Interview with Bob Topp of Read Me A Story, Ink

A couple of years ago, I received an email from the US with an intriguing request: would I agree to allow two of my stories originally published back in the 90’s–Cry Wolf, published in the Omnibus Books anthology, Amazing, and The Clever Thief, published in Cricket Magazine–to be included in an index of great read-aloud stories on a website specifically designed for the purpose? Both made excellent read-alouds in schools, bookseller and reader Bob Topp told me, inviting me to check out his website, Read Me A Story, Ink. After visiting this very impressive website, I was more than happy to agree–it’s a fabulous resource and I was glad my stories would be included in it–and as five-star reads, what’s more! Recently, Bob’s been in touch again regarding new developments, and acquiring another couple of my stories (The Magic Carpet, and The Old Woman and the Imp) for the site. Of course I was happy to agree once more–and also thought readers might like to know more about Bob and his fantastic site, which does so much to encourage the joys of reading great stories aloud. It’s a great interview–read on!

Bob, your wonderful website, Read Me A Story, Ink (and what a great name!) is obviously a labour of love. Can you tell me about how and when it started? What gave you the idea?

I started reading in Bergen Elementary School in our home town of Evergreen, Colorado when our older son, Harrison, was in second grade. His class was doing a unit on frontier America and we had just finished reading a children’s biography of American legend Davy Crockett at home. I offered to come and read a chapter to the class and soon found myself reading weekly. The next year, I started with our younger son’s class as well. After they both moved on to middle school – they are now 28 and 30 – a few of their teachers asked me if I would like to continue, so I began visiting a few classes once a month. At that interval, there wasn’t the continuity or time for chapter books so I started to collect short stories. After a few years and enough anthologies, I realized I couldn’t remember what story was in which book so I created an index for my own use. When the index reached six or seven hundred entries, it occurred to me that it would make a useful tool for parents and teachers and a friend helped me design a rudimentary website. Over the years the site has grown in numerous directions. I added recommended reading lists, printable stories, both public domain and for which I had the author’s permission, links to other great children’s sites and most recently I have started recording some of the stories. The core index is now over 1500 records and I estimate that I have read eight to ten thousand short stories.

How does the site work? What has it achieved so far, and what are your goals for it for the future?

My designer and I have tried to keep the site simple and very user friendly. Each record on the index includes a plot summary, age level, subject category and the source where I found the story. If there is a printable or audio version there are tabs beneath the record inviting the user to print or listen to the story. Also, if the author has a website, there is a link to that site so that the user can find out more about the author and what else she or he has written. The index can be searched by category, author or keyword making it easy to find appropriate stories for the user’s needs. Recommended reading lists and links to other children’s sites are all easily accessible. At the moment I don’t foresee any different intent for readmeastoryink.com, just a constant expansion of resources as I discover new stories and contact more authors.

What has the response been like, both from children and schools, and from writers whose stories are listed?

Response has been very positive from all quarters. Parents have mentioned that they use the recommended reading lists while teachers gravitate towards the printable stories. In one thank you letter from a fifth grader, she wrote, “ as I am writing this letter, we are listening to one of Mr. Topp’s stories.”  A function on the site’s administrative panel allows me to view the IP addresses of people, bots or institutions who have viewed the site and frequently the IP address is a school district. Authors seem appreciative of having their stories available and, write to say that they enjoy the recordings of their stories as well. I can also access information on how many times a specific story has been “viewed” on the web in a month. Most stories have been clicked on between one and two hundred times each month. Unfortunately there is no way to know if those views are individuals, school districts or bots that are simply out there roaming the web universe.

How do you choose stories which will be good for reading aloud? What are you looking for, in a story?

I choose approximately one out of every six or seven stories that I read. The first and most important criterion is whether I like the story. If I like it, that enjoyment will translate in the reading aloud and in most cases the kids will like it as well, though I have been amused over the years to note the difference between reading to myself and reading aloud. Occasionally stories that I love fall flat when read aloud for inexplicable reasons while stories that I hesitate to read become all time favorites when I read them aloud. I also tailor the story to the grade. I read 30 minutes to third graders and 45 minutes to fifth graders with the stories frequently chosen by theme for the month (ie., Holidays, Black History Month, Women’s History Month and always, Dragons for November). Ultimately I can’t escape my own biases which are in the direction of positive stories with at least one character who can be a role model. Humor also creeps into many of the stories that I read.

