reading

Reading – only for the middle classes?

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I had a very interesting conversation the other day that got me thinking about who reads books these days. A friend of mine casually commented that she was helping out during the school summer holidays by listening to groups of children reading and talking about the books they read. One of the things she has noticed since doing this, is that only certain types of children seem to be reading at all.

The women that run the scheme were of the opinion that it is only children from the upper middle classes that read and are encouraged to do so by their parents. It is her experience that children from working class or poorer backgrounds never take part in this scheme. I wonder why this should be.

My first thought is to wonder if the educational standards available to poorer families are lower than those available to the less poor. I quickly dismissed this as not entirely applicable due to the way our British educational system works. Unless you are rich enough to send your child to public school, everyone goes to the same schools regardless of income. I went to the local comprehensive along with eleven hundred other kids from various backgrounds and I remember most of them being of a far lower reading standard that me.

Perhaps the cause lies in how reading is perceived by the various classes of society. Many people live in inner city environments, they struggle financially with many spending years on benefits, and many come from families that haven’t gone out to work for generations. Inner cities are a different environment to grow up in than rural areas and children grow up with an extended ‘family’ consisting of other kids from the same environment. Gangs are a part of city living and kids grow up without the experience of emotional and mental self sufficiency that is available to those in rural communities. Inner city kids who spend their free time playing in the street or running with gangs will likely look upon reading as ‘cissy’ and of little value to their vision of what lies ahead for their lives.

I believe that the class divide is the likely candidate for reading’s unpopularity. Not only are reading standards down among those in poorer, inner city areas but the idea that reading is important is lower in those same people. When you have parents that have never gone out to work and gained any kind of work ethic to pass on to you, your values change according to your circumstances. Your priorities change to suit your environment and if that environment is a deprived inner city where gang culture rules the streets, trying to ‘better yourself’ is a way to make yourself a target for aggression. Far from being an environment they wish to get out of, the deprived inner city way of life has become a culture all its own, of which its people are proud to belong, and which they fiercely defend. It brings with it a set of unique rules and cultural taboos and reading is not a priority.

So what are we to do? Do we try to change this situation, and if so, how? Should we try to change it at all, and if not, why not? Society has always been fluid, evolving with its people as the generations come and go. Whether we fight or go with the flow, one thing is for sure – if we give up the defence of reading for good, we can never bring it back once it’s gone. The moment we lower our reading standards and priorities, we can never raise them again. We must decide whether we are prepared to bid reading a fond farewell or keep hold of it, even if it does become the sole preserve of the upper classes.

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How one reader buys her books

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I have a good friend with whom spend a couple of hours every Friday morning. She knows I write science fiction novels but has never read any of them. She is a reader, although she admits to being a very slow reader. Last Friday, she asked me how my writing was going and I told her I had begun editing my next release. There followed a little back and forth, with her asking questions about the process and me answering. She seemed genuinely interested. She’s an intelligent woman with a very well paid job and lives in a large house in the countryside. She’s successful and has the kind of lifestyle I dream about and envy. I’m telling you this so you can get a true picture of her. She’s educated, respected in her field, worldly wise, and wealthy. She’s not some ill educated untermensch.

At some point during the conversation, she asked me, “how are they selling?” I was truthful and told her, “they’re not.” We then discussed the problem of trying to get our brand ‘out there,’ in an over saturated market and I asked her a very important question. I said, “as a reader, how do you approach buying a book when you want to read?”

She told me that she tends to stick to authors she knows she likes, or she’ll listen to recommendations from friends, then she reads reviews. She admitted that she is so overwhelmed with choice and said that she finds searching on sites like Amazon, difficult and time consuming, so she tends not to bother. She said she is so busy that she doesn’t have the time to spend searching online for books she doesn’t know whether she will enjoy. It is much easier and quicker for her to stick to what she knows, or walk into a book shop and browse the shelves.

This was very interesting information and confirmed what I’ve always said. The good stuff is buried under a mountain of trash so huge that readers are put off trying to wade through it to find the good stuff to read. Unless you have a lot of money to spend on advertising experts who can get your name ‘out there,’ you’re wasting your time trying to make money from writing novels.

We talked about the impossibility of getting reviews and I told her about sites like Bookbub, where you can pay a large amount of money to have your book advertised, so long as it has a large number of reviews at 4 star or higher. I asked her, “as a reader who is just looking for a book to read, have you ever heard of Bookbub or similar online sites?”

No, she’s never heard of it, nor any other similar site and I suspect the vast majority of ordinary people haven’t either. This part of the conversation confirmed something else I’ve always believed, that much of what is considered by authors as ‘the right thing to do,’ is done to impress other authors and not readers. Attracting other authors and attracting readers are two totally different worlds and some people get too caught up in the wrong one.

The salient points are that she is a busy working woman with a family, a successful business to run, and a large home to keep. She has neither the time nor the inclination to wade through a mountain of trash to try to find something she might enjoy reading. She is  not aware of advertising tricks, and uses past experience and reviews to influence what she reads.

