Robin Wasserman’s Lithub article on the girling of contemporary culture gets to the heart of those niggling questions behind the term ‘girl’ and why, as women, the term raises hackles. How can it be offensive when girl-titled books — Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Girl in the Red Coat — resonate with women readers?

I chafe at girl as much as the next woman when I can sense the judgment in it, the implication that I don’t measure up. And the idealist in me resents my own theory about the semantics of girlhood—believes that if the evolution from girl to woman insinuates an erasure of self, then it’s our expectations of female adulthood that should change, not our terminology. That we should reclaim woman, acknowledge with language what we argue with manifestos: that womanhood can be its own liberated, self-interested state of mind. But the pragmatist in me is glad that, in the meantime, we have the word girl to remind us. Glad that these characters exist, girl in name and spirit, that we’re living through a cultural moment dominated by women of all ages, still and always busy, trying to become who they are.

How to get Published Conference – London


Publishing is in flux – this we know. So how do we navigate this new, post-apocalyptic, grey-shaded landscape? Fifty-Shades of naughtiness has smashed the idea that fanfiction is a sub of a sub-genre and only for the select few and has destroyed any notion that only ‘‘good writing’ sells.  It’s bad. It’s not even so bad it’s good; it’s just bad writing. All previous advice now seems like empty air. So what is a writer to do with their new-born typescript now ?

  • Does this mean writers ought to shun the traditional route to publication?
  • Does this mean writers ought to forget editing, polishing and fine tuning and go straight from first draft to e-book?

And what of literary consultants? Me?

  • How do I advise writers who are looking for guidance on the best route to publication?
  • Has the publishing landscape changed completely?
  • Or has the ground shifted ever so slightly to allow for light relief? In which case, will things return to normality soon?

With perfect timing, the team behind the writer’s bible – The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook – have put together a one-day conference that seeks to address all these questions and many more I haven’t thought of yet.

The line-up of ‘those in the know’ includes respected agents, leading publishers, and self-published self-taught experts.

The conference takes place in an ideal central London location – easily accessible from Euston/KingsX in the Wellcome Centre, which is why I’m heading down there on Friday night.

I’ve copied in the programme below – I’ll be there. Will you?

I’ll post a full report on Monday.

Date & Time -7th July 2012: 9.30am-4.30pm

Place: Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE


The How to Get Published conference provides an invaluable opportunity to gather tips and advice from some of the most respected and reputable names in the industry, meet and exchange ideas with other writers and put your publishing questions to a panel of literary agents.

The How to Get Published conference will provide expert advice on:

  • Choosing which publishing route
  • Knowing when your manuscript is ready
  • Getting your submission package in shape
  • Targeting agents or publishers
  • Understanding what agents are looking for in a submission
  • Handling rejection
  • The next step- working with your agent or publisher

With a stunning line-up of speakers, the How to Get Published conference offers an indispensable insight to the publishing industry.

Speakers include; Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, offering an introduction to the current book market and publishing trends.

Suzanne Joinson, author of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, and her agent Rachel Calder, of The Sayle Literary Agency, who will be discussing the relationship between author and agent.

Editorial Consultant Cressida Downing, on the practical dos and don’ts of submitting a manuscript.

Kerry Wilkinson, the self-published author who was ranked as one of Amazon’s top 10UK authors within 5 months of releasing his book. With over 250,000 e-book sales, Kerry is uniquely positioned to discuss the self-publishing experience.

Finally, we have a panel of top literary agents, including Patrick Walsh, of Conville and Walsh, and Madeleine Milburn from the recently opened The Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency.

See the Writers’ & Arists’ Year Book website for full details – hope to see you there!

Turning the Next Page: News!

I’m pleased to announce that I recently took up the role of Events Co-ordinator at the Scottish Writers’ Centre and joined the Board who’ve been working hard to turn an idea of a dedicated Scottish literature venue for writers into a reality.

