Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Importance of Ebooks and Online Selling

Over the festive period much has been said about ebooks and online selling, and in particular how rapidly sales are growing in this part of the bookselling market. Responses vary, with me sounding extremely encouraged by this, and some bookshop managers sounding worried – if you look on the Bookseller website you’ll see all sides to the argument.

The truth is that we absolutely need the ebook market to take off – whether we’re authors, publishers or booksellers. The crisis in bookselling is far more extreme than authors and readers realise, and publishers don’t want to dishearten authors by letting them know just how difficult it will be to sell their books should they overcome the first hurdle of getting published.

Ebooks also let publishers take on authors who are difficult to promote, perhaps because they live in another country and aren't available for the many events needed to help a book take off. Or they might write short stories, which are even harder to sell than poetry as there's no network of live events for short story writers. It also means publishers can take on long novels by debut writers, whereas the pagecount usually means the cost of printing and postage can't really be recuperated without a high cover price and/or high sales.

Bookshop managers tend to get defensive when they see the way ebooks are taking off. The Kindle sales this Christmas show that the UK is finally following in the footsteps of the US and the many people getting a Kindle as a present will no doubt follow up by buying some books for it. This is great news for publishers and authors at a time when companies are closing due to the difficulties selling our one product – books.

I do think bookshops can get in on the act too, rather than trying to defend an either/or position where ebooks are seen as killing the traditional bookshop which stocks books in print. There’s no reason why bookshops shouldn’t also have a screen where customers can buy the books they can’t find on the shelves and have them delivered straight from the publisher’s distributor to the customer’s home.

It would be just like buying on any other online bookseller site, but would be managed by the bookshop. And at last we would be able to order literary fiction, poetry and short stories through our high street bookshop if we wanted to, and not just the few they have in stock. Even the excellent bookshops that do stock plenty of poetry and literary fiction can’t stock everything, and they could offer everything publishers have registered on the central Nielsen database. Bookselling websites update automatically by feed from this, so it’s easy to manage.

Bookshop managers also complain that customers say they can get the books cheaper from Amazon, but customers know that Amazon isn’t reliable when it comes to supplying some of the books they take orders for, particularly poetry. Emails arrive for a few weeks saying the book is temporarily out of stock and finally that it’s unavailable. So I would certainly trust a bookshop more. I just feel that bookshops need to see this as an opportunity and adapt more than they’ve been doing so far.

With ebooks it’s tricky at this stage because Amazon dominates the market due to the popularity of the Kindle. But I’m not going to hold that against them and fight them over it. The situation will change. At this stage it’s helpful that Amazon is creating the market with the Kindle and Kindle books. We’d be doing a disservice to our authors if we didn’t go along with that and make all of their books available for the Kindle. Our fiction is all available for Kindle and we’re working hard on getting the poetry perfect at the moment – we didn’t stop over Christmas!

Amazon has a monopoly on Kindle ebook sales. But we’re also working on Epub versions which provide ebooks that can be sold on any website. This will provide even more of an opportunity for bookshops, authors, publishers, and anybody else, to sell direct from their websites. Amazon and Kindle are paving the way but it would be impossible to keep a monopoly in this market. It’s only possible to get an early lead.

What has surprised and encouraged me most this Christmas is seeing how ebooks have levelled the playing field between authors and publishers of all sizes. The major publishers have their huge budgets for promotional activities, which usually crushes others out. It’s impossible for a smaller publisher to get books stocked in bookshops over Christmas when major publishers have bought all the best space and there isn’t even shelf space left for new books by others.

I would have thought this would also affect ebooks and that titles by major publishers would dominate the list of bestselling Kindle books. And yet two out of the top four Kindle titles were by self published authors. They weren’t expensive ($3 and under) but they were for sale, so they weren’t just downloaded because they were free.

While one was a genre novel, and various genres do well on Kindle (it was the crime novel The Abbey by Chris Culver), the other novel sounds like literary fiction - Darcie Chan's The Mill River Recluse. The sales figures are also much higher than you might imagine and the books get into the New York Times bestseller list. High advances will be available from major publishers for those authors next time I think.

I’m not quite sure how these authors managed to compete with the promotional activities of the major publishers but I’ll be researching it in detail. If it really is possible to compete and win with ebooks then that certainly makes a major change in publishing, and we all need to take an interest.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Author Interviews: The Challenge of Live Radio

As authors we all hope our books will get noticed and invitations to be interviewed on radio or television are highly desirable. But I wonder if any authors look forward to these interviews with anything other than dread when the lucky opportunities arise? I have a feeling we all brace ourselves, aware that we could slip up and make complete fools of ourselves by saying the wrong thing live to the listening audience, including people we know.

I could hardly bring myself to say on Facebook that I was on my way this morning, but steeled myself and posted the link, especially as we were giving away five signed copies of the book for the answer to a simple question. You can still find it on the Colourful Radio website if you’d like a shot at winning.

Having spent most of my working life as a journalist I also feel more comfortable asking the questions rather than answering them. Making a guest feel comfortable is what I enjoy doing, and when I’m the interviewer I really enjoy the excitement of live broadcasts. You’re never quite sure where the interview might take you, because an unexpected answer from the guest can totally change the direction of the discussion.

It didn’t help that the Victoria Line was in trouble today, with delays, and I needed to get from north London to Vauxhall in the south in time for my live slot with Rosemary Laryea – a wonderfully professional presenter and interviewer. I got there by the skin of my teeth with just five minutes to spare, and Rosemary chatted to me and did a voice test while playing some of Colourful Radio’s gorgeous music.

The music is right up my street, so that was relaxing, and by the time the track ended we were ready for my first six-minute interview. Rosemary had told me she would then play another track and then we’d have another six-minute chat.

It’s incredible what a professional interviewer can cover in two six-minute conversations. For me it started to feel unreal once the headphones were on and I was trying to answer the unplanned questions without making a mistake. At times like that you go away unsure if you’ve given the right answers.

Usually when interviewed I make the mistake of speaking too fast to try to fit too much in, and I think that’s very hard for the listeners. Perhaps it was the early hour, perhaps it was the relaxing music, or perhaps it was the mantra I’d repeated all the way in the tube – ‘Don’t talk too fast, don’t talk too fast....’ but at least I avoided that pitfall.

It’s so hard to answer questions about a novel and fit your themes into a nutshell, but I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter. With more experience I suppose we can enjoy these chats and just make the most of them.

I had been invited to talk because the Colourful Radio book reviewer had been interested in the theme of homelessness in my novel Everything is Free, and particularly the fact that the main character Mel is a teenage runaway who moves into a shopping centre for warmth and comfort at Christmas.

I’m happy to talk about this theme and to draw attention to this issue. But I was also anxious because homelessness is just one theme in the book and the other major themes include racism and various types of prejudice including the way we view and treat women. One of the characters in the novel is in the BNP, and women are being watched on the sly using the CCTV system, while somebody in the darker corridors is attacking women.

