My GAMMA.CON Review

It was a couple of weeks ago now that I attended my first GAMMA.CON, Canberra’s answer to Comic-Con. Being my first experience not only of GAMMA.CON, but in fact any Con, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

At first I did a loop around the arena, getting my bearings, and a glimpse of the event. While it wasn’t packed with people, there was an energy and enthusiasm that certainly filled the space. I meandered, slightly lost, between the stalls, the striking cosplay, art, and other wonderers.

Initially I felt a little out of place, and underdressed, but my feeling of estrangement didn’t last long. I found that people manning stalls were very happy to have a chat, the Cosplayers were always keen for some positive feedback, and the general atmosphere was one of inclusion and creativity. There were so many talented people gathered in the one place. The time, the effort and the passion put into their work was truly inspiring.

When I finally settled at the Odyssey stall, I then got the opportunity to talk to the interested readers and writers that came past, chatting with them about favourite genres and reads. Both the reading and the writing of books can be isolating, often solitary exercises, and I enjoyed engaging with people so set on making these passions a social experience. 

One of the best things was to see was such an avid interest in Odyssey’s books, many who came past the stall keen to experience the worlds and adventures Odyssey authors have created. I was especially stoked to get to read and purchase a new book published by Obscura (an imprint of Odyssey which specialises in beautiful and unusual gift books) called Octopus and Family. It’s witty, punny and comes highly recommended!

It was fascinating to catch a glimpse of such a passionate and engaging community, so thanks for having me GammaCon! 

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Characters are the author’s puppets, but they’re people too

There are different ways to read a novel. There are different reasons that we read, different levels on which we engage, different things we get out of it.

Reading through editorial eyes, can be a complicated process. Especially when it’s your own work you’re editing…

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When editing a book you tend to think of it as something functional, a creation with surfaces to be polished and tools to be applied. A construction to be arranged and critiqued until well oiled.

In this endeavour everything to do with the novel becomes equipment. The characters aren’t people, they are tools, puppets to be manipulated. The setting becomes a Paper Mache set, to be painted and filled with props. The plot becomes a series of events to be arranged and rearranged until they’re as romantic, or fantastic, or thrilling as desired.

And it’s easy to get into a habit of reading like this, so that even when you’re not editing or thinking critically about a book, but reading it for pure enjoyment, this same approach creeps through.

It’s certainly a useful way of reading. It allows you to consider the purpose of the book, all of its elements and what it has been made to say, to mean. But long ago literary scholarship determined that the creators of a book and the reasons for its creation, although there to be mined from the book if you wished, certainly didn’t need to determine what a book could say, or what a book could mean.

There’s another, completely different way of reading a novel than that of the critical editor. It involves seeing the book as a world in which to immerse yourself, a world of places, and people and events, devoid of a puppet master who controls them. The novel’s world simply exists, without an author having to create it. Viewing it in this way brings it vividly to life, and allows for endless possibilities of perception and meaning.

Like many readers, fan pages and book clubs do, it’s intriguing to consider the characters as people. To think about what motivates them, what is important to them, and how they interact with others. They are beings within themselves. This is of course the logic that accompanies things like fan fiction.

I’ve been writing a book club pack for a novel Odyssey has helped with. I’m putting together a series of questions that can help stimulate discussion about the characters, setting, themes etc. at book clubs. So I thought about what I would want to talk about in relation to this book, or any book really. What was engaging and exciting?

The book I was writing the pack for, The Bishop’s Girl by Rebecca Burns, is really well written. It jumps between various time periods and characters, from a 19th century bishop to a present day archivist, taking the reader on a tense and exciting journey.  A story of history, discovery and genealogy, The Bishop’s Girl also tackles the pressing issues of the everyday, like marriage, kids, friendships and self-discovery. You can find the book here.

With books as well crafted as this one, it seems a waste not to consider the literary tools used to construct it. Similarly though, some of the most captivating discussions about books come out of their ability to create characters and worlds that are so real that they stay alive even after the author has finished writing them. The ability to imagine and debate what could have happened, why events did happen and what they meant, hints at the captivating authenticity of a well-written book. I thought this approach was especially important given the vivid characters and environments that appear in The Bishop’s Girl.

When writing the book club pack then, I tried to work in questions that asked the reader to look at the book as a device, having a function for the reader, but also as a world in which the people, places and events truly existed.

