The internet (God bless it) is awash with pithy sayings about the power of books to change lives, so it’s good now and again to be allowed to say something online about the subject without the constraints of the 140 character Tweet or the space allowed for a status update before Facebook cuts you off with a “see more” link.
My latest article for the monthly online parenting magazine Kideeko talks about the power of books to make life better for poorly children. It draws on my experience of three years working for the children’s reading charity Read for Good – parent of Readathon (which runs Sponsored Reads in schools) and ReadWell (taking books and storytellers to children in hospital).
Whether or not you have children at home, I reckon it’s still worth reading my article, if you have a moment to spare, to remind yourself of the power of storytelling to distract you from life’s ups and downs. To read the article in full, please click this link: Make Life Better with a Book
And if you’d like some ideas of great reads to curl up with, take a trip to my Book Reviews directory.
In the last 48 hours, I’ve stepped way outside my reading comfort zone.
As a frequent book reviewer, I’m often asked to consider books that I’d never choose in a bookshop or library – unlike the Ladybird book pictured here, which I snapped up in a secondhand bookshop the other day for the sake of its bizarre cover, and because I adore vintage Ladybird books.
Sometimes the publications I review for send me copies of books they particularly want me to consider, other times authors or publicists approach me on spec, after finding my name on Amazon’s list of top reviewers.
Admittedly they have to trawl for quite a long way to reach me, as I’m currently ranked around the 1,400 mark. If they’ve got that far, I so admire their staying power that I’m likely to agree to their request for a review, provided they ask me nicely. There’s nothing that hacks off a book reviewer as much as an author’s assumption that sending you a free book entitles them to a review. Except authors who do that and then reel off a long list of sites on which they expect you to post your review, including some that you’ve never even visited.
Why I Review Books
I love book reviewing. For one thing, it prevents me from slipping into a cosy habit of rereading old favourites and their clones. It’s too easy to treat book buying like clothes shopping, being drawn like a magnet to those you already know and love. (And I really don’t need to buy any more knee length boots, denim jackets or cordoruoy leggings.)
I therefore made it my policy long ago to keep an open mind about review requests, turning down only anything featuring violence or unnecessary tragedy.
Two New Reading Experiences in One Day
So it happened today that I found myself reviewing both a YA (young adult) steampunk thriller (sent to me by the debut author) and a collection of Polish poetry in translation (received from Vine Leaves Literary Journal, for which I’m a staff reviewer).
Now, I have a lot of books in my house, including a floor-to-ceiling to-read bookcase in my bedroom. But until this week I didn’t possess a single steampunk thriller or Polish poem. In fact I only recently worked out what steampunk is. (If you don’t know either, check out the Urban Dictionary’s definition here). Although I enjoy poetry, and still treasure some of the poetry books I had from school and university, I’m not sure I’ve ever knowingly read a Polish poem.
But what a joy these books have been to read, filling my imagination with new adventures and images, and changing the way I look at the world, just a little, as every good book should. It was also satisfying to write their reviews. Formulating a book review always helps me mentally digest what I’ve read. By doing so, I extract far more pleasure than if I’d just closed each book on finishing and moved on to the next one in my to-read pile without any further thought.
How To Make An Author Happy
I also gain pleasure from knowing that the book’s authors will appreciate my response. As an author myself, I know the warm glow that comes from spotting a new review of one of your books.
Strangely, in the time it’s taken me to read and review those two books, two more new reviews have come in for one of my own books (Sell Your Books!, now with 42 reviews on Amazon UK, average rating 4.6*)) – not from the authors of the books I reviewed, but from two completely different readers. Is there some kind of book reviewer’s karma at work? To any writer who also reads books (as all writers should), that’s got to be a comforting thought.
Whatever you’re reading just now, if you enjoy the book, take a moment to thank the author by leaving a quick review on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other site that you prefer. I guarantee you’ll make the author’s day.
If you liked this post, you might like these others about books and reading:
(Overture to a travelogue about our camper van tour of Luxembourg)
Much as I love my book-centric life, there comes a time when you have to slip in a bookmark and walk away.
The night before I am due to go to Luxembourg for a fortnight, I’m up till 1 a.m. putting the finishing touches to an article about self-publishing. I’ve promised to email it to someone before I leave, and only when I’ve hit the send button do I allow myself to start packing for our trip.