You are now, with writers’ full permission, making stories available both in print form and in audio form as read-aloud. What has been the response to that?

Without a doubt the printable stories page is the most visited page on the site. I assume this is because both parents and teachers are finding readily available material for reading aloud or as suggested reading to their children or students. Authors, parents and friends have all given me positive feedback on the recordings but since there are far fewer recordings than stories that are available to print, they haven’t gained the same traction.

Do you still go into schools yourself to read aloud?

Yes! I currently read to 14 classes, first through fifth grades, and have no plans to stop. I begin reading for the new year in a few weeks and I am already getting excited about what to read first and mulling over what new stories I have discovered and what month of the year would be best for their first reading.

Are you interested in hearing from writers about stories that might be suitable for Read Me A Story, Ink?

That is a very difficult question for me and one that I have frequently contemplated. As it is right now, I read a story that I like and ask the author’s permission to make it available. If I started receiving short stories that I hadn’t read, I would be in the position of having to reject some – something for which my personality is not suited. I do currently offer two previously unpublished stories that were offered to me and I have to admit that I am very proud to make them available. So, I guess the answer to your question is an unequivocal yes and no 🙂

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Writers reviewing books–an interview with Linda Newbery, Celia Rees and Adele Geras

Book reviewing is a real art, and one that in the last ten years or so has undergone many changes. In the past, most book reviews were published in print—in newspapers and magazines, as well as, occasionally on radio and TV. But today, as space in newspapers and magazines has shrunk, most book reviews are published online, on specialised sites, online publications, and blogs.

Today I’m interviewing three distinguished UK authors, Linda Newbery, Celia Rees and Adele Geras, who together have created a great new book review blog, called WritersReview. I was asked to be a guest reviewer on the blog recently, was intrigued by the concept, and wanted to know more!

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Left to right: Linda, Celia and Adele

Can you tell me about how and why you started WritersReview?

Linda: Recently I added a blog to my own website. I’d never had a blog before but I liked the idea of using mine for reviews, with maybe a post of two about my own work in progress or backlist titles, and contributions from writer friends. When I mentioned this to Celia, she came up with the better idea of a joint review blog. This appealed at once, as I knew that a joint blog would reach more readers and attract more contributors than I’d achieve on my own. Next time Celia and I met, we talked about how to organise the blog and decided to invite Adele to join us, knowing that she reads widely and enjoys reviewing.

All three of us have published widely for children and young adults but are now writing adult fiction, and our reviewing here is a way of extending our range. Collectively we have a great many contacts, which should make it easy to keep things turning over.

Celia: Linda and I don’t live too far from each other and we meet up every now again for a writerly chat. During one of our talks.  We started talking about reviewing, specifically online reviewing.  We both agreed that good reviewing sites were few and far between and that much of the reviewing was poor and unfair. We were both taken with the possibility of setting up a review site where writers could review other writers. Writers tend to be keen readers and are often experienced reviewers and would offer fairer, more balanced and better informed reviews than many to be found online. Linda went away and came back with some ideas for the review site. She suggested we invite Adele to join us as she’s an avid and omnivorous reader and highly respected reviewer. We would each invite other authors to make guest posts, to add variety, keep the posts current and gradually build the site. Adele and I are both History Girls and are familiar with Blogger, so that was the site we chose to use. Linda did the hard work, designing and setting up the site, sorting out teething problems and posting the first reviews.

Adele: It was really Linda’s brainchild and when she asked me to join in, and mentioned that she was asking no Celia too, I was really delighted. I’ve long felt that there were too few outlets for people’s opinions about books. Newspaper reviews and much that’s online concentrates on the eye catching, the best-selling, the obvious. Linda made her offer seem attractive by telling us we can write about what enthuses us, whatever it might be.

Another of her good ideas was to give us a chance to invite other writers to contribute as well. She did all the heavy lifting, setting up the site and making sure it looks as good as it does.

What is your vision for the site? And how do you think it might develop?