At present the SWC has accommodation in the CCA – Glasgow-based but Scotland-wide.

Eventually, the plan is to have a dedicated building; a home– somewhere to grow, to continue to put on interesting talks and writer events and host international writers; to add to the Scottish cultural economy; to contribute to literature development; to debate current issues in writing and publishing, and to spread a love of the written word.

Publishing is in flux – every day there’s some other bit of bad news about a bookshop closing down or writers losing their agents or publishing deal. Writers are bombarded with information about new trends – apps, digital and self-publishing. Writers need to connect, to talk over issues and ideas, to blether about books. More than ever, there’s a need for a shared space to try out ideas and to talk about issues, as well as to share new opportunities. That place is the SWC.

SWC are host to different writing groups who meet weekly, fortnightly or monthly in the new dedicated CCA meeting space: Gaelic writers’ group, Scots/English writers’ group, Glasgow Meet-Up Writers, Haiku writing and study group, and the poetry-book reading group. Why not come along and join the conversation?

If you’re around Glasgow you can drop in to one of SWC’s fortnightly meetings. Until the end of June the Writers’ Hub opens every second Thursday afternoon from 2-5pm, alternating with our Thursday evening events and debates. All are Free and Open to All.

***Upcoming Debate:***

Join us this Thursday, 24th May at 7pm for the  SWC Great Debate on Speculative Fiction.  Douglas Thompson will chair the panel of – Kirsty Logan –  Gordon Robertson – Roy Gill – Neil Williamson – John Birch. Come and have your say on this hot topic.

If you can’t come in person you can lend your support to the work of the SWC in different ways, by making a donation, or by taking out a membership of the Scottish Writers’ Centre, or lending your voice to the debates in the comments on the SWC blog.

Why It’s a Great Time to Be a Reader – The Atlantic


Peter Osnos’s recent article in The Atlantic (link below) on books and bookselling flags up the positive results of digital and looks at the publishing world from a reader’s perspective – which makes a refreshing change from all the messages of doom and gloom and ‘death of the book’ that circulate on a daily basis.

Why It’s a Great Time to Be a Reader – The Atlantic.


How bookshops can save the world

I was waiting in teen-taxi last night and it was too dark to read so I flicked through the radio stations looking for a distraction, and stumbled across James Daunt spouting forth about bookshops and the physical book. I found myself agreeing with most of what he said.  I started scribbling down words and phrases and getting goosebumps when I realised the truth of what he had to say and how this might connect with my own thoughts about bookshops, libraries, book festivals and reading.

Daunt talked about how chain bookselling had lost its way, been driven by the cheque book and had crushed individuality for the sake of profit. In the long run, he said, this is what had actually driven their customers away. He thought it was time to  restore individuality and engage with local communities. While I didn’t agree with his thoughts on children’s reading, I found points of commonality in what he said: about how some niche bookshops can be intimidating and how supermarkets as bookshops provided a good introduction to books for those people who might never otherwise enter a bookshop.

There’s no denying the appeal of digital, but there’s no human connection involved in one-click book-buying. Because there’s also no denying that people like talking about books, sharing books and meeting authors. Book Festivals and author events are hugely popular for more than just literary bookish folk. So I wondered, what if there was a way to combine selling and reading? What if you could open a space within supermarkets and bookshops and libraries (which are now so much more than simply a place for books) as reading rooms? A space that was open to all to enjoy a book and pass on good reads, somewhere to share the pleasure of reading? And by all I mean EVERYONE, even those who enjoy celebrity hardbacks and trashy novels and for whom kindle means literally to start a fire.

Combine Daunt’s talk with the appalling unemployment statistics and it’s worth exploring how bookshops, libraries and supermarkets can combine somehow to restore a sense of community. Perhaps they could provide commercially-sponsored places where people can test and try books, buy books, read and share stories and even, perhaps, create their own stories.

By this I don’t mean a return to eighteenth-century subscription libraries or circulating libraries where access to books was according to class, wealth and gender, but something more accessible, which will benefit booksellers and readers and also their communities.

