Secret Coffee

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 2015 it’s the importance of networking. The very mention of this word used to make me shudder. It seemed alien to me – something aggressive, maybe imported from the US along with ‘reaching out’. I saw networking as a situation that forced you into small talk with people you didn’t want to get to know but felt you had to (I still think it is to some extent). No, that isn’t for me, I thought. I’d rather just make friends with people I like and stick with them.

Until I realised that your entire career can be affected by the doing of it or the not doing of it. How people who have reached the peak of their careers are pretty much all skilled networkers who have made it their business to get to know everyone and the information that they can provide. And I’d been oblivious to it until earlier this year. In case you’re like me, and totally unaware of this underbelly of activity in publishing, or indeed in any industry, then this is my gift to you. The gift of knowing about Secret Coffee.

Here’s the thing. I thought I *was* networking when I turned up to industry events like publishing conferences or debate evenings. I’d meet up with colleagues, ex-colleagues and the faces behind the Twitter accounts I’d befriended and socialise with them, maybe adding one or two faces to the group each time I attended one.

There would always be one or two people who would suggest meeting up for a coffee after the conference, and I’d always think, “Why? When we’re standing right here talking now?” It’s because I didn’t know that the thing to do was Secret Coffee. I thought that just by standing there talking to someone in public, that my networking job was done. It wasn’t.

When I was freelancing over the summer I discovered the world of Secret Coffee and how people at all ranks in the publishing industry are more than happy to do it. I had Secret Coffees almost every day, in fact, and listened to people tell me all about the people they’d had Secret Coffee with over the years.

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it – it’d been going on all around me for years. Nobody talks about it so I’m just putting it out there in case there are other people like me who would benefit from it. I’m naturally an open, shary person who doesn’t enjoy secret behaviour but if I’d known about it years ago, perhaps I’d’ve made myself do it more. It does seem to have fuelled a number of high-rise careers all around me, when I thought that just being good at your job, friendly, sociable and professionally visible would be enough. It’s not. Quite.

I have baulked when a friend has told me that they’re only friendly with a person because of how useful they can be to them, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop baulking at that, but it does seem that successful people don’t have an issue with it – perhaps because they believe their coffee pals feel the same way.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been really grateful to my Secret Coffee drinkers over the past months, as they’ve been incredibly generous with their time and contacts lists. But I’m passing on that generosity by telling you now – if you want to get on in your careers, then start by doing Secret Coffee. It may be the best move you ever make in your career.

You’re welcome.

 

 

What Does An Editor Do?

Last night I chaired a panel discussion at Byte the Book, a monthly networking club for authors and people who work in publishing. The debate was focused on the new array of independent publishing houses and the question of the importance of editorial came up. Predictably, the panellist from a marketing and sales background said it was unnecessary, and the panellist from an editorial background said it was central to his company ethos. As an editor by trade myself, I ended up wading in a reminding panellist A that there is more to editorial than correcting commas and typos.

This is an all-too-common misconception about editorial work. People inside and outside the industry think that we just correct spellings, grammar and punctuation, and that’s it. Job done. But these are things that are done at the very END of a book’s editorial life, and they are often outsourced to freelance copy-editors and proofreaders AFTER the big, ‘structural’ edit has been done by the commissioning editor. The bigger companies have a ‘desk editorial’ pool that will complete this work for them, and if the desk editor feels that a bigger change to the text needs to be made, they will discuss it in detail with the commissioning editor and/or directly with the author before making it.

But what of the editorial work that takes place before this part of the life of a book? And why does the world and her partner think it’s so easy that everyone can do it?

Let’s say a commissioning editor has bought a fully written text, they love it, they’ve shared the love with the author, the agent and everyone in-house and persuaded them to acquire it for the list. But, they know it could be EVEN BETTER if the narrative was re-shaped in certain ways – perhaps a character needs to be drawn out or cut completely, maybe more or less dialogue is needed, perhaps the author could magnify a particular event to make it more dramatic or a non-fiction text needs more factual information to make sense of the point it’s trying to make.

