It seems that the speech Dr Hessayon gave at the recent Garden Media Guild awards has created a bit of a stir. He wasn’t very optimistic about the future of gardening books, and in particular reference books, suggesting that the internet is killing them off. It was a statement that a substantial part of the audience, the assembled writers and publishers, probably didn’t want to hear. Then came a feature on the Guardian’s website entitled ‘Why are gardening books so boring?’ by Lucy Masters.
I LOVE books and always have, well, apart from a period of about a year after my degree when I couldn’t get beyond the second page of any book I picked up. My year at university had been a case of book overload and had taken the pleasure out of reading; I needed a break. It was gardening books that got me reading again. Wellyman bought me a set of Alan Titchmarsh books. We had just moved home from living abroad. I was stuck in a hotel on my own before we could move into our flat and all of our possessions were still in storage. I devoured those books in a day, mentally planning out a garden.
I advise anyone I know who takes on an allotment to spend the winter months reading as many gardening books as possible, taking notes and formulating ideas, then they can start the growing season with confidence and a plan. That’s the brilliant thing about gardening, you don’t need to go to college to be able to learn enough to have a beautiful garden and productive allotment. But are there the books out there to teach and inspire gardeners? If anyone has been to the RHS bookshop at Wisley it would be hard to say there isn’t enough choice. Some subjects have been covered more than others in recent years. The popularity of urban gardens and allotments mean there are container books and grow your own fruit and vegetable books galore. But this isn’t unusual, it happens with anything that has become popular, authors and publishers are simply capturing the zeitgeist of recent times.
I don’t think there is much doubt that the internet will have an impact, if it has not done so already, on gardening reference books. I’m much more likely whilst I’m writing to search online if I need information quickly. But, when I’m in the garden and I’m not sure how to prune a particular plant or I’m wondering which pest is chomping on the leaves in front of me it’s a book I’ll turn to. When my hands are covered in soil, I need some tips quickly and I’m gingerly tiptoeing through the kitchen trying not to shower everywhere with compost a book is much more forgiving than a computer keyboard. Perhaps the reference book’s days aren’t numbered just yet.
Complaints about gardening books seem to focus on the idea that many books are ‘celebrity’ driven, that books are aimed at too broad an audience and books are too often pitched at the non-experienced gardener. All these factors are driven by economics; is a book commercially viable? Perhaps it’s unpalatable but the reality is that publishers need to produce books which will sell well if they are to at very least recoup their costs. It shouldn’t then be any surprise that authors with a TV presence prove to be popular with publishers. They already have a large audience of fans and potential buyers. There are books by well-known faces which make me wonder what else are they offering but a ‘celebrity’ author doesn’t have to mean a lack of substance or knowledge. Alys Fowler and James Wong are both hugely knowledgeable and have inspired young and old alike to look at food and plants in a different way. Some of my own favourite gardening books are by Carol Klein, a gardener and writer who exudes enthusiasm for her subject, and Monty Don writes thoughtfully about connecting with the soil and nature. To dismiss these writers simply because they are on TV would mean missing out on some great reading.
Go to a publisher with what they consider a niche idea for a book and if they can’t make the figures add up then you’ll be unlikely to get it commissioned. There’s the option for an author to self-publish but it isn’t an easy option. New avenues are opening up such as Unbound but to get the money you would still need a profile of some description to gain funding from the public.
Working out where to pitch a book can be tricky too. Don’t write about the basics and you could exclude those new to the subject and not provide a comprehensive coverage of a topic, include the basics and you risk annoying the more experienced gardener who thinks ‘Blah, blah, blah, I know all this already’. Certainly what I have learnt from gardening is that no matter how experienced you are someone else may have a tip or sliver of information, however simple, that you haven’t thought of or come across before.
The other problem is the value put on writing itself. In a world where free content is increasing are people willing to pay for creativity any more? Few people would probably say they like advertising but it makes paid for content possible in magazines and newspapers. I remember an interview with Ian Hislop where he explained why Private Eye hadn’t gone down the route of free online content. He said he had explained to his children that if they ever wanted a job in the creative industries how would they ever earn a living if their work was given away for free. The perceptions of worth seem to be changing too? I overheard a couple complaining about the price of a book in a shop recently. It was the same price as the the bottles of wine they had in their trolley but they obviously didn’t see the value in a book they could go back to again and again. Creating a book is time-consuming, in some cases it can feel as if it has taken over your life. Unfortunately advances don’t cover the true time spent creating the book and so the author waits, hoping they’ve made something people want to buy. The phrase ‘deferred gratification’ couldn’t be more apt than for writing a book. More knowledgeable gardeners may crave specialist books. But the more niche a book the less of an audience and the less likely the author is ever to be rewarded for their efforts. And so, in the immortal words of ABBA ‘Money, Money, Money’ is the driving force. Whether it’s authors needing to make some sort of living and having to make compromises, whether it’s publishers needing to turn a profit and whether it’s consumers making choices with how and where they spend their own cash.
It’s quite a gloomy prospect, particularly for a new author but I didn’t want to end on such a negative thought because I do think there are some fabulously interesting and inspiring books out there. So here are my suggestions for useful and inspiring garden reading:
- I love all of Carol Klein’s books but my favourite is ‘Grow Your Own Garden’. A subject which could be dry and dull but this is neither. Informative and enjoyable with useful tables at the back for quick reference.
- Monty Don’s ‘The Jewel Garden’. He writes with a passion and eloquence about the making of his garden, the depression he suffers from and how the connection with the soil helps to heal him.
- Cleve West’s ‘Our Plot‘. A celebration of allotments this isn’t a ‘how to grow’ book but with a plethora of those to choose from anyway this is no bad thing. Should be required reading for planners who should understand how important spaces for growing are in our communities.
- Alan Titchmarsh ‘How to be a Gardener’ and the ‘Complete Gardener’. I would recommend these to any first time gardener. Packed full of information to start you on a lifetime of gardening.
- Anything by Alys Fowler and Mark Diacono for their fresh approaches to writing and growing.
- Charles Dowding’s ‘Salad Leaves for all Seasons’. This man knows his stuff. Ditch the supermarket salad bags of soggy leaves and grow your own.
- Other favourites include Val Bourne’s Ten Minute Gardener books, any of Anna Pavord’s books and Elspeth Thompson’s writing.
I’d love to hear what you think about gardening books. Which are your favourites, the authors you love and what books you would like to see published in the future?