Some of these themes can be difficult to talk about in a short interview, and I was wondering how the book reviewer on a black radio station might respond to my way of covering racism. I was both interested to get that feedback, good or bad, and also nervous. The review will be in another show, and in the meantime this broadcast is on on the Rosemary Laryea page if you click on the show for the 8th of December in the 11am slot.

I’m glad I did it and I’m glad it’s over!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Sponsorship: Why We Sometimes Have to Turn it Down

When Alice Oswald withdrew from the T S Eliot prize this week she attracted attention to what I feel will be a growing dilemma in publishing. I believe that sponsorship is an important way to move forward for those in the arts who have lost their funding, or who are starting new ventures with little chance of funding. But when we accept sponsorship we need to be very careful about who we are prepared to take finance from.

For Oswald, the sponsorship of an investment company involved in hedge funds was unacceptable. Soon after she stepped down from her place on the shortlist she was joined by John Kinsella, who left for the same reason. Perhaps by the time you read this more of the poets will have stepped aside. The shortlist is getting ever shorter, and I wonder if any poets have ever withdrawn from the T S Eliot prize before – it has long been considered one of the most prestigious awards in the poetry world.

I feel that sponsorship can work and we do invite this kind of funding at Ward Wood Publishing. However, I’ve talked to my publishing partner Mike Fortune-Wood and we both understand that we can’t take funding from just anybody. We don’t have adverts for all and sundry on our website, but we do talk to sponsors we would be happy to have associated with our name, and with our authors’ names. Reputation is so important in publishing and writing: it takes a lifetime to build and a moment to lose.

The Americans I’ve been involved with for years because of my nonprofit writing projects have shown me how they manage by attracting sponsorship, and I know it can work for small and large projects in publishing and the arts in the UK. This doesn’t have to be a large investment from one big sponsor – often they accumulate the finance they need from a number of smaller investors, including individuals just chipping in a little. I often chip in myself if the project is a good one.

The larger the amount sponsored, the more rewards the sponsor gets – usually including the publicity of having their name displayed as a generous patron of the arts. Smaller investors get other incentives – from the good feeling associated with making an arts project possible, to having some free tickets, or even greater benefits. I think all of this works well and is a good way to go. There are even websites dedicated to helping you raise funding in this way. If you know of any, please do post the links in a comment.

I do always want to reserve the right to turn sponsors down if I don’t want to be associated with their type of activity, or if I feel they’re offering me money because they want an exchange of favours I’m not prepared to take part in. Sometimes you don’t know what the exchange of favours will be, and sometimes you just have to be aware that the investor is giving you the feeling that they will one day ask for something in return. This can also be the case when people offer voluntary assistance with the workload. I’ve sometimes learnt the hard way over the years and it’s vital to make it clear from the outset that there is no exchange of favours. Sometimes I have to avoid some offers of voluntary help, much as it’s needed.

The Poetry Book Society seems to have made an error of judgement by accepting this sponsorship. On their site they have a message saying how gratified they have been to receive it for the next three years, and they have stuck to the decision by saying other arts projects also receive funding from similar businesses.

But if two out of ten poets on the shortlist have left because of this, then it’s clear that authors want ethics to be taken into consideration when sponsorship is arranged. Citing other festivals, literary prizes and projects that accept similar funding only draws our attention to the fact that we should probably be looking more closely at them too.

It’s a pity this has happened after a year in which we jumped quickly to help the Poetry Book Society when they lost their Arts Council funding. It puts the other poets on the shortlist on the spot, and it puts publishers like me on the spot too. It makes us realise we have to question the sponsorship behind projects we’re involved with.

It also makes all of the shortlisted poets, and us, think about whether or not we can continue our association with this award. Should we put our poets forward for the seasonal selections at the Poetry Book Society, seeing as any chosen will be considered for the T S Eliot prize? With two walkouts this year so far, we would really need to check with poets to see if they want their books to be submitted. Perhaps we shouldn’t make this decision as publishers, but let individual authors decide what to do.

The discussion among poets on social networks has divided opinion, although there’s a strong reaction against having sponsorship from a business involved with hedge funds. Some say that the loss of Arts Council funding means the T S Eliot Prize is at risk of closure if poets turn their backs on it in this way. But the prize is supplied by the T S Eliot estate, and the funding is for managing the award. Surely an ethical investor could be found, or a number of sponsors each providing some of the finance needed.

I do feel at times like this that I’d like more transparency and to see exactly how much money is spent and how. I don’t see how else I can decide whether or not an important literary prize is at risk of closure. I find it very hard to believe that it is. Arts Council funding may have been lost, but Arts Council funding is a privilege rather than a right and projects should always plan ways to manage without it.

There are so many people who work in poetry for little or no income, or finance publishing companies and other ventures because they believe in the importance of this artistic form. It’s hard to convince the poetry world that accepting sponsorship from sources they feel to be unethical is necessary just because the sums need to add up. It depends how much money you decide you need in a budget for each project, and if ethical sources aren’t available to pay the amount you want this means that the budget and the working methods have to change.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Mutual Support for Publishers and Authors: Bring and Buy Tables at All Events

There’s a serious crisis in bookselling. We do all know this but I wonder sometimes if people realise quite how serious it is.

As authors we’re artists, of course, and many independent publishers are also authors who are in this to keep outlets open for writers – I was told many years ago that you can’t make a business out of poetry and it’s true. As authors and publishers we have one product – books – and if they don’t sell then there’s no way to finance print runs. It’s as simple as that.

You might think this doesn’t matter, and that ebooks are the way to go. You may dislike the words ‘business’ and ‘finance’ used when talking about artistic creation. But if we want to keep printed books going we do need to look at ways to get enough sales to pay for the print runs.

Even if publishers choose to use print-on-demand, books do need to be printed in quantity because most authors and publishers tell me that 90% of poetry books sell at events. So you do need to have a stock, and print-on-demand can actually work out more expensive.

One way of increasing sales and keeping print runs going is by providing mutual support at events. Publishers and authors can work together, and not in competition, to try to get those essential sales to keep trickling along. This isn’t unusual in small press publishing, but we can find more ways to do it.

The first Poetry Book Fair in London this year showed how well this can work. Charles Boyle of CB Editions had the idea and was surprised by how many independent publishers wanted to book a table and a reading slot at the event. Even though it wasn’t an easy venue to get to, the fair was packed from morning to evening and people were buying books.

It was also great fun and wonderful to get together with such a great bunch of publishers, poets and book buyers. We don’t have many chances to see each other all in the same room for a day.

The only downside was that we really need this to be happening more regularly. I’m going to be drawing more attention to the ‘bring and buy’ book table at the Friday Night Writers events I organise in London, so that more audience members realise they can bring along any books they have published (or magazines). These can be displayed alongside the books brought by the main performers at each event.

