Anatomy of a failed novel

I just finished watching Giles Coren’s documentary, My Failed Novel, which was both entertaining and full of advice for aspiring novelists. Reading mass-market bestsellers and the literary greats for inspiration is all very well and good, but it’s just as helpful to look at novels that flopped and why, so you can avoid making the same mistakes.

Coren’s first and only novel, Winkler, is the definition of a flop: the hardback sold fewer than 800 copies, which as someone working in publishing I can confirm is dismal. It received either lukewarm or brutal reviews. What’s more, he was given a £30,000 advance for the novel. Thirty grand! There’s no way he earned out that advance. His publisher must be kicking themselves, because this is a classic example of banking on the author’s celebrity profile (and it not paying off). Ultimately, any sane person would rather read a good novel by a nobody than a crap novel by a somebody.

Coren realises over the course of the documentary that this was his biggest problem: because of who he is, he was able to get his first ‘proper’ novel – the one that should have stayed in the drawer – published. Most of us won’t face the same problem. I’m glad that agents rejected my last novel, because I realise now that it didn’t deserve to be published. It was a first draft. It needed to be rewritten five more times, which I didn’t have the energy to do. If somebody had taken a chance on it, they would have done me a great disservice; the novel would certainly have flopped, and probably put me off novel writing for good. That’s the first thing I took from the documentary: don’t try to publish until you’re 100% ready.

How do you know you’re 100% ready? Feedback, feedback, feedback. Coren takes the opening of his novel to a workshop with a group of UEA Creative Writing students, and they decimate it. He looks like he’s going to cry. He’s been published and the students haven’t, but they know much more about the craft of writing than he does. The documentary is a good sell for creative writing courses; even Hanif Kureishi (charming, friendly and upbeat as always in his interview with Coren), who in the past has said Creative Writing MAs are a waste of money, admits that you can’t teach someone to write, but you can teach them to write better. Coren thought about a writing course, but decided he didn’t need one, presumably because his talent would be ruined by too much artifice.

That leads to another point I took from the documentary: another of Coren’s mistakes was that he had an Idea of Himself As a Writer. The major concept of Winkler, he confesses, was Me, with a story bolted on. This is a classic first novel mistake, and one I definitely made in my first ‘serious’ novel (which, shockingly, was about an English Literature graduate living in London frustrated at her failure to have a literary career… because everybody wants to read that). Good writing always has to be about telling a story, and nothing else; the writer’s ego shouldn’t get in the way. Some aspiring writers think that if you dress a certain way, talk a certain way, sit in certain coffee shops reading certain books, attend the right events and hang out with the right people, you are therefore a Writer – without doing very much actual writing. When Coren’s novel flopped, his Idea of Himself as a Writer became wrapped up in his sense of failure, which prevented him from trying to write another. I sensed that by the end of his journey he’d started to recover from that, and understands now what he needs to do to write a better novel. I hope he tries again.

As always, determination and dedication emerged as essential qualities for a writer; Coren didn’t have enough. Jeffrey Archer appears on the documentary, being (in my view) rather irritating, telling Coren off for not writing enough and telling us about his amazingly disciplined schedule, where he writes in two-hour intervals all day every day from six in the morning to ten at night. If you have the luxury of being a full-time writer (with an amazing glass-walled flat overlooking the Thames, might I add) that must be easy to maintain, but for those of us who have full-time jobs are are tired all the time, we have to squeeze in bouts of writing wherever we can. I take his point, though: if you’re serious about writing, you have to use whatever time you do have to write, write, write.

Coren also faces up to his harshest critic, Stephen Bayley, who criticised the novel’s ‘lavatorial awfulness’. This part was mostly banter between critic and victim, with Coren choosing which of Bayley’s kitchen knives he would use to get revenge, but one fascinating (and saddening) thing that came out of it is that Bayley didn’t actually read the entire novel. I had no idea that’s the way it worked – how can you be qualified to comment on a novel unless you’ve read the entire thing? – but there go you. I suppose if your novel is good enough to critic will want to read it from cover to cover… Also, Coren’s joyless mirth as he shows us his Bad Sex Award – the plaster foot covered in moss he keeps beside his garden shed, which will be the legacy his grandchildren remember him for – was rather tragic. I admire him for being able to laugh at himself all the more because you can see how it pains him at the same time.

I’d strongly recommend anyone who wants to write or is writing a novel watch My Failed Novel. It’s refreshing to see someone face up to their own inadequacy in such a brutally honest but also light-hearted way; you don’t get the sense Coren’s doing this because he wants to boost his measly sales (the novel’s out of print, after all) but because he genuinely wants to learn from his failure. It’s a human journey, but also full of practical advice from writers, critics, agents, publishers and ordinary readers. If only more writers would own up and admit their novels aren’t all that…

Why I’ve given up baking

I am probably going to offend most of my Twitter followers – some of whom might occasionally glance at this blog if I’m lucky – in one fell swoop with this post, but I can remain silent for no longer, so here goes!

