Archive for January, 2013

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ literature: Why the Iliad is mere chick-lit

By Laura A Lacey, on 26 January 2013

By Swéta Rana, future sheet music publisher.

“The importance of the critical faculty in the publisher’s reader dwindled, while the faculty of gauging the public mind and guessing what would sell became increasingly valuable … a purely commercial affair” – Encyclopaedia Britannica 11, 1911


Publishing was given a damning indictment in 1911. Apparently fiction publishers have little to no regard for literary merit, instead seeking to make money from undiscerning readers who, it seems, will read any old thing. Greedy, conniving publishers churn out mind-numbing material for financial gain. The common intellect is dying, and publishers don’t give a damn – in fact, they’re savouring it.

This description of publishing relies on the concept of quality. There must be a distinction between literature of great quality which is intellectually stimulating to readers, and that of lower quality which is intellectually stunting. Shakespeare has to be more worthwhile than a book by, say, Sophie Kinsella – it is of higher quality, intrinsically ‘better’. There is an immutable difference between good and bad writing, and the publishers’ mass output of popular writing is, seemingly, bad.

In Ancient Greece, Plato declared a similar stance. Deriding emotional poetry which stirred the passions, he claimed that such literature was harmful – it steered people away from pure philosophical truths, which can’t be reached through emotions. It was bad writing, sheer entertainment. In contrast, he named other literature good, but only that which directed readers towards truth (such as, funnily enough, his own works).

The epics of Homer, Hesiod and others that Plato dismissed as low quality are now almost universally regarded as the pinnacle of great intellectual reading. Yet, seen as reliant on sentiment and relatable situations, they were practically the chick-lit of Plato’s day. ‘Quality’ is too subjective to declare as truly inherent in any piece of literature. These once scorned poems are now held up as classics. And it isn’t simply time that changes perception, either. Yann Martel’s agent Derek Johns claims modern masterpiece Life of Pi was initially rejected by at least five major publishing houses, and Penguin editor Simon Prosser admitted to being one of those who disliked the manuscript: “I hold up my hand. Taste is very subjective.”

Simon is right – taste is very subjective. Someone might prefer Sophie Kinsella’s warm, relatable stories to Shakespeare, just as another might dislike Life of Pi, or reject Homer as poor writing. Whilst it is true that the majority will often agree on certain things – for example, that Romeo and Juliet is better than Confessions of a Shopaholic – these claims are not unshakeable. It’s conceivable for Kinsella to be as greatly regarded as Homer; the thought is perhaps as unthinkable to us as reverence of Homer would have been to Plato.Sophie Kinsella - The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic

The notions of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reside in an entirely subjective realm. The quality of literature lies in how different people react to writing. These individuals unite to form a market which can publishers analyse, and fit production of material to. If publishing is commercial, this is because taste, quality and artistic merit are all somewhat commercial too. They are not unwavering attributes, but are decided by many subjective viewpoints coming together. Books cannot be ‘good’ or bad’ until people decide what they think of them.

Where To Go In Europe – News Update!

By Samantha J Rayner, on 25 January 2013

Congratulations to Porcelain Press (Natalie, Francie, Hannah, Paige, and David) for their winning cover design for Where To Go In Europe.  The team’s ideas (which will feature here in more detail shortly!) won them high praise from one of the authors of the book, Professor Wendy Bracewell, who said their work was “particularly terrific (out of a whole series of really attractive options)”.  The team each win a £15 book token.  Wendy commented that the whole class were “all wonderfully imaginative and professional” and that she is “really looking forward” to the next stages.

This will involve everyone in the cohort having the chance to take on a role in the production and promotion of the book, with a deadline for publication of Easter.  Look out for more news on this project in the coming weeks!

An Appreciation for Indexing

By Laura A Lacey, on 22 January 2013

By Stacey Riley, an Aspiring Agent

Did you assume that indexes were computer generated? Me too!

This week the UCL MA Publishing class was given a talk by guest speaker Ann Kingdom from the Society of Indexers. She delivered an interesting and detailed presentation on how an index and indexers work.

Indexing is one of the final stages of the production process and indexers are often squeezed for time, having to produce their work under pressure. Ann defines an index as being ‘a structured sequence – resulting from a thorough and complete analysis of text – of synthesised access points to all the information contained in the text.’ It is this ‘thorough and complete analysis of the text’ t
Ideally, an indexer should be familiar with the subject of the book he or she is working on. Indexers often have high academic qualifications or industry experience in the specialised area. They are required to read the text and, using their skills and knowledge, decide what to index and what terms to use. Unlike a full-text search, which retrieves too much information, an index tells you the most important references and indicates which aspect of the topic is dealt with. Indexers also bring together synonyms and metonyms used in the text.hat requires human intellect and decision making that a computer isn’t (yet?) capable of.

The decisions made by the indexer have to fulfil users’ needs. For example, they might have to consider which is more user friendly: ‘strings’ or subheadings.

