Write-up by Joe Sedgwick
TLC Director Rebecca Swift set the tone for the 20th Anniversary ‘What’s Your Story?’ conference with her rousing keynote speech, sweeping through the last twenty years of the company’s history, discussing how TLC’s vantage point in the industry has enabled a perspective that encourages quality writing to thrive and flourish in a world which is constantly fluctuating, subject as it is to digital, economic and cultural change. Listen to Rebecca’s keynote in full here. Addressing a full room of publishers, writers and book industry professionals at the Free Word Centre, where TLC is a Founder Resident, Rebecca began by discussing the notion of ‘The Book Inside’, as an examination of the literary cliché ‘everybody has a book inside them’. After the keynote, the floor was opened up, with UEA Professor of Literature Jon Cook as chair, and roving mics available for those who wanted to contribute from the floor.
The idea of ‘The Book Inside’ was the subject of the first question on the table for the open conversation which asked: How do you reflect of the question “everyone has a book inside them”? with the discussion quickly turning to the need to clarify terms. How do we define the telling of a story as just a ‘book’ when so many different ways to tell stories have emerged, and what is the best platform for taking the story from inside to out? The role of the publisher in this process was immediately interrogated, with many agreeing that the key role of the publisher was to ensure the faithful passage of the story from inside to out as smoothly as possible. How then, can a story change as it emerges into the world? At this point in the conversation, an Iranian writer, who writes in English, flagged the point that translation can change the book inside, but perhaps more importantly, that a publisher can filter the story to fit a pre-existing model or market, so that the intended narrative can become distorted. Who you ‘go to first’ with your story can therefore make a significant difference to the final outcome.
The publisher, ultimately, can end up having a very large part to play in the distribution of the story, in some cases changing the meaning of what was intended, either through the form that is used or the audience that the story is subsequently aimed at. This was something that was given real-world context by delegates who gave examples of writers of colour being pigeonholed by publishers into telling certain kinds of stories and furthermore, publishers themselves becoming pigeonholed as ‘black publishers’, ‘women’s writing publishers’ and so on. There is a danger that if the publishers do not look at the book inside the writers they represent, and what kind of story they are trying to tell through those they select to publish, they will also end up being pigeonholed not only in terms of the kind of stories they bring ‘out’, but also as regards their wider reputation and reception.
In working with a publisher to share stories, the author therefore faces a dilemma. On one hand, they are grateful for the publisher’s help in terms of distribution, marketing, editorial assistance etc. – but on the other hand they are wary that their voice needs to remain authentic. Despite this conflict, the role of the wide-reaching arm of the publisher was praised, as well as the function of a good story to bring people closer together. It was generally agreed that the role of the publisher is a good thing in this process, as in theory they are able to provide under-represented voices, such as the writers of Free Word’s international blogs commissioned for the day (from South Asia, China, Russia and Eritrea) a platform to share the book inside that will hopefully strike a chord with as many people as possible. Sharing the book inside is an empowering thing, not just for the writer producing the work, but also for others who may not previously have felt that their voices could be heard.
This point raised the question that if someone has the desire to write, do they also have the desire to be heard? Creative Writing courses offer hope to those wishing to be heard, to be able to hone their craft so that they can better tell stories; but is it also possible that they offer some false hope towards a possibly doomed publication, or no publication at the end at all? This view was countered ably by a Creative Writing tutor who made the point that it is important not to confuse the desire to tell a story with the desire to be published. The need to tell a story and get it out into the world should not be burdened with an outcome.
This part of the conversation flowed naturally into the next question for the day, the question of value, specifically: How do we define literary values, where do they come from and to what degree are they important? As with the first question, the need to define terms was quickly established. Does ‘value’ in this case mean commercial value or literary value, or even personal value? Undoubtedly for the writer, being able to articulate a story from within out into the world provides immense personal value, regardless of whether the work goes on to find literary or commercial value. It is a process whereby confirmation is achieved for the writer. How though do we begin to quantify literary value in a world where prize-winning and -shortlisted books are often not best-sellers? It is not as simple as looking at which book has sold the most copies and assigning it a corresponding literary value. Literary value is not something that is pulled down from on high or assigned to a book based on any criteria; rather, it is organic and endlessly contested.
