The Literary Consultancy has founded an important new conference for writers, The Literary Conference: Writing in a Digital Age, which ran for the first time to great acclaim and a packed audience at the Free Word Centre in June 2012.
Browse these pages to see the panel debates and sessions covered, and the full range of speakers involved. Find out about the exciting new Pen Factor Writing Competition for delegates, and our innovative Audience Storytime in which we hear from you about experiments online. Also, check out forthcoming digital sessions and resource links, to help give you inspiration and practical advice to help you take ideas forward.
Summary by Ashley Stokes
In her introduction to Californian writer Robert Kroese’s Self-Publishing Masterclass Alison Baverstock, Course Leader for the MA in Publishing at Kingston University made three observations about the nature of self-publishing.
Firstly, she asserted that the ease and speed with which an author can create an e-book could be dangerous, citing that editing can be inadequate and negative feedback early on can undermine a writer’s confidence and determination. Self-publishing is, therefore, not a short cut. Secondly, the commonly held opinion that the rise of self-publishing amounts to the death of traditional publishing is an example of lazy journalism. Publishing is merely spreading out. Thirdly, a misplaced magic is attributed to self-publishing success stories. There’s more involved than mere luck and a book must still be good.
These points provided an excellent stepping-off point to Robert Kroese’s Masterclass, which he began by describing that his own starting point was, whether wisely or not he’d assumed he could publish a book. In 2009 Kroese published a comic-SF e-book, Mercury Falls. Initially, this sold 5,000 copies. Later, it was taken up by Amazon’s Encore imprint and sold a further 50,000 copies.
This was not a case of overnight success. Kroese had initially build a readership by running a humorous blog, Mattress Police, extracts of which were self-published as a print-on demand book that sold around 200 copies.
There were three lessons from this experience that had a bearing on Mercury Falls.
Firstly, selling books is hard. Print-on-demand books are expensive and don’t sell beyond the author’s immediate circle.
Secondly, there’s no point under-pricing to circumvent the above as it removes the author’s margin.
Thirdly, when confronted with this predicament an author really has to believe in his or her book to persist.
Kroese was determined to learn from this experience once Mercury Falls was completed. He spent six months trying to find an agent and explored the traditional route but soon became frustrated. He couldn’t work out what the agents want and what their criterion is. Mercury Falls didn’t fit into a straightforward genre category, being both comic and loosely structured, and it became clear that there was a kneejerk reaction that it wouldn’t sell because it didn’t fit into a pre-set genre.
At this time he began to hear of Kindle authors taking off, like Amanda Hocking. Despite having a background in software design, he wasn’t counting on self-publishing for Kindle being an easy process. A book needs to be marketed, after all. Even so, Kroese was more interested in the opinion of readers than that of inscrutable agents and publishers and decided to go it alone. Based on the success of Mattress Police he assumed he had some kind of audience and assumed he’d sell a modest 1,000 copies even though selling 1,000 copies, as an unknown author, is a tall order.
Initially he promoted his book via his blog, Facebook and Twitter (he admitted that he might not bother with a blog now that social media is more widespread). Fortunately, he was also able to tap up some contacts at Google (proving that self-published authors need to call in as many favours as possible). He did everything he possible could to sell the book but did so by making jokes and observations and using the Internet to make friends rather than just posting sales information.
Mercury Falls was initially published on Kindle and Smashwords (as an afterthought; Kroese has never bothered with iBookstore). It was initially priced at $4.99 but sales doubled at $2.99 and then took off at 99¢. At this point it encroached on the Amazon ratings, which led to another spike in sales. Once this occurred, Amazon’s own –e-book imprint Encore, took up the book. When it was republished with a more attractive jacket in 2010 it went on to sell 50,000 copies, benefiting also from publicity and promotions. Amazon Encore subsequently agreed to publish the sequel Mercury Rises and will be publishing the third in the series, Mercury Rests.