So, events can be like a small market. It’s possible to set out a couple of books at a time, with more in your bag to replenish the stock if and when your books sell. Audience members can also make announcements about other relevant news items such as competitions they’re organising, or their own events. They can display flyers on the table.

Although I set up Ward Wood Publishing with Mike Fortune-Wood in summer 2010, I’ve been working on writing projects for much longer than that, and the events I hold are to support a variety of publishers and authors rather than just our own company – this has always been my approach on other ventures. Most of the authors who have been booked to read at Friday Night Writers in Swiss Cottage Library have come from other publishing companies.

It’s expensive for publishers and authors to find a venue or to get booked in London, so I’m hoping this helps. I would love to hear about more similar projects all around the UK and Ireland – and our authors do travel, particularly to the US, so do let me know about any venues there. The Twisted Pepper and the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin are two particularly good venues which have been approachable for new authors.

I don’t have any funding for the events, so can’t cover travel costs or pay a fee, but authors have found it a useful venue when they’re passing through London, and with two events a month I’ve managed to fit them in on convenient dates. This has the added advantage of bringing together authors from various regions – it’s surprising how regional we can become at times, especially in the poetry world.

I don’t believe the saying ‘Poetry is a small world and everybody knows everybody’. It’s easy to become part of a clique and not see the poets who are just off our radar. Making events open to authors from different publishers, and from different regions – even if they aren’t people who can normally support the event – can put a larger number of authors on to our radar. We can never know all the good poets who are out there.

I keep mentioning poetry, but the same is true of literary fiction, and it would be good to see an independent publishers’ fair that included both fiction and poetry. Many presses publish both forms, and it’s hard to help novelists get started because they lack the network of open mics and events that’s so well established and helpful to poets.

There is the opportunity to read fiction at Friday Night Writers, but I need to ask for maximum 500 words now due to the popularity of the event. With the event anthology there’s another chance to support a variety of publishers as well as aspiring writers. Authors can read from a published book at the Friday Night Writers open mic, and they can submit a published piece of writing to be considered for the annual event anthology. This would mean a credit for the published book should their submission be selected.

The next event is on Friday December 9th, with Sue Rose as the main reader, and open mic with a chance to submit to the annual anthology. As it’s our last Friday Night Writers before Christmas it’s a good chance to have a bit of a ‘bring and buy’ book market, so don’t be shy about bringing along some books to display. If you set them out a couple at a time we’ll have space for everybody. And there will be mince pies and other goodies too!

By keeping admission free, and by charging just £1 for wine (proceeds go to the library user group fund) I hope the event is accessible to everybody, and also that it’s more tempting for audience members to buy a book from the table – by whichever authors and publishers appeal most.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Publishing and Charities: Supportive or Exploitative?

As a publisher supporting a charity at events and also with a competition offering publication of a short collection to the winner I’m very aware of the dangers if this is handled in the wrong way. Publishing can really help a charity – the Lumen/Camden Poetry Competition attracted more than 1,000 entries in its first year and raised more than £2,000 for the homeless in two North London Cold Weather Shelters.

Sales of the short collection we published for the winner (An Apple Tree Spouts Philosophy) are still adding to that figure, and the competition also helped launch the winner Caroline Squire as a poet who deserved to have a book out and to be noticed.

I was immediately approached by agencies wanting to manage this competition and publication for us, which draws attention to the fact that there’s money to be made from such ventures. Of course I didn’t accept these offers. None of the organisers of this competition take a penny in income, so there would be no commission for an agency.

The idea for the competition came from Ruth O’Callaghan, the poet who runs the twice-monthly Lumen and Camden Poetry Series of events, combining poetry performance by published poets with open mic from the audience and the chance to submit to her annual charity anthology. These events and anthology add about £4,000 more to the total raised for the homeless.

All of this raises a high percentage of the money needed to keep the Cold Weather Shelters going – the last time I heard it was 60% and I’m sure it’s still growing. So it’s a good thing when publishers support charities, isn’t it? Or are there mistakes that can be made?

An article in The Big Issue this week reminded me of the risks, and I’m more than aware of them already. In the article readers were warned about online sellers offering Christmas cards to support charities. Even the reputable shops selling greetings cards for charities typically give only 20-25% to the cause, perhaps less. At the most, a good retailer like WH Smith, might give 70%.

This is often used purely as a way of boosting sales, and a number of the online sellers pay a minimal 1% to the charities. So, supporting a charity can be part of a marketing drive, rather than a genuine effort to help.

As publishers, authors, and book buyers we need to be aware of this, and as competition entrants too. When we see that a competition, an anthology asking for submissions, or any book is being sold in aid of a charity, we need to know how much of the income is actually going to be handed over.

As a publisher I’m very aware that I could get this wrong, and the only way I can see of doing it is if we take absolutely nothing for Ward Wood Publishing and give all proceeds to the charity. Carol Ann Duffy takes no fee for judging the competition, and Ruth O’Callaghan also works with me at organising the entries and passing them on. Taking no income from charity work does simplify matters.

I do understand why publishers sometimes take a commission for this work and I don’t blame them for it. The work involved in organising and promoting the competition was pretty heavy. I was worn out by the time the deadline arrived. If you don’t keep promoting a competition you risk getting too few entries and we wanted to raise as much as possible for the charity.

The entries had to be accepted, entrants advised that their entry had been received if they paid and submitted via the website, and all entries passed to Ruth O’Callaghan who then organised it for Carol Ann Duffy. The number of entries as the deadline approached meant I was dealing with a huge amount of email.

But I’m not sure a commission based on a percentage of fees or sales is the right way to respond to this kind of workload. Generally, when publishers produce anthologies for charities, they might charge a 30% admin fee. I’m not sure how much agencies charge to organise this for a publisher. When we were organising the competition last year people told me I should be taking this fee.

I wouldn’t have felt happy about taking £600 from the £2,000 we raised, because I don’t think people entering a charity competition would be expecting that, so I didn’t want to take the standard 30% admin fee. People want their entry fees to go to the charity. I think people would accept specific costs being taken from the entry fee, such as printing and postage. We did calculate just over £100 for this as these are unavoidable costs and we arranged as low a fee with the printer as we could.

It’s better to detail these costs and explain clearly how much is to be taken out of the proceeds. A 30% admin fee could be very little, or it could be way too much in the case of a successful competition like ours. It wouldn’t cover the hours we have to spend working on it, but I’m not comfortable taking an income from any charity project.

Of course, this means we can’t do too many. We can probably only do one or two because the work has to be completely voluntary. But, in my opinion, this is the only way to go. People may disagree with me. It might be that it’s seen to be a good idea for publishers to make income from taking a percentage from charity publications, and agencies may also be welcome.

