Interviewer: Peter Houston
John: Chapter Catcher actually grows out of the Brexit crisis. I went into the booth for the referendum completely confused as to what to vote, largely because I knew that there were pluses and minuses to both sides. I voted to stay. So did my wife. But we were both very very confused.
And what made me realise that things were going wrong in my own life was that I hadn’t done my homework. I’d relied on the BBC, I’d relied on Osborne and Cameron. Cameron and Osborne made me feel so fearful that it was really going to be the end of civilisation if we voted to leave.
So I responded to Project Fear, and then I thought well, I still don’t know. I’m not an expert on this, and I’ve just gone through the biggest decision in my life. Wouldn’t it be great if the next time I go through something, I had a deeper, wider reading?
And then I started to talk to people and I realised that most of the people who wanted to stay were, it was a knee jerk gut, you know stay here or whatever, and the people who wanted to leave were people who were feeling they were having a shitty time.
So out of that I developed this idea that what I would do is I would create a magazine that got people reading deeper, and skilling themselves up in arguments, deeper, broader, wider, with more commitment. Because I think one of the problems I had was that I hadn’t really used my education to become an expert on stay or go. And we still don’t know.
But out of that I thought I’m going to create a magazine. Then I come up with this idea of a magazine that was the dumbest magazine you could ever want, because it’s a magazine that made no decisions for you other than it gave you the chance to read 50 chapters from 50 books, where you could make decisions as to whether 25 of them were rubbish and 25 of them were interesting, or you could read the whole lot and say you didn’t like any of them.
And what I wanted to do was to get people involved in their own reading. I realised that literacy is often taken as a major problem in society.
What I found about Brexit was there was a kind of illiteracy amongst the electorate. You’ve got to know what’s been going on in the world. You’ve got to do your homework. You’ve got to burn the candle at both ends if you want to know what’s going on, and that is around reading and thinking. And it’s about educating yourself.
So I came up with this idea of a magazine called Chapter Captures. We launched it two months ago. It’s in about 20 bookshops, we’re doing it very slowly.
Our next push is about another 50 bookshops, then 100 bookshops. It’s going to be a magazine that is available all over the country. And it is 50 chapters. The difference between a chapter in a story, if it was 50 stories then a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A chapter whets your appetite. So you say, oh I’m going to read this book, or whatever.
The other thing is, it’s a bit like browsing. We have lost the art of browsing. So we go to bookshops, and not enough people go to bookshops.
So this magazine serves a number of purposes, one is to drive people to bookshops to buy books. We have a subscription model which is called a social subscript. So you buy a subscription from me, on the internet, you tell me what your local bookshop is, we give half the money to the local bookshop, and we deliver it to them and you pick it up from the bookshop.
So the idea is, you turn a subscription into a social engagement, and you don’t just leave it as something that arrives by Amazon or DHL or whatever. So the idea is to get people to use our bookshops.
I was on a march a couple of years ago from the British Library to Trafalgar Square, and when I spoke to a number of people I said, ‘So when do you go to your bookshop, or when do you go to your library?’ And they all said, ‘Well you know, I get there when I can.’ So they were talking about supporting libraries and bookshops, but a lot of it was just talk.
The best way to support a library is use it, because if you don’t use it, then the council will cut it, and they’re looking for something to go.
And if you want to save your bookshop, buy your books there, don’t buy them on Amazon. Every crime done against a bookshop, I have done myself. So I don’t have the high moral ground. I’m just using myself as an example. I’ve made the mistakes of buying from Amazon and other online people, so I’m saying to myself, I have to change my practices.
Peter: Those stores that you’ve got [the magazine in] at the moment, are they independent bookshops?
John: So yeah they’re independent, we’re not in the chains yet, and I don’t want to be in the chains. I don’t want to be in Waterstones until I’ve got the model working. It launched…we’ve done 5,000 copies, we’ve distributed and sold probably about 3,500 and that’s in beginning of September. The rest will go in the next month, because we’re going to things like book fairs.
And we’re trying to get people to realise that you’ve got to get behind bookshops. If you want to tackle literacy, you have to tackle illiteracy, and literacy. We cannot simply go to colleges and learn to read and write and all that stuff, and then not use it.
Peter: But it’s not about helping people learning to read, it’s about helping people read deeper and broader?
John: That’s exactly right. To connect you with the unfortunate reality that if a child goes into school at 6 today, by the time they enter the workforce at the age of 20 or 21, 60 percent of the jobs that they are going to have, haven’t been invented.
And one of the things that you’re going to need, is you’re going to need maths. You’re going to need reading. You’re going to need to understand history. You’re going to have to need to understand psychology, and all that stuff.
