Author Archives: rachelannworthington

Being a Publishing Student

The reason I chose to study Publishing depends on the person asking the question; to prospective employers I study Publishing to develop a career in the industry, to family it is because I want a job that I enjoy, to friends it’s because I couldn’t decide between English and Marketing.

The honest answer is simple, shallow and nerdy: I love to read.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not ashamed to admit it – I’m just not convinced that it is satisfactory reasoning for doing a three year degree in it and effectively having my career determined by it.

Nonetheless, here I am; a finalist student of Publishing with English at Loughborough University, because I love books… and eBooks and magazines and e-zines and newspapers and blogs and even leaflets that people hand out in the street (weird, I know).

When people ask what I study and I say Publishing, they invariably pull a puzzled face and ask what that involves. I have been on this course for three years and I still haven’t developed a concise answer to that question. What does a Publishing student do? The easiest answer is ‘we learn how books are made’; but this doesn’t even begin to cover it. We learn what is happening in the Industry, and I don’t mean just the book trade; we cover information management on a broad scale.

We learn how to market, design, produce, organise (in theory and in practice!), we learn to index, build websites, present ideas, copyedit, proof read, we learn to spot good ideas and criticise bad ones, we cover legal issues, we study human resource management, we explore historical and technological developments and we learn HTML and XML. Oh, and on top of all that, we do a Minor in English.

To anyone that has ever suggested that this course is easy because it is not maths or engineering; you are wrong. Full stop.

If you consider taking a course like this one, prepare to see mistakes everywhere; typos on posters, inconsistencies in storylines, overlapped elements on websites, paper with high lignin quantities (yes, it gets specific). The point is that errors and irregularities stand out like a muggle in the Forbidden Forest. And on that note I should point out that industry-related references become a lovable way of life.

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The Future of Bookselling

Many experts, scholars and lovers of the book trade have prophesied that the book market is following the path of the music business, notably with the rise of technology. If this idea is true, then the collapse of chain-giant music store HMV should serve as a huge wake-up call to the publishing and bookselling industry. Everyone involved in the publishing market should take the advice of Sam Husain (CEO of Foyles Bookstore): “Let’s not leave it until its [sic] too late”.

Husain wrote a letter to The Bookseller to present some strong home truths about the publishing industry. One of the main concerns is that publishers are basing their bookseller discount policies upon the volume of sales made and are neglecting the value of intangible assets. The consequences are that online retailers and supermarkets are enjoying much higher discounts than bookstores are, leaving the industry in an infinite loop: the bigger the discounts online retailers and supermarkets gain; the lower the prices they can offer to customers; the more customers they are attracting; the bigger the discounts they are gaining and so forth. Unfortunately, bookshops are travelling in the exact opposite circuit.

The publishers’ discounting policies make logical business sense for the here-and-now when considering the UK economy’s fundamental short term ideals. However, it is huge worry that publishers are failing to examine the broader prospects of the industry as a whole; in this case the future seems frighteningly formidable.

As a result, bookstores are being forced to plan for the future. The main attempt at a solution is diversification, for example some branches of Blackwells have incorporated coffee shops onto their premises (eg, the Leeds branch has a Costa Coffee). Another chain to differentiate is WHSmith, selling a large range of stationary, gift cards and snacks- although I have heard several people criticise this business model, with suggestions that the branding is confused.

Generally, people are neglecting the fact that bookstores offer an invaluable service to society. Bookshops surround the public with reading materials, with the presence of physical shops and with advertisements that ultimarely encourage adults and children to read. Bookstore assistants provide a point of contact for information about books, whether that be facts about educational reading or recommendations for pleasurable reading. The touch, scent and feel of browsing bookshop shelves is a much more pleasurable experience than browsing on a none-atmospheric screen. It is an underrated fact that bookstores offer more than simply an outlet for book buying.

If the industry is not somehow reformed and bookshop revenues continue struggle, the stark reality might just leave society with the old cliché, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.’

Life of Pi: Book or Film

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

When I found out that Yann Martel’s international bestselling, Man Booker award winning novel Life of Pi was being turned into a film I was immediately curious as to how it would be done.