Charity anthologies do offer all the writers submitting a chance to get into print. They can supply some income for the publisher – perhaps a reasonable amount to cover the hours spent working. And they support the charities.

All opinions would be welcome on this subject. I’ve been careful about it since my first collection was accepted in the 1980s and I wanted to support the homeless in a Kilburn soup kitchen and hostel with a percentage of the sales income. The publisher advised me not to, as he said too many people did it and it could look like a marketing ploy to increase my sales.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Occupy Books: A Naughty Suggestion

There’s a simple solution that can help us fight the way we’re going to have heavily marketed books thrust in our faces in bookshops and supermarkets all through the gift-giving season. It’s a bit naughty but could be a fun idea for the weekend. It’s the book-lover's silent but effective protest.

What you do is this. You go into the bookshop, careful not to look with distaste at the piles of books in prominent positions on the display tables. Just saunter along as you would usually and browse along a few shelves, picking out books at random and putting them back.

Then find a book you really admire and spend a little time with it. Wander along and select another. As you dilly dally along with your books, with that ‘Shall I buy?’ look on your face, choose an opportune moment and stick your favourite book on top of one of the piles on the best display table.

This works very well for novels and nonfiction. You might even want to put a cookbook with tasty recipes on top of Jamie Oliver’s barely edible inventions. Poetry is a bit more tricky.

If you can find the poetry books you like – in fact if you can find the poetry section at all (it will be very small and tucked away in a back corner or downstairs) you probably can’t get away with moving a book to the prime positions in the shop.

What you can do is take out the book you like best, read the blurb innocently, and put it back leaning against the others with its cover showing instead of spine only. It will look so nice like that. If you’re feeling very naughty you might find they have some special little stands tucked among the poetry books to display the usual suspects well and you can trump them with your selection.

Of course, you’re likely to find that the poetry collections you would most like to see displayed aren’t in the shop at all. Bookshops rarely take poetry, they dedicate a tiny set of shelves to it, and they’re unlikely even to take a good book sale or return. The shelves are crammed too tight already so they want to offload poetry whenever possible.

The only naughty answer to this is to follow the instructions in the Ann Drysdale poem ‘Between Dryden and Duffy’. Do Google it for the best methods – it’s one of the funniest comedy sonnets I’ve seen.

The poet in the poem looks along the shelf for her book, and when she doesn’t find it she clears that space between Dryden and Duffy and inserts one from her supermarket carrier bag. Of course, not all poet’s names fall into such a great position by happy accident.

So there are ways to get real books displayed. The prime display positions in the bookshops have been marked out and are all nicely prepared waiting for your choices. Something naughty to do at the weekend? I’m not going to admit if I’m already doing it.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Occupy Books. Celebrity Authors or Real Books?

OK, I know some celebrity authors can write and some of their books are good. But after yesterday’s post people complained at the way the market this season is dominated by highly publicised books that will probably never be read – not even by the ‘authors’ as so many are ghostwritten. These books are just bought as easy and lazy gifts at the last minute. I thought I’d add some statistics to this about how publishing and bookselling trends affect authors and what we can do about it.

I admit these statistics were gleaned from the One Show (a popular evening chat show on BBC One, if you’re not familiar with UK television). This made it more comical for me, because Gyles Brandreth revealed some figures about aspiring authors, rejection figures, and who gets published and paid for books. He did all of this with celebrity author Celia Imrie beside him, just about to plug her book.

Gyles answered the question many people ask me – which is ‘How many people can actually make a living out of writing books?’ I’ve always made my living out of writing as a journalist and nonfiction book author, as well as working in publishing as an editor and now a publisher. But they mean books of fiction or poetry.

He revealed that 95% of books submitted to publishers are rejected. Of the 5% that get accepted, 75% of the authors will earn less than £20,000 per year for their book (and most books only sell well in the first year). £20,000 might still sound reasonable, but really the vast majority of these authors will be doing well if they sell between 1,000-3,000 books per year. That’s the usual figure, and I’ve heard that even with a major publisher, the debut novel can be expected to sell about 500 copies.

So, about 5% of authors who submit to publishers will be accepted, and they are most likely going to sell fewer than 3,000 books. Even if they get royalties of 10% of the cover price and the book sells for £10, this would be less than £3,000 income. But most contracts with major publishers aren’t based on 10% of the cover price. All costs are taken off first and you get a percentage of the profit.

A while ago I posted about literary agents and the kind of advance they told me they go for. The agent I spoke to is very good and aims for a £25,000 advance for authors as her income comes purely from a percentage of what the author is paid by the publisher, if she succeeds in getting authors signed. This is standard – if you get an agent they manage your income by receiving it from the publisher, taking off their commission, and paying you.

But usually an advance is £5,000 or less. The book sales have to pay back the advance to the publisher before any additional income is paid, and you can see by the average sales figures that this is quite hard to achieve.

Gyles finished off by saying what happens to so many of the books that are published but don’t sell in large enough quantities. They are used in the construction of motorways and he said how many miles they were supporting, but sadly I can’t remember. Apparently they form a good, shock absorbent type of support.

I do hear people saying they think much of this is new, but I first worked as a fiction reviewer and an editor in the early 1980s and I was told even then about the massive quantities of books that were published only to be pulped. Authors are just becoming more aware of the facts nowadays, probably due to more information being available online.

At the end of his commentary, Gyles pointed out that publishers were more likely to take on authors who were already celebrities. They’re easier to sell. It was quite a comical introduction to Celia Imrie talking about her new book and her mouth was in a very uncomfortable attempt at a polite smile. I must confess, I've read some of her book and she's very good.

I’m not against celebrity authors, because publishers and bookshops say they provide enough finance for a lot of their other work. Celebrity authors could help support the publishing of less commercial books, and could also help publishers take a risk on authors.

Bookshops do have limits due to shelf space – a problem I’ve only realised to be significant over the past year. They can’t just take a risk on a book that’s good even if it’s sale or return. They always want sale or return, and they don’t have space.

The figures shouldn’t be depressing. When rejection slips come in, they need to be cast aside quickly and not be offputting. It’s hard to get published, and it’s even harder for those published books to sell in order to stay on a publisher’s list. We all keep writing anyway.

We shouldn’t see publishers as the judges of whether or not our writing is good, but we often do. We certainly shouldn’t judge by how much our book sells either, or all poets would stop writing.

All of this does mean that independent publishers and truly independent bookshops need to be supported if we want publishing outlets for debut novelists, poets, and risk-taking authors. The only way this can happen is if they’re supported by buyers.

Major publishers poach safe bet authors from each other – or so the literary agent told me – and they also poach from independent publishers. To keep opportunities open for authors I suggest looking at the good independent publishers and bookshops this season.