Fortunately, there’s not much to pack, because we holiday in our camper van. This allows little space for luggage and imposes constraints stricter than a budget airline’s. Each of us – that is, my husband, my daughter and me – may bring just one “wanted on voyage” bag, containing whatever we need to amuse ourselves while we’re away. My husband’s contains his newspaper and his Open University books. My daughter’s is stuffed to bursting point with cuddly toys, her Nintendo DS, MP3 player, and story books. Mine is all notebooks, paperbacks, Kindle, ipod and a tangle of recharging cables to fit the van’s cigarette lighter.
After crossing the English Channel from Dover to Calais, we spend the first night in snowy St Omer in northern France, snuggled deep into our winter-weight sleeping bags. After my previous late night vigil, I should be sleeping like a kitten. Instead, I fall straight into the clutches of a nightmare.
My Bookish Nightmare
In this nightmare, I’m rushing through endless rooms full of bookshelves. I’m searching for something, but I’m not sure what. Then I reach some stairs and start climbing, climbing, to ever-higher shelves. Finally a rickety metal ladder leads to a high platform protected only by a low, flimsy railing. (I should add here that I’m terrified of heights.) Only when I reach the top of the ladder does the danger of the situation strike me, and I start to retreat, unable to bring myself to set foot on such an insubstantial landing. As I step back, the whole of the bookcase on the platform topples towards me, threatening to rain down its contents onto my head.
Fortunately, all of this is happening in slow motion, giving me time to grab the sides of the ladder, but I’ve already lost my footing and my legs are dangling in mid-air. Realising I have, unexpectedly, the upper-body strength of Wonderwoman, I try to push the ladder away to restore the bookshelf to its rightful place. Meanwhile I’m shouting to my husband for help, and suddenly he’s at my side asking me why I’m crying.
I wake up.
“Whatever’s the matter, darling?” he’s saying.
With an effort, I catch my breath.
“I – I – I – I think I need a holiday!” I sob.
Now there’s good timing!
Coming soon – some entertaining observations about our travels through France, Belgium and Luxembourg!
Walking past my local public library just before Christmas, I nearly fell over in delighted surprise when I spotted a big sign announcing an imminent personal appearance by one of my favourite living novelists, M C Beaton.
Although my nearest public library is in the middle of an old-fashioned shopping centre, its managers are up-to-the-minute on what makes modern readers tick. M C Beaton is the author of some of the most borrowed library books in the country (more details here). I’ve been hooked on her mystery stories ever since I heard a snippet of a radio dramatisation of the first Agatha Raisin book, Agatha Raisin and The Quiche of Death. I’ve now worked my way through all 23 books in the Agatha Raisin series, another 28 about Hamish Macbeth, and some of her others too. Always enormously prolific, at the age of 74 she still writes at least two books every year, an Agatha and a Hamish, for which her fans are truly grateful.
I immediately snapped up tickets for myself and her other fans in my family: my parents and my sister. We were all impatient for the day of her talk to arrive. After giving them a big build-up to the event, I became a little anxious. Would M C Beaton live up to our sky-high expectations? Supposing she wasn’t as fun, witty, warm and anarchic as her books? When I was a child, I met Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear and Olga da Polga, and found him rather dull. There wasn’t a jar of marmalade nor a duffle coat in sight. (Apologies to Michael Bond, by the way – my disappointment reflects my childish grasp of authorship rather than his personality!)
Top Talk by A Master of Her Craft
Thankfully, Marion Chesney, to use her real name, was even more fun than I’d dared hope. On the appointed evening in January, we battled through wind and rain to gather in the little local library. The room was buzzing with the chatter of eager fans, yet the minute she walked in, the room fell silent. She progressed across the room, her Edwardian-style velvet gown billowing about her in a multitude of jewel-like colours. Beneath it shimmered a copper silk shirt. She knew how to create a dramatic entrance. Taking her seat on a plain library chair in the middle of the room, she picked up the microphone and with no more ado began to speak. Without reference to notes or slides, she took us through a highly entertaining account of her career, swiftly moving from bookshop assistant to reporter to theatre critic to novelist, holding the audience completely in her thrall.
It would be easy for a bestselling writer to use library events simply to sell their books. M C Beaton preferred to entertain. She also demonstrated herself to be as prolific a reader as she is a writer, just as all good writers ought to be. I was especially pleased to hear that one of her favourite authors was another of my literary heroes: Dorothy L Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey.
“I’ve even bought Fifty Shades of Gray,” she announced to our astonishment. “I bought it by mistake at an airport when I didn’t have my glasses on. I thought, ‘Oh, here’s a new P D James I haven’t read yet’.”
The Icing on the Cake
We were putty in her capable hands. Her self-deprecating tales served only to hold us deeper in her thrall. After the talk, not only was the queue to buy her books enormous; many people went back two or three times with further purchases.