It did not surprise me that 20th Century Fox wanted to turn the fantasy story into a film (it probably wasn’t the only film producer to want its rights!) After all, the novel Life of Pi has sold more than seven million copies worldwide, making it one of the bestselling books of all time – it certainly bodes well for a film adaptation! It also means that it has a LOT to live up to.

At first I doubted whether such a book could be adequately caught on film, but from the outset audience are drawn into India and are then taken on a memorable journey across the South Pacific.

The plot is well explained and most of the key ideas are transferred from book to screen. The characterisation is executed slightly differently and as a result I liked Pi of the film more than I liked Pi of the book. The film’s Pi is more human and easier to relate to, he experiences heartbreak and the audience sees him misbehave – the Pi of book does not have a young love and does not put himself in danger to see a tiger in the zoo.

The main advantage of the film is that it offers a real visual experience in 3D, with some superb special effects, notably as rain falls and the audience sway to miss the drops (that’s when you know a viewer is really engrossed in the action!)

However, a niggling part of me couldn’t help but think that the spectacular effects were distracting the audience from the fantastic story behind the images. There is a stunning scene where jelly fish are lit up against the dark ocean at night; offering Pi a glimmer of hope with religious undertones. When comparing this to the same imagery of the book I feel that Martel manages to focus the context in a way that the film fails to do. This scene in the film entirely isolates the idea of Pi’s desolation and is a total distraction from the grander scheme of the plot.

Overall I think the film does justice to the book. The film compares negatively only because the scope of a film is different to that of a book. The nature of the story means that it is better suited to the page than the screen.

Seeing the film made me want to read the book again, rereading it made me realise that you can only say that you have experienced the Life of Pi when you have read it twice, because there are so many things that the reader can relate to on a double level when they know the ambiguous ending. Martel’s book is a real experience, the film skims the surface of the story but an hour and half is not sufficient to make the audience feel what Pi felt as he was stranded for 227 days in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean.

The main conversation after the film was about which side of the plot was true. Logically, neither are true, they are both parts of a well-made piece of fictional literature. But then, all stories are born from truth, aren’t they?

#digitalsurvival Literary Salon – An Overview

The theme of Loughborough University’s Literary Salon event was to discuss the impacts of the rise of technology on the traditional and trusty book industry. To meet the aim of the event, the hosts Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold (Publishing lecturer) and Dr Kerry Featherstone (Creative Writing lecturer) invited a selection of people from different sectors of the industry to speak about how the digital-age has influenced their experience in publishing.

So, who attended and what did they talk about?

Allan Guthrie – as an agent, author, and publisher, Guthrie has a well-rounded, but conflicting position relating to the publishing industry. Guthrie began by talking about how the publishing industry used to be: author writes a book, agent accepts it, agent sends to publisher, publisher produces it. It is not necessarily like that anymore, technology is allowing authors to reach their readers directly, sometimes cutting out agents and publishers entirely. The key advice that Guthrie gave was to tell people what publishing is about, tell people that publishing is about more than simple copy editing, to make sure the world knows that publishing has an important role to play in society because producing quality books is to the benefit of everyone.

David Varela – has a really cool job. Varela takes a serious attitude to the idea that: ‘anything you can use to tell a lie you can use to tell a story’ and he has created some innovative ways of doing just that. One of the most popular things he has worked on is ‘The Secret Life of Lewis Hamilton’, where the famous F1 driver goes around the globe retrieving valuable stolen paintings; it is such an out-there idea, but so intriguing! So many more means of telling stories are available because of the digital environment, giving authors a wider audience and allowing a more creative approach to stories. The concept of Zombie Run even made me think about buying a pair of trainers just to try it out; if you haven’t heard of Zombie Run it is worth a look!