I haven’t worked out how this can be done or who might do it or fund it and I know I’m just thinking aloud and probably annoying half the really good, community-based independent bookshops who do cater to all their readers. But I’m sure even they would admit they’d enjoy a return to a time when bookshops were busier and trade was stronger.

Anyway, enough ‘thinking’ – have a listen to JD.

I’ve put  link to the podcast below and in case this doesn’t work I’ve added a link to the BBC4 Four Thought website where you can scroll down and find the James Daunt Podcast.

Intro – “Recorded in front of an audience at the RSA in London, speakers take to the stage to air their latest thinking on the trends, ideas, interests and passions that affect our culture and society.”

James Daunt issues a ringing defence of printed books, and argues that libraries and local bookshops – the ‘purveyors of the written word’ – are vital social and cultural spaces. Brought in to turn around the Waterstone’s chain of bookshops, he argues that book chains should continue to play a vital role in introducing readers to books, but will only succeed if they re-connect with their communities.

James Daunt Podcast on Bookshops

BBC Radio 4 – Four Thought Website – scroll down to ‘James Daunt’ and play.



PS – I’m sorry about these unruly ads – they’re random and from wordpress not from me

Scottish literature, landscape and books

Out and about these last few weeks in a flurry of bookish jaunting…

First, to the MacRobert’s arts centre, to Andrew O’Hagan’s thought-provoking but not overly provocative lecture titled, ‘Civic Memory: An Argument on the Character of Scottish Culture’, ‘on the ties that bind Scottish literature to civic humanism. Meandering playfully, O’Hagan’s conceit was this: parochial isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it has a global reach; the parochial in the global shows humanism in action and is particular to the Scottish psyche, the ‘wha’s like us’ mentality if not mentalité of the Scots and Scottish writing.

O’Hagan brought together supporting evidence that Scottish literature had been ‘punching above its weight’ on the global stage for over four hundred years on the native strength of finding the global in the particular. ‘Scotland is a living workshop of the imagination’ he argued, and then leant back on the usual suspects, Burns and Scott and Stevenson. Surprisingly, he didn’t dwell over long on Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, people like Hume and Reid or writers like Henry Mackenzie whose Man of Feeling most definitely backs up his argument. Instead, he moved on to Stevenson and the way that, even in Samoa, the Scottish landscape continued to haunt his writing. This isn’t nationalism, though, he said, but a desire for that sense of belonging that comes with a tie to the landscape.

For O’Hagan, James Kelman provides the ‘best example of craft and writing’ in his idea of civic humanism. Kelman’s writing, he argued, is compelled by a moral imperative, an insistence on the importance and value of a particular Scottishness within a global scale: “Scotland is the world centre of fictionality’, he said.

In a post-nationalist, post-industrial era now more than ever we need that sense of belonging which seems now a thing of the past, an anachronism. We need to look inside, as in medieval times, when the body represented the state, to our ‘island’ lives [both literally and metaphorically], not in a sentimental way but striving for nationhood which is also self-hood.

  • The best question brought the best answer. Asked, ‘what is a Scot – a Scottish writer?’ – O’Hagan replied, it’s anyone who imagines they are Scottish who puts Scotland at the centre of all their thinking and writing life, for whom Scotland and Scottishness are primary. Reflecting on Benedict Anderson, O’Hagan said that the border isn’t determined by the physical landscape but the imagination: it’s a state of mind.

Andrew O’Hagan is a Scottish novelist and essayist. His latest book is The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend, Marilyn Monroe (Faber). The play based on his first book, The Missing, opened recently to rave reviews. The lecture was part of the ‘House of Words’ series.

Secondly, a wander around Linlithgow – a town which played a major part in events which shaped Scottish history, brought O’Hagan’s lecture into sharp focus -: a practical example of the global in the particular, where literature and history resonate across the landscape.

