Friday, 15 December 2017

Visit Wales and Year of the Sea

Press release from the Welsh Government celebrating the success of their recent new marketing strategy, with a big rebranding exercise, a new typeface (which is rather nice, I think) and a lot of high-pressure salesmanship.  Well, that's what marketing is about, in a highly competitive environment......

All the info is here:

So it's good to know that visitor numbers are up and that the extra spend on these high profile campaigns is paying dividends.  Thus far there have been two "themed years" -- Year of Adventure and Year of Legends.  Next year will be Year of the Sea and then the one after that will be Year of Discovery.

The first year had one imaginative and much-reported stunt which went on through the summer -- the location of some giant letters spelling out "EPIC" in assorted key locations which were not announced in advance.

Now then -- in a spirit of helpfulness, here is an idea for Visit Wales for the Year of the Sea.  They could have another set of giant letters which could be moved all over the place at dead of night, springing up here, there and everywhere, accompanied by the cheers of locals and visitors alike.......  it would be cheaper then the campaign using the word "EPIC" (with four letters) because the word to be used is:




A celebration of our Epic Shores – Year of the Sea 2018 gets underway
Today, Tourism Minister, Lord Elis-Thomas will launch Wales’ third themed year – Year of the Sea 2018. 
Monday 11 December 2017

Next year will be the opportunity for Wales to make its mark as the UK’s top 21st century coastal destination.

• building on Wales’ strengths as a leading 21st Century coastal destination
• Olympian Hannah Mills announced as Ambassador for Year of the Sea
Following the success of Year of Adventure 2016 and Year of Legends 2017, Year of the Sea is a continuation of Visit Wales’ work to reinforce positive perceptions and challenge any outdated perceptions of Wales by promoting our world-class products, activities, events and experiences.

The themed years were developed to build on stand-out strengths of Wales’ tourism offer and to capitalise on major events opportunities happening that year. 

The Tourism Minister, said: 

“Following a focus on adventure and legends, we now have an opportunity to celebrate Wales’ coastline and build on Wales’ strengths as a coastal destination.   As we launch this new initiative it’s fantastic news that the Rough Guides have named Wales as one of the top 5 places in the world to visit – testimony that we’re making a name for ourselves in this global market place. 

“The themed year gives us a chance to celebrate our unique 870-mile Wales Coast Path, our 230 beaches and 50 islands and the fact that we have more Blue Flag beaches per mile than anywhere else in Britain. 

“Year of the Sea will be about more than our coastline. We’ll be using the year as an opportunity to focus on Wales’ shores, and this will include not only our seas, but everything from our lakes, to our rivers, and journeys to the sea and will be a celebration of our coastal communities and culture.  We’ll be using the Wales Way, an ambitious new family of three national scenic touring routes that cross the country’s most epic landscapes as a way of showcasing Wales’ fascinating history, coastlines and attractions.”

“This year, leading up to 2018 has been a time for planning and developing and establishing new partnerships. Sustainability and Marine Environment are high on the agenda as is safety on the sea and ensuring that everyone enjoys the beaches, but in a responsible manner.”

The Welsh Government has recently launched a consultation on the Welsh National Marine Plan with a commitment to secure a joined up and sustainable approach to the planning and management of our coast and sea and to help achieve our vision of clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse seas.

The guiding objectives in developing the Welsh National Marine Plan are we will achieve more by working together with stakeholders to preserve our coastal communities, awe inspiring coast, seas and wildlife whilst developing our maritime economy. 

Hannah Mills, MBE, double Olympic medalist and Cardiff-born sailor will today be announced as Ambassador for Year of the Sea 2018, Hannah said:  

“I am so excited to be involved in Year of the Sea. Growing up in Cardiff and exploring the coasts and seas around Wales from Anglesey to Mumbles, the Welsh coastline has had a huge impact on shaping my earlier career.  Those memories and beautiful experiences sailing in such a stunning place remain very firmly in my mind.  My family are still based in Cardiff, and for me it will always be home.  When I won gold in Rio, the warmth and support I got from back home was phenomenal.”

The themed years also make a difference to Wales’ economy. The first of Wales’ themed years in 2016 generated an additional £370 million for the Welsh economy – an 18% increase on 2015.  This shows visitors were definitely influenced by Visit Wales marketing before taking a trip to Wales.

During 2017 - the Year of Legends - figures from the Tourism Barometer survey are looking positive with 42% of respondents reporting more visitors than last year.  There were also record breaking visitor numbers to Cadw and National Museum Wales sites over the Summer.

The Welsh Government is investing significantly in projects which will help promote Year of the Sea in Wales.  More than £2 million had been shared by for a total of 38 projects across Wales under the Tourism Product Innovation Fund and Regional Tourism Engagement Fund which enables the private and public sectors to develop innovative projects and support the themed years.

To coincide with the Launch of the Year of the Sea, St Davids based TYF Adventure will launch a new product for 2018 –SUPKids programme which is designed to teach children (5-12 years old) Stand Up Paddle boarding, water safety & environmental education and was funded through Visit Wales.  

Significant investment will also be made in Coastal locations through Welsh Government EU funded Tourism Attractor Destination scheme.  
Colwyn Bay Waterfront project will open in 2018 an investment of £3.9million; work on the £5.5 million Porthcawl Maritime Centre is also underway,  and £6.6million investment for  a new terminus building for the Welsh Highland Railway in Caernarfon  and extension to cultural facilities at Galeri as part of the wider programme to regenerate Caernarfon’s Waterfront. 
The Welsh Government’s Tourism Investment Support Scheme continues to drive a higher quality offer, recently supporting a number of accommodation projects on Wales’ coast as well as investing in improving coastal food offer, examples include Dylan’s in north Wales, Bryn Williams in Colwyn Bay; Coast in Saundersfoot; The Griffin Inn, Dale; Twr y Felin St Davids.
The Volvo Ocean Race also takes place next year - the world’s toughest and most prestigious sailing event which will come to Cardiff in May and June 2018.  Andrew Pindar; Volvo Ocean Race Ambassador will attend the launch to give a flavour of what Cardiff can expect next year.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Letter to a Young Writer


22 November 2017

Brian John

The deliberations of the Assembly Culture Committee on the support mechanisms for literature and publishing in Wales have brought into focus the extraordinary degree to which the act of writing is subsidised in Wales.  There are widely differing views on whether this represents a sensible use of scarce resources.  I have been moved to pen a short epistle to somebody called Becca.

Dear Becca

So you want to be a writer?  In Wales?  I crave your indulgence, and I hope that you’ll wish to read what follows.

I have some advice for you.  Why should you wish to pay attention?  Well,  I’ve been writing and publishing things in Wales for more than 50 years, and have greatly enjoyed the experience.  I have 92 books to my name, including many published by the London publishing houses. My books don’t sell by the millions, but many of them have sold tens of thousands, and I count myself as a successful writer who has made a modest living and who knows the ways of the publishing world.  I still get a thrill when the first copy of a new book arrives in the post.

