Our very first Guest Editor of the month, Simon Savidge takes a look at what stands in the way of British writers and what we can do to promote them.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author is in want of a reader, it is also a truth universally acknowledged that in the UK there are around 10,000 books published every year. Yes, that’s right, around 10,000. In amongst those are many, many British authors, but how do we get to hear about them all and what does the future look like for a British writer?
I don’t really want to use the word bleak as it seems a little too desperate, yet if I was an author I think I would feel rather daunted by it, though I know authors are compelled to write whether they get published or not. Having been to London Book Fair last week to talk to some of them from ‘The Reviewer’s Perspective’ it was fantastic to see how many aspiring and recently published authors there were, it was also a wakeup call for me as to how hard it is to be noticed in a vast market. Some authors had been trying for several years, some for several decades. Surrounded by the vast amount of new shiny books that Earls Court housed last week (which are just a percentage of the books from all the slush piles in all the publishing houses) if I had been one of them I would have been burning my notepads, throwing my laptop out of the window and my head in my hands weeping with despair. These men and women carry on hoping for the day the big publishing deal arrives and I salute them for not giving up and am sure some of them will make it.
Once you are a published author though things don’t get much easier. As I mentioned, you have 99, 999 (roughly) other books to compete with in a year. Some of these books, a very small amount, will be the contemporary British names we know already: the Martin Amises, J.K Rowlings, Ian McEwans, Hilary Mantels, Ian Rankins, Kate Atkinsons, etc. Now I am not saying that these authors haven’t worked their socks off, indeed Hilary Mantel wrote many, many books before Wolf Hall rocketed her into the stratosphere of household names, and we all know how Joanne Rowling struggled for many a year. Stories of hope right there, just keep writing and writing and writing.
How do we get to know of all the other British authors that we should read, the ones whose books can change our way of thinking, give us new insight into our country/the world and most importantly make us want to read more and more. That is the million-dollar question, and if their publishers knew the answer then we would all be reading them already. There are several ways that I can think of though.
Firstly, there are prizes. Prizes win money for the author to not have to start working in Tesco (or any other supermarket/place of employment) whilst writing their next marvellous work. There seems to be some illusion that anyone who gets a publishing deal is rich for life, erm, no. A prize also more importantly brings readers, and if you happen to have already written a few books then you can be pretty sure that those readers, once having loved your book, will go and check out your back catalogue. I know I do. Yet prizes are a whole new level of, well, competition. It seems obvious I know, but here you are again battling against authors of all walks of life from all over the world.
Yet the landscape with prizes in the UK looks ever more desolate, especially after the news last year (which had many well-known British authors in uproar) that the Man Booker, probably the UK’s most famous prize, was opening its doors to any book written originally in English anywhere in the world. This probably all sounded deeply xenophobic – but it wasn’t – we all love to read from around the world, but authors need sales, especially in their own countries. We should of course note that the Man Booker was open to any author in the commonwealth, and so was never a ‘British only’ prize, but what would be wrong if it had been? After all, America has plenty of prizes for the best American novels, Australia does too, in fact many countries do, including us with the wonderful Fiction Uncovered, yet the message the Man Booker – which of course is an institution in the world of fiction – seemed to send out was that there was little to commend in the books it was being sent and really it was time to look elsewhere.
The second way books get attention is from reviews. Those in the broadsheets and several book-based magazines and of course the blogosphere. In the broadsheets space is currently tight, cultural pages and supplements are being binned, slashed or seriously shortened. Most of the literature pages go to non-fiction, a famous name will probably get a hardback mention or feature, but for anyone else you need to bow down to the editorial gods and then you might just see your book get a one hundred word review in the paperback pages amongst several others. Bookish magazines are a different kettle of fish but with many of them moving online, or oddly vanishing, again it’s a tough time. Then of course there is blogging, which I am not being biased about just because I do it. With blogs enthused and excited readers take finger to keyboard and share their love and passions for books of all variety from all over the world, they have no word limit, they do it for the love not the pennies and they want to find brilliant books to pass on.
You see blogs are an example of the third and most powerful way of getting great books read: Word of mouth. If someone, be they a friend, librarian, bookseller, book group member, or blogger, tells you that they love a book, you are much more likely to read it than in any other case. You invariably know, or know about, that person or they work in a bookish place. There is trust there, you are more likely to get the right book in your hands. So maybe, again without sounding xenophobic, we readers need to pay more attention to initiatives closer to home and get celebrating the British authors more often than we do, a bit like local shops (especially book ones) your local authors really need the support too. It is here that the most powerful people have the loudest voice and that is you, the reader.
Simon Savidge is a freelance journalist, blogger and book addict. He writes the (almost daily) blog Savidge Reads. He regularly contributes to several literature based magazines and lifestyle magazines. He is co-founder and Honorary Director of The Green Carnation Prize, you can also hear him on The Readers and You Wrote The Book podcasts. For full reviews of these, other Fiction Uncovered books and more do visit Simon’s blog Savidge Reads.