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Making reading cool

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 New Zealand.

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 too.

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 through books?

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.

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Top 10 Reviewers 
Tim 445
Chris 239
Elizabeth Collingwood 106
Hilary Martin 59
Rebecca Varley-Winter 57
Alex Varley-Winter 56
Helen Sanders 53
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Daniel Vining 41
Fiona McCollum 38