Who would have thought that NB would reach 100? Not me, and it was my idea. But here we are so it seems timely to examine how we achieved such heights. Back in the late 90s one of my responsibilities at UK publisher, HarperCollins, was marketing the company’s books to the library sector. Seen as a steady, if somewhat predictable, part of the book trade, little did I realise what was going on behind those bookshelves. Librarians get a raw deal when it comes to stereotypes because what I found was a hotbed of excitement and enthusiasm. A nationwide initiative aimed at recruiting and encouraging reading groups across the country was in full swing. Back then, much as now, groups went quietly about their business enjoying reading and discussing the wide variety of books they chose.
To my mind reading groups are the female equivalent of freemasonry – many women belong to a group but don’t feel obliged to shout about their passion for reading. And the reason why librarians were – and still are – especially keen on them is that they read so many books that borrowing is a sensible option. However, by their very nature these are largely self-contained and autonomous operations, blissfully unaware of other groups. Which led me to wonder if there was a place for a magazine about the kind of books they chose – predominantly literary fiction – might be of interest. A magazine with reviews – by its own readers rather than literary London, interviews with established and up and coming authors and anything else bookish that could be shoehorned in.
Crucially, there would be extracts from a cross-section of new paperbacks each issue, from which readers could claim their free copy in return for paying my P&P costs. My insider knowledge meant I was aware of how difficult it was – and still is – for publishers to launch a new author. The magazine would be a “shop window” for a readership desperate to discover new and exciting authors – a launch pad of word of mouth. This kind of recommendation is the holy grail to publishers, carrying more weight than any number of column inches or media ads; it had been the making of books like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and, even in these days of social media, is still nigh on impossible to manufacture.
All this sounds as if I had a master plan – if only – but what I did have was the support of the library network who subscribed to the magazine for their groups and displayed it in their libraries. The fledgling first issue appeared in November 2000 featuring three free books – and Getting over Edgar by Joan Barfoot remains a personal favourite. Thanks to those librarians, issues 2, 3 and 4 struggled out and by issue 6 our featured titles comprised the shortlist for 2001’s Orange Prize (as it was then; the winner that year was The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville).
From then on, the mission was to upgrade and improve – we went full colour around issue 8, the number of pages gradually increased, design definitely improved once I could afford a professional – all while delivering varied and interesting editorial content. Throughout, the watchword was ‘what does the readership want?’ It quickly became apparent that they truly appreciated our quirky approach, particularly allowing the readership to speak to like-minded readers. A number of side projects added to our offering: myBOOKSmag and tBkmag (for 5-7s and 8-12s respectively) held their own for a good while although we were always searching for new subscriptions as children passed on through the age range. Then there were readers days – starting at 10am, traditionally with Danish pastries and good coffee, and finishing at 4 with a goodie bag of books there would be a range of interesting authors talking to – and with – a dedicated and intent audience. The initial run of 6 Arts Council supported such events around the country spawned a multitude of others where local librarians were good enough to do the heavy lifting while I swanned up to be the MC for the day. This gradually settled into regular author events in Wokingham and, latterly, Winchester. Joanna Trollope, Louis de Bernières, Salley Vickers, Alexander McCall Smith, Jodi Picoult and many more were kind enough to enlighten us on their craft.
Later on there came a chance to sub-let Le Rieu, a farmhouse in Normandy that had been refurbished into several gites. Here we staged a number of readers’ weeks – a fabulous location for small groups discussing a pre-circulated selection of books in the comfort of the farmhouse’s 7 metre by 7 metre living room and expansive sofas, sampling the delights of local cuisine and much wine, cheese and crusty baguettes. Our first gathering was themed on WW11, given le Rieu’s proximity to the Normandy beaches and graveyards. Indeed, an American division had pushed back the slowly retreating Germans down the road at the end of the drive.
And so the issues kept on coming and a website followed in due course. However, I became aware of a parallel online bookish presence with a very similar ethos to NB. Better still, it had been set up by a former HarperCollins colleague and when Alastair and I compared notes it became apparent that a joint effort could play to the our respective strengths and, in a rapidly changing world of media, truly offer a breadth of content and interest to satisfy the most ardent reader. And so nudge-book.com and newbooks magazine joined forces. After 17 years of leading the small dedicated team behind the magazine (never more than 3 of us, much to the amazement of readers who contacted us asking for the Subscriptions Manager, the Accounts Dept. or the Post Room) I have to admit it was good to share the load, especially with retirement approaching. When the time came I determined not to be one of those former owners who couldn’t resist dabbling, telling the new team how it was done back in the day. That isn’t to say I haven’t taken a professional interest in each new issue and website development. Both continue to evolve spectacularly, responding to readers’ interests and comments, which is as it should be, offering an ever wider range of content.
So, 100 issues in 19 years – congratulations NB! I doubt I’ll be around for the 200th edition but am sure NB will still be forging ahead giving authors, publishers, the book trade at large and – most importantly – our readers what they want.
NB’s founding father