Ben Galley – with knowledge of the music industry, Ben Galley used his initiative and thought about whether the book industry might be heading in a similar direction. With this thought in his head and computer at hand, Ben Galley set out to self-publish. Galley shared many enlightening thoughts and processes that he went through, too many to discuss them all. A main one was the idea of self-marketing, it is true that no one knows the product quite as intimately as the author himself and it also allows a more personal approach to readers. Galley demonstrated that small details matter when taking up a large venture alone, such as uploading a preview of work on Amazon. Galley claimed that there’s a lot of rubbish out there, especially in the Sci-Fi genre. Self-publishing means no publishers’ logo and thus no official seal of approval, so readers need to know what to expect. Finally, it would be rude not to mention that shiny silver suit!

Joanna Ellis and Chris Meade – conducted a round table, the more questions that Joanna Ellis and Chris Meade answered the more questions the audience seemed to think of. Joanna Ellis has a wide background in publishing, with 5 years in marketing at Faber and Faber under her belt she is now an Associate Director at the Literary Platform. Chris Meade was representing if:book, a Literary Salon partner, if:book deals with the issues directly relating to the digital survival of the book trade, and so Chris Meade was a fountain of knowledge and inspiration for thought at the Salon. Some of the questions answered during the round table were about social media and the impacts it has on marketing and communication. As a point of interest, Joanna Ellis noted that the digital impacts came about simultaneously to the release of the first iPad, as people began interacting in new ways and expecting more from online services.

Pigeon Park Press – is formed of a partnership between Heide Goody and Iain Grant, throughout the event the pair worked closely as a team. Pigeon Park Press came prepared with a witty presentation that suited the exciting small publishing house. Pigeon Park Press gave an open explanation of their sales figures, it was interesting that they related their sales graph to real life events and could pinpoint particular marketing activities. Goody and Grant professed that doing events were not useful in terms of sales and the most effective marketing approach, in their experience, is to give things away for free, which encourages traffic back to Pigeon Park Press.

Comma Press – was represented by Jim Hinks, who is clearly very passionate about the niche market that Comma Press is aimed at. Comma Press publish short stories in translation; Jim Hinks claimed that the business could not have chosen a more difficult market, as it combines the difficulty of selling short stories along with works in translation. This area of business means that the acquisition of rights is important to Comma Press and book fairs are used for this, which does not seem to have been affected too much by technology. The exception seems to be the use of Twitter, which is a positive enhancement as it brings people together who would not necessary have otherwise.

Dan Simpson – entertainingly rounded off the night by performing some of his crowd-sourced poems; beginning with a very amusing one about ‘Love… No, not love… Mathematics’. Some people think of poetry as boring, challenging to read and academic to a fault, but Dan Simpson brings poetry off the page by taking lines from the public and then compiling them together in a complex and impressive way to create an original piece. This is possible because of the ease of communication that the digital age has brought about; through Twitter Dan Simpson sought some lines from the audience and participants of the Literary Salon and created a thought provoking piece to summarise the state of the digital publishing era: ‘Ceasing to exist is a reason to survive’.

It would be impossible to cover all of the topics discussed at the Literary Salon, so this is just an outline of some key points. It is clear that technology is changing the way people interact but the extent to which this will affect the publishing industry is still unknown. One thing is clear; Digital Survival is making the publishing industry even more vibrant than ever before.

Publishing E-books

One of the most interesting topics to arise during the #digitalsurvival Literary Salon was the question of whether authors deserve higher royalty rates on e-book publications.

‘What’s the deal?’ was the question from a member of the audience that got the literary salon buzzing and started an in-depth discussion. On face value, the question was simple: how much does an author get paid per e-book sold, in comparison to print books? But this one question leads to a myriad of technical, ethical and traditional complications.

As a literary agent, author, and digital publisher, Allan Guthrie has a perfect perspective of the publishing industry in order to answer this question. Guthrie claimed that the set rate of most publishers is 25% and this is a non-negotiable figure, his personal opinion is that this is ‘daylight robbery’ – an opinion shared by many.

The main issue surrounding this subject is whether publishers can justify taking such a large cut of the profits. In the past, publishers were the investors, with capital at stake in order to pay the risky costs of editing, designing, printing and marketing a book. However, some of these costs, particularly printing ones, are eradicated with digital publishing. Publishers lose less capital from producing an unsuccessful e-book than a printed one and the main bonus is that they have no stock left to shift that has not sold on a ‘sale or return’ basis, because stock in the e-book world is virtual.

