This Is It!

In late November, I had the opportunity of attending Literature Alliance Scotland’s This Is It! event: a Literary Cabaret that would showcase some of the best writing talent Scotland has to offer. Hosted by writer Siân Bevan, the evening took a tour of Scotland’s literary world, with five speakers ‘representing different areas of our literary country’. The audience was welcomed by Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop who opened the evening with a warm introduction. After a captivating reading by poet William Letford, of his poem This Is It, Siân Bevan introduced the first of the evening’s five speakers.

Francis Bickmore, Publishing Director of Canongate Books, held the daunting position of first speaker, discussing the state of the publishing industry in 2017 and a note towards its future. Reflecting on the year as a whole, Bickmore began by questioning why we continue to write and publish books in such unstable times. In times where we have become worryingly disconnected from one another. The answer, quite simply, is that books offer us hope. As Bickmore reasoned, they are a ‘crash course in empathy’ and a means of demonstrating the change we wish to bring to the world. Our need for hope and empathy has been reflected in the rise of a new book trend. In response to a year of despair, the publishing industry was witness to a new trend in the form of ‘Up-Lit’: books that have optimism and positivity at their core. Bickmore went on to discuss the importance of diversity and equality, which has become a hot topic within the publishing industry after a recent survey found that around 90% of the workforce identify as white British. After praising the solidarity of online communities in their fight for equality and their highlighting of inequalities, Bickmore declared that the industry is moving ‘to be as diverse as the population it serves’.  While Canongate Books has made progress in this regard, with 35% of their new writers coming from BAME backgrounds, he admits that there is still a long way to go. Bickmore’s focus on equality, however, was not limited to the subject of racial equality but also encompassed the importance of gender equality and its benefits for everyone. The current patriarchal environment has not only put unfair limitations and disadvantages on women, but has also created a strict and rather damaging definition of what it is to be a man. Admitting that men also lose out with patriarchy, Bickmore wished that 2017 would prove to be the year in which men woke up to feminism and joined the fight for true gender equality. Although such change will not come quickly or easily, books can be a powerful tool in starting the conversation of change as ‘changes on the page take shape in the real world’. Canongate recently published Robert Webb’s memoir How Not To Be a Boy, which Bickmore named as an excellent example of books tackling these damaging gender norms. Bickmore rounded up his segment by reminding us that we should be proud of Scotland’s literary culture and continue to celebrate writers, for in such unstable and challenging times ‘we need [them] to keep hope in the dark’.

The second speaker of the night was Adrian Turpin, Artistic Director of Wigtown Book Festival, who recovered well from the delicious error of being introduced as Adrian Turnip. He discussed the importance of book festivals in the book world. Beginning by conveying the sheer vastness of the Scottish book festival scene, Turpin revealed that Scotland now boasts over 45 book festivals, with the Edinburgh International Books festival being ‘the largest public celebration of the written word’. Turpin claimed that the greatest strength of the book festival scene in Scotland is that no two are the same. But what really makes our festivals so important? Aside from being ‘producers of content’ and places of discussion, they are, very importantly, great resources. Book festivals are resources not only for young people but for community groups, for the elderly. They are resources for Scots languages and vital for the Scottish tourist industry and publishing sector. They are resources for current writers and the next generation of writers. Book festivals are an intrinsic part of the Scottish book trade that help bring in new audiences and spread the love for the written word.

Our next speaker was Pamela Tulloch, the Chief Executive for Scottish Libraries Information Council (SLiC). Responding to the growing concern for the future of UK libraries of late, Tulloch insisted that despite facing difficulties in a decade of austerity, Scottish Public Libraries are still going strong. This is in no small part due to their Ambition and Opportunity strategy that was launched in 2015. This strategy aims to promote and support reading and literacy, digital inclusion, economic wellbeing, social wellbeing, and culture and creativity. In order to fulfil the aims of the strategy, Scottish Public Libraries have introduced various features that have really set them apart from other libraries. These include off site online resources (eBooks), opportunities for film education and support for new upcoming businesses. They have also introduced 3D printers to their libraries with guidance on how to use them. As part of the strategy, SLiC aims to promote libraries as excellent public services. In an effort to make the library process simpler for its members, SLiC introduced their new One Card initiative in November. In its trial run, the scheme allows members access to the resources of any participating library within the trial areas. The simplicity of the One Card is important as it makes access to libraries easier from a younger age. Although the trial is due to end in April 2018, SLiC hopes that the initiative will be adopted across Scotland. However, despite the encouraging progress and stability of Scottish Public Libraries, Tulloch noted that libraries across the UK are still at risk and implored her audience to join the Libraries Matter campaign, urging us to go online and share why libraries really matter.

