I Have a Dream…

Do you know what I would really like? What would be amazing and brilliant and fantastic and… ok, ok I’ll get on with it.

A North East Writing Festival. Yes, I know there’s one in York in March, but hear me out, please?

I’m not in the poorest bracket of people in the country, in many ways I’m very lucky. But we’re a one-salary household with two small children, and I just do not have the money to go to something as wonderful as York Festival of Writing. I wanted to, but that’s the way the cookie (or stale bread crust, cue the violins) crumbles. And York is probably my closest option – something like Oxford or Get Writing in Hertfordshire are out of the question; even if the conference / workshop fees were in my range, the cost of actually getting there would make it simply impossible. That’s only going to get worse, since fuel prices are creeping – no, not creeping, soaring up.

The thing is, I always knew that. I always knew that there were wonderful conferences and events where you had the option of workshops and meeting authors and suchlike, and I always assumed that they cost what to our family is a small fortune. I’m not totally unreasonable, I completely agree that anyone agreeing to lead the workshops etc needs to be paid and needs to have their expenses covered. But last year I got a shock. I was on Twitter (I know, what a shocking revelation) and I happened to notice Nicola Morgan tweet that one of her workshops in the Edinburgh Book Festival still had some spaces (btw if you don’t follow Nicola on Twitter or at her blog, do. Incredibly useful.). Out of daftness I clicked through to see how much it was and nearly fell off my seat – I can’t remember the price but it was something like £5. £5?! For a workshop with a prolific and talented author? And as I looked through the Festival programme all the workshops seemed to be the same sort of price. That’s it, I was off…until I saw that the travel and accommodation put it back out of reach. I couldn’t afford the train and the National Express times meant I would have to stay in Edinburgh overnight.

So imagine my excitement when I heard about the York Festival! I assumed it was the same sort of idea, but, y’know, in York. Sadly for me, it’s not; it’s the sort of thing I would have imagined before seeing the Edinburgh events. And I do not for one minute think it’s not worth every penny – believe me, if I had the money I’d have been booked as soon as the tickets went on sale. Every event looks amazing, nearly every facilitator is someone I’d be over the moon to meet, and one day, one day, I will go. But it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t, and I assume there’s a canny few who are in the same boat. Excuse the colloquialism, I’m getting to the North East bit now…

My dream, then, is to have a North East Festival of Writing, or Books, or Literature – however you want to describe it. Along the same lines as Edinburgh – individual workshops. The thing is, there are loads of talented writers around here but we are a relatively deprived part of the UK and we are a relatively neglected part of the UK. Here’s my, er, manifesto:

The NE Festival would be:

  • accessible: venues in Newcastle City Centre; perhaps also in Durham or Teesside. But Newcastle has such good transport links it is the most feasible.
  • varied: I envisage events with authors, publishers and agents, covering submissions, writing tips, Q&A, book signings, critiques…
  • sociable: alongside the individual events I’d have picnic lunches for participants (giving the speakers some rest time!) and extra dinners on Friday and Saturday night
  • affordable: my rough idea would be a blanket charge to cover entry to 3 days of events and two social dinners (“networking opportunities”!) BUT because that would be a substantial fee, I’d also charge a small amount per individual event – maybe up to £10 – and per social, so you could kind of mix and match your own Festival based on your budget. And people bringing a picnic lunch, for example, would keep costs down too.
  • locally-biased: I wouldn’t include accommodation in the overall fee. This would mean that a)prices were kept down as much as possible and b)more local writers were encourage to come. Although if any hotels wanted to do a deal and discount prices for attendees I wouldn’t say no…
  • fair: I’d cover all fees and expenses of the attending speakers. Well, not me personally. You know what I mean.

Now obviously, it’s a HUGE ask. I really do think it would be worthwhile though – I think a lot of writers from the North East would jump at the chance to go to such a Festival; or, of course, from anywhere in the country – you’d just have to sort yourselves out with a bed for the night. Ooh, or we could make it the Glastonbury of writing, and have people camp out, with a big marquee for events… *mind off on another track*

Ahem. Anyway, I’m off to research charitable trusts for the Arts to see if I can persuade anyone to fund this brainwave. Wouldn’t it be good, though? What would you put in, if you were organising the line-up? Any thoughts? But the first person to say it’ll never happen gets a rotten tomato thrown at them. A girl can dream…

The Self-Publishing Storm

First off, I would like to make it VERY clear that I am a rank amateur. I have had books published by no mainstream, small or independent press or any combination thereof. My only published work is on this blog, and whether that counts as published or not seems to be entirely subjective. So while I am offering my tuppence-worth on the self-publishing debate, they are completely my own limited observations and I’m happy to not only hear other points of view in the comments but to have more knowledgeable people than me put me straight.

To be honest, this post comes from some comments and follow up posts on Jane Smith’s blog, How Publishing Really Works, and more specifically, this post which was part of a series rebutting what seems to me to have been a grossly misguided hymn to self-publishing. I do pity the man who wrote the original article, as Jane refutes his points ruthlessly over the series, but it disappoints me that so much of her very fair and informed response has been misunderstood and blown up into a storm rather than a debate on a very topical subject.