Linda: I’d like it to be wide-ranging and friendly. We, and our guests, can choose anything we like to review – anything, that is, other than children’s books (not because we have anything against them but because there are plenty of other sites that specialise in children’s). I’d like to include biography, nature writing and other non-fiction, possibly poetry – whatever we or our guests want to write about. And the books don’t have to be newly-published – part of the point is for writers to share their own enthusiasms and draw attention to books that have inspired or influenced them, or deserve to be read more widely.

I hope, as we go on, that we’ll build up a list of regular guests and that maybe people will even approach us, wanting to contribute. I hope, too, that readers will comment on our reviews and add their own opinions.

I’d love it if our blog became known and respected and if we saw our reviews quoted in publicity releases!

Adele: I’m hoping it’s the sort of site readers might go to a) to see what we’d enjoyed b) to get ideas about what they might enjoy c) to be able to comment freely about what they saw there.

Celia: From the first, we decided to review books for adults, rather than children’s or YA. That was the only rule. I guess we hope that the site will attract people who are interested in what we have to say about the books we review and to counterbalance some of the ill-informed and occasionally malicious reviews to be found in other places online. I would like to see Writers Review become a site that readers can trust and use as a guide to books that they might want to read.

How do you choose books for review? Are there types or genres of books you particularly want to concentrate on?

Linda: Many of the books won’t be chosen by us, but by our guests. We won’t, on the whole, allocate titles to reviewers, though there may be some exceptions.  I hope contemporary fiction will be well to the fore, but we’ll see how things develop without our intervention.

Celia: Other than the books have to be for adults, we can review what we like, any genre, fiction or non-fiction. The books can be newly published or old favourites. There is no pressure to review current books. Our choices are made on our own preferences, what we might be reading at the time, work we admire, books that we have enjoyed and think other readers might like, too.

Adele: It’s about sharing enthusiasms. Fiction or non-fiction, but books for adults. We are known mainly as children’s or YA writers, but wanted to go outside our perceived boundaries.

What do you think of the current situation for book reviewing today, against the background of the contemporary publishing climate?

Celia: I think that there has been a marked falling away in the standard of reviewing. The broadsheet newspapers remain the gold standard but book review space continues to be squeezed. The plethora of online reviewing sites is patchy at best and can be downright destructive and malicious. Real reviewing appears to be a dying art. Too few reviewers understand that a good review is more than an exhaustive synopsis and a few subjective opinions, or arbitrary judgements based on personal preferences, or trivial concerns like print quality or length. We have all seen shocking examples of books condemned, their star rating brought down for the most irrelevant and trivial of reasons and behind that is always the lurking spectre of sock puppetry. I’m also uneasy about the possible influence of the big publishing houses through the blandishments of their publicity departments, particularly on book bloggers. We might be swimming against a tsunami but I don’t think readers like to feel manipulated (I certainly don’t) and I hope that a site like ours might be trusted and valued by readers and publishers alike.

Adele: I think it’s very patchy. I’m not 100% sure how much reviews contribute to the success of a given book, but am sorrowfully concluding: not very much! How otherwise to account for so many LOW LOW sales for extremely well-reviewed books?

Linda: It seems that publishers have come to value review blogs, with space for print reviews so much in demand, and that online reviewing can be quite influential in passing on word-of-mouth recommendations. In the press, some books are widely reviewed while others get no coverage at all, and might as well be invisible. The ‘blog tour’ for a new book is now quite common, even for high-profile authors. So a blog like ours is likely to be appreciated by authors as well as by publishers.

An interview with Sandra Teles of City Writers Room

STeles_miniFinding opportunities to connect with readers, and overcoming a feeling of isolation, are twin challenges in the early stages of a writing career, when you are still finding your feet–and your voice! Recently, an informal writers’ group formed in London(of which my son Xavier is a member) launched an enterprise to rise to the challenge of both those things: City Writers’ Room, a curated blog site showcasing their writing, starting with narrative non-fiction. Today, I talk to Sandra Teles, one of the City Writers Room group, who also administers the site.

Sandra Teles is an actress and writer based in London after relocating from Los Angeles. Having worked with award winning actors and directors in Hollywood in areas of film, theatre, commercials and animation, she continues taking her experience to the field of writing. Sandra is currently working on a series of short stories.

First of all, congratulations to you and the other editors on the launch of City Writers Room! How did it start? And what were the challenges–and discoveries– you faced along the way to launching the site? 

