Friday, May 29, 2009

Bookshops take up Just One Book Campaign

Latest news in the Salt Just One book campaign from the Bookseller blog:
Chris will be on BBC2 "Newsnight" tonight (29th May). Foyles will shortly be running a benefit to help raise funds for Salt for the summer. Bookshops around the country are putting on displays of Salt's latest titles.
The bookseller quotes Chris:
Over the past five days we've taken close on 1,000 direct orders and generated over £20,000 of sales: trade sales have tripled. For a little family business like ours this has been humbling and exhausting. No one likes being on the brink, now we've stepped back a few paces. We're not out of danger, but we've seen that linking a viral campaign to drive sales to bookshops and our own website can have dramatic effects. People are saving us one book at a time.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Salt Just One Book Campaign goes on apace

I'm up the mountain in Wales at the moment, so I may not be online much for the next few days - it's always worst in bad weather, and it took about 5 mins for this page to load!

I wanted to blog this, though: the Salt Just One book campaign goes on apace (Please scroll down to my previous posts for the link: it would take me no end of time to put it in here!). Apparently there were 800 orders in the first 4 days, bringing in 17,000 pounds. Today the campaign hit the Guardian books blog with an article by Shirley Dent (that's a link I prepared earlier!), and it seems that at this very moment director Chris Hamilton Emery is in London in an interview being recorded for BBC 2's Newsnight Review this Friday at 11pm!

Thank you so much to everybody who has bought Salt books. Salt isn't out of the woods yet, though, so if you fancy some more or if you haven't yet bought one, please do. Their website here.

Cross-posted with Elizabeth Baines.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Salt Just One Book Campaign

I guess it won't have escaped many people's notice that last week my publisher Salt announced that they were in trouble. The ending of their Arts Council grant, designed to get them on their feet while they built up a market (which it seems they had been doing with some success) coincided with the economic turndown and the apparent loss of market for books generally in spite of hopes expressed elsewhere that literary books would weather the storm.

When this kind of thing happens to independent publishers, they usually fade away quietly - perhaps no one ever wants to announce the problems before the end actually comes: too bad for business while there's still hope of some miracle! So it was with a fair amount of amazement that I began to read Salt director Chris Hamilton Emery's Facebook announcement of the difficulties Salt was encountering. But the statement led up to another announcement, of an idea which may come to be seen in publishing history as a brilliant marketing stroke - well, I hope it does anyway! Chris announced the Just One Book campaign. If enough people bought just one book, Salt could pay off their debt and the troubles would only be temporary, and Salt would not have to end.

The result has been astounding and proved the power of the internet for publishers. As Chris says, the news went instantly 'global': it was facebooked and twittered and blogged (this is why I've been busier on my other blog than this one), it made the Bookseller, and the response in terms of orders has been huge. It seems the backlist is now secured, and the frontlist is getting on track.

Susan Hill, expressing her familiar and indeed reasonable view that publishing is above all a business not a charity, has commented in a Facebook thread that books requiring their publishers to beg people to buy them in this way should not be being published in the first place. If people don't want books, she says, ie if there isn't a market for them, then they shouldn't be being published. It's more complicated than that, though: as I've said so many times, people can't want books if they don't know about them, and the thing which large publishers have and which small publishers don't is huge marketing budgets to get the knowledge of them out there, to the punters and to the bookshops - a point poignantly protrayed in the latest of Chris's searingly honest and vivid bulletins.

What so many emails and Facebook messages have made clear to me this week is that Chris's campaign has indeed alerted to the presence of Salt and their books many people who were unaware of them, or only peripherally aware, and whose interest has now been aroused.

He's created a market, in other words.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Writers and Commerce

Last week another writer and I were comparing notes, the way writers do over dinner, and we agreed that we find writing harder now than when we first began and were arrogant and first published. Much of it is to do with the fact that the more experienced you get, the harder you want to push yourself, the more new things you want to try, and the tougher your standards become for yourself - you just won't let things pass which once upon a time you would have done. After we parted, however, I mused that there is something else which makes it all so much harder nowadays, for me at any rate: the sense of the market breathing ever more fiercely over your shoulder.

Robert McCrum thinks it's a myth that there were more good or great novels published in the past, and the conclusion one might draw from this is that 'literary' writers are ultimately unaffected by the commercialization of our literary culture. And in today's Guardian Mark Ravenhill goes so far as to express an opinion that a market-aware theatre has opened up opportunities for new and innovative writing. In Saturday's Review Andy Beckett weighed up arguments for and against the case that serious non-fiction is in decline, noting that the commercialization of British literary culture is not exactly new but held sway before the introduction of the Net Book Agreement in 1900.