It made me realise the importance of achieving a balance between styles of reading, between critical and immersive approaches, that I hope I can cultivate better in my future reading. Books are incredible in the many different ways they can be read. You can write a whole PhD thesis on a novel, or flick through the sandy pages on holiday, imaging yourself in the character’s shoes. And I will endeavour to remind myself, as put into words by this blog, to remember, and value, both of these styles. May my reading ever be analytical but also fanciful, constructive but also immersive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why is the publishing industry still being conceptualised as about to go up in flames?

I often peruse the news in search of any articles about books. Partly because it’s something I’m interested in and always happy to read about, but also because it’s a section of the news that is pretty guaranteed not to ruin my mood. New books are always exciting. And let’s face it, the news doesn’t tend to report the raindrops on roses, or whiskers on kittens.

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(Maria doesn’t mention books explicitly in the song, but we know what’s in the brown paper packages tied up with string.)

So comparatively, the books section is nearly always a source of the good. But in perusing recently I was struck by the way a few different articles all engaged, on some level, with a dialogue that seems to dominate how we think about books and the publishing industry in general. And it was a theme that actually, when I thought about it, wasn’t rosy at all. My bubble of happiness was burst. Let me explain my dilemma. 

The first article I read is about a new regional 24-hour library. It reports that a rural community in the Central West, called Tullamore, has recently been trialling a system where the library can be accessed 24 hours a day, you just need to sign up for a membership and become a key holder. Prior to this new arrangement, the library was only open a few hours a week, which made it very difficult for residents to take out and return books. Now that the changes have been made, significant increases have been shown in borrowing. Compared to the last financial year, borrowing is up 80%. A pretty substantial increase. The article quotes residents who are delighted with the changes, local Pam Mortimer calling the upgrade a “new freedom” for the area. While before books and borrowing them was unpopular and inconvenient, the library barely serving its purpose, now it seems the tables have drastically turned.

The second article is about a new, and very different type of novel, which comes in eBook form.  Richard Lea explains that the book, A Universe Explodes by Tea Uglow, requires you to add one word and remove two from each page. Only after making these changes to the novel can you then pass it on to it’s next owner. And thus a process of transfiguration is enacted. Lea notes that while at first the experience is strange and uncomfortable, it becomes a very interesting project as each new reader contributes new aspects to this ever-evolving work. The idea is intriguing and engaging. It forces you to be a part of the development of the novel itself, something you can’t achieve in the same way with traditional press. Again innovations and changes have been made to encourage reader engagement. An important element to note about the idea and how it was conceived is that this experimental type of reading was not, as you would assume, for the sake of being experimental. Actually, as Uglow explains, the drive behind the idea was making eBook’s more similar to their printed counterpart. By making this eBook more physically accessible, changeable and personal, it becomes more like the beat up novel in your bag and less like the digital novel you can only own the licence to read. So in doing something quite different to the traditional book, Uglow is actually striving to replicate the traditional reading experience. 

The third article I read is about the resurgence of consumer preference for printed books over eBooks. Much like my last blog post, Alex Preston looks at the change in the market and consumer choices and why this could have happened. He similarly notes the beauty and intricacy of printed covers and the importance of appreciating cover art. Cheers for backing me up 😉

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At first these three article seem to be quite different. They look at distinct and separate news-worthy things that are happening in publishing and reading communities, one as simple as giving keys to borrowers, another totally transforming the very process of reading itself. But despite their differences the major similarity between them, that I couldn’t help but notice, was the sense that these changes and new ideas were necessary, even crucial, developments that were needed to keep the industry functioning and to keep books being read.

The library changed it’s hours so that people would actually engage with the neglected books in their library. The strange structure of the eBook A Universe Explodes aims to bring something new to the reading experience, to jazz it up and encourage interest, but also to mimic the new demand for traditional print. And the conversation about eBook versus traditional printing is hinged on discovering how to get and keep consumer interest. All these areas are tapping into the idea that we must keep frantically striving to achieve interest in books. What underpins all these articles is the knowledge of potential failure without adaption. The idea seems to run through the back of your mind while reading, that this is yet another attempt to curb the the loses of the industry. 