Thank you for talking to us about our new venture. We attended a narrative non-fiction writing course at City University London last Summer. Many of us said we’d keep in touch, as most people hope to after they finish a course. Amanda Riddick took the initiative and got everyone together. Some of us continued to meet once a month to discuss our writing. Few months later, we talked about putting our writing on a kind of writers’ forum to critique it, giving each other feedback, etc. It very soon snowballed into creating our own blog. We discussed why we wanted to do this, who were we writing for, what were we going to write about? And finally, we settled on writing about city living — people, places, the challenges, the insights, topics hidden that we tend to deflect because they may not be mainstream.

Setting up the blog wasn’t too hard initially. However administering a site is proving to be a project in itself. The big challenge was finding the headroom to write consistently, and it still is. Many will agree the hardest part about writing is the discipline to write, actually sitting down patiently and being able to face a blank screen and not have anything coming to you — until it does.

You could also have viable ideas but they vanish quickly if you don’t write them down. There’s something to be said about scribbling on paper an idea that crosses your mind, or taking a photo of something that captures your imagination. It could give rise to a topic worth exploring. Ideas are abundant, but it’s a numbers game as only very few stick. So getting involved in this venture together has made us more attentive to those seeds of ideas.

DSC_0456City Writers Room is particularly focussed on narrative non-fiction writing about cities, in all kinds of aspects. Can you tell us more about that?

Since we worked on the narrative non-fiction course at City University, we’ve started with non-fiction, but intend to include fiction at some point. We’re still exploring topics that interest us like travel, history, politics, people, even film; and their relation to cities. I write fiction mostly; but it’s been a fruitful exercise reading and writing non-fiction. Both feed off each other so it would be a shame to not include fiction. The other writers in the team, (Carole Allsop, Xavier Masson-Leach, Ellen O’Hara and Amanda Riddick) have a strong point of view with regard to the non-fiction topics they choose to write about.

Can you tell us about how City Writers Room works, as a writing showcase?

We talked about City Writers Room being a forum for ideas, writing about people and places. In that we have the freedom to be as creative as we want so we can fine tune our craft as writers. We all have a voice and finding it takes time. We’ve all been writing in one way or another for years, but all of us felt ready to publish at this point in time. It does leave us feeling exposed but there’s comfort in knowing that we support each other in the endeavor.

And that we extend to other writers who would like to get involved with City Writers Room.

Your writers are all very different in their approach to writing. Can you expand on that?

We’re very lucky to have come together on this venture. All our styles are different which showcases more variety. We’re a team that has a similar ethos but our exposure is diverse. Interestingly, we’ve all traveled and lived in a number of cities. And although we have different interests, our strengths don’t clash, only complement. A couple of us really enjoy writing character profiles, so it might even lead to a further collaboration of some sort. For the time being, we are keeping things flexible. It’s an exciting time for all of us. There’s no expectation to be a particular kind of writer. We can stay true to our sensibilities and explore all kinds of writing styles if we want.

What’s the reaction of readers been like so far?

The feedback we’ve gotten has been hugely positive. We already have writers who’ve approached us to write articles for City Writers Room. That’s a big deal — when you get people excited to collaborate. Everyone has a story to tell and hopefully they see this as a platform to express those stories.

What does City Writers Room hope to achieve in the future?

It would be fantastic to bring together a community of writers (local to international) who are willing to share their stories. City Writers Room aims to uplift, entertain and even question the status quo. It would be great to build a space where writers can feel passionate about their work, feel like they can test their material to see what sticks. We’re taking small steps to get there and for now, we’re keeping an open mind as to the direction it might lead.

 

The Big Country Book Club: an interview with Bernadette Foley

bernadettefoleyThere are such interesting things going on in the book industry at the moment, and readers of this blog will know I’ve spoken to several industry professionals who have left corporate life to start exciting new enterprises. One I’ve discovered recently is a great initiative connecting authors and their books with readers, while using the opportunities of the virtual world to enhance real-world possibilities!  This is the Big Country Book Club, the brainchild of longtime editor and publisher Bernadette Foley, which launched this month, and today I’m talking to her about it.

First of all, Bernadette, congratulations on the recent launch of the Big Country Book Club! How did it start, and what prompted the idea?

