Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Jon Woolcott

“Novel Nights is a monthly literary event in Bristol and Bath showcasing and supporting excellent writing and writers at all stages of their career.”

I am a fan of independent publisher Little Toller which publishes books about nature, rural life, and local history, mainly in the British Isles. As well as being informative and engaging, their books are beautifully presented – high quality and aesthetically pleasing. I am always happy to receive one to review. When I spotted on Twitter that Jon Woolcott was to speak at a writers’ group in Bristol, and that all were welcome, I decided to go along. What an enjoyable evening it turned out to be.

Held in The Square Club, Clifton, this well attended and welcoming group offers creative writers the opportunity to read from their work prior to a talk from an invited guest. Last week we were treated to three excerpts from as yet unpublished novels, all with a nature theme.

Polly Roberts read from the novel she wrote as part of her Creative Writing MA, provisionally titled ‘Animals’ and currently looking for a home. This is a work of fiction and, in the excerpt read, the prose had a poetic quality. It described relationships between otters – the book is set in the English countryside.

Andy Morgan is a writer and journalist. He read from his non fiction work, ‘Sahara Soul Rebels’.

“Self, desert and nature are one and nature is beautiful”

Despite conflicts in the area there is a deep love for the land.

“I’m free in my country”

Grace Palmer, the founder of Novel Nights, read from ‘Cathy’s Field’. The excerpt centred around memories – an attachment to land that was to be sold.

“Time to let it all go”

Although based on a particular landscape on the Staffordshire / Shropshire border, the world and characters are fictional. This was the first chapter in a book Grace is working on.

There followed a short break allowing drinks to be purchased and conversations with other attendees to be enjoyed before Jon took his seat to give his talk on The Business of Books.

Jon has, over the course of his career to date, worked for Waterstones, Ottakars and Stanfords booksellers. He is aware that there can be a disconnect between author, publisher and retailer. In an industry that loves to gossip, where a plethora of information exists, rumours are rife. Jon gave is some facts.

In 2016 (the last year for which figures are available), the total sales from all publishers in the UK amounted to some £3.5 billion, £1.5 billion of which was exported. Around 160,000 individual titles were published. These included technical, academic, self-published and reprints of older books. There were around 60,000 ebooks published, many as co-editions of physical titles. How, in a market awash with books, does a bookseller decide what to stock?

Bookshops are businesses. Their primary priority is to remain solvent. They will therefore stock what sells, including cookbooks, celebrity memoirs and best-selling authors. Deciding what units of stock will shift can be tricky and there have been some notable disasters in the past twenty or so years.

The first of these was the end of the net book agreement. This led to retailers offering discounts on premium authors, the very titles that would sell anyway, to get customers through the door. Supermarkets wanted a slice of the action – Asda offered one of the new Harry Potter titles for a fiver. Waterstones introduced its 3 for 2 multibuys.

Then there was Amazon. The use of the ISBN enabled the online retailer to easily catalogue available books. In response to Amazon’s success several bricks and mortar chains abandoned their ecommerce operations, although many of these have since been reinstated. Amazon was accepted as the go to on line shop.

Next came the Richard and Judy Book Club. Their first title was expected to sell perhaps twenty thousand units. It sold ten times this amount. In response, publishing focused on that market. It influenced commissioning decisions, packaging and price. Publishers tried to produce books more cheaply, affecting quality and creating generic designs.

Soon after came ebooks. For certain genres this caused a 20% drop in sales, badly affecting bookshops. Books are, after all, discretionary purchases. Attempts to copy the success of the Kindle failed.

Then, in 2011 the Booker Prize winner, Julian Barnes, praised the design of his novel. He stated that if physical books were to have a life in the world of ebooks they must be beautiful, that the product must be created to gain attention. Jon equated this to the plumage on birds.

The race to the bottom ceased.

Around the same time Waterstones was sold to a Russian billionaire who simplified the business. A centralised buying structure was introduced, stores were refurbished and many of the price promotions removed. As a result sales fell but so did returns. Publishers grew used to selling books over a longer period rather than simply around initial publication.

Book tables are now less likely to hold only the latest best sellers. Curation has grown in importance. The shortcomings of the Kindle have been recognised – they have a place but not a monopoly. The landscape of bookselling is as stable today as it has been for some time.

The invisible giant, Amazon, remains with its poor pay and ability to avoid tax. However, readers are aware of this and can make informed choices. Many bookshops, including the independents, will take on line orders and post direct to readers.

