Thursday, 28 December 2017

Branding Martha -- is she too amiable?

Martha has done with grieving.  She knows the men who murdered her husband, and now she will see them to the gallows, if it's the last thing she does........

We were talking the other day about the branding of Mistress Martha, and how best to portray her character during our ongoing efforts to get the series onto the TV screen.  Does "Mistress Martha" sound too respectable, and does her portrayal as "Mother Wales" make her sound too old and dull?  Some mistresses are anything but respectable, and some mothers are anything but dull -- but you know what I mean.........

On our websites, blogs and Facebook pages we have linked Martha and her story to the gorgeous landscape of North Pembrokeshire -- complete with leafy glades, sunlit uplands, quiet beaches and sparkling sea, fertile gentle farmland and pretty cottages. "Martha Morgan Country" is indeed beautiful, as we have tried to portray it on our MMC web site:

Martha is beautiful too, as we knew when we chose Rhiannon to be our model for the photo shoot with Steve Mallett.  The images in the portfolio are attractive and charming, and capture many moods on the face of the heroine -- but are they too "comfortable"?  

I'll freely admit to having no clear concept in my head regarding the potential "constituency" for these photos;  they were designed, with the help of Steve and Rhiannon and the backing of PLANED and Refreshing North Pembrokeshire, to "sell" the novels and also to promote NE Pembrokeshire.  Literary tourism was the key theme.  Maybe the portfolio was also aimed at the existing fan base of the novels, and at a happy group of visitors (somewhere out there) who might like to come and take a look at our landscape and sample our culture.  In other words, sell some more books and bring some more tourist income into the county.  

Maybe we should be aiming much more directly at the people who finance film and TV projects and who make costume dramas?  Yes, the saga is full of angels; Martha's abiding virtues are her optimism, her loyalty and her compassion; and in all of the stories, love ultimately triumphs over evil.    In that respect I am building my own values into the stories and into Martha's character...

But should we be heading, in our branding, towards something much DARKER?  Maybe we should be concentrating not on the sunlit bluebell banks of Tycanol Wood and the glow of a Carningli sunset but on the pouring rain, mud and slush of an eighteenth-century Pembrokeshire winter, the pitch-black nights, the smoky and dimly-lit cottage interiors, and the brutal brevity of the lives of the poor? Less sunlight, and more thunderstorms, blizzards, gales and floods wreaking havoc in the little community of Cilgwyn?  They are all there, in the stories.  We have more than enough drama in Martha's life history, but maybe we do not make enough of it?

I looked the other day at the screenplay for "Jane Eyre", and saw immediately what appeal there is in the first few pages -- a young woman running, staggering and crawling across a wild winter moorland in the lashing rain, almost dying of hypothermia before being lifted miraculously by strong arms and carried into a smoky but warm cottage in the middle of nowhere.  

There is no way that "On Angel Mountain" suffers by comparison in the drama or grimy reality stakes.  See below!  Life in early nineteenth century Pembrokeshire is very tough indeed, even for the members of the minor gentry.  I have used the "Wild West" label many times.  And Martha has her own personal crosses to bear -- since she is by no means a perfect heroine.  She has a host of vices -- including vanity and a tendency to manipulate others.  She suffers from frequent bouts of deep depression. She is not always clever at appreciating the emotional needs of others.  She cannot resist getting involved in other people's business.  And since she refuses to be controlled, exploited or dominated by others she fights like a she-cat when cornered, and kills three men with her own hands.  Vengeance is her greatest demon -- and throughout her life she struggles to understand where the boundary lies between justice and revenge.  She sees many men die as her "angels" avenge the crimes of her enemies, and she sends many more to the gallows through her unwavering determination to see justice done.......

These are not gentle and comfortable stories.  There are quite enough gruesome deaths to satisfy the most hardened fans of "Game of Thrones".  Everywhere we look, there is blood on the carpet -- or on the grass.


