Seeing squares

How social media is changing the way we look at books

“Everything else was, you know, book-shaped. They were roughly twice as tall as they were wide and sat neatly in rows on the shelves…”

Does anyone remember the Mr Men books? They’re still going strong, I believe, with everyone from ‘Mr Tickle’ to ‘Little Miss Contrary’ making children giggle.

I mention them because they’re the only children’s books from ‘back in my day’ I could think of that were square. Everything else was, you know, book-shaped. They were roughly twice as tall as they were wide and sat neatly in rows on the shelves, spines giving little hints as to what lay within.

Now that I’ve written a children’s book – a notion that still baffles me, to be honest – I have had to delve rather more deeply into the genre. More specifically, I have had to find out what is The Standard, and how far that can be ‘tweaked’ in order to make a book stand out just far enough that it looks appealing, but not so far as to be alarming.

“We are told to never judge books by their covers but, come on, we all do…”

While investigating, I discovered that there is now an entire community of people on Instagram who are known as Bookstagrammers: they photograph books, they review books, they share books. I have to admit I have always thought the finest décor for a house is a wall covered in shelves of books: it’s friendly, beckoning, and beautiful, and a peek into the homeowner’s mind. I have some stunning editions of books, leather-bound or cloth-bound or miniaturised or oversized. We are told to never judge books by their covers but, come on, we all do…

The thing is, I have always cared about the content of the book, too. I have cared about the characters I’ve encountered (sometimes more than people I’ve met in the real world) and the lives they have led; I can still read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and be genuinely worried that somehow, this time, Elizabeth and Darcy may not end up together. Reading Just One More Chapter has given me more sleepless nights than any relationship ever has.

I suspect – and here I expect a barrage of abuse and derision, but I’ll write it anyway – that many of these bookstagrammers couldn’t give two hoots about the content of the books they share. The reviews are often meaningless and unhelpful – ‘the illustrations are lovely!’ is great to know but doesn’t really give us a great reason to buy the book… ‘It’s a really important book to share with your child!’ they may say of a book for three year olds that consists entirely of nude pictures and stupid comments about why being ‘nude isn’t rude’ (why does this book exist? Why?). Ah, but! But, dear reader! They have taken a stunning photograph of the book – possibly with Small Child attached and looking Suitably Enchanted – and that is enough to merit a ‘like’ on Instagram. ‘Likes’, you see, keep the world turning.

And what shape are the images we see on Instagram? Why, they are square. Genuinely, I believe that publishers are now printing square children’s books far more than they ever used to in order to satisfy the needs and whims of these bookstagrammers. Can anyone who is vacuous and presumptuous enough to call themselves an ‘influencer’ really engage with books and their content – or do they just want a nice cover that is easy to photograph?

 

Reading Just One More Chapter has given me more sleepless nights than any relationship ever has.”

The books produced today are given less thought than ever. Given a damp weekend and a little determination, anyone can write and create a book by Monday morning, publish it via the likes of Amazon, and then disperse it liberally around the world by declaring themselves an Expert in whatever niche they have selected. Here’s the new trick: make it square, and Instagram will love it. Harsh? Possibly. Touch of truth to it…? I’d say so.

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