Books and poetry

Giving books room to breathe

on 04 December 2012. Posted in Books and Poetry

Elsbeth Lindner introduces bookoxygen.com

bookoxygen

I’m not a writer.

I know this because, even though I’ve published a novel, I’ve learned that writers are only happy when they are writing. And I’m happier reading.

How do I know this about writers? Because I’ve spent my professional life, some four decades now, working alongside them. I’ve edited, published, interviewed and, I hope, assisted writers while working for publishers, literary magazines and now my website bookoxygen.com which, as it says on the masthead, is a ‘breathing space for books and writers.’

I like writers. Not only do they use language with invention and delicacy, but they think for a living. Writers are often prescient, which comes, I assume, from thinking just that little bit harder about what’s going on and where it’s leading than the rest of us do.

Perhaps it was a spark of rubbed-off authorial foresight that inspired me to launch bookoxygen, although in truth I think the notion came from having written book reviews for some years and noticing (especially in the USA, where I lived for a while, but here in the UK too) that with newspapers under increasing financial pressure, space for culture generally and book reviews specifically was shrinking.

That situation isn’t going to improve. And plenty of people have moved on from seeking guidance about what to read from newspaper arts pages to online comments at Amazon or blogs. But I’m a traditionalist in some matters, and opinion on important things – like films and books and music and art – is one of them. I want to hear the judgements of people who have experience in these fields, and in the world of books that means writers, publishers and critics.

So I launched bookoxygen to replicate a newspaper literary page – but online. It’s a place where interested folk can find informed insight on recently published books, mainly fiction, delivered by industry professionals, and updated daily, not weekly. Not only that, but – with the media once again discussing the imbalance of women to men in terms of books reviewed and journalists doing the reviewing – I felt it was time for a place that attempted to redress that balance. Instead of a 60/40 split in favour of male writers and writing, bookoxygen splits 60/40 in favour of women.

More than that, I have grown tired of book reviews that run to a half a broadside page. bookoxygen’s (or BO’s) reviews are shorter, between 300 and 1000 words. And I’ve made it my business to try and cover less predictable books from smaller publishers. The independent presses are where so much of the interesting new work is generated these days. Why not give them more space/oxygen?

And so BO was born, on 2 April 2012. The initial group of reviewers was made up of acquaintances generous and interested enough in new writing to contribute their comments for nothing. But surprisingly quickly that group grew and equally surprisingly a little bit of income started to flow, so it was possible to pay miniscule fees for the reviews, fees that have grown in minute fashion as the months have gone by and the income trickle has continued.

It would be fair to say that I didn’t start BO with a business plan or an expectation of Facebook-style riches. Having lived and worked in the book world for nearly four decades, but grown tired of publishing and magazine editing, I simply wanted to stay involved with the books and the writers. I also wanted to create a space that interested me and might attract the attention of like-minded fiction fans (readers who like quality novels and want to hear more women’s voices and learn about what small publishers are doing).

It’s been quite a learning curve. I had to be taught how to run the site and to cope with social media. What I thought would be a delightful, dilettante-ish, occasional occupation morphed very quickly into something a bit bigger – because BO has turned into a success, with some 6000 visits per week, and I have rediscovered my inner business woman.

Now, in this era of sock-puppetry (authors creating online aliases to review their own work), BO begins to feel all the more relevant. So life has become all about feeding the beast – keeping the books moving, uploading and publishing, editing the copy, and spreading the word. (By the way, BO is always looking for more qualified reviewers interested enough to undertake the work for very little cash reward. Interested parties can contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) Is it all worth it? Definitely, especially when I find myself working with writers again. But particularly when BO can give visibility to a book struggling for attention, that makes me feel the whole, strange, bustling enterprise justifies itself.