In light of this experience, Kroese had many astute observations to make about the publishing landscape today. He says that there’s no such thing as traditional publishing now. All publishers are in a state of flux. All are in the e-book market with varying degrees of success. One piece of advice to authors is to ignore publishing issues and industry debates (for example, the US debate about whether Amazon is a bad thing or not) and concentrate on the quality of written work and finding an audience. The last five years have seen rapid technological change, with the advent of print-on-demand and e-books and with Amazon creating via Kindle a market for e-books. The borders in publishing are now artificial and proprietary with ‘legacy publishers’ essentially attempting to ringfence what they see as their preserve. However, publishers have never been the gatekeepers of quality and frequently and always have published trash at the expense of more deserving titles. The rise of self-publishing allows the readership to see ‘the whole sausage’, the slush pile, all of the process of literary production at any given time.
This isn’t to say that placing a book with a ‘legacy publisher’ doesn’t come with advantages. There’s a matter of prestige, and hardback books are cheaper than print-on-demand books. However, the self-published author has more control over the process and gets better returns quicker if an audience can be nurtured.
Kroese suggested that an author considering self-publication ought to consider three questions:
1. Are you publishable and can you be trusted to be honest about this?
2. Are you entrepreneurial? Web and text savvy? Are you social? Are you impatient? Are you a control freak?
3. Is your book difficult to classify?
If so: self-publish. Publishers do provide a valuable service but the question is whether you can do it better yourself.
Summary by Ben Lyle
As he called the room to order after lunch on the second day of the TLC’s Writing in a Digital Age conference, co-curator Jon Slack might very well have said: ‘And now for something completely different.’ What he actually did was invite us back into the packed lecture theatre to hear ‘Canon Tales’ from five literary agents and four publishers. Inspired by ‘pecha kucha’, the session required each participant to spend seven minutes speaking about themselves or the industry, using twenty images of twenty-one seconds duration.
Beyond the strict timetabling, no one (including the participants) really knew what to expect. Such an openness of expectation proved entirely appropriate, as starting with agent David Godwin’s ‘Awards of the Year’, the presentations proved as different from each other as from the rest of the excellent TLC conference programme.
Whether by chance or because they won the contractual battle, the agents went first: after David’s awards, Cathryn Summerhayes took us through her early career as an aspiring opera singer (no arias unfortunately) to her on-going search for ‘unique voices’; Simon Trewin heartened everyone when he said he attacked his submission pile each morning (after a vat of green tea and the odd marathon); Karolina Sutton charted her career inspirations from fairy tales to Naomi Klein via Angela Carter, spiced up with a painting of a naked emperor; while Carole Blake emphasised the importance of long relationships, of loyalty and persistence in publishing, before shocking the audience with the bold claim that she was the ‘biggest Meat Loaf fan in the room.’
The publishers were equally eclectic: Arzu Tahsin spoke of her route into publishing and her latest commissions, before delighting us with an account of her personal passion for book-binding; Gavin James Bower gave his rules for writing in the digital age, including the salutary warning to take rejection like Gertrude Stein; Rukhsana Yasmin talked of the passion required for publishing, evidenced by her pursuit and release of the Arab Spring popularised pamphlet From Dictatorship To Democracy; and Nick Bates rounded things off entertainingly with his seventeen rules to romancing a digital publisher, equally applicable to real-life wooing (or so he said.)
The session as a whole was entertaining, lively and revelatory. It showed for the aspiring writers present that eminent people in the industry aren’t some separate species of publisher-kings, working to a secret and unknowable code, but are real people driven by a passion for great writing, great books and irresistible stories. The energetic and unpredictable Cannon Tales format helped open up the professions of agenting and publishing in a way that would be hard in any other forum and the session as a whole proved illuminating but also heartening: most of the participants had tales of writers or books overcoming multiple rejections to achieve ultimate success. The message was simple: keep going.
Speaking to the participants afterwards, it was clear that they were as surprised and intrigued by what their colleagues came up with as the audience. It was clear, also, that not only did they have to overcome the trepidation of opening themselves up to a packed crowd, they also had to do a lot of work in preparation. I would like to thank them all for putting in this work and creating between them, each in their own different ways, a memorable, informative and highly entertaining afternoon. Thanks also to Rebecca Swift, Jon Slack and all at TLC for putting together such a mixed and exciting conference. Roll on next year.