Although the big publishers are still mainly London based there has been a notable growth in the small presses. They are willing to take risks on what they believe in, and most bookshops are willing to stock their titles. Social media offers access to readers. Although still tiny, managing to survive month by month, they offer authors greater flexibility and a beautiful end product.

So, how does this affect writers?

Firstly, bookshops matter. Forge relationships with booksellers early on. Seek advice on what sells. Make friends but don’t make it all about your book. Be realistic in expectations – bookshops are commercial enterprises. Offer to sign books (there is no truth in the rumour that signed books cannot be returned). Offer to do events, then provide the audience by inviting friends. Generate interest by joining up with another writer to offer a Q&A and help sell their books as well as your own.

Other aspects that matter are a good AI sheet – offer to meet the publisher’s sales rep. Use social media – The Big Green Bookshop is a fine example of how this can work. Provide content for the local newspaper, perhaps the story behind the book. Invest time in creating an author website or blog – and sing the praises of your local bookshop. Encourage readers to use their library too.

Jon was asked about the recent growth of interest in nature writing. He suggested this could be partly nostalgia but also an increase in awareness of the planet. Little Toller started out republishing nature classics but now publishes more contemporary works, some from commissions and others from submissions. It remains small, operating out of a converted cow byre on its founders’ farm.

With that the evening was drawn to a close and the audience were able to browse and buy from a tempting range of Little Toller books. As anticipated, this had proved a truly fascinating evening.

Little Toller Books will publish the latest in their Monograph Series, Eagle Country by Seán Lysaght, in April 2018. It is available to buy now if ordered direct – click on the cover below.

You may keep up with events organised by Novel Nights on their website and by following them on Twitter: NovelNights (@novelnightsuk)

You may follow Jon Woolcott on Twitter (@jonwoolcott) and also Little Toller Books (@LittleToller)

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Gig Review: Sarah Hilary in Bath launching #ComeAndFindMe

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to attend the launch of Sarah Hilary’s fifth crime fiction novel in her DI Marnie Rome series, Come And Find Me. I have been lucky enough to receive proofs of each of the books in this series to review and they just keep getting better. As I now choose to read very few crime fiction novels, I put my continuing enjoyment of Sarah’s books down to the quality of the writing, the challenging topics explored and the skilfully rendered plot development. They are fast moving page turners and follow expected structures but never feel formulaic during reading.

The launch was held in Toppings bookshop where we received a warm welcome alongside a tasty array of nibbles to go with our wine. Alison Graham had prepared a series of interesting questions which enabled Sarah to offer an insight into the nuts and bolts of crime writing. In the audience I spotted Mick Herron, another Bath based crime writer. It is always good to see authors supporting each other’s endeavours.

   

Following introductions and thanks the Q&A began. Below I summarise the key points I came away with.

Marnie Rome is a complex character. Throughout the series she is trying to find out why her step-brother, Stephen, killed their parents. He knows this and baits her. In Come And Find Me the plot is based around a prison riot at the prison where Stephen is serving his sentence. He is hospitalised and Marnie must deal with how she feels about this. A violent offender has escaped and Marnie’s job is to find him.

Sarah was asked what will happen to Marnie in the future.

As she doesn’t plot, Sarah doesn’t know. She develops her characters as she writes them. Part of her impetus, the pleasure in writing, is this discovery. Sarah dislikes giving out too much information about her characters as subsequently this can limit what happens next. Such parsimony of detail has led to readers getting in touch when some minutiae is revealed – as when Marnie mentioned having a slow cooker.

Women in real life write to violent prisoners. Sarah was asked what research she did into this.

When preparing a media interview Sarah was once asked if she had been such a penpal (the answer is no). She was inspired by a particular news story about an apparently intelligent woman who remained in thrall to a cult leader convicted of abuse. The characters she writes are rounded but have flaws, just like people in real life. She will feel a degree of sympathy for most of them. She likes to pose the question: who do you think the monster is?

A further question in this vein was how such a lovely lady as Sarah can write such malign characters.

Sarah told us that she has always been interested in dark stuff. Since reading her books, her mother’s neighbours have commented on this – what is it with Sarah! She reminded us that it is fiction. Had she experienced anything so dark she doesn’t believe she could have written about it in the way she does. She talked of the reader’s desire for a vicarious thrill, to experience from a position of safety.

Asked why women in particular seem to lap such stories up Sarah suggested that part of this may be because, from a young age, women are taught to be afraid – of strangers, of walking alone after dark. Perhaps there is a fascination about what may happen.