There’s something that annoys me about Twitter, which is symptomatic of something that annoys me about the publishing world in general. I get overwhelmingly bored with the fact that everyone is, broadly speaking, the same. OK, maybe they’re not actually the same, but it certainly appears that way sometimes. Every now and then I’ll get a notification telling me that someone has followed me on Twitter (I don’t know why, since I never tweet anymore unless I’m a) showing off or b) promoting a blog post, which is another form of showing off). I check out the person’s profile to pay them the courtesy of following them back, and think, I recognise that girl. Hasn’t she followed me before? Do I know her somehow? Have we met in person? I rack my brains, getting increasingly worried that the connection will turn out to be something horrendously embarrassing, like in a sitcom where two characters meet and suddenly remember they went on a disastrous blind date together… but then I remember. I have met her many times before, in various guises, because according to Twitter all twenty-something girls who work in publishing are indistinguishable.

The girl who’s followed me says she likes ‘books and baking.’ Her picture is of her looking down at a teacup she is cradling in both hands, probably in a tea shop full of bunting and recycled furniture, or else she is admiring the leaf pattern on the flat white she is drinking in Look Mum No Hands!/Prufrock/Milk Bar/Monmouth. She is wearing an oversized jumper with the sleeves flopping adorably over her hands and either some kind of cutesy headband or an ironic scrunchie securing a messy side ponytail. She owns at least one item covered in friendly cartoon owls. She writes a book blog (OK, yeah, guilty as charged). She retweets articles from the Bookseller which everyone has read anyway because we’re all subscribed to the mailing list, or she tweets about all the amazing, breathtaking, heart-stopping books she is currently working on/reading, all of which she pretends to be in raptures over, or she tweets about how much she loves lazy Sunday mornings with freshly brewed coffee and blueberry pancakes and the sun spilling in through her window with Belle and Sebastian playing in the background. Bliss!

Perhaps I’m being cruel. I’m sure all of these girls are lovely, interesting people with heaps of individuality. In fact, what really annoys me is that they aren’t all the same; they just feel the need to present themselves as having a certain persona (a ‘networking persona’?) in order to fit comfortably into the publishing world. Wouldn’t we all love to break into that inner circle of people who retweet and #FF each other and post photos of themselves at fancy book award ceremonies  and probably go for brunch together but don’t tell the rest of us losers about it? Actually, I’m not that bothered – but I was at first. I tried very hard to be Publishing Girl when I was first trying to find a job. My Twitter picture showed me pretending to sip from a teacup full of sugar cubes, and I tweeted things like: Bumped into so many people at the LBF today – publishing really is like one big family! (Eurgh.) At one point, my Facebook picture was of me sitting on a log in Hampstead Heath pretending to read. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy: my bedroom started to fill up with duck-egg blue and pastel pink items from Laura Ashley, I went out of afternoon tea so many times I became sick of cake, I started to dress solely in 1950s style flowery dresses which made me look like an oversized doll. When a colleague described me as ‘the most twee person I know,’ I knew it was time for a change. Ever since, I’ve been trying my hardest to be cool and edgy: to wear more black, drink more red wine, know more about music, sport and politics, and never describe anything as ‘lovely.’ It’s going to take a while to change people’s perceptions of me, especially since I am so outwardly small and cute (or so I’m told), but I’ll get there.

Here’s the serious bit: all this cutesy cupcake tweeness concerns me because I feel like it’s creating a stereotype of ‘bookish people’ – and the publishing industry in general – which suggests that reading isn’t for everyone and that you have to be a certain type of person to be ‘really into it.’ Worst of all, I think it gives off the impression that literature isn’t serious anymore; reading is just a lovely past-time for escaping the world, ‘curled up with a good book’ and a cup of tea in a big squishy armchair. It’s all wrong. Books can be an escape, but that shouldn’t be all they are: they should also be dangerous and radical and challenge our perceptions and assumptions. When’s the last time anyone published a book that caused a real stir? Granted, it’s not the Victorian age anymore, and in this country we don’t live in an oppressive dictatorship – we take our free speech for granted – but still, where is the Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the Buddha of Surburbia or the Satanic Verses of recent years? I can’t think of anything. To win the Booker Prize now, all you need to do is write something that doubles as a bumper seat and boom, you’re a serious writer. Publishers have taken so many risks, giving writers a voice even when it’s considered obscene or sacrilegious or countercultural, but I worry that we’re giving off the impression now that it’s a rather dull, predictable business.