Carole Blake @caroleagent
David Godwin @DGALitAgents
Cathryn Summerhayes @taffyagent
Karolina Sutton @KarolinaSutton
Simon Trewin @simontrewin
Nick Bates @thatlooksgood
Gavin James Bower @gavinjamesbower
Rukhsana Yasmin @SaqiBooks
Summary by Kieron Connolly
With a panel that ranged from a literary agent to a digital publisher to two self-published authors and one digitally-phobic, traditionally published author, the discussions in From A Cradle to Kindle – Getting Discovered in Today’s Ecosystem threw up a great range of approaches to, and opinions on, publishing today.
So what did discovery mean to the panel? Self-published crime novelist Kerry Wilkinson felt that the stories of all successful self-published authors were specific to each author. For him, discovery was about word of mouth – one reader even heard about his books from a midwife while she was in labour.
In writing his first book, Wilkinson wasn’t interested in pursuing traditional publishers and being “treated like a child”. He had no editorial input beyond comments from a few friends. He just wanted to show himself that he could write. All his work – be it his writing, website or correspondence – is done on his netbook computer, which cost him £160 under two years ago.
On the other hand, novelist Kerry Young said she herself didn’t want to be discovered but wanted her book to be published. Averse to digital and wanting the validation of a traditional publishing house, Young never considered self-publishing. She came through TLC, which she found very helpful. She found an agent and her novel Pao was published in 2011 by Bloomsbury.
But for self-published American author Robert Kroese the traditional world of publishing is like queuing to get into a nightclub – you’re not sure if the queue is even moving and when you reach the front, you’re not sure if the doormen think you look right to be let in, while you’re wondering if it’ll all be worth it anyway. So he found a back door into publishing and self-published.
Kroese is a software developer and had begun blogging before writing a novel. Targeting other bloggers, he’d built up a following of 200 people who were already reading about the writing of his novel on his blog and awaiting its publication. Unable to afford any editorial input, he showed his novel to friends and if two friends had problems with the same section, he’d change it, no matter what he thought of it.
From the industry side, digital publishing director of Profile Books Michael Bhaskar admitted that a few years ago it had been claimed that social media would help us discover many more books, but in fact it is throwing up a few success stories, such as Kerry Wilkinson, but is not offering us the long tail. Literary agent Tom Williams agreed that word of mouth still sells books, albeit now also through the digital world with websites such as www.authonomy.com – a peer review website where the better works reach editors at Harper Collins or are poached by agents.
And while it’s been claimed that the five stages of publication (author, agent, publisher, bookseller and reader) will be squeezed down in the digital age, Michael Bhaskar felt that this isn’t happening: even self-published author Kerry Wilkinson, among other self-published authors, is now with a traditional publisher. Tom Williams added that the benefit of literary agents isn’t just that they know which publishers to approach but which editors within each publishing house would best be suited to a particular book.
The discussion moved on to pricing. Robert Kroese had found that the more he dropped the price – from $4.99 down to 99 cents – the more he sold and he still made more money. Priced under a dollar, it may be an impulse buy, but it gets the book into the charts, which further helps it move forward.
Kerry Wilkinson sold his first book at £1, his sequel at £2 and the sequel to that at £3. The first book has sold best, but he’s made more money off the others, both of which have sold more than 100,000 copies. Those books are cheaper than traditionally published books, but he doesn’t have to share his money with a traditional publisher, so he’s getting the same amount as a traditionally published author selling at a higher price.
When an audience member wondered if you’re undervaluing your book by selling it for less than 2.99, Robert Kroese pointed out that he made more money selling at a lower price. However, he admitted that if readers pay more, they are more likely to read the book. Michael Bhaskar added that cheap alone no longer sells books because there are a lot of cheap books online.
But are there certain books that sell better in the digital world? Genre is more pronounced in self-publishing, with science fiction and fantasy the most successful genres, while romance fiction is the biggest in ereaders. Literary fiction, on the other hand, even in print doesn’t sell that well.
So much for the format, but what about writing the actual books? The panel shared their stories: on a disrupted day such as attending the conference, Kerry still thought he’d manage to write for six hours, producing 1000 words an hour, but admitted that working from a detailed outline of 6500 words, he was now “joining the dots” in his novel. Robert Kroese writes in bursts of weeks or months because he still works occasionally as a software developer, while Kerry Young makes sure she has days set aside for writing.