Literary values are not a fixed set of criteria and have always been contested, but now we are seeing this value system become even more disputed, not only because as chair Jon Cook put it “we are witnessing the ‘death of the [traditional] literary world,” but also because the stories which have traditionally been inherited through recognised canons are being increasingly rejected in favour of new voices, platforms and genres. Literary values then, come as a result of that process of contest, rather than being a pre-ordained system of measurement. If we think of literary values this way, they become more important than ever, as they enable us to explore form, genre and platform in increasingly diverse ways. The point was then raised that value is found in newness. Those of us who are seeking to discover undiscovered work are at the forefront of what literary value is. Despite this though, there is still a tendency for authority figures such as prizes, reviewers and even to an extent, Amazon, to decide for us what we should be reading; to assume that there is still a set of pre-existing values that we find context within and from.
There was some discussion on the (missed) opportunity of Amazon being able to be a place that both acts as form of gatekeeper, while also nurturing literary talent (something that Rebecca’s keynote also touched on), which led the conversation naturally onto the final question of the morning: How has the development of new technologies changed the role of ‘gatekeeping’ in publishing, and how has this affected which books find readers? It was agreed that while obviously the progression of technology has allowed authors to be able to speak directly to their audiences in a way that has never previously been possible, this also creates a danger that too much responsibility is then put on the author to share their voice, rather than the publishers stepping up to the plate. However in a world where readers have also been massively empowered through digital advances, how important is the role of the gatekeeper now? Has the ‘wisdom of crowds’ mentality created a scenario in which we don’t need publishers anymore? It seems that it is not quite as simple at this. Digital has cut costs and opened doors for new writers and readers to find each other, but it also creates a loud environment where individual voices can easily get lost in the noise.
Publishers undoubtedly have a role to play in the dissemination of quality work, as was discussed in relation to sharing ‘The Book Inside,’ but the conversation pointed to a clear agreement between delegates that they need now to define more clearly what role they can play in a landscape where readers and writers can freely flow information between themselves. They need to make sure they know what their voice is, so that it can be more clearly heard. There was a good-spirited, revolutionary buzz in the air as the conversation drew to a close, with delegates going away with plenty to think about, their heads no doubt brimming with further questions about ‘The Book Inside’ and the future of literary value in today’s digital age.
Write-up by Andrew Lowe
The speakers were sparky, the pitches gleamed, the cake was sumptuous.
TLC’s Writers’ Day drew a driven bunch of writers, creatives and industry pros to celebrate The Literary Consultancy’s 20th birthday with a breathless programme of publishing advice and writerly inspiration.
TLC’s effervescent Editorial Services Manager Aki Schilz opened the show with a tribute to sponsor IngramSpark (an immediate connection to the world of self-publishing) and a nod to TLC’s ongoing work with authors at every stage of the pre-publishing process.
This gave Aki an ideal segue into the first session of ‘How To Pitch’, with speaker Scott Pack, Associate Editor at Unbound and previously a publisher with HarperCollins.
Scott rattled through a 30-minute version of his extensive Guardian Masterclass presentation on how to take your finished, edited manuscript and send it out into the wild.
The emphasis here was trad-pub, with most of Scott’s advice geared towards submission to literary agents. But his main point was loud and clear for all authors, regardless of how they’re planning to publish: be professional (‘READ THE BLOODY GUIDELINES!’) and be prepared (look at what other similar authors are doing and, if you’re going for trad-publishing, research your agents for suitability and—clearly a personal bugbear—make sure you spell their names right.)
Scott admitted that writing a synopsis isn’t something that most authors enjoy. His advice? Keep it to 500 words and make it simple, straightforward and unemotional. As literary agent Juliet Mushens pointed out later in the day, “The synopsis is a technical document. It tells us who dies at the end.”
As for blurbs, Scott had a great tip: take a look at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and see how movie marketers summarise the films. Steal from the techniques they use to tease and intrigue in a small space.
And how do you know that you’re even ready for all of this? Seek out objective feedback: from writer groups and trusted, objective readers. (“Good, critical beta-readers are not people you have slept with or are hoping to sleep with you.”)
Then, a chance to see five authors apply Scott’s advice, as they took to the stage to pitch their books to a panel of five industry judges: publisher and editor Valerie Brandes (Jacaranda Books), novelist Gautam Malkani (Londonstani) and literary agents Juliet Mushens (United Talent Agency) and Piers Blofeld (Sheil Land).