Sure the publishing industry has had it’s fair share of challenges. The last article was the most outright in its recognition of this background consciousness of failure. Alex Preston writes, “the appearance of e-readers seemed to flummox a publishing industry reeling from the financial crisis and Amazon’s rampant colonisation of the market.” He lists the issues the industry has had to face in recent years so that they’re there for us to see, blatant and unquestionable. And with this knowledge now in the forefront of my mind, all these different attempts to promote reading that are discussed in the articles, became tinged with desperation. Like the end of the industry is nigh. Like there’s a real possibility it could all go up in flames. 

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Suddenly, all these changes seem to come off not as art evolving, or creative people trying new creative outlets, or simply extending library opening hours, but more like a lifeline, a defibrillator for the heart of publishing, willing readership back to life. All industries change and develop over time, it’s the nature of society, the nature of creativity, the nature of humanity. So why then does the publishing industry seem to be painted with the sense of it’s imminent death? A paranoia of possible failure seems to loom over us. I think it’s about time that the bleak, outdated fallacy is rejected for what it is, and that we come to celebrate the tenacity of an industry that will always survive. After all, it’s an industry of invention, of imagination, of introspection, of observation, of originality. Of course it’s going to change, and of course it’s going to survive.

 

 

 

Judging a Book by its Cover

Recently it was revealed that ebook sales, once booming, have now slumped considerably. Simultaneously, more consumer interest is being shown in traditional printed books. In an article titled “How eBooks Lost their Shine” which you can find here – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/27/how-ebooks-lost-their-shine-kindles-look-clunky-unhip- Paula Cocozza examines why this might have come about. She suggests that you just can’t do all the tangible things like dog-earing a page, or cracking a spine with an ebook, that ebooks are becoming more expensive and thus not worth it, and that things like children’s books just tend not to work as well in ebook form.

But one aspect which I found particularly engaging about her argument was her hypothesis that ebooks simply can’t be as beautiful as their printed counterpart. Cocozza writes “Another thing that has happened is that books have become celebrated again as objects of beauty.” She emphasises that the cover art, the font, even the binding, can be things of great aesthetic joy; something an ebook could simply never achieve.

While the criticism and dialogue surrounding books tends to focus on what’s inside the cover and what is typed across the pages, Cocozza reminds us that what’s on the outside, this time, does in fact count. The visual appeal of the book is something we experience, in different measures of consciousness, each time we pick it up, open it, close it, and put it down again (despite the often long period of not putting it down in between).

The physical cover of a book is something that can be incredibly striking and meaningful, and this new appreciation of printed books and their clothing is encouraging us to finally allow ourselves to judge a book by its cover.

Social media is certainly on the bandwagon. In fact, there are whole Instagram pages dedicated to displaying the beauty of bookcases, reading nooks and books themselves.

On the gorgeous page Foldenpagesdistillery (https://www.instagram.com/foldedpagesdistillery/) books (always closed and with their covers on display) are integrated into carefully constructed scenes. The backgrounds tend to either mimic the setting or themes of the book itself, as with the tartan and rustic items surrounding Outlander by Diana Gabaldon below…

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Or create a setting which evokes the act of reading itself, the space adorned with flowers, hot cups of tea and reading paraphernalia, like notebooks and glasses.

The colours and shapes of the cover art are mirrored in the surrounding elements of the photo. Here the significance of the cover is truly recognised and considered. It’s not just the ideas inside the book that are important, but also its physical form.

The page Bookotter (https://www.instagram.com/bookotter/) is full of character and similarly adorns the book with objects which relate to its fictional world, reconstructing the narrative in real life objects and images. Again the images and colour scheme of the cover art are mimicked in the surrounding objects, like the wooden board that pairs with the hazel eye, or the pink flowers that match the titular font. This page often brings the natural world, usually in the shape of plants, into shots like this one:

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Another breathtaking page is OliverSkyWolf (https://www.instagram.com/oliverskywolf/) who seems to forever walk around with a book held out in front of him. He captures striking scenes, again often within nature, where the backgrounds imitate the colours and resonances of the book’s cover.

Like this one for example:

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On these Instagram pages book covers integrate themselves into our world, and the foreground book and background world interact with each other through colours, shading, shapes and feeling. The books come to life in a setting which expands the cover into life itself.

In our evermore visual world of social media, so dominated by the immediate distribution of images, it makes perfect sense that Instagram pages like these ones have come to revel in the physicality, the aesthetics and the beauty of the book.