Sorry to repeat this bit, but I’m not saying this to promote my company or any specific company. In fact suggestions for good listings of independents and good review sites would be welcome.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Occupy Books. Do We Want Our Books on Prescription?

This week I found out that a high street bookseller who always stocks our latest books can’t take any books released by us this season. They want to stock the books and have asked me to come back after Christmas, when they will be able to stock them.

This was a bit of a shock, because of course this is one of them main times of the year when people will be looking for books as gifts. The manager liked our books – she wanted our books – but she told me that at the moment ‘It’s all prescribed’.

I looked into this and found out that major publishers pay to have their books stocked at Christmas, and the evasive word for this is that the books have been ‘prescribed’. Even publishers who normally get their books stocked will be turned at the door until this favourable time for bookselling has passed.

So, if you go into the main bookshops for your gifts, you’ll be getting them on prescription. The major publishers have paid to have certain books not only thrust in your face, but also to have other books kept out of stock until January.

We all know this happens to a certain extent all year – that the books on the best display tables have been paid for, and that the others only have their spines showing on shelves.

But I didn’t realise books that the shop managers would like to stock are turned away completely over Christmas because they haven’t been ‘prescribed’ with a hefty payment from the publisher.

This doesn’t just include books from smaller presses. It includes books in the mid-list from major publishers. The publishers decide which books we should be offered based on what they think can sell in large numbers, and they publicise those books in a number of ways to make sure people want them.

We know which books those are. Their celebrity authors have been appearing on TV chat shows recently. No doubt there will also be some good novels, but what there won’t be is a good range of choice and books stocked according to what the bookshop manager and buyers select on merit.

It’s always hard for me to get poetry books into these main bookshops, but they will support local poets so long as we have all our books in their centralised system, and we do. They do support all of our novels by stocking them, and also the Bedford Square 5 anthology. Just not while the books are stocked on prescription.

I’m not saying this in order to say ‘Buy my book’ or ‘Buy from my publishing company’ and I wouldn’t want Occupy Books to be a protest that’s exploited purely for marketing.

The only way to show how we feel about what one person called ‘corruption in publishing and bookselling’ when he explained prescription to me, is not to support the shops doing this and to look for books in a different way.

If you want to answer this post with suggestions, please don’t point to your own publishing company or book. Perhaps show good review sites about books from independent presses. Perhaps take a look on the websites of a number of independent publishing companies and buy direct from the publisher.

Or contact some of your favourite authors on Facebook and ask to buy signed copies direct from them. We can also ‘buy local’ and ‘buy direct’ for our books, if we don’t want them on prescription.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Fancy a Sing-Song?

I finally took the plunge and joined Rock Choir today, and I must say it felt pretty nerve-wracking going along to the first taster session. Singing is something I’ve always loved, but I’m not sure people have always loved my singing. At school I was first to dash enthusiastically to ask to join any choirs and I’d sing my heart out in the front line – where I was put due to my tiny height as a child rather than any special skills.

My mother was always quick to point out every error after performances, but that didn’t stop me until teenage years made me that bit more easily embarrassed. Having my own children and taking them to music school for years got me singing again. I’m aware of my limitations though. I’m only any good in the mid-range and definitely can’t reach those high notes.

One of my friends at the Camden Poetry Series of open mics told me about Rock Choir last year. He hadn’t been coming to the poetry events for a while then turned up looking ten years younger and full of joie de vivre. He had recently married his gay partner, who also looked pretty pleased with himself, and I thought it was due to their honeymoon period. But no – he told me it was all down to his new passion for singing.

I looked up Rock Choir on YouTube and saw him singing in his local choir. There are Rock Choirs in many towns, and three in my local area, so I’m very lucky. There’s something about the whole Rock Choir idea that’s making it take off in a big way.

The final factor in making me join was that I realised I wanted one of the characters in my novel to join Rock Choir. Her teenage daughter is discovering a new form of youth feminism, and she herself needs to feel a bit more free. The theme of feminism is treated with comedy which has an underlying seriousness, and the ‘learning to sing’ theme is a tribute and echo of Erica Yong’s iconic ‘Fear of Flying’.

So I needed to do a bit of research by getting some Rock Choir experience myself. I’m so glad I did. There are morning, early and late evening choirs in my area, but I chose the morning one in Hampstead as I like to spend dinner-time with my two sons. People look at me a bit confused when I say early and late evening outings clash with ‘family dinner-time’. Is it really such a bygone idea? I do go out on Fridays to the open mics I either organise or help with, and I think that’s enough. We have a pizza or takeaway on those days.

But I was a bit worried in case the morning sessions had poor attendance – and was pleasantly surprised to find a lively group there. Rock Choir Hampstead is in the lovely Quaker Meeting House on Heath Street. It’s a building I’ve always wanted to look inside. The atmosphere is lovely with a view out and down the hill over Hampstead rooftops.

More importantly it was incredibly friendly. The sign-up online worried me as it said my free taster session wouldn’t guarantee me a place in a choir, although I could try out a number of choirs before choosing. What did this mean? Could I be turned down? Would I have to audition? Might my voice go all ‘pitchy’ with nerves, as they say on X Factor?

A friendly follow-up email reassured me. It told me I wouldn’t have to audition and that the session was for me to decide if Rock Choir was for me rather than vice versa. I was also told that somebody would be there to greet me, which she did, and she also seated me with somebody for the session.

We also get put into a section that suits our voices. I can’t hit the high notes so I was put in the lower alto group, and I was told I could move about if my voice wasn’t comfortable in that range. Each song gets taught by the teacher at the front, who has a keyboard and also a backing track. The teacher was highly skilled and could sing from bass to soprano, giving each of us an example of how to sing our parts.

Sometimes people think they can’t sing because at school we’ve had to try to hit the full range of notes. I was at an all girls’ school and the majority of the girls sang so high I really thought I was incapable. I just can’t get up there with my voice, but I can sing bass and lower alto. It was so lovely to be taught songs in a way that let me harmonise easily.

It does feel like being part of a professional choir, and the teaching is also professional but friendly. In fact the friendliness of the whole choir was more than I expected. Next week is the last of this term and we’re all going to have coffee together after the session. The group didn’t make me feel self-conscious as a newcomer, and most of them wanted to come and chat a little. I’ll be going along to Hampstead on Sunday to see them performing the songs they’ve perfected as the Christmas lights go on.

The morning session is much more popular with women, although there was one very happy looking man. I know the early and late evening sessions in my area attract even more people (there were about twenty at mine so there must be quite a large crowd at the others) and there are more people who work outside the home plus more men. So I’m sure everybody can find a choir to suit them – if you’re tempted.

I did sing along today although I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, and I’ll leave the dance steps until I feel I can co-ordinate myself when singing. They aren’t hard dance steps and more of a swingalong as you singalong. If you take a look on YouTube you’ll see. I think I’ll position myself at the back in any performances.

