Take a deep breath, bookoxygen is here

Elsbeth Lindner • 03 April 2012

A new literary website will aim to redress the biases in traditional coverage of books. Elsbeth Lindner explains
The truth is that major publishers put out more books written by men than women. Print publications write more about books written by men. [American] National Public Radio discusses more books written by men. Unsurprisingly, the bestseller list is dominated by books written by men: men outnumbered women 25 to 11 on last year's number-one-best-seller fiction charts. (Eugenia Williamson, article in the Boston Phoenix, 25/1/2012)

Gender bias in book pages, as well as on radio and TV, on both sides of the Atlantic, has become a hot topic once more. Statistics published by Vida revealing the continuing bias against women's work have underpinned a slew of articles such as Williamson's above and Alison Flood's in the Guardian which included ratios such as: of 1,163 reviews in the TLS in 2011, 30% were by women, and of 1,314 authors reviewed, 25% were women.

Whether the current wave of transmedia controversy and outrage results in more women appearing on The Today Programme and in television presenter slots remains to be seen, but it's clear that, despite the Orange Prize and endless statistics about women reading more than men, the book world still has much to do in correcting the gender imbalance in literary coverage.

The new literary website www.bookoxygen.com is committed to helping achieve exactly that. I'm setting up bookoxygen - which launches progressively through the month of April - for several reasons. For one, print review pages aren't what they were. Some are still splendid resources, but with physical newspapers under threat, it's likely that the future of books pages will follow the shrinkage/watering down trend seen in the US over recent years.

Yet the appetite for books is high, as is the search for reliable opinion. Blogs and Amazon reviews are all well and good, but informed comment by writers and book professionals still matters to readers who want signposts and critical insight, and publishers seeking word-of-mouth endorsement. So bookoxygen, which devotes itself to book reviews and book-related material, exists to offer knowledgeable opinions on new publications, not just once a week but on a daily, rolling basis.

Also, and as the name suggests, bookoxygen is there to buoy up books and writers. We all know about the gargantuan number of new books released each year. We also know that the big books soak up the larger part of the marketing and publicity budgets. My intention is to offer a wider range of titles, from a broader range of publishers - in particular, small presses - than conventional spaces do.

And then, as mentioned and equally importantly, the space will trend towards women, both as authors and contributors. If the current bias in reviewing is at least 60/40 or worse in favour of men, bookoxygen's content will be at least 60/40 or better in favour of women.

There will be some non-fiction among the selection of titles covered, but mostly bookoxygen will devote itself to fiction. Why? Because that's what I do.

Yes, the fourth imperative is purely subjective. As a book addict with over four decades of experience in the book business - as editor, publisher, author and reviewer - I've been aching to start my own enterprise for some years, and the magic of the web now means I can do this at pensionable age without mortgaging my future. Having worked for brutalist conglomerates and idiosyncratic entrepreneurs, it's time to indulge my own monomania.

Reviewers for bookoxygen will include Elaine Feinstein, Sara Maitland, Rachel Hore, Caroline Sanderson and Zoe Fairbairns; author contributions will include Michael Ridpath on changing genres, debut novelist Clare Jacob on narrative overlap in law and fiction, and an unpublished short story by IMPAC-shortlistee Michael Crummey; there will also be items on upcoming festivals, coverage of films and other book-derived media, news and more. Readers excited by what they read will be able to click through from any book cover on the site to buy the book at 15% discount from independent bookseller Belgravia Books.

Publishers who haven't already responded to the bookoxygen call are invited to contact me at elsbethbookoxygen@o2.co.uk, as are industry professionals and writers interested in reviewing for the site.

Now, take a deep breath...