There are many points raised in the comments, and I’m not going to go through them as Jane does a much better job of responding than I could. One of the ones that really stood out for me, though, was an assertion that Jane seemed determined to review self-published books with the sole aim of proving that they are all rubbish. It’s very disappointing that someone can go to the trouble of reading, reviewing and blogging about books that the average reader will not come across in an effort to find beautiful writing, just to have someone with their own axe to grind write off those efforts as, effectively, worse than worthless. As far as I can see, self-published writers fall into two camps – the minority, who are genuinely excellent writers but for one reason or another do not have a commercially-attractive work and turn to self-publishing this particular piece, whilst in the meantime continuing to write until they do have a piece for which publishers can see a market; and the majority who have taken little feedback or criticism and having fallen at the first few hurdles decide to do it themselves. The reason I’m making this differentiation is the very small sample I’ve seen – the first camp take care to produce their book as professionally as possible and do not have a view of publishers or agents as a Mafia-like force, determined to keep real talent beaten down in the name of profit. The second, well, often do have this view, and in general their books are, as Jane says, not good enough (by any criteria).

I think a problem arises when people put publishers on some sort of pedestal. A few of the comments talk about the need (or not) for publishers to educate the public and provide worthy books instead of chasing sales. But surely a publisher is a business, and therefore has to chase sales to exist? If the public demand is for ‘worthy’ books, they will publish them; if not, they won’t. Maybe it might help people to remember that a publisher is a person doing a job – to sift through hundreds of manuscripts (of varying standard) and try to do the best job they can to make money for the company whilst producing quality products. Sometimes this will be a lucky new author, sometimes a crowd-pleaser and sometimes a celebrity piece, because, let’s face it, people buy celebrity books.

I have been into my local bookshops a few times lately. Sadly these are not as extensive as I might like. A WH Smith with a relatively small book section is my closest bookshop; followed by a moderate Waterstones in the larger town roughly 10 miles east and the same west. A decent size Waterstones is about an hour’s car ride; for a good-sized one and smaller, more independent shops, I need to go to Newcastle which is about 45 miles away. A 90 mile round trip, then, for a good bookshop. Anyway, my point is that my physical access to books is limited, as it is for my neighbours, but what I do have to say is that in those bookshops, even the closest and most limited, there is a good range of books. Not always what I want, but a good range of literary, genre fiction, celebrity bios, and some self-published (usually with a local connection). I have seen works by established authors, debut authors, celebrities and the odd long-shot, the unexpected success, as well as the runaway phenomenons that I personally aren’t that keen on but that the buying public obviously adore, judging by the coverage. I would venture an opinion, then, that between them the publishers are getting it pretty much dead right.

Yes, there are almost certainly fantastic books that slip through the cracks and don’t get picked up (if any publishers reading this have a manuscript floating round with the name Rebecca E Brown on, that’s one of them. Just saying.) and selecting books is ultimately impossible to do completely objectively – there must always be some personal preference creeping in because no-one can turn their emotions on and off at will. But I have faith in publishers, who are (like it or not) the experts in their trade, that they are doing the best job they can, and that somewhere along the way those unfortunate deserving authors will get picked up if we keep trying and keep writing and keep improving. And if any of us do turn to self-publishing, that we do it with our eyes open and for the best possible reasons, not because we’ve taken our toys home in a huff, creating a storm out of nothing.

If, by some strange quirk, you haven’t visited Jane’s blog (which I linked to above), I recommend it as one of my must-read resources for writers, alongside Nicola Morgan’s Help! I Need A Publisher! And for a guide to self-publishing which manages to be thorough, realistic and still very entertaining, pop along to see Catherine, Caffeinated and read her story.

Aaaaand Press ‘Send’…

So, in the last couple of weeks, after putting it away for a while, I have taken out my picture book (which you may remember from my post Lightning Bolts and Dragons). I have revised it, changed the character name a couple of times, tweaked it and polished it. I have bought a copy of the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2010 and carefully gone through all of the agents and publishers. And this morning I submitted my manuscript. Yikes.

I have done my homework. I highlighted agents and publishers who took on unsolicited picture books and looked at their lists. I followed their advice. I chose 5 agents to submit to first, and I am grouping agents together for further batches of submissions. I put together a CV, a covering letter and two versions of the manuscript. I looked at my documents again and again to make sure they were as good as they could get – and after I sent them I thought of about a million changes I should have made. Does everyone get this feeling?

I went through a long debate with myself, friends and family as to whether I should submit first to agents or publishers. In the end my reasoning was that if I submit first to publishers who then turn it down, there was a slightly greater chance that if they were then presented with it again from an agent it might stand against me (Because, of course, they will remember it however many months down the line. Bear with me, I had to make a choice somehow). Whereas if agents turn it down, they will never know if I then go to publishers with it, except on some prestigious awards night when I am presented with my nth award and they are sitting kicking themselves for turning it down (ok, ok, I’m awake now). So I went with the agent route. And I’ve first chosen the agents who accept unsolicited picture books from first time authors by email – 5 in total on my list. I wrote my letter to each of them, checking for spelling mistakes. I don’t think there were any… And then I pressed ‘Send’. This was the most nerve-wracking, sickening moment I’ve felt since asking people for honest opinions on the book.

I’ve had one answer already, from an agency who are taking on “very few” new picture book authors at the minute but wished me the best of luck. Fair enough. At least I’m only waiting for 4 responses now. But please, all readers, spare a thought for my poor family. I am not renowned for my patience, and as well as listening to me moan about the non-appearance of a baby who isn’t due for another 2 weeks, they now have to put up with me checking the post, email, phone, etc for responses from agencies which may take 8 weeks. I’m not sure who will go round the bend first…

All sympathy comments and stories welcome!