Thank you very much, Sophie. The book club grew from a few ideas coming together. When my long service leave came up, after working in publishing for decades, I decided to try something new but still within the world of books. Also, I had taken part in regional workshops with the Queensland Writers Centre, which were very popular, and that led me to think about bringing author events to people in regional areas via an online community. Thirdly, a publishing friend told me about a bookshop in a small South Australian town that was thriving by selling books to readers in remote locations. I thought I would like to do that too. These were some of the thoughts that led to the development of BCBC.

The BCBC–what a great acronym, by the way!–seems like a very nice mix between the kind of publisher-based book clubs such as the old Doubleday book clubs, and the Scholastic book clubs still very popular with children today, crossed with the very popular idea of book club personal discussion that we see now. Is that a fair description or is there even more to it?bcbc-logo

Yes, that is a good way to describe BCBC (I’m glad you like the acronym!). Another feature is the small, carefully selected line-up of new releases I present each month. Instead of facing a huge range of titles, which many people find overwhelming, members pick a book from this curated selection. This is why some people have joined BCBC – they love reading but want help to find books they will enjoy.

I would also like to mention BCB Clubhouse – the book club and bookstore for children from babies up to the age of ten or eleven. It has all the features of BCBC but for children.

 I can imagine that setting up BCBC must have presented quite a few challenges–and occasioned quite a few discoveries!–along the way. Can you tell us about the journey towards launching the club?

Ah, yes! There are a million challenges – one is being patient. A new business doesn’t blossom overnight, and I secretly thought it would! A happy discovery, though, was finding that people are generous with offering moral support and ideas. Authors I have published over the years have written blog posts, publishers send review copies of books they think will suit the clubs, and Joy McKean, whose books I’ve published, was one of the first people to sign up as a member.

bcbclubhouse-logoHow do you go about choosing the books your members receive? Are there particular genres you focus on, for example?

I check the monthly catalogues from most of the small, medium and large publishing companies in Australia. Also, I am keen to include books from new publishers, such as Christmas Press and The Author People. I want a mix of fiction and non-fiction but beyond that I am open to choosing across genres. I don’t only pick books that I would personally enjoy! With my experience as a publisher, I select outstanding new titles for different reading tastes. For example, a book about revitalising Newcastle, Creating Cities, was popular with members, as was Joan London’s The Golden Age.

Tell us about what it would be like to be a member of BCBC. What can members expect?

What a nice question. People subscribe to become members and some received memberships as Christmas presents. Members go to BCBC’s site at the start of every month, read about the latest selection of books and choose one. They are all printed, not ebooks, and are posted to members’ letterboxes, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. On the site there are blog posts and competitions; members can share their thoughts on the books they’ve read and join online conversations. Also, members who are writers can post issues they are having with their manuscripts on the Writers Forum and other members and I will offer suggestions to overcome the problem and give some feedback on the writing.

BCB Clubhouse members can also read blogs from authors, take part in activities, competitions, and choose a book every month.

Connecting books–and authors– directly with readers is the ‘holy grail’ of all sectors of the book industry, of course. How do you see the role of new enterprises like BCBC in this?

Australia has great books, devoted readers and hardworking, talented authors. Those of us in these new enterprises have to think laterally to find the best ways to bring the three together. One of my goals for BCBC is to create a community where we share thoughts about what we have read and meet authors, on the site and through events and tours. This community should be fun, engaging and interesting, otherwise people will spend their time elsewhere.

There are many interesting and lateral-minded initiatives happening within the industry at the moment: including those driven by people who like yourself and Lou Johnson of The Author People, have had long careers in publishing. Why do you think this is happening?

Also, your Christmas Press Picture Books, Sophie. The children’s books you’re publishing are exquisite, and I am so excited about your new imprints, Eagle Books and Second Look Publishing.

Is it like seeing red cars everywhere as soon as you buy one? Am I aware of these initiatives because I’m involved in one too? I’m not sure, but I know that a few of us who have worked for publishing companies for decades have each decided that we need to try new ways to publish, promote and sell books. We are all asking, ‘Can we succeed in doing something differently and better?’ ‘Can we make a living out of it?’ is the other question. You, Lou and I all love books, and we’re excited by the process of writing, making and selling them. I never want to lose that feeling; to keep it alive I left a job at a very good publishing company to see what would happen if I threw lots of ideas up into the air.