On Monday I nipped up to the big smoke to attend the Society of Authors' AGM at the accessible but somewhat spartan venue of Conway Hall, Red Lion Square. To be honest, having not attended for a couple of years, I decided to go more to have a chance to meet up with my friend Anna McGrail, who's a brilliant novelist ('Mrs Einstein') but who for the past few years has had to put fiction writing on the back burner to concentrate on the Baby Centre websites she sets up all around the world and the Good Spa Guide which she and her friend Daphne publish. She gave me a copy of their latest edition - browsing through it, with its gorgeous photos, is the next best thing to being able to visit one of the spas ...
At the AGM Tracy Chevalier, the Chair, reviewed what has been a busy year for the Society, covering some of the concerns I've explored in this blog: the reduction in PLR rates, for example, and the campaign against Age Ranging on children's books. There is no doubt that the Society is an active and vocal campaigner on our behalf but it did seem to me that figures from the Government, the Arts Council and the various publishers who wish to print age-ranges on books, manage to wriggle out of any real reply to our concerns with empty weasel-phrases about 'consultation' and so on. With age-ranging, which I haven't mentioned for a while, a very effective campaign has been waged by children's writers - but I do feel that only the names with clout will have the power, when push comes to shove, to veto what publishers want to do.
After the AGM there was a panel discussion: various big guns of the industry were lined up to answer our questions. Graham Rand is involved in the book supply business, Jonny Geller is a major agent at Curtis Brown, Alexandra Pringle is editor in chief at Bloomsbury. All three were experienced, articulate and frequently entertaining. All three flattered the audience - the usual bromide that they need us, the authors, to keep providing 'content' for them to survive. You bet your bottom dollar they do - but it still rang hollow to me, when the discussion revolved around the usual concerns: digital rights, authors finding proper marketing for their books, the difficulty of being published at all (answer, as ever, that you must go away and write what you in your heart of hearts want to write, not what you think the market wants, and that quality will out, a good book will always be published - rubbish! This is true to some degree but we all know good writing also needs the stiff breeze of good fortune in its sails, and we all know that lots of rubbish, especially with a celebrity name attached, finds a publisher). Early in the discussion there was focus on the importance of EPOS figures: to the uninitiated, these are the electronic point of sale figures that tell a publisher or bookseller how many copies you shifted of your 'product' to the 'market' if you published before - and if they weren't good, you better start praying - or better still, change your identity. Later, EPOS was dismissed as not crucial at all. Well, which is it?
Alexandra Pringle talked about how she had temporarily been an agent because she could no longer bear the limits placed on her freedom as an editor at a major publisher - she is now with Bloomsbury because it gives her more independence. She told us that 'The Kite Runner' and 'Eat, Pray, Love' were both word-of-mouth successes with no real marketing spend. However, Graham Rand said that when a book is being touted to booksellers by the publisher, they look at EPOS and marketing spend to see whether or not the publisher is really behind the book - and of course, the publisher can't be behind every single book they publish to the same degree. All three panellists agreed that too many books are published each year (approaching 150,000) - yikes!
Jonny Geller said that nowadays the sales force has as much clout as the editor when it comes to making buying decisions (take a look at my post just after the Winchester conference in June for a similar view). Increasingly an author has to become a 'brand' - and the big brand authors are selling more than ever these days, while the 'mid-list' suffers. Of some comfort, there is a feeling that the book industry will survive the credit-crunch better than other areas because a book, as a consumer item, doesn't cost as much as a cooker or a sofa, so people may still throw a little spare cash our way!
Looking to the future, there was discussion of e-readers. Jonny Geller said e-books would be successful to a point but it's not an industry yet. Alexandra Pringle said the younger generation will be more open to it and I agree with that: they're the 'digital natives' after all. She proudly waved her Sony e-reader about and said that as an editor, it had transformed her life as she could load lots of manuscripts onto it. I posted about e-readers recently. Last week in Waterstone's I had a closer look at the Sony: I do find its slimness appealing, along with the idea of being able to travel without my bag weighing me down. But I didn't like the buttons - when you turn the page, the screen goes temporarily dark - and somehow, there was something quite dispiriting about it. When push comes to shove, old dear that I am, I just like pages. I like the feel of paper under my fingers - not some titchy button.
Ms Pringle predicted that there will be an increasing market for luxury hardbacks but that more publishers would print straight to paperback, as is, indeed already happening. She praised the large 'Royal' paperback format, saying a novel could come out in that form instead of hardback (as, again, already happens frequently) before coming out later in a smaller trade paperback. Well, call me stupid, but one of the reasons I infrequently buy hardbacks is size. They're just too bulky - so a book either has to be by a writer much-loved or it has to be a totally exquisite article in itself, to justify the shelf-space. Otherwise I'll wait for the £7.99, manageably-sized pb. I'm not going to shell out £11.99 or so on a huge, hard-to-handle paperback that will take up as much space as the hardback would have.
The question of self-publishing was raised, again not unexpectedly, given that it has become a much more accessible way for writers to reach readers. Of course, the panel were quite edgy about that: Alexandra Pringle said it was 'fine' for writers 'if it makes them happy' - which I thought was pretty condescending. Yes, newsflash, publication of our words, however we manage it, makes us happy! Not rich, though ... Ms Pringle also celebrated the 'family' relationship between an author and a publisher. I thought Jonny Geller was far more honest when he said 'The only person who really really really cares about your work is you' and described how you need the psychological ability, the resilience to cope with criticism and rejection.
All in all, I came away not having learned much more than I already know. And what can you, dear readers, take away with you? If you're regular readers of this blog, you'll know how I feel: this writing game, this quest for publication/recognition/validation, it's a love/hate relationship. You get smacked in the mouth, you vow you'll walk away, and this time it's for good. You suck on the bitter lemon of envy, you get fired up with ambition, you float on the pink cloud of dreams, you put your head in your hands in black despair. But all the time, words are in your brain, what ifs in your imagination; essentially, you just can't help yourself, you poor sap. So do what they advise: write what is in your heart, write for yourself - but keep your ear cocked always to the distant hunting-horns and view-hallooing of the marketplace.
And Anna, one day, throw the baby out with the Bath Spa-water, and write your stories again!