Friday, 24 September 2010

Why Waterstone's has done the right thing

I just heard through my Bookseller Bulletin that Waterstone's Piccadilly has opened a separate section for teen books. You can read more here:

What a brilliant move, I thought, and then, "why hasn't it been done before?" If you think of teen books as Young Adult, you can see straightaway that the emphasis should be on the "adult" rather than the "young."

No self-respecting 13-year-old and up wants to be seen in the Children's section amid the picture books and novelties. Better by far to have their own section, which will also include books written for adults but thought to have teen appeal.

So three cheers for Waterstone's and may all book shops with enough space follow suit.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Grabbing the ones in the middle

In any literate culture you will find people who love books. The bookworms are a given, across history and geography, and I bless them every day. They read, re-read, write passionate emails to their favourite authors and sometimes even fan fiction. They use libraries but books, new and secondhand, borrow recommended titles from friends and some of them review their favourites on blogs.

They may have learned to read early or late, through reading schemes, real books, or newspaper headlines (as I did). They are not bothered about whether the books come in paper or electronic form and might well own both.

This post is not about readers like them.

Then there are and always will be a whole group of people who, for whatever reason, don't read books. Some can't read but that's not usually the main reason. They will read newspapers and magazine perhaps but never a book. One is Victoria Beckham.

I'm not really talking about them either.

Then in the middle there is a huge third group who are not avid readers nor non-readers and those are the ones I want to get hold of and influence. Preferably while they are still children.

The world is so full of wonderful books and all it takes to get someone hooked on this huge lifelong pastime or passion is introducing them to the right book at the right time. Traditionally this has been done by parents, teachers and librarians. And for the last very many years by writers going into schools.

But libraries are closing, School Library Services are under threat and schools budgets are so tight that many author visits that might once have taken place will just not happen. What will happen to "the ones in the middle" then?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Books are like ice-cream

A couple of days ago I was idly semi-listening to Radio 4's The Food Programme. It was about ice-cream.

Now, I don't consume much of the stuff, except when in Italy, because I rather not have any at all than have poor quality. This is NOT how books are like ice-cream, because I have to be reading something all the time, even if it's rubbish. Even if it's train time-tables or ketchup labels. There are lots of people like me - logophiles? Anyway, addicts of the written word (and the spoken, come to that).

Ice-cream comes in lots of flavours but I have my favourites - coffee, gianduia, nocciolato to name but three. But that's still NOT how books are like ice-cream, because although I have my favourite writers and genres, I like a wider range of kinds of book than I do of ice-cream flavours.

No, what caught my attention was that big companies like W***s will give retailers a freezer in which to display ice-cream in but then the shopkeeper is obliged to stock a hefty percentage of the supplier's products in that freezer.

That made me think about the kinds of promotion that publishers pay booksellers for - inclusion in the Books for Giving Christmas catalogue, table position, window displays. Isn't it a bit similar?

OK, the ice-cream manufacturers are giving something away and the publishers are paying but the end result is the same: the customer buys what they see.

Now there might be gorgeous ice-cream made in the traditional style by Yum Yum Cottage*, on a farm with Jersey cows and soft fruit picked from a poly-tunnel that morning, but what are the chances of finding Yum Yum Cottage ice-cream in enough shop freezers, in the limited space allowed by Messrs W***s** et. al. and competed for by everyone else to make that a known brand?

What are the answers? Yum Yum can't afford to hand out free freezers any more than small publishers can afford to pay the promotional prices asked by bookshops. Nor can big publishers afford to pay the "added value" mark-up on every title they publish. I heard over ten years ago from a major publisher who did not want to be quoted that this could amount to £1 per copy.

Please suggest answers in comments.

What I can tell you is that the result is the same. People buy what they see and what they have heard of even what they can't see and haven't heard of may be better. You can't blame them. Just think of the best-selling ice-creams in the country and compare the flavour, ingredients, appearance with that of any really good ice-cream you have ever tasted (e,g. Brivido on Nanni's in Siena or Vivoli or Festival in Florence) and reflect.

Now think of the best-selling books. THAT is how books are like ice-cream.

* Fictional brand
**Not fictional brand

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The knives are out

Today the Booktrust Teenage Prize shortlist was announced. See Oh and some other literary prize put out its shortlist too but we needn't concern ourselves with that.

Coincidentally I can review the two teenage books here because they are in next year's judging period, when someone else will take over my duties on the panel. 

You might think "Oh no, not more knife crime books!" but I urge you to think again. Yes, there have been a lot of those books about and one of them was the precursor to one of those reviewed here.

Anthony McGowan's The Knife that Killed me was on the Guardian shortlist and I don't need to tell you just how many prizes Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go has won.

Dead Boy Talking by Linda Strachan and Almost True by Keren David are both strong books with striking covers. The title of the first makes its point economically and the second is the sequel to When I was Joe, which is on the shortlist for the North East Teenage Book Award. Strachan's earlier title for Strident, the equally disturbing Spider, was also shortlisted for a prize - the Red Award, appropriately enough! (Though that one was about "twocking" not knife crime).

Actually neither of these new books is about knife crime; they are about the experiences of one main character caught up in circumstances that have been made a lot more dangerous by the presence of knives.

Dead Boy Talking opens: "In 25 minutes I will be dead  .... they say it takes about 25 minutes to bleed to death." It takes a little longer to read the book but not much as its breathless style and urgent plot make you read quickly, eager to find out how it ends. And it's only 168 pages long.

We know from the beginning that Josh has been stabbed, the day after accidentally knifing his old friend Ranj. No spoilers in telling you that. The story unwinds quickly in alternating chapters of third person narrative flashback interleaved with even shorter italicised chapters showing Josh's present rapidly-changing situation. (So there are similarities to Anthony McGowan's book). But - and here IS a spoiler - the ending does validate the title, though Strachan gives us some hope at the very end too.

It is a powerful and disturbing book that just might save a reader's life.

Almost True is almost a stand-alone but a reader would get much more from it after reading When I was Joe. For newbies, the hero is not called Joe, though he is sometimes thus referred to among other names. He has reverted to Ty, his real name before he and his mum entered the witness protection programme, after Ty witnessed a stabbing in the park.

As the two books have developed we know there was more to Ty's involvement than he at first admitted and although he is a witness he might also be charged. The book opens with a chapter I had already read because it was (to me annoyingly) printed at the end of the first book. So I knew that mum, Nicki, has just seen her new boyfriend shot in mistake for her son. The witness protection isn't working too well.

This is a much longer book - 437 pages - and is less focussed on the one central incident. Ty has a lot of adventures, both connected with the first book and new ones. One of the book's strengths is that both his very flawed parents are fully realised as are many supporting characters - something you don't always get in an "issue-based" title.

There is hardly any of the gansta talk that marred the first book for me, though there is a bit too much about Twilight, which will surely date it? (And I'm a bit disappointed that Claire, Ty's love interest and a strong character in her own right, likes it so much!)

But these are minor blemishes. You do care very much what happens to Ty and his family because David makes you care. And that is surely the mark of a compelling writer.