Friday 16 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference Oxford 2016 Part 4: Rights, Responsibilities and Relationships

One of the Emperors outside the Sheldonian Theatre
is surprised to receive a visitor!
After the packed conference Saturday, we could be forgiven for feeling a little punch drunk on Sunday but more panel discussions, chat, bookstall foraging and friendship-making awaited!.

I attended a panel on Foreign Rights and Translation, with agent Carole Blake chairing, in discussion with Louise Rogers Lalaurie, a translator, and Laura Morelli, a novelist who has made her own successful foreign rights deals.

This is the sharp end of the industry: ‘This is business’, as Carole says. It’s the sort of area we writers might feel wary of and it’s certainly an area where I for one would prefer to have an agent to do the horse-trading rather than do it myself, though Laura has demonstrated that it’s perfectly possible.

Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Laura Morellis and Carole Blake
What are the key lessons to be learned? First of all, research. If you’re doing it yourself you need to research the markets in foreign countries and if someone makes an offer to publish or to translate your work, you need to do your homework. As Carole said, ‘Don’t be so grateful that you don’t ask around and do your research.’ Laura had been contacted by a Hungarian publisher and had the good sense to check them out.

Secondly, be aware of territories. Know which territories you can sell to and whether some rights have been reserved after your initial publishing deal. Has your agent sold UK rights first, followed by US/North America? Contracts will have a schedule of countries where rights are still available. Brexit – which had become a dark undertone to the conference – will make things like this more complicated in the future. In addition, Louise said that EU funding for translations of works will now decline – it’s already happening. Boo.

Thirdly, the contract. Carole said, ‘Think of every eventuality that might produce an argument’. Think of the relationship you have with your agent – you want someone with whom you can build a longterm partnership, not someone creaming off the profit from success you’ve already created for yourself, doing one deal and deserting you. She recommended that you have multiple income streams derived from separate sales of rights into different languages.

I learned that ‘In some markets it’s a legal requirement to pay a royalty to the translator’, which I hadn’t known before. Louise advocated encouraging the translator to become part of the whole selling process rather than being a temporary gun for hire. You can do this by offering a small royalty – the translator can end up being ‘your best advocate’. She said that some translators work with self-publishing authors. They may also have relationships with publishers that enable them to suggest to publishers that they should buy the rights to your work or commission a translation.

Favourite quote: ‘Agents hate the word “gave”.’ Carole Blake
Interesting book recommended: Tregiani’s Ground by Anne Cuneo

I ended up being very late for Tracy Chevalier’s Keynote Address (and as a result couldn't get a good photo of her). Luckily I’d seen her at the Oxford Literary Festival in the spring and since then I’ve read At the Edge of the Orchard which she was talking about then and very much enjoyed it.

Blackwell's bookstall was busy all weekend
Once again she proved to be a warm and witty speaker, discussing how she came to write HF: ‘It allows me to step outside myself – and no one will ask if it’s autobiographical’. She expressed wariness, though, when it comes to the HF label, saying that if she were to sum up each of her novels in a tagline, it would come across as a contemporary story. She added ‘Being interested in the past makes us better people’, clearly feeling that the modern age is a solipsistic one. Her latest work is a take on Shakespeare’s Othello, transferred to an American school in 1974. (Hogarth Press has been commissioning authors to re-envision Shakespeare – I’ll be attending Margaret Atwood’s talk here in Oxford in November. Her novel, Hag-seed, is an interpretation of The Tempest. I’m not sure, actually, how I feel about all this, but we’ll see.)

Writing this book led her to wonder whether 1974 could be said to be historical – so we were coming full circle to the discussion started by Fay Weldon and Jo Baker on Friday. This also led, as with Melvyn Bragg, to a consideration of the times we’re living in (or through), in this truly insane year of politics, of Brexit, of what Tracy called ‘terrible news’.  ‘Sometimes you feel you’re living history,’ she said and we all agreed. And to be honest, it doesn’t feel good. Maybe, I thought, that is one of the reasons we love HF – it’s the past and it’s safely in the past. Nothing feels all that safe right now.

Lovely slide design by Alison Morton
After the coffee-break I took part in a panel discussion myself, along with Alison Morton, Helen Hollick and Antoine Vanner. Our topic was Going Indie: Questions and Answers. We discussed the benefits of going indie: Control! Freedom! Transparent royalties and income! Choosing your own cover! Taking pride in producing your work as professionally as possible!

We were also honest about the pitfalls. As a literary consultant myself I stressed the importance of proper editing. We talked about the burden of responsibility that never ends: the constant marketing and promotion which can feel like a treadmill sometimes.

However, dear reader, bear this in mind: whether you are trade-published or indie, the ultimate responsibility for your book is yours. And you will always have to market it, no matter what.

Tracy Chevalier, Harry Sidebottom and CC Humphreys
After a lively Q & A session I made it to the final event, the hilarious HistFictionist Challenge, a quiz that pitted the panel – Tracy Chevalier, CC Humphreys, Harry Sidebottom - against the audience. We learned the many names under which Jean Plaidy wrote, the relative number of words in Ben Hur versus the population of London at a certain era and much much more …

Then, in a rush of final speeches, lunch, buying books and getting them signed, hugs and farewells, it was all over.

Carol McGrath and Jenny Barden
are thanked by HNS chairman Richard Lee
The committee breathed a collective, contented but utterly exhausted sigh of relief – Oxford 2016 had been everything we’d wanted it to be, under the guiding hands of Carol McGrath and Jenny Barden. Memories have been made, friendships forged – and Oxford itself was a star player, though it could have done slightly better on the weather front!

Shout-outs to the Committee:

Richard Lee (HNS Chairman), Carol McGrath, Jenny Barden, Liz Harris, Deborah Swift, Anita Chapman, Alison Morton, Nikki Fine, Clare Flynn, Antoine Vanner, Mary Fisk, Ouida Taafe, Charlotte Betts, Helen Hollick, Charlie Farrow.

I’d like to thank the staff at St Anne’s College who were incredibly helpful during many months when I was fielding accommodation inquiries!

Shout-outs to old friends and new acquaintances:

Essie Fox, Emma Darwin, Karen Maitland, Douglas Jackson, Alison Morton, Anna Belfrage and many others, plus the friends I knew were present – yet we didn’t even have time to say hello!
Farewell to the beautiful venue, the Andrew Wiles Building

Home again - and lucky me, home means Oxford!
A selection of my lovely conference swag!

Details of the new season of my Fictionfire workshops, a day course and a retreat can be found here, and you can sign up for my Fictionfire newsletter - articles, recommended reads and resources, competitions and more.

An Oxford Vengeance, my collection of short stories including 'Salt', which won the Conference London 2014 Award, is available to buy on Amazon here and here.

Part 1 of these posts on the 2016 HNS conference is here, Part 2 is here and Part 3 is here. My posts on the conferences of 2014 and 2012 go here.

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