Rounding up, the panel offered their final tips. Michael Bhaskar suggested writing your description carefully when uploading your self-published work and making it keyword friendly so that it appears in online searches. Tom Williams emphasised researching the right agent/publisher to target. Robert Kroese felt it was important to have an idea of how you’re going to market your self-published book while you’re writing it, while Kerry Young said that it’s important to understand why you’re writing. Is it for fame? Is it for money? Lastly, Kerry Wilkinson thought that it’s best to write for yourself.
In discussing discovery, we’d learnt a great deal and left feeling optimistic about both traditional publishing and self-publishing, and about both print and online.
Event chaired by
Joanna Ellis, Associate Director of The Literary Platform @theLitPlatform
Michael Bhaskar @ajaxlogos
Robert Kroese @robkroese
Kerry Wilkinson @kerrywk
Tom Williams @twilliams81
Kerry Young www.kerryyoung.co.uk
Summary by Caroline McCarthy
International Perspectives was an enlightening exploration of how the Internet is affecting writers around the globe. Run in association with Commonwealth Writers, the discussion panel was chaired by Ellah Allfrey OBE, Deputy Editor of Granta and Judge of the Caine Prize for African Writing. Her fascinating guests included acclaimed author Urvashi Butali, co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house; Nii Ayikwei Parkes, writer, performance poet and founder of Flipped Eye Publishing; Marina Salandy-Brown, Director and founder of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the largest Anglophone literature festival in the Caribbean.
While the world’s most highly established publishing industries are within the US and the UK, and the vast majority of people within these countries have frequent and easy web access, there remain questions to be asked about the impact of the Internet on writers across the globe. As Urvashi Butali pointed out, net usage within India is rapidly increasing – it is estimated that 121 million people are logging on, and this is set to rocket even further as more of the population begin using smart phones. (There are currently 898 million mobile phone subscribers and this is predicted to increase by another 200 million in the next year alone). By contrast, Nii Ayikwei Parkes explained that use of the Internet in most African countries tends to be the preserve of the very wealthy and not the majority: a mere 3 percent of Ghana’s population, for example, accesses the Internet on a daily basis.
Marina Salandy-Brown painted an interesting picture of life for authors within the Caribbean, pointing out that ‘we export writers as we do a lot of raw material.’ Successful authors from this part of the world tend to be edited and published elsewhere. Citing the example of Andrea Levy’s Small Island, Marina explained that it was met with some bemusement when discussed by a book group within the region.
It seems that the current debate that continues to thrive within the UK and the United States (Is the Internet a threat to creativity? Does Amazon represent a major problem for publishers? How are writers affected overall by the digital age?) does not bear the same parameters within other parts of the world, where ‘publishing’ (or the day to day realities for those writing) is not the same as how those in more Westernized countries might perceive it. Ultimately, however, the Internet and its increasing usability are regarded as highly positive by the panel. It benefits not only writers but people across the board: increasing literacy, providing accessible information, and promoting freedom of expression.
by Rebecca Abrams
When is a poem not a poem? This was the teaser posed by Hari Kunzru at the start of his opening address to a two day conference last weekend on Writing in the Digital Age. The conference was run by The Literary Consultancy at the Free Word Centre in London, a venue that seemed eerily appropriate as the digital word sails anchorless and rudderless into uncharted territories. As evidence of the exciting but perilous straits we have now entered, Kunzru read out a poem entitled States. Teasing, elliptical, nice internal rhythms and rhymes. But at core it was as empty as a rotten nut. The words didn’t add up to anything, didn’t go anywhere, didn’t say anything. Which was Kunzru’s point entirely.
The ‘poem’ was in fact a computer-generated list, neatly arranged into a simulcrum of poetry, the product of a project in ontology extraction. The computer was asked to find the twelve nouns most similar to nation, followed by content selected from the eighteen most similar words to politics. A human researcher added line-breaks, punctuation and articles, making the results, superficially at least, resemble poetry.
Ask a computer to produce a list of things that are ‘like trucks’ and it’ll come back with ‘lorry, car, motorcycle’, but as Kunzru pointed out, “It may also return something like ‘hamster’, because lorries have wheels and hamsters have too.’ Computers are very clever, much cleverer than humans in many respects, but when it comes to literature they can’t yet equal humans for one simple reason: they are autistically literal.
