Sunday, May 30, 2010

Indies triumphant then?

Further news/thoughts on small and independent publishers and literary prizes:

Writing in the Guardian about the shortlist for the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, John Dugdale points out that it is dominated by books from independents, and that since its early years this prize has given due attention to independents. Noting also that the Costa, the Orwell and the Independent Foreign Fiction prizes were all won by independents this year, and that the Orange Prize was 'two-thirds indy', he concludes that favouring books from independents is a trend in this year's prizes.

Well, this does seem a reassuring picture of the chances for independents in our UK prizes. However, I suspect that several of these prizes create more of a level playing field than the Booker (or the Dylan Thomas prize) by not requiring a payment from publishers for publicity for chosen books. I couldn't ascertain this for sure with the Samuel Johnson prize (the rules don't appear to be published on the website), and I couldn't even find a website for the IFF, but there appear to be no such restrictions for the Orange Prize (though I'm not sure the rules are printed in full), and there are certainly none for the Orwell who do publish their rules in full.

Download the PDF entry rules for the Costa and you will see that, like the Booker and the Dylan Thomas, the Costa does require a commitment of money: last year £3,000 for the winner of a category, and a further £4,000 for an overall winner. But then I also suspect that Craig Raine was quite happy (and able) to fork out for a project which must be a personal labour of love - the winning book, Christopher Reid's A Scattering being the first and, I think, so far only book of Raine's newish publishing imprint Arete (which produces a literary journal). Not exactly a parallel situation to that of most small arts-council funded imprints...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Publicity Costs and Prizes

I was reminded yesterday by a visitor to this site of an article by Robert McCrum last October about trends which perhaps explain the move by UK prize administrators to charge winning publishers fees to cover publicity costs. The main thrust of McCrum's article is that globally fiction and fiction prizes are news which receive media coverage, but he presents this as a surprise (and something of a reassurance) in view of the UK situation. Once upon a time in the UK publicity for prizes was huge and free, he says, but now:
Yesterday, as I looked through the Sunday papers over breakfast, my thoughts began to turn to Tuesday's [Booker] prize-giving ceremony in London's Guildhall. Which TV channel would be covering it this year?

Flicking through the schedules, it's as if none of the terrestrial channels is prepared to touch it with a barge pole

and he finds the same situation with radio. Through this perspective, one can perhaps understand the move towards charging publishers, but this doesn't change the fact that the net effect is to discriminate against small publishers and to contribute to a squeezing of their (often groundbreaking) work from our culture.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

An Innovative Book Tour Hosting

Flying with Magpies, the virtual tour for my latest novel, receives innovative treatment today on the blog of Tania Hershman, who ingeniously portrays my novel and my aims by conducting a word association game with me.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Another Prize Problem for Small Publishers

Interestingly, since I posted yesterday about the Booker Prize rules which discriminate against smaller publishers, Neil Astley of poetry imprint Bloodaxe complained the same day on Facebook (to a chorus of dismay from other poetry publishers) that, for the first year ever, there is an entry fee for the Guardian First Book Award. The fee is £150, and if that seems derisory, then I would suggest a better acquaintance with the kind of shoestring budgets on which most poetry small publishers subsist, such as would make them think twice about submitting a new poet on the off-chance of their winning (longlisting, as someone on the Facebook thread points out, often not resulting in many sales).

The Guardian move seems even more graphically to discriminate against small presses. In the FB thread, Salt publisher Jen Hamilton-Emery points out that this has always been an expensive prize for small presses to enter, as publishers of shortlisted books are required to provide 100 copies free for the reading groups involved, thus effectively wiping out the profits on that book for a small publisher. There are similar discouraging restrictions for the Booker, which I didn't mention yesterday: for the Booker the publisher must be prepared to have 1,000 copies available 10 days after longlisting, for which, as I indicated yesterday, many small presses, used to doing smaller print runs and even POD, won't have the upfront ready cash, and which cash, again, may not be recovered in sales. And the publisher must also undertake to retain two 'folded and collated' copies for binding by a named leather binder, another thing which, it seems possible to me, could militate against publishers using alternative technologies, though I'm not an expert on this stuff, so I could be wrong. The rule doesn't state who bears the cost of the binding, so maybe at least that's part of prize...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Best Novels or the Best-Off Publishers?

You know those vanity moments a writer gets? It's coming up to what I thought was the deadline for submitting books to the Booker, and I allowed myself to wonder: what if my publishers were thinking of putting my novel in for it? After all, my first novel was entered by the publisher I had then... I even went so far as to look up the rules. Well, the first thing I discovered was that although books have to be in by the end of June, publishers must submit an application form by the end of March, so now is too late anyway. But I also discovered this:

Any eligible book which is entered for the prize will only qualify for the award if its publisher agrees:

a) to contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist.

b) to contribute a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize.