And it’s not just the book itself, its the whole library. A Buzzfeed article simply lists images of beautiful home libraries – https://www.buzzfeed.com/tabathaleggett/home-libraries-that-will-give-you-serious-living-room-goals?utm_term=.tpn0KrXBG#.qj56rbvw7

And they are stunningly beautiful. These home-decorators have used their books to decorate and embellish their rooms. Something I noticed about these different rooms is that without the books it would just be a fairly ordinary space. A lounge room, a bedroom, a study. But in these spaces the books are the focus, their arrangement on the shelves is not just storage, it is expression and style. The delicate shaping of the shelves, the use of light and focus, the arch over the reading chair – all these techniques take books as a design tool in their own right, as pieces of art.

There are multiple methods by which books are displayed – by author, by genre, or the beautifully visual choice of by colour. My personal favourite is the colour-coded wall below, designed by 7 Interiors. It’s so beautiful I can feel tears welling up. I mean who needs art when you have a bookshelf like this?

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I thought about my own apartment and the time I’d spent making my bookshelf look good. And actually, I realised, I’d spent probably the most time of all decorating that one small space, figuring out how to separate the books, how to display them, and which ornaments to adorn them with. Two of my favourite things in the apartment sit on top of my bookcase: my fern and my typewriter. It’s the area that I think looks the best in my whole apartment, and while I would like to take the credit for the breathtaking decorative skill, I’m sure about 90% of any aesthetic beauty is simply down to the books themselves, their colours, shapes and images.

There’s something very special about cover art that takes what a book is about and means and reconstructs it into a 2D image. It must be eye-catching and different. It must be commercial but also aesthetic. It must fit the genre and style but also make its mark so that particular book will standout. It’s a complicated process. The clothing that a book wears can become a work of art in itself, visually stunning and semiotically loaded.

With the decline of ebooks, and the resurgence of printed books, coupled with the highly visual, online culture we live in, this really is the time to appreciate and explore the beauty of our bookshelves. And even better, we now have yet another reason to keep buying books: they’re great for decoration.

 

Editing Reveries: Things I realised editing my first manuscript

This week I was given my first editing task as an intern. I’m helping to edit the third book in a fantasy series published by Odyssey. I really enjoyed reading the first two novels in the series so I feel pretty darn lucky to get to read the third before it’s even published and to have the opportunity to help out with it. Editing exciting new manuscripts seems to me like the very bread and butter of publishing, a real taste of the industry, and I was pretty keen to get started. I felt like a proud and protective new Godparent to this novel (even though so far I’d had nothing whatsoever to do with it’s upbringing…but then neither do the Godparents until they’re God-parented).

But that’s when I realised that this amazing task is also sort of scary. I realised the importance of what I was doing. For an author, writing a novel is not only a long and laborious process, but it’s also a very personal one. I’ve just started writing my own novel for my PhD and it’s still a wee baby novel that I can’t let out of my sight, let alone give to someone else to hold. It’s new and fragile and uncertain. Hopefully when my baby novel has grown up enough to take it’s first steps out into the world, and be read by other eyes, it will be big enough and strong enough to take it. But right now I am acutely aware of how sensitive writing is to the person that’s written it; that really it’s an extension of yourself. I know the manuscript I’ve been given is certainly not a baby novel, and that it’s nearly ready to take on the world, but for the author will it ever stop being their baby?

When I started reading the novel I imagined how much work had gone in to every paragraph, every sentence, every word, and I crumbled at the thought of making any changes at all. Who was I to critique what had been so laboriously crafted and nurtured? This was my chance to edit a real novel about to be published, and I was scared to edit it. Not a great start. I emailed Jen asking for a bit of advice on how to approach the editing process, which she kindly gave, and I felt better. I decided to treat it like the grownup novel it is and stop being so tentative.

Then it wasn’t like I had anticipated at all. The point of editing is to polish what needs to be polished, but what I found was that it was already pretty shiny. I’d definitely been blessed with a novel that is well structured, well proofread and well written. There were some little alterations of course, minor things, but nothing difficult or major. Moreover, the little things that I did suggest I wholeheartedly thought would enhance the novel in some way, and it didn’t feel fussy or overbearing but instead it felt cooperative and helpful.

The more I read through it, making my little notes as I went, the more I realised that while editing is in essence about criticising, it’s not about being critical for the sake of it. I think the editing process can sometimes seem malicious or disparaging, that it’s mistakenly taken as the act of searching for the negatives, that every edit is like a slap in the face of the author. But in fact, the right sort of editing is actually a kindly hand, one that simply helps to mould the story like a piece of clay, shaping it into a piece of art. This delicate, personal piece of art is not at the mercy of editing; it’s being honoured by it. Like the kindly godparent, editing nurtures the novel, and I hope that I will too.