Joining was a good decision. I’m going to download the songs online and get myself ready for next week when we’re also starting to learn a new song. Today’s songs were Something Inside So Strong, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Valerie, Build Me Up Buttercup, and Anytime You Need a Friend. They say the songs are Motown, Pop and Gospel, and normally you get a number of sessions to learn each song.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Dear Publisher: Is it worth investing in an author website?

My feeling is that a blog is more useful to authors than a website. It's also a good idea to set a day of the week when you commit to writing a blog post so that it's regular.

With a blog you can post a link on Facebook and other places, and people can interact with you. Seeing how you write on the blog also gives them an indication about whether or not they might like your writing style and empathise with your ideas.

You shouldn't be put off blogging if you don't see many people following your blog, because they might read it but not follow, and I know I have people who follow anonymously. You will also find they probably mainly answer your blog posts on Facebook when you post the link from there. So you might not get many comments on your blog, and that doesn't matter.

A website is a much more static affair. It has information and people will go for that, but you can find it's harder to get traffic to a website because it isn't updating as much as a blog. They will also only follow a link to a blog if you've written something that intrigues them, so it's not just about updating regularly.

With a website the information tends to be about the author, and there are so many authors out there trying to ask people to look at their websites and examples of their writing. So you have to tempt them in via a blog. They might then follow the link to your website.

All of these things work together - Facebook and other social networks, a blog, your website and your publisher's website. They should all be interlinked so people get interested by something you say and then follow the links.

We put a detailed author page on our Ward Wood website too, which also links to the author blogs, Facebook and Twitter pages, and websites. Plus we link to any videos and examples of work, and the book sales of course.

I'm not sure how worthwhile it is to invest in a website if you mean you intend to pay a designer. As authors we are constantly being approached by people who want to be hired for this work.

I've never had an author website myself as it has always felt like just one more place to try to attract traffic and the advice I've usually been given is to try to keep everything in one place online if it's possible. It isn't possible so I just try to narrow down the number of places people need to look for my information.

For the same reason I haven't set up book pages or a fan page on Facebook as I try to keep everything in one place - although I need a separate group page for Ward Wood and also for one of the Lumen and Camden Poetry series of events I help with (groups are needed to send invitations).

People who ask to be hired to work on author publicity tend to spend time setting up an author page on Facebook and book fan pages but I'm still to be convinced they actually help. I'm not always convinced hired publicists understand the best use of Facebook for authors.

I'm a fan of Kazuo Ishiguro on Facebook as he's too famous to be able to be on there personally, but I'm not sure fan pages for all authors serve a purpose. People want to follow us on one page - our main page I think.

Of course if you do have a website it will say as much about you as the cover design of your books. Will it be minimalist, with a pared down design that tells the world you're a literary writer? Will it be glossy and full of frills and show you're a commercial writer? Are you a bestselling author with readers who will expect an expensive looking design, or a poet whose readers really don't expect that? Or are you aspiring to be a bestselling author so it helps to look like one? Once you start getting into website design all sorts of factors have to be taken into account.

Readers don't have the same expectations about a blog - they want to see what you have to say, and if you're good at illustrating with artwork and photos then all the better. You need to ask yourself if you need a professionally designed website to reflect who you are as a writer, or is it enough to create what you need using Wordpress?

I don't think a website can hurt unless the design puts you in a category of writing you don't want to be involved in, and neither can a fan page or book page on Facebook - so long as we don't keep asking people to look at them as that just sounds like such a huge number of authors saying 'look at me and my writing' rather than 'I have this post on my blog which might be of interest to you.' It doesn't have to be about books and publishing. You may have something unique about your lifestyle and you can let us into it.

It can feel and look narcissistic to ask people just to come and look at us and our work. To have interaction with people online we have to genuinely be offering something they want and need, and we can do that with a blog. Of course, I also think we're offering something they want and need when we offer our books, but they'll decide for themselves which authors and publishers they like enough and they will buy their books.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Dear Publisher: My Present Publisher Isn’t Selling Enough of My Books

There are some questions I get asked so regularly as a publisher that I’ve decided it’s best to answer them on my blog so I can point the enquirers to the answers, and also I think these must be the questions in many people’s minds.

Published authors from large and small publishing houses ask me why their books aren’t selling well enough – although the question is always framed to put the blame with their publisher.

What they want is to move to a publishing company they can see puts effort into promotional activities and also actively approaches bookshops to try to get authors on to their shelves.

These authors will often say their sales figures stick at about 100 books and they ask me if they should change publisher seeing as that figure isn’t high enough.

The answer depends on what exactly has been done by both the publisher and the author and why the figure has stuck at this level. Sales figures for poetry are known to be low, but authors can be surprised at how low the sales figures can be for a debut novel, even with a major publisher.

A literary agent and a literary publicist told me a debut novel with a major publisher may typically sell about 500 copies. Hopefully with subsequent novels that figure should grow, or the publishing house may need to end the contract. An independent press would keep an author on their list with sales at this level.

Authors can think that their publisher isn’t repping the books to shops if they don’t see them on the shelves, and they may think the publisher hasn’t promoted enough if the books don’t sell. But publishers often do a lot of this work without giving the authors details, particularly when submitting books for prizes as it could cause bad feeling among the authors if it’s known who was and who wasn’t put forward for an award.

The first thing an author may know from a major publisher could be that they have been shortlisted. Should publishers keep authors more informed? Or might it be more disappointing to know how much work is done if the results are not too good? I keep our authors well informed about everything we do. But I wonder if, for authors in general, it can be nice not to know the massive promotional effort publishers put in so that the publisher can be blamed for low sales.

The main publishers do also have a whole process for preparing Advance Information sheets and sending reps round to bookshops to show them what’s on offer (you can see examples of AI sheets on each author page on our website - they all have AI sheet links). The bookshops turn down most of the books repped to them. It’s incredibly hard even for a major publisher to get books into shops, where customers are likely to go in looking for the main names and titles.

But managers are likely to take books by authors who have a connection to the local area, and the automated system for ordering means you can just show them your book and they can click and order it at their till. I know I’m repeating this, but it’s less daunting than you think to take your book into bookshops and talk to the buyer. I’ve never been turned down yet if there’s a reason why a book is relevant to the shop I’m approaching.

If a book sells that first hundred then the publisher has launched and promoted it, but the publicity department will stop after a while and move on to the new season’s offerings. They will also be asked to focus on the books that seem to have most chance of taking off. So it does become the author’s task to focus on keeping the sales momentum going. At this point, authors write to me to say their publisher isn’t organising enough events for them. I’ve heard this about both large and small publishing companies.

It surprises me that so many authors feel this is something they should wait at home for until the publishers arrange events and send them the bookings. As an author I had always assumed this was my task, and it is down to authors to keep themselves as actively involved with events, book groups, talks, literary festivals and so on as they can.

