Thursday, 22 March 2018

A case for PEN Cymru?

I was having a look at the PEN Cymru web site, as I do occasionally, and I was struck when I came across the following words:
"PEN promotes literature and defends freedom of expression. It campaigns on behalf of writers around the world who are persecuted, imprisoned, harassed and attacked for what they have written.”


PEN exists to stop the suppression of free speech and harrassment etc mostly in other countries with harsh regimes — and it would be very silly to pretend that we in Wales  are seriously persecuted, when writers in many other countries are sometimes imprisoned or even killed for seeking to maintain their basic right to freedom of expression.

That having been said, where does intolerance stray over into intimidation and persecution?  Where is the top of the slippery slope?  The case which I highlighted in a previous post may seem very mild by comparison with what is happening in Turkey and other countries, but the organizers of the Welsh Poetry Competition are clearly being pressurised by Literature Wales to have nothing to do with web sites that may contain material which LW happens to dislike.  There is clearly an attempt to interfere in matters which are none of its business, and to discourage or even prevent freedom of expression within the literary community.

I wonder what would happen if the organizers of the competition entered a formal complaint about Lit Wales trying to suppress public scrutiny and free speech within Wales? 


Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The mountain is looking good......

I had a delightful stroll up on the mountain this morning, accompanied by a group of rather friendly and inquisitive mountain ponies.  And the sun shone for part of the time!  Has spring sprung at last?

The sad little world of Literature Wales

I was disappointed (but maybe not entirely surprised) when I heard not so long ago that a well-known international literary competition organized within Wales had been refused any support from Literature Wales when the organizers asked for some help with publicity.  The competition is not funded by Literature Wales, and is entirely self-financing.  The organizers were perfectly within their rights to ask for information to go out in LW newsletters and through social media;  after all, it is one of LW's responsibilities to facilitate and encourage literary activity across the board in Wales.

LW flags itself up (on its own website) as the national company for the development of literature in Wales. It claims to be responsible for leading the sector and for actively collaborating with organisations and individuals who contribute to the promotion, creation and enjoyment of the written word.   It also refers to itself as "the literature promotion agency for Wales" -- and agencies are supposed to take actions in support of others rather than simply concentrating on self-promotion.  Its role, in other words, is to facilitate and stimulate literature programmes and events throughout Wales, whether or not LW is the originator, organizer or funder of those events.

So why should LW refuse to support and promote a long-established and successful literary competition? I have now done some research, and have discovered that support has been refused on the grounds that the competition's website " links to blog posts which are extremely negative towards Literature Wales."   I am also assured that a letter from LW includes the following:  "As I'm sure you can appreciate, while we support the competition itself, we cannot justify promoting it through our channels while it leads its audience to articles showcasing one-sided perceptions about our organisation.  We would, of course, reconsider if the competition website removed these links."

This is a truly chilling scenario. Blackmail.   I have looked at the website in question, and it probably contains links to more than a hundred other web sites and blog sites relating to literary activity in Wales.   I certainly do not have the time to look at all of them in order to decide which of them are "positive" towards Literature Wales and which of them may not be.  However, somebody within Literature Wales has obviously found the time to do it, and has decided that some of the articles featured "showcase one-sided perceptions" about LW. 

This is all a bit rich.  For the last nine months or so LW has been involved in a massive "charm offensive",  flooding social media,  the press, radio and TV with "good news" stories about the wonderful things which the organization and its staff are doing across Wales and further afield.  You do not have to be a genius to work out that this intensive media activity is a direct response to the criticisms of the Medwin Hughes Panel, which reported to Minister Ken Skates in the summer of last year and which called out LW for its perceived poor governance, its tendency to spend most of its income in-house, its lack of a clear focus, its involvement in many areas that have only the loosest of links to its core functions, its duplication of functions already undertaken by the Welsh Books Council and other organizations, and its shift away from an "enabling and facilitating" role into a new role as a provider of services and an organizer of events. These were very serious criticisms, as a result of which the Panel suggested that many of the LW functions should be taken away from it and handed over to WBC and maybe Visit Wales as well.  There was also criticism of LW's arrogance and sense of entitlement.  It also has to be said that the comments made by the Medwin Hughes Panel were not new or especially derogatory;  they were also made by many correspondents who participated in the Panel's broad-based consultation process.  Those comments are all on the record.  Literature Wales's response to the criticisms directed towards it was more than a little petulant and aggressive, and it spilled over into very personal attacks on the integrity and expertise of the Panel members.  This resulted in a very direct rebuke from Minister Ken Skates.