It’s our job to let authors know how we think the text they’ve supplied can be improved, and to deliver that information in the way that allows THEM to make the changes successfully. It’s a collaboration, and if the author disagrees with a note, then it’s their right to resist that change, but maybe suggest another one. I’ve watched TV producers give ‘notes’ to actors and crew on set and realised how similar it is to the editorial process. Do the actors or writers think it’s a waste of time? No. They listen carefully and go for another (improved) shot. If they think a scene can be improved by something they’ve thought of, they tell the producer or director and it is discussed. Together.

Most commissioning editors give broadbrush notes to start with, to allow authors the freedom to make the changes in the way they see fit. Then at the next draft stage, because at this stage we’re only talking about a ‘draft’ text, then they’ll go in with an Editorial Letter. There’s an art to these. You’ve got to know the author well during the acquisition process and you learn to flex to their way of working. Some authors only like broadbrush comments, others prefer masses of detail. Some react strongly to red pen all over their text, so you go for blue, or you don’t write on the text at all – it all goes into the letter.

The best editors know that this is the author’s baby and it is important to bring the best out of it. You owe it to them, and nine times out of ten a text needs another close eye on it to really make it sing. And therein lies the joy and why your authors can end up loving you. (This can go wrong if the editor has a strong urge to be an author themselves, as they can transfer their own writerly ambitions onto the text, but I think this is a rare occurrence.)

You may be at draft five or six before the text is ready to be copy-edited (the stage where the grammar, punctuation and typos are corrected) but even then, any significant changes are discussed with author and commissioning editor in case there are stylistic considerations, e.g. not all authors use traditional speech marks during dialogue scenes. Ideally the copy-editor and proofreader are briefed on stylistic notes before they begin, so that they don’t undo all the editorial work done so far during the final stages.

All the way through this process there are phone conversations – fraught and joyous; to-ings and fro-ings re ideas for improving the text; changing the ending, or placing chapter 3 after chapter 10. It’s a constant conversation that never really stops until the book goes to print (and even then corrections can be made on reprint).

In recent years there has been a move away from traditional editing, partly due to the rise in self-publishing. We all know how many red pens have been twitching over the Fifty Shades trilogy – the Inner Goddess would’ve been the first to go if I’d been editing it. And then the near-universal agreement among readers and editors that The Goldfinch could’ve done with a really good chop to make it even more brilliant than it already is. (Sometimes, as authors reach the bestseller heady heights a fear of editing kicks in in the publishing company (in case the author is scared off) and you can track it as their books get bigger and bigger.)

I’ve just finished The Miniaturist and felt so frustrated that this wonderful concept died on its feet 50% into the book – in case you’re interested, my editorial notes would’ve been a) the book tries to cover too many themes at once: black history, female independence, homosexuality so focus in on one or two, and b) either ramp up the significance of the miniature house and its creator or get rid of it all together. The former would be my preference.

Some authors have decided to eschew being edited at all and I await to see what happens when they run free. Only this last week, Cornelia Funke has decided to set up her own publishing company because she objected to Little, Brown US and her UK publisher Chicken House, asking her to move a chapter and change the ending of her latest book.

Her UK publisher Barry Cunningham said, “We had some editorial thoughts about the direction of the last book that she didn’t agree with,” he said. “One of the purposes of a publisher is to edit so if we felt there was a better book to be made and she didn’t then we have reached the best conclusion.”

I think, sadly, we are going to see more of this ‘parting of the ways’ as editorial skills are becoming less and less valued by authors, readers and let’s face it, some publishers (if they’re led by sales people, as most are these days).

I’m always amazed that so many people in my own industry don’t know what my job entails, so how do we bring the value back?

When Authors Go Astray

I had intended to sit down today and write a piece on what happens when your favourite author writes something you really don’t like; that is so unlike the thing you’ve been buying into all these years in terms of genre, style and content that you are left feeling really let down and, well, reeling from it all.

