Navigating the London Book Fair

[The Guardian]

For most publishers, April 11th – 13th (and, for many, the preceeding weeks) meant only one thing: the 4oth annual London Book Fair. As a student, I was lucky enough to be able to attend all three days of one of the world’s largest publishing trade fairs for free. So on Monday morning, I found myself at Earls Court Exhibition Centre, joining 23,000 attendees exploring 1,600 exhibitors from 58 countries accross the world (thank you, The Independent, for the stats!).

For the benefit of any unitiated readers, the main purpose of the fair, really, is for meetings. Publishers’ stands hum to the tune of negotiations (for example, for book rights) – and multiple-zeroed deals.* But for those of us not sitting at one of the intense-looking tables-for-two, there’s plenty more to do: chances to see what publishers are up to, opportunities to discover new, generally smaller, presses from accross the globe and – so I’m told – lots of networking and meeting of old friends (these may or may not have appeared to frequently have taken place at one of the numerous bars lining the exhibition centre).

There are also lots of free (!) seminars on offer, covering pretty much every topic someone interested in the industry is ever likely to want to know about. The only problem was navigating the winding, expansive and frequently confusing exhibition centre to find them! (I now know what those tourists who stop in the middle of Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon to consult their map feel like. I would say I’m now going to be more sympathetic towards them as a result, but, well… let’s not go too far). Even if a lot of ideas expressed in these regarding where the industry is heading are still very hypothetical, they were a fascinating insight into the current state of publishing.

Of these, my personal highlight was, like many others I think, The Great Debate – not least for the heated, and frequently amusing, Twitter debate it provoked! This discussed whether publishers will soon be irrelevant, with arguments provided by Cory Doctorow, James Bridle, Andrew Franklin (Profile Books) and Richard Charkin (Bloomsbury). There is a fantastic write-up of this over at Publishing Talk which I could never improve upon, so I’ll just be lazy and let the link do the talking! Whose side was I on? While I don’t think – perhaps more would like not to think – that publishers will ever be unnecessary, I do agree with the general consensus to which all speakers eventually conceeded: the industry needs to change. It needs to modernise and adapt, and understand and embrace the new market far more effectively to survive in the current clime.

This actually reminds me of the excellent talk I heard today from an innovative social media company. They have done some really exciting projects that seemed to capture the imagination of almost everyone in the room. But they suggested that publishers don’t want to do anything different. They just want to do what everyone else is doing. While I’d say it’s not true of all publishers (the exceptions are a whole ‘nother blog post … coming soon(ish)), I’d certainly have to agree that – for the majority – this appears to be the case. Soon just having Twitter, Facebook, blogs, author websites will (probably) not be enough. And all this social media will (again, probably) have to be looked at as something that can be used innovatively – not just as something we should probably be doing because everyone else is (just to generalise wildly, but I know it’s why I initially joined Twitter. And from what I’ve heard throughout my course, it’s an attitude that many seem to think that a lot of publishers – and, indeed, businesses in general, have adopted).

Actually linked in quite nicely to that was a seminar that showed how Internet is changing how we (and especially young people) consume media. This was particularly timely after a recent survey stated that 80% of under 25s communicate using a ‘second screen’ while watching television. The Art of Immersion with Matt Locke (Channel 4) and Frank Rose (author of the titular book, published by WWNorton) was a really interesting insight into how media like television was developing new and innovative platforms to get people to get involved in programmes on a completely new level. Thing is, while this gave an idea as to where publishing could be heading, including what these new opportunities could mean for the industry and how we perceive the idea of a book could change, it was all exactly that: could. Not will. Examples of publishers actually embracing interactive media were noticeably few and far between. Sound familiar? I hate to be negative about an industry I love, but it looks like us bookish types are lagging behind a little (though again, there are honourable exceptions – to be saved for that blog entry I mentioned earlier).

(For the interested, particular examples of ‘social’ television and cross-platforming mentioned were Skins, The Million Pound Drop’s game which viewers could play in real time and which linked directly to Davina McCall (the host) who could announce the play-at-home performance as the programme was broadcast, Mirada Studios (Guillermo del Toro) and Channel 4’s Battlefront platform.)

Although these were not the only seminars I attended, they were perhaps the ones that made me think most about the current state of publishing. It was odd, because it seems like most people know the industry has to embrace new technologies more actively and a lot of people – as demonstrated by Andrew Franklin and Richard Charkin when answering the question, ‘what do you need to do better’ – know kind of how they have to improve. But few seem quite able to make that bold leap into transmedia and really being bold, brave … innovative. I think the next few years could be really interesting for publishing – and I’m excited about the fact that the industry I enter (if I enter it soon, anyway. Here’s hoping!) could be completely unrecognisable in five years time. It’s just a case of embracing that – seemingly inevitable – change. And perhaps more importantly, how.