Sarah mentioned a real life example. In 1879 Kate Webster, a housekeeper, murdered her mistress. She disposed of the body by cutting it up and boiling the remains. She then sold the resulting dripping to neighbours who had belittled her. She was hanged for the crime but, whilst in prison, people could pay to go in and observe her. Most of those who went were of a similar age and class.

Sarah was asked if she would have gone to look.

After some consideration she admitted that she might have done.

Sarah was asked if she had ever visited a prison.

She hasn’t. She doesn’t even have a police consultant to talk to about the procedures she writes about, although she has been assured they come across as credible.

Moving on, Sarah was asked if Marnie has any friends, and if Sarah would be her friend.

Sarah admires her courage. She considers Marnie brave because she is afraid but tries not to let this get in the way. Sometimes she fails but she doesn’t give up, she carries on. In Come And Find Me she is changing. In the early books Marnie was spiky and brittle. Now she is softer, she has allowed herself to be more vulnerable and this has made her stronger.

One detail about Marnie that has been revealed is her tattoos. Although embarrassed by them she carries them as she does her guilt for how she behaved towards her parents as a teenager. These things are a part of her past that she must somehow learn to live with.

Alison commented that Sarah is good at writing lost souls and asked if she empathised with everyone.

Like all writers, Sarah watches people. She is drawn to the stories of those who do not belong, who are invisible to society, such as the homeless. She commented that it can sometimes be necessary to look the other way. There are so many bad things happening in the world that we feel powerless to change – considering them all would be overwhelming. She is, however, inspired by the Arthur Miller quote:

“I think the job of the artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

Sarah was asked if she considered her books violent.

She doesn’t like horror to be written in graphic detail as she believes this numbs the reader. Instead she seeks an emotional reaction, to open a door and then allow imagination to take over as this can be more powerful than words.

Alison asked how many more books there are to be about Marnie.

Sarah told us that she may rest the series after book six, although this depends on what temptation presents itself. She is aware that she is stretching readers’ patience for certain answers. When she started writing, series were wanted by publishers. Now it seems that debuts are the thing. Her next book may be standalone.

As a professional writer does Sarah have a routine?

There is a certain element of this although waiting for ideal conditions is a writers way of prevaricating. If words need to be written they will happen. Sarah’s inspiration no longer flows as freely as it once did. She writes in the mornings, currently in a cold kitchen wearing fingerless gloves for warmth – very Dickensian.

Questions were opened up to the audience and the subject somehow veered into a discussion about Blake’s Seven. Sarah was then asked if Come and Find Me could be read standalone.

Each book details a crime that is solved so yes. However, the depth of Marnie’s character is best understood by reading the series from the beginning.

Sarah was asked if she ever felt uneasy when real life crimes mimicked her fiction.

In one sense yes, but in writing realistic crime fiction this can happen. It would probably be different if a copycat crime happened and she was cited as the inspiration. She tries to write with compassion, to shine a light on dark situations. She is not squeamish about what is real.

Marnie is a difficult character to write whereas Noah is easy. He started with a much darker persona but Sarah was told that she must have at least one lighter character. As a result she doesn’t believe Noah could work as a protagonist, there wouldn’t be enough of interest. Her favourite part to write in each book is when Noah plays the part of the criminal in order to allow Marnie to try to solve the crime.

Sarah was asked if we can expect a Marnie cookbook and what her favourite recipe would be.

This ellicited some discussion about slow cookers and pot noodles. In the end Sarah decided Marnie would advise visiting a favourite cafe.

To finish, Sarah mentioned that she had seen a comment on Twitter, that books put us in touch with humanity in surprising ways. She liked this, and also the irony of reading it on such a site.

   

Having wound up the formal part of the event there was time to chat, imbibe, and purchase books. Sarah was being kept busy at her signing table so I slipped away.

Come And Find Me is published by Headline and is available to buy now from all good bookshops. Toppings currently hold a limited number of signed first editions.

 

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – Winner 2017

On Tuesday of this week I travelled to London for an event that celebrated the brilliant, innovative and vibrant literary fiction being published by the small presses in the UK and Ireland. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have been on the judging panel for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. In reading each of the submissions I have had the opportunity to discover some of the best literary fiction published in 2017. Every book that made in onto the longlist deserves to be read. Please consider buying them – if possible direct from the publishers or from an independent bookshop, many of which will post books to readers.

Narrowing the longlist down to a shortlist was incredibly difficult – like having to choose a favourite child. However, the six books selected each deserved their place.