I don't know if this rule has always existed, but I suspect not, and that it shows not only how far the prize has moved towards marketing and away from the pure principle of literary merit, but has come to discriminate against books from small publishers. I know it's generally recognized that, since certain winners - James Kelman, I think - failed to sell in the expected numbers even after winning, the prize has moved towards the principle of saleability, and one could argue that this applies to all publishers, large and small alike, and all publishers are thus likely to enter their more saleable literary books. One could argue about the rightness of this, in the broader literary-cultural terms, but, assuming that any prize is allowed to set its own principles, let's for the moment accept it. Yet it seems to me that plenty of books that look wildly saleable turn out to be mysteriously not so, and while that £5,000 payment for a shortlisting may look like chickenfeed to a large publisher, it's nothing of the sort to a small publisher on a shoestring. And even if shortlisting is going to bring them returns many times over they may simply not have the ready cash to make the payment upfront...

Sunday, May 23, 2010

How Much Do We Owe Editors?

An interesting review by Maggie Gee of Robert Edric's latest book in today's Observer, in which she raises the issue of the decline of editing by publishers.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What Are Blogs for?

Daniel Green at The Reading Experience responds to the recent announcement that the US Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog is to abandon the "discussion model" and replace it with "a daily news feed with links and excerpts from other outlets around the world." I thoroughly agree with his view:

Is more "information" what we really need? ...does it just reduce the discussion of poetry to the same relentless focus on trivia that characterizes the coverage of movies, of celebrity culture in general? What seems to me to be motivating the Harriet change of approach--what seems to be motivating the Twitterization of online discourse in general--is precisely the desire to see what is posted disseminated "far and wide through various status updates, wall postings, and links," not a concern for the substance of the post. The mere accumulation of friends, followers, and hits, evidence of "interaction," is the end-in-itself.

The digest form of weblog has existed from the beginnings of the blogosphere, is probably the original, most recognizable form of blog. Plenty of them still exist and provide useful "news." If Twitter now performs this function more efficiently, so be it, but that doesn't seem to be a good reason to transform all blogs into versions of Twitter. Both poetry and fiction need more "discursive blogs" examining the news that stays news, not fewer.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Writer's Need for Silence

From a review by Kathryn Hughes of Maggie Gee's memoir My Animal Life in Saturday's Guardian Review:
In one of the most powerful parts of the book she lays bare an awful period in the mid-90s when her editor at HarperCollins turned her sixth book down flat. Part of the problem, he explained helpfully, was that lots of people hadn't really heard of her and, in an age when "profile" counted, this was proving tricky. Gee hadn't been in the habit of going to the right literary parties, preferring to stay at home with her husband and child and simply write. She'd always believed that the work was what mattered and now she was paying the price for her ignorance/arrogance.
I hope that's ironic, that 'ignorance/arrogance'. The trouble is, as Robert McCrum indicates this week, the writing of a novel can need the kind of immersion in solitude which Maggie Gee was cultivating, and with which all those other activities increasingly associated with the life of a writer - networking and marketing - can interfere.

It so happens that similar matters are touched on in my visit today to writer Nuala Ni Chonchuir's blog, for the virtual tour for my novel Too Many Magpies. She asks me about my typical day and how I fit other such things in with writing, and this is part of my answer:
I can only write well to my own satisfaction, I find, when I can become truly obsessed with what I'm working on and entirely adrift on its dream world... My ideal writing day ... is to write from nine in the morning until about half-one, after which time I'm pretty done in and need to stretch and get some exercise ... as well as, most importantly, have some pondering time for the next day's writing bout. Well, I wish! Now I so often spend the rest of the day into the evening on the web doing all the things we writers need to do nowadays to market our books - and end up with nothing else done and the next day's writing unpondered, and feeling really frazzled!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Is Colm Toibin the Greatest Living Prose Stylist?

The latest discussion of my reading group was on Costa-Award winning Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, and illustrates perfectly, I think (as Adele Geras notes in the comments) that no book can please everyone, and it takes all sorts...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Flying with Magpies: Stop 2

This week's stop on the virtual book tour for my novel Too Many Magpies is at the blog of the thoughtful and erudite John Baker, who reviews the book (very positively, I'm thrilled to say). He also asked me some searching questions about my aims in writing novels and, since this is a theme of the book, our present-day sense of ourselves in the world. You can find his questions and my answers in the comments section of his post.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Judged by Your Covers?

There's an extremely interesting article in yesterday's Observer about the different covers given to the same book in different countries - and a fabulous colour spread which, in the print edition, makes you so glad of the day our newspapers took to colour!

The difference in designs is staggering - Everything Is Illuminated represented in France by a man fondling a woman's breasts, for godssake (?!). Perhaps the most interesting point is that, according to designers interviewed, in both Europe and the US there's less of a sense of the need to hide 'literariness' - covers for literary fiction in Europe are plainer because literary fiction sells better than in the UK, and in the US 'literariness' is deliberately and proudly flagged. What a philistine lot we are in Britain, and no wonder Nick Clegg got it in the neck after claiming a fondness for Beckett!

On the other hand, one commentator believes that there's no real need for these geographical differences, and that it all comes down to 'bloody-mindedness' and pride.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Flying With Magpies

I'm beginning a blog tour today for my latest novel, Too Many Magpies (Salt). Sue Guiney asks me about the inspiration and impetus for the novel, and the experience of writing for different forms.