 Do you think social media will radicalise publishing as much as many are suggesting it should, could and would? Or do you think that it’s gone a bit too far, and digital and social media is just a fad? Comment below with your thoughts, and any other experiences of the London Book Fair 2011!

*Apologies for the I-just-couldn’t-help-myself, but kind-of-failed attempt at a semi-pun.

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So, I’m not all that religious, but I’m pretty sure Easter has something to do with re-birth, bringing stuff back from the dead – all that jazz?

Which makes it the perfect time to actually start writing this blog again. I’ll admit, I had a moment (a six-month long moment) of self-doubt when I thought that I didn’t know enough about publishing to really make a blog like this work. So I concentrated on the reviews blog (at least I can read) and got on with the Publishing MA work.

But this renewed blog post is actually the result of a five-week long work placements when I was looking at P&Ls and listening in on meetings, a trip to the London Book Fair, and a conversation last night when I explained to someone what royalties would be ‘normal’ (or at least acceptable) for a friend-of-a-friend. On all three occasions there was one common thought: I actually understand what’s going on here.

I mean, you’d hope so given that I’ve just spent the last eight months of my life studying exactly that. But it was nice feeling to apply all of that knowledge to ‘real life’ situations.

So look out for some ‘real life’ publishing situations and scenarios – coming to a blog near you soon (and yes, this time it is going to happen).

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It’s been a while. I spectacularly missed an October bookshop of the month entry, and owe a number of literary city updates. Let’s just say that being a Publishing student is seriously hard, time-consuming work!

Still, instead of doing NaNoWriMo (which I managed to sign up for before realising that there was absolutely no way I would have time to do it), I’m going for NaNoPoMo – National November Posting Month. An entry a day for a month (not including the 1st because, well, I didn’t manage it. So we’ll finish on December 2nd instead ;)).

OK so due to time constraints (and not wanting to write entries for the sake of writing them and have them be a bit, well, rubbish) the posts will be spread across here and my spangly, sister review blog where today’s post is already up (check it out!). But despite this, it’s going to be a challenge, albeit an exciting one. Let’s see if it works – and I can find a spare hour or so in the day to get posting! Wish me luck!

Edit: OK, so coursework deadlines mean this isn’t really feasible. But the blogging will be back on track in November. Hopefully.

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Literary Cities: Ode to Oxford

Cobbled streets, dreaming spires, the intelligencia roaming the streets – everyone seems to know what Oxford looks like, has an image of it in their head. The literature that comes from the city is similarly renowned. There’s also a lot of it – San Francisco may have the highest concentration of writers in America, but Oxford has more published writers per square mile than any other city in the world. From Alice in Wonderland to Brideshead Revisited, His Dark Materials to Inspector Morse; chances are you’ll have heard of many of the books set here, even if you haven’t actually read them (I’ll be the first to admit that out of that list I’ve only read Carroll’s title and one of the Pullman trilogy). While growing up in the city has made me particularly fond of the city, Oxford – with the exception of the main shopping streets – does much to live up to its romantic, historic and literary reputation.

(Photo: Andrea Harner)

Unfortunately as far as I know there aren’t any specifically literary themed hotels in the city. However if you want to feel like you’ve stepped into the setting for a book then the Malmaison hotel – formerly the city’s prison – is just what you’re looking for. Not all rooms are located in the old cells (and you’ll pay a premium to sleep there – or not sleep, depending on how creepy you find it!), but the main building of the hotel, including the dining room, still has remnants of prison walls and open brick that are unique, fascinating  and a little bit spine-chilling as you remember that convicts once roamed the very place you’re now enjoying your full English.

(Photo: Mara Ziegler)

But now for the actual literary venues. And there are plenty of them. But perhaps first up should be one of the world’s most famous libraries – the Bodleian. The building first opened to scholars in 1602, it now houses over 11 million items over 117 miles of shelving, with 400 members of staff keeping it up to scratch. I once heard that books are sometimes stacked in size order to ensure they can all fit in. I’m not sure how true this is, but what is certain is that this is a collosal amount of literature in one place – and the second largest library in the UK (after the British Library). It is still steeped in tradition – those wishing to use the library must make an oath: I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library. (I actually found myself saying this a couple of years ago when I needed books for my undergraduate dissertation. Not what you expect when you ‘join’ a library – but still quite fun to feel as though you’re taking part in a long-honoured tradition. I have to admit that I had to copy the oath from Wikipedia though. My memory’s not quite that good!). Although studying in the library is not accessible to all, their tours offer a look behind the scenes, and they often host exhibitions and events that are open to the public. Even if you just go to gawp at the stunning Radcliffe Camera, the Bodleian Library is a must for anyone with even a slight interest in books.


