Saturday 7 February 2015

Why can't we have a bookshow?

There's been some talk recently about the lack of book coverage on television, following a speech by Robert Harris in which he described it as 'a disgrace'. This was followed by conversation on the #bookshow hashtag on twitter, struck up by @alisonbarrow. And it's something that's been stuck in my head since then.

I don't think the lack of a major book show is a disgrace by any means.

It's just baffling.

There seems to be an attitude that such a thing can't work. That there isn't the interest. And I don't get that. We're raised on stories. We learn to interact and communicate through stories. We create stories, we consume stories, we live and breathe on stories. And one of the ways in which we do this the most is through books.

I can understand that the physical item of a book may not be the most visually exciting thing to look at. Even filled with great, vibrant and exciting art, it's still static. But the stories that those books contain aren't static. They're vibrant and filled with imagination. There are things there that can be visually interesting, and even if not, books, writers and readers are about people. And people can be interesting.

Books are also popular. Writers are popular. Look at twitter and tumblr, and whatever social media anybody who is under the age of 23 (and thus I don't understand yet) uses. You'll find enthusiasm. Wonderful, vital enthusiasm. The kind of enthusiasm that gets behind shows and the kind of enthusiasm that's crying out to be tapped into.

A lot of it is because the idea of a book show has a perception problem. I've seen various shows throughout the years, and none of them have really stuck with me. Fairly or unfairly, the perception I have of them (and I strongly suspect that I'm not alone in this) is that they're for and by critics, rather than readers. Static, uneventful television. And I do think this is a problem.

For a book show to work, it has to be mass market. It has to be aimed at as many people as it can. And while criticism is, obviously, going to be a part of a book show, it shouldn't be the primary focus. Otherwise, it can feel like the kind of show that tells you what you should be reading, and why it's good for you, rather than a show that looks at what you are reading. It shouldn't feel like homework. It should feel like it's listening.

One of the most interesting things about the book industry is what it shares with the movie industry. It's trying to guess what will connect with people and what they'll buy and what they'll love.

A book show should look at that. That should be its primary focus. Not 'what is good?'. Instead, 'what will connect?'

It shouldn't look down on its audience. One of the main things that I feel when I think about past book shows is that they've generally been a bit snobbish, likely to only talk about something overtly mainstream when it's too big to ignore.

Bollocks to that, frankly.

I want a book show that talks about the issues of the day, and talks about them with interest. I don't want a show that would only consider sci-fi, fantasy or horror if people are queuing up at midnight for the latest JK Rowling or George RR Martin book. I don't want a book that sneers at 50 Shades of Grey, but rather one that looks into why it's popular and why it's connecting with so many people - and ideally, I want a book show that looks seriously into whether something like 50 Shades is harmless smut or unintentionally glorifying abuse. Because they're the conversations I see every day online, and they're the conversations that I see so much passion about. So it should look at genres. I don't want to feel like there's 'high' and 'low' literature. I want it to be about stories.

A book show should, completely, be inclusive and safe for as many people as possible. It should reach out. If it's by and for a bunch of straight, cis, white men, then it's going to dead in the water. And the presenters should reflect that.

So, what would I want to see in an actual show? I'd want it to be like a magazine show, with sections. Not too rigid (one of the problems of 10 O'Clock Live was that carefully sticking to the format got in the way when it started to occasionally get interesting, trying to do too much in one hour), but roughly split into six ten minute sections.

So here are some ideas of what I'd like to see in my ideal book show. With the exception of the first one here, these aren't in a particular order.

1 - News.

This should be at the top of the show. Tell me what's going on in publishing and in books now. Tell me what the people who are making books think is going to be hot. What big authors have books coming out soon? Also, this is where news about books being turned into movies goes.

And yes, films should be part of this. They're visually appealing, and of interest. If we can use a section to turn people onto books that films or TV shows are based on, that's no bad thing.

2 - Interviews.

These should be with writers or actors/directors, etc, assuming they're connected with film versions of books. Whoever it is, there should be a reason they're being interviewed - celebrity involvement is a good thing, but it shouldn't be a case of "finding out what kind of books Gerri Halliwell likes".

3 - Features.

These should be informative and fun, similar to the style of features on 'The Great British Bake-Off'. Warm and enthusiastic looks at classic books, writers, and various aspects of writing and publishing.

4 - Book Club.

This is an interactive element.A schedule of upcoming books to be discussed is released online and promoted on the show - the book club is then held online either via group chat or recorded 60 second reviews. Plus facebook and twitter comments. The best are then shown.

5 - Reviews.

Because yes, these should be part of the show. Just not the focus. Again, the focus should be slightly more on 'will it sell?' rather than 'is it a work of art?', but this section should definitely have a bit of meat in it.

6 - Talking point.

This is an 'issue', of sorts, which could be discussed either with a panel or (depending on the size of the show) with an audience. As with the book club, this could also be interactive, with online opinions Can the film better than the book? Should graphic novels be taken seriously? Should autobiographies be ghostwritten? Are ebooks better or are they killing books?

There's more you could do as well. How about a section with speed-pitching events? Or an ongoing section where writers get their work evaluated by agents and publishers with coaching or representation as a prize, and we get to learn more about the agents and the writers?

I'm not saying that this is the only way a show about books could work. But I do think that this would be a different approach to most of what I've seen in the past - and it's a show I'd be more interested in watching. It may be that it's one which only I'd be interested in, and it just replaces one set of problems with another. I'm just going on the basis that I seem like easy audience for something like this, but I struggle to think of something that's already been out that's grabbed me.

The main thing I'm appealing for is for it to be different. For it not to be people sitting on a sofa discussing the literary merits of critically acclaimed books. Again. I believe there's an enthusiastic audience out there - maybe this can be tapped into.

So how about you? What do you want to see from a bookshow? How would you improve what I've suggested?