Monday, September 22, 2008

Authors North AGM - the effect of the internet on the world of publishing.

I think we're all getting used to getting a lot of free information over the web; but last Saturday, at the Authors North meeting in York, we were asked to consider if this is always right.

Authors North is part of the Society of Authors, which is, in part, a trade union, and so one of its main functions is to look after the rights of authors. As more material is put on the web some aspects of publishing, like academic publishing, are faring badly. For many of its authors work is becoming scarce, and when they do find any, they are being asked to do more and more for less and less. For instance publishers are now expecting authors to do their own picture research, indexing, create and maintain their own website, and pay for any permission fees from their own pocket. I certainly had to do these last three things for my novels, and I remember it being a bit of a shock.

One of the ways forward may be for these authors to publish on the net but restrict access to websites to those paying a fee.

One of the gates leading into the city of York.

The first guest speaker was Michael Schmidt of Carcanet Press (which produced Elaine Feinstein's book rather beautifully - reviewed here). He has been running this small independent press for over 40 years (with subsidies from the Arts Council). He is also professor of creative writing at the University of Glasgow.

The Computer Age.
In his capacity as professor he said that he had observed a change in culture with many younger readers finding information from the screen, and consequently losing the habit and ability to do traditional research. However by using search tools like google it was still possible to come up with fresh angles, and he thought that another benefit of the computer-age was that through email the art of letter writing had been rediscovered, while texting required an imaginative approach to language.

As for authors' websites, he recommended the use of google analytics to find out where visitors come from, and advised every author to make sure they had an entry in Wikipedia. He said that blogs helped to build up markets by allowing a dialogue with readers.

Creative Writing Courses.
There had been a 70% growth in creative writing courses in universities over the last few years (I failed to write down over how long). These are consistently oversubscribed. A lot of people seem to be desperate to become writers, and most of these want to write fiction or poetry. This has resulted in an enormous output of writers resulting in an overproduction - although his own university has had a high success level with a high proportion of students achieving publication. Literary agents now act as filters for publishers and some of these receive 120 manuscripts a week.

In fact the reading culture is fast turning into a writing culture in the UK, and there has been a change in how writers are emerging -- predominantly from these MA and PhD courses.

He then went on to booksellers - how the pattern was changing here too. The discounts demanded by the booksellers have increased, as has the importance of front of shop displays. The advent of Amazon has, for a small publisher at least, restored the levelness of the playing field, but has blurred the boundaries of territories, so that a book sold by a publisher in the US is available in the UK, even before the UK publisher has published it.

Part of York's city wall.

The final speaker was Rayner Gill, a manager at Borders. He was asked to speak at fairly late notice I think, and he won us all over. Somehow he managed to be supportive - not only of his company - but of authors too, and ended his talk thanking us, and appealing to us to continue, which was extremely gratifying.

Again there was discussion of discount - up to 90% on the 3 for 2s! This is all the result of the abolition of the net book agreement - and if this is not brought back (and I don't think it will) these are here to stay - and (in my opinion) the publisher, bookseller and the author will all suffer. If Tesco enter the bookselling business then things are likely to become even worse.

The advent of ebooks will cause things to change again. These cost pennies to produce, and will result in all sorts of works being published that would not normally be published. I suppose the control will be gone, and, as we have seen with the advent of many more channels on the TV more choice leads to a lowering of quality.

However, like me (and a lot of other people on Sunday Salon) he doubts that the ebook will ever fully replace the physical desirability of the printed book. Nothing can replace the pleasure of holding a book and reading it. The market may well be strongest for large textbooks that are cumbersome to handle.

This is just a summary of the day. Of course an important part was the socialising. We said good-bye to Sheila May who has been a long-standing member of the committee and elected June Oldham in her place. We also said good-bye to Sarah Baxter, our representative from London - it has been a pleasure to work with them both.

The convent building, York.

I saw little of York - just the gateway to the city and the walls. The venue was an old convent which had been converted partly into a meeting place. It was just a short walk from the station and looked like an interesting buiding in its own right.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely post, Clare. Pity I did not remember or realise you were going to York, as otherwise I could have recommended my bother in law's excellent crepes and fresh lemonade, in the Minster square. Maybe next time!

Mon Sept 22, 09:58:00 pm  
Blogger stu said...

Do you find what I always do when going to York, which is that it sort of creeps up on you? You pass a welcome to York sign in the middle of open countryside, ignore it, and suddenly you're in the middle of the place.

Tue Sept 23, 11:24:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Maxine (I keep saying that!). Crepes and lemonade sound good. I shall make a bee-line, next time.

Yes, Stu - there's quite a few small towns that have that effect, I've noticed - especially by train. There's no messing around with suburbs - suddenly you're there!

Tue Sept 23, 02:18:00 pm  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

Clare, I've never been to any of the Authors North events. I take it you recommend them?

Wed Sept 24, 09:46:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Hi Martin, thank you for visiting my blog. Yes, I highly recommend Authors North - especially since I am on the organising committee :-)

Wed Sept 24, 10:14:00 pm  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

Okay, what are the forthcoming events?

Thu Sept 25, 11:15:00 pm  
Blogger Susanna said...

wow! so many great pictures! Now I am going to have to go back and read the accompnying posts. I did see that you got a phd in Chemistry? wow, and you write.

You must be really smart to be a libral arts girl and good at math.

Sun Sept 28, 02:39:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Nah, I'm not really that clever, S! It's more hard work that brains, I think...and also the tendency to get obsessed about stuff:)

Sun Sept 28, 11:09:00 pm  

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