There are a number of sites in Oxford offer those aerial views you’ll undoubtedly have seen in photograph after photograph. However one of the best ways to get a view of those spires from above while continuing the literary theme of your holiday is in the Sheldonian Theatre, conveniently located near one of the Bodleian’s entrances on Broad Street. Admittedly this isn’t for those with mobility (or fitness…) issues, with 124 steps between you and the cupola crowning the building but if you’re up for the walk then it’s certainly worth the £2.50 entrance charge (£1.50 concessions). Even if you choose to live the high life somewhere else, you can still visit the lower floors of “one of the architectural jewels of Oxford” [European Commission, 1994]. Alternatively you could attend on the many events (often classical music recitals) that take place here.

(Photo: Beth Hoffman)

Although London is one of the World’s biggest centres of publishing, Oxford has its own bubbling scene of (primarily academic) houses. One of the most famous of these is Oxford University Press, the largest university press in the world. It’s also one of the oldest – although legally founded and recognised by Robert Dudley in 1584, their website claims a history dating back to 1478. Either way, that’s a long time to have been dealing with books. Based in stunning Jericho, their museum – hosting historic artefacts including Alice in Wonderland and Oxford English Dictionary word slips (pictured above) – is open to the public, though visitors are asked to book a tour in advance.

(Photo: Virtual Tourist)

There’s also plenty of activities for those interested in visiting favourites spots of literary figures – whether real or fictional. One of the most vivid recreations of the city is in Pullman’s Northern Lights series. It is said that Jordan’s College is an exaggerated version of his own Exeter College, and other locations include Jericho and the Oxford Canal. Both are worth walking to and through, offering stunning respites to the tourist-filled hustle of the city centre. I’d also highly recommend resting your feet at one of the many pubs that line the canal.

(Photo: Oxford Prison)

Those who love water should also consider participating in the Oxford tradition of punting. OK, so it may not be specifically literary, but it’s mentioned in enough books to warrant a mention here. Plus it’s good fun! If you’re on a romantic break, pack and picnic and champagne, and stop off by one of the reeds to enjoy it. It’s like being in a storybook.

(Photo: Judo Jules)

You can also take a stroll through the grounds of Christ Church College and its Meadow, said to be where Lewis Carroll, a student of the college, wrote Alice Through The Looking Glass (the character of Alice was inspired by the Dean’s daughter). WH Auden is also a college alumni. Hertford College – sometimes open to tourists, and affiliated with the famous Bridge of Sighs, – was home to Brideshead Revisited‘s Sebastian Flyte, and his creator Evelyn Waugh. Former literary students also include John Donne and Jonathan Swift. Fans of children’s books might be keen to know that Dr Suess studied at Lincoln College (as did John Le Carré). The list of Oxford graduates with literary connections is – as you might expect – far too long to reproduce in this Blog, but this list of famous alumni is worth a scan to see which famous names you recognise!


If you haven’t fallen in love with Oxford yet (more fool you), here’s something that might clinch the deal – its many famous pubs means a pint is almost an essential part of any visit to the city. Start with The Eagle and Child, on St. Giles Street. This was the favoured haunt of ‘The Inklings’, a group of Oxford writers and thinkers including CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, who would meet in the pub’s private ‘Rabbit Room’. More recently, Colin Dexter (creator of Inspector Morse) is said to be maintaining the pub’s literary connection. Luckily too, this still feels like a ‘real’ pub, dark oak and all, with the owners refusing to make it into a shrine. There is however a plaque to the authors and some of their books behind the bar.

(Photo: The New York Times)

However, following the destruction of the privacy of the Rabbit Room, The Inklings (allegedly reluctantly) changed allegianges to The Lamb and Flag on the other side of St. Giles. My Internet sources debate as to whether it was here, or The Turf Tavern that inspired Hardy’s pub in Jude the Obscure. Either way, the latter a must visit for anyone who can find it – and if you want a more concrete literary link, it’s one of Inspector Morse’s many haunts, it’s referred to in Brideshead Revisited, and CS Lewis is said to have been a fan.

(Photo: Alexandra Yarrow)

Although I don’t recommend shopping after a few pints (especially if they were the Old Rosie cider the Turf serves (or at least used to)), there are plenty of places worth looking at for literary gifts. I know Blackwells is a chain often associated with university stores, but the first flagship store on Broad Street is a must-see for any bookworm. Originally only 12 square feet, the Norrington Room is now the largest room selling books in the world, with its 10,000 square feet and three miles of shelving stretching underneath neighbouring Trinity College’s Gardens. They also have an excellent and varied speakers programme, and offer a few literary-themed walking tours of Oxford if you fancy a more structured wonder about the city (and more informtion that I’ve probably put in here)! Broad Street is also home to a specialist Blackwells shops for Art and Posters, and Music. Other bookshops of note are OUP’s only store on the High Street, and the Oxfam Bookshop near the Eagle and Child on St. Giles – if you see a book in the window and they aren’t open, you can stick a letter through the door and they’ll reserve it for you. Customer service at its best. Alternatively if  you want something a bit more Oxford orientated, Alice’s Shop (guess the theme) on St. Aldates is an excellent place for souvenir shopping.

