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Have you heard about the ‘First Editions: Redrawn’ auction? It will take place at Sotheby’s in December and will raise funds for the charity House of Illustration, which runs an educational and heritage centre in London. What’s very special about this auction is the lots: 38 editions of classic children’s book, each re-illustrated and annotated. As House of Illustration explains: ‘Thirty-four acclaimed illustrators – and some authors – have returned to one of their classic books, adding extra illustrations, comments on existing drawings and personal insights about the motivation behind characters.’

The books up for auction include:

  • Lost and Found, in which Oliver Jeffers notes that his book was inspired by the true story of a little boy who stole a penguin from Belfast Zoo.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which Quentin Blake draws a brand-new sketch of Charlie eating a chunk of vanilla fudge.
  • The Snowman, in which Raymond Briggs confesses he was never too happy with the rendering of the melted snowman.
  • Paddington, in which Michael Bond explains the inspiration for the story, dating back to memories of evacuees during the war.

The chance to get a peek into the mind of the artist is rare – and wonderful. Take The Snowman, for example, a classic of children’s literature first published in 1978. But how does the creator feel it sits in the modern era? He writes in his annotated edition:‘Blue and white striped pyjamas! Pre-historic, I’m told. For me, pyjamas have to be blue and white stripes otherwise they are not pyjamas.’ And: ‘Dressing gown! Pre-historic again? Youngsters now wear ONESIES, whatever they are.’

The concept is a wonderful one, don’t you think? A little like the extra you find on a DVD movie these days that offers a cut of the film with commentary from the cast and director. I wonder: should this be the norm, rather than a rarity? Should an author create a special print copy of his or her book, and then jot notes in the margin?

In my novels The Echoes of Love and Burning Embers, for example, there is so much I could share about how I feel about a plot element or a character; why I made certain choices in the writing; and of course the many inspirations for the books. I could slip in an anecdote of my times in Kenya and Italy. I could note down a recipe for a meal the characters are sharing. I could explain the background of a historical landmark, or share a legend associated with the story. I suspect, in fact, that my annotated edition would have to be printed with very wide margins to fit all I’d love to include!

What do you think of annotated editions? Do you think they enrich the reading experience? Reward the most loyal readers? Inspire, perhaps, others to write also? I would love to hear your thoughts.

The ‘First Editions: Redrawn’ auction will take place at Sotheby’s, New Bond Street, London, on 8th December at 7.30pm. You can bid in person, in advance of the auction or via the phone. For details, visit www.houseofillustration.org.uk . The full catalogue is available at www.houseofillustration.org.uk/media/_file/l14910-singlepgs.pdf.

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.

The phrase ‘dream of being a writer’ is a common one that dates back a long way. Remember Josephine March in Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century Little Women series? She ‘dreamt of being a writer’. But what exactly does that mean? What is the dream exactly?

Once upon a time – in Jo March’s time – the dream of being a writer was simple. It was about two things: having the freedom to carry out the process of writing, and to enjoy that; and writing something that others may read and enjoy.

The process was, I think, the most important element of the dream. From Little Women:

“Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and fall into a vortex, as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.” 

Writers know well that process. It’s exhausting, it’s grueling, it’s emotionally draining – but it is, to coin a phrase by writer Oriah Mountain Dreamer, ‘what we ache for’.

As for the sharing of the writing – the publication; that was part of the dream. But how far did the dream of being read and appreciated as a writer extend? Not much further than impressing peers and family, getting some recognition and perhaps, in the wildest of dreams, becoming sufficiently well-read to be respected by critics and paid sufficiently to write full time.

That was then. This is now, when publishing books is big money, and writers can, and do, dream big. Take The Hunger Games as an example. It’s available in paperback with various cover design versions. It’s been made into a blockbusting movie franchise that has broken several box-office records. You can buy all manner of merchandise, from jewellery to apparel. And this week news was announced that a Broadway producer is creating a massive stage show for the book that will be shown in a brand-new purpose-built theatre located next to Wembley Stadium in London. Did the Hunger Games author, Suzanne Collins, dream this big? Perhaps not – but without doubt all these developments are inspiring writers around the globe.

These days, then, the ‘dream of being a writer’ may mean dreaming of:

  • Red-carpet premieres of the film of your book
  • Bands commissioned to write music based on your book
  • An army of fans following each aspect of the book, and perhaps even dabbling in fan fiction
  • Glamorous, showbiz-style book tours
  • Schmoozy lunches with publishers and media professionals at a posh hotel

… and much more besides. Has ‘the dream of writing’ transmuted into a dream of being famous? When a child today says he dreams of being a writer, is he dreaming mainly of the process of writing, of hours locked away in his own story world, or is he picturing wildly successful authors like JK Rowling – is he wanting, in fact, to be a celebrity author?

I think all of the classic writers of literature would admit to wanting recognition for their talent. Only those who write only for themselves and never publish a word are truly writing for the process alone. But was there a time when recognition mattered less? When the art of writing was the dream, not what came next?

I’ve dreamed of being a writer from a young age, because I love to write. I love to come up with ideas. I love to put them down on paper. I love the journey I go on when I write. I love solving the puzzle of finding the right word to describe something. I love building characters. I love working hard on a project and seeing it grow. I even love the way writing takes me over, so that I am pulled into another world; like life has become a dream.

Back when I began writing, in my childhood, I showed my first stories to my governess and my parents, who responded enthusiastically. Encouraged, I began writing stories for classmates, who circulated them. I loved that they loved my writing – I knew I wanted to write more, to transport readers into the world of my imagination. The process and the sharing fulfilled me. As Jo March says in Little Women: ‘I’ve got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen.’

I did unlock the door. I write full time now, and I love every minute that I spend on my books. I live every day the dream of being a writer, my dream of being a writer. Everything else is but chance, not design – only the process and the hard work of building a readership are tangible, within grasp. The writing is all.

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.

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