A presentation to the Annual PA / BA
Children's Books Seminar on 'Teenage kicks: writing, selling and reading books
for young adults'
by Chris & Tim Cross and Elizabeth Collingwood
Monday 12 May 2003, Waterstone’s Piccadilly, London
The cool-reads site
How it started - How it works - Facts & figures
The cool-reads site review site of books for 10-15 year
old readers by 10-15 year old reviewers was launched in January 2001. It then
had 135 rather short reviews, and looked much simpler than now.
After Michael Thorn from Achuka sent a message about
cool-reads to everyone on his mailing list, we received lots of supportive
emails from all over the world. This really motivated us. Soon after that
cool-reads was featured in newspapers. The site began to get lots of visitors.
Parents, teachers , librarians and booksellers started checking the site. Some
authors and publishers started visiting. Once we made it possible for people
to send in their views and comments we also started getting lots more hits
from young people.
The cool-reads site has changed quite a lot over the
years, and is currently on version 4. It has also become quite popular. In
February, March and April 2003 we have received 3 million hits from 100,000
unique IP addresses. Most are from the UK, but also from USA, Australia and
The main component of the cool-reads site is the database
of reviews. There are now about 550 by Tim and Chris and another 950 that have
been sent in by other cool-readers - approximately 1500 in total. We allow a
maximum of three reviews of the same book.
Once people have registered, they can send in reviews via
a form on the site. The reviews then go to a database on the server that
others cannot access. Once every week or ten days we check this and download
the new submissions. Once the decent reviews have been checked for spelling
and other problems, we upload them to the site. We used to try and send
feedback to everybody who sent in a review. We had to stop that partly because
people made mistakes with their email addresses, and partly because we are
just receiving too many reviews. Some weeks we get 50-70. We probably accept
between 1/4 to 1/3 of the reviews that are sent in. If you don't count Tim and
Chris, the reviews on cool-reads are 2/3 by girls and 1/3 by boys.
Most of the reviews come from the UK and Ireland, but
people from Australia and New Zealand also contribute and we are starting to
get a lot from the USA and Canada. Regular contributors can become star
reviewers. Then their picture appears on the site & their reviews have a star
next to them.
How 10-15 yr olds have
their say on cool-reads
Sending in reviews:
When people first start
sending reviews to cool-reads, they mostly choose books they really like. Once
people start reviewing regularly, they will also warn others not to bother
with certain books. Featuring negative reviews is probably one way that
cool-reads is a bit different from newspaper articles and radio programmes
that review teenage books. They usually just recommend titles.
The other thing that is different about cool-reads is
that the reviews are written by the people the books are published for. One
might have thought that this would be obvious, but the reviews of children's
and young adult books that appear in the weekend papers are mostly written by
authors who write those kinds of books themselves.
If you don't want to write a whole review, another way of
giving an opinion about a book is to post a comment on an existing review.
The third way people contribute to the site is through
the discussion forum, which gets lots of visitors. It's organised into themes
like Lord of the Rings versus Harry Potter. The forum is increasingly popular,
and currently has over 280 members, 340 topics and about 6000 posts!
What cool-readers like and don't like
About book covers
One of the things there have quite lively discussions about on the forum is
what cool-readers like and don't like about book covers. Everybody agrees that
cover design is really important. While there will always be somebody who
thinks the opposite, there were some points most of us agreed with.
Things cool-readers don't like:
· (Staring faces) A lot of people don't like books with a close-up of a
face staring out at you. It puts you off if you don't like the look of the
person & you want to imagine the characters.
· (Bright Pink) A lot of people really hate bright pink covers. It makes
them look cheap & tacky and immediately turns off any male readers.
· (Deception) It is important that book covers are not deceptive.
· (Modern Classics) Most young people hate books labelled Modern Classics.
· (School versions) Why do the school versions that are produced for bulk
buying have really bad covers? Being forced to read things like this probably
puts loads of people off reading.
· (Book award stickers on covers) When cool-reads carried out an online
survey last year, only 5% said that a book having won a book award might make
them want to read it. A lot of young people think awards are pretty
meaningless because the (adult) judges usually only look for deep inner
meanings or 'emotional intelligence'.
Things young people do like:
· Photograph covers are good if they are well done and reasonably simple.