(Photo: LISA! Travel)

But really, the most literary aspect of Oxford is the way the cobbled streets feel like you’ve jumped inside the pages of a novel (Mary Poppins style), the intricate buildings that belong in books and films, the excitement you feel as you follow in the footsteps of so many famous writers and thinkers. Oxford is somewhere to be experienced; get out there and do it. (Photo: Jack Gibbons)

NB. The annual Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival is an incredible annual event. Usually taking place in Spring, it plays host to a huge range of events from traditional authors (both children’s and adult’s; past speakers have included Sebastian Faulks, Anthony Horowitz, Ian McEwan, and Louise Rennishaw) to political debates and hosted dinners. There’s also an excellent creative writing programme. The 2011 festival is set to take place from 2nd – 11th April – dates well worth noting in your diary!

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Literary Cities: I found my art in San Francisco

Long time, no blog. Let’s just say that induction week was hectic – exciting and fascinating – but hectic! Welcome to the world of publishing?

It was actually these inductions that inspired some of the forthcoming entries on this blog about literary cities, with a number of the activities being walks around London to explore its bookish past. Believe me, there’s plenty to write about!

But first up, we’re heading west to San Francisco. Books may not be the first thing that pops into your mind when thinking about the city (if you’re like me, thoughts of San Francisco conjure images of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, hills, cable cars, hippies…). But, home to many of the writers of the ‘Beat Generation’ – amongst others – it is fully deserving of the title ‘literary city’. And, also, is just worth a visit, book-focused or not.

San Francisco

As far as my reluctant reader of a boyfriend knows, I didn’t intentionally book a literary themed hotel for our stay in San Francisco. It just so happened that the Hotel Rex was central, offering a good discount, and I’d liked the photo on the website of the old-fashioned awning marking its entrance. Of course I didn’t know anything about the walls lined with dark-oak bookshelves, which groaned under the weight of the musty, plain-covered hardbacks used to bring you the bill in their restaurant. Judging by the (well-practised) eye-roll I was given when entering the lobby, I don’t think my ‘just a happy coincidence’ argument was too convincing. I just hope he wasn’t expecting that to be our only encounter with books in the city.
I’ve got to admit that prior to landing in the bay (not literally) my knowledge of San Francisco’s literary heritage was limited to a vague recollection that many of the Beat Generation settled there in the 1950s, with Jack Kerouac being one of the more famous figures to haunt its bars while writing On The Road. Though the guidebook did offer a small clue to its literary culture; apparently more books are bought, library books are stored and writers reside here than any other US city. Recent residents include Dave Eggers, Isabel Allende and Amy Tan. But I was soon to discover that this is a city where you can find references to literature at (almost) every corner. No, really; where Columbus meets Broadway a sculpture of open books flying beneath wires is strung across the street.

One of the must-sees for any bookworm is Jack Kerouac Alley. A sidestreet near North Beach, it isn’t quite paved with gold, but the tiles containing quotes from the city’s authors (including John Steinbeck and Maya Angelou) and Chinese proverbs contain some treasures. A personal favourite? ‘In the company of best friends, there is never enough wine.’ But possibly one of the most photographed is an ode to the city by the man himself – ‘The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great’.

The renovation of this alleyway was actually thanks to the owner of another of the city’s literary landmarks, City Lights Bookstore. Sitting at the entrance of the ‘alley’, the store – owned by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti – shot to prominence in 1957 after defending their right to ‘wilfully and lewdly print’ Allan Ginsberg’s influential book of poetry Howl and Other Poems. The shop has been a hangout for poets, alternative thinkers and booklovers ever since. Recent years have seen it bring in books to cater for a more mainstream (tourist) crowd, but it’s never quite lost its radical roots. For me, the store’s USP is that it’s also a publishing house, known for producing progressive works.

Jack Kerouac isn’t the only famous resident who lives on through San Francisco’s streets. California’s first poet laureate is commemorated by Ina Coolbraith Park, and Sterling Park is named after ‘King of Bohemia’ George Sterling. City landmarks also provide the backdrop for many a book. Dashiell Hammett’s former office in the James Flood Building at Union Square later featured in The Maltese Falcon. The infamous high-security prison Alcatraz is the subject of many a book. The prisoners may be long gone, but wandering around the empty rock will still send shivers down your spine; the unoccupied cells are brought to life by the audio tour (included in the price of entry), which is narrated by the haunting voices of former inmates and wardens.

