A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The following is an abridged version of a talk given at the Annual Conference of the Romantic Novelists’ Assocation by Yours Truly on the 11th of July 2009. The original talk was 50 minutes long; I’ve managed to scythe about 15 to 20 minutes out of it, but you might like to equip yourselves with a comfy armchair, a nice cuppa and a digestive and put your feet up because, my friends, it’s still insanely long …
When I was asked to talk to the RNA, I thought it was a wise precaution to find out WHY we’re called Vulpes Libris. I mean, great name – even if it does sound a little like a communicable disease – but how did our Founding Fox Leena arrive at it? I knew someone was sure to ask me, so I emailed her, and this was her reply:
Vulpes Libris … let me see. Originally VL was just me, of course, and I actually I wanted to be Bookhound – but all variations thereof (bookhound, thebookhound, etc.) were already taken as Blogspot IDs. Then I thought of bookvixen or bookfox, but those were already taken in all their forms too. So *then* I thought of Canis Libris, but realised that Vulpes Libris sounded a lot nicer. And then I realised Vulpes Libris isn’t particularly good Latin, and means something more like ‘fox(es) for books’, but then I thought, ‘Pshaw, it’s not like anyone speaks Latin anymore, anyway …
So now you know … sort of.
My boss has a greetings card on her desk, above her computer, that someone sent to her a couple of years ago. On it is a photograph of a sensibly-dressed, middle-aged woman clutching an umbrella and poised to jump, with both sandaled feet, into a large puddle. Beneath the photograph are the words:
“Have you ever noticed how often the right answer is – ‘What the hell’?”
As philosophies go it’s probably a bit dodgy, but it’s pretty much how I ended up standing here addressing a room full of romantic novelists … not a situation the smart money would have been on 18 months ago.
It started when Leena, whom I had known on-line for many years, asked me if I wanted to join her on her new book blog – write the odd book review now and then – you know, a bit of fun – nothing onerous …
I had no idea at the time what a book blog actually WAS, but when I clicked on the link she’d sent me, it all looked pretty peaceful and harmless and so – being a nicely brought-up Englishwoman programmed to please – I said to myself , “Oh – what the hell. I don’t mind. I can do that … for Leena.”
I wrote a couple of reviews, which went quite well, and the next thing I knew Leena was asking me if I’d mind giving her a bit of a hand with the technical behind-the-scenes stuff on account of my being so computer-literate and all. I wouldn’t, she promised, have to do any admin or anything … it was just in case, really … So again, I thought, “What the hell – why not?”
Then, she emailed me to say “You know Phillipa Ashley, don’t you?”
All innocence she was – she can do you a great disingenuous, can our Leena …
“Phillipa? The romantic novelist?”
“Yes I do … WHY?”
“Think she might agree to an interview? You could review her book, too …”
“I think we need to diversify …
So, I asked Phillipa. She sort of spasmed violently, cried “I am not worthy!” and fled to hide her face in the curtains …
Twenty minutes later she was back on the ‘phone, having seen my (glowing) review of “Decent Exposure” on Vulpes and decided that perhaps she was, after all, worthy. I think she still felt a bit like an urchin crawling in under the back flap of the circus tent on account of us being so highbrow and all (*cough*) … but she did it anyway, and that interview, with its coupled review became one of the most popular items we’d run on Vulpes up to that point. I went on to interview Catherine Jones (aka Kate Lace) … and reviewed a couple of her books – and THEN we scared the bejeezus out of the poor woman by sending her next book, The Trophy Girl, off to our fearsome Russian specialist, the multi-lingual Kirsty – who likes nothing better than a nice piece of raw Trotsky for breakfast. Happily, the woman we affectionately refer to as ‘Comrade K’ revealed a hitherto entirely unsuspected soft spot for romantic novels – and she loved Catherine’s book unreservedly.