Just to unleash my English lit geek for a moment, I can’t help but hark back to the eighteenth century, when the novel was considered a… well, novel form for writers to express their sense of the growing significance of their subjective experience, as well as experimenting with different forms and techniques, and having fun. Tristram Shandy, Clarissa, Gulliver’s Travels – they were all considered wonderfully inventive in their time. I say this about most things, but I think this is a feminist issue too. In the eighteenth century there were women writers like Eliza Haywood, who wrote sensational amatory novels about women getting into all kinds of titillating exploits; shamelessly trashy stories which were nonetheless radical because they took what was intended to be a ‘safe space’ for women – the fictional world, where nothing a woman said or did really mattered – and turned it into a space in which they could express and indulge women’s apparently ‘unruly’ desires. In response to this, male writers and thinkers (and plenty of female ones, too) created a persona of the female reader as a wild, insensible character, someone who was a slave to her passions and who made herself mentally and physically ill through too much indulgence in fantasy. That persona doesn’t exist so much today, but I feel like there’s a modern hangover in the persona of Publishing Girl: this ineffectual lover of macaroons and weekends in Paris who doesn’t really have anything important or original to say.

Recently, someone blamed the fact boys aren’t reading as much because there are too many women working in publishing. Although I don’t work in children’s or even trade publishing and am probably not qualified to comment, I find this quite offensive, as it implies female editors have no sense of market awareness and only publish things they like – even though there are plenty of women whose tastes are much broader than just fluffy romantic fiction or stories about ponies and glittery princess castles – but I can see where this perception has come from. I do think that editors need to take more risks regardless of gender, and also that girls who want to work in publishing shouldn’t construct personae for themselves. If being yourself genuinely entails wandering around Daunt Books with a Penguin Classic edition of Pride and Prejudice poking out of your Cath Kidston shoulder bag every Saturday, that’s fine, but in many cases I suspect it doesn’t.

That’s why I’ve given up baking, why I spent last night watching the football while drinking a beer (LAD), and why I have requested that none of my friends or family ever again buy me anything duck egg blue or owl-related. I’ve even given up tea and coffee, although that’s for other reasons. I’ll never be giving up reading, of course, but that’s the one respect in which everyone working in publishing genuinely is the same: when we say we love them and are addicted to them, it’s not a persona.

Norwegian Wood and a disproportionately long rant about back cover descriptions

Every writer deserves a second chance. Those who have been reading my blog for a while (squints into the distance, a plastic bag tumbles by in the wind, police sirens howling etc.) will remember that I wasn’t enthused about Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I didn’t hate it, but nor did I love it, and was left with a feeling similar to the prose itself: flat and ever-so-slightly bland. I said I wouldn’t be in a hurry to read another Murakami novel, but after a gap of a couple of years I decided to give him another go, and bought a copy of Norwegian Wood.

I thought I’d like it better for its simplicity. Essentially, it’s a boy meets girl story – complicated by death, grief and mental illness, admittedly, but lacking the absurdity and weird symbolic motifs in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Toru Watanabe is in love with Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide at seventeen. While Toru’s response to Kizuki’s death is to become emotionally numb – which suits Murakami’s prose style here – Naoko grows increasingly unstable and books herself into a ‘retreat’ for people suffering from mental illness to recover. Toru loves Naoko but knows he can’t be with her, which complicates his developing relationship with fellow student Midori. The story is narrated in retrospect by a middle-aged Toru, whose voice is infused with sadness and regret, but it’s never clear whether he was able to move on from Naoko to be with Midori (I imagine he wasn’t – ever the cynic).

It turned out I liked this much less than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, though I’m not sure whether that’s due to what the book actually was or what I expected it to be. I felt misled by the back cover, which gave me expectations the book couldn’t live up to – not Murakami’s fault at all, of course. The blurb is fixated on the idea that Norwegian Wood captures the essence of student life in the 1960s, with Toru ‘adrift in a world of uneasy friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and desire’. I was expecting drink and drugs, music, politics and protest, all the things you associate with the 60s… but what I got was pretty pedestrian. Toru does sleep around a bit, but the sex is described in a disturbingly detached and utilitarian way – like a science teacher taking a sex education class – and there are no wild parties, hallucinogenic epiphanies, student riots or anything else at all controversial or surprising. In fact, it’s the opposite: because of the shock of Kizuki’s suicide, Toru is unable to engage in student culture, with any attempts at enjoying himself leaving him cold and wondering what the point is. That’s why it annoyed me so much that whoever wrote the copy had taken an aspect of the book they thought made it a bit sexier, misrepresented it, and laboured it to the extent that I felt disappointed by a book which I might otherwise have quite enjoyed.

That leads me onto the tangential rant I’ve been building up to. If the books on my shelf are anything to go by, it seems too many publishers don’t know how to write good copy. Working in publishing myself, I appreciate the need to write a piece of copy that sells to the target market rather than a 300-word masterpiece that crystallises the literary mood of the book. In academic publishing it’s different because it’s usually about sexing down. While authors often want to write something punchy and exciting for the back of their book (fair enough when they’ve spent years writing it) we’ll rework the copy using clear, informative language that says what the book’s about, who it’s for and what the advantages of reading it are. I appreciate that trade (fiction and non-fiction) publishing is more about sexing up descriptions, and that it’s a crowded marketplace where you need to grab the reader’s attention, but I think there’s a line you can cross into disingenuousness, and many novels I pick up do cross that line.