After Pamela Tulloch’s address, William Letford returned to discuss his experiences as a writer and the opportunities for writer development. He began by admitting that he didn’t move into poetry without help. After deciding to embark on a dramatic career change, Letford attended a council funded writers group. The writers group enabled upcoming writers to discuss literature and poetry with already published writers, and offered valuable guidance. It was through such guidance that Letford was soon encouraged to apply for the New Writers Awards, an award scheme run by the Scottish Book Trust and funded by Creative Scotland. Recipients of the New Writers Award are given a £2000 cash award and continued support in the form of mentoring, training in performance and presentation, and opportunities to show their work to agents and publishers. The Scottish Book Trust continued to support Letford after he won the award, providing one-to-one grammar lessons on his request. Letford then discussed the benefits of the Live Literature Fund, another programme run by the Scottish Book Trust. The Live Literature Fund provides access to a database containing over 700 writers across Scotland, with the intent that organisations and communities can use it to find and apply for writers to perform live for them anywhere across Scotland. The fund then covers half of the artist’s fee and all travel expenses. While Letford notes that the extra income this fund provides for authors is helpful, the power of the project is most important as it acts as ‘a bridge between reader and writer’. Letford also praised the writers and publishers before him who had paved the way for writing in Scots, because ‘the more words we use, the more mischief can be made, and the more mischief, the merrier the show.’ Letford then finished his segment with another poetic reading and a challenge to the audience to step outside of our literary comfort zone.

The final speaker of the evening was best selling author Louise Welsh, who discussed an international perspective. Returning to some of the themes introduced by Francis Bickmore, Welsh began by discussing the diversity of Scotland. Although she considers Scottish literature to be ‘almost as diverse as its landscapes’, Welsh questioned whether it is diverse enough. In a very effective demonstration of the publishing industry’s lack of diversity, Welsh asked the audience to take a look at the faces around the room. It took only a brief sweep across the crowd to realise that most, if not all, of the audience was white. After voicing her hope that this reality will change if we work at it, Welsh declared that to do so we need to reach out. As we reach a time in which many countries are turning inwards, it is more important than ever to engage with each other across the globe. The networks and friendships we create will foster empathy, creativity and hope. ‘We need to continue to take the world to Scotland, Scotland to the world’. Welsh concluded her address by urging the audience to celebrate Scotland’s place in the literary world.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening, This Is It was a clear demonstration of the passion and dedication that this industry has in abundance. The ability to admit where it is failing, and still show such enthusiasm and commitment to making a change for the better makes me proud to be a part of the publishing industry. As the year comes to a close I am thankful for all the opportunities I have been given to be a part of such a fantastic industry and the celebration of the literary world, and I eagerly await the opportunities 2018 may bring.

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Twitterpated

Being somewhat of a reserved person, I knew that one of the biggest benefits of studying publishing this year would be helping me come out of my shell. In a lot of ways, I felt I never needed to, but when I found how important connecting to other people is in this industry, it simultaneously stunned and intrigued me. I knew that putting myself out there, especially with that dreaded word: ‘networking’, would be a challenge for me and others to overcome. But it also struck me that the way people form relationships in the industry is an important thing to be a part of, not only to make professional contacts, but to gain perspective and knowledge about the different aspects of publishing. I know little of other industries and the workplace in general, being a fresh graduate, but ‘networking’ was something I was entirely unprepared for and due to this, it’s almost natural to doubt its effects. Instead, I’ve found that it’s tremendously simple to put yourself out there, so much so, I found it difficult to begin.