So the propaganda put out by LW about itself and its achievements is not exactly broad-based and balanced.  It does what propaganda always does --it extols the virtues of the organization, sees everything through rose-tinted spectacles, and fails to mention any of its shortcomings.  LW has become very expert at the spreading of "one-sided perceptions"............

LW now apparently refuses to support a bona fide and well-established literary competition on the basis that some of the comments on some of the linked web sites do not meet with its approval.  Let's be clear about this.  LW has absolutely no right to get involved in censorship and blackmail or to decide unilaterally that certain web site and blog entries are "one-sided perceptions."  I dare say the writers of those entries, wherever they may be, would claim that they are fact-based and involve fair comment, regardless of whether LW may be upset about what they say.  There is after all this thing called freedom of speech -- and organizations and individuals have every right to scrutinise and if necessary criticise bodies (such as LW) which are in receipt of millions of pounds of taxpayer's money. 

This all says a lot about the sad little world inhabited by the staff and the directors of Literature Wales.  If they cannot handle scrutiny and constructive criticism, they don't deserve public trust -- and the organization which they represent should be wound up.  Something better should be put in its place, involving a clearer focus, less duplication of effort, and a greater responsiveness to the needs of the writing community.  So we should probably cry for Literature Wales.  Or maybe laugh.

One last thought.  I almost put this heading on this blog post:  "The Orwellian World of Literature Wales."  Here, by way of explanation, is an extract from that fount of all wisdom and compendium of literary gems, Wikipedia:

"Orwellian" is an adjective describing a situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. It denotes an attitude and a brutal policy of draconian control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth (doublethink), and manipulation of the past, including the "unperson"—a person whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory.........

Once again, just think about it. A brutal policy of draconian control?  That's not so wide of the mark.  LW sees itself as THE organization controlling the Welsh literary scene, and as it has developed its very ambitious expansion programme it has created a situation dominated by patronage and dependency in the writing community.  I have already commented on this:

Literature Wales is already well known for its extensive use of self-promotion and propaganda, for spreading misinformation and making rather selective use of the facts of the matter, and for assisting in the denial of the truth about all sorts of things including the value for money associated (for example) with its bursaries programme or its own annual accounts.  Now it has added to its portfolio of dodgy dealings the little matter of surveillance.  Somebody in the organization must have been briefed to scrutinise the links on other "literary"web sites for anything subversive or which strays from the party line.  We might assume that its strategy henceforth is one of supporting only those organizations which have no links whatsoever with any persons or organizations  deemed guilty of saying less than complimentary things about LW.

Just think about it, and feel the chill.

By the way, the Medwin Hughes Panel Report is here:

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

More stick for Gary Raymond and LW

A few days ago I took issue with Gary Raymond on his rather weird piece on the Assembly Culture Committee deliberations on publishing and literature in Wales. He had it in for the Medwin Hughes Panel and its pronouncements and recommendations, and seemed to think that Literature Wales is the place where all the bright young things reside and where all the imaginative thinking is going on. Now Richard Davies of Parthian Press has weighed in, using some very forthright language.......

BLOG Richard Lewis Davies
NWR Issue 116
In the Goldfish Bowl

Although I don't agree with everything that Richard says, I do agree with most of it.

I agree that by and large there has been " a diversification and deepening of talent, resources and approach " in Wales during the past 15 years or so. I also agree that "there has been development and there have been opportunities for writers and a professionalism of the publishing culture with a deepening of the skills base." Many of the books published in Wales nowadays certainly look good -- every bit as good as the books published in London ..... what is less certain is whether anybody actually wants to read the majority of them!

