"Must a writer work within London if they want their work to be read, heard, or watched?" Hull-based author Shellie Horst finds that digital equals diversity at Manchester's National Creative Writing Graduate Fair.
There’s no wrong way to write. Countless blogs, workshops and lectures tell us that every writer’s journey is unique. Whether your story belongs on a shelf or the digital page, writing is a process of fumbling along, wrangling with self-doubt, second guessing and ploughing on anyway.
Knowing where to go once you’ve found your way through the platitude minefield with what you’ve written is just another part of that. The process of getting noticed in the publishing industry is a minefield all its own, to which the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair - organised by Comma Press and hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University - provided a map both in 2015, when I attended for the first time, and again this year. It is unlike any other writer’s convention I have been to, and the only one I am aware of offering an affordably priced ticket to an intense day of panels as well as the chance to meet some industry professionals.
The leads from last year’s pitching sessions were a huge confidence boost for me, but not the sole reason why I returned this year. While others who were in the process of completing an MA or considering starting down that path were introduced to the huge potential of opportunities waiting for them, I wanted to explore an idea which I had formed in the excitement of pitching for the first time in 2015. The fresh voice the publishers were looking for wasn’t the tone I found in the books I’d been reading. The call for diverse stories was only being answered by the small press magazines and novels I’d picked up. I couldn’t find anything like these in my local Waterstones.
Where was the disconnect? More importantly, to me, where did my work fit in the larger scheme of things?
This year's National Creative Writing Fair
A metaphoric winter is coming for academic centres, as student fees grow beyond most people’s pockets. While some university-held events might be seen as merely a means to recruit a dwindling pool of students to their courses, Manchester Metropolitan University and Comma Press once again lived up to their noblesse oblige, bringing the established industry north (unless you live “North of the Wall”, where even Manchester is “The South”).
You see, the further away from the consolidated heart of publishing you go, the harder and more expensive it becomes to put what you have learned into practice. Young authors are told ‘use the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook.’ The National Creative Writing Graduate Fair turns the pages of that highly curated guide and the #PitchWars opportunity of social media into a real and personable experience. The knowledge and sincerity of the panellists were inspiring as well as informative as they shared tips and discussed opportunities that don’t make it into the glossy magazines. You can also learn a lot from body language when you’re pitching in person, as opposed to sending an email out to a person you’ve never met, or scheduling tweets to venture into the void while you’re at work.
It doesn’t help to be so far removed that your voice is alien to what publishers in the south want or know how to market. Alien doesn’t sell, unless it’s military and travels at light speed. This was a discussion, I was pleased to discover, which ran throughout the day. In the 'Changing the Climate: Tomorrow’s Publishing' panel, the consensus was that publishers are hunting for a more diverse representation, which should make them more approachable. Alas, for it to sell it must be commercial, identifiable, and relatable. A work needs to fit the London-centric expectations of voice to sell. That lack of diversity wasn’t the answer I was looking for, nor was it the one the panel was willing to accept.
The north does not begin and end with coal and sheep any more than the south starts at the M25. The stories and experiences found in each are appreciably different. Divided. Distant. Because of this distance I, like many, turned to the internet. I discovered the fact that conventions and workshops are fabulous for highlighting opportunities, networking, and discovering how the industry tiers work from the outside. These events are also brilliant at emptying your bank account. I can’t be buying books and, in my tiny way, supporting an industry if I’m spending my spare cash on finding a way forward. My opportunities for overtime are swallowed researching dead leads. Like everyone else I have to pay bills. Is there any wonder there are so many bitter and disillusioned people out there?
Perhaps it isn’t mere physical or cultural difference, though. Perhaps the problem lies in unfamiliarity, the great unknown? Its human nature to avoid what makes us uncomfortable. New Writing North’s Read Regional Project Manager Will Mackie sees the barriers we create for ourselves represented in the diverse geography across regions which identify as ‘Northern’. His role grants him a unique perspective and lets him and the organisation he represents act as an opener, as opposed to a gatekeeper. I’d recommend any northern writer (regardless of their chosen media) sign up for New Writing North’s newsletter.
Now, I’m from Hull. In a city in love with music and football, which on a street level puts family values high above those sent from the south, the notion of art is viewed differently. The idea of reading for pleasure comes with baggage. When friends question my career choice it’s not because they doubt my stories but because “No-one reads any more”.
Must a writer work within London if they want their work to be read, heard, or watched? Rather, are potential readers avoiding what is on offer in Waterstones because it doesn’t relate to them?
I can’t see the ‘Keep Out’ sign, but still with a terminology of Gatekeepers and Platforms and the commercial requirements from the industry, the sense of trespass permeates. This is something Kit de Waal’s keynote speech addressed passionately, and resonated with many of the delegates. Publishers and agents want polished work, but they are limiting their access to the very “fresh, new voices” they claim to seek.
The reflection of the industry online is also oddly layered with both positivity and fear of missing out. In print an agent might state they are open to submissions but after hours of research you discover they’ve moved to another agency and specialising in a different form. I write speculative fiction, but you’ll find that even that genre statement is open to interpretation. Please no space elves.
Which leads me to the next measure. Value. It’s well established within the arts that creativity doesn’t fit in a spreadsheet. As a society we measure success in monetary terms. An author is successful if they secure even a two or three figure advance, but their work may never break even. How is that a sustainable business model for the industry? How is that a secure future for an author?
It’s as though no one with power knows how to deal with the impasse. Setting an example, Kit de Waal set up a scholarship with Birkbeck University. Other institutions and firms were happy to pitch in to support the fund, showing that with the right innovation and intention things can make a difference for those with a story to tell, regardless of their background. If you ignore something long enough, people find a way to access it without your help. Society tires of following the rules when they don’t show results, don’t apply or gets in the way of their quality of life. Hull, and its status as City of Culture is a running narrative of that.
And so digital print has grown roots. The need to look beyond what has always been done and the demand for stories and experiences not readily available on the high street drives a vibrant market. Teens and adults alike can find narratives they are able to relate to, be that emotionally, demographically or on the simple level of enjoyment. When does a form cease being experimental and become part of the established and recognised routes?
Disruptive and digital publishing isn’t limited to what you can download on your Kindle or that infernal insistence to read what you’re told to. Outside of the cost, the core drive is the value of being read. People can interact with stories differently, be that as an e-book, show, podcast, a video game or a blend of interactive fiction.
The divide between defined culture and what’s happening out there on their street isn’t being bridged by the big six publishers but rather by the likes of Comma Press, Dead Ink, Wrecking Ball Press (and for the genre fiction side Unsung Stories, and Fox Spirit Books) by picking up work with fresh voices and using the power of the digital society to reach an audience.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. They say the industry has been suffering for years, but it has its market secured. It knows what works, it understands that external influences must align for a book to sell, it’s not all purely a magical ring put on by the author and the team that brings a book to life.
For me, it’s time to look beyond the shelf for some of my pieces. For those who value our work reaching an audience – discovering how to empower ourselves to go forward and change – this year’s National Creative Writing Graduate Fair had the answers. Look at your values, know your audience not your place. Don’t limit your talent, grow from it. There are plenty of opportunities out there. Explore. A book shop’s shelf will reach one part of a nation, digital publishing will reach many nations through its varied formats and niches. Word of mouth found in libraries and independent stores a different audience again. Who do you want to share your story with?
Now stop thinking about it, and write.