseller:
[A] New York high school teacher asked the students in her advanced Spanish literature classes to read their assignments in SocialBook… they are now nearly halfway through the text, with more than 2,400 comments among the four of them. They are using the margins for many things — creating a rich glossary of terms and concepts that are unfamiliar to contemporary Spanish speakers, noting points for clarification, and discussing the wide range of historical and literary questions that this seminal novel raises. This adds up to an impressive example of collaborative reading and thinking.
Clearly, there are all sorts of possibilities here. Not only could you read a book and recommend it to a friend: you could annotate the book and then read your friend’s comments.
What all these trends towards making reading a social activity come down to is this: we don’t just want to read; we want to talk about what we read. We want to share our ideas, our opinions and our reactions. As Angela Carter said, ‘Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself.’ As a writer, I find this very exciting. Because we write in the hope that we will make readers think, feel, react. Novelist John Cheever wrote: ‘I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss – you can’t do it alone.’
Making reading a social activity means that neither the writer nor the reader is alone. The words on the page are connectors that bring people together and spark sociability. Books aren’t just for people – books unite people.
The idea that the conventional book store is in trouble needs no introduction. Digital publishing, book discounting by giants like Amazon, the shift from high-street shopping to online shopping: these, and other reasons, have seen many book stores close in the past few years. Those that soldier on are forced to be ever more innovative in finding ways to bring customers through the door, and to the till armed with purchases. And an interesting idea, but one trialled so far by very few, is genre-specific book stores.
For some people, of course, the book store experience is about browsing across genres. Looking at the hotch-potch of titles laid out on display tables. Reading the blurb of a novel, then skimming a coffee-table art book, and then perhaps checking out the new picture books in search of a present for a little one. But those passionate about a particular genre of fiction may enter the big book store that stocks all sorts of titles and simply head for one section, where they spend the next few minutes seeing what’s new, and then sail out – perhaps with a new book; perhaps not – without looking at any other kind of book. How much more may that reader, that book buyer, engage if their section were bigger, brighter, more exciting – a world all on its own?
Imagine not just stores, but destinations. Places to support. Places to discover new books – and so much more. Just imagine young adult book stores. Crime thriller book stores. Literary fiction book stores. Romantic fiction book stores.
Being a romance writer, the latter idea most intrigues me. Imagine a store that’s sublimely romantic. Beautifully lit with lamps and candelabras. Playing soft, lilting music. Smelling of scented candles. Velvet armchairs and sofas scattered amid the bookcases, begging you to sit down and get lost in a book. Readers would flock there! We’d make it our second home, I think; use it as a kind of restorative therapy.
The genre-specific store is a proven entity: think of the classic comic-book store that you find in most major cities. It’s there not only to sell wares to those who love science fiction, fantasy and horror; but also to provide a hub for them – a place with which they identity and that they use as a means of identifying who they are.
Therein, perhaps, lies the issue for some genres. Would readers of erotic fiction want to be seen stepping into a book store specialising in that genre? Would crime thriller aficionados be confidently open with that association (and what gruesome décor may that store feature!). The idea has merits, still, across the genres, but is perhaps more workable for those genres that people proudly engage with.
But there is a solution to open the door across all genres: go digital. Publishers are increasingly launching genre-specific online stores. Take Diversion Books, for example, which has just opened EverAfter Romance – a store that sells ebooks from various publishers across the romance genre. There’s a website at www.everafterromance.com, but the crux of the activity is via an app, downloadable on both iOS and Android mobile devices, which offers access to 100,000 titles.
Going digital means it’s easy to create marketing campaigns that really get to the heart of what the reader wants. Rather than selling the idea of buying books, you’re selling the idea of buying the genre books only. So, for example, EverAfter Romance offers to give those who sign up alerts about recommendations, flash sales and free eBooks. That way, it will keep in contact with readers and regularly present them with ideas for new purchases; much easier marketing than the physical book store must undertake, given that its readers need to walk past for it to hook them in.
What do you think? Would you go into a genre-specific book store? For which genres would you love to see dedicated stores? Do you shop at any online stores that specialise in one or just a few genres? How do you compare that to shopping at an all-books online store? I would love to hear your thoughts.
- Authors (US only) submit their complete manuscript of at least 50,000 words (only the first 5,000 words are visible to readers). The manuscript must be unpublished in any format. They also supply a book cover, a one-line summary, a 500-word synopsis, and an author bio and photo. The book is launched on Kindle Scout, and authors work to publicise it and encourage reads.
- Readers register on the site, read book extracts and nominate up to three books at a time that they’d like to see published. If a book they nominated is published, they receive a free copy to encourage reviews.
- Amazon’s Kindle Scout team chooses a small number of books to be published in ebook format based on their popularity and the team’s personal preference.
The benefits for readers are free books and a say in what gets published. The benefit to Amazon is, of course, new blood! And for authors, Kindle Scout is offering:
- The opportunity of a publishing contract in 45 days or less
- A guaranteed advance of $1,500 and royalties of 50%
- Featured Amazon marketing, to include ‘targeted email campaigns and promotions’
Kindle Scout holds the ebook rights for five years and then reverts them to the author if the book hasn’t made $25,000 in royalties (or two years if the book fails to sell well at all and earns less than $500 in total royalties).