And which, rightly, boasts a really good bookshop. The Linlithgow Bookshop is packed floor to ceiling with books, books, books; modern books, books of local interest, history books, contemporary fiction and recent academic books – and a separate but equally jam-packed children’s section. Worth a return visit.

Thirdly, out and about in town with teenager we tripped over a new bookshop. Well, not new but newly moved from a back street to the town centre. The Lit-List Bookshop is a bit different: all books retail for under £2 and mix second-hand and new books. I spoke to the owner, Melissa, but only briefly as the shop got busy (a good thing). I’ll be popping back soon once she’s got settled in and post an interview. I liked the feel of Lit-List, not least because they also support local and new writers.

On the desk was a copy of Matt Hamilton’s Strathcarnage (Matador) and Melissa tells me they’re hoping to host a ‘pop-up’ event with the author and illustrator Chris Odgers in the near future. 

Even More Festival Jottings

Even More Festival Jottings – Wednesday 24th August 2011

Wednesday Morning

In the ever-changing face of the book festival, on weekdays, crocodile-lines of schoolchildren find their way into every crevice around Charlotte Square Gardens. The National Literacy Trust said recently that, from a poll of 18, 141 children, 1 in 6  “don’t read a single book in a month”, but the high number of children attending the book festival disputes their narrow-field of research. Every where you look some child is reading, looking at someone else reading, talking about a book, looking at books, buying a book— or two, writing, listening to inspirational stories or taking part in a pirate-themed ‘fight-fest’.

I caught up with New Zealand children’s and young adult writer, Kate de Goldi, signing books and posters and handing out bookmarks and badges after a successful reading. She’d flown 27 hours, she told me, to take part in two events at this year’s children’s book festival; the first was with novelist Saci Lloyd (Momentum), where she talked about her latest book The 10pm Question, which generated some good audience questions about the process of writing. She was looking forward to the afternoon session panel event with newly installed Children’s laureate Julia Donaldson and also Ruth Eastman to discuss emotional and mental issues -“Quirks of the Teenage Mind” – with a teenage audience. While she’s in the UK Kate plans to research places and landscapes associated with children’s literature for a forthcoming non-fiction book – taking in Roman Britain, the Yorkshire Moors, the fens and the Wold, as well as writers and books associated with Edinburgh.

All day around the Square I bumped into children’s writers, including, picture book author, Petr Horáčk, Katie Grant (Belle’s Song), Kevin Crossley-Holland (Bracelet of Bones) and the two Steves:  Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore (authors of over 130 pirate, Viking, horror, myths and dragon books, including the iHorror series). In the middle weeks of August, some 11,500 children from 141 schools from across Scotland and the north of England descend on Charlotte Square Gardens, as well as countless tots and teens who come along with their parents: if researchers had asked them ‘do you read books?’, the results would be dramatic but for a different reason entirely.

I was here, though, for a Bookshop Café sponsored event (with free coffee and Danish pastries) headlined as “Europe in the New Era”. Taking part were Judith Hermann, German author of Alice (Clerkenwell Books) and Norwegian author, Per Petterson, I Curse the River of Time (Vintage), with interpreter, Donal McLaughlin (author of A Nervous Reaction to National Anthems and Other Stories, Argyll Pub). Paired because these books deal with bereavement and loss, they’re actually very different books and the authors have very different views on their approach to writing and also of translation, which made for a lively morning’s conversation.

Hermann spoke of how, listening to Alice being read in English, she can “step out of her own text and can listen to the text for once as if it’s someone else’s. The English translation is a closed space. She can be outside it.” Per Petterson said that translators “massacre the text.” In translation, the book has a different tone and rhythm, he said, and there’s a difficulty in showing the Norwegian in the English translation – to demonstrate its foreignness. Although he came to enjoy, the three-way shuttling of text between author, editor and translator until they came to a version he was happy with, the end result is a new book, not a literal translation.