A publisher will help out with this. I do contact the literary festivals and will try to get bookings for our authors. But as an individual author it’s likely you’ll do much better by contacting directly – if the publisher phones event organisers and festivals they will get bookings for the authors on the list who catch the eye of the bookings manager and that might not be you.

At Ward Wood we do hold very regular events both for our authors and for authors from other publishers for mutual support, and this does help out as it can be difficult and expensive for authors to get bookings and venues in London. The promotion around an event also helps an author’s name get known. I heard this week that one of the main independent presses (with books in many bookshops) gets 90% of all sales at events, so this shows how important they are.

Even if sales are low at events – and bookselling is hard anywhere – getting articles about each event into local newspapers and on listings sites does get your name seen regularly so that people know that you and your book exist.

I’ve concentrated on fiction in this piece because poetry has its own particular difficulties but as it has always been hard to sell there are also ways to help your book along. I’ll write about poetry soon in another post. However, many of these points are equally true of poetry.

One main difference is that poetry mainly sells at events with few sales from other sources, and sales at events aren't high either, so the effort is much greater. For those with stage fright it is possible to get involved in other ways, perhaps organising events for others (which I like to do)or a very good blog could help.

The fact is that, no matter how great the promotional effort from a poetry press, the sales figures will be in the low hundreds and about 90% of all books sold will be at events. There's no strong reason to move from one poetry press to another as you will be responsible for this 90% of sales no matter which publisher you choose. However, if you have other reasons for leaving a poetry press then it's a good idea to be with one known for good promotion because your name will be more widely seen. It's not just about sales, but also about building a reputation.

The brief answer to people who approach me saying their publisher has only sold 100 copies of their book, hasn’t got it into bookshops and doesn’t arrange events for them, is simple. As this usually comes with an approach to me as a potential publisher the fact is that the sales figure worries me, and not because the other publisher might be to blame.

I would be worried that the author hasn’t found ways to approach bookshops, to organise events, to create a popular blog, to build a Facebook following, to answer posts on high traffic websites (they let you link your name back to your own website which really helps), to do every single thing that helps a novel make that leap from being in the lower hundreds to 500 or more.

And maybe with enough effort a novel could make that magic leap and really take off. But not if the author is saying ‘Why isn’t somebody doing this for me?’ I work extremely hard to promote our authors and to rep their books to shops and organise events. I expect authors to work just as hard at it because it’s a collaboration.

Some authors are lucky and a debut novel is the one a major publishing company puts a massive promotional effort into and it takes off. Everything is done for the novelist. But for most of us getting up above the lower hundreds in sales takes a phenomenal effort and getting published is only the first hurdle. Getting the book to sell is the hardest part – harder even than writing the book, which we all know is extremely difficult.

I’ve been impressed by the mid-list authors from major publishers who have approached me when moving down to an independent seeing as their sales figures don’t reach the high targets expected. They have a real focus on approaching bookshops and giving events, and getting into the press and media.

I know it sounds like hard work and impossible, but writing a book feels like that too, and so does attracting a publisher. We can try to increase our sales figures with the same determination we put into the other tasks needed to be an author.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Why An Advance Can Ruin An Author

I know a few literary agents but I had never heard what one told me recently: that an advance can ruin an author and make it hard for them to keep getting published. The irony is that agents need to go for an advance and a good financial deal because their income is a percentage drawn from the author’s earnings. The way to have your novel considered by a major publisher is by getting an agent to take you on, so there’s no way to avoid the problems an advance can cause.

There are a few major publishers who will consider novels without an agent (Macmillan New Writers and Canongate are two, and Snowbooks is another though not so well known). It’s worth looking at the Macmillan New Writers and Snowbooks websites for advice on how to submit. But the usual route to a major publisher is by finding an agent, and novelists often dream of that high advance as their first step into success as an author.

So how could an advance ruin an author? The literary agent explained that an advance is exactly what its name implies – an advance on your earnings. You don’t get paid any more until your book sales earn more than the figure of your advance – and for many authors this doesn’t happen. If your book sales bring in less than you’ve been paid as an advance, not only is the publisher unlikely to offer future contracts, but also other major publishers will judge you by this track record.

Advances of around £25,000 still represent a reasonable amount to expect, but how easy is it for a debut novelist to surpass that in actual sales? Some novels take off and do earn far more than the advance but, from what I hear, even with major publishers sales of under 1,000 copies for a debut novel would be typical.

Major publishers don’t usually offer royalties based on 10% of cover price, but even if they did you can see how many books would have to sell to pay back the £25,000 advance. If you keep it simple and think of £10 as the price of a novel it would be £1 per book in royalties so at least 25,000 books.

That’s a difficult sales figure to achieve with your debut novel – it might be hard with your follow-up novels in a 2, 3 or 4-book deal. The pressure you feel while writing these novels isn’t the best inspiration to an author.

If you take into account the way major publishers calculate your royalty payment it becomes even more difficult. It’s not 10% of cover price, it really is 10% of the actual profit after expenses have been taken off. Seeing as they discount books dramatically to get them into special deals in the bookshops, the earnings per book for the author can be minimal.

For a book to sell more than 25,000 copies it needs to take off and have people going into bookshops or looking online for it rather than the many others on offer. The author’s name needs to have become well known somehow, and no matter how hard we try as authors to give events and get media coverage, it really needs national newspaper, radio and TV to get a name that well established in the minds of readers. People need to be wanting it rather than the latest novels from all the famous names who are being named regularly in the national media.

Major publishers do have publicity departments, but if you speak to them they will tell you they work on a newly launched book but are then asked to focus on the ones that really show signs of taking off. At that point it’s up to the author and you’ll find yourself trying to get into bookshops, trying to arrange events, and trying to build a following so that your contract will be renewed.

The good news is that publishers don’t ask for the advance back if book sales don’t arrive at the same figure. I wonder if they will one day? So it’s still worth going for it, getting the agent, aiming for a major publisher, taking the advance and seeing what happens. You will still need to work hard to help the book take off and it may be down to you more than you realise.

A good few midlist authors from major publishers move to independent publishers if they can’t achieve the huge sales figures the major publishers want, and this is becoming more frequent. Take a look at the author with Sandstone who made it on to the Booker list – she moved down from a well known publisher.

When I spoke to Jim Powell, whose novel The Breaking of Eggs earned him a £150,000 advance, he said he was amazed how little the publisher did in terms of arranging events for him (he said he offered to give events but they didn’t arrange any – authors don’t realise how much they are expected to do on their own) and also to promote and get the book into newspapers (a friend sent it to the Times Literary Supplement reviewer and that was the only review it got before it suddenly took off).

This is typical, but the publisher did send the book off for prizes and Powell was named on TV as one of the most promising novelists of the year. Publishers do generally try for prizes, although they can’t send all their novels and usually don’t tell the authors if they’ve been submitted unless they get on to the longlist.