And then along came the advance copies of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to her global bestseller, To Kill a Mockingbird, revealing that our beloved Atticus Finch is really a racist, a bigot. And it has shattered our dreams.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m reading reviews where people are clinging to the fact that this novel was written earlier than Mockingbird. They are using all the words beginning with D to describe it: ‘disorienting’, ‘disturbing’, ‘distressing’, with New York Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani summarising it thus:

“How could the saintly Atticus – described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in ‘Mockingbird’ – suddenly emerge as a bigot?”

Well this weekend I finally finished The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and could have summarised in a similar way, “how could the Man Booker-prize winning Ishiguro, consistently found to be a writer of great lyricism, melancholy and unrequited feeling – suddenly emerge as an author of a Bad Novel?”

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

I hadn’t been aware of any bad reviews at the time because I was (and am) a huge fan who doesn’t want to hear anything negative said about Ishiguro’s novels until I’ve read them myself. When I went back to look, I came upon the blasting from Adam Mars Jones in the LRB, concluding: “From the reader’s point of view it’s like excavating the supposed site of a medieval abbey and discovering the ruins of a multiplex cinema.” I can’t disagree.

From my friends and social-media acquaintances, there was a resounding silence on the book. A few had started it but couldn’t carry on, others had it gathering dust on a shelf (they knew they *should* read it but had been aware of the LRB review) and some just doggedly stuck to the ‘it must have had something brilliant in it that went over my head’ response.

No, guys. It’s just that a great literary novelist has tried to go ‘off-brand’ and written a poor novel. It happens. Let’s give the man a break and hope the Real Ishiguro comes back to us.

I started thinking that there was a pattern emerging between my favourite novelists (curiously all men) who’d all let me down a bit with a bit of a duffer. I could have cried when I started reading David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which treated the ’80s with the same shoehorned-in references to the culture as Titanic (the movie) did with its clunky ‘What would Dr Freud’ make of this?’ script. Where was the classy surrealist who blew my mind with Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas? Having a break by writing something so utterly pedestrian I had to pretend it didn’t happen. I’ve got The Bone Clocks on my shelf to read next – don’t let me down, David.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Then there was William Boyd and his sudden switch into the crime novel in Ordinary Thunderstorms. Stupidly, I loved Boyd so much that I chose this for my book club, thinking I’d wow everyone with his talent for an epic, sweeping storyline, as seen in Restless or Any Human Heart. Nope – it was as though he’d asked his editor if he could ‘have a go’ at crime-writing. Some people didn’t turn up to the book club I hosted because the book was so bad. Thankfully, Waiting for Sunrise signalled a return to form.

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

And then Niall Williams and History of the Rain. This too, is on my bookshelves, but as I read about fifty pages in, that familiar feeling hit me. Gone was Brand Williams – lyrical, surreal, magically real, poetic – and in came a story written by someone I didn’t know, possibly because he was writing in the voice of a young girl, Ruth Swain. I wonder if that had put me off Black Swan Green, too, written in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy. These books are more YA than anything (and incidentlally, Adam Mars Jones thinks the same could be true of The Buried Giant.)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

I think this is what happens when authors writing into a particular genre, veer off in another direction without their readership knowing they’re going to do it. Publishers are culpable, in that they package the books in a similar fashion to their authors’ backlists, hoping they won’t frighten the horses.

I’d much rather they said, ‘literary fiction giant pens young adult/crime/fantasy novel for the first time’ in big letters – I’d still buy it, just to see what they’d done with it, and I wouldn’t feel as though I’d been hoodwinked into reading something ‘off brand’. I can understand an author’s urge to break out of a genre, just like bands do when they go all experimental in later years. The fans may waiver and yearn for the early days, but they do stick with them to see if their favourite band will return to form.

When they don’t for a while, we’re very reluctant to say so, it seems. We need to be able to voice that disappointment and move on, retaining the hope that one day the writing we love so much will come back to us. We do talk about film franchises being disappointing (hello Star Wars prequel) or albums being a disaster, but it just feels to awful to admit that a brilliant author has gone astray, let alone tell all our bookish pals about it. I was told that I was ‘controversial’ for giving Ishiguro one star on Goodreads.

