sotonDH Small Grants: reBook: The Beginning – Post 1

sotonDH Small Grants: reBook: The Beginning – Post 1 by James Cole


Are you sitting comfortably?  Good, then log on and I’ll begin.

The nature of story-telling is changing.  Heralded by the closure of Borders in 2011 and with online retailing giant Amazon’s statement earlier this year that sales of ebooks are ‘up approximately 70 percent ’ from 2012, it would appear that online publishing is becoming more than the passing fad that some in the book-world had predicted, and indeed hoped for.  Perhaps one of the last stalwarts of the entertainment industry to do so, the traditional printed book is being dragged (sometimes kicking and screaming) into the online twenty-first century, following in the digital footsteps of the likes of video games, film, and music.

As a result of this rise in ebooks and online publishing, the way that we – as consumers and readers – are approaching books is inevitably undergoing fundamental changes.  A 140-page novel can be downloaded, often free of charge, onto mobile devices, tablets, and computers in the same time that it takes to write a 140-character ‘tweet’.  Entire libraries can be carried and read on the Underground in the palm of a hand.  With the flick of a button I can switch from reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace to Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington (although that might prove a little confusing).

No offence to Tolstoy’s epic, but it is the latter that is of more relevance to my research project, funded through the Digital Humanities department at the University of Southampton.  This project, entitled reBook, will explore the use of online media platforms in relation to the reading habits of primary and secondary school children.  I am specifically interested in researching whether stimulating and creative online reviews of contemporary Children’s and Young Adult literature, filmed using digital video technology, could impact upon these reading habits, in and out of the classroom.  Can internet buzz generate enthusiasm and curiosity regarding books in the same way that other arts and entertainment areas (including music, films and video games) have benefitted?  In conjunction with an already established close network with primary and secondary schools local to Bournemouth and Southampton, I will produce these online reviews and upload them, once a week, via YouTube and a designated website and blog, which will be promoted within the schools.  Digital technologies are impacting upon books and the written word in exciting new ways and my research will engage with this developing and fascinating relationship.

Chapter One: What is reBook?

reBook is a book review project with a difference.  To keep up with the continuing rise of ebooks and digital publishing, and to maintain the interest of young readers who are faced with an exhaustive display of competing digital technologies all vying for their attention (from social media websites to games consoles), reBook aims to catapult book reviews into the media age through targeted, engaging, and innovative online video reviews. Jabari Mahiri writes that ‘Increasingly, young people…globally use screen-based, digital technologies to source and transmit words, images, video, and sounds as they engage in meaning making, identity connections, and social networking. ’  Now that books are being accessed online as opposed to physically in bookstores, libraries or schools, the way that young people approach, and identify with, the written word is changing.

There is nothing new about online reviews.  Even a cursory search through video sharing websites such as YouTube or Vimeo will reveal a wealth of reviews and reviewers all willing to share their scrutiny of a product.  What does become clear is that the reviews are targeted towards media other than children’s literature.  There are countless review sites and videos dedicated to reviews of online gaming, console games, DVDs and the latest cinema blockbusters, new music releases and recording artists.  What appears to be lacking is attention to the kinds of books that young people are reading today.  Why is that?  Perhaps it is because the novel seems to be, or certainly has traditionally been viewed as, so far removed from the digital world that the two could be perceived as incompatible.  Online reviews for films or music can contain links to artist websites, online samples or trailers, as well as other media and points of digital interest.  Until the rise of ebooks, what could an online reviewer of books point towards? An image of the front cover, perhaps, a short extract or blurb, possibly (depending on copyright issues).   Hardly the same level of engagement and interest that entices the digital-hungry online reviewer of other media.

Where reBook comes in is its attempt to bridge that gap between books for young people and digital technologies.  There are many websites already dedicated to book reviews, whether by professional critics, publishers, and book retailers, or the general reading public.  Their purpose is to provide the potential buyers of books with reasons why they should, or should not, spend their hard-earned cash.  But how many of these sites are targeted specifically for the children and Young Adult readership markets?  How many children of a media-savvy generation would be willing to trawl through pages and pages of written reviews?  Don’t get me wrong, these written online reviews are valuable and certainly have their place.  What reBook is attempting to do is to bring these reviews into the twenty-first century in order to engage a generation of children who are increasingly turning to media other than the humble book.  Can the same internet buzz that surrounds the latest Xbox game or an upcoming Hollywood film, generate interest for the novel?  This is a question at the heart of reBook’s philosophy.

