Beth Barker speaks to The Publishing Profile about her love of Russian literature and beautiful books.
My name is Beth and I’m originally from Blackpool, now living and working in Manchester. By day I am a Marketing Coordinator and by night I assist with events at my favourite bookshop, Blackwell’s Manchester. We host a variety of events, not only in the shop but across the city. Outside of work I love reading books about women, the working class and the North.
How did you get into publishing?
I think bookselling or book events are often missed out of the publishing bracket, so it’s nice to see myself considered as a part of the industry in this question! I started blogging about books years ago and whilst I was studying for my English Literature degree, I saw that Blackwell’s were hiring student ambassadors for Freshers’ Week. After a couple of weeks directing students to the shop (and talking about books 24/7), I was offered a job as an Events Assistant. Ever since then I’ve been selling books, pouring wine and sharing my favourite reads with so many different people and have loved every second!
Has your role in the industry widened your reading taste, and how has it changed your attitude to different genres of books?
The answer to this question is definitely two-fold. In a way, working at the shop has allowed me to solidify my tastes and find more of what I love. My manager (shout out to David!) reads a lot of the same books as me; we both love reading women and finding new and diverse debut authors to shout about. This means that as soon as I finish a book I love, I’m never short of similar recommendations. In another sense, it has actually widened my perspective of books and how different genres are often perceived. Studying English Lit at a Russell Group uni can often leave you with an elitist taste in your mouth but working events has shown me that not all books have to be ‘literary’. A book is a book, and different people digest stories differently. I spent a full Saturday selling books at the Romantic Novelists’ Association and met so many brilliant authors and readers who recommended me books which I might never have come across before because they’ve been dubbed too commercial or thrown into the (reprehensible) chick-lit category. I hate snobbery towards certain genres because more often than not, it’s rooted in classism and elitist nonsense.
What reading formats do you prefer? Do you prefer hardbacks, paperbacks, eBooks, audiobooks, library books, or a mixture?
I’m not too fussy when it comes to reading and truly believe that variety is the spice of life. If I’m taking a risk with a new book I’m not sure of, I’ll often get the audio or e-book. I know a lot of people don’t like hardbacks, and they are hugely impractical, but I love how they fit together so nicely on the bookshelf. However, you’re most likely to find me with a paperback. They’re bendy, easy to annotate and you can fit at least five of them into a tote bag at any one time. I propose we replace hardbacks with paperbacks that have flaps since these are the ultimate book format of choice. Library books are always a big winner for me too. I haven’t read as many as I’d have liked in recent years, but most of my childhood was spent in the local library and they’re a lifeline for many — we should do what we can to support that crucial part of the industry.
Where do you buy or access your books?
Since I work in a bookshop, I do buy a lot of my books there, but I also like to try and share my (limited) funds out to places that they mean the most to. Independent bookshops are essential to the publishing industry and although there really aren’t many near where I live, I shop on their websites when I can. I also love little second-hand shops which always seem to be harbouring gems with rare covers, as well as charity bookshops too. I’m happy to buy my books from lots of places, as long as they’re not from Amazon.
Is there an event that you were part of that you are particularly proud of? Why is that?
My favourite event to date has got to be the Portico Prize readings and awards ceremony. As I’ve mentioned, I’m hugely passionate about Northern writing and I love that the prize seeks to answer that ambiguous question: what is the spirit of the North? I’m still not sure I know the answer, but I felt warm and inspired and excited by the growing appreciation for northern literature at both of these events. It was great to hear authors read with an eclectic mix of accents and a variety of stories to tell which aren’t always represented in the books at the forefront of the industry.
What is your most-read genre?
My most read genre is definitely literary fiction, specifically written by women. I love reading new stories that subvert form in different ways or experiment creatively, as well as in content. My niche sub-genre attractions include, but aren’t limited to, Russian literature and poetry, stories about the seaside, true crime, mythological subversions and unlikeable female protagonists.
What childhood books have you kept on your shelves?
This is an interesting one and it kind of made me sad that most of my childhood books are getting dusty on my shelf back in Blackpool. I do have a few with me though. There’s a copy of 1984 that my Dad gave me as a young teen, battered and probably published sometime in the 80s when he read it. That migrates between my house and his as he likes to re-read it every now and again. I’ve got a stack of Point Horror’s — tacky, problematic and hilarious — which I used to be obsessed with around age 11, and recently read alongside the Teenage Scream podcast. Heather Parry and Kirsty Logan dissect the books through a modern lens, and it is truly brilliant.
What is the oldest book on your shelf?
The oldest book on my shelf is probably a copy of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, in Russian, which I stole from a shelf in Wetherspoons during the peak of my Russian literature obsession, aged 17. I did work at the pub so I probably could have just asked for it. I collected a series of them over the years that I worked there, and they were all stamped by the same hospital library. When I looked closer, I realised they were all owned by the same person in the 60s, and they had annotated the margins and written notes in the back about love and Russian poetry. They’re very special to me and I’ll never give them up.
What’s the most beautiful book you own?
This is a really hard question, and one I’m not sure I know the answer to it. I love the burnt-orange fabric cover of Nigel Slater’s Green Feast: Autumn & Winter and my 1970s edition of Orlando by Virginia Woolf. I have two old copies of Pat Barker’s Blow Your House Down too, which is one of my favourite books. Virago’s vintage covers are always stunning.
Who is your most read author, and why?
Because I read a lot of contemporary and debut literature, I don’t have many authors who stand out as someone who I’ve read a lot from. There are a few authors who I always return to though, including Gordon Burn, Margaret Atwood, bell hooks, Kamila Shamsie, Pat Barker, Naomi Booth and Ottessa Moshfegh.
What surprises you about your shelves? Is there a book you own that you were surprised to love as much as you did?
I’m surprised to find that I really enjoy reading cookbooks. I’m not a big fan of actually cooking, but I love reading about food and the creative descriptions that writers come up with to document the process. Supper Club by Lara Williams really made this happen for me, I think. She wrote about cooking as an act of taking back power over our bodies, especially as women. I really love this.
What are your favourite books of 2020 so far?
I’ve had an amazing year for reading so far, so I won’t list them all. But my top five so far has got to be: Boy Parts by Eliza Clark, Exit Management by Naomi Booth, Girl, Women, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami and The Five by Hallie Rubenhold.
What are your most anticipated reads for the rest of 2020?
There are so many incredible books coming out this year! I’m currently making my way through The Mission House by Carys Davies (published by Granta); it’s incredible so far and I think it’ll be a big hit in the reading community. I’m also excited for people to experience the electric Boy Parts by Eliza Clark, coming in July from Influx Press. In terms of books I’m yet to get my hands on, I can’t wait to read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Sisters by Daisy Johnson, Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh, and Sayaka Murata’s next book translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori who also translated Convenience Store Woman. So many great women writers publishing books at the moment, I’m loving it!
What book should everyone read?
Saltwater by Jessica Andrews, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, of course.