Not controversial, just telling the truth.

A Meeting of Minds

I’ve just attended the IT as a Utility (ITaaU) conference in the Solent University Conference Centre, Southampton, as a guest of the co-ordinator, Steve Brewer (@SteveITaaU). It is a community of researchers, practitioners and policymakers from a range of disciplines who investigate ways in which IT can help services, businesses and communities thrive.

Steve Brewer opening ITaaU conference (photo via  Clare Hooper)

Steve Brewer opening ITaaU conference (photo via Clare Hooper)

As a publishing consultant, I’m not an obvious delegate for this, but I’ve been to enough conferences to know that the real value is in meeting outside your usual network. I was piqued by sessions on interactive storytelling and the future of libraries so I decided to go. And hey – spending two days in Southampton isn’t half bad.

As somewhat of a lay-person when it comes to IT the themes and trends I picked up were fairly broad brush, but I did think there were some ideas and threads that were common to people working in any medium, which I’ll share here.

The Rush to Digitise

Something that resounded with me in publishing was the rush to digitise existing content, without any thought to how it may be used in the future. It’s something that’s hamstrung the NHS and they are busy looking at ways to unpick the mass PDF-ing of documentation. I thought of how we all rushed to convert our backlists into ebooks back in the day, and how a few voices were heard crying out, ‘wait, wait, what if we need to apply digital thinking to all our processes?’ and their voices dying in the wind. It’s only now that I’m hearing people in publishing say that digital is part of their everyday thinking and is no longer thought of as a separate department.

ITaaU programme day 1 (Photo via John Rooksby)

ITaaU programme day 1 (Photo via John Rooksby)

Fail Early and Fail Fast

From the presenters from ustwo and The Bakery to a surgeon at the University Hospital Southampton breast-cancer unit, all were united in their ‘fail early, fail fast’ thinking to projects. It made me think about how that is anathema to the long-winded publishing industry in many ways, and how real innovation has come from outside the corporate world in companies like Nosy Crow and Made in Me.

In publishing, one often finds books set on immovable tracks, set on a timescale to launch that doesn’t take in any sort of agility or ability to stop and think, ‘are we doing the right thing here?’ The thought of scrapping a book package and starting again because it’s not working – how many of us would be prepared to work through the night with a bunch of hacks to get it right? We’d be worried that the jacket was ‘already out there’ in sales kits and we’d confuse retailers and consumers with our switching.

Agility is something that we’ve weeded out of our thinking because of our need to hit Nielsen deadlines 7-9 months before publication. We have to wait until the paperback to get a second bite of the cherry, but then, our sales may have been damaged by the hardback package. Anyway…

Hackathons 

In publishing, we’ve had two very successful hackathons that I know of – one in the US in 2013 and the last in the UK in June 2014 (Futurebook Hack). I was struck at ITaaU by the way that the hack is at the very heart of most of the organisations that presented. Coming from a holacratic way of working, everyone is invited to the table to innovate, and I was particularly struck by the way in which people innovated on things that were already in front of them (Periscope was developed from porn-video technology).

One speaker used the overhead projector right in front of him to present, placing his iPhone on it and touching the screen to show his app. I thought, ‘that’s innovation, right there’. (He’d also hastily scribbled his name and job title in biro on a bit of paper which he shoved under the projector – brilliant). It made me think of how I’d used a secret Pinterest board to tell my career-in-publishing story at an SYP event because I couldn’t get Prezi to work. I innovated! A hackathon has to be at the heart of everyday life for it to really have an effect, not just once a year at a big publishing conference…

Makerspaces – the new libraries?

I discovered that a makerspace is the new library. Libraries in the US, and to a certain extent in the UK are now not only places where books are housed, but where information is exchanged and the tools for innovation are housed for communities to use, including 3D printers and laser cutters. Of course I’m behind the #saveourlibraries campaign, but I do believe that they need to adapt and expand their brief (even change their brand name) to be more relevant to today’s community needs. (They’ve never been just about books – we know that.)