Some of the dramatic incidents:

In the first volume five members of David's family are burned to death as the old Plas Ingli goes up in flames; Martha suffers a miscarriage;  neighbours die in a cholera epidemic; Martha is whipped through the streets behind the whipping cart; and in the final scene she kills Moses Lloyd in the cave after he attempts to rape her.  

In "House of Angels" David is murdered on the beach during a cnapan game;  Martha is almost seduced by John Fenton while she is drunk; and in a frantic climax to the story there is a treasure hunt after which one villain has his throat cut and the others who murdered David are sent to the gallows.  

In "Dark Angel" a hurricane strikes the coast; there are food riots in town; Martha is haunted by the "phantom" called the Nightwalker; her beloved Owain disappears without trace and her son Dewi is lost at sea; and there are two suicides, one of them caused directly by Martha.  

In "Sacrifice" (the darkest and most brutal of all the books) there are sadistic attacks by the members of a mysterious cult on Martha's servants and friends; a servant and his family are killed in an arson attack; Martha is trapped and then gang raped in Eastwood mansion, after which the perpetrators and tortured and killed in acts of terrible retribution by her servants and friends; and finally Martha gives birth to a bastard child who lives for just a few days.  

In "Conspiracy of Angels" Martha is drawn into involvement in an anti-slavery movement, which involves brutal attacks on some of her neighbours; she has to resist the amorous advances of Beau Brummell; she is kidnapped and imprisoned; and she is saved at the last minute from being shot by the black leader of an extortion racket.

In "Rebecca and the Angels" Martha loses her beloved Owain and her daughter Sara; there are riots everywhere, and she gets far too close to the action; the Ceffyl Pren metes out folk justice over and again; Martha is betrayed and the traitors are killed; she takes part in a riot and barely escapes with her life; and at the end of the tale Plas is taken over by a gang of petty criminals and Martha kills two of them with her own hands.

In "Flying with Angels" Martha has to survive the collapse of the estate; she tries to help out in the Irish Potato Famine; she seduces the minister Amos Jones in Tycanol Wood, and then finds the body of another woman who was in love with him, and who has committed suicide; Amos is murdered by Martha's enemies, and has to watch as some of his killers are themselves assassinated and others are sent to the gallows.

In "Guardian Angel" Martha has to learn to live with a new identity as she is hunted down by men whose motives she does not understand; she flees to Merthyr Tydfil and gets caught up in the shady dealings of "The Emperor of China"; later she is abducted and after obtaining her freedom she has to fight against the destruction of her beloved mountain with all the weapons at her disposal.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

English-medium writing in Wales

This is a submission I had forgotten about!  From a 2003 consultation.  It's interesting, 15 years later, to see how little has changed.......

Culture, Welsh Language and Sport Commerce (2003)

Policy Review: English-medium writing in Wales: List of respondents
Brian John

I am happy to submit my comments for the Policy review on English-medium writing in Wales. 

(1) The contribution of English-medium books and writing in Wales to Welsh culture. This contribution is immense, and needs to be recognized as a key component in the bilingual heritage of Wales. There is a peculiarly Welsh "voice" to much of the English-language literature produced by Welsh authors, and this voice needs to be cherished and promoted. While I do not for a moment argue against the massive support given to Welsh-language publishing in recent years, I fear that there is a danger of second-rate material finding its way into print simply because subsidies are available and margins are not so tight . Some publishers have told me that Welsh-language publishing is almost a risk-free zone, and when the usual relationship between a book and its market is disturbed too much, there is scope for attractively-packaged dross to find its way into print. But I think that the importance of English-language fiction and poetry (for example) is recognized by bodies such as the Welsh Books Council and Academi, and for this I am grateful. I am saddened that the peculiar regional "accents" of the English-speaking fringes of Wales (eg Little England Beyond Wales, Gower, the Vale of Glamorgan, and the Welsh Borders) are now hardly recognized because of the "politically correct" policy of encouraging the Welsh language even in those areas which have not spoken Welsh for a thousand years. This is a complex issue, and I support the extension of Welsh speaking across Wales, but as a South Pembrokeshire man I would like to see a little more respect for the unique English-language heritage and dialect of my home area. I had a bit of a spat with BBC Wales recently because a play set on the banks of the Western Cleddau near Haverfordwest was acted entirely by actors using standard South Walian Welsh accents. People in that place and at that time would never have spoken like that - the genuine South Pembrokeshire accent is a diamond to be appreciated and respected. 