 

Life Hacks for Writer’s Block

This week I want to write about something painfully close to my heart, that evil terror, the dreaded writer’s block. We’ve all had it at one time or another, whether writing a novel, an essay, a letter, or even a blog, where it seems physically impossible to coerce you mind and your fingers into creating something even vaguely coherent.

So I thought I could compile a list of potential antidotes that can be referenced if need be (fingers crossed for never). So I racked my brain for what has worked for me in the past, and also went on an online hunt for the most convincing ways to get your writer’s groove back.

And behold, a ten-step solution to writer’s block woes.

Number One: The deceptively helpful act of doing nothing at all

When a piece of writing is driving you absolutely crazy, I think sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away. By giving yourself a little distance you leave behind the negative or convoluted ideas that are distracting you from what you’re really trying to do. With that distance sometimes the crux of the issue, what you’re really trying to say and how you can say it becomes much clearer.

Number two: The opposite of what I just suggested

Sometimes if you’ve tried walking away and it doesn’t work, or you can’t stop thinking about it or you don’t have time to give it a rest, what can work is to just keep writing. Even if you know it’s terrible and clunky and awkward, if you just keep writing at least you’re somewhat closer to getting something down and you can go back and edit what you’ve got.

Number Three: The mighty and unquestionable power of colour-coding

In a second year creative writing lecture I remember my lecturer saying that one of her favourite authors uses colour coding to figure out who her characters are, how they interact and where the story is going. She plans out the series of events by the colour of their emotions. This is something I’ve found really helpful when writing. If I know the emotional colour of what I’m trying to write it’s easier to find the words that describe it.

Number Four: Saying it out loud to a helpful ear

So many times I have been so grateful to a friend that has listened to me trying to explain, and this is for two reasons. The first is that by trying to say out loud what you’re attempting to write you’re forcing yourself to vocalise concepts that you may never have put explicitly in words – you’re forcing your brain into using language without the pressure of writing it down, then you can write it down (don’t tell your brain that). The second reason is that the person you’re telling can contribute real, valuable and fresh insights about what you’re saying and how you could say it. I can’t count how many times a friend simply explaining something back to me in their words suddenly makes my own idea so much clearer.

Number Five: Changing the way you’re writing it

Sometimes a blank computer screen alone can be enough to scare away any decent ideas or sentences that may have popped into my head. When faced with this problem sometimes it helps if I write it somewhere else. A nice colourful notepad or an old lecture pad can be a little less daunting.

Number Six: Changing where you write

The place I can be most productive is never ever constant. Some days it’s the library, sometimes a coffee shop, sometimes just being at home is the best thing to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve learnt that if I’m really struggling to get something on the page a good start is to try going somewhere else. Another thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a correlation between where I can write and what I’m writing about. For example if it’s something particularly personal, or something I’m quite self-conscious about I will work best at home, but if it’s something I’m more confident about I’m more likely to be able to write in a café or public place. Catering the setting to the writing can helpful.

Number Seven: Reading a book/piece of writing you think is really good

Often when I know what I want to say but I don’t know how I want to say it I think about how my favourite authors would have done it. I read a book that I love and let it inspire me. The writing might not be the same genre or style as what you’re writing but it reminds you what good language is.

Number Eight: Reading a book/piece of writing you think is really bad

There’s no such thing as bad writing, but writing is so completely objective in so many ways that there’s always things your going to read and think really aren’t very good. Sometimes I find that reading something too inspirationally jaw-dropping makes me spiral further into the abyss of my own inadequacies. Where as if you read something that you think’s a little crappy you’re suddenly filled with the confidence that you can do better.

Number Nine: Listen to a song that matches the mood of what you’re trying to write

Sometimes I think of writing as like a workout, but for my brain; it’s mental cardio. And just like you need a motivational workout playlist, sometimes you also need a motivational writing playlist. By using music to get you in the mood of the thing you’re writing, you make yourself more likely to emulate it with your language. Sometimes I find specific songs inspire me to write something that I would never have thought of otherwise.