· Most teenagers also like simple graphic covers with a strong central
image. Something quite stark often works well.
· (Decent synopsis) Young people like a book to have a decent synopsis on
the back - and not just quotes - but it shouldn't give too much away.
We disagree about quotes on the back of books. A lot of the people we
talked to said they might be persuaded to buy a book if it had a positive
quote by an author they really like, but it can have the opposite effect if
the quote is by someone you don't like. Quotes by famous sportspeople or TV
personalities seem pretty irrelevant to most of us. Quotes by other teenage
readers can be good, but if it just says '13 year old boy' it can look like
something that has just been made up.
About books in general
When cool-reads carried out a survey last year, one of the questions was
about what put people off reading a book. It is clear is that being told the
book is a classic, or being pushed to read it, or being recommended it at
school or by parents are ways of putting young people off reading a particular
book. Forty per cent of answers were of this type with the remainder divided
between the book being too childish, too long or difficult or a book being
dressed up as fiction when it was actually just a load of facts organised as a
story. Most people agree that it totally kills a book to have to study and
analyse it in school, even if it's a good book.
A lot of us are also very wary of 'issuey' books. Books need to be about
things teenagers want to know about and can relate to. It's good when books
get to the point quickly, and when they're about realistic teenage characters.
A lot of young people like 'edgy' books. Humour is good in teenage fiction
Telling teenagers about books
Teenagers hate being pushed around or told what to do. If you want to
encourage teenagers to read, then you need to let them know about books they
might enjoy, without putting pressure on them. Book posters around schools can
work, as can leaflets and guides that tell you about a range of books. Young
people tend to like certain kinds of books.
Why categories are crucial
On the cool-reads site the reviews are organised into categories like
'Survival in the Wild' and 'Spies and undercover missions. This has worked
really well. We often get people emailing us to say that they have read
everything in their favourite category and asking when we will be adding more
reviews. Why not produce book-guides organised into the categories teenagers
like? Best-seller lists organised by category are another good idea.
Why bookshops need a make-over
Bookshops can be really daunting and
unfriendly. The young adult section is next to the multi-coloured children's
section. There will be tables with stacks of new hardbacks which all cost more
than £10. The paperbacks are neatly organised - in alphabetical order - on
shelves with the spines facing you. If you pull out some books at random,
chances are that they will be about some topic (teenage pregnancy/anorexia)
that doesn’t interest you.
There are lots of books that young people like that are not specially
written for teenagers. Maybe it would help young people choose books if they
were organised more by theme, and not just divided into children, young adult
and adult? Another way of giving people information would be to provide a
computer terminal where you could look up lists of books by theme, and maybe
see short reviews.
Lots of young people think that Borders bookshops are brilliant. They
really like the fact that you can take a pile of books to the café inside the
shop and look through them. Because Borders also sell CDs, people might come
in for some music, but stop to look at books as well.
Where we live, Virgin Megastore is a favourite meeting place for young
people. It's stylish, with lots of glass and metal. The lighting's good,
there's music. The music CDs are displayed in racks with the covers facing
you. The racks are all organised into types of music. If you see something
interesting, you can listen to it. The Virgin shop near us is always full of
young people. So is the Body Shop next door. Both these shops are trendy. It's
ok to be there and try everything. They also sell new releases and products in
versions that you can afford straight away.
Maybe bookshops would attract more young people if they were more like CD
shops? Alternatively, books for teenagers could be sold in places that young
people already like going to? The books could be displayed in racks like the
ones for music CDs so you could easily see the covers. One copy of each book
could be labelled 'Read Me' and there could be somewhere to sit and look
They've done something a bit like this in a library in the East End of
London. It used to be all grey and miserable and they redesigned it to look
more like an airport lounge, with a café, smart counters and cool lighting.
Apparently there are now many more young people going there.
We suggest that
- get really good designers to work on the book covers
- remember that teenagers like good stories too
- publish things straight into paperbacks that we can afford
- produce some cool guides to the kinds of books teenagers enjoy reading
- and produce bestseller lists for young people by theme
We have also suggested redesigning the young adult sections of bookshops
and selling books like CDs.
PS We've been really surprised by the success of cool-reads and we would
like it to continue as an independent site once we are out of the 10-15 age
range. If anyone has any helpful ideas we would really like to hear from them.