2013 Event Write-ups

We commissioned a few TLC assessors to write-up some of the panels and talks which took place over the two-day conference. Here in programme order, is a selection of their impressions and observations. We hope will be useful to you if you were unable to attend, and tempt you to join us next year in 2014. For full programme and speakers’ details click here.

Keynote Speech Podcast with Audrey Niffenegger

by Solvej Todd

To give a keynote speech today, at a digital publishing conference surrounded by the ominous twitter predictions for the future of publishing, is undoubtedly a daunting task. It was therefore, to everyone’s delight at the TLC conference in June, that Audrey Niffenegger delivered a rapturous appeal for books themselves, in any format. A return to the focus on the aesthetic, the unbound possibility for originality and the community that brings forth and builds the reputation of great books.

Accompanying her speech, were a series of slides that reminded the audience of where we have been as writers and readers and where we are going. From the Rosetta Stone to Fan Fiction, taking the audience along on her own personal typographic journey as a graphic designer to becoming a commercially successful author at 40.

Audrey raises tough questions for publishers and writers alike and demands that we reevaluate our connection with books. How do we transfer the sensory experience of touching an illuminated manuscript to scrolling down the page on your computer? How will the plots evolve due to technology changing the very nature of human relationships?

To conclude, she opens up about holding on to her own ebook virginity, her reasons for delaying the release of The Time Traveler’s Wife ebook and why she trusted Zola books to maintain the value of her work in the electronic format.

Audrey keeps it real, shocks us and humours us throughout, but at the heart of it is an inspiring speech about the imprint of books on our lives, in any form, and the preservation of an ecosystem of writers and readers who will motivate, encourage and develop together.

Listen here for the podcast of the full keynote speech.

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Reality Check: The Year in Review

by Helen Gordon

Alison Flood of the Guardian, led a panel in the examination of a remarkable year of progress and disruption since TLC’s conference in 2012. The discussion focused on publishing and the digital environment, from large publishing houses to self-publishing enterprises.

Steve Bohme, Research Director at Bowker Market Research, began by explaining how his company tracks consumer book and ebook purchasing in the UK. He provided some statistics:

  • In the first quarter of 2013, 13% of all books published were ebooks. This represents an increase from 3% in 2011. In some genres — romance, crime fiction, classic fiction, true crime — this figure rises to more than 20%.
  • In 2012 self-publishing accounted for 2% of all book and ebook sales.
  • In 2012 self-publishing accounted for 20% of all ebook sales, with a focus on crime, sci-fi, romance and humour.

Bohme then talked about factors that influence our decision to buy a particular book. In the general print and ebook markets, subject and author were the most important factors. For self-published ebooks, however, price and blurb became more important. As a general rule, for self-published ebooks priced at £1 or under, price was the biggest factor. (Once a book is sold at over £1, other factors come into play.) He also considered the sex and age of book buyers. In 2012 the largest book-buying audience – 34% of purchasers — were females under the age of 45. For self-published ebooks the largest purchasing group were females over the age of 45 (36%).

Flood asked each member of the panel to reflect on Bohme’s statistics and the increased importance of digital.

Gordon Wise, a literary agent at Curtis Brown, wanted publishers to share more detailed breakdowns of ebook sales with their authors (where and how the books were being purchased). He suggested that digital publishing, including digital self-publishing, offered alternative platforms for his authors, new ways to build up a readership before, or instead of, working with a large publishing house. He also suggested that publishers could make more use of now extensive data about the book-buying public. (The old book club system of the Sixties and Seventies was flagged up as an interesting model, one that relies heavily on knowledge of a specific readership.) Curtis Brown have moved to an online-only submissions system.

