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.

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