I was initially perplexed at the necessity of a Twitter account as part of the course. The last time I used social media regularly was when I was a sixteen-year-old posting on Facebook and since, only use it rarely to keep in touch with others. I remember the initial ‘Twitter boom’ when a bunch of my friends started posting but by then, I lost interest. I never fully pondered the benefits of Twitter until I learned more about advertising in class – not only with company products – but with myself. I’ve found that not only is self-promotion essential for establishing contacts, but growing more social and keeping updated with news can only benefit my social development and understanding of the industry.

And although I joined Twitter purely for professional reasons, I made sure to explore it with an open mind as well. I couldn’t help but follow several celebrities and company favourites to personalise my news feed a little more. It strikes me as odd to read about the latest trends of publishing alongside what the cast of my favourite TV show get up to, but I now see why many find Twitter so compelling. Even with my initial scepticism, I can safely say I’m now ‘Twitterpated.’

I still find it difficult to post, possibly due to the hurdle many have faced: wondering if what I have to say is worth putting out there amongst the vast number of voices online. But I have definitely observed the benefits of even visiting the site regularly and staying updated with others, especially for publishing. That people seem interested in what I have to say indicates something special about the industry – people are interested in people rather than what’s solely on paper. Since networking and the exchange of ideas is such an important part of publishing, Twitter is an essential platform for this. Although I still find it challenging to put myself out there, joining social media is a huge help. Not only can I observe how people and companies work and interact on the site, it’s a platform that I can steadily introduce myself on. It makes me want to involve myself further and I’m interested to see how I develop more as a person by the end of the academic year.

Independents: Original Content Curators

It’s becoming an issue, mostly in film and TV, that all our top-rated content is either an adaptation, sequel or remake (how many King Kong stories do we need? 8 apparently). Even fiction, to an extent seems to be relying heavily on remade content. Although thankfully this is done with different angles and edges making the stories feel fresh, new content seems to be lacking in today’s spotlight. Sometimes it can feel as if we’re all absorbing the same things, over and over again. The top TV series are often based on something else too, Game of Thrones anyone? Spiderman has had three different films series in 15 years, and how many times can we really watch Uncle Ben die just because the industry knows that consumers will often go back to the things they love? Save that man from his Groundhog Day, please, somebody. We need to give stories time to rest before they are refreshed.

Most of these remakes, prequels and sequels are not horrible. Most are actually pretty good, some are brilliant, but it leaves me wondering if people are simply giving up and sticking to their tried and tested ways, or if they are running out of ideas.

There is one place however, that seems to be overflowing with original content; independent publishers. I was not aware of how many, nor how successful these publishers were within the industry before MSc Publishing. Most of the independents I have encountered since September are all dedicated to introducing new viewpoints and stories into our lives, something sorely needed to keep the industry fresh and interesting.

What was also surprising was how these smaller companies are so much more willing to take risks on newer content than the bigger household names are. Well-loved series are great, and often a large source of income (something that was not a surprise), but some of the best sellers that come from publishing are the standalone thrillers. The books that are fresh and new and risky are the ones that stick in the mind, the ones that you can’t stop thinking about long after you’ve finished. Independents are giving a voice to the often ignored, and giving consumers much more choice when it comes to content.

The publishing pool is much larger, deeper, and richer than I ever knew it was. Not just in Edinburgh and London, there are publishers spread across the country if only you know where to look, and now I’ve learnt how to find them. Independents are an exciting part of the publishing world because they are all so closely involved with the content they produce; every job links, and the books become the love of the whole company not just the author. Maybe this is the reason that their part of the storytelling industry is flooding with new content, because they care so much about the stories they tell they are more open to the new stories that have yet to be told.

Inspiring Women

For me, one aspect since beginning the MSc Publishing course at Edinburgh Napier University that has inspired me the most is the many women speakers at events and lectures that I have had the opportunity to attend, not to mention the wonderful industry women I have had the pleasure of communicating with directly. In their own way, each of these women have not only helped me to better understand the industry that I am just entering into, but have inspired me to really seize every opportunity, whether it be by providing valuable advice, an insight into their role or an opportunity.