Were we the unwitting victims of clever, cynical marketing tactics? Oh no, she was entirely genuine. How do I know? I asked her to sign a book for my author friend Sandy Osborne, whose own debut novel Girl Cop had been published the previous week. As she was autographing the frontispiece, I had a sudden, cheeky impulse to tell her about Girl Cop, and I offered to send her a free copy.
“Oh no, dear, give me the details and I’ll order it from Amazon,” she said with a winning smile. “I believe in writers getting their royalties.”
M C Beaton’s writing career has not all been plain sailing. She is still bitter at the way she was treated by the producers of the Hamish Macbeth television series many years ago. They took extraordinary liberties with her characters and plots, which bear no resemblance to her creations. Scandalously, they don’t even pay her royalties for repeats. But is she downhearted?
Beware of the Tetbury Advertiser – you never know where it might lead! I mean that in the nicest possible way, for a few years ago, the Advertiser was the starting point of a trail that led to the publication of my first book. Here’s the tale of how it came about.
In the summer of 2010, a few months after I’d started writing my Young By Namecolumn in the Tetbury Advertiser, I was contacted by one of its regular readers, the writer Paul Newnton. Though now living on the other side of the country, he kept up with local news via a postal subscription to this popular monthly magazine. Having enjoyed my column, Paul asked me to help him promote his new novel, the first in a proposed series. Despite my protest that I had no experience of book promotion, I agreed to meet him for tea in the Snooty Fox on his next trip to Tetbury. With the help of an excellent cream tea, he convinced me that by drawing on my long career in journalism, PR and marketing, I could be of valuable assistance. He was right: within a very short time, I’d arranged for his book to be stocked in the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, generated news coverage in the local press, and fixed up an interview on BBC Radio Gloucestershire.
A few weeks later, a graphic designer friend mentioned that his wife, who runs the Bristol-based assisted publishing company, SilverWood Books, was enjoying the online version of my Young By Name blog. We arranged to meet, and I came away with a commission to write a self-help promotion handbook for authors. The book was particularly to address the rapidly expanding group of self-published or independent authors – but what author doesn’t want to sell more books, even those commissioned by traditional publishers?
To explain the jargon, self-published authors are those who produce their books independently of traditional publishing companies. Thanks to the latest developments in digital printing and e-book technology, it’s possible to put your book on the market without a publisher’s contract, thus avoiding the nerve-wracking round of submissions and rejection letters. Authors who are willing and able to master the necessary technology do this themselves, but for technophobes – or for those who prefer to spend their time writing – there exist excellent publishing consultants who can do this for them, adding value and expertise. These are far removed from the “vanity publishers” of the past, who simply took your money and treated your manuscript as a routine print job, often with dire results.
To fulfil my commission, I undertook extensive research, interviewing many authors – including Tetbury’s Paul Newnton, of course – and members of the book trade, not least Hereward Corbett, proprietor of Tetbury’s Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.
Pre-publication, the first reviewer of Sell Your Books! was so enthusiastic that she even agreed to write a foreword. This was no small compliment, as this reviewer was Dr Alison Baverstock, senior lecturer in the MA in Publishing at Kingston University and all-round publishing guru. She deems it to give “motivating, practial and cheerful guidance on the process. It raises the spirits and promotes author confidence. It’s an investment in your writing now – and your future development.”
In another bizarre demonstration of all roads leading to Tetbury, I discovered that I’d met Alison a few years before, when I was working at Westonbirt School and she was guest speaker at Speech Day. I’d taken her photo to include in the school’s newsletter.
I hope that knowing its local origins and inspiration, authors living in and around Tetbury will take a special interest in my book. I’d love to hear any feedback or input from them, which I might also be able to share, with their permission, on my blog of book promotion tips for authors at Off The Shelf Book Promotions.
Finally, a big thank you to the wonderful Barry Gibbs, editor of the marvellous multi-faceted Tetbury Advertiser for commissioning my Young By Name column in the first place. Without you, none of this might have happened!
This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser and appeared in its February 2013 edition.
Sell Your Books!, a book promotion handbook for authors, is now available to order from good bookshops and online. (RRP £8.99, ISBN 978-1-906236-34-2, Publisher SilverWood Books) It is also available as an e-book.
SilverWood Books provides helpful, expert and services to authors seeking to self-publish their books. For an initial chat, free of charge and with no obligation, please call Helen, Sarah or Joanna on 0117 910 5829 or visit their website: http://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk
For more information about Paul Newnton and his books, visit his website or pop into the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop which stocks some copies and will always be happy to order more.