(2) The support mechanisms available for writers in Wales, including playwrights and screenplay writers. I know little about these, and would have tapped into them if they were more widely publicized. The editorial / refereeing support from the Welsh Books Council for new authors is excellent, and must encourage unpublished novelists to press ahead with their projects in a very hostile commercial environment. I am not aware of any bursaries / grants which are available to writers to help them in developing projects. 

(3) The support mechanisms for the production and marketing of new writing, including private sector support. Again, small publishers are left on their own. There are no subsidies or grants. Even the Welsh Book Council, which used to take 100 copies of new books and pay cash on the nail for them, has retreated from this valuable "support mechanism" and now takes stock, holds it, and pays monthly as and when it is sold . This is valuable, but nothing like as valuable as a straight bulk purchase. On the marketing front, Welsh Books Council is much more helpful, with a helpful marketing / PR team who are always willing to give information and advice. The full-color "Books from Wales" (with reasonably-priced adverts) goes out with the Western Mail and reaches thousands of potential readers.Other joint marketing schemes are also useful, but I am not sure of the cost-effectiveness of some of the effort going into foreign visits and book trade exhibitions. 

(4) The mechanisms for raising public awareness of English-medium Welsh literature and writers. I do not think there are many! Magazines carrying reviews - very few of them in Wales, and the time between book submission and review publication can be up to a year. This is not a lot of use when you need early sales in order to pay the printer's bill. Newspapers - these are often helpful at encouraging local sales, and this "local loyalty" should be acknowledged. Local radio will often do interviews about new books and writers. But there does not seem to be much support from BBC Wales radio and television, which is a pity. Mostly promotion and PR has to come through the hard work of writers and publishers in organizing press releases, setting up events etc. Some people in the book trade are imaginative and helpful, but many are not! Academi should be thanked for their help in setting up many events (talks, discussions, writers workshops etc) every year all over Wales. Suggestions Many English-language writers in Wales find that the London publishers will not even read their manuscripts, let alone publish their books. There is a "blockage" at the London end, and a widespread perception that books about Wales do not sell. I get the impression that Scottish and Irish literature is much more successful internationally than Welsh literature, maybe because most of the effort in Wales goes into Welsh language publication. This makes the publishing scene rather introverted and even a little self-satisfied. ("Are not we clever? Look how many Welsh-language books we publish each year per head of the population!") I do not think that this will change much unless we shift priorities from selling rights in the Australian and American market to getting books about Wales published in London. 

To achieve this, I suggest: 

(a) A dedicated literary agency based in Wales, to sign up Welsh writers and find publishers for them in London. Those working in the Agency should of course have an intimate knowledge of the London publishing scene. (As a matter of interest, I tried to sign up with over 50 London agents and about 25 London publishers before the launch of my "Angel Mountain" Saga. The great majority of them were not even prepared to read some sample material). 

(b) A campaign to find review space in the London daily papers, weeklies and Sundays for new English-language fiction from Wales and also for other key titles. If books about Wales are not reviewed by the UK national media, booksellers will not take them seriously and will not stock them.

(c) Advertising subsidies to enable adverts to be placed in the national media. Sometimes this will attract a commitment to publish a review. This will be expensive, but could pay dividends in increased "UK awareness" of literature from Wales. 

(d) More work devoted to obtaining air time on UK radio and TV. We hardly ever see anything Welsh on the book program. 