The thing that has stood out to me this trimester is the strength of the women I have come across in the industry. One of the first events that I attended, Magfest, opened with speaker Zillah Byng-Thorne, Chief Executive Officer at Future Plc. She encouraged, ‘be open to the unexpected’ – impacting advice considering how dubious climbing the career ladder can be in an age where many top positions are filled by men. Not for Byng-Thorne, her advice was unflinching, frank and encouraging – don’t think there is only one path for you; take every opportunity; go for it. That there are many different roles in publishing, often unexpected or intertwined, is a message which has since been recurrent throughout this course. What has become increasingly clear to me, is the importance to have confidence and to be open to taking chances.

Each one of the many guest lecturers that have visited have imparted experience, knowledge and advice in indispensable, unique ways. Most of these guest lecturers were women, and strikingly for me, inspirational in their passion. Ann Crawford, spent the day with us on two separate occasions, giving an insight into the progression of her career in publishing through the years and the power of give and take as she delved into publishing house dynamics. At the forefront of everything, however, was her love for what she does. Helen Williams, another guest lecturer, inspired with her passion and expertise in Print Production – this industry is certainly not lacking in passionate, expert women.

Susan Kemp’s masterclass was particularly motivating. From her experienced position as a freelance editor and as Publishing postgrad alumni, her insight made me think not only about where I might fit into publishing, but to value the skills that I have as well as the efforts of others. Kemp’s understanding and compassionate air with her unwavering resolve shows that you do not need to have one or the other – there is strength in each of these qualities. Knowing my own worth in whichever area I decide to go into, being open to continuous development, having empathy for authors and clients, and the importance of an entrepreneurial attitude stood out to me as invaluable advice going forward.

Whether it be from a visionary outlook, expertise or an entrepreneurial perspective, each of these women have carved a place for themselves in authoritative, creative and innovative roles.

There is also an element of shared experience and support among many women in the industry. My first-hand experience of this has pleasantly surprised me. The readiness of various women who I have been in contact with, most of whom have been in managerial roles, have amazed me with their support and willingness to provide opportunities; from providing me with an open and honest insight into the inner workings of their company, to being open to my input, to providing reading and writing experience. In each case, the insight and skills I have gained have been invaluable, and the opportunities to get involved have strengthened my belief that the publishing world is where I should be. Indeed, I believe that these women, selfless in their support and encouragement, pave the way for future generations of publishers.

Of course, it is not simply industry professionals and guest speakers who inspire me. Most of my classmates who I have had the pleasure of learning with since September are women, and not only share a love of books and creativity, but in my experience, are supportive and encouraging of each other (as are the men) – a great sign as one day we may be colleagues.

However, I must add, these are just a handful of the many women who have inspired me in trimester one, and I am positive there are many more to come.

Overall, I am feeling optimistic about the variety of jobs that are out there for women that are achievable through hard work, and encouraged by the supportive community of women who make the industry seem less daunting for newcomers like myself. Of course, seeing an aspect of the industry that is working well – inspiring, supportive and motivating – those areas which are truly lacking have become glaringly obvious to me: many top positions are largely occupied by men and a recent survey shows that there is still a gender pay gap at 15.7% (bookcareers.com). There is also a striking lack of diversity in the industry which publishers don’t seem to have the answer to yet. Luckily, I have next trimester to explore these pertinent issues further!

Publishing in Actual Practice

When I started my life as an MSc Publishing student I had some experience in publishing, having translated a few novels and edited a short story collection, but the work I was most proud of was Pendora Magazine. I started this online magazine with a friend of mine almost two years ago, while we were both studying English in The Netherlands. We just wanted to share our thoughts about books and also publish original fiction. Did we know how to run a magazine? Nope. Did we care? Hell no! We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into until the submissions came pouring in. But we did our best and we learned on the job and we got a pretty decent idea of what the job required. Until May of this year, it was a pretty amateurish magazine, with irregular posts and our time was limited by our studies. After I finished my BA dissertation, I wanted Pendora to be what I called “a proper magazine.” During the summer I spent every day researching magazines and trying to figure out what we had been doing wrong and what we could improve on. When we relaunched on September 4th, it was a better looking, much more organised, and busier magazine with several people working on it. I was in charge of everyone. But I still didn’t know all the ins and outs of what this project required. At that point, I started studying publishing.

Almost everything that we learned on a weekly basis at university was directly helping me run the magazine better and more efficiently. We are still just online, so I’m keeping notes on everything I need to know for when a filthy-rich benefactor decides that the best use for their money is to fund a print run for Pendora.