The event on Tuesday, held in the University of Westminster’s Fyvie Hall, brought together publishers, authors, translators, sponsors and an impressive array of interested parties from the book world to discover which title was to be declared the winner. Attendees were treated to wine and canapés as we mingled and chatted, with gentle jazz being played live in the background. The atmosphere was convivial and sparkling with anticipation.


(Photo credit: FMcM)

The first part of the evening saw the prize founder, Neil Griffiths, present ‘The William Gass award for metafiction and for being the best person in publishing, like ever’ to Charles Boyle of CBeditions. Charles later wrote this about his award.

The second part of the evening was the announcement of the winner. Michael Caines of The TLS took to the stage to present the award to Influx Press for Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams.


Gary Budden, Sanya Semakula, Eley Williams and Kit Caless
(Photo credit: Chris Power)

It was pleasing to see my Twitter timeline come alive over the following twenty-four hours as discerning news outlets and other media spread the word. I link here to the press release as published by the contemporary small press who also reviewed each book on the shortlist – do check them out.

Not all of the judges could attend but those that did duly posed for a photo with the winning author.


Sally Shakti-Willow, James Tookey, Jackie Law, Paul Fulcher, Graham Fulcher, Eley Williams, Neil Griffiths, Alan Crilly, Gayle Lazda, Ann Kennedy-Smith
(Photo credit: Robyn Law)

As Little Island Press said, it is a miracle that this prize exists. The miracle happened because of the hard work and dedication of Neil Griffiths, this year ably assisted by James Tookey. From this grateful reader, thank you. Much gratitude also to the many supporters and sponsors who made the prize viable. And huge congratulations to Influx and Eley.


Neil Griffiths and Eley Williams
(Photo credit: ContempSmallPress)

You may follow The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses on Twitter: RofC Prize (@PrizeRofc)

Click on the photo above to buy the winning book.

 

(Gratuitous photo of my daughter and I enjoying the evening)


(Photo credit: ContempSmallPress)

 

 

 

Gig Review: Sam Guglani and Katy Mahood in Bath

On Tuesday of this week I attended a friendly and fascinating event at Toppings bookshop in Bath. Sam Guglani, author of Histories, and Katy Mahood, author of Entanglement, were in conversation, discussing how the intersections and collisions of human experience can be explored in fiction. Originally the evening had been intended to be a discussion between two doctors about how their work in medicine inspired their writing. Unfortunately Joanna Cannon had to cancel due to illness so Katy stepped in. She proved a fine replacement.

The evening opened with introductions and readings. The authors then questioned each other about aspects of their books. I provide below a summary of their discussion.

Histories is set in a hospital over the course of a week and is structured as a series of interlinked stories told from the points of view of a variety of people who inhabit the place. Katy asked Sam if he used the hospital as a vehicle to explore characters or if the characters were a means to explore how a hospital functions.

Sam talked of how a patient arrives at hospital, presents their symptoms and expects a diagnosis. The reality is a lot more messy. Hospitals are often large and sprawling. Patients are ill so not at their best. Doctors will have differing areas of expertise, skill levels and experience. All of these factors collide in their interactions. Discreet people and events combine in ways that they cannot know, becoming more than the sum of their parts.

Entanglement is about the ripple effects interactions create. It was inspired by Katy’s interest in quantum entanglement (a physical phenomenon which occurs when pairs or groups interact in ways such that the state of each can no longer be described independently of the other(s), even when separated by a large distance). She talked of meeting her husband when she was sixteen years old and discovering that they lived a few hundred yards apart. They must have met before – at playgroups, schools or social events – but weren’t aware. She was propelled to write her story by her husband’s illness which created a sudden awareness of mortality, something always there but not noticed.

Katy asked Sam if his exposure to life changing moments in his work as an oncologist had been a catalyst for Histories.

Sam quipped that his children tease him about being obsessed by death. He mentioned a junior doctor who asked a registrar how he coped with the inevitable deaths. The answer was that at least in oncology the doctor cannot mess up, patients are going to die anyway. Although appearing flippant, this is a reminder that as a society death is regarded as remote, its possibility denied, yet all medicine is an encounter with death. In Histories the characters are facing mortality, theirs or those they know. Fiction offers a way of presenting such truths. Sam reminded us that we live in a post enlightened world where an oncologist can request massively expensive tests yet struggles to find funds to provide oral hydration.

Katy mentioned Joanna Cannon’s latest book, Three Things About Elsie, and how it explores attitudes to people’s changing abilities. She mentioned a blog post Dr Cannon had written about how to talk to a patient suffering a terminal illness (do read this). Histories brings out what being a good doctor means, and the uncertainty that always exists.