Dan Franklin, digital publisher at Random House, suggested that 2012 could be viewed as the end of the beginning, or first phase, of digital publishing. Random House have now digitalized their backlist and overall, digital accounts for 23% of the company’s revenue. They’ve also developed an author portal that allows authors to view live sales info and access tutorials on the use of social media. Franklin talked about new digital pathways for acquiring books, and it was later mentioned that many publishers and agents now employ freelancers to read popular self-published books on Amazon. While expressing concerns about the contraction of the publishing industry, and noting that the consolidation of Random House and Penguin is symptomatic of this, he was also excited about the democratization of publishing as a result of digital self-publishing. He reflected on ‘an amazing openness’ that wasn’t apparent even 2 years ago. Perhaps most of all he stressed the need for publishers to have technology more at the heart of what they do, and to find more intelligent ways to make use of data in terms of marketing strategies. The days of regularly blowing large sums of money on tube posters are over, he said.

Stefan Tobler, publisher and founder of And Other Stories, made that point that volume of sales (as discussed by Bohme) is very different to revenue or royalties. Many ebooks are almost given away – partly because of the Amazon/Sony price war, partly because a lot of publishers use ebooks as part of a marketing strategy (e.g. selling books for £1 for a limited period of time). Ebooks, he said, represented about 5% of his company’s sales, though he also discussed the very specific case of Deborah Levy’s Booker-nominated Swimming Home, where ebooks represented 20% of the total sales. In general, Tobler was concerned that publishers rely too heavily on price to sell books and wanted to see more sales strategies based on quality of content. He talked hopefully about developing new spaces and platforms to engage with and encourage readers.

During the event Dan Franklin suggested that this is a moment to pause, to look around, to consider the challenges and opportunities of digital publishing at the end of its first phase. TLC’s 2013 conference was a good place to begin that exploration.

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Pandora’s Box: Literary Values in a Digital Age

by Arnet Addis

Billed as a discussion of literary value and the question of whether literary taste is changing, this session quickly became a vibrant (at points heated) debate about the merits and pitfalls of self-publishing, particularly work with roots in fanfiction. ‘But what is fanfiction?’ you ask. Aware of the fact that the term is not yet known to all within the publishing world, Sally O-J explained to the audience that this is work written by fans of novels, films, TV shows and even games, which uses the pre-existing characters but gives them new, often romantic or erotic storylines. Typically shared free in online communities dedicated to whichever series is being rewritten, this is where E. L. James’ hugely successful Fifty Shades of Grey started out. Though not known to everyone who has read it, the series was originally a very popular piece of Twilight fanfiction before its potential was recognised and its characters were renamed.

The assembled panel offered a variety of perspectives on the fanfiction phenomenon as well as the rise of online self-publishing and its effect on both readers and writers. In her work as an editor Sally O-J sees fanfiction as a force that publishing needs to take seriously – principally because there are good writers working within these online forums who, assisted by the care and attention of those in traditional publishing, could become great writers. Andrew Franklin, director of independent publishers Profile, earned an additional introduction by Rebecca Swift as ‘always controversial’ after he suggested that self-published work is mostly ‘terrible’ as it has not gone through the important process of curating offered by a professional publisher – including various levels of editing and marketing. Bringing self-publishing into this debate of literary value, he cheekily assured us, was like discussing the difference between ‘alco-pops and fine wine’. Attempting to self-publish, he says, is akin to buying a lottery ticket, so strongly are the odds stacked against you, and so likely is your subsequent disappointment. Toby Lichtig, editor at the TLS, agreed that the rigorous assessment given by the ‘gatekeepers’ will improve the literary value of a manuscript, but Scott Pack who works both in the traditional and new online publishing worlds seemed to resist the temptation to pick a side here. Indeed, against the backdrop of anxiety and uncertainty sweeping through the industry he is evidently fascinated by the changes going on, noting that while it is true that books can be enhanced by the professional scrutiny of those in the business, readers can value different things by the millions. The argument is that the more democratic forms of literary distribution can serve this diversity of needs. That suggestion echoed O-J’s point that the immense popularity of fanfiction shows what predominantly female readers are looking for in erotic fiction, and that unless agents and publishers can keep up with this they will surely lose out.