San Francisco is a walking city (probably should have read the guidebook more carefully before packing my shoes), which also means there are plenty of excuses to stop for refreshments. But there’s no need to take a break from the literary theme by doing so. At North Beach, where the smells of coffee and Italian herbs will get your stomach rumbling, step into Caffe Trieste where Francis Ford Copolla drafted The Godfather script. John’s Grill in Union Square was Dashiell Hammett’s favourite bar, and there’s a statuette of the Maltese Falcon upstairs. Modern day ‘speakeasy’, Café du Nord on Market Street, is a hangout for today’s crowd of writers; just hope you don’t fit in too well with the regulars – musicians and novelists are often coerced on stage to give impromptu performances.

Alternatively there are plenty of places that feel like you’ve just walked into the pages of a novel. There was a 45 minute queue for breakfast at Dottie’s True Blue Café, but it was worth sitting (well, standing) it out to experience a proper American diner; no plastic red chairs and fake 50’s memorabilia here, just plenty (and I mean plenty!) of gorgeous buttermilk pancakes and maple syrup. In the evening, The Gold Dust Lounge off of Union Square is like walking into a saloon left over from the gold rush years – perhaps because the decor allegedly dates from then.

At the risk of sounding like a travel writer (or, perhaps worse, holiday sales rep), you can see why many would find inspiration from San Francisco, whether in the colonial architecture, the historic cable cars, or the streets so steep cars park at 90 degrees. And then there’s the literary personalities past and present that seem to permeate every neighbourhood, bar and park. It would be unfair to my boyfriend to say that I left all of my heart in San Francisco, but it will always own a piece of the book-loving, wannabe writer part of it.

Photo credits:

City Lights Bookstore: Ron Brown at Everywhere magazine

James Flood Building: Wally Gobetz

North Beach: San Francisco Travel

Gold Dust Lounge: Rachel Bowden

(Books, Jack Kerouac Alley & Golden Gate Bridge – mine)

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“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

There can be few people reading this who didn’t grow up with Roald Dahl. Show me someone who doesn’t smile when they see a Quentin Blake illustration, and I’ll show you someone who had a deprived childhood. Dahl was our version of height marks pencilled on the wall; you knew you were growing up when you graduated from Esio Trot to The Witches, and getting older still when you picked up a collection of his short stories for the first time. Even my first published work (a not-particularly-good poem in an anthology for Oxfordshire primary schools) was based on George’s Marvellous Medicine.

With such an incredible back catalogue, picking my top Dahl titles to celebrate today wasn’t easy. But I persevered – and here’s the result!

1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

It’s one of the obvious choices, but that’s for good reasons. Who didn’t want to visit Wonka’s chocolate factory, regardless of the possibility of being shrunk or turning into a giant blueberry.  And who hasn’t wanted to try a Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight (as Roald Dahl intended it to taste, rather than the versions you can buy now)? Then there’s Grandpa Jo – possibly the best fictional Grandparent out there. While Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator wasn’t quite good enough to make it on here, I have to mention the Vermicious Knids, which managed to be fascinating, and yet terrifying at the same time (I think I just liked that they spelt out words – well, one word (SCRAM)…). Yes, me and my sweet tooth will always have a soft spot for Charlie.

2. The Great Automatic Grammatizor and Other Stories

Choosing between the Skin collection of short stories and this was a tough call – especially because Lamb To The Slaughter in the former is hideously brilliant. But eventually my sentimental feelings for The Great Automatic Grammatizor won out, it being my first introduction to Dahl’s sinister short story collections. As with Lamb to the Slaughter, I remember having to read The Landlady twice, disbelieving that the grotesque conclusion I thought it had come to really could have been the ending (it was). And The Great Automatic Grammatizor was certainly a more disturbing take on being an author (maybe that’s what turned me onto publishing instead of writing…). But possibly what I love most about Dahl’s short stories in general is how they are just like versions of his books for children – often witty, always imaginative and with a dark, gritty twist to the tale. Returning to your childhood favourites after reading these is always an interesting experience, with the more macabre, less innocent aspects of his writing more apparent. So if you’re looking to celebrate Roald Dahl in a more ‘grown-up’ fashion this year, you can do little wrong by turning to this brilliant collection.

3. The Witches

I actually saw The Witches before I read it. The transformation scenes – the women into witches, the boy into a mouse – gave me nightmares for weeks. And even now I can picture scenes almost as clearly as when I was first introduced to the film.

I must have been an odd child; despite the book causing my imagination to produce images of witches even worse than the film could manage, it was still one of my childhood favourites. It was just so different, so much more overtly horrific, than anything else we were allowed to read – even the intentional horror of the Goosebumps series couldn’t really compare. And there’s not even a predictable, properly happy ending, with the boy remaining a mouse. Oh, and also – the Grandma comes a pretty close second to Grandpa Jo for the best fictional Grandparent award!

4. Matilda

I have a pretty wonderful family, and I’m certainly not telekenetic or a genius, but there’s something about Matilda I identify with. I think it’s something most kids who weren’t the ‘cool’ ones might have felt; Matilda uses her intelligence – something that is often seen as uncool – to cause mischief and outsmart adults to create her own happy outcome. Plus she loves books, and has an unwavering loyalty for those who deserve it. And if you’re still not convinced that she’d be an excellent best friend, imagine the homework-buddy benefits. One of my favourite Dahl characters – and that’s saying a lot!