Number Ten: Stop thinking about what the critics will say

Critics will always have something to say, no matter what you write, and if you’re pandering to critics before you’ve even written anything you may never write at all. I think the best things I’ve ever written I decided I would never show anyone. By convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter, that no-one will read it, that it’s just to pass the time, you might be able to allow yourself to write exactly what you need to, not what you think other people might like. Writing at it’s core is about using language to express yourself, so you owe it to yourself to give it a full-hearted, uninhibited go.

So there you have it. I hope this list will be helpful, if only just to me!

 

 An Ode to Booktubers

 

This week as part of my intern work I did some more social media exploring. I looked at booktubers, the youtubers whose channels focus solely on discussing books. As I mentioned in my previous post, the way I normally engage with books tends to be fairly old-fashioned and I hadn’t really looked into booktubers. The closest I had come was when I got really invested in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a blog-style adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (if you haven’t watched the blog it’s amazing but also very addictive, proceed with caution –https://www.youtube.com/user/LizzieBennet)

Much like my social media stalking/research, yet again I was shocked and impressed by what I found. These channels are massive, some booktubers, such as Sasha Alsbery, who created her channel ABookTopia, have over 300K followers. She’s a woman in her 20s who has 300 thousand people listening to her talk about books, that’s impressive. Moreover, there’s a whole culture around booktubing with its own slang and customs. For example most of the booktubers I looked at would promote their “book hauls”, “TBRs” (to be reads), “wrap ups”, “tags” and of course “reviews”. All these practices are geared towards making talking about books all the more interesting, engaging and entertaining. They create these massive followings through creating videos that are so damn watchable. You watch one short video and bam, you’re stuck in a Youtube spiral, it’s The Lizzie Bennet Diaries all over again.

The booktubers that I have become most besotted with so far are: Jessethereader – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDPo9-NZFNi2Gwe8LnlvAUQ

and Mercy’sbookishmusings – https://www.youtube.com/user/MercysBookishMusings

Jesse is enthusiastic, funny, conversational and so endearing. He reads a lot of young adult and fantasy fiction, and the way he talks about the books he reads imbues them with such excitement and enjoyment that you’re immediately convinced that you need to read them; he’s a publisher’s dream! Also he cuts his videos in to spoiler-free and spoiler-full sections so you avoid the bits you need to. I’m really interested in the ways young adults receive and review YA fiction and I’m going to be researching it for my PhD thesis, so I can’t wait to explore more of his videos.

My other new favourite booktuber, Mercy, looks at a range of genres including literary fiction, magical realism and even non-fiction. I was drawn to her reviews of literary fiction and impressed by the range of books she takes on. She’s also really engaging, but comes off a little more serious and thoughtful than Jesse. Another thing that I really like is that Mercy states boldly in her information section that she doesn’t “have a degree in English literature” and that she’ll “never write a novel”, but that she still has her own opinion. I love that she’s so unapologetic about her lack of university knowledge, and so confident in the importance of varied opinions and analyses. As she suggests there is never one way to read, understand or appreciate a book. So what I’m coming to discover, and really value, about the booktuber community is that predominantly it’s not exclusive, elite or pretentious. Instead it’s inclusive, positive and compelling.

These booktubers are creating their own cyber book clubs, where anyone, from anywhere, at any time of day can connect with other people about the literature that inspires them. I joined a book club a few months ago (mostly because they were going to talk about my idol Thomas Hardy) and I went to one meeting, just the one, and never another one since. Even though I loved it and I met great people, it was so hard to make schedules align. What booktubers offer is a massive, exciting, anytime, kind of book club.

I believe the most important thing a book can do is change the way you think about the world, and when you get one of those rare, incredible, thought-changing books you absolutely NEED someone to talk to about it, and booktubers create the perfect platform for that conversation.

Even more wonderfully, pretty much everything they do promotes literature.  I was talking to a friend recently about booktubers, and he commented that it’s ironic to think that an industry so threatened by the internet could now come to rely on it. But I don’t think it’s ironic at all, it’s ingenious. In an era that prescribes the demise of the book, the publishing industry and literary community is using the very technology that threatened it as the launching pad into a new world of communication. So go you good booktubers!

The Reading Season

Like everything else associated with the holidays, I’m sure you’ll consider this article one that comes too soon. But, for the publishing industry, the looming spectre of the Christmas season has well and truly begun.

 

This post was spurred partly by my receipt of an actual gasp physical book catalogue last week, geared at – you guessed it – Christmas shoppers. With a smidge less than a month until the big day, every business even remotely associated with retail is pulling out all the stops.