What was particularly intriguing about the discussion was how fanfiction was taken to represent the very worst work in terms of literary value, but also, largely as a result of Fifty Shades, the most likely source of writing or writers with major financial potential. Which posed the conundrum – can quality and success be reconciled? Flying the flag for independent publishers who put their focus on literary value over easy marketability, Andrew Franklin suggested not, and criticised giant HarperCollins for wanting (and being able) to have their cake and eat it too by aiming to publish both the award-winning and the big sellers.

In the exploration of the problems with bringing fanfiction out of the dark and into the light of mass publication it was noted that this shouldn’t be assumed to be the aim of every writer. Using Virginia Woolf as a key example, we were told that even the greats can fall victim to significant anxiety at the idea of putting their work at the mercy of readers and critics. While arguing for the importance of finding the great writers in the world of fanfiction, O-J therefore acknowledged the difficulty of convincing them to step out of a comfortable, often anonymous environment where your readers are automatically receptive, generous and encouraging, and into one where an audience is not something that is necessarily a given.

In terms of the fanfiction debate, the most important point was perhaps made when Scott Pack sought to remind us that publishers should not be snooty towards such writing when they already publish so many rewrites of famous novels. At this the audience chipped in with examples from the canon, from Wide Sargasso Sea to Ulysses. Indeed, the hot topic of self-publishing ensured some impassioned reactions from the crowd – mostly made up of unpublished authors who have first-hand experience of trying to get their work read, in print or otherwise. It is perhaps a sign of how far self-publishing has come that many felt able to take issue with things that had been said by the panel – these ‘gatekeepers’ were no longer being allowed to entirely dictate the terms of the debate. One audience member pointed out that a publisher is still just a reader; another took issue with the distinction made between genre and literary fiction, offering science-fiction as something that could be classed as both.

No consensus was going to be reached here, but the vibrancy of the debate indicated just how much is at stake in these questions, and how significantly they will dominate industry discussion in the coming years. I was left thinking that perhaps Scott Pack’s open-minded enjoyment of the changing scene was the healthiest attitude to take with so much uncertainty ahead. As was noted at the start of the day, in the twelve months since the last TLC conference we had seen the rise and rise of Fifty Shades and a continued alteration of the publishing landscape, so I immediately wondered what this discussion would look like next year, and felt excited to find out.

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‘Now is the most exciting time in publishing
for 25 years…’

by Caroline McCarthy

This was the view of Nico MacDonald from Media Futures, who, together with Kate Pullinger (Bath Spa University/The Writing Platform) and Jo Lansdowne (Media Sandbox) discussed the importance of collaborative projects within the digital age, and the artistic possibilities that new technologies can offer.

Jo Lansdowne opened the discussion, giving an overview of Sandbox: a Bristol based development scheme that supports collaboration between creative talent, technology companies and content commissioners. Current projects include Writer On a Train – an app that explores how travel writing might enhance a journey. In the linear space of the London-Bristol mainline, the app will respond to the reader’s journey in real time, delivering content that is relevant to their location. Another recent project, entitled These Pages Fall Like Ash, attempted to reimagine the relationship between conventional and digital reading by telling a single story across two books in two mediums. In Jo’s opinion, these innovative ventures have established certain messages: that writers need to engage with new technology, that reader’s expectations are different within such mediums, and that digital experiments can help facilitate collaborative writing.

Such views are shared by Kate Pullinger, an expert in how new technologies can affect and benefit writers. Kate runs The Writing Platform (a website and programme of live events dedicated to arming writers with digital knowledge), and has worked on many groundbreaking projects. 2007’s amillionpenguins.com was a first of its kind experiment in creative writing and collaboration based on the wiki principle, asking the question ‘Can a community write a novel?’ After weeks of hacking and vandalism on the open-to-all site, the obvious answer, Kate explained, was ‘no!’ However, such online collaborative efforts are not necessarily destined for disaster, as the networked novel on flighpaths.net illustrates.

Nico Macdonald from Media Futures (a company focusing on media, society and innovation, with a current emphasis on the publishing industry) took the conversation one stage further, exploring the relevance of games such as Brandon Generator within the creative sphere.