The authors were asked if they thought that, in the last few years, there had been an increased interest in both the positives and negatives of healthcare.

Katy talked of the expectation of infallibility and the constrictions caused by the threat of litigation, how this affects what doctors can say to patients. She offered an analogy with motherhood. There is a desire to be a perfect mother, yet all that any mother can hope for is to be good enough. Perhaps society needs to accept good enough doctors.

Sam mentioned that we live in a world that is now far less trusting of authority – understandably. He asked how we square this with providers of healthcare when doctors face crisis at every moment.

Katy talked of the care her husband received, which was not always as it should have been. Yet she recognised that doctors are human and working within the constraints of a far from perfect system. She felt it important that we differentiate before ascribing blame.

Both Sam and Katy read again from their books before talk moved on to a discussion of the use of  language, and empathy.

Katy commented that Histories has dexterous language and asked if this could enable or disable the practice of medicine.

Sam talked of providing compassionate care and what this means, that it should not just be a task on a tick list. Language is the currency humans use and there are ethical as well as technical arguments for certain words, for example madness. He talked of culpability, which is explored in Entanglement, what happens to others as a result of our actions but of which we remain unaware. Kindness is a power.

Katy talked of how kindness shapes those around. For some who show care it becomes their prism – they define themselves by other’s outcomes as a result of their acts of kindness.

When questions were invited from the audience one lady told of her experience of a rare illness being diagnosed because an expert happened to be to hand. She wished to stress the importance of everyone bringing their best to their job. She felt that doctors should be more truthful about what they know and can do.

A question was then asked about media representations.

Sam replied that to get away from the false and sentimental it was necessary to be gritty in his writing, to present the internal troubles of his characters. Doctors cannot know exactly how others feel but can understand fear and pain. He chairs a clinical ethics committee and most discussions are not around great moral dilemmas but much more day to day concerns – how much should be told and shared, how to be with patients. It can be tricky arriving at a reasonable stance.

Sam referenced Seamus Heaney’s essay in which he differentiated between craft and technique in writing: craft is the skill of making, it wins competitions, it can be deployed without reference to feelings or the self; technique defines a stance toward life, a definition of a writers own reality.

And with that the discussion was drawn to a close. The audience were rapturous in their reactions to the discussion and eager to talk to both authors. I managed to catch a few words with Sam when I asked him to sign my copy of his book. When I looked for Katy she was surrounded, deep in conversation, and I was by now out of time. I did manage to introduce myself to Ann Bissell who was representing The Borough Press. It is always lovely to put faces to names I follow on line.

This was another excellent author evening organised by Toppings. If in Bath do check out this fabulous independent bookshop.

   

Histories is published by riverrun (click on the cover above to read my review)

Entanglement is published by The Borough Press

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses Shortlist Announcement Event

Neil Griffiths prepares to announce the shortlist

Two weeks ago I travelled to Manchester to attend a book event that is close to my heart. Having been invited to join the reader panel for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses early last summer, I have been immersed in the many excellent books submitted for consideration for many months. The longlist was announced in December and was, in my view, an outstanding collection of some of the best literary fiction published in recent years.

Whittling this down to a shortlist proved a challenge. It was done over dinner in London, in January, in preparation for an announcement that then had to be delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. I wrote briefly about the the rescheduled event, held in the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, here.

The night, though, was about more than announcing the six books that had made it onto the shortlist. It was an appreciation of the literary achievements of the small presses. As Charles Boyle, author and publisher at CB Editions, said in his guest post for my blog last month (which he told me when I met him in Manchester he really hadn’t wanted to write!):

“Does there have to be a winner? Boringly, yes. It’s how the world tick-tocks. But that doesn’t matter, because the real point of the Republic of Consciousness Prize is to celebrate a movement and a community.”

This sense of community was well in evidence at the Manchester event, despite the obvious disappointment of the authors and publishers that were not shortlisted.

Before the announcement there were panels and talks which I summarise in some detail below for anyone interested.

As an aside, I had not previously been aware that certain other prizes reveal to the publishers beforehand what is to be announced, that print runs may be adjusted to ensure books are available for the anticipated increase in sales. At this event, as far as I know, we judges were the only people who knew the shortlist beforehand.

 

The evening opened with an introduction by the founder of the RofC prize, Neil Griffiths, who posed a few questions designed to make authors think about what they wanted from a book deal. Neil has published prize winning novels with an imprint of Penguin, enjoying a large advance but little ongoing attention from those he hoped would work to help promote his books. His most recent novel, As A God Might Be, has been published by Dodo Ink, a small press that has offered him a more satisfying experience.