Another author with a major publisher has told me a similar story – that she was responsible for trying to get her books into bookshops and for building a following and sales. But I’ll write more on these subjects in future blogs.

The literary agent told me another thing about advances. She said publishers were aiming to poach established and successful authors from other major publishers by offering large advances rather than taking a risk on debut authors. They also poach from independent presses where authors have learnt about the phenomenal effort they need to make to work with their publisher in order to build a following, to achieve sales and to get into bookshops.

It may all sound off-putting to writers as we all want to sit calmly at home and write. But this is the state of publishing and bookselling in a culture where fewer and fewer people are buying books, and where so much reading is enjoyed online. People like a good event with readings to entertain them but they don’t want to buy any more reading material.

So much is on offer for free and authors are under increasing pressure to help publishing outlets and bookshops stay open. if we don’t we really will just be writing at home alone and in peace with publishing outlets and bookshops closing. The authors who do make this effort and succeed at it are the ones who will be poached with tempting advances once they establish themselves.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Poetry Society: To Vote Or Not To Vote?

The situation at the Poetry Society has been baffling for many members due to too much information and too few facts being circulated. Like many people this started to put me off the idea of participating but I’ve realised this weekend how important it is to vote. Unless changes are made the Poetry Society risks losing the wonderful raise in Arts Council funding members were so pleased to hear had been awarded. It’s also clear that change is needed for reasons that go beyond the funding question.

This raise was secured by the Director Judith Palmer, who has since resigned, followed by other key people. Not surprisingly people want to know why, and petitioners have requested and been granted an EGM next Friday when they can ask questions and vote. If you can’t attend you can arrange a proxy.

I’m going to try to avoid what I feel has been the problem in the way this campaign has developed. We need to cut down to the simple facts that are known and provide a message to let people know what they’re voting for either on their own or by proxy.

Forget all the arguments, individual names, guesswork and gossip. This whole issue is about mismanagement and there are legal reasons why those in the know can’t give us the full facts. No doubt they will emerge. I asked to be given more facts before being able to decide how to vote or whether or not to appoint a proxy, but the unacceptable secrecy surrounding what has happened is actually enough of a fact to let me know what to do. Nobody can speak, because even if they leak facts they could be identified.

It’s as simple as this: the way forward is for the Board either to step down and let a temporary Board take over so as to restore trust in the members and ensure the Arts Council funding isn’t removed, or the current Board needs to change the way it works. This change would need to include openness about what has happened. This is what we’re voting for. If you can’t get to the meeting on Friday, then you can appoint a proxy.

The enforced secrecy even makes me unsure about what I can say here in case I cause legal problems for myself or anybody else, and that can’t be right. I had been put off the whole campaign by the diversions into personal criticisms of individuals and I think that has to stop. It can also feel to many members that the campaigners are people ‘in the know’, a clique discussing this with inside knowledge. All of this is offputting to the many members we need to reach out to and include. The Poetry Society is sending out clear, calm professional messages and the campaigners also need to stick to the clear message of what we’re voting for and why.

It’s quite telling that many people are asking the organisers of their own poetry groups what’s going on and what they’re supposed to be voting for. I wasn’t even sure earlier in the week. Those ‘in the know’ don’t realise that for many members the message really hasn’t got across, obscured by all the other discussions, rants and ramblings. Places like the Troubador are sending out emails to let poets know this vote is about mismanagement and not all the other imagined issues.

So I suggest setting all the gossip, rambling and criticisms of individuals aside, and I hope the campaigners will stick to a clear message. We need a new Board, or we need the Board to work in a different way. We need transparency and to be told what happened. I’m not sure if some of the people who resigned could be reinstated once we hear what happened, and there’s a feeling some of them should. That’s it.

To be a part of this you can email Kate Clanchy on for more information and ways to attend on Friday. You need to be a Poetry Society member. Alternatively you can arrange a proxy and need to do that by Tuesday. There’s also a blog set up with more details on

Monday, 3 January 2011

Poetry Raises £4,000 for the Homeless in North London

Despite the past year being a tricky one for many people financially, the Camden and Lumen Poetry project has raised even more for the homeless than the year before. This is a lovely surprise and a great help to the two Cold Weather Shelters supported. Here's proof that poetry can, among other things, serve a practical purpose.

I help out every month on the wine table and organise the website on - and Ward Wood Publishing is also helping with the fundraising Lumen/Camden Poetry Competition which you can see on First prize, judged by Carol Ann Duffy, is publication of a 20-page pamphlet of poetry and 50 free copies.

But the force behind the Camden and Lumen Poetry Series is poet Ruth O'Callaghan, so here are a few New Year words from her:

"2010 proved a challenging year but we still managed to raise nearly £4000 (with gift-aid) for the two Cold Weather Shelters we fund, and one of the ministers has already written to say that without the money they would be unable to continue. SO a MEGA THANKS TO YOU for your continued support. Also a very big thank you to Chris, Lynne and Adele who consistently do the bar and door. If anyone would like to volunteer to do the rare evening as ‘holiday relief’ it would be much welcomed.

Also welcome are any suggestions you might have with regard to the evenings. They are your evenings giving you the opportunity to read in front of established publishers (and wonderful, surprising things have happened) and internationally well known poets, as well as being published alongside them in an anthology. Last Christmas, when asked for suggestions, many requested that the poets from the floor had their own evenings enabling them to have a five minute – or longer – spot to offer a wider range of their work. This we did but the evenings were poorly attended so we presume that, in general, you prefer publishers and ‘name’ poets – correct me if I’m mistaken. Meanwhile, there will always be floor spots and the opportunity for longer spots but within the publishers/named poets evenings.

And we do have good relationships with publishers – congratulations to those who have done the mentoring/workshops and have subsequently have been published, and to those who will be in the 2011 Poets-from-the-Floor anthology due out in May.

We have a fabulous line up of poets for 2011 including Anne Stevenson and, fresh from the brilliant Aldeburgh Festival, Matthew Caley, Bernard Kops and Imtiaz Dharker – her Mumbai lunch box is a must. And that is just in the first few months. The second half of the year is equally exciting and there will of course be publishers’ evenings so please make the most of the opportunities offered.

In fact, the first event of 2011 – 7th January at Camden – is that dynamic new publishing house Ward Wood presenting poets Mike Horwood and Ann Alexander. Come along, meet the publishers, find out what they are about.

We are growing. We now have a competition with the winner having a pamphlet published, the glassses of wine are a tad larger and the raffle – OH, the dear old raffle – prize is increasing from £25 to over £30 worth of goodies. The free raffle evenings were much appreciated so perhaps we should have spontaneous i.e. unannounced, ones during the year. Again, if anyone has any other suggestions please let me know."
- Ruth O'Callaghan
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