(e) A high-profile Welsh / English Literature Festival in Wales. The Hay Festival used to have a lot of Welsh material, representative of its location on the Borders, but it seems to have become more international and less Welsh. 

Hope this helps! 

Brian John

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Is the Visit Wales marketing strategy actually working?

The indications are that in spite of all the uncertainties and hardships faced by the nation at the moment -- caused mostly by this obscenity called Brexit -- there has been a slight increase in tourism numbers and tourism spending in Wales in 2017 as against 2016.  Some of the info is here:

Naturally enough, Visit Wales will insist that this rise is all down to the wonderful success of its marketing campaigns, but the truth is more difficult to discern. Has Wales done better, or worse, than Scotland, England and Northern Ireland?  To what extend is the gradual upward trend the result of a UK-wide increase in tourism, related to global or international trends, exchange rates and changing holiday preferences?  Would the Welsh tourist industry be doing better, or worse, if Visit Wales did not exist?  I don't want to be critical here, since we all accept that we need a tourism promotion authority, and it needs to be as innovative as possible to succeed in a highly competitive global market-place.  But we do need, as taxpayers, to scrutinise what is going on.........

So we have a new Welsh dragon, a new graphic typeface, and many new activities and marketing stunts associated with the "EPIC" campaign and the themed years, including the Year of Legends this year.  A lot of people have put in a great deal of hard work to get these initiatives moving, and all credit to them.  But could their work have had a sharper and more unique focus, and might it have been more effective if it had a clearer narrative and a more closely defined "sense of place"?

In answer to that question, I have been trying for many months now -- without success -- to find out what the Welsh narrative may be, underpinning the highly visible marketing campaigns which attract the attention of the media.

I have to conclude that this is something that Visit Wales would prefer not to think about.......


The same problem occurs when we try to identify what the "sense of place" might be that answers the question "WHAT are the unique features of the Welsh landscape that make it a desirable holiday location?" 

If we examine the overarching Visit Wales promotional strategy we get rather a shock, because there is nothing in it that demonstrates a strong sense of place or a real sense of a unique history.  

Let's take the form of words used in the glossy Visit Wales marketing materials over the past 12 months.  Just for fun, I have substituted  “Sweden” instead of Wales in the “brand strategy” which we all know and love. The "marketing text" is unchanged.   Here we go:

Grannskapet och Världen. Sweden in the World.

Sweden belives in the balance between local and global – an approach rooted in our communities, shaped by our landscape and with real social purpose (our ‘Grannskap’), whilst being purposely outward looking, open to new ideas and opportunities – and ready to compete on a global platform (the ‘Värld’).
The best of both worlds.

These are our values:

Sweden is the real deal. Open, honest – our country is built on the foundations of a proud history and heritage, and shaped by a bold and beautiful landscape. We care deeply for community, culture and ‘kommun’ (one’s square mile) and want to lead the world in protecting them. Because these resources power us: green growth, global creative exports, adventure attractions, quality local produce. Our authenticity is the key to our future.

Creativity is at the heart of our nation. Our rich and enduring culture is thriving: in music, literature, art, film, television and theatre. But it’s much more than that. Everywhere you look in Sweden, there are bright new ideas being put into action. It’s happening in design studios and quarry mines, factories and laboratories across the country. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit in the air. We’re not just dreaming big, we’re making it happen.

A new Sweden is emerging. Inspired by our past but looking towards the future with responsibility, and creativity. Our landscapes are alive with nature and adventure. Our culture is alive with imagination. Our communities are alive with opportunity and real innovation. A new generation is investing in a bright and sustainable future, driven by talent and skill. Full of life.

See what I mean?  These are fine words that could have come straight out of a marketing textbook. But virtually every word of the strategy could be used for virtually any country on the planet. 

So what is different and special about Wales?   If I was a prospective tourist, I think I might wonder whether there is anything special at all………. and maybe go somewhere else instead.

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.