Some publishers writing copy apparently think there is a special register you need to use which is not spoken or written by anyone in any other context. The best way to find something new to read – if you don’t have hours to spare leisurely browsing bookshops – is asking people for recommendations. Every time someone has convinced me to a buy a book, it’s been because of the honesty of their language – they say they loved a book, it made them laugh, it made them cry, it was the best thing they’ve read in years. Simple. No one has ever said to me, ‘Hey, you should read Catch-22, it really is a savage indictment of twentieth-century madness!’ (Does madness change its nature every 100 years?) Often I’ll feel like reading something funny, or sad, something set in a dystopia or during a war, but I’ve never thought to myself, ‘I really fancy reading something that sheds a blazing light on the present!’ (Brave New World does, apparently.) ‘A blazing light on the present’ is a meaningless phrase which doesn’t make me want to read the book (although I did, and it was very good, but that’s another blog post). People describe books as friends – so why can’t books talk like a friend would too?

I think quotes on the back of a book are much more effective than flowery descriptions of hearts being rended, tears being jerked and foundations being rocked. People’s opinions matter. OK, perhaps not in film adverts where they stop a random punter coming out of the cinema who garbles, ‘It was amazing! It made me choke on my popcorn! I might as well die now I’ve seen this!’ with the self-satisfied glow of an idiot who has been convinced by a camera crew that his thoughts on everything are big and important. What does make me want to go and see a film is a good review by a critic. What makes me want to read a book is a quote from another writer I admire praising it (although not from Marie Claire telling me a book is ‘unputdownable’, which is the harpy screech of publicists everywhere and which I will never, ever accept as a legitimate word even if the OED does). Of course, I am being a snob, and it’s all about targeting your audience – that might appeal to some people…

In conclusion, people seem to think that writing good copy is easy, that anyone can do it. It’s not. Talking like a normal, honest person is difficult when you’re doing it too consciously. Publishers could try harder with this, myself probably included. I write this with the self-satisfied glow of a blogger who has been convinced by social media that all her opinions are big and important.

I had a point originally, didn’t I? Oh yes. Norwegian Wood. After a second date, it’s clear Murakami and I aren’t going to work out. If you want a book that’s ‘undeniably hip, full of student uprisings, free love, booze and 1960s pop’ (that’s the Independent on Sunday apparently not reading the same book I did) I wouldn’t recommend this; read something like The Buddha of Surburbia if you want salaciousness. If you like the idea of an honest story about how loving someone can be bleak and difficult and not end in any kind of resolution, let alone a happy or satisfying one, give Norwegian Wood a go. You may very well like it more than I did.

The SYP Conference 2013: keynote speech

Finally, the day of the SYP Conference 2013 had arrived. It was 9.30am, and I was sitting in a lecture theatre in Oxford Brookes University waiting for the keynote speech to begin. I had woken up at 6am, and hadn’t had nearly enough coffee. The other young publishers around me were buzzing faintly with expectation of the day ahead, but they were all a bit drowsy too. When the morning’s speaker – Youngsuk ‘YS’ Chi, Chairman of Elsevier and Director of Corporate Affairs for Reed Elsevier – stood up and began to speak, however, we were all given the wake-up alarm we needed.

As well as being an engaging public speaker, we discovered, YS is a pretty inspirational person all around. Alongside his roles at Elsevier, he is President of the International Publishers Association, while his past positions included Chief Operating Officer of Ingram Book Group and President and Chief Operation Officer at Random House. While at Random House he founded Random House Asia, widening the reach of publishing into that of a truly global industry; while at Ingram he founded Lightning Source, effectively inventing Print on Demand (over dinner with Jeff Bezos and John Ingram, no less – there’s an anecdote for you). How did he do it all? Well, that came later in the speech. First, YI shared with us his perspective on the landscape of today’s publishing industry, which he described using 10 Es. They were as follows:

  1. The most obvious E is electronic. Not much remains to be said about how e-books continue to transform the industry. YS stressed that it’s not just about e-books, though. In educational and professional publishing in particular, people are now talking less about e-books and more about ‘s-books’ – s standing for ‘solution’. A book is now so much more than a lovely quaint object on a shelf: it can, and should, solve problems and serve needs.
  2. Excessive: with reprint technology, POD and self-publishing adding to publishers’ increased output in general, there is now more content out there than ever before. While this is a good thing, it also means that readers feel they should pay less, and publishers have to work harder to show how valuable they are.
  3. Easy: consumers want content that is easy to find and to access. They want it to be instantly downloadable on a range of platforms, and they also want it to be linked to other content. This isn’t always easy for publishers, of course, as the next E demonstrates.
  4. Expensive: while e-books do cut out some overhead production and distribution costs, they are in fact very difficult to create. Since there is still a great demand for print books as well as e-books, publishers are now doing what they’ve always done plus more. YS compared publishers to insurance companies, because they are taking risks on everyone: on the authors they invest in, and the retailers who could return their unsold stock later on. While taking these risks, publishers now also have to invest in digital infrastructures and new production processes, working across multiple platforms. The digital revolution certainly hasn’t come cheap.
  5. Enigmatic: publishing is now such a broad church, encompassing traditional book publishers, media companies, large technology firms and digital start-ups, retailers and e-tailers, authors and readers and librarians, that there is ambiguity about where everyone fits into the publishing ecosystem. The boundaries are blurring, but this allows publishers to be more creative, which leads to the next E…
  6. Experimental: readers are still figuring out what they want – whether they want to own or rent e-books for example – and this gives publishers the opportunity to experiment with different business models, for example agile publishing, freemium, advertising, bundling… YS is adamant that publishers shouldn’t be afraid to experiment and fail. His motto: fail often and fail early.
  7. Experiential: publishing is now about turning books (or the content of books) into an experience, in order to monetise content beyond a sale. Readers now want augmented reality, connectivity and social integration – they’re not asking for much, then!
  8. Ephemeral: the only constant is that everything is changing. E-books are huge now, but some people are predicting the death of e-books on reading devices by 2017. That may seem unbelievable, said YS, but think how big AOL were a few years ago – and who remembers them now? Such change is threatening but also thrilling, creating opportunities for young publishers in the form of new career paths. Publishing is no longer an executive club: the industry needs nimble, creative, business-minded people. It is dangerous for publishers to ignore change: they must engage with it, to avoid following the fate of AOL.
  9. Empathy: the more we understand what’s going in the industry, the better we can make decisions and anticipate future needs – therefore being the first people to create solutions for those needs.
  10. Ending the first part of his speech on a high, YS’s final E was eternal: the book isn’t going anywhere, and its function to educate and entertain will always be there. This means there has never been a more uncertain and exciting time to be in publishing.

Now that we were all fully awake, YS opened the floor to questions about his own career. He was asked what skills he thought he would need if he were starting out in the industry today. His response was that while there are many technical skills young publishers now need (rather than just a literature degree and a love of books), we also need the right character: we need to have passion, the ability to ask (not necessarily answer) great questions and to make decisions, stamina, and people skills in order to work with partners. Specific practical skills will translate these qualities into impact, but such character traits are the foundations of a promising young entrepreneur – just as YS was when he started out.

YS never could have predicted the way his own career has turned out when he graduated from university. He came from the business rather than the editorial side, which gave him an advantage in allowing him to look at publishing in a different way: not romanticising it, but identifying its problems and how they could be solved. He never chose his next position based on the company, the job title or the salary – he chose it according to who he wanted to work with. He stressed how important it is to find a good mentor, because it is the people in publishing who are its best asset.

Next, YS was asked to describe the defining moment in his career. He sees his career in terms of many small moments. Many of these were ideas which were pursued against the odds, some failures and some huge successes – the primary example being POD. This idea was partly inspired by Amazon and its decision to move to Seattle to be near the Ingram warehouse. YS realised there was a demand for content to be printed and distributed quickly to meet consumer needs, and helped to develop technology which could print a 300 page book in 18 seconds. He couldn’t have done this alone, of course. The defining moments in his career have all involved people; it’s not just books that have made him want to stay in the industry.

Finally, he was asked what the greatest success and greatest regret of his career were. Highlighting again how wonderful we publishing types are, he said the greatest success of his career is the contacts list he has built (which, to do some shameless plugging, is why joining the SYP is such a great start to your career!). He has had many small failures, but each was a valuable lesson – as he said earlier, fail often and early. The biggest lesson he has learnt over the years is not to plan your career: you can have aspirations, but don’t let them be so narrow that you turn down opportunities, which always seem to come at an inconvenient time. You need to be open-minded and take risks. If YS had said no to opportunities, he wouldn’t have got where he is today and probably wouldn’t have been standing in front of us speaking. I think I speak on behalf of all the other delegates when I say I am extremely glad that he was.

Inspired by YS’s words, and fuelled by the coffee break afterwards, I went into my first seminar with a reinvigorated enthusiasm for the industry I work in. The keynote speech was a fitting start to yet another excellent SYP conference; the day that followed, during which I met plenty of friendly and interesting people, affirmed YS’s belief that it’s the connections you make with others that make publishing so great. Although the goody bag stuffed with free books was pretty good too…

The Society of Young Publishers AGM 2013

At the Society of Young Publishers 2013 AGM on Monday, we said a fond goodbye to the departing committee members and passed the torch over to the new. I’ll be staying on as commissioning editor for inPrint, working with an excellent new editorial team (so expect the next edition to be a masterpiece). Following this, we held a debate on banned books and censorship with a panel of three speakers: Anna Holmwood from The Grayhawk Agency, one of Asia’s leading literary agencies which represents Chinese writing in the UK; Kris Naudts, who recently launched the website The Culture Trip to showcase books and other cultural output from countries around the world; and Robert Sharp, Head of Campaigns & Communications at English PEN. For those who couldn’t attend, here’s what went down…

Here we take for granted the notion of free speech as a fundamental right, but across the world writers are still punished and silenced for criticising their country’s regime. This is obviously unfair, but many governments are demonised as having a draconian approach to literature when the situation is in fact much more complicated. Labelling a book as ‘banned’ in its home country increases a book’s glamour, and perhaps the media take advantage of this. Who is ultimately responsible for censoring a book, and do public demand and sensibility play a role in this? Focus is often placed on books, but are there areas in which even we in the liberal West condone state censorship?