5. Boy – Tales of Childhood

My final pick is possibly the best way to celebrate the man himself this Roald Dahl day. The author’s autobiography of his early years may be non-fiction, but it is no less witty, vivid, or absorbing than any of his classic stories. His fascinating childhood is not only a wonderful insight into 1920s and 30s Britain, but also an unmissable portrait of the legend behind so many beloved tales. And it’s no less memorable too – I will always remember his description of being caned (and not just because the image appears on the front cover!). I love, too, that you can start to spot where incidents and characters may have originated from. I (pretend that I) hate to use clichés, but I really do believe that it’s the one book that every Roald Dahl fan, young and old, should get stuck into.

Which Roald Dahl books make your top five?

If you’d like to learn more about the man behind the words, Donald Sturrock’s biography, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl (HarperPress, 2010) is available now. With some brilliant reviews, it’s certainly on my ‘to read’ list.

Pictures all taken from Google Image Search.

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The Importance of Reading

-796 million adults lack literacy skills.*

-About two-thirds of them are women.*

-67.4 million children are out of school.*

-Georgia is the only country in the world with an official literacy rate of 100%.**

-Mali has the lowest literacy rate: 26.2%.**

The 8th September is International Literacy Day But is illiteracy still an issue, and what can we actually do to help?

World illiteracy may have halved in the period between 1975 to 2005, but that doesn’t mean it’s still not a huge problem. Not being able to read presents huge barriers to people in everyday life, preventing them from gaining knowledge from a wide range of sources, from newspapers and books to Blogs and Twitter. The recent Iranian elections proved just how valuable being able to use the latter can be.

More than that, education is knowledge, and knowledge is power. Take away literacy, and you take that power away.

It’s not all bad news, of course; literacy rates are continuing to rise as resources and education improve. But there’s still a lot to be done. These are just three of the charities you can support to help contribute to Education for All’s goal of improving literacy rates by 50% between 2003 and 2015.

Established in Nepal in 2000, Room to Read starts by educating children. They work with local communities, partner organizations, and governments to develop literacy and ‘a habit of reading’ in primary school children, and supports girls to complete secondary school. Besides Nepal, they are currently operating in a range of countries including across Asia and Africa, with plenty of plans for expansion in the years to come. To date they have worked with 1128 schools, distributed 7.4 million books, paid for 8944 girls’ scholarships, and have benefitted 4.1 million children.

You can support Room to Read in a variety of ways, including fundraising and donating, and volunteering.

READ collects unwanted books in the UK and distributes them across East Africa based on the Ugandan and Tanzanian syllabi. Any titles that are unsuitable for sending (they don’t distribute political or religious books, for example) are sold online to generate money for the company, or recycled if all else fails. Thanks to a team of 1,000 student volunteers at 45 universities nationwide, 850,000 books have been shipped since the company was founded in 2004. In 2007 they won ‘Best New Charity’ in the Charity Times awards, and they were also winners of the ‘Best International Aid and Development Charity’ in 2010.

From becoming a volunteer to donating books, there are plenty of ways to get involved with READ International. Visit their website for more information.

I’ll admit that being able to read is something I’ve taken for granted ever since I could tell when my parents were skipping sentences in my favourite books to speed up bedtime. So it’s often easy to forget that illiteracy – albeit in a different form to much of the world – needs to be tackled in Britain too; one in six adults in the UK struggle with literacy, meaning their reading level is below that expected of an eleven-year-old.

The National Literary Trust campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of reading, conducts research to improve and develop support for those who need help with literacy, and brings together key organisations promoting literacy in the UK. Since the company’s foundation in 1993, literacy levels have increased by 24% – as of 2009, 80% of 11-year-olds are at the reading stage expected from their age group (up from 56% in 1995).

If you believe that reading is a right, not a privilege, then you can pledge your support for literacy on the NLT’s website. Alternatively make a donation or fundraise.

If you would like to help someone read in the UK, visit Reading Matters or Volunteer Reading Help to see how you can make a difference.

*Statistics taken from UNESCO’s website.

**Statistics taken from the United Nations Development Programme report 2009, via Wikipedia.

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Bookshop of The Month: September

Daunt Books, London

I like travel guides, but I love reading fiction and non-fiction set where I’m going on holiday even more. When a book brings a destination alive, well, that does more than any number of glossy travel brochures or restaurant recommendations could ever manage. Unfortunately, finding the books set in your destination isn’t always so straightforward; sometimes Google and Wikipedia just don’t come through.