A selection of the longlisted publishers were then invited to form a panel to discuss the recent emergence of the small presses as leaders in literary innovation. Those taking part were Carolina Orloff from Charco Press, Chris Hamilton-Emery from Salt Publishing, Elly Millar from Galley Beggar Press, and Kevin Duffy from Bluemoose Books.

Neil asked why small presses are flourishing.

Kevin suggested that although they still have to sell books (they are not after all a library) they have a different economic imperative.

Elly mentioned some stats that she shares with the publishing students she teaches: in 2001 a literary fiction title written in English would sell on average 1200 copies; by 2015 this average had fallen to around 260 copies per book.

Chris commented that sales are impossible to predict. When Salt started it sold poetry and would be lucky to sell 50 copies of any title; these days it hopes to sell around 200 copies – some perform considerably better, of course.

Carolina added that their longlisted book has sold around 800 copies to date. When asked why she chose to enter the publishing business given these figures she replied it was out of a sense of frustration, that so many good books were simply not available to English language readers. She wished to change the conversation, to bring a wider variety of books to readers.

Kevin suggested that the decline in publishing innovation started with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. From then, authors were dropped if sales did not meet targets – publishers were no longer willing to carry poor sellers. Libraries were also having their budgets cut and buying fewer books.

Neil mentioned media reports about the fall in sales of literary fiction but the rise in sales of books from small presses (Elly whispered, we have the good stuff!)

There was acknowledgement that most of the authors the small presses publish will already have submitted to the larger houses and been rejected.

Neil asked about the role of agents who are also focused on the bottom line as they need to earn many thousands of pounds from book sales simply to pay for their desk space.

Kevin said that, where there is only so much publishing pie to go around, those looking to ‘pay for their desk space’ were not focusing purely on great writing. Some agents have also been known to express concern when writers are not London based.

Chris mentioned that agents tend to look to the small presses last.

Carolina commented that more interesting work could be found by approaching authors directly.

As an aside Neil added that following his Penguin publishing deal he was taken out to lunch but didn’t get invited into the publisher’s building for a year, until he was regarded as established.

Chris talked of the dramatic explosion of authors going it alone, who see no advantage in a small press. In the early days some were earning six figure sums publishing on Kindle but the market quickly became saturated. Authors should ask what benefit an agent will offer them. Small presses are willing to collaborate in such areas as rights sales.

Elly mentioned that most authors have agents but also approach small presses themselves. She currently has 457 submissions in her inbox, despite only accepting for two weeks twice a year. She believes agents may be worthwhile if sales explode, such as if a big prize is won. She pointed out that most people who run small presses, and most writers, also have day jobs to pay the bills.

Chris suggested that writers whose work fits into a fashionable genre may benefit from an agent. He hoped that the many writing schools now in existence teach the realities of publishing, pointing out that even a Guardian review may lead to just 20 extra sales.

Neil added, and others concurred, that despite it being a writer’s dream to write full time, this may not actually be good for their art. He then asked what the wider industry could do for small presses that is not currently being done.

Elly mentioned that reviews are hugely useful, that she sees spikes in sales when reviews appear in such publications as The Sunday Times, women’s magazines or on Front Row. Neil questioned if reviews were really so important in driving sales. The consensus was that what is required is visibility. It is to do with readers spreading the word, such as happens on Twitter.

Kevin commented that this was why they started the Northern Fiction Alliance. He said that readers are looking elsewhere and are now finding the small presses.

Chris didn’t believe the trade owed small presses anything. He takes on books that have commercial potential but this is hard to call. A bookshop may order a thousand of one title while for another, that he considers fantastic, they may order only six.

Dostoyevsky Wannabe, in the audience, chipped in that they print on demand so do not need sales (although they would like them!) Chris added that Salt started in the same way. Dostoyevsky Wannabe believes agents may still be looking for books about wizards, or cookbooks.

 

Authors Isabel Waidner (Gaudy Bauble) and Preti Taneja (We that are young) then came to the front of the room to give talks.

Isabel spoke of what literature can do, that it can offer cultural assistance and has the potential to affect political and social change. She wishes to see the small presses offering alternative narratives to counter the prevailing conservative one. She stated that the Tory party are good at turning what they wish to become normative into stuff that resonates with people. The arts should come up with alternatives. They need to resonate with audiences not currently engaging with literature. If it remains commercial, middle class, then it excludes a huge readership who thus remain invisible. Where are the working class writers, the queer writers, writing about their subcultures? It is these writers who are featured in an anthology she has been working on recently, Liberating the Canon. There is much still to be done but it can be done. She hopes the small presses will be more willing to look at diversity and cultural innovation.