The first question put to the panel was, are there any cases in which state censorship is justified, for example banning Holocaust denial? Sharp used the example of David Irving, the historian infamous for Holocaust denial. Irving should have the right to publish his opinions, even if they are despicable ones; free speech does not exist in a vacuum. PEN defended Irving when he was imprisoned, but this was not the same as condoning his opinions and did not mean people would buy his books. The best way to deal with something like Holocaust denial, said Sharp, is to speak out against it; indeed, publishers have a moral responsibility to do this. Naudts described how, after collecting bibliographic data of books to feature on The Culture Trip, his team had to filter through to ensure it contained nothing offensive. They made the decision only to remove extremely offensive books, which included Mein Kampf. This is a form of censorship, but removing such books from the website was the kind of decision Naudts believes publishers frequently have to make and which impacts on their reputations.

An audience member asked Naudts whether he thinks that, as a curator of books, he has a responsibility to draw attention to unusual and perhaps controversial viewpoints, rather than what he thinks will sell. Naudts pointed out that books controversial in their native country often are bestsellers in the West. Here Holmwood said she is wary of the commercial exploitation of the word ‘banned’; the media often uses it to describe books that aren’t strictly banned in their native country. She gave the example of a book she edited about the cultural revolution in China: when asked by interviewers whether the book was controversial in China, she replied that it was actually a bestseller there. When the interviews were published, however, many implied the opposite. Sharp responded that, while ‘banning’ a book may increase its sales abroad, it is bad for the culture in which it is banned. People in India need to read and critique Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, but are still unable to.

The panel then considered exactly who is responsible for censoring literature. It is not the case, said Holmwood, that some governments give a small group of officials absolute power over controlling propaganda. People make sweeping generalisations about ‘the Chinese government’, for example, but this comprises a large number of people and is not without self-awareness regarding censorship. Often, a book is unavailable in a certain country because the agent or publishers decided it would not appeal to the people there, not because the government disapproves of it. Sharp wondered whether, in this sense, it is the people who censor themselves. I would say that, while public taste certainly defines publishers’ output, most people choose books according to personal taste and without political motive or the desire not to be challenged or offended, so this does not quite amount to self-censorship.

The panel drew attention to the fact censorship is not confined to literature. Holmwood knows an author of a political novel which is very well-respected in China, but which was not allowed to be turned into a film. One audience member pointed out that in the UK we condone censorship of adverts, but everyone agreed that adverts are different since their purpose is to promote products and services. Finally, another audience member asked the panel what they thought of the outcome of the Leveson inquiry: should we have different standards for censorship in journalism? Sharp thinks Leveson may be inconvenient for PEN, as other governments could defend their own censorship by pointing to the UK’s press regulations. He has mixed feelings about the inquiry’s recommendations: some, such as those for the seizure of journalistic material, are disconcerting; others, such as journalists’ right to refuse to hack phones, are clearly positive.

In the age of self-publishing and social media, when information can travel across the world in seconds, the power of censorship has been weakened. However, while writers are still being imprisoned for their views and cultural and political critique is still being suppressed, publishers and organisations like PEN have a vital role to play.

Thank you to the speakers and to everyone who attended the AGM – it was a fitting start to what I predict will be another exciting year for the SYP.

Things I am bored of hearing about in publishing

1) Publishers don’t sell books, they sell PACKAGES of CONTENT.

We get lots of guest speakers coming to our university. Most of them are great, and really interesting, but they often start their lectures in exactly the same way. ‘Let me ask you a question,’ they’ll say, eyes twinkling. ‘What IS publishing? What do publishers actually DO? Do they just sell books? Or do they do something… MORE?’

They will then pause dramatically and stare proudly around the lecture theatre, attributing our stunned silence to the fact they have just rocked the foundations of our naïve publishing worlds. Bless them. They don’t realise we’ve been asked this question before, about fifty times, and we all know the answer better than we know our times tables.

Okay, yes, publishers don’t just sell books. They disseminate knowledge, they curate information, they repackage content, whatever vague theoretical terms you want to use. True this may be, but please let’s stop going on about it. ‘Book’ is not a dirty word. It seems now that anyone who dares to mention the B-word is an archaic dinosaur, who probably still uses a washing board to scrub the starch out of his breeches before jumping on his penny farthing to head to the club for a jolly evening of whist and masculine privilege.