Clegg, Nick 110–112, 115–116, 120–125, 126, 135–144, 150, 152, 159, 165–172, 187


Clegg, NickSociety of Indexers: Information from A to Z education 110–112, 115–116
family background 120–125, 152
language skills 126, 150
as MEP 135–139
as MP 140–144
as party leader 165–172, 187
television appearances 140, 159, 166, 171

They may also be required to edit their index, whether this is because of limited page allowance for the index specified by the publisher, or because the index is not as efficient as it could be. The above entry, for example, could be edited to combine subheadings as below:

Clegg, Nick
education 110–12, 115–16
family background 120–5, 152
language skills 126, 150
political career 135–44, 165–72, 187
TV appearances 140, 159, 166, 171

Ann also gave out some examples of ‘how not to do an index’. This included one that was simply an alphabetical list of every recipe that appeared in a soup cookbook – and, as a result, wasn’t very useful. If you had a particular ingredient you wanted to use, you would have to read through the entire list to see which soups contained that ingredient.

Additionally, Ann also mentioned the occurrence of circular referencing in some indexes. For example:

Geese, wild see wild geese
Wild geese see geese, wild

This too is of no use to the user, apart from creating a bit of humour!

For more information, see the Society of Indexers’ website and The Indexer: The international Journal of Indexing


By Laura A Lacey, on 18 January 2013

There has been much discussion in the press recently of ‘sick-lit’, sparked by the popularity of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars. The Daily Mail (obviously known for its balanced and considered opinions) dubbed the genre ‘a disturbing phenomenon‘, suggesting that these stories, which follow characters through terminal illnesses, are gratuitously shocking and that publishers are exploiting children’s emotions, rather than having their best interests at heart.

Having worked with teenagers as a Youth Theatre tutor, I am very aware that young adults need to be given the opportunity to express and experience emotions in a safe space; for me, this was through drama and books. My friends and I were lucky enough to have a wonderful drama tutor who let us explore all sorts of extreme scenarios. For a couple of hours a week as teenagers, we were all dying of some horrible disease, being bullied, self-harming, having sex and planning suicides – this may sound morbid, but exploring these ideas together certainly helped us deal with them in real life. I also had several fabulous teachers who pointed me in the direction of great books that deal with the same awful issues.

So I believe that publishers and authors of young adult (or YA) fiction are absolutely considering the consumer. Our teenage years are our most formative and emotional, where we thrive on dramatic situations. Young adults should be exploring the issues raised by these books – sexuality, illness, death, self-harm, suicide – because this is a vital part of their education and books such as these encourage communication.

Perhaps these critics are too old to remember that as young adults every emotion is an extreme one: the rush and exhilaration of first love, inevitably followed by the devastation of first loss. These books help young adults realise that they are not alone. As scary as these emotions may be, they are not unique in experiencing them, and they are only temporary. This is the driving force for most authors of YA, to reach out to their readers in support. Books that deal with life and death help teenagers to contextualize their own feelings; getting dumped by a boyfriend may seem like the end of the world, but these books offer hope and a reminder that things could certainly be worse!

John Green’s book is now on the Richard and Judy book club. The King and Queen of bookselling clearly see its value, praising it as ‘honest, charming, raw and deeply moving’. As long as authors and publishers ensure sensitivity and realism, these novels will continue to fascinate, enlighten and help young adults navigate through the complicated world in which we live.

Foyles Visit: “The joy of a good bookshop is discovery” (Bill Samuel)

By Samantha J Rayner, on 9 January 2013

Last night saw us crossing town to visit Foyles, and hear Bill Samuel speak about the bookshop’s past, present and future. An entertaining speaker, Bill gave us a verbal tour of some of the bookshop’s historical highlights:  for instance, that Christina Foyle used copies of Mein Kampfinstead of sandbags to help bomb-proof the flat roof of the shop during the Second World War, and that she wrote to Hitler to suggest that if he was burning books, he might like to send them to Foyles instead!  He was candid about life in a family business, and emphasised that trial and error was an integral part of learning what makes for success.  Foyles is not just a bookshop – they have tried all sorts of enterprises to generate more revenue:  sheet music, musical instruments, literary lunches, book clubs, film production and even aeroplanes!  “The book trade has always been in turmoil,” Bill said.  There is nothing new about the current arguments for the future of the book – these have been going on for centuries.  What the book trade seems to be extremely good at, and what Foyles exemplifies, is responding to the need to constantly innovate to refresh offerings and exploit readers’ appetite for all things book-(and culture) related.  In the 1990s Foyles seemed to be dying on its feet, but now it is a successful iconic destination for book-lovers, and looks set to take on the future with an assured optimism.

Outside the shop at the moment are giant hoardings, with a cartoon representation of the history of the shop. These images are amazing, and worth a trip to view (see http://www.johnmiers.com/Foylescomic/).

Foyles are about to relocate to the Central St Martin’s School of Art site, which will enable them to almost double square footage, and they are using this opportunity to completely redesign the layout and presentation of their stock.  In conjunction with The Bookseller, they will be holding workshops in February, allowing readers and book trade people to discuss their ideas for how the bookshop of the future should look.  The response to this idea has been overwhelming, (for details see: http://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/future-bookshop.html) and it will be one to keep track of in coming weeks…