Discussion Time · Festive

DISCUSSION TIME! My Bookish Plans in 2020

Yes, it’s that time of year again.

Start of a New Year. The Christmas decorations are down, the fridge is (finally) empty, and 2019 has walked itself out of the door whilst 2020 has waltzed on in. Time for a new year, filled with new books and new bookish resolutions.

To be honest, I’m not really setting myself ‘resolutions’ as such. I did away with making New Years Resolutions once I realised that all they did was hit every single one of my anxiety buttons at the same time – never a good way to begin anything, let alone commence a new year.

But I do like to spend a little time at the start of the year thinking about what went well in the last one, and what I would like to get out the one ahead. And that applies to my bookish life as well.

As I mentioned at the top of my Books of the Year 2019 post, I had a pretty good reading year last year. I exceeded my Goodreads goal by some way, took part in some fantastic blog tours, and continued to expand the blog and chat to some lovely bookish folk on Twitter.

And, really, I just want to do more of the same in 2020. I’ve set my Goodreads goal at 52 again (one book a week for the year), and I already have some brilliant blog tours lined up in January and February.

That said, there are some things that I would like to change about my reading life.

Firstly, for example: Buy Less, Read More

I’m definitely feeling a little swamped by my TBR at the moment. Between the books I’ve bought, ebooks requested on Netgalley, books sent by publishers for blog tours, books lent to me by friends, books borrowed from the library, and books I have to read for my PhD, I have more than enough to keep me reading for the entirety of 2020 and beyond. And I really do want to read these books. There are so many great titles sitting neglected on my shelves.

Fortunately, the aforementioned PhD also means finances are officially tight so buying less and reading more will definitely help me on a number of fronts. I can finally get to some of the brilliant titles that you lot have been raving about on Twitter and Goodreads, and there’s less chance I will one day be found buried by the weight of my own TBR pile.

Also, and this brings me neatly to my second change, reading my backlist will allow me to Improve My Netgalley Feedback Ratio.

My Netgalley ratio is currently at a woeful 36%. A requesting spree earlier in 2019 left me with a backlist the size of my arm. Given that I’m really picky about what I read on Kindle (as I hugely prefer reading in hard copy), this was simply poor decision making on my part.

But, again, I requested these books for a reason. And I’m sure there will be Netgalley titles that I want to request in 2020. But in order to do so, I’ll need to get that feedback ratio back to a decent number. I owe those books a read and a review. My Kindle is great for carrying around with me so I’ll be trying to always have a Netgalley book on the go for when I’m out and about.

This also into my third – and final – plan for my reading life in 2020 which is to Be More Selective.

With the best will in the world, my reading time is limited. My PhD is in English Literature so I have a lot of reading to do for that. Add in other work, socialising, family time, and other hobbies, and I really am limited in how much time I can devote to books and reading.

So instead of trying to read all of the things, I want to give myself permission to be more selective. As a book blogger, it can be really easy to get bookish FOMO – to feel left out of the conversation if you aren’t reading the latest title or raving about the newest prize shortlist.

But we cannot read everything. And sometimes trying to read everything takes the enjoyment out of the books we do read. So I want to make sure that, before I request a proof, sign up for a blog tour, or make that impulse purchase in a bookshop, I take a few moments to think about whether I really will read that book. And read it soon, not some unspecified time in the distant future.

Needless to say, permission to DNF is also firmly ensconced in this aim. I’ve never been too bad at putting down books but I am pretty bad at admitting I’ll never go back to them. So this year I want to allow myself to say ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ to a book more often and just move on to the next one.

So those are my bookish plans for 2020! What are you hoping to do in your reading life this year? Are you trying to broaden your horizons by reading new genres? Are you competing in any reading challenges for the year? Do let me know in the comments below or come and say hi over on Twitter!

And, until the next time…

Happy Reading x


Discussion Time

Discussion Time: The Truth of Fiction

32312859Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you’ve probably read the recent New Yorker profile of Dan Mallory AKA A. J. Finn, author of the phenomenally successful psychological thriller The Woman in the Window. The profile alleges that Mallory lied to friends and colleagues about having cancer and implies that, amongst other things, he also lied about having a doctorate from Oxford, about his mother’s death and his brother’s suicide, and about ‘discovering’ Robert Galbraith (the crime writer also known as J. K. Rowling).

The article raised some worrying questions about gender and perceived employability in the publishing industry (for more on that, see this excellent piece in The Conversation), but also raises some interesting questions about what sort of truths we expect from authors of fiction. To what extent does an author have the right to write a fiction of their own life?