It’s a good time to be a writer in Wales.  For a start, there is abundant cash available (courtesy of the taxpayer) for writers' bursaries and in the form of publishing grants.  There is mentoring as well.  You can tap into the system to help you to get your book written, and all being well your publisher can publish it without having to carry any commercial risk.  Since the money is there, you will be stupid if you don't try to get your hands on some of it.  And if you get your £3,000 (or whatever) you can tell the world that the bursary has “bought you writing time” and that you feel empowered and validated as a bona fide author.  You’ll get a nice rosy glow.

Then there is the support provided by those who will tell you, on all sides, that you are an artist who should be valued by Welsh society.  There is a mutual admiration society out there, and crowds of people who want you to join.  Wales prides itself on its vibrant literary culture, does it not?  Artists in Wales who work with words, as we all know, must write from the heart, regardless of commercial considerations, and say whatever they are moved to say about the human condition.  They should suffer and persist in the face of endless adversity; but a bursary helps, of course, to make the misery easier to bear. As in all of the creative arts, most artists fall by the wayside, but every now and then a superstar emerges, and the advocates of the subsidy system say that it is thus vindicated. This knowledge helps to drive you on, with encouragement on all sides.  But beware.

Forgive me for saying so, but you are probably not an artist at all.  You are probably an apprentice.  If you start writing now, and do reasonably well by finding a constituency and writing things that your readers enjoy, you might become a journeyman.  You should start earning money from book sales.  Persist, and you might become a craftsman and even a master craftsman. After many years of writing and selling books, you will probably still not be an artist.  That accolade is normally reserved for some of those who are dead, or who happen to speak with such unique voices that people want their books before they are published, or maybe before they are written.  

Think carefully about your own status and aspirations.  When I started as a writer, nobody "bought time" for me.  I paid for it myself, burnt midnight oil, and made hard choices.  The things I wrote were aimed at particular constituencies, and published at full commercial risk, after great deliberation, without any grant aid at any stage of the process.  Some books were more successful than others, but not one of them was ever remaindered or pulped.  Most of the really successful writers in Wales have followed the same risky but ultimately satisfying route. 

So beware of vanity.  If you insist on writing what is in your head or your heart, with no regard for what the book-buying public actually wants, no matter what your talent may be, you are a vanity writer.  Join the club. Hop aboard the gravy train. Wales is full of people like you, writing and publishing books that hardly anybody wants or reads.  If your book sells 500 copies it will be doing well. The publisher will not worry, since the cost of production is paid for by the taxpayer.  I am not the first person to have noticed that there is a nationally-sanctioned vanity publishing industry out there, on a vast scale, producing hundreds of titles each year in both Welsh and English.  Success is measured by the number of titles published, and how “professional” they look. This costs the taxpayer millions of pounds a year.  Money well spent?  What do you think?

Take it from me.  The only valid measure of your worth as a writer is a commercial one.  You are the creator of a product, and if you think that the world must have that product, even if it does not want it, are you not being just a little arrogant? Measured book sales are the only things that validate you as a writer.  Not books distributed, books given away, books reviewed or given as prizes, or books adopted for university courses — but books SOLD.  

It may take many years for your book sales to reach the thousands, but if you are talented, determined, and persistent, you’ll get there.  Then you will have a solid following and a real constituency. People will ring you up, write to you, shake your hand at signing sessions, and thank you with tears in their eyes for transporting them to other worlds and making their lives better.  At that stage, you will have an emotional as well as a commercial contract with your readers — and that is the ultimate pleasure of a writer’s life.

One last thought.  If you can’t write without making sacrifices, and without grant aid, you should think very seriously about doing something else instead. For a literary scene which is based largely on a subsidy culture, as it is in Wales, is not vibrant at all.  It is moribund, forcing writers into a dependency culture which is both demoralising and demeaning. It’s wonderful to see your first book in print, but dispiriting when you discover than nobody wants to buy it.   The writers who sit on the streets with their begging bowls are “helped” by  paid officials who distribute largesse which comes from the taxpayer, and who determine which writers will be promoted and which will be ignored.  And who are these bureaucrats?  Why, probably people who have never written anything successful in their lives.

Take my advice.  Write if you must, but beware of siren voices and carrots dangled from sticks.  The voices may soon be silenced, and the carrots taken away.



Literature Wales and the cultivation of patronage

Literature Wales and the cultivation of patronage


Literature Wales, the national company for the development of literature in Wales, also calls itself “the society of writers” (1). But to what extent does it serve the interests of writers, in the same way that the Society of Authors serves writers in England? (2)   According to some commentators in 2017, the answer is “hardly at all” (3).

Somehow, LW has transformed itself into an organization extending its reach into fields such as the arts and tourism, with much of its time spent on marketing. It also devotes much energy simply to ensuring its own survival — and in the process spending around 75% of its income in-house.  (When that happens  — and I speak from a position of awareness, having been involved in such an organization myself, some years ago — it’s time to call it a day.)  As its aspirations have increased, its arrogance and sense of entitlement have also grown, and this was remarked upon by the Medwin Hughes Panel members (4).  The staff and working panels of Literature Wales appear, from the outside, to be accountable to nobody; and although they are no doubt committed, highly motivated and hard-working, in a very subtle way they have come to see themselves as "the professionals" and as "the experts" who determine which writers will be supported in their careers, and which ones will be ignored. (This “expert takeover” is by no means unusual — we see it in many other organizations as well, including local authorities!)

As noted by the Medwin Hughes Panel, the senior staff of Literature Wales have accrued powers of patronage to an extraordinary degree, without any apparent interference from the organization’s own Chairman and Management Board, and under the noses of Arts Council Wales, which is responsible for funding and due diligence testing.  The writers of Wales (without whom there would be no Welsh literary activity or books) have long since ceased to have any influence over the appointment of Management Board members or the appointment of staff.  The old membership-based body called the Welsh Academy has been allowed to wither on the vine, quite probably as a matter of policy.  As pointed out in previous posts (5), it holds no elections for Management Board membership, and there is no democratic involvement in the appointment of presidents, fellows or honorary members. It holds no meetings. Nobody sees any annual accounts, although there is still an income stream from membership subscriptions.  Much of this income stream is siphoned off (without the consent of members) to Literature Wales (6).  The online membership data-base, with web entries for all the writers in Wales, which was accessible to the public, was suddenly taken down by Literature Wales without advance warning, and has not been revised or up-dated.  LW staff now claim that when they receive enquiries from schools and colleges, literary festivals or book clubs for “appropriate speakers”, they will pass on the names of “suitable” writers.  That is unacceptable patronage, open to favouritism and corruption. There is no transparency in the appointment of bursary panel members, judges for the Wales Book of the Year awards, the leaders of literary tourism events, or the tutors for courses at Ty Newydd. There was no effective input from writers other than the “invited experts” into the Land of Legends web site which purported to flag up the best of the Welsh literary heritage to the world (7). Who chooses the “experts”?  Who decides on the workshop leaders for the South Wales Literature Development Initiative?   Who appoints the “experienced mentors” who help in the LM Mentoring Scheme for Writers? Who decides which Writers on Tour will be funded?    Who invites writers to participate in special events such as the celebrations of Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas?

