Sunday, 18 September 2011

What authors can learn from musicians in the digital age

One blessing of the recession is that the Co-op won’t start draping tinsel round its Back to School alcove just as soon as those daps sell out. At New Welsh Review, however, September is the new December, since I’ve just edited all twenty-two pieces for the winter issue.

Among these is Rhian Jones’ Leader on musicians, authors and the digital world, in which she acknowledges publishers’ ‘palpable lack of the stricken siege mentality which defined the music industry’s reaction to downloading’ and applauds their ‘surprising shrewdness in [their] appropriation of digital’s potential as well as uncharacteristic speed for an industry which… usually has a turning circle like the Titanic’. One such sponsor-based publishing enterprise is Unbound, modelled on the trendier industry’s PledgeMusic, which promotes interaction between reader and author as well as a Social Network-inspired democracy. It works by posting book proposals online: those ideas (hopefully protected from plagiarism) which do not receive enough individual financial pledges will not see the light of day, and its first title will be by former Monty Python star Terry Jones. Basically a slick update of the eighteenth-century subscriber-book concept, it is interesting nevertheless, especially considering that journals such as Granta have moved in the opposite direction in the hope that by reinventing and distributing their product as a book, they will enhance their primary subscriber-based income.

Rhian, who blogs at, continues in her NWR piece, As the expectation of profit from music is now firmly weighted towards auxiliary activities like touring, merchandise, or sponsorship deals, so the literary establishment might similarly moderate attitudes to profit and fame from producing books per se.’

The reduced scales and margins in Wales are such that ‘fame’ and even ‘profit’ remain fanciful notions for our authors. And yet those who do embrace ‘added-value’ activities, such as touring shops, bookfairs, festivals and schools, are unquestionably more attractive to cash-strapped publishers. Such image-enhancing opportunities, of course, are also offered by literary magazines in the form of extracts, creative work and opinion pieces, as well as the more obvious short-term benefit of reviewing an author’s book.

Ceri Wyn Jones and Fflur Dafydd are two examples of authors who have no qualms about popularising literature through music, schools, festivals and public commissions. The former’s poetry collection Dauwynebog was a Book of the Year nomination; he is a radio and national eisteddfod regular for the crowd-pulling Welsh poetry slams, was Welsh-language Children’s Laureate during 2003-04 and runs children’s and teachers’ workshops nationwide. Singer-songwriter Fflur Dafydd writes in NWR’s current issue about her second English novel (or rather first novella for all you nitpickers), which gives a feminist spin to the Culhwch and Olwen Mabinogion story, as well as satirising the traditional stories' obsession with questing for the perfect wife. The White Trail is published by Seren on 18 October. I was in conversation with both authors together with Caryl Lewis (who heroically attended despite having had her baby daughter eight weeks ago!) in the opening Welsh-language session for PENfro Book Festival this weekend at Rhosygilwen, Cardigan, in front of a packed audience of young adults, teachers and other readers and fans of the authors. Topics covered included writing from your milltir sgwar; the literature teacher as mentor (Ceri sounded far too strict as Fflur's Welsh teacher, even if he was instrumental in her continuing to write in Welsh as well as English); whether Wales' competitive and eisteddfodic traditions benefit literature; set texts, the curriculum and the writer's public role; literature for children, and whether certain jobs (press editor in Ceri's case; creative writing lecturer in Fflur's, and dramatising her collection Plu for TV in Caryl's case) can help or hinder creative work.

NWR also had a stall the following day at the PENfro bookfair: the venue was beautiful, the whole event fantastically organised and great fun. Hopefully next year there'll be more Welsh and a few bigger names on the main day.

Goes to show that Literature Wales can afford to be a bit more generous in support of festivals rather than sticking to their usual policy of covering the bare minimum. Maybe they should push the boat out even further in future and attempt to secure key book festivals and fairs in a more strategic manner across Wales as well as offering realistic support to publishers organising events after a title's launch honeymoon period. Or, dare I say it, the new LW Head, when in post, might sacrifice a few pounds of their advertised salary of £50-£70,000 (£70,000 is nearly £20,000 higher than an Assembly member's pay) and put them towards more generous direct support for writers, together with the proper renumeration of those panel members who decide how to spend the grants for writers' schemes.

A version of this was published in Gwen's Western Mail Insider books column, Saturday 17 September 2011

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Next week's blog: preview of Fflur Dafydd's The White Trail (published 18 October) and review of Christien Gholson's A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind.

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