 

However, I was curious as to what Christmas meant for the publishing industry. As one that produces physical objects that may easily be used as gifts, it would be clear to anyone that this particular national holiday is important to book sales.

 

And yet, for many, the book is not at the top of any Christmas lists. True, the rectangular package under the tree does have it’s own brand of predictability. The avid readers out there will also be familiar with the mingling of excitement and dread as you unwrap a carefully chosen book to be confronted with your fourth copy of Pride and Prejudice. Book buying can become a minefield at Christmas time, so how does the publishing industry address this?

 

Well, first and foremost, by increasing the number of new and exciting titles for readers to salivate over and parents to be confused by. The significant increase in books being released for publication around the first week in October has become so apparent that it now has its own name – Super Thursday. This is the day on which many of the big potential bestsellers are released, with plenty of time to entice shoppers away from shiny plastic and chocolate-coated nuts.

 

The reason for this is that new books are generally given between 2-3 months to prove themselves, sales-wise. Usually it becomes clear after the first two months whether the publisher has a bestseller on their hands or not. By releasing books on Super Thursday, these books have just the right amount of time to get on the Christmas bandwagon and help the word of mouth spread in the seasonal sales rush.

 

But this is done in order to target a certain type of recipient – the ones who (apparently) most commonly receive books for Christmas. An article published in UK newspaper The Telegraph a day before the publication of this year’s Super Thursday books noted a large skew in one area – children’s books, and a complete absence of one particular genre – chick-lit.

 

This says a lot about the expectations publishers have drawn out about who will be buying books this Christmas. Overwhelmingly, the season is targeted at children. So an increase in the release of books aimed at this age bracket makes sense. Christmas-themed books also represent a growing and popular trend. The Elf on the Shelf book, for one, has combined Christmas, books and toys in such an appealing way that many will choose to sit a small plush elf in their children’s room this Christmas, in an effort to both awaken their holiday spirit, and get some well behaved children in the bargain.

 

The other trend is more interesting. The absence of chick-lit novels, and the presence of those focused on crime and war suggests that – if you’ll forgive me for invoking a stereotype to demonstrate how I think the industry is using it – that book publishers consider men (particularly older men) to be the recipients of books more often than women will be this Christmas. This is certainly not to say that the industry is ignoring women over this time, but it does not appear to be their focus.

 

Interestingly, this surge in publication around Christmastime is also a positive step for the future of the print book. Let’s face it; an eBook has to be one of the more underwhelming presents available. Oh cool! A digital file! – said no one ever. And the rush is predominately towards print.

 

This Christmas, you may choose to buy a book for a loved one, or even yourself. Certainly the outpouring of usually non-existent catalogues and a higher percentage of new, physical books would suggest that this might be a good time to stock up. For the publishing industry, just like others involved with consumption, Christmas is an important time, with products produced especially for those swept up in the spirit of the season.

The Forgotten Readers

We’ve all been inside one. For many, including myself, our love of reading was grown and cultivated in a building absolutely bursting with books. You could stroll through the seemingly endless rows of towering shelves, trying to find that perfect book. Especially as children, libraries seem to house never-ending possibilities for reading. Across the country, indeed, across the world, libraries are institutions that open their doors to thousands of avid readers every day.

Whilst the library is the main source of reading material for numerous individuals, it is a commonly overlooked vehicle for increasing promotion and awareness of your book. This is largely because many don’t consider an institution that buys one copy of a book and then lends it to as many people as possible an opportunity for substantial profit.

However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that there are far more opportunities for promotion than first meets the eye.

It has been suggested that libraries purchase as much as 12% of all books sold in Australia. Although many towns no longer have bookstores, especially rural ones, many of them still have a library, or have access to a travelling library – yes, those still exist! All these libraries need to be stocked, and librarians are always looking for new and interesting titles to attract readers to their shelves.

The fact that libraries only buy one copy of a book, and are therefore not worth spending time marketing to, is a common argument. However, not only is this not always true, even when it is, that’s no reason to discount the library. School libraries in particular are known for ordering class sets (usually around 30 copies) of books they are interested in acquiring. If a book proves popular, libraries may buy multiple copies in order to cater to demand.