Richard takes issue with Gary Raymond on whether the past was very grubby and the present is less so. In my view it is still pretty grubby -- and although Richard does not say this explicitly, he clearly feels that all is not well with the Welsh literary scene. Like me, he expresses his sadness at the apparent demise of the Welsh Academy and its failure to express itself -- on behalf of Welsh writers -- when the Medwin Hughes Panel was seeking responses from all sectors of the literature and publishing industry.

Quote: "There is a duplication of resources within Welsh literature. More money could be given directly to writers. We could work out how to make the best of the national treasure that is Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre without losing a small fortune. The writers and publishers could organise ourselves more effectively."

Quote: "And this comes to another point that both reports (the original and the summary) do seem to have missed. Where are the writers? Why aren’t they representing themselves and having a say? I know all the organisations will say they are representing writers but at the actual business end of influencing and making decisions about the culture of writing, the writers of Wales are largely apolitical or absent. The Welsh Academy/ Yr Academi Gymreig used to be a writers’ institution that had conferences and had a policy. Even when it merged into the Academi it was still a writer-led organisation, publishing magazines in Welsh and English and holding an annual conference. But once it became subsumed into the aspirations of a national company in the form of Literature Wales, the energy seems to have dissipated and it’s been reduced to putting up the occasional plaque and adding the occasional fellow to boost its diminished esteem. There was no comment from anyone at the Academi about the failure of the Chair of Literature Wales, Damian Walford Davies, to meet with a committee looking into literature in Wales for the Welsh government. Everyone else who was asked made time. Literature Wales is an organisation representing writers funded by the Welsh Government for the people of Wales through some of the taxes they pay. If the Chair couldn’t support the organisation at such a time he should have resigned.........."

That's a pretty direct criticism of Literature Wales and its Chairman for failing to defend the interests of Welsh writers before the Review Panel.   Before the Assembly's Culture Committee they spent nearly all of their time defending Literature Wales and seeking to question the qualifications of the Panel members.  That was all pretty grubby, and the Minister, and the Assembly Culture Committee, said so directly.  Will anything change now that Prof Walford Davies is coming to the end of his tenure as Chairman?  We shall see.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

The "Writers of Wales" database

Every self-respecting writer wants to promote her / his career and enhance book sales -- and one of the most useful weapons in the armoury is the entry in the writer's database.   The Society of Authors operates a very good one, available as a benefit of membership.  My entry is probably typical, and can be seen here:

The beauty of a database of this type is that writers can ensure that the world has access to up-to-date information about them and their books; that publishers can search for appropriate writers for any publication projects which they may have in mind; that writers have an easy way of communicating with each other; that journalists and other media people can pick up relevant information about individuals; and that the organizers of literary festivals, book clubs and cultural / arts societies of all sorts can browse through the database and find the "right" writers for speaking slots which they may be looking to fill.   There are probably other benefits too......

Until quite recently, the Welsh Academy managed and maintained a database called "The Writers of Wales."  The trouble is that over the years it got bigger and bigger, and started to incorporate many people who were not really writers at all.  Members of the Academy were not very good at updating their entries, and rumour has it that many writers failed to inform the Academy that they had died.  Very inconsiderate.  When Literature Wales took over the management of the database (arising from the "understanding" between the Academy and LW) they told me that there were around 3,000 entries on the database, although the Welsh Academy had only around 600 members.  I fully understand that something needed to be done.

Apparently a revision and redesign of the web-based database was in hand, but then suddenly in August 2016 it disappeared from sight.  There was no consultation with Welsh writers, and no advance notice.  One day, the website was up and running, and the next day it was not.  Enquiries elicited the response that staff were working on it, and that it would be replaced on the web with something better designed and more relevant.  Eighteen months have passed, and there is still no sign of the revised web site.   Writers have not even been asked for their key personal information and publications lists.  The suspicion has to be that Literature Wales has no intention to refresh and republish the database -- and indeed they have said to a number of Academy members:  "It doesn't matter very much really, since when we get requests for speakers  or writers for school visits (for example) we always give the most appropriate names!"