In all of the above fields, where there is no direct involvement from the writers of Wales or their elected representatives, the potential for favouritism or corruption is rife, and accusations of patronage are inevitable, especally when the same names pop up over and again as one digs a little deeper.  How many of these "favoured writers” are paid for the duties they perform, and how much are they paid?(8)  These matters should of course be under the strict conrol of the Chair and Management Board of LW, but the Medwin Hughes Panel raised major concerns about the apparent semi-detachment of the Board, which seemed to content itself with rubber stamping decisions already made by the Chief Executive and other senior employees rather than controlling and directing the activities of the executive.  This smacks of poor leadership, ineffective governance and even negligence.  An executive with a strong-willed leader will always assume “delegated powers” unless it is brought to heel and told in no uncertain terms where its powers begin and end. (This happens in Parliament too!)

So there is an appearance that the Chief Executive and senior officers of Literature Wales run a sort of fiefdom from their Cardiff HQ, with minimal interference from their Management Board or from anybody else. Whether or not that is actually the situation, appearances are crucial, and as Jasmine Donahaye said of Literature Wales in July 2017, "It’s been poorly managed and poorly governed, and its accountability to its funding body, the Arts Council, has been woefully inadequate. ……..Many writers have clearly felt increasingly alienated from Literature Wales and the direction it has taken.” (9)

As I have said before, that is a profoundly dangerous scenario, involving dependency on the one side and patronage on the other. To our eternal shame the writers of Wales have allowed themselves to slip into an acceptance of it.  The rise and rise of the subsidy culture has created a generation of writers who measure their status not by the reputation and commercial success of their published outputs but by the number of bursaries they have received.  Weirdly, they see themselves as "artists" rather than craftsmen.  The literary culture to which they belong is dominated by Literature Wales, playing the role of the benefactor, with writers lining up each year with their begging bowls and then expressing eternal gratitude whenever a few goodies come their way.  Even more distressing is the sight of respectable academic writers and talented new authors using social media to say that the receipt of a bursary of maybe £2,000, and the provision of a modest amount of mentoring help,  has given a sudden boost to their self-esteem and has somehow "vindicated" or "validated" them as writers.  They appear to be blissfully unaware of how demeaning the whole relationship has become……….. (10)

So what is to be done?  First, we should recognize that Literature Wales is a body which has such a high opinion of itself that it will inevitably resist transformation from within or reformation / restructuring imposed from elsewhere.  In my view it is no longer fit for purpose, and it should be dissolved.  The good things that it has been doing (and there are many) can easily be transferred.  Its book and writer promotion activities (including bursaries, mentoring and book prizes) can be transferred to the Welsh Books Council.  Its literary tourism  activities would sit much better in a dedicated unit within Visit Wales.  Ty Newydd writer’s centre should be run by a small new organization tasked with making it profitable.  And the Welsh Academy should be reconstituted so that it can be run by writers for the benefit of writers in Wales, using the Society of Authors as a model.

The new Culture Minister, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, can change the current system for the better when he announces his decisions on the restructuring of the literature and publishing industry in Wales — but ultimately it’s down to the industry itself to get itself organized, to fight for change, and to recover its self-respect. 

Brian John, 14th December 2017


Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Welsh Talking Books -- a thunderous silence

While I have been trying to track down the original digital audio files for "On Angel Mountain"  and "House of Angels" (from Clipper Audio, who issued the audio versions as cassettes in 2006 and 2007) I have also been doing some research into the number of Welsh stories -- in Welsh or English --are to found in the catalogues.   I assumed that there would be many, issued by the bigger Welsh publishers like Parthian, Seren, Gomer and Honno -- intended both for the growing audiobook market and for the more niche market of visually impaired people.

I contacted the county library, the National Library of Wales, the Welsh Books Council, blind societies and other organizations and was amazed to find that there is NOTHING.  Zilch.  No Welsh books published in Wales available for purchase and download from a Welsh "audio-library" or store.  That's quite amazing, demonstrating that Welsh publishers are very slow off the mark when it comes to getting involved with the latest publishing trends and also (and this is the sad bit) apparently ignoring a responsibility placed on all of us to try and provide for the disadvantaged groups in society.  Currently the only way that blind people can access Welsh fiction, for example, is to find somebody prepared to read aloud to them for between 10 and 15 hours, or to slot into one of the schemes run by organizations such as the Ceredigion Association of the Blind, who have volunteer readers who are prepared to make informal tape recordings  for use by members.  But no matter how kind and committed those readers are, they would be the first to admit that they cannot reproduce the voices of trained actors or narrators who can "perform" and mimic the voices of characters rather than simply reading the words from the page........

I'm not criticising anybody here, and since making all of these contacts I have been greatly heartened by the positive attitudes on all sides.  I'm now convinced that there is sufficient goodwill for things to happen, and indeed I am aware that meetings are planned, and a real prospect that facilities will be made available (and possibly some grant aid too) to help selected titles to be recorded and issued as digital audiobooks.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could initially get a catalogue of maybe 20 or 30 audiobooks of Welsh novels, each one available for download for leisure listening  by car drivers and commuters and also available for the visually impaired?  The blind societies are enthusiastic, as are People's Collection Wales, the organizers of the Calibre audio library, the National Library and the Welsh Books Council.

The problems -- and there are many -- relate above all else to costs.  I could of course use the Amazon service available via the Audible web site:

This is all very fine, and the claim is that you can record an audiobook for less than $100 -- but then you would have to do the narration yourself or find somebody who is prepared to do it for free.  If you have to pay for equipment hire, studio hire,  a producer and an actor, and then for editing and uploading to a site such as Audible, the cost could be in excess of £6,000 per audiobook -- and you would need to sell a lot of downloads  before you start moving into profit.  This is especially true in a small country like Wales, where the market is actually quite limited.

The good news is that there are Welsh audiobooks which have been issued by English publishing houses.  "Rape of the fair Country" and "Hosts of Rebecca" are available as audiobooks produced by Chocolatefox Audiobooks, as are "Resistance" by Owen Sheers and a few other titles.  A number of the Welsh novels by Iris Gower and Catrin Collier are also available in cassette format, but I am not sure about availability as digital audiobooks.

However, one must not be deterred, and I am exploring avenues.  Watch -- or listen to -- this space......

Rape of the Fair Country

The Hosts of Rebecca (9 hrs 48 mins)

Monday, 11 December 2017

Light on Carningli

A gorgeous picture of winter light over Carningli -- courtesy of the Newport Pembs web page.  Well worth sharing.......