A follow-up article by Leo Benedictus in The Guardian prompted me to write this post. In the article, Leo considers the recent history of authors who have, for varying reasons, lied about their identity. From reclusive Asian teenager Rahila Khan turning out to be an Anglican vicar called Toby, to embellished memoirs such as James Frey’s ‘A Million Little Pieces’, the tradition of the literary liar is, it seems, a long one. And if we start to consider writers who, for various reasons, have elected to write under a pseudonym in order to secure publication (hello, the Bronte sisters and George Elliot), then the list stretches back to the very beginnings of the English novel.

But does finding out the ‘truth’ about an author’s identity alter their work? Were Rahila Khan’s stories of British Asian life any less affecting when it emerged that their author was, in fact, a middle-aged white guy? Did ‘Jane Eyre’ become less brilliant when it emerged that Currer Bell was, in fact, Charlotte Bronte? Is ‘The Woman in the Window’ a less accomplished thriller because of its author? To what extent does an author’s fiction stand on its own?

This is not a question with an easy, or even, I think, a definite answer.

On the one hand, surely the job of fiction is to be just that – fiction. Setting aside for one moment the valid debate about the very real need for own voices narratives, the job of a novelist is surely to imagine a life outside of their own; to be able to craft worlds and characters that are beyond their own lived experiences.  Hannah Kent has not lived in nineteenth-century Iceland but does that make ‘Burial Rites’ a lesser novel? I would say no – to say otherwise would be to argue that fiction can only be written in, and about, the present moment. Crime writers do not, one hopes, have to kill anyone in order to write about serial killers, and I don’t think many science-fiction authors have actually been to space.

But when the author is declaring that the validity of their lived experiences informs their work, then I can understand why readers feel angry and misled. Benedictus’ article mentions the disturbing phenomena of the fake or exaggerated Holocaust memoir. To exaggerate or fake a life, or life events, in order to elicit publicity, reader sympathy, or praise for your work is different to imagining yourself in another situation. These authors have stepped away from the stage of their fiction and are moving amongst their audience. For me at least, it is at this point that a fiction becomes a lie.

As I said, this is a multi-faceted and complex debate, but I think ultimately this is a question of expectations. Personally, I have no issue with an author creating a fictional experience outside of their own lived experience. This is the art of fiction and I appreciate being able to revel in the scope of their imagination. But if I am being sold a book on the basis that it reflects the author’s life experience, it has not been sold to me entirely as fiction, so my expectations are altered. As a reader, I would expect an element of ‘truth’.

Which brings me back to Dan Mallory/A. J. Finn. I reviewed ‘The Woman in the Window’ on the blog and, for the most part, enjoyed it. Amidst an onslaught of psychological thrillers, it was a compulsive page-turner and I liked the way in which it played with the plot of ‘Rear Window’ in order to subvert expectations.

Having read the New Yorker piece, does my opinion of ‘The Woman in the Window’ change?

Having thought long and hard, I don’t think it does. I still think the book is a compulsive and entertaining psychological thriller. From a distance, and with more reflection, it’s probably not quite as unique or original as my review made out, but I still enjoyed the experience of reading it. It was, and remains, a decent thriller.

Has my opinion of its author changed? Undoubtedly. But whether I like, or agree, with the actions of an author – and whether this prevents me from reading any more of their books – is, I think, an entirely separate debate.

I’d be really interested to hear other thoughts on this and would highly recommend reading Leo’s Guardian piece (and the original New Yorker profile) linked above. There’s also another Guardian article on literary fakery that informed my thoughts in this post. As with any ‘Discussion Time’, this is just my thoughts on a current literary/reading debate so be nice and respect each other in the comments.

I’ll be back soon with another book review and a great author Q&A with writer Alison Morton but, until the next time, Happy Reading!




Discussion Time · Random Bookish Things

DISCUSSION TIME! The ‘Value’ of Blogging

There’s been quite a bit of collective ire on social media this week after a independent publisher (who shall remain nameless!) called into question the ‘reach’ and ‘influence’ of book bloggers, especially in relation to blog tours and whether they result in better sales and exposure for the book/author/publisher in question.

Many people felt that it was implied in the publisher’s comments that book blogs and blog tours don’t offer good ‘value’ for authors and publishers. As you can probably predict, many bloggers and tour organisers felt that this belittled their role in the book world and took the publisher in question to task over their comments. Other publishers and authors also raced to the defence of bloggers with positive examples of how the work of bloggers had helped promote their titles.

As someone who writes a relatively small blog – and could therefore be accused of having limited ‘reach’ and ‘influence’ as a blogger – I thought the furore raised some interesting questions about the role of blogging. This post is, I suppose, my reflections on this and an attempt to counter some common misconceptions about the life of a book blogger as I see it.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, I can categorically say that there are far easier ways to get free books than by becoming a blogger!