Just think about that for a moment.  This means that transparency has disappeared, and so has impartiality.  As of now, the staff of Literature Wales (who are no doubt very pleasant and well-meaning) have complete control over the public appearances and indeed the future prospects of Welsh writers.  Without anybody knowing anything about what goes on behind the scenes, they can ignore some writers and promote others.  Upset them, and they will extract their revenge.  Say nice things about them, and they will put you on their "favourites" list.  Patronage is encouraged, and dependency takes the place of independence and self-esteem.  Writers are demeaned and power is transferred to staff members who may or may not have written anything publishable in their lives.  The potential for favouritism and corruption is so large in this situation that writers have every right to feel insulted and enraged.    I am amazed that LW staff and directors appear not to have noticed just how dangerous this scenario is -- and amazed that the Arts Council, the Medwin Hughes Panel, and the Assembly's Culture Committee have not homed in on it.  Does it worry the Minister?   Who knows.......

The ball is in your court, Literature Wales -- get that database updated and published NOW, before even more damage is done to the reputation of literature in Wales.

Entry for "Writers of Wales" database, August 2016 -- which has disappeared, along with the entries for all other writers in Wales.......

Publisher Email: greencroft4@mac.comAuthor Website:

Brian John is a prolific author with 90 books to his name.  He was born in Carmarthen in 1940 and brought up in Pembrokeshire. He is married and has two grown up sons and two grandsons. He studied at Haverfordwest Grammar School and at Jesus College Oxford, where he read Geography and obtained his D Phil degree for a pioneering study of the Ice Age in Pembrokeshire. He then worked as a field scientist in Antarctica and spent eleven years as a geography Lecturer in Durham University. He has travelled widely in the Arctic, Antarctic and Scandinavia. In 1977 he and his family moved to a smallholding near Newport in Pembrokeshire, and for the last 30 years he has made his living as a writer and publisher.

He is also actively involved in a number of environmental and community organisations, and is one of the founders of the PENfro Book Festival, held at Rhosygilwen in September every year.
In addition to his books (authored and edited) he has published hundreds of articles on a wide range of topics, and among his publishers are Corgi, Collins, Pan, Orbis, Aurum Press, HMSO, Longman, David and Charles, Wiley and Edward Arnold. His published output includes university texts, walking guides, coffee table glossies and books of popular science. Many of his titles have been published by Greencroft Books, and have covered topics of particular interest to readers in Wales - for example tourist guides, books of local jokes, and a series of books on local folklore and traditions. His latest non-fiction titles are The Bluestone Enigma and Ghostly Tales from Pembrokeshire.
In 2012 he won the Wishing Shelf Children's Book Award for his children's tale entitled The Strange Affair of the Ethiopian Treasure Chest.

In recent years he has been working on a series of novels (The Angel Mountain Saga) set in his own home area and focussing on the life and times of the Mistress of Plas Ingli, 1778 -1855. The series has received wide acclaim for its narrative skill, its strong sense of place and its historical authenticity. On Angel Mountain is a Welsh best-seller, having now sold over 36,000 copies. The latest novel in the series is Conspiracy of Angels, published in April 2012.  In 2016 he launched a new literary tourism initiative with the label "Martha Morgan Country"  - designed to promote NE Pembrokeshire and to encourage fans of the saga to visit many of the key locations from the stories.  The project has a leaflet and a dedicated web site:

Brian is also in great demand for talks and discussions on creative writing and small-scale publishing. You can contact him through his publishers, Greencroft Books on: 01239 820 470.

Selected Publications:
(all still in print)

On Angel Mountain (Greencroft Books, 2001; Corgi 2006)
House of Angels (Greencroft Books, 2002; Corgi 2006)
Dark Angel (Greencroft Books, 2003; Corgi 2007)
Rebecca and the Angels (Greencroft Books, 2004)
Flying with Angels (Greencroft Books, 2005)
Martha Morgan's Little World (Greencroft Books, 2006)
Guardian Angel (Greencroft Books, 2007)
Pembrokeshire Coast Path (National Trail Guides) (Aurum Press, 2012)
The Rocks: Geology of Pembrokeshire (Abercastle Publications, 1980)
Echoes and Shadows (Greencroft Books, 2008)
The Bluestone Enigma (Greencroft Books, 2008)
Sacrifice (Greencroft Books, 2009)
The Strange Affair of the Ethiopian Treasure Chest  (Greencroft Books, 2010)
Conspiracy of Angels (Greencroft Books, 2012)
Acts of God (Greencroft Books, 2014)

