Prison or Schools. Any difference?

I just finished reading a great article by author Robert Hough in the March 2014 issue of Quill & Quire, called “Book Club Behind Bars”. In it, he talked about being invited to Millhaven Penitentiary to do a book talk to prisoners. It was insightful (his visit was postponed four times due to unforeseen circumstances such as contraband being found in a cell and the prison being closed to outsiders), informative (some of the prisoners had actually read his books), and terrifying (he was led through several series of locked doors and finally locked inside the library with the prisoners for his discussion). It was an eye-opener, for sure.


Strangely enough, it reminded me of many visits I’ve made to schools over the years to do book presentations. While I haven’t had the experience of being locked in anywhere, security is tight on schools now and most times, you have to be buzzed into the school and sign in at the front office. I applaud this type of security. Seems like anyone could have walked in and out of schools during my youth. It’s a wonder there weren’t more issues back then.

Once in the schools, the audience can be quite intimidating. Usually the younger set is open to any kind of presentation about books–I think they’re just happy to have a few minutes outside of the classroom. But if you don’t capture them with your presentation immediately, good luck roping them in over the next ten or fifteen minutes.  (Hint: bring props!) And I must admit, some of the best questions have come from this type of audience. They’re not afraid to tell you what they had for lunch, how much they hated the book you’re holding up, or if they like your shoes. They’ll tell you how the last time they came to the library, they weren’t allowed to take out books because their fines were too big. They’ll ask you if you remember them from the last time you were there….and make you prove it by asking you to say their name. And they’ll confess they never read at all, much to the chagrin of their teachers.

It’s the older kids that could really give those inmates a run for their money when it comes to feeling intimidated. While Hough mentioned that most of the inmates weren’t what he was expecting, I think kids can be surprising. While we might expect boys to be the most unruly in a group setting, often it’s the girls who can’t stop chatting. It much more difficult to grab their attention than the boys, too. Older kids have different questions, too. I must admit, during one (mostly) successful presentation, a boy piped up near the end and asked how much money I made. This led to a whole host of other questions along those lines (Who paid my salary? Did I ever get a raise? Is it good to be a librarian?). Needless to say, by the end of that session, I was pretty much tongue-tied.

While I’ll probably never need to venture out to a prison to do a presentation, the similarities between those institutions and schools can be quite surprising. If you’re in the library, don’t forget to stop and read the latest issue of Quill & Quire, which is housed on the back shelves with the magazines.




Have a platform, but don’t use it!

Recently, I read an article by Quill & Quire editor Stuart Woods, about a problem during the recent Canada Reads event and it got me thinking about how social media is both wonderful and terrible at the same time.

This year, the Canada Reads competition featured only non-fiction books. When her book was eliminated from the contest, author Marina Nemat went right online to defend her book, demanding an apology from panelist Anne-France Goldwater, who had characterized Nemat’s book PRISONER OF TEHRAN as untruthful and un-Canadian. It’s an author’s right to defend their work, however, Nemat’s comments on Facebook were quite demonstrative and started a wave of people weighing in. Whether or not Goldwater’s comments were uncalled for, Nemat dove into the quagmire before thinking. And she is by no means the first (or last) writer to do so.

Authors receive many reviews for their books, often good and bad, but the recent use of social media is making for instant, and sometimes harsh, reactions. Non-fiction authors are  required to have what is known as a “platform” for their work,  before their books are even published. (Non-fiction is typically harder to sell, unless the author is a celebrity or the topic is controversial, so having a ready-made audience before being published would hopefully sell more books.) A platform can consist of a blog or website, a Facebook page or Twitter feed, and often, all of the above.  What makes this both good and bad is that the general public now has instant access to authors, and not only can they say whatever they like to the author,  the author can respond.  This is where things are getting tricky.

In the past, if an author received a negative review for their book, there was very little recourse to responding in public (unless they published a letter to the editor in a magazine or newspaper, etc.) It took time.  But, like any negative interaction, this allowed the author to carefully form an opinion, craft exactly what they wanted to say, and more importantly–sleep on it!!  So many things seem less harsh in the morning. And even if, in the light of day, the sentiment still hurt, there was time to think about the response.  Remember, once something is out there in print (and this is even more important when talking about the internet), it is there forever.  You can’t take it back.  So, a once-careful response now becomes a few tossed off careless thoughts in the world of instant social media that can get someone into trouble.

This is true for “regular” people as well.