I met the inspiring Ross Dalziel who has been working on Cloudmaker, which explores the gap between online Minecraft gaming and the real world, with communities of kids seeing their constructions printed out in 3D, and the mindblowing ‘Minecraft of Things’ in which messages are passed to and from objects in the real world and the Minecraft game. Astonishing levels of creativity and ‘beyond the brick’ thinking.

CJUFXNrWgAAkwyv

Ross Dalziel’s scribblings from our libraries break-out session

Social Machines

I learned about the power of humans as social machines from Elena Simperl, professor of Web and Internet Science at University of Southampton. I hadn’t heard about Project Gutenberg, which aims to digitise public domain texts using projects such as Distributed Proofreaders, which divides out-of-copyright ebooks into individual pages to be proofread and copy-edited by the a volunteer ‘crowd’. Or the Streetbump app that collects data on potholes in Boston by collecting GPS/smartphone data from volunteer users in order to improve the community’s roads. The idea that real people do the creative work whilst computers do the administration is at the heart of good crowdsourcing activity.

Interactive storytelling

Blending storytelling, wearable tech and interactive theatre, Zoe Philpott brings the story of Ada Lovelace to life as a mathematician, Babbage collaborator and author of the world’s first computer programme. Determined that this incredible woman will not be written out of history, as she nearly was, Philpott is bringing her one-woman show to non-theatre venues, wearing a dress made of 500 LED lights and conductive thread, which is controlled with a glove. I started to think of the ways she could collaborate with museum people I know and made the connections on Twitter immediately. People shouted out names of potential venues from the audience, inspired by this single innovative idea.

IMG_8010

Zoe Philpott telling us about Ada Ada Ada (photo via Alana Wood)

As I walked to the station with a clutch of business cards, new friends and ideas swimming around in my head, I recalled Zoe’s words: “we didn’t know what we needed to know until we came here.”

How to Go on Holiday on Your Own

I seem to be part of a zeitgeist for solo travel, with more and more people than ever opting to take their vacations on their own, even if they’re in a couple. I’ve been doing it for five years now, and I’m addicted. On my own, I can holiday at my own pace and I can choose to be with other people, or not. I’ve found the freedom exhilarating.

The first holiday, to Thailand, was a huge test for me. I spent the first three days in the hotel, too scared to go outside. But once I did, encouraged by friends texting me, I found the world was waiting for me.

Here are my top tips on solo travel:

Start just outside your comfort zone

The jetty at the Amari Phuket

The jetty at the Amari Phuket

Book your first solo holiday in an all-inclusive hotel, or wherever you feel safe. Just flying far away on your own is stressful enough so be nice to yourself by booking a safe haven at the other end. You can then be more adventurous when you’re there but have a base to return to. I asked Trailfinders to find me a lovely hotel in Thailand, and when I got there, I got upgraded to a seafront room. I then used the hotel as a base for trips, so I could see the lie of the land. You can read my review here.

Book lots of trips

Me, exhilarated on my first Thai boat trip

Me, exhilarated on my first Thai boat trip

If you’re not on a group holiday (I choose not to join those) then book day trips. My favourite thing is a boat trip and I’ve met so many great people while on them, often women who are on their own. I tend to alternate between days by the pool/beach and day trips. It gives the holiday a bit of pace, and gives you a chance to talk to people over the course of a day, and potentially meet them again as a dinner companion.

Let preconceptions go

Riding an elephant

Riding an elephant

Most of us arrive in countries with preconceptions about the culture and we need to form our own. You will find that the things you find most alien, or are scared of, become ridiculously normal and tame after a few days. Beware of scare-mongering. Most people are too afraid to go away on their own and look for reasons why they shouldn’t. Research your destination and know what you’re in for, but draw your own conclusions about it.