As the conversation drew to its close, journalist and audience member Christina Patterson questioned the overall value of certain digital and artistic collaborations. While the intellectual and cultural relevance of certain projects should be called into question (particularly those that receive a significant amount of public funding), one thing is clear: new technology can offer writers the opportunity for creative experimentation and artistic collaboration. As Kate Pullinger summarized: ‘Writers have always made their living through experimentation…it is valuable to see blurring of the boundaries between different forms of media. There has never been a better time for writers to be experimenting in this way.’

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Michael Langan on Robert McCrum’s Mini Keynote

The eminent literary critic and journalist, Robert McCrum, gave what amounted to a mini keynote address at this year’s TLC conference. The title of his talk, ‘What Is To Be Done?’ indicated an attempt to engage with the possible future of writing, reading and publishing at a time of incredible flux, which has seen the biggest paradigm shift since William Caxton set up shop. These are the best if times, the worst of times, and very confusing times, McCrum asserted at the start of his address, full of apocalyptic visions in which screens are so ubiquitous that handwriting is dead.

While publishing and book selling may be changing beyond measure, he said, this is certainly a golden age of reading, with the consumption of print in many different formats and in various media, at unprecedented levels. Recent research shows that people under 30 are now reading more books than they were ten years ago. English has become a global language powered by global capitalism and the internet and never before has there been such hunger for a common tongue. For the first time in human history it is possible for one language to be transmitted and simultaneously understood across the whole planet. Writers are the creative dynamo of that machine. In his experience, McCrum said, writers still want two things – love and money – and that comes in the form of reader remuneration.

Self-publishing has become much easier and far cheaper and cross fertilization between media means that word of mouth is easier too, but it’s also more complicated. At the same time there are extraordinary opportunities for independent publishers. The reader and writer are brought closer together thanks to the shifts in publishing dynamics and with the use of new technologies. Beyond that, it’s as if the road map with which we used to negotiate this world has been torn up and no one knows where they’re headed. Anyone who tells you they know the shape of the publishing business in 2050 is deluding themselves. Today, after twenty years of dislocating change, the best we can say is that this is, possibly, the end of the beginning.

But this is not a battle between old and new, as some commentators would have it, between ink and chips so to speak. People ask, what are literary values in the age of digital? Who are the gatekeepers? Most readers and writers are voracious consumers of print across formats but, ultimately, it is content that matters – stories, above all else. Digital platforms are empty without them. It’s not about how or where you’re reading, it’s about what you’re reading.

It’s early days, but this e-boom still awaits its Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Dickens. All three giants of literature experimented with form and format, but the new forms of narrative are still waiting for their equivalents. Maybe the app or the digital novel, in the hands of young writers, can pioneer new ways to present a story.

In such a situation, McCrum said, we can be hedgehogs, or we can be foxes. The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing; the one thing that McCrum is sure of is that writing is neither free nor easy. In the history of print, free is an anomaly. All writing comes at a cost, one that is not just financial. The cost of the free word, as history has shown, is deadly dangerous and is too dear to give away. The printed word has been written in blood and etched in pain, and much is still at stake in writing.

Good content, even more so in such a democratic market, is what matters most, as does originality. The great French writer, Georges Bataille, wrote about the distinction between books that are written for the pleasure of the experiment, and books that are borne of necessity. “Literature,” says Battaile, “is essentially a disruptive force.” A moment of rage is, for Bataille, the spark for all great books. Content is one thing; content that matters is even more of a challenge. Ultimately, this comes from writers, who have always been outsiders and marginal figures, oddballs and contrarians.

Writers are now part of a global community and, for better or worse, are closer to their audience. This is not about pixels or print but the words on the page. Language expresses our humanity and only through language can we re-imagine and remake our society. English prose has a triple-A rating as a vehicle for artistic aspiration, ambition and achievement. What we are celebrating here is language and ideas at play in the fields of our imagination.

