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Publishers be Damned!

“The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”

George Orwell

Plus ça change, then.

Setting aside for one moment the death of competition and the bowel-liquefying prospect of Amazon being left in sole charge of the world’s publishing industry, there is still a little celebration to be had in the U S Department of Justice’s decision to file a law-suit against publishers (Penguin included) and Apple for colluding to price-rig ebooks.

“Serves you bloody well right,” is the official NOT BAd line in response to constant whingeing escaping like a low hiss from a punctured publishing industry.

“But it’s not fair,” it bleats. “Kindle has stolen our ball and won’t give it back.”

Hhm, yes. But it’s not as if the warning signs weren’t there; the prognosis has been written on the wall for quite some time, and in letters the size of which someone visually impaired could appreciate. Surely somebody in publishing, somebody trained, should have spotted it?

The mainstream books industry has needed to buck up its ideas for years. There remains no vestige of the noble idealism upon which Penguin and Everyman’s built their brand, no ancestral memory of a desire to improve and expand our inner world through quality literature accessible to the masses.

Instead, the industry has hobbled itself by fostering a culture of risk aversion. Gone are the days when a reader could gorge on a literary diet limited only by his or her imagination. Today’s reader has a restricted menu; there might be a scant pinch of literary titles thrown in to lend some flavour, but essentially we’re being fed bland fare reliant on a bulking-agent of celebrities selling ghost-written accounts of abuse at the hands of mothers who locked them in cupboards even as they clutched a dead baby to their chest. (And we might be confusing that with the plot of Goodnight, Mr Tom).

Quick to apportion blame, the publishing world points its finger at the crushing discounting power of on-line retail giant, Amazon, and the tireless advance of the ebook. But should they be looking closer to home? Are they reaping a harvest sown by their own complacency?

Who better to ask than Berwick-based writer, Barbara Henderson. Following a career in journalism, Barbara lectures on creative non-fiction at Northumbria University and is currently working towards completing a PhD in Creative Writing. Short-listed for the prestigious Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition 2010 for her novel The Serpent House and having recently published her thriller, Kill and Tell, for Kindle under her pen name of Bea Davenport, Barbara has first-hand experience of both traditional and digital publishing, and how rapid industry changes in recent years are forcing the authors themselves to reconsider their position within it.

Barbara, you worked as a reporter for BBC Local radio and television for seventeen years. You clearly have a proven track record in writing yet you still felt the need to undertake a PhD in Creative Writing. Why?

Primarily confidence. Writing journalistically is very different from writing creatively. With journalism it’s all about reporting the facts in a systematic fashion. There’s no room for anything outside of that. And while I knew friends and family would be very kind about anything I wrote [creatively], that wouldn’t help me as a writer. I needed feedback from professionals, someone independent, who wouldn’t balk at pointing out my mistakes.

So you were looking for some sort of mentoring?

Definitely. Mentoring used to be part of a publisher’s remit, providing editorial advice and support, but I know from my own experience that this aspect of their job seems to have fallen by the wayside. Many seem unwilling or unable to define precisely what it is they want from their authors yet they expect a guaranteed return with minimal investment. It’s unrealistic. My writing wouldn’t be where it is today without the invaluable input of my PhD mentors. They’ve been amazing.

There’s a huge explosion in the number of universities offering creative writing courses. Surely creative writing is something innate; it’s not something that can be taught?

I personally think that’s a myth. There’s this curious way of thinking, a form of snobbery, that writing should be this almost mystical process that can’t be taught. I disagree. Anyone can be taught to write. I’ve had students come to me with no notion of how to put a sentence together, and it’s wonderful to see how their writing takes wing as soon as they’ve been pointed in the right direction. Anyone wanting to learn how to paint, for example, or play an instrument, finds a teacher. Why not do the same with writing?

Literary commentators have been quick to level criticism at the proliferation in these courses. Will Self once said that he believed teaching creative writing encourages blandness, conformity and imitation. He’s not alone. How would you respond to this?

Learning the techniques doesn’t necessarily quash the individual voice; if anything they provide the platform for getting the voice heard, for better self-expression. Remember, not everyone undertakes a creative writing course with a view to becoming an author. Confidence, the ability to express ideas clearly, greater self-esteem, analytical skills – these are all valuable things that will go on to enhance life in general, and that’s a great thing.