Ever innovative and on-trend, Amazon is breaking new ground here in marrying three areas of digital publishing:
- Traditional publishing: Amazon is acting as a traditional publisher. Ultimately, the readers’ vote does not determine who gets published: the Kindle Scout website explains ‘Nominations give us an idea of which books readers think are great; the rest is up to the Kindle Scout team who then reviews books for potential publication’. So Amazon is in complete control of the commissioning process. Then it’s handling production (I assume also design; it’s unclear whether it will offer cover redesigns), publication and marketing in the traditional way, retaining rights and paying royalties. It’s worth noting that the 50% royalty is more generous than many traditional publishers currently offer.
- Self-publishing: The author who gets published via Kindle Scout is not self-publishing, and yet in a sense they need to self-publish to the Kindle Scout website before getting a publishing contract. Thus the author who wants a good chance of attracting the readers’ and team’s attention needs to undertake editing and formatting of the manuscript, designing a great cover and then pushing hard for nominations on the site, otherwise known as marketing. Genius of Amazon, because the author who does well independently is a safe bet for taking forward under contract.
- Crowdsourcing: With this element, Amazon is testing the market for a book before signing it, and building engagement with readers. The really clever element, I think, is that each nominator later gets a free copy of the published book, thereby giving the book a headstart with those all-important reviews (and guaranteeing that the first reviews will be positive).
Plenty of writers are flocking to the site to give it a go. But there are writers voicing concerns:
- That Kindle Scout is only open to US residents.
- That it’s limited to the genres of romance, mystery and thriller, and science fiction and fantasy.
- That Kindle Scout will publish only to Kindle and holds the ebook rights, so books won’t be available in other formats, such as for the Nook.
- That author does plenty of self-publishing functions, but receives a 50% royalty rather than the 70% available through Kindle Direct Publishing.
What do you think? Would you submit a book to Kindle Scout? Will you nominate books on the site? Does this concept have potential? Will it be, as Tech Crunchadvises, ‘a potentially industry-changing idea’? I would love to hear your thoughts.
In the British Museum, London, there resides a very, very old papyrus scroll on which is written a work of wisdom from Ancient Egypt. Its argument was exceeding radical for the time (around the 12th century AD): writing is a surer path to immortality than fine tombs. The Immortality of Writers, as the scroll is known, includes these words:
…Those writers known from the old days, the times just after the gods. Those who foretold what would happen (and did), whose names will endure for eternity. They disappeared when they finished their lives, and all their kindred forgotten. They did not build pyramids in bronze with gravestones of iron from heaven. They did not think to leave a patrimony made of children who would give their names distinction, rather they formed a progeny by means of writing and in the books of wisdom they left…
They gave themselves [the scroll as lector]-priest, the writing board as loving son. Instruction are their tombs, the reed pen their child, the stone surface their wife…..Man decays, his corpse is dust. All his kin have perished; But a book makes him remembered through the mouth of its reciter. Better is a book than a well built house…
Better is a book than a well-built house… It must have been hugely controversial at the time, but today I think this argument strikes a chord with many people. No matter how much we advance as people, no matter how far technology takes us and how much civil rights activists have transformed society, one driving, terrible force remains in humanity: the fear of death. Or, to be more specific, the fear of nothingness – of ceasing to exist.
How do creative people handle that fear? They leave pieces of themselves behind; they immortalise themselves through their art. For some, the remnants of their being after they pass away are few and small. For others, the body of work is revered, so that artists like Michelangelo and writers like Victor Hugo and composers like Beethoven and architects like Frank Lloyd Wright are known by many people. Whatever your idea is of an afterlife, it is easy to imagine such creatives happy to see their legacy live on beyond their mortal body. As Jorge Luis Borge said, ‘When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.’
But what if you’re not a creative? What if, instead, you are like Paolo in my novel The Echoes of Love and a keen spectator, not a performer: like him, you‘spend a lot of time reading about beautiful things and like to surround myself with them’. How can you tap into the immortality of the writer?
Well, between now and 20 November, you have the chance of being a character in a novel by one of these acclaimed writers: Margaret Atwood, Joanna Trollope, Martina Cole, Will Self, Sebastian Faulks, Tracy Chevalier, Alan Hollinghurst, Ken Follett, Ian McEwan, Robert Harris, HanifKureishi, Zadie Smith, Kathy Lette, Adam Foulds, Adam Mars-Jones and Pat Barker.
Seventeen authors are ‘donating a character’ to raise funds for the charity Freedom From Torture, which cares for people who have been tortured. Anyone can bid in the ‘Literary Immortality Auction’ at the Freedom From Torture website, and the bids will feed into a live auction on 20 November at The Royal Institute in London.
Character options depend on the author, but as a minimum your name can appear. Tracy Chevalier, for example,explained:
I am holding open a place in my new novel for Mrs. (ideally a Mrs.) [your surname], a tough-talking landlady of a boarding house in 1850s Gold Rush-era San Francisco. The first thing she says to the hero is ‘No sick on my stairs. You vomit on my floors, you’re out.’ Is your name up to that?
Author Ian McEwan made a powerful case for entering the auction:
Forget the promises of the world’s religions. This auction offers the genuine opportunity of an afterlife. More importantly, bidding in the Freedom from Torture auction will help support a crucial and noble cause. The rehabilitation of torture survivors cannot be accomplished without expertise, compassion, time—and your money.
The fundraising initiative has certainly given me something to think about. I wonder, would my own readers enjoy such a competition?