Hermann said that it was “a great luxury to think whether the translation works for the reader or not. She’s conscious, she said, “of the fact that everything she’s read that has meant something to her was read in translation.”

Questions from the floor included a discussion about whether British and US publishers and readers were resistant to books in translation. Both said they’d found no resistance, although Per Petterson admitted that very few Norwegian writers were translated into English. When asked if writing books with death as their subject had been cathartic both said that it hadn’t. For Hermann, Alice isn’t a self help book. She felt happy when she was writing it. Per Petterson said that “literature should open wounds instead of healing them.” He’s very happy when it feels painful because that means he’s succeeded in what he’s tried to do: “A good burial can be uplifting.”

I asked Judith Hermann how she’d begun Alice and how long it had taken her to write. She’d started with the character of Alice, she said, who had led her into the story. It was a long gestation but the actual process of writing was very quick, around six months. I asked Per Petterson about the English translation and told him I liked how the sentences seemed to mimic the movement of a meandering river. That’s because “basically I rewrote the book in English” he said. I also caught a few words with publisher Geoff Mulligan of new imprint Clerkenwell Books (Alice, Wall of Days). Why, when everyone was talking about the death of books, I asked, did he start up a new publishing company? There’s a market for good quality fiction, he said. Clerkenwell will publish just half a dozen new books every year — “a small number of outstanding books rather than a big number of mediocre books.”

The rain clattered onto the canvas, scattering the deck-chair loungees into the bookshops and cafés. I sheltered in the LRB tent for a while, wasting time ’til the evening sessions. Colin Thubron charmed everyone who wanted a signature; Ed Vulliamy seemed genuinely pleased to sign books; Jo Nesbo was deluged with fans of Scandinavian crime; Rodge Glass was getting ready for the Cargo-publishing sponsored Unbound event.

Censored Event – Dinner at Browns


Wednesday Evening

Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry and musical recital was packed – a sell-out. “You can see that poetry is a minority subject”, quipped Robyn Marsack (Director of the Scottish Poetry Library who chaired). Duffy read familiar poems from The World’s Wife and Rapture collections—‘Mrs Midas’, ‘Mrs Darwin’, ‘Mrs Tyreseus’, ‘You’, ‘The Lovers’—as John Sampson melded mellifluously into the end of some poems. ‘The Dark Island’ blended beautifully with the last lines of ‘The Lovers’, and he played his own set too.

I was pleasantly surprised by Duffy’s relaxed, amusing, quite pithy introductions. A combination of my bad handwriting and low lighting means that I don’t have a lot to report but it was a really super hour – too short really. An added bonus was hearing from Duffy’s upcoming collection of poems called The Bees – and her tempting offer of 150 advance copies. Poems include, “Virgil’s Bees”, a poem in protest against the Post Office … consumed with middle-aged rage … a revolutionary poem” against dropping counties and shires from addresses, like “Clackmannanshire”, a poem about “Atlas” and one about her mother who died five years ago. “Premonitions” moves back in time to revisit long-cherished images. I’m not sure if there was a dry eye in the tent when John Sampson played the refrain from ‘Danny Boy’ along to the closing lines: “a loving litany of who we had been.”

The central dilemma of the night was this: Ian Rankin talking about his new book, The Impossible Dead, or Michel Faber talking with actress Romola Garai and writer Lucinda Coxon about the screenplay adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White. With two Victorianists in our company we plumped for the latter. A great choice, as it turned out.

With the Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead guiding the debate, Lucinda Coxon spoke of her determination to adapt the book for screen and the problems of turning it into a four hour series “without butchering” the text. She was aware that it would need a new kind of costume drama but that she needed to “take the audience” with her. Romola thought the character of Sugar was an opportunity for “a new kind of heroine” who used sexual power as a device, a heroine who was “half in, half out of both levels of society”. She wished, in some ways, that she was more like Sugar, “a brilliant manipulator of her own and other’s emotions.” Asked whether the scenes where the two women wave from upper windows was a reference to Victorian fiction [Jane Eyre; Wuthering Heights], Coxon agreed: they weren’t in the book but she used them as shorthand and as a “framing device” that viewers would be familiar with.