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Those old audiobooks

These are the two audiobooks published by Clipper Audio in 2006 and 2007. On Angel Mountain is on 11 cassettes and has a listening time of 15 hours, and House of Angels is on 16 cassettes and has a listening time of over 18 hours. The recordings (using Jonathan Keeble and Leanne Masterton as the readers) are pretty good, but the marketing of them was appalling, and I am still completely mystified as to why they used paintings of Sicilian landscapes on the covers of both the packages! Apparently they did CD versions as well, but although they were supposed to have sent them to me as the author and copyright holder, they never did. Now they have neither any cassettes of CDs left, and the two audiobooks have dropped off their catalogue. I am trying to sort something out so that these versions can be re-issued, but I am not that hopeful...... watch this space.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Mistress Martha needs a voice.........

Wanted -- a voice for Martha Morgan!

Now that we have a face for Martha Morgan (created during our "Martha Morgan Country" project involving model Rhiannon James and photographer Steve Mallett) we have made good progress on the "branding" of Angel Mountain and Martha Morgan Country.

For the next phase in our brand enhancement project we need a voice for the heroine.

We want a young female voice belonging to somebody who could narrate some extracts from the first three and the last two novels (where Martha is aged 18 - 40) and an older female voice for books 4, 5 and 6 (where Martha is, shall we say, more mature........) The voice should be strong, contralto rather than soprano, with a discernible Welsh accent. Obviously somebody with acting experience would be best suited, but there may well be hidden talents out there!

If anybody out there wants to put themselves forward, please send us an Email, and we'll explain how the audition process will work. If you know of anybody else who might be interested, please pass on this info to her and ask her to get in touch.

Interesting developments in the pipeline.......

Friday, 1 December 2017

Who needs Literature Wales?

From "Dragon Red" by Shoo Rayner

Who needs Literature Wales?  This question is currently in the frame as the new Culture Minister, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, receives advice from the Assembly's Culture Committee and as he considers the options for reorganizing literature and publishing in our country.

In a hard-hitting article last July, author Jasmine Donahaye said (with respect to the criticisms of the Medwin Hughes Panel):   "Literature Wales has had this coming for a long time. It’s been poorly managed and poorly governed, and its accountability to its funding body, the Arts Council, has been woefully inadequate. Perhaps the review panel ran out of vituperation after its condemnation of Literature Wales though, for precious little is saved in the report for the Arts Council, even though it is the Arts Council that has allowed Literature Wales to operate with apparent risk to public money...........Many writers have clearly felt increasingly alienated from Literature Wales and the direction it has taken."

There are clearly many writers in Wales who feel that Literature Wales has become such a strange organization that we would all be better off without it.   Here are some of the written comments received by the Medwin Hughes Panel, when considering the support mechanisms for literature and publishing in Wales.  Correspondents' names are not publicised.  There are plenty of supportive comments (mostly from those who have been in receipt of bursaries) but these are some of the critical comments that deserve an airing:

Literature Wales does a number of very good things but it is too fragmented and too vulnerable to the whims of Welsh Government policy.

The remit of the organisation is confused and confusing. It does not represent writers' interests, nor does it promote writers. It is not a writers' agency. Indeed many writers object loudly and persistently to its focus on literary tourism, its downgrading of Book of the Year, and its popular projects that have little bearing on current writers and the promotion of their work. The Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl projects are nothing to do with current Welsh writers or their work. In fact they have served to eclipse Welsh writers, and reinforce internationally narrow and limited view of Welsh literature. 
Big branding projects such as celebrating dead authors connected to Wales are not working in the long term. They look backwards in time, they are top-down, and in the case of Roald Dahl they make Wales look desperate because they seem to want to rub off some of a great international writer’s shine onto Wales and looks as if we don’t have a contemporary scene. Of course there are piecemeal efforts to include contemporary writers in these projects but the main aim seems to be about associating Wales with existing older brands. This model could be pretty damaging in the long-run.

The money Lit Wales spends on activities associated with long-dead writers. Whilst I have no problem whatsoever in celebrating Wales' rich and diverse literary culture, and in bringing its writers to new audience, I do question the value of the Dylan Thomas centenary (and the now annual Dylan Day) and the Dahl centenary. This seems to me thinly disguised tourism, centred almost solely in South Wales, which supports already wealthy literary estates, while the development of new talent and the sustainability of the publishers face cuts after cuts. Lit Wales does some brilliant, important work, but this policy of giving money to the dead is very short-sighted. The impact on further cuts to Welsh publishing as a result of this will have a long-term cost to literary culture in Wales, particularly for the next Dylan Thomases.

The services (especially Literature Wales) are not joined up and do not seem to work in a grassroots consultative way with the whole scene. This means resources are wasted because they don’t take advantage of the talent and connections already working in the field and often it seems LW promote poor quality work because they are not able to reach out to the scene and find what is working and seem competitive rather than collaborative.

I cannot see the pathways from Literature Wales' bursaries to the Welsh publishers. There could potentially be a more connected partnership, particularly where emerging writers are concerned, that extends beyond the bursary and critical mentoring into support for first publication.

Literature Wales is not really working as well as it should. It is only really good at promoting itself. It needs a new vision, a different kind of leadership in order to be properly collaborative, responsive and imaginative.

The Lit Wales website needs revamping, it is old fashioned, it makes it difficult to find out how and when or even if the bursaries are available and it could be a lot more active on social media.

There are some schemes run by Literature Wales that fund writers directly, and encourage writing from a young age, and these should be the core projects. There are times when a showcase for writers is useful, but it's of limited value if we're not encouraging new writers and readers.

Literary festivals, and I am thinking particularly of Dinefwr, should have more literature and comparatively less popular music and reliance on 'stars' to bring in the punters. Careful thought should be given to what literature festivals are actually for.

There should be far less emphasis on 'competitions'. There is a place for one or two such as the Wales Book of the Year or the John Tripp prize for spoken poetry but the apparently endless proliferation of them devalues the whole art of writing. Writers should encouraged to engage readers, not strive to win competitions. Selling books is a finer achievement than winning prizes and does more to raise the profile of writers in Wales.

Literature Wales' bursaries for writers scheme is not responsive to the needs of writers. The length of time between making an application for funding and getting a decision, is too long. A faster scheme for smaller projects - say 1 month - would be much more writer friendly. 

Tŷ Newydd seems to be heading for privatisation under Literature Wales who seem to be looking for ways to make money out of through tourism and corporate events in order to recoup their losses because their courses are not full and the centre is unsustainable if it is not run properly (which it has been in the past). But it was a resource that was bought specifically for the writers of Wales, most of whom do not get its benefits because they cannot afford to visit. Who is now able to enjoy it? It seems mostly Literature Wales staff and well-off would-be writers. Perhaps a more co-operative model could be devised to make sure that the grassroots readers and writers can also benefit from it but also be a part of making it work - e.g. have a stake in its running.

The Writers on tour scheme is too cumbersome and poorly funded to achieve its aims. Literature Wales appears to focus on educational (school) initiatives and young writers rather than the writer community as a whole.