Across the world we are expressing ourselves in an extraordinary variety of media and there are grounds for optimism – the book survives in yet more formats but always recognizably a book. No amount of structural change or electronic wizardry will alter the writer’s essential task; to sit alone, day after day, to push the imagination to the limit and put down words one after the other on the page. To take risks, to inspire and seduce readers, to disrupt the still waters of convention, to make mischief and dream impossible dreams.

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Self-Publishing Masterclass: Get yourself professional

by Alan Mahar

The reputation of self-publishing is undergoing a sea-change. Unedited, badly-designed books are no longer the norm. Mainstream publishers are cherry-picking those self-published books with a strong online sales profile, web presence and twitter following. Even Penguin have put their name to a self-published list. So the expectations of those writers without an agent and those with the energy and determination to go it alone are being raised in an increasingly fragmented marketplace. Such a trend, if it continues, might question the need for publishers (and agents) altogether.

Five speakers at the Saturday morning session Digi Masterclasses offered advice on professional support for do-it-yourself authors.

Alison Baverstock heads the Publishing MA at Kingston University, and with 23 years’ publishing experience, she took the long view, fully accepting the ever-changing flux of publishing. As the author of a guide to self-publishing, Naked Author, she advised authors be cautious, not to rush into print, reminding them that there exists excellent support for authors in the form of e-pub services which could relieve them of the burden of distribution. But, she advised, high quality market information was also essential

Editorial support for authors was something dear to Wendy Toole’s heart, not surprising for a representative from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Besides speaking up for professional-level copyediting and proofreading, she reminded the audience of the value of professional manuscript assessment and structural editing – music to the ears of all at TLC. ‘Choose an editorial professional who understands your needs, because your manuscript needs to be in good shape.’

Design tips about body text and book covers came from Kristen Harrison of The Curved House. Professionalism in the choice of fonts and the use of high quality images would help home into the target market, bringing self-published books in line with accepted publishing standards. ‘Keep design simple’ was her advice.

The secret of a prominent Google presence online lies in the algorithm, according to Chris McVeigh, and in very detailed metadata – information about the book. He had proved this with his marketing bestseller ‘Seven Things Publishers Should Know’.

Rights and Royalties were just one of the concerns of Orna Ross, from the Professional Association of Self-Publishing Writers. She was confident that the trend was veering away from mainstream publishers and towards more professional self-publishing. She concluded, echoing previous speakers, that authors always need a good editor and a good designer. Along the way she had peppery words for publishers, particularly Penguin and their Author Solutions, and urged us to re-think the whole notion of vanity publishing, because successful self-publishing was changing the publishing landscape as we know it.

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Canon Tales

by Alex Peake-Tomkinson

Canon Tales: Stories Behind the Book proved to be a curiously affecting session. Inspired by pecha kucha, a format developed in Japan, it involved each of the participants speaking for 7 minutes about themselves and the industry, accompanied by 20 images which were each shown on screen for 21 seconds. Many of the speeches were surprisingly personal, and all of them managed to be funny and impassioned.

First up was Jonathan Conway, agent at the Agency Group, who talked of growing up as “the man who casts no shadow”, much like Orson Welles in the film of Graham Greene’s The Third Man.

Jonathan said he had come to terms with his Jewish identity partly through reading Jewish writers including Saul Bellow and Michael Chabon but also via Woody Allen. There was plenty of laughter during Jonathan’s presentation – not least when he said Daunts bookshop “saw me coming” when they put a book called Jews and Words in their window.

Preena Gadher, Managing Director of Riot Communications PR agency talked openly and generously about her inspirations – from the websites and magazines she looks at to get ideas from, to Helen Fraser, ex Managing Director at Penguin Books who she considers a mentor. She ended with a picture of Mo Farah ecstatically smiling as he passed the finish line at the Olympics, saying this is how publicists feel when they open a newspaper and see a huge splash about one of their clients.

Sandeep Mahal from the Reading Agency reminded us of what a radical group of people librarians can be. She flashed up a quote from Michael Moore that read, “I really didn’t realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group. They are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them.” There was disconcerted laughter all round.

