Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Inspiring A.L. Kennedy and other Tales from Sale

Yesterday, as part of Manchester Literature Festival, was the Northern Lights Writer Conference (#nlwconf on twitter) which took place at the Waterside in Sale. It looked like around 100 writers had paid £25 for a full day conference (not, thankfully, an "unconference") about getting into publishing. An initial panel, ably chaired by Kate Feld, had an agent, an editor and a small publisher (respectively from Blake Friedman, Weidenfeld and Nicholson and Salt Publishing) in a "state of the industry" discussion. Obviously not everything was news to me, but there were some interesting observations.  The panic over e-books seems to have resided a bit. The "paradigm shift" has happened and it turned out to be 20%-30% of the book market, no more, and that's now stabilising. Publishers are now investing in books again for those who want the physical product. Interesting to hear that the difference between major and smaller publishers isn't that great - the same jobs need doing, and in the majors, small teams act very like they would in an independent. Agents are still out there, still talking to publishers, still representing authors. (A few years ago you could still approach a publisher without an agent, that's apparently even more difficult these days.)

After this initial discussion our keynote was A. L. Kennedy, a writer I've long admired. She talked to us as potential writers, and spoke inspiringly of the vocation - using self-deprecation, wit and and lessons hard learnt to describe the professional life of the writer. An antidote to the sunniness of the professionals on the panel, she described how many of the ways for writers to earn money (journalism, teaching etc.) had reduced massively over the last ten years, but that the job - the real job - remained the same. The craft and graft of writing a story or a novel that is worth reading remains the same. I sometimes wonder with the plethora of writing courses etc. how all these people keep going; after all, though there are few pleasures like writing, it is always hard. Kennedy spoke of the work, and how the making it better is what our job is. Despite - or because - of her slightly mordant commentary ("bad back, bad eyes, bad wrists") she was utterly inspiring.

In the afternoon we had two panels - the Literary Agents one, where local editor-agent-writer-academic Nicholas Royle joined the panel, was full, and returned to some of the morning's themes. Seems that agents are far more approachable than a decade or so ago, with twitter accounts and individual agent bios and detailed submission guidelines on their website. Its been a long time since I've had anything to approach an agent with, so that was quite interesting for me, and made me feel a bit more optimistic that there might be a possible route into the industry if I write a novel again. It was a sunny side story that I'm not sure every writer I've spoke to over the last few years would agree with, but Juliet Pickering came across as a wonderfully reassuring professional. ("No fantasy" though.) And avoid sending anything during London or Frankfurt book fair! (April and October).

The last session I didn't really learn a lot new from - after all, it was on DIY publishing, a longstanding interest of mine - but I was still fascinated to hear from a great panel with 3 very different small presses. Emma Press has only published 2 beautiful little poetry books to date ("I want to get them in gift shops") whilst Scarborough's Valley Press (who will have published 50 books in 5 years) has turned a hobby into a high quality micro enterprise; and Dead Ink are investigating new ways of reaching the market with e-books and online.

Organised by Creative Industries Trafford it was a fascinating and stimulating day. I only knew a few in the audience - and some of these were on the panels - but met a few new people and more importantly got a good overview of an industry that I've always a little arms length relationship with. The role of small presses in poetry and short stories is more important than ever and the professional quality of these books is increasingly obvious - distributed via readings and events. The fetishism of the e-book and online is returning to its rightful place, I think, in the "marketing mix"; and there genuinely seems to be more opportunities than ever for good new writing - whether you'll be able to make a living as a writer is another issue of course!

A.L. Kennedy's talk was one of those that wrapped around you, so you didn't take notes or find it easy to extract from it - but she began with the importance of a single word. I'd never known it, but the word "genocide" was coined by Raphael Lemkin, for to name something you can then define it. Words, she said, can mean lives - and that's why what we do is so important. Literature has to continually make its case here in the land of Shakespeare and Dickens in a way that isn't the case in many countries. Interesting, provocative and political. 

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