Get rid of Literature Wales and probably the whole Arts Council - consult, design and develop a new strategy to support literature in Wales (if necessary) - then consult design and develop some more - get *new* constituencies of people - especially writers and artists who are outside the core cabals.
Literature Wales has been made less effective and more bureaucratic by its reorganisation and the role of writers in it has been diminished. The semi-detachment of Academi from it has weakened the position of writers, and the abandoning of AGMs for Academi has deprived writers of an important forum. Cuts in funding for Writers on Tour are a major blow.

The value of Literature Wales is difficult to evaluate.
There is still an awful lot of creativity in the sector and when organisers and curators focus on quality - something that Literature Wales sometimes doesn’t seem able to do - some amazing things can happen. But as with anything in the current market economy, development is limited.

Literature Wales rarely publishes local events of reading series that do not adhere to a certain (unknown) mandate. Several highly interesting and well-known authors that have read in Cardiff received no notice.

Literature Wales only seems to work in Cardiff, Gwynedd (Ty Newydd) and wherever the Eisteddfod is. I cannot remember the last time I saw a LW event in West or Mid Wales. It is notable that the poetry scene is more connected in a community than the fiction scene (through my observations) - probably because of the distribution of live events.

We need a writers' organisation that is either separate from Literature Wales, or a Literature Wales that supports and promotes living, working writers. The Writers on Tour support has been cut so much as to make it difficult or impossible for many venues to pay writers for events; writers themselves will often find themselves out of pocket for events because of the poor fees payable and the poor rates of travel reimbursement. At the very least to show support for writers, the portion paid by Literature Wales should be returned to its previous level. Literature Wales needs to reassess its priorities, and shift funding from the big-scale literary spectacle and literary tourism to instead support sustainable levels of support and promotion of writers.

A lot of money from what I can see, goes towards promoting books via live events within Wales. Having seen an ad for the Art Tent in the Eisteddfod in The London Review of books recently made me wonder why welsh books aren't promoted that way - to a very broad spectrum of readers outside Wales? I feel that the live events are often poorly attended and are made up of those people who are all ready in the know.

The Welsh Academy & Literature Wales & the Welsh Government are all too close --- a bit of creative friction would produce a better result. The Welsh Literary Establishment appears as a clique ---- the same names featuring again and again with a tendency to endorse celebrity culture. There should be an effort towards democratisation. The outcomes would be more people being and feeling involved.

I would do things 100 per cent differently. Do not pander to the subsidy-junkies because they cannot, meaningfully, provide useful large-scale employment to the publishing sector. Target large London publishing houses to set up back office, even front office, operations here. This is exactly the approach that the Welsh government is taking in relation to professional services - and it has borne fruit. These are real, high value, tangible jobs, that are self sustaining. Attract the social media companies to set up publishing hubs in the city - the Buzzfeeds, the Facebooks, the Huffington Posts of this world. This involves selling and marketing to these operations, not simply shovelling cash to established, vested, interests.

I don't think English language fiction and non-fiction should be subsidised - they should be subjected to market forces. Whilst this would reduce the amount and nature of what is published, overall it should improve quality via proper editing and reduce the number of niche works by the same old names.

There is a clique of the same writers who receive a disproportionate amount of support/publication subsidy. There should be more attempts to publish and promote emerging writers on a national level.
The Welsh publishing industry is very heavily subsidised, to the extent that many books are published which would never have seen the light of day in England. That is because across the border publishers do not, by and large, publish books if they do not think they will sell and turn a profit. They have to carry the risks. In Wales, in contrast, many publishers inhabit a comfort zone in which subsidies enable them to publish books which hardly anybody actually wants -- and which will never repay their costs via sales. In other words, they are entirely non-commercial, and are products of a system entirely dependent upon subsidies and grants. It's easy to say: "Ah yes, we need those books anyway, because we need a vibrant publishing industry and because these books help us to define ourselves as a nation." But do we really need (and can we really afford?) a flood of non-commercial titles in Wales?

 Actual sales figures for books in Wales are seldom publicised. That is because it suits everybody to keep as quiet as possible. It is widely known that in Wales a book is counted as a "best seller" if it sells 700 copies. At that level, if the publishers were operating in a real commercial world, a book might just about cover its costs -- there is no way it could be considered as a best-seller.

The WBC grant aid programme for publishers specifically excludes aid to small publishers which are run by writers and which are in effect self-publishing enterprises. In other words, there is no attempt to differentiate between self-publishing and vanity publishing. This is not very sophisticated! I have published an 8-novel saga (set in West Wales) which has racked up sales of over 80,000 copies -- which means that the books are professionally produced and well enough written to have become highly successful. But I received no financial help from WBC. That was rather galling when I see grant aid being dished out to scores of titles that have sold hardly at all........ if I had received grant aid, I would have been able to put much more effort into marketing, design and publicity. (This comment was from me)

Self-published books are also barred from competitions, according to the current rules. So my main fiction title, which has sold over 35,000 copies, could not be entered and could not compete on a level playing field with other titles of lower quality and more limited appeal. (This comment was from me) Need to be more Commercial
The main challenges faced are those of developing a viable commercial model. The sector (apart from Accent Press) is almost entirely reliant on a grant system which in effect keeps large areas of publishing skill at 'amateur' level. With poor editors, authors remain poor in terms of skill and ability. With no real free-market testing or accountability, publishing is shielded from being competitive, with publishers instead choosing to chase (often pointless and self-promoted) awards as a success criteria instead of sales. The funding model means most publishers in Wales are actually incentivised NOT to sell lots of copies of a book, as this would leave them with a tougher case to make for winning the next grant. The whole scene is doomed to amateurism and as a result cannot produce a product capable of selling outside of Wales, and often not even capable of selling within Wales. I know no system like it in the world.

I wonder if a little more exposure to the hard commercial world might actually make the Welsh publishing scene a bit leaner and more efficient, without in any way threatening our civilisation and our great Welsh cultural traditions? For example, just to encourage publishers and writers to think a bit more seriously about what the market actually wants, and to take marketing rather more seriously, it might be rather a good idea to insist that if a book sells fewer than 1,000 copies in its first two years, any grants and subsidies paid must be paid back.......... and by that I mean REAL sales, involving real money, and excluding all returns.

Literature promotion agencies, grant-giving bodies and distributors within Wales need to ensure they understand the realities of the global publishing trade to target resources as effectively as possible at publishers as well as at readers and writers.

Cultural and Economic impact of the industry
The key challenge is the contradiction between cultural imperative and economic realities. Like any nation, Wales needs a thriving publishing industry that provides a platform for its own specific cultural output; to document its own history, its specific cultural heritage and traditions, in both languages.

Both the publishing sector and Literature Wales face the challenge of popular and government arguments about accessibility and value for money. Though both involve economic activity, and publishing supports a wide network of jobs, the value of cultural activity needs to be protected. It's indicative that where we once had a Culture Minister, the culture portfolio, which includes literature and publishing, is now a minor part of the Economy portfolio.