So I was hugely excited to discover Daunt Books. The independent chain’s five shops in North London are beautifully old-fashioned stores split not by genre, but by continent and (in some cases) country. Allende and Garcia Marquez sit alongside guides to Argentina and Ecuador, and Spanish phrasebooks. Looking for Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country? No need to dig out the travel writing section – just head to ‘America’ instead. And if you fancy adding the latest bestseller to your pile you can do that with minimal fuss too, the shops having a separate section for the less exotic titles. If you’re looking for holiday reading, these are sure-fire one-stop shops.

But Daunt Books’ shops are not just convenient – they are also lovely spaces.  The shelves are wooden and old-fashioned. They have either wooden or carpeted floors.They aren’t sprawling mazes of stores, but they aren’t cramped either.  And small touches make a huge difference too – in the Belsize Park branch that I visited, the lighting felt natural – a far cry from the harshness of strip and/or flourescent lighting favoured by so many stores. It’s not a big feature, but it adds to the shop’s cosy atmosphere. Although the shop at Belsize Park is the only one I’ve visited (yet!), photographs of others and the virtual tour of the stunning, original shop in Marylebone suggest they are all exactly as I like my bookshops to come – homely, and easy to while away many an hour in.

The only negative aspect of the shops is that, as an independent bookstore, it is more expensive to buy here than from larger chains or Amazon. However, besides the layout there are a number of reasons to loosen the purse strings to support the company – other excellent features include an interesting talks programme (bonus points for ticket prices including wine), the cloth carrier bags they provide with purchases, and the late opening hours in Chelsea and Belsize Park (9pm Monday – Saturday).

You can find Daunt Books is Belsize Park, Chelsea, Hampstead, Holland Park and Marylebone. Learn more at their website, and look out for the green frontages when you’re in any of the areas!


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Read the directions and directly you will be pointed in the right direction

The digital publishing debate has been raging as of late. First the iPad promised to change the way we read. A few months later, Amazon announced eBooks were outselling hardbacks for the first time. And more recently, Ray Connolly declared publishers unnecessary. If the news was to be believed, this new digital landscape was about as confusing as the ones in Alice in Wonderland for publishers, with nobody quite sure of which signpost was really pointing them in the right direction to the industry’s future.

So it was a breath of fresh air to finally read something more positive; on Friday, Ursula MacKenzie replied to Connolly’s article by stating that “publishers will be more relevant than ever” in the coming years.

While I might be biased and forcing optimism with the hope that my Publishing MA will actually lead to a job in the industry, I’d have to say that I’m more inclined to side with MacKenzie’s view. The digital age does not mean the death of publishing. It’s going to change it – it already has done. But – Tory election campaigns excepted – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of change.

That said, Connelly’s arguments are not all wrong. With increasing numbers choosing to buy their books in a digital form, those who self-publish are going to find it easier to reach an audience without first having to somehow stand out of a literary agent’s, and then publisher’s, slush pile. There are already some success stories born out of authors who created their own online network to publicise their books; after thirteen rejections, Kit Berry has now gained a six-figure book deal after creating a website – including online forum – through which she interacted with readers and delivered online instalments of her Stonewylde Series.

But as MacKenzie highlights, there are some services publishing houses provide that an author going it alone just can’t match. You’ve inevitably missed the fact that at least one person changes age, name or hair colour halfway through the book, but that’s OK, a literary agent or editor should spot that before it goes public. Embarrassment saved. Then there’s the publisher’s marketing budget that will get the title into newspapers and magazines, posters on the tube (if you’re big), written about on a Blog, e-campaign or Twitter that already has a captive audience. Want reviews? Let’s be honest – Penguin’s letterhead is going to catch more eyes in a newspaper’s book department than a nicely written letter from yours truly. Going on from here, the logistics of going non-digital, should you ever want to, don’t even bear writing about. If you only really want to publish for the self-satisfaction, and to get your work read by Mum, Dad, and the odd stray reader who stumbles across your writing then self-publishing could well be a great first step. But, as for every Leona Lewis there’s a thousand theatre school graduates and pub singers hoping for fame, the chances of becoming the next Kit Berry, or enjoying a similar success to Connolly, are – probably – quite slim.

Also, publishers are actually quite well equipped to take on this new age in publishing. It’s hardly a new development that’s sprung itself on the industry; MacKenzie demonstrates how it’s in their best interests to embrace digital publishing. Far from being a detriment to the industry, digital applications are enhancing it. Websites are designed for series to encourage readers to interact with what they’re reading, and applications not only compliment books, but allow people to interact with them in a whole new way. And they’re good at what they’re doing too – a few weeks ago, Penguin’s ‘Spot’ app was featured by the iTunes store and it reached number 1 in the charts, showing those digital publishing specialists know what the customer wants – and how to get it to them (possibly because they have the time, money and resources to research to get it right – how many self-publishers will be able to compete with that?).