The first major educative experience was not part of the degree, but it was thanks to it: MagFest. Going to this year’s MagFest was easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I attended most of the talks and a couple of workshops, and by the time it was done I already felt I had learned so much from these amazing people who were in similar positions as I was. The online community is great, but nothing can replace the experience of being in the same room with so many people who had jumped off the same cliff as I had (yes, that’s what launching a magazine felt like for me). When all the talks were over, I thought “Well, today has been so amazing” but I didn’t know that the best part of my MagFest experience was saved for the very end. After the last talk, an interview with Ian Rankin, we were all having a glass of wine (each of us had their own glass, we weren’t all sipping wine from a giant glass) when I saw a notification on Pendora‘s Twitter of an account called @sheisfiercemag liking one of my tweets. I went on the account and fell in love with this magazine’s presence on Twitter so I asked around and was finally introduced to Hannah, the amazing mind behind She Is Fierce. It turned out that Hannah had had a very similar experience launching and running her magazine, so what followed was a half hour where we compared our frustrations at making a magazine work (the phrase constantly repeated was “I knooow riiiight?!). Hannah didn’t reveal some well-kept secret in the publishing world about how to make a magazine great, but just talking to her was really helpful in running Pendora.

The things that I learned in class that were directly applied to how Pendora works can be divided in two categories which I’ll call “Oooh so that’s what it’s called” and “Oooh so that’s how it works.” The first category is a list of things that I kind of figured out on the job during these two years but had no idea they had a name and a how-to manual. The second category is made up of all the things I had been wondering about all summer while Googling “how do u run a mag?” I learned that those choices I had made and was very insistent on were called “a hou-se sty-le”, and that table of translated name and cities and rivers I had made while translating a WWII trilogy over 3 years was called “a spe-lling grid.” I learned how rights work, even though I haven’t figured out how to sell my Breaking Bad fan fiction. I (theoretically) learned how to write a blurb, although the blurbs I write about Pendora articles on a weekly basis still feel kinda weird. I learned how to approach the target audience for every post that we publish through a technique that feels like it came out of Mindhunter. I want to say I learned how to network, but my Twitter feed is still a list of movies I hate (I know it’s not hard to share your thoughts about publishing and books you like with people in the industry, but it also kind of is, okay?) One of the most important things I learned, and I’m still learning, is how to use InDesign, which will come in really handy when that aforementioned benefactor becomes Pendora‘s patron. I learned how to efficiently edit our submissions, how to plan posts, and generally how to approach any new challenge thrown at me. Most importantly, I learned how the different roles in publishing work together to produce, market, and promote content. That’s the most exciting part about all of this. I’m surrounded by people who want to do the same thing I want to do: find, perfect, and promote content that we are excited about. There’s no better environment for this little project to grow in. The Pendora team has grown in Edinburgh too with Alice and Daniele taking over some of the marketing and promotion for the magazine’s content and doing a much better job than I ever did, and I am so very very grateful to them.

Indie Publishing: a chance to be bold

Without a doubt, one of my favourite aspects of the Edinburgh Napier Publishing MSc has been the exposure to stand-out independent publishing houses across Scotland. Speakers from Floris Books and Barrington Stoke, to name a few, have shone a light on the quality and breadth of content that these publishers produce. Here is a brief summary of why these publishers fall not in the shadow of their larger competitors but illuminate their own unique niches in the market.

  • Harbingers of change: Although in significantly more danger if a title’s sales fall short compared to larger publishers, a trademark of many indies is their innovative content that deviates from the expected. Willing to take the risk, indies can inadvertently lead market trends simply by leaning on their staff’s experience and gut instincts. There is also often an active decision to readdress homogenous content by publishing writers whose voices otherwise would not have found a platform.

 

  • Knowing their markets: In contrast to the substantial finances fuelling the marketing campaigns of larger publishers, indies must allocate their funding much more sparingly. Titles must avoid a scatter-gun marketing strategy and have a targeted audience in order to be profitable. Successful indies have used this with great aplomb and use word-of-mouth sales, author visits, and smaller festivals to create a grassroots buzz about their content.