Sandy talked about libraries with evangelical zeal, mentioning along the way that more people visit libraries than attend football matches. She talked of how important her local library had been in shaping her identity as distinct from her parents. She talked about a woman, Tina Hewitt from Hull, who had had a very tough start in life. Tina had said “All my life, since I was young, people have told me I was thick, but I knew deep down that I wasn’t and now the Six Book Challenge had bought that out, and proved what I can do. I am somebody now.” Sandy rounded up by showing a pair of running shoes, encouraging those who believe in libraries to get their running shoes on as – in the current climate of cutbacks – there is so much to do.

Chris Meade, Director of if:book, embraced his talent as a storyteller in his presentation, running the thread of ‘nearlyology’ through it. He explained that he was a ‘nearly’ writer and talked about all the things he had ‘nearly’ done; he had even set up a website for others to share what they had ‘nearly’ done: www.nearlyology.com. He also talked about the death of his mother late last year and how this had made him wonder what was the point of writing without her to please. He said, however, that he also felt less pressure now. Concluding his talk, he extolled us all to EMBRACE YOUR NEARLYNESS.

Michael Kowalski of Contentment explained that he had long been interested in transgressive writing and in fact, one of his short stories was included alongside Irvine Welsh’s in the anthology Disco Biscuits. One reviewer had said of his contribution that the “the writer seems to have taken too many drugs”. Michael also got a big laugh out of quoting the writer William Gibson as saying “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” He ended by saying “JOIN US”, emphasising the collaborative instincts of many of the speakers.

Journalist Molly Flatt began by wondering “Why are we talking about writing, rather than writing?” She concluded that anything other than writing, including doing the washing up, often feels more appealing than writing. Interestingly, she mentioned the idea that collaborations may interrupt creative flow. She also cautioned against using social media for marketing, saying instead that we should “use social media to be social” i.e. to build relationships. She suggested that no one should write another word all weekend but should instead spend the time thinking before returning to our desks on Monday.

Sam Missingham, head of events and marketing at the Bookseller Group, talked about her mother, a florist who had encouraged her to find a career she enjoyed. She explained how Dan Brown’s books were like daffodils, popular and accessible. She talked of how booksellers should think about upselling in the same way florists do, getting someone who had come in for Fifty Shades of Grey to leave with The Life of Pi as well. Her favourite image in her whole presentation she said was the humble broom, as great creativity involves great mess. Sticking on visceral territory, she also said she thought Kindle should have a scratch and sniff function, as so many people love the smell of paper.

Sam has talked in the past about the fact that publishing needs to reclaim storytelling, which is now being so much more effectively used by other industries in their advertising. She has noted that although publishing as an industry has the raw materials for storytelling, we are not harnessing this sufficiently to sell products, in the way the computer games manufacturers or sportswear brands are doing, for example.

In her presentation, she demonstrated her own ability to tell a (fairly personal) story. As well as paying testament to her mum as an inspiration, she also quoted Maya Angelou, saying: “People will forget what you said and what you did but they won’t forget how you made them feel.”

Piers Blofeld, agent at Sheil Land talked of his early passion for reading, showing us the ageing cover of a book that he loved as a child, about a bear called Mary Plain. He continued to disarm the audience by talking about his enthusiasm for gaming and tickled many when he flashed up a slide of hardened computer game player with the caption “I went outside once. The graphics were amazing but the gameplay and storyline were terrible.”

Larry Finlay, Managing Director of Transworld, emphasised the relationships he had made in publishing, from quoting chunks of The World According to Garp at John Irving, to lunching with Joseph Heller to marrying one of his authors, Claire Calman. He talked of his enthusiasm for Kate Atkinson’s work, admitting that this had perhaps got out of control as his young son had written in his most recent birthday card “I hope the new Kate Atkinson sells lots of copies.”

Each of these presentations were so different but all revealed what a complicated, emotional industry publishing is and the fact that it is stuffed full of people who care passionately about both content and authors.