That means you need to read deeper, wider, broader, and not simply – as a lot of us do, and I’ve done it myself as an alternative to watching TV.
Peter: Yeah absolutely. I mean one of the things that, maybe the Guardian article, that you were speaking in, you said you wanted to create a magazine around your own ignorance, and you’ve spoken about that, about the Brexit side of things. But it’s not just about Brexit, is it. The ones in the first issue is Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and then there’s newer stuff like Max Porter. So it’s not just about politics or economics, it’s about society.
John: Well it’s actually about creativity, because the thing is, if you really want to get people to read, you’ve got to inspire them poetically, culturally, socially. You can’t just keep hitting people with politics.
So you’ll find the politics side of our first issues, there’s only about three or four books around politics, environmentalism and all that. But that will grow, all the sections will grow. I mean at the moment it’s a 64 page magazine, and it will probably end up 128 pages, if it goes the right way. And then there will be the website, because then you’ll be able to download this, that and the other.
But the point is, I’m astonished and inspired by how ignorant I am. When I don’t know something, I’ve had the good fortune of being able to admit to people I don’t know things. And when you realise you don’t know something, but you could repair it by reading or talking to people who’ve done it or whatever.
I mean I spent the first years of my life as an anti Semitic, anti black-hating, Indian-hating, Iraqi-hating whatever. So I don’t come from a tradition of reaching out to other members of the human race. And everything has been a journey away from those wells of ignorance, which were all to do with poverty, which were all to do with very devout Catholicism…I’m not saying they’re all like that, but they seemed to be when I was a kid.
And when you move away from that, you’re always aware of the fact that there’s always room for improvement. That the journey hasn’t finished.
So if you’re in love with the idea of helping other people to help themselves to get out of the sticky stuff, it’s always better to say well, I’m still a part of it, or I’ve been a part of it, or I’m coming out of it.
Peter: And that’s one of the things that ties this directly to the Big Issue. Because there’s that experience, a lived experience of homelessness. And then as a lived experience that you’re talking about now. And actually you came to reading quite late, didn’t you?
John: I could look at stuff and kind of read it. And convince people. And carry books. But I could read a page three or four times and I could never understand it. And it was all the little there’s, thens, the… Which I learned in a boys prison, with a screw who realised I couldn’t read, and he said, ‘Oh, why don’t you write…here’s a pencil, here’s a book, put a line under the words you don’t understand’. And he was astonished at how dumb the words were. They weren’t Constantinople or Euripides, it was…because I could see them as a shape.
And I was 16 when I went back from my boy’s prison to my reformatory. And I was astonished at how my comprehension had gone through the roof because the guy, it was the first time I told anybody I couldn’t read and write properly.
Peter: How did you see Chapter Catcher in relation to the Big Issue?
John: Well. They’re different things trying to do the same thing. What Chapter Catcher is trying to do is to get people to get involved in their own redemption, and that is read, broaden, deepen, and the same thing with the Big Issue.
The Big Issue, when I first started, it was a very Scottish thing, because the guy who gave me the money was Scottish and my first group of people who worked with me were all Scottish homeless people. And they all tended to be heavy drinkers, lots of fights, ex Army, it was a bit of a mayhem.
But the thing was, one of the things they immediately grasp, that if they didn’t work selling the paper, they didn’t make any money. Then they would pour it down their throats. But at least they weren’t robbing and begging and shoplifting and getting into trouble.
So immediately, I met a group of people who could, ‘Ah. So this is about me working. So you’re trying to get me working aren’t you.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, because I believe that you are the key to your redemption.’ Other people can help you, but if you don’t turn the corner – which is exactly what happened to me when I got into my late 20s, instead of fiddling and screwing around, I started to work in the print because I’d been taught basic printing when I was in an institution. So even though I was drinking, I was wasting the money in two days, but I wasn’t robbing anybody for it.
I had a number of people who said, ‘Mmm, that’s a novel way of looking at social change,’ rather than saying, sit there, we’ll give you this medication, we’ll give you this social housing, we’ll do everything for you, and then wondering why the fuck they’re still there. So the Big Issue is about passing the solution, the redemption over to you, supporting you.
And we’re trying to do the same with Chapter Catcher, because what we’re saying to people is, the bookshops needs to start using this magazine to push up their sales, otherwise they’re going to go. The libraries have to push up their footfall. So everybody’s got to do their own thing. It can’t be done by legislation.
But the other thing is, people have got to be able to navigate their way in a world which is more and more complex, and more and more difficult to manage. So it’s about self-help, but it’s not self-help in a kind of Margaret Thatcher type way.
Peter: How do you feel about that whole line of reasoning that was rolled out during Brexit that people have had enough of experts, which is diametrically opposed to what you’re trying to do with Chapter Catcher?