Self-published author, Robert Kroese, whose book Mercury Falls became a mega Amazon best-seller, provided further illustration of the same point. His blog, Mattress Police, became a platform for a series of idiosyncratic reflections and observations which earned him the fan-base that helped made his book such a success. Search engines, however, took the title at face value and persistently linked him in with a stream of bedding wholesalers. With sublime and quintessentially human irony, Kruese eventually sold his blog domain name to a mattress manufacturer.
The moral of these stories is reasonably reassuring: the way writers engage with the meaning of words is not yet something computers can reproduce. Imagination and humour, thankfully, are not yet computable. Kunzru, however, left little room for complacency, taking us on a whistle-stop tour of what writing in a digital age now incorporates: multi-modal literature, computer assisted virtual environments, code poetry, instant messaging, spam and much more now come within the writer’s scope and we ignore this at our peril. “Digital technologies change the work itself, change what writing can do, and suggest what’s important to do,” he said. “The digital is opening up an important new role for fiction as an organizer of experience, as an efficient way to understand the world.”
Perhaps it is readers not computers that we really need to worry about in this brave new digital world. Tony White, author of Ivy4evr, an on-line text novel, described watching his story being not just read but written in real time by on-line users interacting with Ivy, a pre-programmed character who responded to each text that came in. Each ‘reader’ had a unique experience of the story, developing it according to his or her thoughts and feelings, and contributing fifty per cent of the final text – or rather, texts, because the end result was not one story but a multiplicity of stories. Thousands of them. Listening to White induced a vertiginous sensation. What he was describing seemed scarily close to the death of the author, the demise of the authored narrative as we know and love it, the emergence of a reader-writer relationship in which readers don’t just have the right to put down a book they don’t like, but can write the darn thing to suit themselves.
Mike Jones, Head of Story for Portal Entertainment, skyped in from Australia to describe The Nighshift, an ‘enhanced reading experience’ in which ‘readers’ become the lead character in the novel, not only triggering audio and visual activity but directly shaping the direction of the plot. Interactive novels, he insisted, can and should make for a satisfying ‘read’, must still abide by the rules of good narrative. Yet the same can be said of films and plays. Can on-line interactive stories really be called ‘novels’ in any meaningful sense of the word? Emotionally engaging, technically sophisticated and visually beautiful they may be, but are they anything more than tweaked versions of computer games? Literature, surely, is something else, on-line or off. Not merely reflexive, but reflective.
Digital technology and social networking are close companions in the new literary landscape and while Kunzru for one remains an advocate of conventional narrative, he has an important caveat: “We live in a time whose characteristic figure is the network. That is to say, we live lives that are characterised by our participation in networks, by our realisation that we in some ways consist of networks, in the patterns of neurons in our brains, in our social life, in our cultural conditioning….Whatever kind of writing we’re doing, whether it’s highly experimental, or firmly within a traditional genre, the transnational networks are now the place in which we make our writing, where we research, where our work is archived and where we reach our readers.”
A few days later I was at Larkmead Comprehensive School in Abingdon, where a group of fourteen year olds were reaching readers in the time-honoured way: through printed words in a physical book. As a writer-in-residence for the wonderful organization First Story, I’ve gone into Larkmead every Wednesday afternoon for six months to run creative writing workshops, the fruits of which we were launching that evening in an anthology, Digital Impressions. Quite apart from the joy of working with writers who are not encumbered with fantasies of publishing success and best-seller lists, but who simply like writing; quite apart from the pleasure of providing a little kindling of encouragement and watching fifteen teenagers’ imaginations instantly catch fire; quite apart from the warming courage and originality of what they actually wrote in these workshops, I have been repeatedly struck by how resilient the written word is. These kids all text, tweet, facebook and email. They are digital natives, unfazed by things I quake at and shy away from. But they still want to read books and they still want to write. Listening to them on Tuesday night reading their stories to a rapt audience of parents, teachers and writers, it was clear that whatever the challenges and opportunities of the digital age for writers and for literature, there is something ineradicable about the written word, something astonishingly robust about its ability to harness human experience and communicate it from one unique mind to another. Or as Hari Kunzru put it with eloquent simplicity: ‘Linear words on paper still seem a good interface to me.’
Rebecca Abrams is the author of Touching Distance (PanMacmillan)