Balance between both languages
 Looking inwards the balance between the two main languages is always an area of debate. In theory English language literature and culture has the Anglophone world as its potential market while Welsh language authors need support due the limits of the audience. But Anglophone culture has to fight for a space in a crowded field, while the Welsh language community continues to support its authors and writers by buying their books. Parity is, I think, key.  Culture can function as means of uniting the nation across lines of language and background.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Writer's Bursaries in Wales -- what are the outcomes?

Antique pirate blunderbuss pistol.  With this, you are guaranteed to hit something when you pull the trigger, even with your eyes closed......

Writer's Bursaries in Wales -- what are the outcomes?

The writers’ bursary scheme operated by Literature Wales, with apparently widespread support, is a well established part of the Welsh literary scene. Published writers and new and emerging writers are eligible for awards, designed to enable them to concentrate on developing a specific work in progress across a twelve month period.  Both Welsh and English language projects are supported. For 2018, it appears that 20 writers will receive fixed bursary sums of £3k apiece, but in the past some of the recipients have been professors or well-paid senior academics with salaries in excess of £50,000 per year, and others have been already established and successful writers; this has led commentators like Julian Ruck to complain about a favoured few who enjoy a more or less continuous ride on a gravy train.   Others have also commented that there is a group of favoured writers who feature over and again in book prize shortlists, judging panels, literary tours, book fairs and festivals, and lists of cash grant recipients. There are complaints about revolving doors and an uncomfortably close relationship between certain university departments and the “literary establishment” based in Cardiff.  The employees of Literature Wales have acquired extraordinary powers of patronage, and can make or break literary careers.  The Welsh Academy, which existed to represent the interests of the Welsh writing community, has effectively been killed off.  That has happened under the noses of Arts Council Wales and the Welsh Government.  So is the literary scene in Wales shot through with corruption?  Or are revolving doors and incestuous relationships inevitable in a small country with a relatively small community of active writers?  Maybe the real problem is not cynical corruption but poor governance, inadequate “due diligence” testing, and slack financial controls.

The bursaries league table:

The bursaries list 2011 - 2017

Literature Wales reports that since 2004, it has awarded over £1.2 million in Writers’ Bursaries, supporting 259 writers, while generating 133 books.  That means that just half of the supported writers have gone on to complete and publish books, over a 13-year period.  The other half have produced, between them, a few articles. To give us some indication of value for money or cost-effectiveness, we need to see the audited sales figures to date, for each book published.

Before we come to that, we have to accept that there is great enthusiasm for the bursaries scheme among writers in Wales.  Last year there were 151 applications for funds, and but only 21 awards could be made.  The bursary panel was highly complimentary of the quality of the applications received. When we look at the comments of past bursary recipients, there is abundant and unabashed praise from those who feel that they have “bought time to write” or “time to dream”; from those who feel that they have been “valued” or “validated” as writers; or from those who have received help from the mentoring scheme.  That’s all great, and we cannot doubt that all those involved are expressing genuine sentiments.  After all, if there is money available, one would be foolish not to try and get hold of some of it.  And having got it, one does not bite the hand that feeds one!  Let's accept that the bursary scheme administered by LW probably does encourage people to write and does enhance creativity among aspiring writers.  Let’s also accept that the creative life of Wales is also enhanced in some way, and that a country in which a lot of people are writing creatively is a better place than a country in which people just read or watch the telly.  And as LW reminds us, every now and then a superstar comes through the ranks and gets a big publishing deal, and that makes everything worthwhile. The blunderbuss approach -- if your spread is wide enough, every now and then you will hit something.

But does this all indicate that Wales is a place which enjoys “a vibrant literary culture”?  Not necessarily.  It might actually be a literary culture that is virtually moribund, for if it depends upon public handouts in order to stay alive, that means it is incapable of surviving on its own in the harsh realities of the commercial world.  People who sit with begging bowls, expecting largesse, make things very uncomfortable for dispassionate observers -- and in their sycophancy and servility they demean themselves. And because the bursaries panel members “show faith in them” by giving them grants, they may actually develop completely unrealistic impressions of their own abilities.  Some of them apparently think that they are artists, when in fact they would be best described as apprentices beginning to learn a trade.

Let’s not forget that writers are the creators of products — the fruits of their labours are BOOKS, while artists produce paintings and potters make pots.  Writers need publishers if they are to survive -- they are the ones who get their books  into print and into the hands of the reading public.  But does the public actually want to read them or buy them?  This is a crunch question.

I don’t like the way that Julian Ruck attacks both the motives and the talents of named writers, and I have no intention of following his miserable example.  After all, I’m a writer myself, and I am not going to sit in judgment on my fellow writers.  I might express views on their books, as literary critics and avid readers have always done, but that is a different matter.  The only “outcome” that is measured by Literature Wales as a measure of the success — or otherwise — of the bursary programme is the number of books published by bursary recipients.  They don’t have to be big books, or expensive books, or good books — just books with authors, publishers and ISBNs which are more substantial than pamphlets or leaflets.  We know how many there are.  Thus far, as indicated above, 133 books have been published following the distribution of bursaries to 259 writers.  So half of the bursaries have led to books being published, and half have not. Is that an acceptable rate of return on investment?  Does that represent value for money for the taxpayer?  How many people have read these books?  Are the books wanted or needed by anybody other than the authors and their families?

Surprisingly (or is it?) nobody seems to have the answers to these questions.  I asked Literature Wales to provide me with the cumulative sales figures for each of the 133 books published, and obtained no response.  I asked them again, and they admitted that they didn’t keep any figures on book sales with respect to bursary recipients.  Neither does Arts Council Wales.  Neither does Welsh Books Council.  (This is in spite of all the books being counted as "arising from"  the bursary programme, which some of them clearly are not. The most successful ones, from the most talented authors, would probably have been published with or without grant aid.)  Rather cheekily, Lleucu Siencyn, the Chief Executive of LW, suggested that I could collect the book sales data myself, by sending 133 fees to Nielsen / Bookscan for their EPOS (electronic point of sale) information.  I explained to her that EPOS data are useless in Wales, since so few book retail outlets are linked into the relevant system.  She also suggested that the Welsh Books Council Distribution Depot in Abersytwyth might hold the data needed, and I had to explain to her that their figures are also unreliable since a large numbers of books sold in Wales do not pass through any wholesale warehouse.  The only reliable sales figures are those contained in the cumulative royalty statements kept by publishers and issued to their contracted authors.  I still await the figures for book sales…….. and I suspect that (apart from a few happy exceptions) they will make miserable reading.