John: Well in my editorial I say, if you want expert advice on what to read, look at the Times Literary Supplement, or something like that. But you’ve got to do your own reading. In the end, you’ve got to pass your own exams.
The thing about the Brexit thing which I didn’t like, was the devaluation of expertise. That you had so many experts who were inexpert, it was so extraordinary for me. I knew, to some extent the shit hit the fan in 2015 when I watched the leading political experts watch the Cameron, you know the election when he, after five years he said, let’s have an election, and all the experts said that he was only going to get four or five, it wouldn’t be a working majority.
I sent a message to my editor at the Big Issue who lives up and works up in Scotland and I said, he’s going to get a working majority, and he said, Oh no no. And we had chats and he said no no no. I said no, you’re going to get a working majority. And the reason he’s going to get a working majority is because people are so pissed off with whatever there is.
And I’m basing this on going around talking to people who are saying, the situation of the end of the Coalition is so bad. What they’ve done about student grants, what they’ve done about austerity. But they just want a safe pair of hands.
So I said that. Never heard anybody else speak in those terms. I’m not even an expert. All I am is just a listener to people, to go out, and then I forget the guy’s name, Nick something on the BBC. I’m watching him at 2:00 in the morning, astonished. And the look in his eyes, I thought, I didn’t think you’re very bad at your job. I just thought you devalue what an expert is.
So therefore, what you got is the experts not even reading deeply. The experts not going out talking to the people, the experts were relying on polls. I just thought they’d lost the art of communicating with the community. So here is a major, major crisis of the political expertise, and the economic, nobody having an idea, and that is not – I think expertise is brilliant…
Peter: It’s got to be applied expertise though, not just an opinion.
John: There’s just so many experts in homelessness who wouldn’t recognise a homeless person who was sat on their face.
Peter: So is that why, going back to Chapter Catcher, is that why you’ve got such a broad range of stuff there, that you’re basically saying that people…here’s all this really clever stuff out there from Kafka to Max Porter…
John: We’re stumbling towards a perfectly made magazine. In my opinion, it will get really cracking when all of that stuff will be chosen by the readers. I’m really interested in audience participation.
But for the first couple of issues, we haven’t got the readers. We’ve already started, and it will get really exciting. There’ll still be a bit of editorial choice, because you’ll get 100 people wanting this. But I want to democratise the pages.
And at the same time, add an element of our editorial, so our 10 percent might be, we think you ought to read this, and then other people. But I mean if people keep coming up with, I don’t know, Stephen King, well we’re not going to fill it up with Stephen King. But you have to involve the readers.
Who’s an expert on what is a good book has to depend on what the reader wants to get out of the book. I can read a book. I tried reading 1984 in 1984, and probably in 1974. It was so boring, because I knew darn well what was going to happen. And it just seemed so negative. Because I’m an ex offender I can’t sit in a cinema and watch a film about prisons. I feel like it’s the same way about these books that constrain you.
Peter: Is that also why from that point of view, you’re not telling people what to read, because there are people that love 1984?
John: Yeah. Oh yeah. I think it’s in the next issue, or if it’s not, I think it’s the next issue, or the issue after.
Peter: So what do you want people to do, do you want them to just go buy a copy, get a subscription?
John: Well first of all if you if you haven’t got a bookshop near you, what I’d like you to do is to buy it from us on the internet, and tell us who your local bookshop is, and sign up for a social subscribe. Which means you have to get off your arse and go and pick it up. And that means that you are therefore making a social connection. It’s not just a distant connection. And so we want you to do that.
The other thing is, we want you to go to your bookshop and say, ‘Can I have a copy of the Chapter Catcher?’ And they might say, ‘Well I haven’t got it. So we’ll get it.’ I think about, it might be say 30 bookshops had bought the magazine. Some of the magazines haven’t sold. Some of them have sold very well. Some have sold reasonably well. So it could be three [third], like 10 10 10 and it’s an experiment. The ones where it sold really well was where the bookshops who said, ‘Oh this new magazine, it’s about browsing and reading, and it’s about supporting bookshops and libraries. You might want to try it.’ Oh so it works.
So it becomes a tool. If you put it on the shelf it won’t sell. Well if you took the Big Issue and put it in every newsagent, you’d sell none, because it would be lost. You buy it because of the person who is selling it, from the message, the story that’s told.
Peter: So your new vendor is a book seller.
John: Yeah. And we will only always go 50/50 with the bookseller. So we won’t say look we want 60 percent, you can have 40 percent.
Peter: So it’s a very similar model to the Big Issue then.
John: Yeah but it’s also the same thinking which is about taking people on a journey, where they have to do the work. We’re not lulling you into a false sense of contentment.
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