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PEN FACTOR: Writing competition
and publishing industry live feedback

by Shelley Weiner

Complimenting a writer on having a lovely speaking voice is like telling Judy Dench she has excellent fingernails. Faint praise indeed – but gentler, even so, than the feedback of Simon Cowell et al to some TV talent hopefuls.

On the other hand, for the six brave PEN FACTOR finalists who laid their emergent literary offerings before a critical panel of publishers and agents, it was more about nuance and subtext than instant fame.

And perhaps in this digital age (the over-riding conference theme), to be told, ‘You read beautifully,’ is not publisher-speak for ‘Don’t give up the day job’, but another way of saying. ‘You’ll do great on the screen’.

Still. I felt for those courageous new scribes who stood up to be counted and, being a thin-skinned writer myself, imagined how – deep into the night – they’d be endlessly analysing the various responses. But they’re probably much tougher than that, and will have to be to stay afloat in this business. And ‘nice voice’ apart, there were overwhelmingly positive verdicts on the fascinatingly diverse projects that were presented.

These ranged from a Seventeenth Century conspiracy yarn to a blind person’s account of the sights and sounds along the route of the London Marathon. Not to mention a Yorkshireman’s life of crime … and contemporary politics in the Cotswolds … and teenage bullying … and Jamaican myth.

First up was the smooth-talking and meticulously prepared Piers Bearne with his historical novel, The Bitter Trade of Calumny Spinks. Bearne outlined an ambitious vision of a ‘digital hardback’ with enhanced input, atmospheric drawings and pseudo-historical notes. All very impressive but – as Random House’s Dan Franklin put it – it’s the story that counts. ‘Don’t get distracted by the digital aspect,’ he advised.

Malcolm Hall’s novel in progress features a Yorkshireman on his quest for salvation after a life of crime. ‘An interesting plot with contemporary resonance,’ commented Jonathan Conway, literary agent, who challenged the perceived ruthlessness of his profession by being among the kindest and most encouraging on the panel.

‘Inspirational,’ Conway declared, in response to the next presentation by the visually impaired Simon Webb.

Webb’s non-fiction project, Running Blind, offers an alternative ‘view’ of the London Marathon – his account of how he persevered along the course without seeing the scenery. Sharmaine Lovegrove of Epubli shared Jonathan Conway’s enthusiasm. ‘You made me want to start running,’ she declared – which could, I think, be taken either way. No mistaking Transworld’s Larry Finlay, though: ‘Congratulations, and good luck,’ he affirmed.

He was equally positive about the next offering, Angela Pegg’s Yellow, a novel for young adults. ‘You clearly know your market,’ he told her – a view endorsed by other panellists, among them Gordon Wise (of Curtis Brown), who described Pegg’s novel ‘a compelling and gritty adventure’.

Keith Jarrett, the fifth contender for the title, presented a combination of literature and mythology, incorporating Jamaican dialect with poetry, religious fundamentalism and music. A rich melange that evoked from Piers Blofeld of Sheil Land some concerns about commerciality but commendation for being given ‘privileged access’ into an unfamiliar world.

More familiar – to some – was the world depicted by Ann Bone in The Paradise Project: an Oxfordshire village with surreal echoes of Paradise Lost. ‘Let it breathe,’ urged Dan Franklin. ‘Don’t crowd your story with too much intertextuality.’ ‘Make your characters bigger, ‘ insisted Jenny Custer of A.M. Heath. Story. Characters. A reminder that the basic narrative bricks are still vital in the virtuality of this brave new digital age.

… And then came the judging – no all-night Booker enclave, but a decisive ten-minute huddle in which Piers Bearne, with his ‘punchy historical novel’ was declared victorious. The prize? Two bottles of wine and a chance to collaborate with Media Futures and Perera in a ‘Book Hackday’. Plus – and this is definitely not to be sneezed at – the bestowal on Piers of a lifelong entitlement to describe himself as an ‘award-winning novelist’.

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