It is still my conclusion, from an analysis of all the data I have been able to gather, that the 50% of bursary recipients who do write books are going to be deeply saddened when they realise that hardly anybody wants to buy them or read them. So are they winners or losers? The publishing of mediocre or bad books in Wales is very easy, because all of the larger Welsh publishers can publish with minimal commercial risk.  They can publish more or less what they want, and cover ALL of the publishing costs via publishing grant aid from the Welsh Books Council, meaning that it does not actually matter whether a title succeeds in the market place or not.  They do not even have to work hard on their marketing, and prefer to move on to the next project. That's a disservice both to writers and to the reading public.  Risk-free publishing or Publishing in Paradise, with titles coming off the production line whether or not the market actually wants them.  That’s another issue, worthy of another blog post, about which the taxpayer might have an opinion……..

Overall, when I look at the writer’s bursary scheme in Wales, I see a scheme run by well-meaning people who believe that they are encouraging creativity in the writing community, at relatively low cost to the taxpayer. They have a point.  However, the scheme's reputation is dragged down by the awards of multiple grants to favoured individuals (inviting accusations of favouritism within an establishment clique), by inadequate internal governance and external supervision, and by an apparent reluctance to accept that writing and publishing are commercial activities in a competitive market-place.  So I was not surprised the other day when I got a message from Catrin Collier (one of the most successful authors in Wales), who drew my attention to an old adage often repeated in commercial publishing houses: "When English writers write a book they look for a publisher - Welsh writers look for a bursary”.

What's to be done?  I have suggested to the Culture Minister on more than one occasion that he should insist on much tighter rules for the Bursary scheme.  Bursaries should become loans instead of grants. This is what I wrote in August:
"Please bring in a rule (enforcible by contract) stating that if a book sells fewer than 1,000 copies in its first two years, any grants and subsidies awarded to either writer or publisher must be paid back. That means REAL audited sales, involving real money, and excluding all returns............ This would encourage writers to think much more seriously about what they should spend their time on, and encourage publishers to be much more selective about what they publish.  With a bit of luck, we might get a move away from large-scale vanity publishing by a mutual admiration society into something which concentrates on what the market actually wants.  We might also get a recognition that publicity and marketing need to be taken much more seriously in Wales by a publishing industry which has been largely protected from this nasty thing called commercial risk."

In view of the fact that 50% of bursary recipients do not produce anything, I now suggest another rule stating that if a bursary recipient fails to publish a book within three years of receiving an award, then it must be repaid in full.  In other words, the bursary becomes a loan which may or may not be forgiven.  That may sound a bit harsh, but it would cut back dramatically on frivolous bursary applications, win respect from the taxpayer, and concentrate a few minds within the literary establishment. 

Jo Mazelis on being a Welsh writer

This is a very interesting 2015 article from Jo Mazelis -- well worth sharing.  The perception that -- in a literary sense -- nothing good comes out of Wales is rather widespread. As Jo says: "To be published in Wales is a very particular sort of thing, seemingly just one step removed from being published by a vanity press." This backs up what Catrin Collier said to me the other day, referring to an old adage often repeated in commercial publishing houses: "When English writers write a book they look for a publisher - Welsh writers look for a bursary". So do English readers, English bookshops and English publishers really look down their noses at Welsh writers, and assume that books published in Wales are too poorly written and "too parochial" ever to be of any interest anywhere else?  I have to say that this is the attitude I encountered when I tried to get "On Angel Mountain" published by a mainstream (ie English) publishing house.  I tried over 50 publishing houses, and they all said "Historical fiction set in Wales? Nobody reads that sort of stuff."  I doubt that any of them ever got as far as reading the first chapter which I sent with my letter.  I tried to get a London-based agent and wrote to more than 50 of them --and again the response was "Forget it.  Nobody reads historical fiction set in Wales."  So in the end I went it alone, and have thus far sold 36,000 copies of the book in spite of everything........

So what is the root of the problem, and what is to be done about it?  The issues are complex, and there are no easy answers to that question.  But for a start, we can reduce the ludicrous level of subsidies dished out in Wales to both writers and publishers, and stop the production of subsidised titles that nobody wants and nobody reads.  In other words, we must stop the Welsh vanity publishing industry in its tracks, dismantle it and replace it with something which is fit for purpose.  We must try to demonstrate to the world that Welsh books are good enough to have been published anywhere, that they are commercial in the sense that they are designed to sell into specific markets, and that Welsh writers are just as capable as writers anywhere else of producing titles with a truly international appeal.  Much work to be done......

Running Away
Once people took pride in local authors, but now 'local' means parochial  
Jo Mazelis

The first kisses I knew were Welsh. As were the first fists. Which is to say I am Welsh. I think it’s true that my imagination is always running away with me. Or just running away; from Wales, from London, from the self. Perhaps this is why my first published novel’s story has nothing to do with Wales. But then why should it? It was written in Wales by a Welsh woman but it does not address the issue of national identity because the spring-heeled Jack of my imagination ran away.
I lived in London for 12 years from 1979 to 1991. At one point I tried to enrol in Michèle Roberts’ creative writing class at the City Lit but it was completely oversubscribed. Now I have to wonder if my career as an author might not have been very different if I had got a place in her class. If I had stayed in London.
My novel took four years to write and rewrite. It is written in English, set primarily in France, and has an international cast of characters. The book found a home with an independent Welsh publisher with an excellent reputation, Seren, whose stated aim is ‘to bring Welsh literature, art and politics before a wider audience.’
A week after the book was published I went into the local branch of Waterstones. I looked for my book in the general fiction section, I looked in the crime section, and finally in the ‘Welsh Interest’ section. My book was nowhere to be found. I asked at the counter. No, it was not in the shop. Nor was it on order. They would not be stocking it. The reason? No demand. In the past my status as a ‘local author’ had translated into validation and a recognition that not all authors are metropolitan based, and so my books had been stocked. It seemed there used to be more of a sense of communal pride in the fact that there were home-grown authors.
While I was standing there, humiliated, a young female customer came to the till with her chosen purchase, the latest novel by Sarah Waters. Waters, like me, is Welsh. But she is published by Virago, so she isn’t local. And self evidently there is demand for her books.
This ‘local’ issue presupposes that, as in Royston Vasey, the fictional town in BBC Television’s The League of Gentlemen, local shops and thus local books are much in demand with local people. Strange as it may seem, those people who read contemporary fiction in Wales, the ones who are young graduates, or listen to Radio Four, or read the Independent or The Times, who form book groups, or teach English, or simply love books, are as in tune as their counterparts in Sussex, Yorkshire or Fife. They want to read Eleanor Catton or Joshua Ferris or Hilary Mantel, and they debate the merits of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or the latest Ian McEwan as hotly as anyone anywhere.
No author wants their book to appear in bookshops just because they are Welsh, they want it to be represented in the marketplace because it’s a good book. In a crowded marketplace the ‘local’ is perhaps the only toehold with which to start. But the gatekeepers at the bookshop don’t seem to have made their decision based on my book’s strengths or weakness, but on other more mysterious reasons.
They have effectively strangled my book at birth based on a prejudice. Where once books were included on a principle, now they are excluded, presumably on the same principle – seemingly without consideration of merit.
But, hold on, let’s get back to that ‘local shop’ in The League of Gentlemen. There it stands, isolated, bleak, decrepit and strange, a storm cloud of doom permanently over it. Hardly ever visited by any customers, and those who accidentally stumble upon it eventually come to regret it. The downside of local is parochial. Outdated. Outlandish. Suspect. Bad.
There was some good news however. I was told that WH Smith were stocking my book. I entered and went through the same sorry and reductive ritual. Fiction section? Nope. Crime? Nope. Local Interest? Yes. Yes. There it was, three copies of my cosmopolitan Francophile feminist noir, shelved between Day Walks in the Brecon Beacons and Welsh Teatime Recipes. In the same section I noticed that I was not the only Seren novelist represented there, as I spotted a copy of Patrick McGuinness’ Booker long-listed The Last Hundred Days. His novel is set in Romania, during Ceausescu’s last hundred days in power, but like me McGuinness is reduced to a local author apparently by dint of our publisher’s address. On the other hand neither book would be in the shop at all if it weren’t for this Welsh connection.
An author is meant to have a little humility, he or she cannot speak on behalf of the quality of their work; that should be assumed from the fact that a publisher believed in the work. The book, once published, should speak for itself. There it is in the bookstore waiting for someone – that mythical browser, that flâneur of the bookshop – to just pick it up.
We all perhaps still want to believe in this model of book buying; of actual customers going into actual shops, buying actual books for the price listed on the back. And it is this model which the local or the regional assumes. I did not expect to see my novel piled high in the window of Foyles on Charing Cross Road, but I did think I would find 2 or 3 or 4 copies of my book in Waterstones, in my hometown.
To be published in Wales is a very particular sort of thing, seemingly just one step removed from being published by a vanity press. Not dissimilar, in fact, to making the book oneself with the aid of photocopies and a cover made from a cereal box, all stitched together with loose ends of embroidery silk. The book in question may even bear traces of its creator’s blood.
The analogy of the homemade book a child might produce is not that extreme. The child has made the book to the very best of their ability; their indulgent parent (like those regional publishers) has done all in their power to make the book the best it can be. But none of that matters, not if Waterstones in the author’s home town will not waste its precious shelf space, will not give it that risk-free sale or return chance.
No demand, you see.