Leena had a clear vision for Vulpes. Put simply, she wanted to create a book blog that people would actually want to READ – and come back to, time and time again. There are thousands upon thousands of book blogs, but relatively few of them attract any readers to speak off – and Leena wanted to be one of the few; after all, what’s the point in spending time and creative effort writing something that no-one ever reads? She knew, however, that in order to do that she had to find herself an uninhabited little corner nobody else had colonized – and the one she aimed at was a book review site for that mythical creature “The Common Reader”. In other words she wanted to review ALL sorts of books, not just literary fiction.
When she first started the site – in October of 2007 – the vast majority of the people who read it and commented on it were fellow members of WriteWords – a site for authors and would-be authors. The Vulpes statistics had plateaued at 2,500 to 3,000 hits a month – impressive enough for a newborn blog – but it wasn’t about to set the world on fire. The arrival of romantic fiction through its hallowed portals brought in a new readership … and that was only the beginning.
We were already running successful interviews with authors and publishers but we decided to branch out a bit a try our hand at feature pieces on topics that were of interest to the book and publishing community in general. Our very first – Fox in the City – was a spectacular success. It was basically about the nature and purpose of book blog book reviews versus newspaper book reviews – and it generated a HUGE amount of interest. For one thing, it was even-handed and well researched and for another it was a subject upon which everybody had an opinion. Susan Hill’s wonderfully inflammatory thoughts on the subject were quoted, and Robert McCrum, then Books Editor of the Guardian, took Lisa by surprise by responding promptly and courteously to her email to him asking him for his views.
It was the latter – Robert McCrum – who provided us with our first big kick up the blogging ladder and it came out of the blue one Sunday morning. Robert was retiring from his job at the Guardian, and he wrote a farewell piece in the Observer.
When I logged on to Vulpes that Sunday morning I was more than a little startled to see our stats were going through the roof. After a little investigation, I discovered that the culprit was none other than Mr McCrum, who in his valedictory piece was talking about the major changes in the book world in the 10 years he had been Books Editor. One of those major changes was the rise of the book blogs. Now he generally has very little time for book blogs and bloggers but, extraordinarily, he made an exception in our case, linking to us with the words, “a highly responsible blog like Vulpes Libris …”
Since then, we’ve done a couple of equally popular what you might call “issue” pieces.
The first was a ‘drop everything and make space’ piece on the subject of Age-banding on children’s books. It became a hot topic almost overnight and, taking a wild punt, Eve (our reviewer of Young Adult books) contacted Darren Shan to ask if he’d like a platform for his views. He came back with a superb piece on why it was wrong in so many ways and the next thing we knew the cult author Neil Gaiman had linked to it – and up went the stats again.
That’s one of the great things about Vulpes: its flexibility. Because there are so many of us – with at least two or three of us usually skulking in the undergrowth most days – we have the ability to respond to events when they happen and as they happen. The last time we did that was this Easter, when a virtual firestorm broke over Amazon’s head. They’d been caught out apparently ‘adjusting’ their rankings system so that GLBT – Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender – books didn’t show up in searches. The immediate suspicion, of course, was that they were bowing to pressure from the uber-conservative lobby in the US. Now, some might say that being a family-friendly site, Amazon has a perfect right to do anything they liked to protect their business. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get their story straight. When confronted with the situation, they kept moving their own goalposts. First they said it was ALL ‘Adult’ material, but then it was pointed out that books like Easton-Ellis’s American Psycho were still showing up in searches. Many would – and did – simply shrug their shoulders and say “So what – a few gay books? If people want to read that stuff, they know where to find it …”
Well – the ‘stuff’ that was no longer showing up on Amazon’s rankings included:
E M Forster’s Maurice.
Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.
Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain.
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.
Mary Renault’s The Charioteer …
The list was endless and stunning – and a massive Twitter campaign took flight called #amazonfail. So huge was it that Amazon’s share price actually started to twitch …
Being Easter, Vulpes was almost deserted … and only Rosy and I were around – being a couple of tragic little Billy-no-Mates. Rosy thought we ought to do SOMETHING, so she contacted Anne Brooke – then an occasional guest reviewer, now a fully fledged Book Fox. She was one of the authors affected and it turned out that she hadn’t gone anywhere for Easter either. We offered her a Soapbox, and she grabbed it with both hands, producing a terrific piece which went live on the afternoon of Easter Monday. It was another massively popular piece … and we were the ONLY book blog – major or otherwise – who could move fast enough to cover the controversy while it was still in progress.