Beckett's article ends thus:
In truth, it is too early to tell: serious non-fiction takes time to research and write and sell. But in the meantime, it may be a good idea for authors of such titles to be realistic about their place in the economic order. As John Feather writes in his history of British publishing, before Waterstone's, before agents and advances, before the invention of the modern book business: "The medieval author worked for himself, for God or for a patron, or indeed for all three." I'm not sure that career path would be so popular now.
Well, you know what? I know this is heresy nowadays, but that's precisely how the serious writer does want to write even now (well, for himself or God anyway: funding bodies, like medieval patrons, can be poisoned chalices): with total regard to his or her own moral, emotional, psychological and linguistic insights, and just hoping that someone out there likes the result enough to pay for it. It's the way, I believe, that good literature happens. Maybe great literature comes from authors allowing the market to breathe ideas over their shoulders as they write, but I kind of doubt it, and trying to block out those siren whispers - and struggling with the question of whether or not you have done so - is becoming one of the hardest tasks for a writer, I reckon.

Oh, PS: an article I wrote about the rise of the short story for the Writers' Guild mag, UK Writer, has just gone online.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Passion or Product?

Russell Celyn Jones, course director of the Birkbeck writing programme, responds in the Guardian to Ian Jack's criticisms of Creative Writing courses (discussed below). As far as Celyn Jones is concerned, the job of writers in the academy is to 'preserve the world of writing and reading (an art too) on both old and new forms of production.'

You can't argue with such an aim, I reckon, but Celyn Jones's refutation of Jack's claim that all applicants want to be professional writers seems a bit weak. Apparently at Birbeck there are 'doctors, journalists, police, actors and lawyers ... clear-eyed about their expectations: they want to pursue a passion communally for a year', and he backs up his argument thus:
Any individual who expressed only a desire to become the next Zadie Smith would not get past my radar... If 80% of students do not progress beyond being the gifted amateur, I have yet to hear of anyone demanding their money back.'
Disingenous, or what? He surely knows that anybody who thought fit to say such a thing in an interview would need their head examined, but it doesn't mean students aren't hoping that they will be the next ZS. It's actually that kind of arrogance and hope that keep one going as a writer. And of course no one ever asks for their money back, because to do so would be to admit defeat, to decide you are never going to be published, and how many people do that before the creative course is so far distant in the past you just wouldn't bother?

And at the end he gives the game away. Creative writing tutors have taken over the job of editors now, he says, honing the manuscripts of those students who will get published: 'We are guardians of the product now.'

Ah, so that's what's important: there's a product involved, provided by the 20% who will get published, and there is a professional point to it all!

Authors Marketing

I wrote recently on my other blog of my ambivalence about self-promotion as an author, and the necessity to get over the doubts in an age when authors must take active part in the marketing campaigns for their books. This week my fellow Salt author Tania Hershman writes on How Publishing Really Works about her own amazingly successful marketing campaign for her collection, The White Road and Other Stories, conducted on the web. There's an interesting discussion on the comments thread, and next week Salt's Jen Hamilton-Emery will guest and present her independent publisher's perspective.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Forget the Money, or Even the Publication

Two letters in today's Guardian defending 'creative writing' courses in response to the article by Ian Jack which I discussed below.

In fact, in doing so, they both strongly endorse Jack's case that the possibility of writing books for a living is becoming ever more a pipe dream. The first is from Neil Nixon, Pathway leader at NW Kent College who, he says, started the UK's first full-time HE course in professional writing in 1999. He asserts that his course 'require[s] students to back up career decisions with substantial research of the hard realities of the market' and that other degree courses are 'moving many undergraduates to understanding changing markets, concentrating less on declining areas of writing and more on the realities of turning ideas into money' [my italics]. He ends by sounding a death knell: 'This, put crudely, is where the future lies for those who, in Jack's day, saw themselves as writers.'

The second letter, from John Petherbridge, seems to me to offer a better defence: that creative writing is a discipline to be learnt for its own sake: 'Those same critics think there is nothing odd about the fact that most students, who study history, for example, don't become historians.' This has certainly been the principle behind those Creative Writing BA modules on which I have taught, and I'd add further that practice can be a useful element of a proper study of English Literature. But that first argument is weaker in a climate where universities are moving towards vocationalism (and the departments of 'pure' disciplines are being closed down or starved of money). And I have to say that of all the many people I know who have done Novel-Writing MAs I don't think there are any who didn't do it without hoping to become professional writers as a result (let me know, any of you, if I'm wrong!) and whenever I've talked to MA groups - or for that matter, any workshop groups - the thing they're always most keen to know is how to get published.

And the thought of paying those fees just to have the 'hard-headed agents and publishers' shipped in to the City Lit by John Petherbridge to be 'frank about the problems of getting work published'...

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Crumbling traditions

Interesting article by the ever-thoughtful Ian Jack in yesterday's Guardian, pointing out that the idea of making a living out of writing is historically a recent one, arising in the 19th century with the swelling of the middle classes, and that it's a historical bubble about to burst with the advent of the internet and a generation 'now growing up with the idea that words should be read electronically for free [as] a new human right'.

