What Book Clubs Want: A Dear John Letter To Publishers

person reading book on lap in bed

Article for Inprint, The Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, April 2010.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the time has passed for gathering in the flesh and talking with our tongues about ideas and stories. Today, Richard & Judy tell us what to read and we tap our political sentiments with heavy venom out on F-a-c-e-b-o-o-k till our fingers are red, only to forget about them when we log off.

In days of yore literary folk were oft found gathered in coffee houses conversing with Dryden about his latest work. They smoked from clay pipes on languid balconies that overhung the Thames. They drank from delicate china dishes as they gave impassioned political diatribes and read from broadsheets, the audience simultaneously engaging, countering, brimming with wit and guffawing with laugher. But don’t flood your keyboard with tears just yet, though the era of conversational society has passed, the saviour of the salon tradition is….the humble book club.

Let’s start by dispelling a few myths about book clubs. They aren’t just founded by bored housewives looking for an innovative way of getting the dust off the book shelves that doesn’t involve JFL infomercials. Well, at least our book club isn’t. Like many great ideas, Trash Fiction Book Club was founded, at about 3am on a Saturday morning. I was languidly smoking a Marlborough Light on a patio that overhung some forgotten part of south London when the topic of conversation meandered from the inane garbling of the hour to that of books. Conversation got heated, passionate, and we embraced almost tearful, at the knowledge that someone else loved the same book as us. It dawned upon those present in that auspicious living room that we all really enjoyed talking about books, particularly titles we’d all read, so why not do it more often? We chose a venue, set a date and were off. It really was that easy. Two years later and we were drinking from delicate wine glasses in a place called Trash Palace (obviously we opted for a bar rather than a Café Nero) discussing the best and worst of what we’d read .  If we were to compile this data (table included below) into a list of pleas and praises for you publishers it would look something like this:

Dear Publishers,

We at Trash Fiction would like you to know what you’ve done right over the past few years, but while we’re here we’ll also highlight times you’ve gone a bit wrong. We love it when you commission excellently written original narratives that communicate believable protagonists with an innate humanness. This is what we live for. But we hate pretentious writing that strives to be too brilliant; it usually fails because it lacks honesty. We also love authors with powerful imaginations and can excuse characters that aren’t quite as well developed (sorry Neil) provided the story told is original and vividly described.

We hate over-hyped books and will only mistrust your judgement if you insist on plastering covers with misleading taglines. That said, we’ve fallen for it a few times but our faith in you has been pretty shaken since The Lace Reader debacle. Don’t get us wrong, we want to help you discover new authors; in fact we would rather read a new book by a new author than a rehashed and modernised version of a classic even if it is by a big name (Will Self does not equal Oscar Wilde). Many of us come to book club to experience writing we wouldn’t normally approach on our own, but again, if we don’t trust you, how can we discover new things?

We’d like to note that we’re not cowards. We like to experiment. To date we’ve read plays, graphic novels, romance, horror, hardboiled detective fiction and even feminist sci-fi rants. It’s just that all our top reads have all been recommendations from friends. Those on the naughty list have arisen when we’ve taken a chance on a review, a tag line or worse, because the cover looked good. And whilst this may have helped your profit margin, does it help you in the long run? The reading public averages about 3 book purchases a year, we buy a minimum of 12 and our shelves are crammed with more. We are the compulsive book buyers, the owlish train-readers and the feverish bedtime page turners. Though we may be few in number, by god can we talk! And we have talked, to our friends, families, anyone with ears, and some with paws and tails. And people do listen because they know how much we read and because they trust our judgement.

Ideally, we’d like to be able to trust you like our friends trust us, but we’ve been jaded too many times. This said, we do appreciate it when you put in extra effort; so when you publish an edition that has a series of questions for book clubs we will reward you with sales. We’d also be keen to get involved with any literary events you’re hosting, but we don’t know when they’re happening. To be honest, we’re pretty convinced you don’t know we exist on an individual level even though the internet must have made this possible.

You give corporeal form to the words we love, but really, we could get on better. Go on, let’s build bridges out of words.

Yours longingly,

Trash Fiction Book Club.

PS. Like most human beings, we aren’t impenetrable to bribes, and could possibly grow to love you again, should you wish to give us free copies, provided they’re not utter rot.

PPS. Organising a symposium of book clubs to launch several new authors – now there’s an idea – you can have that for free.

Books we adored

1)   Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett, Serpent’s Tail

=2) Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman, Headline Review

=2) The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks, Abacus

=4) Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer, Penguin

=4) A Concise Chinese-English Dictonary for Lovers – Xiaolu Guo, Vintage

Books we abhored

1)      Dorian – Will Self, Penguin

2)      On Beauty – Zadie Smith, Penguin

3)      New York Trilogy – Paul Auster, Faber

4)      A Violent Life – Pier Paolo Pasolini, Carcanet

5)      The Lace Reader – Brunonia Barry, HarperPress

Trash Fiction Book Club currently meets monthly at The White Horse pub in Brixton. For more details you can find us on Facebook groups under ‘Trash Fiction’.

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