Preti talked of her experience of getting published and the prejudices she encountered as a woman of colour. Reactions to her novel, a rewriting of King Lear, suggested that what she was attempting was fantastic but that Shakespeare did not belong to someone like her, despite being British born. At one stage the agent who took her on would not submit to a publisher as they already had an unanswered submission from another British-Asian writer, as though such writers are identkit. Eventually her manuscript was hand delivered to Galley Beggar Press, at home, by the tiny Gatehouse Press who had published a novella she had written and recognised the potential of We that are young. Preti was unsure at this stage if a small press would think this work was right for them. Having published she believes that they can offer the mixing up and integration needed to move forward. Literature should be innovative, nuanced, it should be playing with ideas and making something new.

Isabel and Preti were then joined by Simon Okotie (In the Absence of Absalon), David Hayden (Darker With The Lights On) and Ben Myers (The Gallows Pole) to form an author panel.

Like Neil, Ben has been published by both large and small presses. He pointed out that the big advances paid may be for five years work so perhaps not quite as generous as first appears. He mentioned that one of his books was regarded as big but turned out to have a short shelf life. He has enjoyed the autonomy Bluemoose Books have given him, for example he chose the striking cover for Gallows Pole. Picador would never have allowed that.

David was not allowed to choose his cover! Little Island Press has an award winning ‘house style’ which permeates every aspect of their beautiful books. He has been in the book trade since 1989, working in bookshops, as a commissioning editor, a non-fiction publisher – he knows the book trade from every direction. He mentioned that one publisher he submitted to couldn’t be sure his stories would sell, and the commissioning editor is granted only one wild card choice per year. There is a fear element in acquisitions meetings. Commissioning editors can lose their jobs if the finance people are unhappy with how books perform. In talking of the potential for diversity David pointed out that across almost all literary imprints, key decision makers are white, male and privately educated.

Simon described his book as a story about a man taking a set of keys out of his pocket. His next book will have even less action. Neil commented that, like Isabel’s, Simon’s work sits on the extremes of literary fiction. Simon expressed his gratitude that his books can be published as they are very particular, stemming from his work on public transport while studying philosophy.

Neil talked of books as works of art, the author having command over their material, getting it to do whatever they want. He mentioned the longlisted book by Kevin Davey, Playing Possum, which, if written by a renowned author such as Pynchon, would have people doing PhDs on it. If the culture narrows, such books will never be published.

With so many books being published each year, Neil asked the authors if they had any sense of where British fiction is – if it is good, bad, on hold, exciting.

Preti mentioned that from visiting bookshops she noticed more translated fiction.

Ben added that the best novels he has read recently have come from the small presses, been crowdfunded, or authors have been cherry picked by the bigger publishers after a small press success. As a reviewer he is sent so many books that sometimes quality is drowned out.

David talked of all literature being contemporary as all language (writing) interacts with what has gone before. He stated that segmentation and a focus on marketability can be disheartening for readers. The book becomes a product, offered up and then forgotten.

Neil commented that when something works all the big publishers seem to desire their own version. David reminded everyone that commissioning editors are readers first but work within restrictions.

The idea of hybridity was mentioned.

Isabel believes this is improving but literature is still far too homogeneous. She wishes to see more authors working with language and form, crossing intersections, a diversity of writing and also writers.

Preti stated that she does not consider a small press to be a stepping stone to a bigger publishing house. She values the relationship built stating that such things help make the whole process more worthwhile.

Simon commented that he would like to read more books like his own. He wrote it because he couldn’t find it elsewhere. He was eager to emphasise the value of the small presses and the writers they are finding. So much interesting work is coming through.

Isabel believes that reaching readerships that aren’t yet being tapped into matters more than copies sold.

Neil reminded everyone that the RofC prize was set up to reward small presses willing to take a risk on ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’. The reaction to the longlist has been intense, but how many people want to read such super premium literary fiction?

Ben does not believe publishers should underestimate readers. He mentioned Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing (first published by Galley Beggar) which has proved a cultural phenomena, sold 57,000 copies and is still much sought after.

Simon suggested this book was still recent, that we should be looking at a book such as Ulysses, its cultural impact, and what is possible.

