Are writers and their readers getting any closer to fair deals for all? The answer from the 2014 London Book Fair seems to be yes.
The theme at the heart of this edition of Words With Jam is the London Book Fair (LBF). I must admit that when the Ed let us, her team of humble scribblers, know this, I was discombobulated. 'That's not fair,' I thought. (See what I did there?)
Although Her Editorness is no tyrant, and the theme is always just a suggestion for the way to go when writing an article, I have always managed to come up with something theme related. I know, for someone who proclaims herself to be a subversive old bat, this is rather conformist behaviour. But, hey, it's too exhausting to be rebellious all the time.
So, back at the theme. I've never been to the LBF, so what could I do to maintain my 100% conformity record. Not only have I never been to the LBF, I've never been to any book fair.
I've been to several book festivals, yes, but I don't think book festivals and fairs are quite the same thing, are they? My perception is that book fairs are more for writers and publishers, and that book festivals are centred around readers, and authors interacting with their readers.
I've enjoyed all the book festivals I've been to including Edinburgh, one of the biggest - and dare I say - best. I've listened to writers I admire talking about their work. I've taken part in question and answer sessions with well known authors. I've listened to journalists and politicians in discussion on various topics, usually related to one or other's newly published book. I've soaked up the bookish atmosphere, browsed the booksellers' shelves, and sat in the outdoor cafes and bars watching out for famous literary figures. I've even dreamt of one day appearing at a festival as a writer... But following a rather sniffy and snotty rebuff for even daring to approach the organiser of a relatively small, relatively local, book festival five years ago, I've sort of given up on that dream.
But as a reader, I still love book festivals. Book festivals exist to encourage us to read. They draw us in and give us a deeper insight into the crazy and wonderful world of books. At Glasgow's Aye Right book festival this year, you could attend talks by writers as diverse as polymath writer and artist and Whitbread prize-winner, Alasdair Gray, who was launching his memoirs; former bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, who revealed he reads Nietzsche; and crime writer Val McDermid, who has done a contemporary rewrite of Jane Austen's Northhanger Abbey. You could also hear close-to-the-bone comedian Frankie Boyle talking about 'Five Books That Made Me'. Surprisingly perhaps, Boyle turned out to be a fan of the work of Noam Chomsky and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Yes, the rich world of literature is indeed brilliantly showcased at a well-run book festival.
But what of the book fair? Does it in any way relate to the book festival. I've heard of the Frankfurt book fair. I know it's the biggest of the book fairs where literary agents, publishers, rights and licensing experts and writers can all meet up and exchange ideas expertise and insight. And I know from what I've read about the LBF that it's the same. As a one-woman author-publisher, it didn't occur to me that there would be anything of relevance to me at such gatherings. These meetings were for the big boys surely. That's what I thought. Then I read online reports of how the LBF went.
Most of the reporting that I read came from members of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) http://allianceindependentauthors.org/ Their experiences all sounded positive and informative as regards how to get work published, protected and publicised. ALLi was at the LBF to launch the Opening up to Indie Authors book and campaign. The book is by ALLi stalwarts Dan Holloway and Debbie Young. As an author-publisher, I was greatly encouraged by the fact that ALLi were even at the LBF. You can read a full account written by ALLI's founder, Orna Ross, of how it was to be at the fair here http://www.ornaross.com/2014/04/how-self-publishing-saved-my-writing-life-thoughts-from-lbf2014/
The level of professionalism encouraged by ALLi and achieved by many 'indie' writers, along with the growing number of successful, good quality author-publishers, (some of whom have previously been traditionally published but have chosen to take more control of their work by adopting the indie route) really do seem to be leading to significant changes in the world of publishing. This is good for readers too, as their choice of reading matter is less restricted, especially if their tastes aren't mainstream.
And just as for readers visiting book festivals, it seems that the world of book fairs holds much to enchant all sorts of writers. I've promised myself I'll visit at least one in 2015. And, I reckon, thanks to ALLi, I'll feel welcome and comfortable. Perhaps the Alliance could look at book festivals next, see if attitudes have moved on there too.
But some book festival organisers already have an open-minded and inclusive approach to most things book related. And, on that note, I wouldn't want to end this perusal of fairs and festivals without mentioning the Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair. The fair takes place in October every year and is run by Wordpower Books who have an actual, bricks and mortar book shop in Edinburgh's Nicolson Street. They also run the Online Independent Bookshop http://www.word-power.co.uk//
Wordpower promote non-mainstream small presses and new writers. However, it's also possible to buy any book from them.
The programme for this year's fair hasn't been announced yet, but in the past topics have included politics, polemics and poetry as well as showcasing some great fiction writing. The sub-title for the event is the Alternative Book Festival and so here we see both fair and festival being used interchangeably. And the use of both terms is at least partly justified. The Independent Book Fair is about readers AND writers. The philosophy and ethos are inclusive. The target group of presenters and audience is broad. It's not offering technical advice to writers or bringing writers and publishers together. Neither is it in thrall to bestsellers or celebrity authors. These things are the province of the more traditional fairs and festivals. I'm glad that something like the Independent Radical Book Fair exists. There's a place for it and for other types of book-themed gatherings like LBF and Aye Right too.
Now if we could just get a festival that embraces author-publishers and an independent bookseller that welcomes independent authors, that really would be progress...
And following the developments at the LBF, there now seems to be real grounds for optimism that good quality literature in all its forms, sources, genres and readerships will be able to get shelf room (real or virtual), and that the traditionally published and the independently created can co-exist. We live in interesting times.
The Alliance of Independent Authors can be found on Twitter at @IndieAuthorALLi and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AllianceIndieAuthors and at the website address above.
Anne Stormont is a writer and teacher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults – mainly of the female-of-a-certain-age persuasion – and for children. She blogs at http://putitinwriting.me – where you can find out lots more about her.