Chapter Two: How Will reBook work?

Also close to reBook’s heart is simplicity.  The video reviews will be user-friendly, with a website that is easily navigable and tailored-made specifically for the three target markets of children’s literature that I will be working with: 9-12, 12+, and Young Adult.  They will use a standard format and easily identifiable rating system and reviewing criteria in order to standardise the reviews and allow for clear comparisons to be made between books.  Whilst the reviews from the three target markets will be available from the same website, they will be clearly identifiable for each group (through their production and tagging) so as to avoid confusion.  The reviews will be accessed through an easy to use website that is currently under construction.  Alongside the video book reviews will be links to publisher and author websites as well as an area for visitors to the reBook website to leave comments, suggestions and feedback.

In engaging a notoriously fickle group with attention spans being enticed from all areas of digital media, the look of the reviews is important to get right.  In keeping with other online reviews that I have researched, reBook reviews will be short, sharp and snappy.  I plan to test an initial review at no longer than two minutes long – this should be enough time to cover all the important aspects of the book and engage the viewer without losing their interest.  Each review will include the following:

– reBook Rating (see below for further details)

– book details (title, author, publisher, target market)

– reasons to read the book (reBook will attempt to find the positives in each reading experience whilst maintaining a balanced perspective)

– short extract from the story

The reBook Rating will be a standardised rating of a score out of 100 based on the three essential elements of every ‘good’ book and an overall impression:

– Characters (30) Are the characters believing and engaging?  Do they leap off the page, grabbing the reader by the hand, taking them on their journey?

– Setting (30) Does the author transport you into the world of the book, whether that’s an alien planet or a London tube station?

– Storyline (30) Is the story new, exciting and interesting?  Is it well-paced and plotted?  Does it make sense?

– Overall Impressions (10)

Chapter Three: Choosing the Books

Before the reBook reviews can be produced, the books themselves needed to be chosen.  The methodology behind the range of books that were chosen to be a part of reBook’s catalogue of reviews was, at the outset, two-fold.  Firstly, it was my intention to choose books that covered classics as well as books that readers might not be familiar with.  The rationale behind this was that it is always exciting for readers to discover new authors that they are not studying in school, opening up their reading experiences to new and exciting voices in the literary world.  I have defined ‘classics’ in both its canonical and contemporary contexts so that novels such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1888) sit side by side with ‘modern’ classics including Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), and Louis Sachar’s Holes (1998).  Secondly, I wanted to choose a selection of books that catered for the three ranges of readers I will be working with: 9-12 (Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo, The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks), 12+ (Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, Raven’s Gate by Anthony Horowitz), and Young Adult (My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher, Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera).  By making sure that these age ranges are covered, the reviews should reach a wider audience as opposed to targeting just a single market.

With these two guiding principles, I began selecting which novels would appear in the initial run of reBook.  However, it quickly became clear that there were other methodological nuances that needed to be addressed.  A large majority of the books that were appearing on the ‘Top Ten’ or ‘Best Books’ lists that I encountered in my research were written by men and so I wanted to go some way towards redressing this imbalance.  There is a nearly halfway split between male and female authors on my list.  Furthermore, children’s literature is, I would argue, at its most valuable and powerful when it inspires children and Young Adults to view their world in a different way, to put the book down after the last page and realise that the world around them has changed and will never be the same after reading it – an essential part of the growing up process.  To that end, I have included texts from other cultures (The Garbage King by Elizabeth Laird, The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett) as well as books that address issues of multicultural Britain (The Pocket Guide to Being an Indian Girl by B.K. Mahal, Born To Run by Nina Bawden).  The reBook catalogue covers a wealth of human life seen through the experiencing child from across the world.  Another conscious decision was in the selection of books that are first in a series (Time Riders by Alex Scarrow, The History Keepers: The Storm Begins by Damian Dibben).  If the ultimate goal of the reBook project is to promote reading within schools, it makes sense to include books that readers can fall in love with and continue reading in subsequent instalments.

Epilogue: What next?

The next stage in this project will be to collate the evidence from market research in order to further inform the production of the reBook reviews.  In preparation for this, contact has been made with local schools who will take part in the project.  Primary and secondary schools in both Hampshire and Dorset have expressed interest in being involved with focus groups set to run in the not too distant future.  The focus groups will include children (covering all three target markets), as well as parents/guardians and teachers.

From here, I will then move forward with the production and dissemination of reBook, the subject of my next blog entry; time to turn the page and see where reBook will take us.