The digital age has allowed fast-moving entrepreneurs to successfully publish in a digital environment, such as two of the Loughborough Literary Salon’s speakers, Allan Guthrie and Ben Galley. Guthrie was early to pick up on the rise of the e-market and set up ‘Blasted Heath’, Scotland’s very first digital-only publishing house. Ben Galley used the digital platform to take a leap into sci-fi writing and self-publishing, with hard graft he has become a very successful author and self-publisher.

There are many benefits of self-publishing, the main one being that the author keeps all of the hard-earned profits. Another good reason for self-publishing is the autonomy it provides; complete control over those precious words. Also, it is reassuring that many individuals have managed it, proving that it is most certainly a viable way for an author to get their work out to readers.

Of course, there are also many benefits of being associated with a publishing house; their reputation, satisfaction of being recognised by the publisher, likely success if the publisher is well known, high quality of the finished product and the list goes on…

Ben Galley was asked whether he would consider a publishing deal in the position he is currently in, with two books from his Emaneska trilogy already hugely successful. Galley’s answer was that he would consider it, but would not take back what he has accomplished through self-publishing. This highlights the fact that a contract with a publishing house is still a much coveted achievement, but it is not the only way to exist in the world of books.

Everyone with an interest in publishing is broadly aware of the fact that e-book sales are rising dramatically; only time will tell where the role of the publisher will fit in in this relatively new digital age of e-reading and whether they will keep a hold on the power they developed during the long printed-book era.

Review: Zadie Smith, N-W

Being a student I don’t generally buy ‘expensive’ hardcopies of any books. However, I attempted to wait for the release of Zadie Smith’s newest novel, N-W, in paperback and failed miserably. I managed a meagre two weeks before giving in and forking out £14.99 for the hardback from WHSmiths. I probably (almost definitely) could have gotten it cheaper offline, but I just didn’t want to wait for the delivery.

I must admit, I was a little bit let down by the cover of the book, which is nothing special. Perhaps my judgement is harsh because of the fantastic covers of Zadie Smith’s other books, particularly ‘The Book of Other People’, which is a short story collection that Zadie Smith was the editor of.

So, ignoring my lack of passion for the cover, I delved into the novel expecting one of Zadie Smith’s usual gripping introductions, but I found myself struggling to concentrate on the narrative. This was entirely because the dialogue was formed without quotation marks and instead used dashes to mark a new speaker. As a result, it sometimes required the rereading of sections to work out which of the characters said what. I’d like to think that invoking a struggle for the reader was entirely intentional, to reflect the problems in the characters’ lives, but even if not, it is difficult to fault Zadie Smith for experimenting with this quirky style as she has tried different things with her other novels which have worked wonderfully, such as the string of emails in ‘On Beauty’.

Regardless, I persevered with the novel, thinking that perhaps my expectations had been raised too high by Zadie Smith’s previous work. Eventually my patience was rewarded; in the second section the focus shifted and the annoying dashes had been ditched and speech marks returned (never again will I take speech marks for granted). I followed the story of Felix with curiosity, wondering where it was leading to and this question stuck with me throughout the novel, until all of the loose strings were tied up quite nicely at the very end of the book.

All in all, N-W gives the reader a lot to think about, much more than it explicitly states. There are constant suggestions about the state of society and about the members of a community struggling to cope in their urban surroundings. I cannot say it was my favourite of Zadie Smith’s novels, but N-W does back up the fact that she is an undeniably fine writer tackling the details and difficulties of modern culture.

Afternoon Tea with Persephone Books

For the second event at the Durham Book Festival 2012, Nicola Beauman, the founder of Persephone Books, joined some of her devoted readers for a wonderful afternoon tea at the stunning Bowes Museum.

