27th June 2011 - Jonathan Ruppin
The paucity of books coverage in our national media, in comparison with the more glamorous and celebrity-laden sectors of the arts, can be quite demoralising for those of us who work in the trade.
I've heard more than one literary editor at a national newspaper complain that his page count is under constant threat from other areas of the arts that apparently attract more lucrative advertising. We also have no dedicated books programme on BBC television, a very disappointing state of affairs for a public service broadcaster - even more so given that the notably more mercenary Sky manages to find time for one.
So the arrival of a brand new magazine devoted solely to books is a cause for celebration. We Love This Book is a free quarterly for independent bookshops and libraries, and you'll now find copies of the first issue in all our branches.
Features in the first issue are largely centred around the theme of 'forbidden love'. These range from an absorbing fascinating interview with Booker winner Alan Hollinghurst about his new novel, The Stranger's Child, which explores gay love before its legalisation, to novelist Tamar Cohen's list of favourite fictional adulterers.
I'm slightly wary of this idea of a theme, as the focus on thematic continuity might result in the omission of unrelated contributions of better quality. Magazines of many types, however, do the same, so it appears to be a proven approach.
Other highlights from the first issue include an exclusive new short story by David Mitchell, reason enough for many book lovers to pick up a copy, and Tony Blair's desert island books. I've no doubt this latter passed through several PR gateways before reaching the magazine, but it doesn't read that way and it makes for a fascinating insight into a man who has played a part in all our lives.
Many of the features recommend far more than just new books. There are classics and more recent favourites to look out for too, which is just what the book trade needs. We spend far too much time flogging the latest big new titles that publishers are putting their marketing muscle behind, forgetting that any decent bookshop is a treasure trove of delights far beyond front-of-house.
The majority of reviews are written by booksellers, with a few lead reviews by guest writers: Beryl Bainbridge's The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, for example, is excellently reviewed by author Jill Dawson. The reviews are rarely more than 200 words, which I think is just right. I'm one of the contributors and when writing was working on my copy, it soon became apparent that when I was struggling to keep it to the required length, it was because I was waffling.
Reviews might not be quite the right term; they are more recommendations. Contributors were told that the magazine was looking for positive reviews, albeit with scope for constructive criticism. So, no breathless encomia by fans but no space wasted telling people which books not to read.
I like this approach. First, it reflects the inevitable truth that all reviews are, at least in part, a matter of opinion. Second, it mirrors the role that booksellers play in recommending books to their customers, through either their promotions or directly to individual customers. And third, it makes a refreshing alternative to the countless examples of logrolling and petty point-scoring that infest broadsheet reviews. (I'm particularly weary of non-fiction reviews by a rival in the author's field that spend 800 words explaining how the reviewer would have done things differently.)
In addition to the magazine itself, there is a website, www.welovethisbook.com, featuring a wealth of extra content, much of which expands upon the features in the magazine, and more reviews. There's also a well-informed book news section, which is just as it should be given that We Love This Book comes from the same offices that produce The Bookseller, the trade magazine that has kept members of the book trade in the loop for over 150 years.
What I find most impressive appeals to me most about We Love This Book is the level at which it's being pitched. Articles on Mark Twain and Britain's capitalisation of its intellectual resources sit happily alongside feature such as recipes from new cookery books and The Book Tree (see right), a two-page diagram of books that trace their influences back to a common ancestor, in this case Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The magazine is intelligent without being scholarly, accessible without being dumbed down..
So We Love This Book is off to a very promising start. Indeed, the only omission from the first issue is the word 'Free' in prominent letters on the front cover. But free it certainly is, so drop by Foyles, pick up a copy and join independent booksellers and librarians in celebrating the books we love.
For a complete list of books featured in the first issue of We Love This Book, click here.
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