Coxon related how designers had fought to work on the series, how the screenplay of the “novel that was perfect for tv … developed a life of its own.” Romola shared details of how discussions with the leading man mirrored the Sugar/William struggle. For her, the extent of Sugar’s vulnerability “is always up for debate,” she had wanted her portrayed with less vulnerability and more power. Michel Faber talked about the delicate balance, of how, if wrongly handled it would be “too porny”. “Desire and disgust are happy bedfellows”, Coxon said.

Michel Faber was happy with the adaptation although he’d deliberately had nothing to do with it. He said that “six parts would have been nice.” Not shown in the US “so far” the panel debated whether it ever could be. It was too different in sensibility for a US audience not used to dealing with abortion and rare skin conditions in British costume dramas. It would be “Pretty Woman in crinoline”, said Michel Faber, more like “Fatal Attraction in crinoline”, Claire Armitstead replied.

BookRambler was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Wednesday 24th August 2011. She spotted, Carol Ann Duffy, Claire Armitstead,  Colin Thubron, Donal McLaughlin, Ed. Vulliamy, Geoff Mulligan, Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbo, John Sampson, Judith Hermann, Kate de Goldi, Katie Grant, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Lesley Riddoch, Lucinda Coxon, Michel Faber,  Nell Nelson, Per Petterson, Petr Horáčk, Robyn Marsack, Rodge Glass, Romola Garai,  Saci Lloyd, the two Steves.

you can view the pics on Bookrambler’s flickr photostream>>>

Rage Against the Machine – the Rise of E-Book Debate

The Rise of E-Books debate at the EIBF: report by Janette Currie

Literary agent, Maggie McKernan, publisher Peter Burns (of Birlinn) and General Secretary of the Society of Authors, Nicola Solomon brought their collective book experience to what was a wide-ranging and, at times, lively, evening of debate around the question of ‘How Will the Rise of E-Books Affect Writers and their Works?

In this unsatisfactory and muddled event, which was chaired by author Angus Kostam, so many threads were opened and left dangling that, in the end, no single issue was debated fully. And, as no one was there to represent self-publishing e-books, which is what was largely taken to be the major threat to writers and their work, the discussion became circular: if writers can’t make money from their work they won’t write – if books are devalued to 99p, then no one will make any money from them and no one will want to write them. Most worryingly, if too many e-books are produced readers will not know what to buy.

Of the panel, Peter Burns was most positive about e-books, which he considers another tool to display content. When deciding whether to publish a book, he explained, publishers now have to consider multiple formats—hardback, paperback, trade, e-books, enhanced e-books and apps—giving the publisher a headache but giving readers exciting choices.

The discussion turned particularly lively when the question turned to Royalties. Why are they set so low for e-books, everyone asked the representative publisher, when the overheads, costs and financial risks are small compared to traditional publishing? After all, they argued, publishers didn’t do a lot to promote books—all agreed it was never enough. Defeated by the sense of their argument, but unbowed, Burns swiftly turned to the question of quality. Costs remain high with e-books, he argued, because they still need to be edited, typeset etc. While they agreed such work could be handled by freelance editors, in the end, Maggie McKernan insisted that Royalty rates were due for a change.

By now, it was three against Burns, publisher turned e-book cheer-leader. Burns vaunted new advances which could “unleash imagination” in “exciting colour” with “phenomenal technology … Apple’s fixed page layout was good for zoom-through books” and talked about how e-books would probably replace paperbacks in years to come. The other panellists moaned about the inability to “gift wrap an e-reader” and warned that, as “you don’t own an e-book”, “they might take them back” at any time and niggled Burns about his promotional record: “how many author tours had he organised?” Maggie McKernan quizzed.

