It cuts across the boxes that people tend to put their reading into, for example, highbrow/lowbrow, poetry/fiction, this genre/not that genre, classic/contemporary. It makes no assumptions about what people have already read or about their knowledge of literary theory, the canon of great literature, or who said what in last Sunday's papers. No special language is required because the reader-centred approach doesn't expect you to deconstruct, analyse, criticise or review what you have read. It simply asks you to express what the book made you think and feel in your own words and on your own terms. This makes the approach inclusive and non-intimidating.
Reader development means active intervention to:
Reader development is audience development for literature
Reader development sells the reading experience and what it can do for you, rather than selling individual books or writers. It builds the audience for literature by moving readers beyond brand loyalty to individual writers, helping them develop the confidence to try something new.
A mission statement for reader development
The best book in the world is quite simply the one you like best and that is something you can discover for yourself, but we are here to help you find it.
© Opening the Book Ltd
This definition is freely available for anyone to use but please credit Opening the Book if you quote us directly.
Imagine that you are on a train. Opposite you is a smart man in a business suit. He is reading the Financial Times. Next to him sits a woman, also in a smart suit. She is reading Jill Mansell. You are not alone in making instant assumptions about the type of people they are, and the value of their reading.
Opening the Book uses a reader-centred definition of quality. It's not the quality of the book that matters, it's the quality of the reading experience. It is quite possible to have a poor reading experience with a great book - most of us have experienced this at school or later in life. This doesn't mean that generations of readers have been wrong about the book and you're the first person to see through it. Nor does it mean that there is something wrong with you or that you are simply not up to it. All it means is that you and the book weren't right for each other at that time, something prevented the book from speaking to you.
Conversely, it is possible to have a deep and satisfying reading experience with a book which is actually quite light, which may not be a book of all time, but which just happens to speak to you at a particular point in your life. Your reactions to a book are shaped as much by who you are as by what the book is - your personal history, prejudices and the mood you happen to be in at the time you are reading.
Each reader is the judge of their own best book. Reader development will always seek to encourage people to try something different or new to them - but the final judgment on whether it was worth it is down to the individual reader.
The literature world concentrates on writing and publishing. This is true of both the commercial sector and the arts funding sector. Arts funders traditionally gave grants to support the creative activities of writing, publishing and, later, when the concept of cultural industries was introduced, distribution as well. Opening the Book's unique contribution has been to introduce the concept of intervening at the point of consumption.
Intervening to support the reader is not at the expense of the writer or the publisher. Reader development is audience development for literature. A confident reading audience, willing to take risks and try new things, benefits the whole production chain of the literature industry, especially those parts of it which are more vulnerable and less commercially viable - new writing, translations, independent presses, voices from outside the mainstream.
We have found working with a range of organisations that it can be hard to maintain the focus on the reader. Familiar ways of thinking are easier to fall back on and it takes time to develop confidence that a reader-centred approach will work - though it always does. We coined the phrase Putting Readers First both to explain what we do and to act as a reminder to everyone engaged in the new activity of reader development. When planning a project or talking and writing about books pause and ask yourself - is this reader-centred? Does it put readers first?
We all tend to stick to the same authors and genres and find it difficult to move sideways into other areas. Often, even if we want to try something different, we don't know where to start. Or if we take a risk and it doesn't work out, we end up feeling like it's somehow our fault for making a bad choice.
One of the ways of avoiding this is by offering readers a surprise. What is a surprise? It can be charming, intriguing, unpleasant, boring, disappointing or a revelation. In any event, a surprise is something you can accept or reject – it is not a recommendation or a task.
Plenty of libraries have had success by gift wrapping paperbacks and offering a blind choice. Others have used the surprise to introduce new areas of fiction to housebound readers. If you can think about ways to offer surprises to readers, you can break down a lot of the barriers that stop us choosing one for ourselves.
