My first preview of non-fiction was published in The Bookseller on 11th August 2000. In the two decades since, I have brought up two children to adulthood, moved from London and put down roots in a different part of the country, carved out a freelance career doing all kinds of things I never expected to do, written five books, and read hundreds, perhaps thousands more.
After contributing a few freelance features to The Bookseller, I was offered the chance to take on the non-fiction previewer’s job by then-deputy editor Penny Mountain, for whom the task of covering both fiction and non-fiction each month was becoming too onerous. At the time I wouldn’t have considered myself a non-fiction specialist, but from the time I was a nerdy child with an extensive collection of Ladybird and I Spy books, I had always read as much non-fiction as fiction. So I grasped the opportunity. In writing my first Star Ratings feature (as New Titles was known back in the day), I was briefed to keep my personal opinions to a minimum: what counted was the factual information provided, because with far fewer online resources at their fingertips, that’s primarily what booksellers and librarians needed.
Now opinion is paramount, with my Book of the Month and Editor’s Choices receiving headline billing in each month’s preview. The work which goes into selecting these personal highlights has rendered my role a much more challenging and time-consuming one, but also one that is a thousand times more enjoyable and interesting. It has been, and remains, an honour to be among the first readers of so many stellar non-fiction books, and it is my great good fortune to still be entrusted with such a pleasurable job each month by this magazine, to which I’m proud to be a regular contributor.
Yet, what qualifies me to have my opinions taken seriously in this way?
A lifetime of reading both voraciously and omnivorously, for sure, but then that is a qualification that most of us in this business can lay claim to. More pertinent are my years working as a bookseller, which, while back in the mists of time, I still regard as the bedrock on which everything I have done since has been built. I rather agree with Sharmaine Lovegrove when she wrote in a piece for the Guardian recently that we should “fill publishing with people who have worked in bookshops”.
Without trying to make myself sound like some kind of grandee, there’s something to be said for having done this job for 20 years too, because the more you read, the more you become equipped to make comparative judgements in the context of the market viewed over time. I couldn’t help but be chuffed when I was recently credited with having “impeccable taste” (a quality, by the way, that in my view all three of my fellow Bookseller previewers—AliceO'Keeffe, Fiona Noble and Alison Flood—share). And having a platform from which I can help create a buzz about books I love, regardless of how much other promotion they are receiving, is as exciting as it has ever been.
But if I were merely flexing my personal opinions and exercising “impeccable taste”, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly. After all, I’m a straight, middle-aged, arty-farty, borderline geeky, cisgender white woman, living in Middle England. I watch hardly any TV—how else do you think I find time to read? I’m not on Instagram and I don’t get out as much as I used to... although sadly, who does? But as an “influencer”, I have a responsibility to understand how all these factors skew where I bestow my favours.
More than ever, the ability to make leaps of imagination and empathy must be enshrined in the previewer’s role. I must be able envisage what other people entirely unlike me might want and need to read. It helps to have children who are young adults, with their own lifestyles and social media habits. It helps not to live in London. It helps to try and stay a little ahead of the curve, and to prioritise the new and innovative; for which it helps to be alive to the leftfield and proudly independent, both in publishing and bookselling.
And just sometimes, I’ve had the opportunity to champion books which have the ability to unite readers, wherever or whoever they are, in a sense of our common humanity and shared experience. Books which inform us, improve us, console us, enable us to see the world with new eyes, and give us hope with their stories of triumph over adversity, and of coming through dark times. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson, Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye, Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty, East West Street by Philippe Sands, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, Lean in 15 by Joe Wicks, The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarlay, War Doctor by David Nott and Educated by Tara Westover are but a few of them. It is books like these that have made my job, and will continue to make it, an immense privilege.
Thank you for reading.