Another important thing to consider here is that modern life is different to how it was a few decades ago. We don’t read as much now as we did when I was a child. I used to clean houses for a living and of all the homes I went into, no more than 2 out of 10 had any books at all, let alone the shelves of books I remember everyone having in their homes when I was young. People might take a book on holiday to occupy them on the flight or while sitting by the pool, but those two weeks per year are probably the only time they will read anything other than a newspaper, a magazine article about a celebrity scandal, or a facebook meme.

So where does this leave us, as authors?

Truthfully? I think the time of the traditional length novel is dying fast. I think the way forward is 25-35 thousand word novellas, short story collections, 10 thousand word novelettes perhaps. Modern humans don’t have the capacity to stick with an 80 thousand word novel any more. They need instant gratification that they can grab, consume, and discard in a couple of hours. Everything about our modern life is instant, freeze dried, reconstituted, pre packaged, and disposable. From the clothes that fill our closets, the food in our superfast microwave ovens, to the ultra short bland porridge on their digital e-readers.

Those of us who write full length novels with twisting plots, group dynamics, and twists at the end are catering for a dying market. The new breed of weirdo geeky nerds who live in the dark and read science fiction epics of 80 thousand words and more are our customers now. They are few, they are the new ethnic minority, and they are a dying breed.

Why I don’t beta read

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I don’t beta read for people, and I don’t review for them either, unless I’ve chosen to read the book and liked it. There are several reasons for this, and a recent experience reminded me why it was a good decision for me not to do it. The ease with which anyone can get their work into print, is both good and bad. Without publishing houses guiding authors, they are totally undisciplined, mainly because they simply do not know that there is a way of doing things that earns you respect, and many ways that won’t. Trying to educate them is a waste of time; you will either be ignored or lose your kneecaps.

Recently, I made the mistake of allowing myself to be persuaded into beta reading for someone. I said yes before he told me it was over 100k words, and I’m too nice to go back on my word. This guy has an internet presence which gives the impression (however right or wrong) that he enjoys a level of success. He lives in a country where the people have their own, very unique culture, although he is not of that culture himself.

The generally accepted rule of thumb, is that you don’t send your book to betas until you’ve edited it, proof read it, and made it as polished as you can. It is not the job of the beta to point out spelling errors or grammatical mistakes, or to have to traverse them while trying to get into your plot. The manuscript I received had obviously not even been given an initial proof read, let alone multiple edits. It was terrible, not to put too finer point on it. Do this too often and word will get around the greater writing community that you don’t know what the hell you are doing.

Another problem I found, was that it was too specific to the unique culture the author lives in, which I feel would alienate those not of that culture, (which makes up roughly 75% of the rest of the world). Fine if you only intend to publish in that one country, but if you want it to be available worldwide, it’s a mistake, in my opinion. When I say too specific, I mean he used words of that language without giving a translation or giving us any clue as to what it means.

The main problem for me, was that it was far too long and seemed as if he had filled it with tons of minute descriptive detail just to pad out the word count. There was simply far too much minute descriptive detail that did not help the story. I did give it a try though, and set my Word Talk up and sat back to listen. I felt that the first 5 or 6 chapters could easily be discarded without any harm to the main story, and by chapter 9 I had fallen asleep through sheer boredom. I realised that I had probably bitten off far more than I could chew, so I read three or four chapters, then skimmed through another dozen or so, then read three or four more, then skimmed a load more, wash, rinse, repeat until I got to the end. In my opinion, he should cut it down to between 70 and 80 thousand words, and he will have a story that gets into the action quickly and carries you through at an exciting pace.

When I wrote my thoughts to the author, he did not even bother to acknowledge that I had taken my time (free of charge) to give him the benefit of my experience and viewpoint as both an author and a reader. It doesn’t matter that he may not have liked my opinion, he asked for it, I gave it, and I deserved an acknowledgement at least. I couldn’t give a flying fuck what you think of my opinion, if you ask for it, you will it and I expect you to thank me for my time. This guy didn’t, and that shows not only his lack of experience as an author in the field, which will only serve to hinder him as word gets around of his lack of basic etiquette, but also shows that the spin he puts out about himself is just that – spin.

This has proved to me that my decision not to beta read for others is a valid one, and one that I shall stick to in future. It’s not that I’m unhelpful or want to keep other authors down, it’s because when I give hours of my time to someone without charge, and they can’t even acknowledge my contribution, I feel like a fool.

I will be nobody’s fool, so don’t ever ask me to beta read, or read for review.

2 Day Booklover’s Bash

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It’s that time of the week again; time for the 2 Day Virtual Ebook Fair and Booklover’s Bash.

This facebook event is great for readers and lovers of all book genres.

Read excerpts, chat with authors and have fun.

I’ll be there with my space opera, Floxham Island and would love some support and chat with you all.

Here’s the link to the event.