All agreed that by 2020 publishing would be different: neither bookshops nor traditional publishing would exist as we know them. Everyone, it seems, is under threat from e-books, although agents, publishers and editors have more to fear than authors. New strategies are needed to provide a way to bring books to readers. Not agent-publishers—all agreed that the role of the agent was to protect author rights not to publish books. If this all sounds depressing, it was. Mostly. Maggie McKernan admitted to enjoying the convenience of e-reading and Nicola Solomon spoke up for the exciting opportunities for those authors who could reclaim out-of-print titles and self-publish them as e-books. The question remained, however, about how to find readers for these books.

The argument perpetuated within a circle of despair: how do readers find e-books amongst the “dross” and “sea of e-books”? The main problem with the rise of e-books was saturation and quality. According to Peter Burns, with “up to 30k new self-published books appearing every month” the market was “awash with content”. For him, the role of the publisher was to highlight the best, to “separate the wheat from the chaff”. Most agreed and the conversation turned to poor quality e-books v. professionally edited books, the quality of book covers and how and where to advertise, publicise and physically sell e-books—consistently, Amazon was the major baddie in the drama. Amazon provided good opportunities and marketing and great after-service but it had changed the nature of publishing forever.

While Nicola Solomon asked, “what are publishers for”, in the end it all came back to the role of the publisher in promoting the author’s work. Unless the author was Neil Gaiman, J. K. Rowling, or someone with an extremely large following [tens of thousands] they all agreed, social media for promotion, such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, websites, etc was probably a waste of effort. According to Peter Burns, not surprisingly, the person best placed to promote an author’s work was a publisher who knew export markets, territories and niche markets, where to send ARCs and who would want to stock which title.

Books are sentimental objects—e-books are convenient content management systems; the future is challenging and worrying—according to these publishing experts. In this wide-sweeping, general discussion issues such as, pricing, VAT, writing, reviewing and the rise of the self-published author weren’t touched on. No one considered whether self-publishing was good or bad for writers.

Sadly, not one of them considered why, in the era of cheap e-books, hundreds of adolescent boys [those customers who never read] bought copies of Derek Landy’s latest best-selling Skulduggery Pleasant book, at £12.99 each.

The Rise of E-Books: How Will the Rise of E-Books Affect Writers and their Works? was held in association with the Society of Authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Wednesday 17 August at 18:45pm

Festival Jottings

Festival Jottings: Weds. 17th August

Late afternoon is a good time to pop into Charlotte Square Gardens. By then, the early buzz has waned to a gentler pace. Unless, of course, you’re Neil Gaiman: he strode out of a mammoth book-signing session following one of his three sell-out festival events.

In the festival bookshop, Stanza Director, Eleanor Livingstone, relayed the news that Jane McKie had won the Edwin Morgan Poetry Competition, taking £5000 with her poem, “Leper Window, Mary the Virgin”.

At the book-signing table, Francesca Kay was bursting with pleasure at the glowing review that The Translation of the Bones had just received in Sunday’s Telegraph. 

Over coffee in the LRB tent, Wildlife adventurer Steve Blackhall entertained a CBB-size crowd of children as he signed copies of his latest book, Looking for Adventure.  Apparently, he’d been there for over 2hrs.

I’d come in for two events – a debate on how the rise of e-books will affect writers and a Newton First Book Award event with David Miller and Dan Vyleta. I was disappointed by the debate, I have to say. The panellists didn’t really address the central question but rambled around the negative aspects of e-books and how they saturated the market, punctuated with comments about the convenience of e-readers. All agreed that by 2020 bookshops and traditional publishing will be very different from today. Ultimately, though, no one seemed to address the really important questions of how e-books will affect writers and writing. I’ll be posting a full report later.