And despite growing popularity of applications and online interactions with titles, this is yet to be at the detriment of paperback fiction. At present, only 2% of adults own an eReader, and if the BBC Review Show’s visit to the Edinburgh Book Festival last Friday was anything to go by, it’s going to be a long time before most readers are converted to going digital, with nearly all people spoken to saying that they still prefer a ‘real’ book.

There’s no reason that publishers will become defunct. There’s no reason that digital publishing signifies the demise of the traditional publishing model. We may not know exactly how popular digital books will become in the next few years, but publishers are preparing themselves for the unknown. They’re experimenting, exploring, and just generally having fun with the new technology available. Perhaps publishers are wandering around a bit of a rabbit hole right now, but, to steal a Tolkein quote, “not all who wander are lost”. Screw direction – if you ask me, there’s a lot of exciting discoveries to be made this way. So while I’ll bid authors like Connolly good luck, I think I’ll put my trust in publishers like MacKenzie and follow them through this maze – I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner!

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Much too good for children

This week (or perhaps earlier, but it was in the Evening Standard this week…) the RSC announced the three girls cast as Matilda in its musical adapatation of the show, due to open in November.

Yup, the very same Roald Dhal classic will be making its way to the big stage, jazz hands and all (N.B. The jazz hands are, as of yet, unconfirmed. I can’t see them being something Miss Trunchball would condone (to say the least)).

I have to admit, when I first heard about the production a couple of months ago I was a little skeptical about how well one of my favourite childhood titles could work on stage. My fears probably weren’t help by RSC’s disappointing adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (2007). Another of my favourite childhood (or more like young teen) books, Blackman’s modern day Romeo & Juliet had so much potential to be a gripping, emotive piece of drama. Instead it fell flat; it just felt as though the production team had been too nervous to deter from Blackman’s original words too much. And although the original text is wonderful – the line ‘time dragged by like it was pulling a whale behind it’ was, and still is, one of my favourite novel sentences’* – it just felt as though we were having the story narrated to us. There was nothing new, or different, about the show that justified it being translated from page to stage.

Admittedly I can see where the complications may have arisen. Not only is the original text very well written and adored by many, presumably, making one uncertain about what can and should be changed, but there are a lot of internal monologues that – naturally – it is hard to translate to a production that is suppose to engage a younger – as well as older – audience. The wide range of audience ages presented other problems too – such as having to make parts such as The Sex Scene PG. While I can understand this necessity, having it (in inexplicit detail) narrated to us made one of the climaxes (double entendre unintentional) of the book a bit of a damp squib (that one was).  Surely they could have hinted at the event with a kiss, cuddle, and black out? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a bit of Fourth Wall breaking at the right time, but this wasn’t it.

In short, we left feeling somewhat disappointed by the production.

But back to Matilda. Because despite having had some reservations due to the aforementioned bad experience, recently I’ve been getting a lot more excited about the production. In fact, I have quite high hopes for it (though wouldn’t want to be the production team responsible for realising thousands of children’s and adult’s high hopes on stage!).

That said, I think Matilda has a lot more going than Blackman’s book when it comes to adapting for stage, especially for a younger audience. Firstly there is – I think – more action on a page-by-page basis to work with and stage than in Noughts and Crosses (which is, by the way, a reflection on the ways the texts are written rather than a criticism of either. I love both for different reasons!). Secondly, they’ve chosen to write it as a musical. Structurally that means it has to differ from the book, and that’s fine because people (I assume) don’t go to musicals expecting it to be a word-for-word translation of the original text. I mean, you probably could do that but you’d end up with a) a very long show, and b) some odd-sounding songs!

Thirdly, Tim Minchin is responsible for the lyrics and music. Yes, that very same long-haired, oft bare-footed, absolutely hilarious Australian who sings about canvas bags, fat teens and wanting to sleep with Jonathan Ross’s wife (and that’s a PC/G list).

Presumably (almost certainly) Minchin’s lyrics for Matilda will be more child-orientated (while the Canvas Bag song isn’t exactly offensive or inappropriate, I’m not sure my six-year-old cousin would ‘get it’.) But I’m still intrigued as to what they’ll hold for us. Perhaps some Disney-esque dual meanings? And some good laughs, child-friendly or otherwise. But Tim Minchin is about more than just generating giggles – check out these fascinating videos of him and Dennis Kelly, the writer of the book, about the creative process. And in a couple of videos there’s a sneaky peak at lyrics for one of the songs behind them! Alternatively, you can learn about the recent workshops of the production.

In fact, I’m quite excited to find out. And while I may not be able to afford to join the hoards of ten-year-olds to see it in the theatre, I’ll be looking out for clips on YouTube and the inevitable Strictly Come Dancing results show performance with anticipation.

Either way, it sounds like they’ll do Roald proud!

Catch Matilda: A Musical at The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from 9 November 2010 – 30 January 2011. Tickets start from £14, and can be booked here.

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