 

  • Carving their own place: In order to distinguish themselves, successful indies focus a lot of their attention on carefully curating their list. Building a reputation for expertise in a particular area allows them to compete at a higher level and attract specialist writers who in turn enhance the publisher’s reputation. This distinct focus can lead to an indie doing remarkably well with an international reach; while other larger publishers are inhibited by multiple drains on their attention.

Ultimately, these independents fight against a bland publishing landscape and are a barrier to a rotation of insular-looking titles. As aspiring publishers, it is in our best interests to support a diverse and consequently creative industry.

Firefighting with Street Reads

Right in the heart of Edinburgh, on the lower floor of a small indie bookstore called Lighthouse, is the current home of Street Reads, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation run by Ms Rachel Cowan. Also known as “the Book Wumman”, Rachel is a firm believer in the transformative power of reading, and has been donating books to homeless folk since 2015. Street Reads –as well as Rachel– have been through a lot ever since. One of the first things I noticed about her is that her compassion for the homeless lacked any element of pity or sense of superiority, but rather came from a sense of kinship with this folk; Rachel is deeply empathetic in the way only a person who has themselves gone through plenty of hardships can be.

I first heard about this initiative from our programme leader, Ms Avril Gray, who recommended Street Reads as a volunteering placement. I immediately applied for the placement, because I’ve enjoyed volunteering in the past, and I felt especially drawn to the idea of giving away books in the same way you would give a blanket or food to those in need, as they are equally important. A book is a portal to another world, and this sort of escapism is vital to people whose own life is in ruins. Working with Rachel and listening to her stories about the homeless readers who sometimes confide in her, opened my eyes even wider to the harsh realities that exist alongside us.

My own little contribution to Street Reads mostly consisted of filing, tidying up our overflowing crates and bookcases, and picking out suitable books for the crates that Rachel brings with her to charity or church initiatives involved with homelessness, such as Souper Saturday (a project of The Station, a newly registered charity), Soul Food (of St Paul and St George’s Church), and homeless shelters. The way Street Reads works is that the readers are not randomly given the books as gifts but they get to pick (and keep) their books. Selecting which books to bring is very important, since the aim is to attract as many readers as possible, and offer them books they actually want to read.

Picking out books was a little tricky at first, but soon I got the hang of it: lots of crime and thriller (yes, Ian Rankin is immensely popular with all demographics!), lots of classics, a sprinkle of historical and literary fiction, books in foreign languages (not all of the readers have English as their first language, and the comfort of reading in one’s mother language is incomparable), YA and children’s fiction, and strictly NO chick lit. The last one is hardly surprising, as the content of these books isn’t relatable to women who have been, and are currently going through, experiences of mental and physical abuse, desolation, poverty and homelessness. All in all, the same rule that applies to publishing applied here as well: know your market. Format is important too: hardbacks may be beautiful on the shelf, but they are not easy to carry around, and practicality is the priority.

But all the enthusiasm and drive in the world are not in themselves enough to run any sort of organisation. In the end, it comes down to funding. This is the main struggle Street Reads is facing, and it weighs heavily on Rachel. With the help of social media (Twitter mostly), a ton of people have grown interested in our mission, and  have been dropping by the bookcave to donate their books. Other donors that have been supporting Street Reads for a while now include Canongate Books and The Skinny magazine. As a result, Street Reads is currently by no means lacking in books. What it lacks are regular sponsors. Rachel, who is apt to speak in metaphors, compares herself and the volunteers with firefighters, struggling to put out many small fires at a time with a towel, while what we really should be doing is putting out the big fire with a professional fire engine. But there’s no professional equipment; no steady funding. And as long as this continues, Street Reads is stuck on the short-term, managing the day-to-day demands, barely making ends meet; as Rachel put it: “we cannot do the big picture”.

While this might be the reality right now, there is always hope for the future. 2018 is the year when Street Reads aspires to finally become a registered charity. Along with that, I hope that all the hard work put into this initiative will be recognised, and that Street Reads will attract regular sponsors, so that everyone involved can finally afford to think for the long-term. Until then, I am very grateful to Rachel for all the things I’ve learnt so far and all the things I will learn in the coming months; it’s been an honour firefighting with her.



Follow Street Reads
Website: streetreads.org
Twitter: @streetreads 
Facebook: Street Reads