If I were an author and I had put two years of blood, tears and caffeine-tinted sweat into my literary masterpiece, I’d be a bit annoyed if I heard my editor describing it as ‘content’. No, I’d say, it’s a heart-rending tale of love, loss, betrayal, war, murder, the corruption of modern society… Anthony Horowitz reminded me of how much the word ‘content’ annoys me in a recent article on the Guardian: ‘I don’t like being what Apple calls “talent”. I’m an author. And I write books, not “content”.’ And in a book on commissioning I just read, Gill Davies says, ‘The chances are that the majority of people choosing to work in publishing do so because they want to be publishers, not information providers.’ True dat.

Content is a horrendously bland, neutral word. Any old crap could be content. The content of the angry email I sent to Debenhams when I was eleven because they’d misused an apostrophe on their café sign (sandwiche’s?!). The content of a tin of beans. The content of someone’s stomach being emptied. It seems incredibly inappropriate when you then apply it to War and Peace… Despite this, I have still used the word ‘content’ in every other sentence in all three of my publishing essays this term. Buzzwords mean marks.

2) We need to engage with social media!

Everyone seems to think that, because the kids all use social media these days and we must be down with the kids, all publishing-related activity must now be done via social media. This is silly. Not everything works on social media, and sometimes it’s just embarrassing seeing a company trying to ‘engage’ with me via Facebook. No, I don’t want to take part in your competition to ‘share’ a photo of myself with one of your books balanced on my head doing a double thumbs-up, even if it means winning your entire backlist, because that’s embarrassing. Facebook is for my social life, not for you to obviously treat me like a marketing statistic whilst pretending to be my ‘friend’. We had a talk from Rachel Maund from Marketabilty recently, and she put it perfectly: sometimes, a publisher trying to use social media can be like a Dad at a disco.

I’m also fed up of hearing about social media on the editorial side of things. Apparently, it’s not good enough to just publish a bloody good story anymore, because all people under the age of eighteen probably think those block-shaped items covered in bizarre hieroglyphs sitting on their shelves next to their digital gizmojigs and their high-tech whatdyamadoodles must be for balancing their overheated laptops on. Their ADHD-addled minds can only cope with stories where the characters blog and tweet and poke each other on Facebook and post videos on Youtube and where they can SHARE and INTERACT and ENGAGE with the story… blah blah blah.

It’s all good and well to use social media to capture a tech-savvy audience and make the world of the story feel more realistic, but ultimately I think all these ridiculous new ‘concepts’ are far too complicated. Teenagers still just want to be swept away by a good story, and personally, it would pull me out of the story if at the end of chapter five I was told to visit a character’s Facebook page… at which point I would check my notifications, and then my emails, and then start watching Big Fat Gypsy Weddings on 4oD and tweeting my disbelief as yet another six-year-old with a spray tan the colour of HP sauce starts gyrating on the dance floor… oh, what was I doing again?

Perhaps I’m just being old-fashioned, though. I am almost twenty-two, after all, which is practically thirty, which is practically dead, right?

3) DISINTERMEDIATION! THE END IS NIGH!!!!!!!!

It’s not just that I’m bored of people making predictions of doom for the printed book, for literary culture and for the publishing industry as a whole. I’m bored of people talking about this in general, because the end is obviously not nigh. It would therefore be ironic for me to talk about it in length, so instead I refer you to this article, which I think of every time I hear a neurotic author frothing at the mouth as they prepare to dance chanting around a burning effigy of Amazon. There are only so many catastrophe prophecies people can take before they start to get a bit snarky about it all.

Oh, one more thing: relating to this, I am also fed up of people inventing silly words in order to intellectualise their anxiety about being put out of a job. It’s okay guys… game plan, blue-sky thinking, outside the box, risk management, synergy… it’s all going to be okay…

4) It’s going to be the next Harry Potter…

This is just another way of saying, ‘Hey, buy this book if you’re a mindless idiot, it’s totally unoriginal!’ It’s not going to be the next Harry Potter; it’s going to be a dismal flop, because no one wants to read a cheap imitation that’s trying to ride on the back of a previously successful book. Not only have you alienated everyone who dislikes or is indifferent to Harry Potter, you have also put off most Harry Potter fans, who are now thinking, ‘No way, nothing can match up to Harry Potter!’ People don’t want to read a book that can only be described in terms of another book. They want to read something that can’t be compared to anything else, because it’s so unusual and exciting.

The success of HP is likely a singular phenomenon that’s not going to be repeated anytime soon. It happened entirely by chance. Publishers need to stop trying, and they certainly need to stop trying by looking for formulaic books, as if checking off a ‘bestseller’ shopping list will allow them to sit back, put their feet up and watch the money roll in. There’s a danger publishers will become so preoccupied with looking for the mass-market holy grail that they miss out on a lot of unusual, imaginative, quality literature. These books may not make them millions, but they will provide a steady stream of income and keep the publisher afloat. Then, one day, maybe they’ll stumble upon that holy grail entirely by accident.

