Friday 18 April 2014

The View from my Desk - Easter 2014

Beverley Birch is friend and mentor to many slushpilers and published authors alike. She was a senior commissioning editor for Hodder Children's Books and three times shortlisted for the Brandford Boase Award in recognition of the editor’s role in nurturing new talent. She is a writer of more than 40 books including novels, picture books, biographies and retellings of classic works and folk tales. Her novel, 'Rift' came out in 2006 and you know you are in the hands of a true storyteller when you read the very first page. Beverley now concentrates on her author life and mentoring new writers through Imogen Cooper's Golden Egg Academy. Follow Golden Egg Workshops for Children's Writers on Facebook

I’ve always viewed the publishing landscape half as an editor looking after a host of authors, half as an author, coloured by my personal author-editor-publisher relationships.

Now, fourteen months since leaving my in-house commissioning desk, I expected my view of the publishing landscape to have radically altered.

To my great surprise, it hasn’t.

I expected my advice for the author looking for an agent or publisher to have changed.

Again, it hasn’t.

So what are the contours I can see? Is anything sharper, more well-defined. Can any predictions be very firm?

Well, there’s one certainty - the continuing state of flux. Social media is awash with commentators, the reading of trends and predictions of outcomes. The truth is that no one knows how to publish successfully in the 21st century’s multiple currents, cross-currents and swirls – least of all publishers. They’re still struggling to come to terms with the consequences of the digital revolution and the birth of self-publishing as a serious player; booksellers likewise are struggling to find their place against the online environment.

Big guns may have more resources, but smaller publishers are more nimble, can react quicker. My bets are on the smaller publishers – and I detect that more of them think the current environment is one of opportunity rather than threat, and have the energy to ‘go for it’.

Jack (or Jill) be nimble ...

But in general both publishers and booksellers are obsessively risk averse. Agents are frustrated about projects enthusiastically liked by editors who can’t get them through acquisition meetings. Editors are frustrated by an inability to commit to books they love, or see their authors grow as their work deserves. Publishers are frustrated because books they believe in aren’t getting bookselling support, because not yet proven. And so it goes on …

It inevitably filters down the line, to risk-averse agents, and authors so obsessed with trying to read the runes that they can’t make up their mind what to write.

And of course it continues to squeeze the already narrow gate to traditional publishing, just as the stream of applicants is in fuller flood than ever before, fuelled by courses, conferences, networks, social media discussion about self-publishing, and the way it has opened the author-life and the writing process to scrutiny as never before. No wonder that people who might just have half-dabbled now begin to have serious ambitions, and dreams, and are prepared to put the work in to get there.

At the same time, the dream is flawed. For traditional publishing and bookselling, there is an incredibly short window of time for any author or book to be noticed and ‘break through’ (achieve commercial sales) If the breakthrough isn’t there, the machine simply moves on to the next project … and the hapless book (and author) is deemed not to have ‘worked’. Publication of any one book is only one step at the beginning … and thereafter everything may still be in flux.

Add to this the obsessive struggle for discoverability – for the traditional publisher and the indie authors alike: yet how can you possibly be heard amid the clamour and anyway, does being heard actually influence the fate of your book? The jury is still out …

It can all be a bit of a tightrope walk ...
Indie-publishing of course has an allure about it: the ease of just getting your book out there and finding your readership. But listen to any successful indie author and you need to listen too to the saga of time spent to find, nurture and hold that readership: much, much greater than writing the books in the first place.

So where does that leave the writer? What to write? How to assess what you’re writing? How to know whether to bother to keep going, or retire from the fray and just write for fun. Find an agent first? Or go straight for a publisher? Go the indie route immediately? Or try the traditional avenues first, and drop back to indie publishing if there are no traditional publishing options on offer. In this risk averse atmosphere, that may not mean you have written a bad book …

You’d think the answers might have changed over the last year or two. I don’t think they have. Here are mine:

Don’t write with the dream of publication as the goal.

Don’t write with your eye on what you hear the bookshops want, or what publishers say they want.

Listen to the voice inside you that’s telling you a story.

Write because you want to tell that story to others.

And (though I say it quietly) don’t have earning a living as the prime reason for writing.

Listen for your voice
Trends and fashions come and go, and one thing is clear, that what goes around comes around, that nothing is for ever, and that what is the rage today is just as likely to wane tomorrow, and what is not noticed today, will be all the rage tomorrow. And anyway, by the time you think you’ve caught up, the bandwagon will definitely have moved on …

In the end, whatever the shape of industry change, it is nothing without the thread that holds a reader, of any age, to the story, in whatever form. Story is still at the heart of it all, and the creators of those stories, and the readers who read them, hear them or watch them. You have to keep your focus on that.

The story is everything

Of course, when you’ve written the story that’s in you – get whatever professional objective guidance you can to help you hone and shape it to perfection: tapping in to the host of networks, conferences, and services now available, to give it the best chance of riding the currents and reaching its readership.

But don’t let that professional world befuddle you about what your story is and why you are writing. Don’t be clouded by the hullabaloo about the changing nature of publishing, and how much you need to understand that before embarking. When all is said and done, none if it is there, none of it works without story, and all that hullabaloo is only about form and the route to put the story in the reader’s hands.

So enter the fray with open eyes. Concentrate on storytelling. Everything else is a by-product.

And any route to the reader is good. And all routes may be different tomorrow.

What a wonderful Easter gift! So many thanks to Beverley for her wisdom and inspiration. Happy Easter, Slushies! Addy

Share buttons bottom