Bloggers have to work for their freebies. If we’re lucky enough to receive a requested book or be invited onto a tour, we have to read said book, actively engage with what we’ve read (often by making notes as we read), and then compose and edit a (hopefully) entertaining and informative post about it. If this is for a blog tour, we’ll have to do this for a specific date. If not, having the post ready for around a book’s publication date is considered polite so a loose deadline remains in place. And the work isn’t over yet folks! Once a post is live, a blogger will probably want to promote it on social media channels, and ensure their review is also up on Goodreads, Amazon, Netgalley etc. And they may well be engaging with and promoting other posts from the same blog tour, or for the same author/book. They may also choose to re-post when the book subsequently comes out in paperback or if it wins an award.

And, for the most part, they will be doing this whilst holding down a day job, getting the kids to school, doing the laundry and all the other sundry activities that make up everyday life. In short, this is all being done on a blogger’s free time.

So whilst there may be the odd ‘blagger’ out there who thinks a book blog is a great way to bag a ton of hot pre-release titles, I think they’d soon find there’s a bit more to it than that.

I mean, the above is just what you do once you have established yourself as a blogger. Setting up and starting out is a whole different type of work. It can take months – or even years – to establish your blog, develop your online presence, and make connections with authors, publishers and tour organisers. Very few publishers or tour organisers worth their salt will take on an untested blogger – they want to see you have a track record of regular posts and can provide a certain quality and consistency of content before they add you to their tour or mailing lists, especially for popular or high-profile titles.

Which brings us onto this idea of ‘value’. What can your blogger do for you?

Simply put, I think it’s hard to qualify a blog’s ‘reach’ and ‘influence’, especially over the course of what may be just a one or two week blog tour. ‘Reach’ and ‘influence’ are subjective and I suppose that, from my point of view, an author or publisher has to recognise that a blog post or blog tour may not necessarily equate to hordes of readers racing to their nearest bookshop waving armfuls of cash. But does any advertising campaign really do that?

Personally I feel that what we as bloggers offer is less immediately measurable but equally important – genuine enthusiasm for your book, a wish to shout about it to our online (and real life) communities, and an opportunity to increase presence. A presence that, crucially, sticks around long after the tour is over and continues bubbling away as we write more posts and gain more followers.

When I look at my stats page for The Shelf, I’m often surprised (and extremely pleased!) by how many people are still reading posts that I wrote months ago. As I was writing up this post, I had a hit on my review of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions – a post that I wrote back on 08 January 2018. If that reader goes and buys Laura’s book as a result of my post (and I sincerely hope they do – it’s a brilliant book), it could be argued that I had an influence on them. However that influence could not have been measured at the time of the post going live – or even in the immediate weeks afterwards.

I suppose ultimately what I’m trying to get at is the idea of assessing a blog’s ‘value’ is, to my mind, looking at it all wrong. Blogs and bloggers are, for the most part, lovers of books who wish to communicate that love to the world. The infectious enthusiasm that we have for sharing books may not be immediately measurable in terms of pounds and pence. But in terms of helping to build a buzz or develop a profile – less quantifiable goals but increasingly important to publisher and authors in our digital age – blogs and their associated social media presences are vital ways of getting the word out. And I’m sure there are blog tour organisers and publishers out there who can provide evidence of when this has then translated into sales.

By necessity, this post is a very brief overview of some very complex debates. I haven’t, for example, really touched on the role of blog tour organisers because I feel there are others working in that role who can outline that far better than I can – the wonderful Anne Cater, for example, put up a fantastic Twitter thread that persuasively (and passionately) argued in favour of bloggers, blog tours and tour organisers. Nor have I looked at the need for publisher support and promotion in relation to blog posts and tours, or the fact that many bloggers are avid readers and purchasers of books before they even start writing about them.  And I’ve stayed well clear of the thorny issue of  receiving ‘free’ books and ‘professional integrity’ which is a whole different ball game and one that has been ably discussed by Drew over at The Tattooed Book Geek here.

I do hope however that this post has provided some food for thought. I can only speak for myself but I don’t run The Shelf as anything other than a passion project. I aim to be professional but, ultimately, The Shelf isn’t my business – it’s my downtime. If I have ‘influence’ and can get the word out there about books I love then that’s great but I didn’t start doing this to be influential. I’m doing it because I love books and I love writing about books and having conversations about books and authors that I love with like-minded bookish folk like you.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts so please do drop me a comment down below or come say hi over on Twitter. And, until next time…

Happy Reading! x