Eventually, Amazon backed right down, said it was a cataloguing error by someone in France (that’s right guys – if all else fails, blame foreigners) and within about a week all rankings had been more or less restored.
We may never know what they were actually trying to do when it all went so horribly pear-shaped on them … but you can be fairly certain they won’t try it again. It was a real case of people-power forcing a mega corporation to back down … and we were right in there, doing our little vulpine bit, nipping the backs of their legs …
The Book Foxes come from a broad range of backgrounds with a matching range of experience, knowledge and interests and an age spread from early 20s to – well, ‘approaching retirement age’, shall we say? And I think that’s part of what makes us so successful. On paper, we really shouldn’t get on that well together, and indeed in the early days, when we were all thrown together in the Den – which is the message board where we all gather to discuss Vulpes business – we sort of circled each other warily, scenting the air and trying to work out what manner of thieves we’d fallen among. Since then, many of us have actually met each other – and it’s fascinating how well we get on in real life, too.
We bitch, we occasionally argue and sometimes one of us goes off in a sulk – but in general, we manage to bicker our way to the best decision – because it’s informed by so many different attitudes and opinions and a genuine desire to do what’s best for Vulpes.
We’re always looking for ways to improve … new ideas for theme weeks, which are always immensely popular … new ideas for feature pieces, publisher interviews … and we’re also always on the lookout for new reviewers.
There’s lack of XY chromosomes on the site. It isn’t deliberate, it’s just the way it happened; but we did feel the lack of a male voice … a man brings a very different set of values and skills to book reviewing … not better, just different. We didn’t, however, want to risk unbalancing the stable group dynamic that already existed – which was an obvious danger – and additionally, of course, some men simply wouldn’t cope too well with entering a female-dominated environment.
So, we started out by sort of test-driving a few men (sorry guys – it was the first phrase that came to mind) who were friends and colleagues of the Foxes. Alex Pheby was the first to write a guest piece for us (and we’d love him to join us on a permanent basis one day), followed by Michael Carley and Michael Ng, both of whom are now Vulpes regulars – time, tide and real life permitting.
Our other regular male reviewer, however, came from a completely unexpected direction – and that’s a whole other chapter in the Life Story of Vulpes Libris …
Right back in the autumn of 2007, we were trying to think of ways of raising our profile and came up with the idea of interviewing ‘celebrities’ about their reading habits. I offered up Harry Enfield as our first interviewee. Harry is a Patron of the charity that I run – and I’ve known him on a personal and professional basis for about 20 years. I asked, he agreed and his interview effectively became our passport – he made it ‘safe’ for others to follow – although we’re frankly lucky Russell Brand didn’t sue us …
Following the success of the interview with Harry, I started casting around for another victim – and I remembered that when I wrote a short piece on my favourite romantic novels for Valentine’s Day, and mentioned Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night … we got a massive response from women (mostly of ‘a certain age’) saying “Oh me too …”. That started a train of thought. What, I asked myself, if I approached Edward Petherbridge?
I emailed him, explained what I was after, pointed him at Harry’s interview – and to my utter astonishment, he came straight back with a “Delighted to. Fire away …”.
Initially, he was understandably cautious – but as we corresponded, he relaxed and the final, finished interview is STILL bringing in readers by the cartload – well over a year after it first appeared. He subsequently asked if we’d be interested in carrying an extract from his forthcoming autobiography – A Leaning Towards the Theatre – which was another big success for us. He and daughter Dora are currently working on a joint review for us … so watch this space.
Our third celebrity interviewee was American-born actor Jay Benedict. He’s not as well-known to the public as our other interviewees to date, because the vast majority of his work is done behind the scenes in post-production, but one of his (entirely too) infrequent front-of-camera roles was as Captain John Kieffer, the US Army officer befriended by Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War. He was only in two episodes, but they made a big impact and his interview promptly became our most popular feature ever – staying at the top of the list until earlier this year when it was finally unseated by Five Things I Hate about Chicklit.