Think about all the barriers that we have to overcome every time we pick a new book to read. Is this the kind of book I usually like? Is it too heavy? Too light? Will it bore/scare/offend me? There are many psychological barriers which prevent readers from taking risks with their reading.
Readers tend to drift into comfort zones, always reading the same authors or the same genres and limiting their reading adventure by cutting off whole areas: 'I only read factual books,' 'I never read American books,' 'I hate science fiction.' In reality, of course, these readers would find something to please them if they allowed themselves to explore.
As promoters of reading we need to respect readers and their choices, but also to understand that we can intervene in readers' choices and encourage exploration.
Starting with the reader and the experience of reading, rather than the author or the book, is the major change that Opening the Book has introduced into promotion.
Advertisers know that the best way to sell a product is to persuade customers to imagine themselves enjoying that experience. Adverts for sausages don't list the meat content (and certainly not the fat content). Instead they conjure up the sound of sausages sizzling in the pan, the comfort of traditional cooking as everyone comes into the warm kitchen, out of the rain, safely home from school or work....
If you want to make reading attractive you will need to do the same thing. Start from the reading experience. What will the books do for the reader? What kind of experience do they offer? Don't waste all your planning time on discussing the sausages - deciding whether to have this book or that one - when you should be selling the sizzle. Focusing on the end result, rather than the object itself, will give more relevance to the potential user.
When we talk of resources we think of books, buildings, staff. But the biggest resource you have is your readers. They are plentiful in number, variety and imagination. Many of them would enjoy having a greater involvement - and they will give of their time and expertise for free!
Use the book knowledge of your readers to expand that of your staff. Use their reading enthusiasms to enhance and personalise your displays. Involve readers in bookchains, reading groups and readers' events and you will have an unending supply of opinions about books as well as a growing audience for reader activities.
Make use of the fact that you know your readers well - you know who would be good at enthusing others, who needs the support of a friend to feel confident, who should be prevented from getting on their personal soapbox and given a different role instead...
Have confidence in your readers and develop their confidence in themselves. You don't need a celebrity to make an enjoyable readers' event. Libraries round the country have run themed evenings - Italian nights, wine and books' tasting, books to fall for (on Valentine's Day). A library in a rural town set up a very popular day festival which simply offered the chance to talk one-to-one for an hour with another reader with set times for different sorts of reading.
One person telling another about a book is the most powerful form of promotion there is. It can happen on a big scale - the famous examples are Trainspotting and Captain Corelli's Mandolin. But it also happens every day between people in conversation at work, in cafes, on the web. It is the reason borrowers flock round the returns trolley - if somebody else has read it, it must be good.
Libraries are well placed to facilitate reader to reader connection. Comments inside books, readers' noticeboards, readers' websites, bookchains, reading groups - there are plenty of successful ideas which are based on this principle.
Reader to reader expresses an equal relationship. Think of yourself as a reader talking to other readers, not as trying to be an 'expert.' Your talking and writing about books will keep fresh and sharp, avoiding blandness and pomposity, if you keep the reader to reader principle in mind.
In the retail sector, companies know a great deal about their customers and, when planning marketing strategies, they break their market down into very specific segments. This helps them to target their marketing more successfully. In the public sector, where we are committed to offering a quality service across the board, it is harder to adopt the principle of aiming specific services or promotions to specific groups.
The promotion which is aimed at everybody tends to miss everybody. We need to target more specifically to be successful but we don't have to follow the standard differentiation of the commercial market based on lifestyle and income.
In planning targeted promotions think about new ways of differentiating between your users:
Differentiate by time - the person who rushes in during their lunchbreak has quite different needs from the retired borrower who builds a lengthy library visit into their weekly routine.
Differentiate by frequency of visit - people who come in every day, people who come in once during the borrowing period, people who drop in occasionally. Any book displays could be refreshed according to these patterns of use so that borrowers weren't seeing the same things every time they visited.