Prepare for the Rollercoaster

40792_153310634684383_3349263_n

A solo holiday is a rollercoaster. You will experience days when an unexpected meeting or event propels you into a state of high excitement, followed by days where nothing happens and you start to feel sorry for yourself. Know that it will happen and embrace the Rollercoaster. Don’t rely on other people for your holiday highs – they will happen when you least expect, and usually just at the point you wish you hadn’t gone away on your own.

Take lots of books

10417437_1078237432191694_2415736165216077505_n

Books are the solo travel companion you can rely on in any setting. At the airport, on the beach, at lunch or dinner on your own, even Happy Hour in the hotel. Have your book with you and you can lose yourself in it, and stop focusing on your alone-ness. Make sure you have enough to see you through the holiday and a potential flight delay.

Share your experience

Inhabitant of Monkey Island

Inhabitant of Monkey Island

If you’re like me, you want to share your experience on social media, and use it as a travelogue and a form of companionship. Wifi-allowing, think of your holiday as a window onto the world that you can share with others – there is a whole community doing it on Instagram, for instance, and you can be one of them.

Enjoy the journey

Pubu the naughty elephant with his mahout

Pubu the naughty elephant with his mahout

I’ve found that the journey to my destination on my own is an adventure in itself. From the moment you step out of your door on the way to the airport or train station, you are doing something amazing. Most people can’t even go for a walk on their own.

Realise that people are envious of you

In Koh Samui with Bo and Su.

In Koh Samui with Bo and Su.

You will find, at lunch, dinner, or any other ‘social’ occasion on holiday, that people will look at you. They won’t be able to believe that you are brave enough to go on holiday on your own. But you are. And you can smile back at them, safe in the knowledge that they wish they were you.

166999_191558867526226_5299523_n

Walking is the Way Forward

Walking is having a moment, isn’t it? Well, it is for me.

It started last year when I read a piece by journalist Polly Vernon on how she’s incorporated at least three hours’ walking into her life every day since 2003 – it keeps her fit, slim and her headspace clear. I found myself wondering how long it would take to walk into central London from my home north-west London and Google Maps told me it would be 75 minutes. It seemed like an age, given that I was used to hopping on a bus or a tube and whizzing in under half an hour. But once I started doing it I became hooked, and time passes so quickly when I’m walking, it all seems like a bit of a lovely dream when I get to my destination.

I’ve noticed that I’m gravitating to books about walking, too, and they’re inspiring me more and more. I’ve just finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and cried with the joy and grief of his journey. I’ve always loved travel writing and whilst I’ve enjoyed books about people cycling or taking trains or motorbikes across vast continents, I’ve never really read walking books. The first one to inspire me was Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild. I first heard the author on the radio (while walking!) reading extracts from her book. She walked the Pacific Crest Trail on her own – over a thousand miles from the Mojave desert to Washington State. Reese Witherspoon picked up the movie rights and made a film I wanted to leap into almost as much as the book – I want a Walk of One’s Own.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic)

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic)

Then came the wonderful Robert Macfarlane, whom I’ve only just discovered this year. I usually confine my travel reading to foreign lands. Why would I want to read about travelling around Britain? I want to stretch my horizons when I read, not limit them. But I was oh so wrong. Macfarlane’s incredibly intelligent writing in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012, Penguin) has opened up a world that is right on my doorstep. He follows ancient tracks around the world but seems at his most spiritually enlightened on British soil, or on ancient sea trails.

The Old Ways (Penguin)

The Old Ways (Penguin)

I’ve now bought his earlier work, The Wild Places (2007, Granta) and I can’t wait to join him again as he seeks out the wildernesses in Britain and Ireland. The last time I felt like this about a travel author was when I discovered Paul Theroux (Louis’ dad) who is still the One and Only for me.

The Wild Places (Granta)

The Wild Places (Granta)

So now I’m contemplating a Walk of One’s Own. I’m going to walk around the Isle of Wight at the end of July, 69km over four days, five nights. I’m going to tweet it, blog it, review it, Instagram it, and 4G-allowing, Periscope it. I’m now a seasoned solo traveller so the thought of doing this on my own is exciting. I’ve been to Thailand, Turkey, Egypt and the Middle East on my own and blogged about those experiences elsewhere. But what will happen on my own doorstep? Whom will I meet? Where will I stay? Will I collapse after walking 16 miles a day? What will the weather throw at me?