When I first contacted him to ask for an interview, he immediately assumed I wanted him to review books for us … and was a bit taken aback when I said that no, I wanted to interview him. But he’d planted the thought, and when I asked him if he WOULD like to review books, he jumped at the chance – since when he’s produced a string of reviews and feature pieces in his own, inimitable, style. He’s engaging, conscientious and a pro to the ends of his fingers, but I’m sure he won’t mind me observing that he was plainly on the other side of the planet when they were handing out the ‘edit’ buttons. It is, he says, the only way he knows how to write. His first review – of Marion Boyar’s bilingual version of Amin Zaoui’s Banquet of Lies – was pure stream-of-consciousness and contained a brilliant but borderline-acceptable pun about necrophilia. Happily, it suited the book superbly well and the publishers were absolutely delighted …
In another review he described incest as ‘relatively boring’. This, unfortunately, was around the time of the Josef Fritzl case in Austria, and I thought it was just too sensitive a subject to joke about at that precise moment. He took it very well, but was disappointed. He had, he said sadly, included the incest joke especially for me. How touching is that? An incest joke just for me …
Our fourth celebrity interviewee made us fear for the WordPress servers. It took over a year to land an interview with Richard Armitage and when it finally went live his fans descended on us in their thousands. It was a truly scary thing to witness. Every time you hit the ‘refresh’ button, the hit counter had jumped another 20 …
Scouring the internet, I’ve seen more than a few people asking WHY he chose, and I quote, ‘an obscure internet blog’ (thanks guys) for his first major interview after biting the dust as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood.
It’s a fair question, and I THINK the answer to that question is also the explanation of why Vulpes Libris has become so successful so quickly. Leena was absolutely on the money when she decided to pitch the site at the common reader. Because we – the Book Foxes – are such a wildly diverse bunch, so are the pieces we write. Look at the site on any given week, and you’ll find a deadly serious and thought provoking article on the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, nestling right beside an analysis of the lyrics of Kris Kristofferson – or a review of a harrowing book about the Afghan War following hard on the heels of a lunatic piece on the Rocky Horror Show. Chicklit follows Fidel Castro follows a motor-cycle maintenance manual. Yes – we really reviewed a motor cycle maintenance manual – but that’s what happens when you let blokes onto a book blog. The first thing you know, there are unidentified oily bits on the kitchen table.
We walk a very fine line between heavyweight intellectual and insanely frivolous – and we apparently manage to do it without alienating anyone – because all our old faithfuls – from the days when we were just a little baby blog – still pop up from time to time. In effect, we’ve somehow learned how to walk with Kings nor lose the common touch.
We also took the decision very early on to take all genres equally seriously (which doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to be serious) and we treat all comers the same. We’ll consider reviewing ANY book – any genre – any form of published work, including self-published and publish on demand as long as we think it’s interesting enough or good enough.
Lisa Glass and I are currently the Co-Admins – nominally ‘in control’ (ho-ho-ho) of proceedings. Happily, we work very well together … and our individual strengths and weaknesses seem to counterbalance each other nicely.
It CAN be a bit knackering. The Book Foxes are all people with healthy egos, large vocabularies and definite opinions, so sometimes it gets a bit lively in the den – BUT – the compensations are HUGE and they make it all worth while.
One of the major compensations (apart from free books) is that, increasingly, writing for Vulpes is like having an Access All Areas pass at a rock concert. Lisa emailed Jamie Byng of Canongate books the other week to ask him if there was any chance of an interview – and the next thing she knew he’d sent her his telephone number and said “Great. Let’s do it now.” She had the interview done and dusted inside two hours.
