Portobello Book Festival: From Ideas to Page

10 10 2011

A Day at the Portobello Book FestivalIn the Sunday morning event at Portobello Library, a small group of writers from all across the literary spectrum with various levels of experience, gathered to listen to the advice and musings of three members at different stages of the publishing cycle.

The panel consisted of Marianne Paget, a local author, most recently involved in the City of Literature’s Story Shop. Allan Guthrie, a well known crime writer, shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger and winner of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel Of The Year in 2007. He also acts as a literary agent with Jenny Brown Associates. And finally, Francis Bickmore, editorial director of Canongate Books in Edinburgh.

Each panelist came armed with advice and tips for writers, new and experienced, on how one might make that elusive breakthrough, whether it’s an agent that’s needed or a publisher, self-publishing advice, the advantages and disadvantages of being published traditionally, what editors and agents look for in a writer, and bags of other tips.

Paget, complete with handouts on organisations that can help budding new writers, talked through her experiences to date and the path she has followed to achieve her successes so far.

Guthrie’s five minutes consisted of the five vital questions all writers should ask themselves to ascertain whether they “need a publisher or an agent”, or if a career in self-publishing might suit more. The questions were designed to give positive answers, providing the author answered them honestly. They’re hard-hitting, but in the hard world of publishing, the answers this writer came up with were very revealing indeed.

The final “five minute slot” (it went on much longer) came from Francis Bickmore, the newly promoted editorial director of the internationally respected Canongate Books. His advice also revolved around a series of points that all writers should take strong heed of.

His views were remarkably enlightening, particularly on the importance of having great blurbs as opposed to synopses, that a writer should “write what you don’t know” as opposed to the general understanding that a writer should write what they do.

He continued with a series of brilliant points to consider, such as: “submissions should be properly researched, not the actual book”, that the author should “be the artist and the gallery agent” and should “find his or her community”. He also said it was vital to “give out but don’t give up”, and perhaps the most memorable piece of advice to a man in my position: “hair shines with brushing”.

The Q&A session could have gone on much longer, but one thing that stuck out was the reality of the publishing industry today in the form of a very simple statistic. On why publishers like Canongate spread their bets through different genres, and through the publication of high profile celebrities like Katie Price, it comes down to simple survival and the 85/15 rule.

When you understand that “85% of a publisher’s money comes from 15% of their books,” you start to see why the publishing industry as a whole is so risk averse.

Kudos to the organisers of this event and the whole of the Portobello Book Festival. Hopefully next year I’ll get to spend more time there as it has a vibe and energy all of its own.

Debate: The Future of Independent Publishing with André Schiffrin

22 08 2011

Andre SchiffrinRenowned New York publisher André Schiffrin left Random House many years ago in order to work for Pantheon. But today came to Edinburgh to describe what he believes to be a developing crisis in Western publishing. In The Business of Books, he demonstrates how the American corporate model has extended its reach across the globe.

Schiffrin had a lot of interesting things to say and took up most of the hour working through pre-pared notes, that transferred to the audience as a gentle guide through the world of publishing and the state we found ourselves in. “The Adam Smith concept that good things will sell,” he began, “isn’t necessarily the case in publishing; a lot of good books have lost money.”

And from here the story he painted only looked bleaker, as he cited a couple of interesting titbits. For example, “during the first Iraqi war, no books were published from American publishing houses that were critical of Bush of the White House at that time. This proves the big publishing houses were influenced by the political landscape of the nation and how it applied to their profit expectations.”

Another thing that worked against the system was the Mars Bar Index: “Mars was comparing their price increases with everyone else, and the same thing is happening now. Penguin did this so they could increase their growth and profitability by 15%-20% instead if the 6% it was before.”

Schiffrin seemed to argument more for the benefits of having not-for-profit publishing houses as opposed to the conglomerates model of maximising profits (or increasing their return to shareholders). They way of doing this is would be “to drop massive author advances and then pay authors and staff a consistent rate.”

When asked about the impact of Kindle on book stores, he commented: “publishing only means you make something public, you still have to put in the same level of marketing whether you are on Kindle or not. However, when I worked in New York as a lad there were over 300 good independent book stores, but now there are only 30.” He continued: “Small books won’t make it through the barrier any more thanks to Google and Amazon.”

Hinting that it might be beneficial to introduce a law to prevent the current model of heavy discounting, which only served to create fake cover prices of books and devalue the cost of a novel, Schiffrin’s allotted time came to a close far too soon—it was just getting interesting when time ran out.

Author Event: Robert Levine

21 08 2011

Robert LevineJournalist Robert Levine came to his event at the Edinburgh Book Festival on the back of a provocative Observer article, and began by explaining the rationale behind his claim that, “the current model of internet commerce is unsustainable.”

Not dissimilar, I thought, to the original Ford Prefect of Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, he began by explaining that fundamentally, “we tell ourselves stories in order to understand the world,” and that in this, his first book, Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business, he attempts not to slam the old model, but to ask if the current one is at all sustainable.

While not a major critic of Shawn Fanning, who he insists “didn’t create Napster for money, but rather to develop a new way of distributing music,” he took issue with Fanning’s claims that his invention redefined music. “He didn’t,” said Levine. “What he really did was redefine the trucking industry.”

On Google, seen by many as a pretty good thing for the Internet, his opinion was less than glowing. “Google will not give you advice that is good for you or what you want, it will give you advice that is good for Google.”

Levine cited Bjork’s latest album that comes with an iPad app for every track. While this may well be “pointing the way for the future of the music album, it is not something that could have been done under Google’s Android operating system. It could only have been achieved under Apple’s model because it is closed.”

In summarising what was a very provocative hour of thinking and promotion of a new approach to internet commerce, Levine simply said: “I’m not defending legacy business, but we have a broken market that now makes it difficult to create something and then sell it.”

Debate: The Joy of Literature

20 08 2011

Joseph Brooker and Ray Ryan
Mid-afternoon and I fond myself in Peppers Theatre for a discussion between a Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman. No joke, and nor was the discussion.

The event had been billed especially for bibliophiles, in which Brooker’s analysis of British literature since the 1980s in a collection of essays called The Good of the Novel, co-edited by Ray Ryan, which “brings together some of the most strenuous and perceptive critics of the present moment, and puts them in contact with some of the finest novels of the past three decades.”

Chaired by the literary editor of The Scotsman, Stuart Kelly, we had the potential for a really interesting discussion. Brooker and Ryan provided a new angle on publishing, with the latter relating how “each novel sets its own constitution; the truth of fiction cannot be rendered in any other form.”

Ryan remains convinced that “small presses take chances on making reputations of authors whereas large ones are more cautious,” and I have to agree with him. In my experience this has been important in opening the door  to the proliferation of self-publishing.

On the question as to whether Shakespeare is a great writer, Brooker argued that “It’s far too early to say—maybe in another 400 years or so but how are we supposed to guess that now?” And bringing the discussion back (or forward) to the 21st century and the introduction of e-readers, Ryan commented that he was “amazed that these things still only display mainly text, and that even in the 21st century with all the technology available to use, people who use them still only want them for that sole reason.”

As for hyperlinks within text to websites and informative articles, “these things are a distraction,” says Ryan. “But for the publisher and critic alike,” explained Brooker, “they mean much more work!”