Contributed to:
The Winters of the World (editor) (David and Charles, 1979)


Conspiracy of Angels (Greencroft Books, 2012)
In the year 1810, following Martha’s return from voluntary exile on the Isle of Skomar, a black man is shipwrecked on the shore of the island. He dies from his injuries, but two strange and powerful objects find their way into Martha’s hands. Shortly afterwards, she meets a freed black slave, and she agrees to become involved in a secretive anti-slavery movement. At first all goes well, but then things run out of control as she desperately tries to stop a brutal campaign aimed, ironically, at her own enemies. Inexorably she is drawn into a shadowy world inhabited by politicians, aristocracy and assassins -- and it emerges that the security of the state itself is at risk. This is a tightly constructed tale with many unexpected twists and turns. The key characters will be familiar to followers of the Angel Mountain Saga, but marching through the pages of the story are others who are considerably larger than life -- including the famous dandy Beau Brummell, the portly Princess of Ebersdorf, a black villain called John Wesley Jumbie, and General Sir Thomas Picton, who has been cursed, and whose days are numbered.

Acts of God (Greencroft Books, 2014)
The story is set in East Greenland during the Cold War. The story follows the fortunes of several groups of people whose destinies are intertwined.  There is mounting tension between the Americans and the Soviet Union. In 1962 the members of a scientific expedition become the unwitting guinea pigs in a series of grotesque experiments in an arctic wilderness.  At the same time the members of a small Inuit community are evicted from their traditional hunting grounds and are forced to leave their village.  One "Act of God" follows another.  As the death toll mounts, the explorers are too intelligent and too inquisitive for their own good.  They uncover a multi-national conspiracy and realize -- too late -- that an implacable enemy with limitless resources will not allow any of them to survive.  The author hesitates to call this a Cold War Thriller himself,  but accepts that others may well want to call it that……

Friday, 9 March 2018

Gary Raymond tries to say something or other about Welsh literature

Today there is a very strange article in Wales Arts Review by Gary Raymond, the presenter of a BBC Radio Wales arts programme.  I think we can take it as a sort of establishment response to the Assembly's Culture Committee Report just published -- and part of the ongoing concerted campaign to diminish and denigrate the work of the Medwin Hughes Panel.  It's a very strange article, and I really don't know what he is trying to say.  The journal editor's attitude is obvious enough, since she wrote in the preamble to the article:  ".........the publication of the Senedd’s Culture Committee report seems to put The Hughes Review out of its misery at least for the time being....."  A bit mean-spirited, to say the least.   Here is the key info:


The second half of 2017 was a difficult time for the organisations charged with the nurturing of the Welsh literary landscape The Independent Review into the industry proved controversial, prompting a Welsh Assembly enquiry into the fallout. As the publication of the Senedd’s Culture Committee report seems to put The Hughes Review out of its misery at least for the time being, Gary Raymond asks if its worth debating some home truths about how the Welsh literary industry operates.

As for the article itself, we'll ignore the long preamble and then get to the meat of the matter.

Here  is an extract:

Over the last year or so a cloud has hung over the literary industry in the form of the Independent Review of Support for Publishing and Literature in Wales, commonly known as The Hughes Review (as it was chaired by Professor Medwin Hughes). This week the Senedd’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee has finally published it’s response to that report, and the furore it kicked up back in July 2017. The whole debacle has been a tiny speck on the national fabric, but stands for something much more culturally significant. The Hughes Review should stand as the final push of the old way of things in Wales. It stands now only as a monument to the corruption of a noble process by vindictive influences, but also as a porthole into the battlefield that is the Welsh literary landscape. It is a battlefield that will be most likely unfamiliar to any Welsh writer under the age of 30. And probably more fabled if you’re under 35. But over that, then you know what I’m taking about, even if you’ve never fought on it.
You can read the Committee report here, in its mercifully concise 34 pages. It’s a good read, and it cuts the Hughes Review down to size, in all but the starkest terms rendering it and the £14,000 it cost to produce it a waste of everybody’s time. It also goes some way to be balanced and tries very hard to emphasise the independent panel have simply failed in their honourable intentions to do right. It has no intention of “impugning the integrity” of the panel members. The Committee may be shocked to learn (maybe not, I don’t know) that a cursory knowledge of how literature in Wales works would make these “honourable intentions” extremely unlikely.