Remarkably enough we get very few abusive comments … In the nearly two years since we started, I think we’ve only had to delete about four comments. Mind you, one of those was an absolute corker. It was from a man who styled himself ‘gods_messenger’, but whom we promptly christened The Reverend Loon. He was an extreme right wing Protestant from the Bible Belt in the US telling us we were all no better than we ought to be and possessed of somewhat loose morals – if you get my drift – damned for all eternity, and well, yada yada yada … Had he been emailing from Preston I might have been a bit more concerned, but as he was in Alabama, I didn’t lose any sleep over it. It was Jay’s review of Banquet of Lies that triggered it (of course) … and he found the whole thing immensely entertaining, especially when I told him he was the most damned of all for writing filth and consorting with women who were no better than they ought to be … etc, etc, etc …
On the whole however the people who read and comment on our posts are a remarkably civilized bunch. The only review we’ve ever posted that’s attracted less than courteous debate was Eve’s tremendous diatribe on Stephenie Meyers’ ‘Twilight’ novels. She called it – pretty unequivocally – ‘Why I Hate Twilight’. For a while after it went up, there were a few desultory comments from our regulars mostly saying “Oh yeah … absolutely agree. Reactionary twaddle” … but then Google worked its magic and the Twilighters (and anti-Twilighters) found the piece. And by golly, they’re STILL finding the bugger – four months later. There’s blood on the walls. They mostly appear to be about 13 years old, and they shout at each other in capital letters and textspeak. We could close the post to comments, but it’s just so entertaining. I’m sure they wouldn’t be flattered to know how much not-entirely-innocent-fun we’re having at their expense.
It’s also fascinating watching the list of search terms that bring people to our site. It sort of brings you down to earth with a bump … I mea, there you are thinking that people are looking for intellectual stimulus and what not and in fact, top of the league of search terms is BUNNIES.
I kid you not. BUNNIES. And not the Playboy variety – the furry, hoppy variety. Once, long ago, Eve did a coming up post – outlining the forthcoming attractions for the week – and she illustrated it with a photograph of two of her kids’ pet rabbits – cute, fluffy, baby ones. THAT’s the thing that’s bringing them in. BABY BUNNIES.
Next most popular is the nine-tailed fox image we used to illustrate a piece on Manga. Slightly lower down the listings come things like “Pictures of Susan Hill Naked”, the slightly worrying “How long can a rat live under water” and the poignant “Should children be made to keep quiet?”. I can also offer you “Manga with large-breasted girls”, “dangerous blowjobs”, “mushroom costumes”, “Mary Shelley death milk”, “Marmalade roll beaver recipe”, “Monica – Thanks for the misery”, “Pictures of hot horny slutty grandmother”, “Your writing sucks” and my personal favourite – “The big book of lesbian horse stories”.
For me – and I know for most of the others too … one of the most unnerving things is to be reminded that there are people out there actually READING what we write. It’s easy, when we’re in the den, kidding around with each other, hatching plans, discussing theme weeks … to think that we’re just having fun, and amusing ourselves by pretending to be book reviewers and journalists. Then something happens … and it all gets scary. A big-name author links to us – like Anthony Horowitz – or as happened at the time of the US elections, Reuters syndicates a review (of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father) on their website. The Guardian books page, CNN, the BBC and the New York Times have all picked up articles and linked to them … and then 5,000 people all pile in on the same day to read an interview with an actor. It really does give you pause, because at moments like that, when you realize you’re being taken seriously – when big name publishers like Heinemann contact you – you sort of freeze up. It’s the online version of stage fright. After we found out about the Reuters post we all just sat around and muttered “My mind’s gone blank … I can’t write a coherent sentence … oh I just did …”.
And that’s part of the thrill of thing … I live and work in the Lake District – which is lovely … but it’s also a very long way from the hub of things. I seldom leave Cumbria … hell, I seldom leave West Cumbria. It’s tricky for me go anywhere that necessitates me being away overnight … but because of Vulpes Libris I don’t feel remotely trapped. It brings the world to me in a truly wonderful way … and I’m profoundly grateful that two years ago, I clicked on that link in Leena’s email and said “What the hell” …
(The photograph of the Sassy Fox seen a shop window is courtesy of Svadilfari on Flickr and is reproduced under a Creative ommons Licence.)