Our research has shown that approximately half of the people coming into a library are looking for a specific title or author. The other half want to browse what's there and see what happens to take their fancy. This gives a 50-50 split in preferred method of choosing.
Half of the people who are looking for something specific can't find it - either because they are looking in the wrong place or because when they get there the book is already out. These people then make a substitution - usually at random and nearby. If they have come in for John Grisham they will go out with another G or H, it is highly unlikely they will take a T. Although they began as focused choosers, this group have become browsers.
If we add the 50% who start off by browsing to the 25% who end up doing it we reach a staggering conclusion that 75% of the library audience choose by browsing. The numbers will vary a little (test it out with your own survey) but a broad 75/25 holds good as a guideline. Interestingly, the retail sector tells a similar story. The Book Industry Study Group in the USA found that unplanned, impulse purchases accounted for 60% of all books sold.
Libraries are mostly designed to meet the needs of the 25% of people who know what they want and can find it - the A-Z shelves, the categories of fiction, the Dewey system, the catalogue. The measure of library professionalism is often how fast can staff find a particular book if asked for it.
Reader development has drawn attention to the neglected majority. What can you offer the 75% to help them browse more effectively? You don't need to change the whole library, just offer something to make browsing easy.
In 2001The Mind's Eye promotion showed 75/25 is true with non-fiction too. Titles which had languished unasked for on the shelves were borrowed by browsers when put into an attractive face-on display.
How long do you think borrowers actually spend in the library? Would you be surprised to learn that research conducted across 50 library authorities, as part of Opening the Book's Managing spaces and people course, revealed that the average length of visit was five minutes?
How many of any library's resources are accessible in five minutes? How easy is it to browse the shelves and sections and choose a book in five minutes? What can a visitor do in five minutes in your library? How clear are the signs and directions to allow visitors to find the area they are seeking?
Think about how you are meeting the needs of people with five minutes or less. And remember they are the majority. If you work in a library where the issues have been falling for a number of years, could it be that you haven't kept pace with this trend?
A small area near the front of the library where paperbacks are displayed face-on, with lots of stock nearby to keep it topped up can issue more books than any other area of the library. For instance in a library that normally expected 48% of shelved fiction stock to be on issue at any one time, they issued 75% from a quick pick display that we installed.
A reading promotion aimed at young adults will be successful if the books selected to go into the promotion have a specific appeal to that age group; paperbacks which look cool and contemporary gathered together in a face-on display are guaranteed to draw the readers you're after.
Topping this off with a big sign - Teenage reads - will kill it stone dead! Teenagers won't want it because they don't want to be identified with a 'teenage' audience and older readers won't want it because they'll think the books are too young for them. The only readers who will clamour for the books are pre-teens desperate to read what their older brothers and sisters are reading.
Letting the books speak for themselves will get them issuing not just to the target group but to other readers who are drawn by an eye-catching display of intriguing titles.
Avoid any labels which narrow the target audience too prescriptively - Clear Choice will appeal more broadly than Large Print or Books for Visually Impaired Readers.
Every single reader has a favourite book - just as every reader has books they would never, ever read. We are all entitled to our own reading prejudices but don't fall into the trap of assuming that yours are shared by everybody. It may be difficult to imagine that anyone would want to read a book that you think looks weird or dull but, if properly promoted, every book will find its reader.
When you select books for a display or for a promotion, try and make sure that up to half of the titles are ones you wouldn't touch with a bargepole yourself. This will ensure that you offer a range of readers a range of books.
Why not have fun and test this out? Collect all the books in fiction that you and your colleagues think no-one would ever want to read and make an attractive, face-on display with them.
Reading is something we do by ourselves in private. There are more readers than there are practitioners of any other art form but because reading is largely an individual and domestic habit, this is often overlooked. Imagine all the readers of a bestseller brought together in one space as happens with music or sport ...!
