Organised by Publishing Scotland and the Booksellers Association, this year the conference, held 22 February 2017, had the highest number of delegates to date with over 200 attendees. Yours truly was attended with a cohort of publishing students and what a day it was! Very interesting and informative. Chaired by literary agent Jenny Brown, the day kicked off with a keynote speech from Barry Cunningham, MD of Chicken House, perhaps best known for taking a chance on JK Rowling 20 years ago and publishing Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone when he worked at Bloomsbury. He likes to learn what kids like, which helps him choose titles. Children’s books are read differently around the world, depending on culture, and the thing that makes the most difference is who or what the villain is in the story. He admitted that children’s books have changed a lot in his time, now covering things like mental illness. Cunningham also assured the audience that children’s books have a “remarkable resiliance” and an “enormous and growing future” which is great to hear.
Steve Bohme, UK Research Director with Nielsen Books, gave a thoroughly entertaining David Bowie themed presentation full of insightful facts and figures on book sales and buying habits over the past five years. Nielsen survey 3000 book buyers per month! The general trend is print and audio book sales up, ebook sales down.
Sam Eades, editorial director at Orion, discussed generating publicity for a debut on a low budget. 1) Create a story around the book/author – if there’s a newsworthy story there, for instance the author’s personal life, get a feature on it. 2) Trends, for example Gone Girl/Girl on the Train sparked psychological thriller trend. Cosy crime is the next trend. If you can’t see a trend, make one up. 3) Partnerships. Connect with restaurants, shops etc. You will be surprised what you can get for free. Case story: for The Snow Child, Eades sent the book to 20 ice sculptors, asking them to read it and see if they would like to make a sculpture inspired by it. Two responded, providing free ice sculptures which were put into bookshops over a weekend, driving sales. 4) Stunts. For upcoming book Ragdoll by Daniel Cole, parts of dismembered ragdolls were sent with the book to bloggers, booksellers, etc. 5) News stories. Neil Gaiman had a street in Portsmouth named after his book The Ocean at the end of the Lane simple because Eades wondered ‘Would that be possible…?’, got in touch with the council, and it happened! Tips included spying on the competition, being aware of trends, collaborating with authors (who are generally happy to help with publicity) and being opportunistic.
Next was Suzanne Dean, Creative Director at Penguin Random House. In a fascinating talk, she described her creative process in designing book covers. She always reads the manuscript first, jotting down ideas and notes. Then creates moodboards, and from there works several ideas into covers. She believes in play and experimenting. Ultimately, book design involves a lot of re-invention. Whether re-inventing the paperback cover of a successful hardback (took over 70 cover variations to settle on the paperback cover of the hugely successful When Breath Becomes Air) or re-inventing the cover of a well-known and loved classic.
Two committee members from the Society of Authors (SoA), translator Lucinda Byatt and author Caroline Dunford, outlined seven ways publishers can work better with authors. At this point, I was getting somewhat hangry and couldn’t focus so well. But here is the open letter sent by the SoA to the Publishers Association and the Independent Publishers Guild, covering the fair terms they are looking for (the C.R.E.A.T.O.R. campaign). It makes sense in these times where authors are earning less and less – usually below minimum wage – yet without authors, there would be nothing to publish.
After a delicious lunch (as Jenny Brown said “Two words: banoffee pie!” Hear, hear Jenny!) it was the Trade Question Time Panel, chaired by The Bookseller chief executive, Nigel Roby and consisting of booksellers Kevin Ramage (The Watermill) and Sally Pattle (Far From The Madding Crowd), Neal Price (Sales Director at Canongate) and Sabrina Maguire (Marketing and Sales at Bright Red). The health of the high streets is of concern. Exports are still strong and are seen as good value. Indie bookshops’ relationships with sales reps is crucial. There was also a debate about strategic price promotions, such as 99p for ebooks. There were some who argued it undermined booksellers, but others who put forth the argument that timely price cut promotions drive sales and gain entry to the market for unknown authors. The debate shall continue I am sure. (Dissertation idea??)
The ‘Publisher Break-Out Sessions’ followed, four separate sessions:
Nielsen Book Research: Market Overview
Support for Translation
404 Ink: Publishing Louder
and the one I joined, Getting Stuck In: Editing Narrative Openings. Eleanor Collins from Floris Books led this discussion on how to help improve the opening chapter(s) of an author’s work. The beginning of a book needs to avoid an information dump, instead being subtle but also grabbing the reader’s attention and investing them in what is about to happen. Collins gave three broad categories an editor can alter: structure, chronology, voice. Structure: fragmentary introductions, pastiches, framing devices and prologues were all discussed. Chronology: the series of events can be changed. Some can be cut out, the order can be changed, the order of telling the events can be changed, or the events could be condensed to a brief line/paragraph. Voice: a sense of authority is important, meaning the degree to which the reader is convinced by the voice. What is working? What is great about the book? Include that in the beginning. Participants were encouraged to share their experiences then and what came out was
- The backstory will come through in the author’s authenticity and often doesn’t need to be explicitly stated. Strip back to the bare facts. What is lost if we assume the reader is already familiar with the world and is just dropped in the story?
- Avoid too much foreshadowing
- Starting a book with a tragedy. Why should the reader care? They are not invested in the character yet.
Back to the main hall for the full delegation and there followed a fantastic presentation from Crystal Mahey-Morgan, the inspirational founder of OWN IT! London. She showed how cross-platform storytelling and diversity can combine to create a truly unique, successful business. With one story, they produced a song, an ebook and tshirts, all of which appeal to different audiences and different price points from 79p to £30. They don’t provide advances but split profits 50/50 with authors. Definitely one to watch out for.
Andrew Hutchings, former bookseller and now owner of Cotswold Cycles, talked about building communities on the high street. Retailers need to add value where online retailers can’t. Cotswold Cycles have done this by using the shop to create a hub for local cyclists, first started with weekly organised bike rides which is an enormous success. There is a coffee station in the shop, where people often stop by, creating a sense of community. They do events such as book signings which create new regular customers. The lessons he shared were
- identify community needs
- undertake work to support the community not related to selling
- see yourself as part of the community
- be a great shop. Build community on top of that.
To finish off the day was Michael Jones, Sales and Marketing at HarperCollins, and Rosamund de la Hay, bookseller (The Mainstreet Trading Company) adding to the discussion of building communities on the high street and also building trade collaboration.
Whew! It was a long day, but thoroughly enjoyable. There were ample opportunities to mingle, yet as a student it is still incredibly daunting to approach ‘real publishers!!’ It is always good to catch up with fellow students though and say hello to familiar faces from SYP Scotland.