Bring it on. I hope you will join me as I go. More details to come, but in the meantime, here’s my Top Ten Travel Books reading list (excluding the above). Note that all but one of the authors are men – that’s another blog post!

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux (Penguin)

Moods of Future Joys by Alastair Humphreys (Eye)

McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy (Sceptre)

The Full Montezuma by Peter Moore (Transworld)

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (Vintage)

Sea Room by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins)

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson (Canongate)

Duende by Jason Webster (Black Swan)

Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon (Penguin)

The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (HarperPerennial)

Information is Beautiful

The wonderful news that William Grill won the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration today made me whoop with joy, for illustrated non-fiction books are having a renaissance, and it’s about time. As Grill is purported to have said, non fiction is seen as ‘unglamorous’ next to fiction and picture books and it doesn’t have to be that way. As someone whose career has involved the publishing of Horrible Histories and all its satellite series, I say ‘amen’ and ‘I hear you’ to that. We haven’t had such a great a non-fiction moment since Dragonology first hit the scene back in 2003 from Templar. Filled with wheels, tabs, flaps and fold-outs, not to mention ‘jewels’ set into the covers, these books set the standard for a type of gift non fiction that everyone suddenly started to aspire to.

Dragonology (Templar)

Dragonology (Templar)

Dragonology (Templar)

Dragonology (Templar)

We all started doing versions of the ‘ologies’ until the 2008 recession hit us, print costs went sky-high and no one would pay £19.99 for a book any more. In children’s books at least, the emphasis suddenly went from pop-up carousels and feats of paper-engineering to ‘straight’ books, and even fewer illustrated ones. Every publisher knows that B-format black-and-white fiction is where the money and the profit is at, so the ship steered well away from high-production-value non fiction and gift books. Happily for us, the digital-induced renaissance in high-quality gift books is giving non fiction another moment. I noticed it first appearing in 2013 with Maps (Big Picture Press), the beautifully illustrated atlas by Alexandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski.

Maps – Big Picture Press

Maps – Big Picture Press

Maps – Big Picture Press

Maps – Big Picture Press

We were all stunned by the intricately rendered artwork by the Bologna Ragazzi-winning couple, clearly the work of many months. It has spawned a new genre of nostalgically illustrated large-format gift books, most notably in 2014, Animalium (Big Picture Press) by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott, and Wide-Eyed Editions’ Atlas of Adventures (Rachel Williams & Lucy Netherland) and Nature’s Day (Danielle Kroll & Kay Maguire).

Animalium (Big Picture Press)

Animalium (Big Picture Press)

In adult books, another sort of non-fiction renaissance is happening as illustrated publishers compete for gift-book slots with lavishly bound, be-ribboned, embossed and gilded-edged titles, such as Where Chefs Eat (Phaidon) and my favourite, Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press).

Where Chefs Eat (Phaidon)

Where Chefs Eat (Phaidon)

Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press)

Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press)

I’ve been told that Waterstones buyers won’t even look at a non-fiction Christmas gift title unless it has all the bells and whistles, and indeed publishers are creating bespoke special editions for them. The conversations happening between editors, designers, production controllers and printers are in a really interesting place right now as they look beyond traditional book formats, trying to outdo the competition with the next big widget. Of course, Information is Beautiful (HarperCollins, 2009) and the follow-up Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless was the game-changer in the adult world for non fiction. Purely and simply, his infographics presented information in such a visually accessible way, they are beautiful in themselves. His books provide ‘learning by stealth’ for adults and both of his books deserve a place on every bookshelf, and in every gift-givers list. No widgets required – the artistry is simply on the page.

Information is Beautiful (HarperCollins)

Information is Beautiful (HarperCollins)

With the emphasis on gift books to collect and treasure as objects, I predict that the non-fiction future is beautiful.