But even if they only buy one copy, that copy is one more sale you didn’t have yesterday. In a 2011-2012 report, Australian Public Library Statistics recorded 1,505 public libraries across the country. If every library in Australia bought only one copy, that’s still a significant sales count.

Additionally, the report noted that there were approximately 9 million visits to libraries every month. Consider the exposure that one book could get if it was seen 9 million times a month. Nowhere but a library will you have that kind of potential for people to see a book, and quite often pick it up and read it. If they love it, not only do you have a loyal reader, but they’re very likely to spread the word to all their friends, who can easily access your book from their library.

For the small press author, libraries, especially your local library, can be a great support in getting your book talked about. Many regularly host events with authors, including talks and signings. Others may also support the idea of launching your book right there in the library. Events like these not only open up more opportunities for sales, but also make sure your book is exposed in a place that has regular and dedicated traffic – and they ALL read books!

As many libraries purchase largely through library vendors, this can limit the opportunity for small press and self-published authors to get their books on the shelves. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance. Local libraries in particular love supporting authors who reside nearby. And once the word spreads about books that are popular, other libraries may begin to show interest.

Nowhere else in the world can you regularly attract such a concentrated group of readers as you can in a library. Those who are focused on the bottom line in the short term can dismiss those non-paying individuals who grip tightly to their library card. However, increasing the number of people who see and read your book is never a bad thing, in the long term it will contribute to an increase in sales. Especially if those library patrons are all as impatient as I am and, when faced with their desired book being on loan, goes out and buys their own copy because they cannot bear to wait. The book industry forgets about library patrons at their peril.

The Un-Conventional Pitch

Authors and editors alike are always interested in how the manuscript gets into the publisher’s hands – authors because they want theirs to be read, editors because it means things to edit – yay!

Traditionally, publishers receive manuscripts in two ways, depending on their preference and, usually, the size of the organisation. Most of the big publishing houses use literary agents, who write letters of recommendation, extolling the virtues of this particular client’s work. The person in charge of the slush pile (often your lowly intern!) reads the letter, and if interested, may actually set eyes on the manuscript.

The other way to do it, usually a more common method for smaller publishing houses, is through unsolicited manuscripts. This involves the author emailing or submitting the manuscript online whenever they choose. It is not based on the request of a publisher or the advice of a literary agent.

This is the method that Odyssey uses. Authors upload their manuscript through our submission portal in order for us to see it. We require them to include a synopsis, a biography, an ‘elevator pitch’ (how they’d pitch the book in the time it takes to ride an elevator) and the first four chapters of the manuscript.

Each of these methods work fine, indeed, at least for Odyssey, it’s how we discover most of our authors. But it does have its downsides. Both styles of submission are very impersonal; they consist of a letter, an email, or a summary. They give no scope for your impassioned defence of your work. All you can do is try and type as much as you can into that little box, and hope it’s enough to sell your work.

However, particularly with small publishers, a third option seems to be emerging.

As I noted in my blog post on the Supanova Pop Culture Convention a few weeks ago, going around these conventions with Odyssey, I have seen a number of authors willing to come up and make themselves, and their work, personally known to my boss.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Conflux Science Fiction Convention Odyssey attended in Canberra over the October long weekend. Conflux provided an option for authors they called PitchFest, which gave them a chance to pitch a particular work to my boss in 10 minutes.

The session worked thus: after brief introductions, they began by covering their title and synopsis. The publisher could then ask for clarifications, and even request the author elaborate on details they found interesting. Then they went over their author platforms, while the publisher made sure they understood the way Odyssey works, and knew what it would be like to work with a small press.

I considered this opportunity an excellent way to bring publisher and author together in a way that allows for a more personal and in depth interaction about the work. It was also a great way for everyone to get their names out there, and for authors to have a go at pitching their work.

Aside from this more formal aspect of it, I also found, as I have with every convention I have attended this year, that interest can also be expressed very casually. Throughout the day, a number of authors stopped by to discuss publishing with us, some interested in how Odyssey worked, others wanting to quiz our authors on what is what like to be published with us. Our boss was always open to informal sessions over coffee, and, as always, we found a few interesting manuscripts over the weekend.

So it seems that any and all opportunities to make yourself and your manuscript stand out should be enthusiastically undertaken by authors. Networking is key, as you get a chance to both formally and informally meet different publishers, and figure out which one is best for you. Some authors we have met at previous conventions are now part of the Odyssey family. If you can, I would always recommend taking a chance on the unconventional pitch