Friday, 15 October 2010

An author's rant

Night and day..

Please forgive me while I have a rant..

At the LitNet Conference yesterday, I was pleased to see my publishers' managing editor Patsy Horton in the audience, because I had one or two things to say about what I see as a weakness in the publishing system, and I thought, Fair's fair, at least she'll have the chance to come back at me when the discussion is thrown open.

Gifted writer and fearless journalist Malachi O'Doherty was chairing the discussion, entitled 'Ways to Make a Living as a Writer'. He introduced each of the panel in turn - the poet Grainne Tobin, actress and writer Nuala McKeever, and myself; then invited us to say a few words, starting with me.

First of all, can I say that there is no more pleasant team than the team at Blackstaff Press, all of whom I like and respect. And indeed, having talked to other writers, I think that what I have to say might well apply to the industry as a whole. But..

My theme, which I explained was coming from my own rather narrow experience as a recently published writer without an automatic public draw, was that for the publishing process to be successful in terms of maximizing sales, it should involve a chain: writer, agent (if the writer happens to be agented), publisher, publicist (in-house or contracted to the publisher), printer, rep/s (retained by the publisher to get orders from bookshops etc) and booksellers (bricks and mortar and online); that I prefer to think of this as a matrix rather than a chain, which should have good - and ongoing - lines of communication between the constituent parts; that this matrix is too often fractured; and that for whatever reason, the person with most to gain or lose - the only one not on salary or retainer, the author - is often left out of the matrix altogether.

In short, I felt that the author, who will eat, breathe and sleep his creation and who will have made it his business to acquire as good a knowledge as anyone as to who his market is and how to reach it, is too often an undervalued resource, perceived as an interfering amateur, and sidelined, patronised, even bullied by a cabal of industry insiders who sometimes go on the basis of Doctor knows Best: 'We're the professionals, leave it to us.'

I have much, much more to say, but yesterday, by way of illustration, I used the most recent in a number of examples which have done nothing for my blood pressure or, in my opinion, the sales of my books. My first book was recently reprinted for the fourth time. Colour proofs were sent to the publishers as usual, and apparently were good - that's to say, they measured up to the earlier runs, whose production values were excellent. However, when the actual books arrived the covers were colour-saturated. They were dark, cold and uninviting where they should have been light, warm and with, for want of a better word, an 'aspirational' feel. I don't think I need to point out which is which in the photograph. I was disappointed and asked the publishers to return them. There would be no downside for the publishers in terms of cost, as it was the printers' mistake. Admittedly, we were completely out of stock, but I feel the pragmatic solution would have been to hold onto a few copies to satisfy existing and anticipated short-term orders, and send the rest back.

It was the publishers' decision, and they were in a position to favour either the printers or the author. They chose the printers, and at yesterday's discussion I asked the simple question, 'Why?'. Malachi suggested, to applause, that the publisher-author relationship is a love affair while the publisher-printer relationship is a marriage, and I do understand that there will have been commercial considerations in terms of the other contracts which have been given, or will be given, to the same printers. Patsy, to be fair, was fulsome in her appreciation of any author who is proactive, as being an asset to the sales effort, but on this particular issue she could only say that things don't always work out to everyone's satisfaction, and that that's life.

I rest my case.

I'm sufficiently embarrassed by the book's appearance that I won't be taking it to talks etc until this print run works its way through the system. How ridiculous is that? I'm the only person investing ongoing effort in the book, but because I wasn't consulted I'm left with a product I can't stand over. Every book I'm asked to sign will be accompanied by an apology.

I don't expect many people will have got as far as the end of this post, but I feel better for having got it off my chest - blogs are great for that.
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