Jo Mazelis’s latest novel Significance is published by Seren.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Begging bowls and gravy trains

I've been around long enough to have rather a lot of contacts in the writing and publishing community -- and I was intrigued by a message today from a friend (Catrin Collier) who is one of the most successful writers in Wales (1).

Catrin referred to the "perception that corruption -- real or imagined -- exists in our profession", and drew my attention to an old adage often repeated in commercial publishing houses: "When English writers write a book they look for a publisher - Welsh writers look for a bursary".

I have been saying this for quite some time in this blog and in letters to the powers that be (2) -- but I had not realised that this was a common perception among the publishing houses based in London and elsewhere. If this is true -- and I am prepared to trust Catrin in this — we should be very worried indeed. For what it means is that Welsh writers who do have real talent and deserve to get a break in the world of commercial publishing -- or who may simply be seeking to find an agent -- will simply be tarred with the same brush as all those in Wales who subsist on subsidies and who publish books that the market does not want and the public will not read (3). Everything is devalued. Those who ride on the gravy train think of themselves as "validated writers" because Literature Wales has shunted £3,000 in their direction, whereas their talents may be very modest indeed (4).  Or maybe non-existent.  And the perception spreads that nothing good ever comes out of Wales. Sounds familiar?  Michael Sheen has recently commented upon this in other contexts (5).

Should we be angry?  Yes, we should.  Is the system corrupt?  Yes, of course it is, when among the recipients of bursaries we see university professor Alan Llwyd and others who are probably earning salaries in excess of £70,000 per year (6), and others including Hefin Wyn, Daniel Davies and Karen Owen who receive multiple grants so that they can (over and again) "buy time to write.” (7)  It's easy to justify the subsidy scheme on the basis that every now and then a real talent emerges from the crowd (8) -- but the effective isolation of writers and publishing houses from the commercial realities of life MUST in the end be counter-productive.

The Welsh writing and publishing scene is frequently represented by Literature Wales as being "vibrant and exciting” (9) -- but it is nothing of the sort.  It is more dead than alive.  So do we want the literary scene in Wales to become a laughing stock across the rest of the world, or do we want it to be respected? (10)  If we really do want the latter, we need to cut off bursaries completely or make them conditional on actual sales performance;  we need to cut dramatically the number of books being written and published in Wales; and we need to expose the whole industry to the cold realities of the commercial world.    Is the Welsh Government up to the task?  I wonder…….



This article is an annotated version of one published a couple of days ago, under the title "An industry that's lost its way." Since the article -- clearly and unabashedly an opinion piece -- was of rather broad interest to the local community of writers and readers I put a short note about it onto the PENfro Book Festival Facebook page and provided a hyperlink in case anybody wanted to read it. I thought maybe we could get a jolly discussion going.......... (There was no attempt on my part to pretend that the opinions expressed on my blog were those of the Committee or the Festival -- and I was acting in accordance with our decision back in October. This is what we said: "We are happy to make it clear that we encourage participation and debate within our community of readers, writers and publishers. We will post items containing opinions or comments, with the name of the person (usually a committee member) making the post. It goes without saying that the PENfro committee does not necessarily endorse the opinions of individuals! We welcome comments and ripostes, so long as the are "on topic" and are not defamatory. We will also try to report matters of common interest in the literary and publishing scene which might not get any coverage in the mainstream media. Please let us know if there are any issues that you think we should cover. ")

That was all pretty straightforward. But the content of the blog post was obviously too much like strong meat for some to swallow, and a complaint was made to our Chair by an anonymous "friend of the Festival" on the grounds that the piece was based on hearsay and that it was unsupported by evidence. She contacted me, and I explained that this was a social media opinion piece, not a research paper in a peer-reviewed journal, and that you don't cite your sources in opinion pieces. Anyway, she was concerned that the piece, and its link to the PENfro Facebook page might cause some loss of goodwill in certain quarters. Life is too short to risk the loss of good friends, and so I acceded to her request and removed the offending post......

As I explained to her, this leaves me very worried, since it smacks of an Orwellian world in which discussion and dissent are not tolerated, and where the establishment does what it likes and keeps everybody else in thrall. I still have this image in my mind of a community of subservient and cowed writers sitting in a row with their begging bowls, scared to death of upsetting Literature Wales and the other distributors of largesse! From my point of view, that's thoroughly demeaning and degrading. Frightening too, if all the writers concerned do not see what is happening to them.

Anyway, the post was not all hearsay and unsupported rumours and assertions. It was perfectly well founded and supported by mountains of evidence. Some of it is contained within the notes added below.

Final thought -- ironic, isn't it, that we in the writing community say over and again that we will defend the right to free speech with our lives, and then apparently cannot cope with any debate about how we organize ourselves?