As the intimate audience of about sixty Persephone Books fans tucked into tea and warm scones (with jam and cream of course!), Nicola Beauman took to the floor to talk about all things publishing, beginning with a question of taste. This big question is what brought Persephone Books into existence, as Nicola Beauman felt there were high quality books, written not so long ago, that had been shelved by publishers and left remarkably difficult for readers to get hold of. Due to producing high quality productions of some such titles, Persephone Books has developed a wide ranging readership. Ashamedly, I have only quite recently discovered the pleasure of Persephone Books, but there are some readers who have taken the twelve year journey alongside this quaint publishing business; one lady in particular has collected every single one of the biannual mail catalogues of Persephone Books. This just goes to show that once you experience one Persephone Book, you are sure to want another!

From a publishing perspective, the most interesting topic discussed was of how Persephone titles are chosen. It is a big undertaking to publish any book (both financially and emotionally) and so the publisher must feel absolutely sure in the decision making process. Persephone Books is able to function because of the copyright law and by choosing books that are still in copyright but are no longer in print. Nicola Beauman said that she checks Amazon for titles before even considering whether to publish, because if a book is available for just pennies (or free as an e-book) it is difficult to breakeven from a reprint that is required to sell in the thousands at a considerably higher price.

When one thinks of beautiful books, one naturally thinks of Persephone, and so design was inevitably another theme of discussion. The love that has been poured into every single Persephone book is evident and this is presumably why the Persephone market for gifts is thriving. It seems odd that such well put together and intricately designed books should be a standard grey colour and the audience at the Afternoon Tea were very amused when Nicola Beauman mentioned a sign next to one bookshop’s collection of Persephone Books stating: ‘one shade of grey’, but it is true that the bland grey colour stands out on any bookshelf.

Although I have admired the endpapers of many a Persephone book, I must admit I never really gave much thought as to how each was chosen. It turns out that a lot of thought and research goes into the selecting of the pattern that will appear as the endpaper, as they are in fact fabrics or textiles that were designed at the same time that the novel in question was written.

If you have never heard of Persephone Books before and are considering which to purchase, the favourite author of many people in the Afternoon Tea audience was Dorothy Whipple, but I don’t recommend her work for the faint hearted! If Whipple doesn’t take your fancy, Persephone Books is sure to have something for you as they are now celebrating the publication of their 100th title, giving readers lots to choose from!

An Audience with Sue Townsend

Childhood dreams of glamour; while waiting for her bus she’d peer through the sloped window of a posh hotel in Leicester, where the punters used cigarette holders. She’d watch the gay bar tender totter around in his black stilettoes; Sue had achieved this dream and was in fact wearing a pair of shiny black heels. What a long way to have come, that same girl who only learned to read when she was eight and left school at fifteen went on to achieve multinational success in the bookselling world.

Perhaps it is Sue Townsend’s background that makes her so humble, Sue quoted Plato when she said: ‘Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle’, as she signed towards her heart. It is the fact that Sue can find something good in everyone that allowed her to refine her compassion and inherent interest in other people and the stories they have to tell. From this she was able to learn how real people feel and respond to given situations, through these understandings of human behaviour she manages to create characters with such strong and seemingly real personalities. This is especially true of the infamous Adrian Mole, who Sue actually talks about as though he’s a real person, explaining that he celebrated his forty-fifth birthday last month.

Of course, such success is never achieved without some hard graft, Sue admitted to rewriting one particular film script thirty-seven times. After progressing through a number of these, the producer began to wonder: perhaps the first version was the best? Sue commented that she had restrained from getting annoyed with him, and simply preserved with her work.

The topic of conversation turned to a specific work: Womberang, Sue’s first play. From this she learnt that directors had a lot of control over stage productions, as her carefully-crafted Bernard Shaw style stage directions were very much over-looked. Alongside this, she realised that actors can be very particular about phrases which they are able to pronounce, but regardless of meddling directors and whinging actors, Sue stuck it out and became a very successful playwright.

As final bit of gossip, Sue did let on that she would be beginning the next book in the Adrian Mole series the following day, apparently she has no idea what path the story is going to take- except there will be an inclusion of a certain box…

And so, An Audience with Sue Townsend was exactly as I imagined it would be: insightful, inspirational and, of course, full of wit and humour.