Imagine my feelings as I sit here at my kitchen table on a sunny Sunday morning and find myself agreeing with him! I, a member of the Writers' Guild, brought up on Trades Union principles of a fair (ie living) wage for fair sweat, even if it is at the typeface! I, who have argued passionately against those who assert that writers should be happy to write for love and use this as an excuse to remunerate everyone else whose job depends on the primary production (publishers, producers, sidekicks and secretaries to the same) but not the primary producers themselves!

Well, I still feel passionately about that, but let's face it, the far more important thing is to keep being published, since, as Jack says 'the moral and aesthetic case for writing' is to 'think, imagine and describe and then communicate the result to an audience'. And how many can keep doing that when the holy grail of huge riches for a book leads to mid-listers being dropped in their droves (what happens to their 'living' then?) and agents and publishers passing up any manuscript not thought likely to bring in those millions (no living in the first place for most, and, it could be argued, the best - in literary terms anyway)? Personally, I'm thanking my lucky stars to have found a publisher interested in literature above all else: inevitably with small literary publishers, there's no money, but your books don't need to be on the bestseller lists to stay in print for longer than it takes to whip around a bookstore, and if your next book doesn't get published it won't be because it's not likely to appear on Richard and Judy or whatever ra-ra platform is going replace them.

And if the worse came to the worst, I'd rather publish my books for free online than have no one read them at all. This is the kind of scenario Jack entertains, and which he says is going to lead to a new 'age of the gifted amateur'. He notes the irony that meanwhile, the 'professionalization' of literature continues apace, with British universities
'turning out about 1,300 "creative writers" every year.

Why do young people apply? Because they think they can be the next Zadie Smith. Why do universities encourage them? Because money can be made from fees. Is this responsible behaviour? We need to weigh the smashed hopes of creative writers against the financial needs of their tutors, who are themselves writers, and earning the kind of money that writing would never supply. A closed little dance: tutors teach students who in turn teach other students, like silversmiths in a medieval guild where a bangle is rarely bought though many are crafted, and everyone lives in a previous world.

Meanwhile, in the week that the first-ever women poet laureate is appointed, Robert McCrum salutes the Orange Prize. It's interesting and gratifying that he acknowledges that 'in 1996, no question, literary London was a boy's club', since it was a world in which he himself was of course a prominent figure:

The imprints were run by men. The books they published were mainly written by men and the critics who reviewed them would mostly pass in the catalogue as members of the male gender. Sex is a poor basis on which to evaluate a work of art, but the dominance of the male in the book world was hard to overlook.

Yet here was the puzzling thing. None of this bore any relationship to the truth about the reading public. Everyone in publishing knew it was women who were the devoted fiction buyers, women who avidly read and discussed novels and women who kept the business ticking over

and that he can refer to 'chauvinist troglodyte naysayers retir[ing] to their caves to growl angrily to themselves about gender politics'. I do like the way McCrum is prepared to re-examine things, a quality in short supply I think nowadays.

And as for Mark Lawson, well, I don't know whether he writes too much to have time to think or whether he's just too much in love with his own wordplay, but his statement yesterday that the appointment of Carol Ann Duffy and the death of U A Fanthorpe coinciding represents a 'changing of the guard amongst Britain's female poets' needs a bit of examination, I'm thinking...

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Reading Books Through their Authors

Anne Michaels tries to stick to her guns about staying invisible for the sake of the text, while being interviewed by Sarah Crown for The Guardian:
"I really believe we read differently when we know even the most banal facts of an author's life," she says, leaning across a cafe table, taut with the need to put her point across. "I'm not being naive; I realise there's no such thing as a pure reading. But I'd rather keep myself as far out of it as I can."
Sarah Crown asks her about the time that a journalist asked her if she is Jewish, and she refused to answer:
"...yes, I did resist answering, because I really feel that to answer would be a cop-out... People would be able to say: 'Well of course she's interested in this, because she's Jewish, or her father was.' And it would diminish the enterprise. Because, you know, it's not about me. You spend your time when you're writing erasing yourself. The idea is to get out of the way of it."
It's a tricky one, though. I've written before on one my blogs about the reading of hers I attended where this did indeed happen (can't find the post now, though)*: a member of the audience asked her if she were Jewish. I may be wrong, but I got the strong impression that the questioner felt that Michaels only had the right to write her novel if she were, and that he interpreted the fact that she refused to answer as indication that she wasn't, and that for him the novel was indeed thus invalidated, diminished.

Honestly , if only we could return to that world (many light years across the universe) where books didn't have to be sold by their authors' personalities and lives, and texts were allowed to stand up for themselves. Michaels does a pretty good job in the interview of keeping quiet, revealing only one new fact, that in the intervening period since her last novel she has had two children, but one suspects that Sarah Crown was more respectful of her wishes than many journalists will be...

PS: More on my other blog about my own attitude an as author to this matter.

* As a result of the comment thread on this post, I've now found the reference: not a post, but a comment I made in the thread below a post describing my reading group discussion of Fugitive Pieces.