With such high-profile publishing sensations as Zadie Smith and J K Rowling in recent years, how realistic are students about their chances of being able to achieve success in an overcrowded industry?

Very. We tell them how it is in no uncertain terms. It’s tough out there and it breaks my heart when my students accept that they will probably have to work for nothing in order to get a foot in the door. People shouldn’t have to work for nothing. It’s so difficult these days to get a start. I got my foot in the journalism door literally through a man in a pub. I didn’t have a formal journalistic qualification. I was offered a job with low pay but on-the-job training. That sort of opportunity just doesn’t come along anymore.

But in a way the march of the ‘professional’ creative writer is helping to create a further closed shop, making it even more difficult for those people without the right bit of paper.  Writing is about freedom of expression; you can’t deny there’s a certain irony in it becoming something only for those who can afford it. 

I agree, and it’s the case with all degree courses. It’s a rotten system. Which is why the possibilities of digital publishing are so exciting. It goes some way to levelling the playing field. I love the fact that anyone can publish a book.  Right now e-publishing has the same buzz around it that citizen journalism first had. That whole notion of taking journalism out of the hands of the establishment and handing it over to the people was like a breath of fresh air.  And today it’s happening with publishing.

Ah, yes, your first e-book, Kill and Tell, has just been published on Kindle.  How did that come about?

Well, after a lot of soul-searching. The manuscript had received positive feedback from various people whose opinion I respected so I knew Kill and Tell was good, but it was just lying in a drawer gathering dust.  I became frustrated on seeing the rubbish currently in print and it left me questioning how a publishing world so in thrall to celebrity and so risk averse can claim to be an arbiter of quality.

How concerned were you that it would be seen as a vanity project?

Yes, I had anxieties – there’s still a lot of stigma attached to the concept of self-publishing – but in the end I thought “Why not?” This is not the same as vanity publishing. There is no financial outlay and you have control over the final product. I’m approaching the whole thing as an exciting experiment. I feel we’re teetering on the edge of something dynamic, a brave new world of publishing. I’m very much feeling my way at the moment, but I’m loving it.

What would you say to the argument that the emergence of e-publishing rings the death knell for the paperback; that you are killing the very thing you love?

I don’t think so. People still like to hold books, to have them. It’s a tactile thing. Don’t you love opening a book and smelling the paper and ink?

So it’s the experience of reading rather than reading simply for content?

Exactly. I would have been lost without my Kindle on a recent ten-hour flight, but when I’m at home I’ll always reach for a paperback. People may like their e-readers, but they love their books.

And what about your future; anything in the creative writing pipeline?

I’m working on a sequel to The Serpent House which ultimately I plan to be part of a trilogyI’m also writing a novel for young adults, Halloween, and a collection of short stories. I like to have several projects on the go so I always have something to work on to suit my mood!

Barbara with her new e-thriller, 'Kill and Tell'

Unless the publishing industry changes tack and starts taking risks by investing in diversity and new talent, then authors like Barbara will increasingly turn to e-publishing and take the money with them. Publishers need to quit whining, accept their role in the mess they helped to create, and use it as an opportunity to evolve.

The printed word will, in the style of Celine Dion’s heart, go on. But there is no avoiding the fact that the economics of the ebook puts the survival of the paperback on precarious footing; romance rarely survives in the cold harsh light of financial reality. Hardbacks, on the other hand, have for now a collectability which makes them comparatively safe.

But like Barbara, we’re not ready to sound the death knell of the paperback just yet. We believe there is room in the market for both utility and passion. If you don’t believe us then just look at the current vogue for vinyl records. Millions of tracks are available to download whenever we like and for a matter of pence, and yet we still want to have and to hold that record sleeve.

All going to show that love affairs are rarely convenient and never rational.

Humans are sensual creatures inhabiting a three-dimensional world; we like to touch and feel and see and smell. The ether of cyberspace carries an inbuilt sense of detachment, of non-engagement. This flies in the face of our very nature. We will always be automatically drawn to the tangible, to those things which offer respite from a sea of change.

And what better life raft than a bloody good book?

Purchase Barbara Henderson’s new Kindle edition thriller, Kill and Tell, by clicking on the side-bar image.

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