While interaction on Facebook and Twitter will hardly pass as conversation, it does count as dialog.  This can be healthy or destructive. And in a world where authors want to sell their books, having the ability to interact so quickly in real time might be quite damaging to their mission. Being able to “talk” with an author about their book is a wonderful, wonderful thing, and it certainly makes the world a smaller place. But I wonder if we’re all just a little too close now?

What do you think?  Are some authors going too far when responding to harsh critiques of their work online? Should they have a platform, but not use it?

The future of Bookstores?

I was reading through the latest issue of Quill & Quire and came across a fascinating article by Claude Lalumiere about the bookstores of the future.  Right now, bookstores order books, they are shipped to the store and if all copies are not sold, they either return them to the seller or sell them at greatly reduced prices.  There is a lot of space required to house the books as well as the cost of returns, not to mention the environmental issue of paper needed.  So how can we change the pattern?

Lalumiere writes about bookstores that require very little space, zero returns and little effect on the environment.  How is that possible?  Print on demand books.  Imagine people waiting like they would at a coffee shop, selecting their chosen book from a large electronic menu and then having the book printed right there while they wait.  Sound like science fiction?  Actually, people are doing this right now with the help of a machine called the Espresso Book Machine.  The machines are costly, about $170, 000US  and currently they can only print a selection of books such as self-published books and obscure titles due to the formatting, but many more publishers are starting to make digital records of their books so that it will be possible in the future to use these machines.

Right now, the machines are mainly being used in places such as large universities (many Canadian Universities are using them already)  where the content is easy to transfer.  Owners claim that the machines print in great quality and the costs to run them are very minimal.  They also say the high price tag to purchase the machine is easily made up for when charging for the books.  One such owner charges 7 cents per page printed, but it only costs him about 1 cent per page so the markup is huge.

The environmental savings on this alone should be enough for the machines to be explored and currently, they are working on smaller, better versions at lower costs so that more people can take advantage of the savings.  There is lots of potential for online stores but the idea of a physical store is something that we probably can’t escape.  One of the best things about going to a bookstore is being able to browse the shelves and see the books.  Right now, stores can offer sample copies for their customers as well as computer catalogs, so at least the idea is there to view the books.

I think this is a really interesting concept and one which should be developed as quickly as possible for all books.  The environmental factor here needs to be addressed and to keep bookstores modern, because really, we’ll always want books to read, more titles need to be made available.  There are obvious questions about copyright issues and royalties, but I would think that these could be solved easily enough.  You can see more about the Espresso Book Machine at OnDemandBooks .

Would you go to a bookstore like this?

Should books go on a diet?

Are books getting too long?  Often, writers are sticking us with books that are 400 – 600 pages and this can be both good and bad for the reader.  On the good side, if we are enjoying a book, it’s nice to have a long story so that we can live with the book for some time.  On the bad side, however, it becomes difficult for older people to hold longer and therefore heavier books, and since many people read in bed, a huge book becomes a hindrance sometimes.  So are books too long?

Scott MacDonald wrote a fascinating article in the book magazine “Quill & Quire” about the length of books being published in Canada right now.  “The End of the Alphabet”  by C. S. Richardson which was published by Doubleday Canada recently became a surprise hit, many believe due to the fact that it was such a short book….only 160 pages long.  Over this past year, MacDonald says that Canadian publishers put out only a handful of novels that were around the 160 page length of the Richardson book, and only a few dozen more that came in under 300 pages.  The vast majority of Canadian fiction (and probably fiction in general) is between 300 – 450 pages.  “Books are as long as they need to be,” one publisher believes.  But why are the little books making such a surprising showing?

Our society today is so busy that many people just don’t have the time to read a really long book, or they can’t commit to something long if it is going to take them ages to read.  We are an instant society, and short books fit really well into that mind frame.  They must be good books, however, and not feel as though they have been deliberately shortened.

This summer, our student page Stephen was taking an English course to get ahead in his studies this year.  He doesn’t love English, so it was a bit of a search when his teacher asked him to pick and book to read for a report.  He wanted something good, but something really short so that he could read it and get on with the report.  He could have used this book:

The World’s Best Thin Books to Read When Your Book Report is Due Tomorrow, by Joni Richards Bodart

Supposedly, it is a list compiled by teacher and librarians for students who need a really good, intelligent, worthwhile book to read for a project. Not a bad idea at all, when many students are not assigned specific books to read.  Thinner is not always better, but thin books are great when you are in a pinch.

I have read many long books and probably quite a few short books as well. There is a certain satisfaction to finishing a really long novel, but getting through a nice, tiny book in only a few hours can also be very good for the ego.  But just as we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we also shouldn’t judge a book based on the page count. What do you think?