Unfortunately Dan Vyleta cancelled; making David Miller’s reading a cosy affair. The Guardian’s Sarah Crown was an excellent, knowing chair who guided the discussion into new areas of reading Miller’s debut novel. We discovered that a Dutch publisher turned it down because it was “almost a silent novel” that, it’s not really about Conrad at all but about “fissures” that open up in families when someone dies, about “moments when things shift”. Despite the numerous versions of Conrad’s biography, Miller thought that “we can discover a different truth about someone through fiction.”  He researched the life of Lilian Hallowes, Conrad’s secretary, for three years, because, he said, “no one spoke for her. No one asked her about Conrad, ever.” He also explained some of the literary in-jokes secreted within the lengthy four-page ‘Dramatis Personae’, such as, the connection between the mysterious “José Altamirano, 78 or so, a funeral crasher from Colombia, now living in Barcelona” and the narrator of the same name in Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Constaguana.

Miller touched on his role as author-agent— he doesn’t see himself as an author but an agent who happens to have written a novel. And, in comments which chimed with the panellists on The Rise of E-Books, Miller rounded off his event by telling us how Today benefited immensely from being edited and copy-edited. Books, he said, “need filter systems”.

EIBF isn’t just about literary fiction, though, as demonstrated by the noticeably longer and noisier book-signing queue for two football-based books: Stramash by football historian Daniel Gray and Stuart Donald’s autobiography, On Fire with Fergie.

By this time, The Paris Review had taken over the Unbound event in the Speigeltent. Prize-winning essayist and NYT reporter, John Jeremiah Sullivan gave a good-humoured reading from his Pulphead essays prompting ripples of laughter around the room while Donald Antrim looked on, propping up the bar, waiting to read from his current work-in-progress.

Both kindly agreed to pose for a photograph (sorry about the quality but these men aren’t called towering literary types for nothing).

How to Sell Books, Part One: ‘Readers Sell Books’

I’m privileged to be one of the 20,000 World Book Night givers.

I’ve already found welcoming homes for all 48 copies of the specially printed edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.

Here’s where they’re going:

  • a class set to the education department of the local council [for use in English classes at Higher and Advanced Higher level in the local schools]
  • copies to eight local school libraries
  • copies to the local college library
  • copies distributed at the World Book Night event at Larbert Library [I only took eight but could probably have given out all 48]
  • a group set to the education centre within the local women’s prison
  • copies to Scottish PEN
  • copies to friends who are readers

The event last night at my local library in Larbert, which was put on after hours by the library staff on a Saturday night, was well-organised, well attended and above all, great fun.

More importantly, the author, Doug Johnstone, who gave a reading and entertained us with songs and an excellent and informative Q&A session, SOLD copies of his latest book.



Doug sold the trade paperback edition of Smokeheads to a queue of eager readers willing to pay the full price of £12.99.

Really? How could he possibly sell his books at an event where books were also being given out free – by the bagful?

There is a cynical opposition to WBN doing the rounds claiming that, if you offer a product too cheaply or freely, you will depress sales –: if you give something too cheaply or freely, so the argument goes, people will expect all books to be cheap or free. If books are free, people will not buy other books.

Firstly, this argument is wholly condescending to book buyers and readers.

Secondly, books have two values: an aesthetic value and a commercial value – neither of which devalues the written word.

Jamie Byng knows this, which is why Margaret Atwood’s description of him in yesterday’s Telegraph as a ’tilter of windmills’ is spot on.

Just look at  Canongate’s website – ‘Meet at the Gate’

Canongate’s catalogue is there, as are Canongate’s published books.

But it’s not like any other publisher’s website. You’ll also find there wide-ranging debates about all kinds of books and ‘interesting stuff’ that they didn’t publish.

It’s about the creation of a cultural hub, one that is totally independent in its spirit and content, a place with a particular focus on books, film, music and websites that will help guide you to the most interesting stuff around.

World Book Night is an ingenious idea that builds on the simple but true fact that word of mouth sells books: as Byng noted this week, ‘its readers [not reviewers/publishers/booksellers/newspapers/advertising] who sell books’.