Reader development celebrates the act of reading and recognises the role of the reader as an active rather than a passive one. Most visual representations of literature concentrate on the writer or the book; it's our job to get the readers visible too.
A simple example, run in many libraries, is to take photographs of consenting borrowers as they leave the library with the books they have chosen. The photographs are always interesting and lively and often serve to challenge stereotypes about the type of people who read particular kinds of books. The photographs are a good way to start a readers' board or a series of reader-centred promotions. Above all, they announce that readers are present as a creative, critical and active force in the world of books and literature.
What makes us think that the reader of romances is stuck in a dream world, an escapist, probably deeply unhappy with no social life? What makes reading a non-fiction serious book a virtue? What other prejudices have you noticed? What are science fiction readers like? What kind of life do readers of true crime lead? Have you ever heard someone apologise for their reading, 'Oh, I just read rubbish?'
There are more guilts, shames and snobberies attached to reading than probably any other art form. These may seem harmless but they do affect people very deeply and may prevent readers from venturing outside their own comfort zone – the area of reading that they perceive is for them.
Books do not arrive as a pre-ordained experience. A hundred readers of the same book will report a hundred different experiences, because what shapes our response is as much to do with who we are, our own personal hang-ups, passions and prejudices, as with the nature of the book itself. For this reason, it is notoriously difficult to predict what will be a good read for anybody else.
Reader development does not make value judgments about the 'quality' of books, it is about the quality of the reading experience. It is possible to have a great time with the most transient, lightest piece of popular fiction imaginable, as much as with the most respected literary classic of all time.
Reader development encourages people to try something new and different, offering surprises. Helping readers to feel confident about their own reading choices is the key to empowering them to start taking a few risks.
The dominant fiction borrower in UK public libraries is a woman over 60 who reads family sagas. This is both a statistical fact and a strong perception among library staff.
A second group with high visibility, smaller in numbers but strong in impact, is the requesters who come in on Monday morning with the Sunday paper hardback reviews. Both men and women, they request non-fiction as much as fiction.
These readers are well catered for in terms of library stock and services. When staff talk about borrowers they often have these groups in mind. These are the borrowers who are known to staff, the ones who stop for a chat or make a demand on the service. It is important that these readers continue to receive a good service but it is equally important that they are not seen as the library's only or most significant audience.
Reader development offers new experiences to the dominant borrowers and, more crucially, it gives ways of thinking about providing a service to the people who are less visible, the ones who don't talk to staff and maybe don't want to.
One of the best ways of finding something new and tempting to read is by browsing. Yet one of the biggest barriers to finding what you want is the sheer number of choices that exist. If you walk into a library, you see crowded ranks of spine-on books disappearing into infinity. It's a confusing and exhausting prospect for the browser who has nothing specific in mind.
When Opening the Book introduced the observation methods of Paco Underhill into library practice, one of the most famous early observations was the member of staff who watched the A-Z fiction sequence in her library for two hours, noting every visitor and where they moved. She was astonished to discover that in two hours, not one single person got past the letter G. People looked in the early sequence and either chose a book or gave up and moved on. The lesson is that if you want to encourage readers to explore the whole range of books that you offer, you will need to make the choices more manageable. Focused readers who know what they want will go straight to the area they need but impulse choosers behave very differently.
If you find it difficult to believe that offering less choice can be helpful to readers, just think about car parking for a minute. What happens when you drive into an empty car park? You can't make up your mind where to park, often you park in one place and then change your mind - this side, no, over there - before settling. Compare that to driving into a busy car park - you see a space and you're straight in there, no messing. Less choice makes the choosing easy.
Manageable choices need not be narrow choices - it is crucial to offer a range, to vary the approach, to include books which are not well-known, the ones which need your help for readers to discover them. Keep the space prominent, keep it changing and watch the issues go up. And, of course, when the issues go up, you have more space to house more books. Creating small, manageable choices for impulse readers allows you to fit more stock in the whole library and offer more choice for everyone.