My cup runneth over. Mount To-Be-Read (TBR) runs to over a thousand volumes. Others bemoan the size of their TBR pile, apparently intimidated by the scale of the agenda they have set for themselves, fearful of ‘getting behind’ in their reading or joining with friends in a challenge to ‘tackle mount TBR’, to tame the invading monster. Perhaps I’m contrary but my Mount TBR is a source of exquisite delight. Turning the closing page of one book is inevitably followed by the magical moment of choosing the next, browsing bookshelves with an expectation of pleasure, reward or insight. What to discover next? Where to go? Who to travel with? It’s a delicious dilemma. Rows of beautifully designed jackets and covers entice. Intriguing new titles and compelling blurbs vie for perusal against time-tested favourites. Sometimes folded-in reviews stripped from the broadsheets, Literary News or Slightly Foxed nestle against book bloggers reviews and recommendations or scrawled, hand-written notes – messages from my former self recording the whim or reason that earned the book its place. Several will be subject to Professor John Sutherland’s ‘page 69 test’.* And yet as I scan the familiar spines, gently easing out one or two to remind myself of its promise (and occasionally bemoaning the shallow layer of dust gathering along the upper edge), I know that each and every one is a book I want to read, because I have shelved and maintained it as TBR. The disruptive risks and uncertainty of choosing books in a bookshop or online is reduced while all the excitement of anticipation remains. Mount TBR is nothing less than a self-curated bookshop and library rolled into one.
Mount TBR is, then, precious. Readers of a certain ilk will tend it, as others tend garden roses. And like roses, Mount TBR can be a hungry and demanding beast. It needs weeding. It needs feeding with new books and fertilising with commentaries and reviews. Finding the right foodstuffs and fertilisers isn’t easy though. A reader at outset of the 17th century, wealthy enough to buy books and sufficiently at leisure to read, had a reasonable chance of reading every book ever published in the English language (reckoned to be around 2000 titles) in their life time. Last year (2013), some 150,000 new titles were published in the UK alone. The figure was almost double that in the USA. Yet, while choice increases exponentially each year, traditional sources of guidance on discrimination have diminished. Few newspapers and magazines give books the space or serious treatment they used to and those which have persisted tend to focus exclusively on new books. The collapse of the Net Book Agreement in 1995 has forced out of the market a myriad of niche, reader-orientated independent bookshops and allowed the chain stores to focus more on promotions, profit-margins and high volume sales at the cost of well-curated and categorised stock. On most High Streets where a bookshop has managed to survive the competition from out-of-town retailing and on-line sellers, it’s likely to be a big name chain store, where window-space is I suspect as often allocated on the basis of how much the publisher will pay, the celebrity status of the acknowledged author and the likelihood of share-holder returns as on reader recommendations. Add to this the growing abundance of self-published and e-only books, the majority of which are published without any signposting for potential readers, and bemusement of the part of the curious browser is understandable.
Book bloggers are one possible aid for readers here. Such is the shift in publishing and bookselling dynamics that there is an opportunity for book bloggers to step up and become major influencers of reading trends. Indeed, certain elements of the publishing industry have recognised this: Book Expo America, the largest annual trade book fair in the United States, hosted a parallel book bloggers conference in 2014 and plan to do so again in 2015. Some UK publishers are also making forays into the book blogosphere, making ARCs or galley proofs available to bloggers via the likes of Netgalley, Bookbridg and Amazon’s Vine Programme. Others engage directly with bloggers. Some innovative bloggers, authors and publishers have come together for blog tours, cover reveals and author Q&As but as a whole the UK industry has yet to exploit the potential power of book bloggers to extend readerships.
There are of course risks on both sides in creating a dependency between the book blogosphere and the more traditional book industry. Part of the joy of book blogs is that they can be fiercely independent and wildly random, forging unique reading journeys oblivious to the demands of markets and sales. They are freer than other influencers to explore and expose the classics, backlists, underrated authors and forgotten gems. They are often intensely personal, with an intimacy that can rapidly establish enduring connections with their readers. They offer the opportunity for free, frank and open debate (and what reader doesn’t like to talk books?). Bloggers tend to respond to those who comment, fostering a sense of community and involvement. And equally importantly, free from commercial relationships with and dependencies upon the book industry, their views need not be tempered with financial considerations. Closer working between book bloggers and the book industry could undermine each of these assets, perverting book bloggers most valuable characteristics.
Nor is greater intertwining risk-free for publishers. There are thousands upon thousands of book blogs. Quality and nature vary greatly. Some are more akin to fanzines, offering unquestioning adoration to a particular genre or author and largely preaching to the already converted. Others seem to exist for no purpose other than to convince publishers to send the blogger free stuff. Many, many get very, very little traffic. Yet others are littered with giveaways, challenges, memes, games and bizarre and unheard of blogging awards to the extent it’s hard to find anything about reading a book. (I am not arguing against this sort of blog – they can be a lot of fun – but that they are not obviously fertile ground for publishers and authors wishing to extend their readership.) Discrimination then is all for publishers wishing to exploit book bloggers’ influence; and moderation in use will also be important if the book blogger is going to be able to preserve the integrity which drew their audience in the first place. Mediation and facilitation of healthy and mutually beneficial relationships between the book blogosphere and those who produce and sell books would be helpful – a challenge which the likes of the London Book Fair or the Booksellers’ Association might take up.
*In How to Read a Novel (Profile Books, 2006), John Sutherland, Lord Northcliffe Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, suggests one trick for intelligent book browsing: turn to page 69 and read it. If you like it what you read there, read the whole book. Sutherland in fact credits Marshall McLuhan, guru-author of Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographical Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962) as the originator of this test. It’s as good a test as any other and for me has worked surprisingly well.
*Photo of “Flying Books” in London’s Leadenhall Market was taken by Sharon Drummond and shared via Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.