 

With that Neil drew this part of the evening to a close. The packed venue (many were by now standing at the back or sitting in the aisle) decamped to another room for wine and conversation before the shortlist announcement was made.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to introduce myself to several publishers I interact with regularly on line but had not previously met – Chris had come across a poet sharing my name which caused some confusion when I introduced myself – as well as authors whose work I have reviewed. At this stage I was unsure if I should be mentioning that I was a judge given that some would, inevitably, go home disappointed by the evening’s outcome.

13 books had to be whittled down to 6. This is the more negative aspect of judging, that favourites from what was a truly outstanding list had to be selected.

The shortlist

The next stage will be to choose a winner which will be announced on 20 March at an event to be held at the University of Westminster. Another difficult decision must be made.

 

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses Shortlist Announcement

Yesterday evening, at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, an event was held which culminated in the announcement of the shortlist for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Prior to the announcement there were panel discussions and presentations from publishers and authors.

When I saw this lineup last week I knew that I wanted to attend and am grateful to my husband for making it possible. As this post goes out we are still in Manchester enjoying an impromptu City Break.

Having been on the judging panel I was aware of which presses would be on the shortlist – you may remember that I attended a dinner in London where the longlist was hotly debated. For four hours the judges argued and presented their cases for including each book. They all had their advocates and, when it became clear that certain titles were not to go forward, passions were in evidence. The chair did a fine job of keeping the discussion steady and moving things along. Votes were taken and taken again, often with only one or two dividing the books to be included and those to be set aside. We knew that we had an impressively strong longlist and the difficulty of whittling it down to five or six titles was evidence of its literary quality.

Our task though was to produce a shortlist. These are the books that were eventually chosen, as announced last night:

 

Attrib. by Eley Williams (Influx)

Blue Self-Portrait by Noemi Lefevbre (Les Fugitives)

Darker with the Lights On by David Haydn (Little Island Press)

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (Charco Press)

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)

The winner has yet to be chosen. There will be a further event in London on 20th March when that announcement will be made. Whichever book is selected, this entire shortlist is well worth reading.

 

 

 

 

Gig Review: New Voices of 2018 from Headline

Much as I enjoy my trips into London for book events, and am grateful to all the publishers who invite me, it was pleasing to learn that a team from Headline Publishing Group were taking five of their up and coming debut authors around the country to meet booksellers, librarians and reviewers closer to home. The Headline New Voices 2018 Roadshow travelled to Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol before returning to London where they will host a Rooftop Book Club next week, on Tuesday 23rd January at Carmelite House. I was delighted to receive an invitation to the Bristol roadshow event which I attended last Thursday evening.

Held in The Boardroom in central Bristol I spent an interesting few hours chatting to publicists, authors and other attendees about a wide range of book related issues. Although run to promote the five highlighted debuts the conversation and achievement of the event was wider ranging. There was a willingness to talk about the challenges of increasing sales in today’s market. There was palpable excitement from the authors at their creations being released into the wild.

Becky Hunter kicked proceedings off by introducing each book and author. Attendees were then left to mingle and chat while the publicity team – which included Georgina Moore, Millie Seaward and Jenny Harlow – ensured that nobody was left out and that the authors talked to each little group. The wine flowed and delicious canapés were served. The atmosphere was welcoming and convivial.

I managed to fit in conversations with Phoebe Locke (author of The Tall Man), Leo Carew (author of The Wolf) and Nick Clark Windo (author of The Feed). As a medical student, Leo was subjected to my parental pride in my daughter – also a medical student in London. I believe she would be most envious of his time spent in Svalbard, although perhaps not the tent accommodation. I also raised the daughter inspired medical theme with Nick, this time discussing neurology as we discussed how the brain would be changed by an implant as imagined in his book.

I chatted to a poet bookseller from Rossiter Books who was eager to pick up publishing advice from Georgina. I snuck into a conversation with a lovely bookseller from Griffin Books who spoke of the next day service they can offer customers (better than Amazon!). I met lovely library assistant Leah, and was delighted to catch up with my on-line friend, Sue.

I was also pleased to have several opportunities to talk to Georgina, who was candid about the challenges of marketing any book however appealing and well written; and also to Becky, about bloggers and proof distribution. Despite what I have been advised by others it seems that publicists are happy to be approached for review copies. Having said that, no reviewer should feel they ‘deserve’ any particular book. With so many bloggers eager to spread the word about the books they enjoy, not all can be recipients of every ARC.

At this event, though, I came away with copies of each book offered. Having now heard so much about them I am keen to read each one. The roadshow was well worth braving the cold for – thank you Headline for hosting, and for coming to us.