Right, I’m glad to have got all that out of my system. I hope you’ve enjoyed this disseminated package of curated content, or blog post as it is called in English. I’m off to engage with some social media now, because I’m an innovative blue-sky thinker and down with the kids yo. Have a great weekend, all!

Publishing for communities – the way forward?

The other day we had a talk from Anthony Forbes Watson. For those who don’t know, he’s the MD of Pan Macmillan, but was also CEO of Penguin for nine years and has been a consultant for almost all the other big trade publishers – so a pretty influential figure in the publishing industry! He didn’t reveal anything specific about Pan’s strategy for the future, but he did have a lot of very interesting ideas, and was an eloquent and intelligent speaker. He did use a few slightly obscure metaphors (the author and reader are the two ‘living magnetic poles’ of publishing), but as a former student of literature I’m used to that kind of thing.

He thinks the main problem with publishers today is ‘digital distraction’ – too many publishers are wandering helplessly around their offices, feeling anxious about the decline in print sales, and trying to make up for this decline by either trying to publish too many books or trying to market across too wide a spectrum. As a result of all their worrying, they simply aren’t getting their day jobs done. Publishers need to continue doing what they’ve always been good at, while at the same time developing a long-term digital strategy.

He split adult trade (which is what Pan Macmillan publishes) into two markets. ‘Literary’ titles are bought by people who see reading as more than just consumption; it is social and intellectual pursuit, and they further their experience of books by starting conversations about them – attending book clubs, logging onto forums, attending literary fairs, and so on. These people will continue to buy print, and there will be more of a market for ‘beautiful’ literary books (high quality hardbacks with attractive covers). Indeed, he thought the bookshop may become a ‘curated space’ – essentially, a kind of showroom – for these books. The other market is for what he called the ‘pure story’, which can be produced in any format and bought anywhere (most significantly online). These are ‘tipping point’ books, which go viral – people read them because that’s what everyone else is doing. Forbes Watson predicts these latter books will go 70% digital in the future, whilst literary titles will never go more than 50% digital.

He said that at Pan Macmillan they are becoming tired and wary of clichéd, derivative books that try to imitate other bestsellers; these books are over-hyped by agents, and sold for far too much. Publishers who take the ‘easy option’ and buy these kind of books are guaranteed to make a loss, he believes. Pan are more interested in seeking out talented, unagented authors, buying their books for less, and then making far more money by selling rights for these books abroad. They can then develop the author as a brand over time. Because he is interested in new talent, he believes publishers should actually encourage the current trend towards self-publishing. It will throw new authors into the spotlight, and these authors will eventually turn to publishers to give them their stamp of quality and help them to develop their careers, as the example of Amanda Hocking demonstrates.

For me, the most interesting thing he had to say was concerning what publishing might look like in the long-term future; he predicted the appearance of what I will call ‘community publishing’. Publishers are no longer looking at mass-markets, but at individual, networked customers, and they must be constantly responding to what these customers are asking for. As a result, the multi-genre model can no longer be sustained, and publishers need to start targeting specific communities instead. Some publishers have already created online communities – particularly young adult, sci-fi and fantasy communities – and imprints aimed at these groups, but they are mostly genre-based. What about a publisher that published books, across all genres, specifically aimed at commuters (short, quick, easy reads)? Or lifestyle, cookery, parenting and fiction books aimed at working mums?

Yesterday Jessica Kingsley, the founder of Jessica Kingsley Publishers, came to speak to us. JKP specialises in books on autism and Asperger syndrome, and I thought that in a way she was already targeting a community – people interested in those disabilities. Her company is doing very well and has become known as the world’s leading publisher of the kind of books they publish, which perhaps confirms what Forbes Watson was saying. It occurred to me that, for a start up company, it’s easy to refine your list to suit a small group of people, but how does a large publisher like Pan Macmillan make that transition? I asked Forbes Watson whether it was likely that larger publishers would start to split up into lots of smaller imprints, and he said yes. Perhaps the ‘Random House’ structure is the most viable one for today’s market.

I really like the idea of community publishing; a specialist publisher could start to establish itself as a brand, and customers would be loyal that publisher, trusting it to produce books that suit their particular lifestyle. The publisher’s website would become a place people with similar interests could get together to talk about the books they love. At the same time, it might encourage people to branch out into new genres; my parents read pretty much nothing outside of Scandinavian crime fiction, but if the company who published their favourite Scandinavian crime recommended another type of book, they might read that instead. I also have my reservations, however. Community publishing largely relies on stereotyping people: if you commute a lot, you therefore only want to read Dan Brown or Marian Keyes. In reality, you can’t always predict what books people will like.

Personally, I try and read all kinds of books, from cookery books to YA fantasy to epic Tolstoyan masterpieces – but then again, I’m probably the kind of person publishers don’t need to worry about, because I will actively seek out and buy books no matter what. So I’m sitting firmly on the fence on this one. I don’t think anyone really has much idea what the future will look like, but it’s certainly fun to speculate.