The authors had secured their platform by submitting to the TLC Pen Factor Writing Competition for unpublished writers. The grand prize was a year’s editorial support from TLC, printing services from IngramSpark, and various freebies from several creative and literary companies, all geared to helping authors build their brand and hone their craft.
With the judges watching over the presentations from a raised balcony, the mood was a little gladiatorial. But Catriona Shine bravely stepped up first to give a beautiful reading from The Invasion of Silence, her dystopian story of a 17-year-old boy and his mother struggling to survive on a remote farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle.
Catriona took her applause, and the judges offered constructive and encouraging feedback, on pitch style, content and marketability. (Piers Blofeld suggested that Catriona could entice readers by relocating the novel to a more familiar setting.)
The firm but friendly comments eased some of the initial tension, and Nikheel Gorolay impressed both audience and judges with a measured reading from his novel Bricks & Mousa, a British-Asian tragi-comedy. Next, Charlie Weaver Rolfe lightened the mood with a pitch for Catfood, a comic literary novel about one man and his cat. (Valerie Brandes suggested that he might think about toning down the exclamation marks, which drew a few nods from the editors in the audience.)
Next up, Kerry Lawrence offered an erudite introduction to The Cossack, a political thriller about a photographer’s investigation of an ancient deal between the USA and Ukraine. Her reading was polished and carefully paced to match the novel’s Le Carré-like tone.
Finally, Gill Haigh rounded off the pitches with a funny and confident read from Singing For Seals, her first-person take on the messiness of human relationships.
To cap the session, TLC Pen Factor 2014 winner Guinevere Galsfurd took to the stage with the resplendent hardback of her histo
rical novel The Words In My Hand. After an assured reading from a passage where lead character Helena discovers the pleasures of writing, Guinevere offered some stirring advice for the watching authors. (“Write the best book you can, and secure an editor who cares about your work.”)
THE SNOBBERY IS DISAPPEARING, WITH THE READERS TAKING ON THE ROLE OF GATEKEEPERS
With everyone happily lunched and networked, the talks continued with the inimitable Ben Galley steaming through another condensed Guardian Masterclass, this time on ‘How To Publish’.
While Scott Pack’s talk explored options for authors taking the trad-pub route, Ben concentrated on self-publishing, mapping out the key points in the DIY production process: editing, design, typesetting, distribution.
Self-publishing now has many advantages (creative control, higher royalties, agility, quick access to global audience) and, as Ben explained, the snobbery is disappearing, with the readers taking on the role of gatekeepers.
But to move further away from the ‘vanity’ slur, Ben implored indie publishers to focus on quality. If you choose to independently publish your work, then you’re both artist and project manager. Hire professionals and manage them to produce the best possible version of your book, and then get it out to the world by using indie-friendly distributors like IngramSpark.
The day’s final speakers, Yen Ooi and Lisa Goll from CreateThinkDo, acknowledged the audience’s PowerPoint Fatigue and delivered a freeform two-hander on ‘How To Market’.
While many authors seem to think that ‘marketing’ is simply a scattershot battle for visibility, Yen and Lisa emphasised the need for precision. Decide on the key words that define your personal qualities, instead of just joining the crowd who are all shouting, ‘buy my book!’.
If you market your whole self and not just an individual book, then you can keep building and evolving a unique brand, rather than starting from scratch for each project. By being value-driven in this way, you can make the process collaborative, and more of an offer of service than an insistent plea for attention.
Presentations over, Aki wound up the day by cueing an audience drumroll and announcing the TLC Pen Factor winner. Kerry Lawrence seemed genuinely shocked, and chose to thank her competitors rather than mak
e a victory speech. Besides, the time for talking was over. There was cake to be eaten…
At around four and a half hours, the TLC Writers Day was a gift for the attention-deficient. It was brimming with actionable advice for authors, and perhaps this new format of TLC’s pioneering Literary Conference will be the springboard for a regular mini-festival which demystifies the ever-shifting journey from blank word-processor page to book.
Best of all, the atmosphere was open and inclusive, with none of the tribalism or defensiveness which often takes the shine off creative book events.
With the industry rapidly evolving around the options opened by technology, it was a joy to witness a gathering which dismissed the self vs. trad divisions and focused on a singular goal: to help authors produce high quality books, regardless of publishing pathway.