It's impossible to read that tirade without getting a real sense that this particular writer has no time at all for the Hughes Panel or its Report. ("............a monument to the corruption of a noble process by vindictive influences..." What on earth is that supposed to mean?)

Then, having slagged off the Hughes Report, he goes on to say: "The literature industry in Wales is a spitting swirl of conflicting interests, clashing egos and jagged vendettas."   He then gives chapter and verse, in a whole paragraph.  That all sounds familiar enough to those of us who watch the literary scene in Wales. And sure, something needs to be done about it.

But Gary is wildly adrift in his suggestion that "the old way of doing things" is the problem, and that the Hughes Panel was a part -- or a symptom -- of the old order.   He fails to recognize that there are major problems with the new order too, and that these are the problems that the Panel was trying to address.  Why does he think there was such a violent response to the Panel's recommendations?  Let me explain for him that the very aggressive response came from people who have allowed Literature Wales to drift into the "red risk" zone, who have been criticised for poor governance, who have connived in the disappearance of the Welsh Academy,  and who have allowed LW to drift into all sorts of areas where there have been clear overlaps with the functions of other bodies.  A body which spends 75% of its income from public sources on its own in-house expenditures when it should be supporting literature across Wales clearly needs some proper scrutiny.  These and many other matters are not the responsibility of "the old guard"  -- they are down to the inadequacies of the present generation of directors and employees, and probably the failure of due diligence by the Arts Council as well.  And the Hughes Panel was perfectly justified in drawing attention to the situation, and in asking the Minister to do something about it. 

Will the Minister do anything?  I doubt it.  The Culture Committee has just kicked the whole issue into the long grass, and there is no prospect of the ills that affect the industry being dealt with any time soon.


A reminder about what author Jasmine Donahaye said about LW not so long ago: "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."

She's not the only one to say things like this. If Gary had bothered to read the comments submitted to the Hughes Panel, he would have discovered a very wide disquiet with the organization which he seems so determined to protect.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Literature Wales seeks new Chair and Directors

Lit Wales, that rather strange body with fingers in a good many pies, is undergoing a considerable revamp.  Whether this has anything to do with the close scrutiny associated with the Medwin Hughes Panel Report is unclear -- but Chair Damien Walford Davies is going, and maybe some of the current board as well.  The current directors are Kate North, Justin Albert, William Ayot, Eric Ngalle Charles, Elizabeth George and Angharad Wynne.  As we all know, one of the criticisms of the Panel centred on poor governance, and of course this was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the activities of the Chairman and the Board of Directors.

Anyway, new blood is being sought -- although it is unclear whether the Board of Directors will be kept the same size or expanded.  Get your application forms filled in now, folks!

Recruitment of Chair and Directors for Literature Wales Management Board  

Literature Wales, the National Company for the development and promotion of literature in Wales, is looking for a dynamic and inspiring individual to lead the organisation as Chair.  It is also seeking to appoint new Directors to join its Management Board.

Joining our Board in 2018 will mean that you will actively shape the future of the organisation as it frames its new Strategic Plan for 2019-2022.

Literature Wales is a forward-looking organisation which thrives on change and responds positively and directly to challenges. We are looking for people who want to contribute to building a better society and ensure that literature is a voice for all. We are looking for strong advocates who share the vision and values of the organisation, and who can help shape the next phase of the organisation’s development.


Literature Wales is seeking its second Chair, as the distinguished poet and academic Damian Walford Davies is due to step down in Spring 2018 in accordance with the mandated length of office set out in the organisation’s Articles of Association.
The ability to communicate in both Welsh and English is essential for the role of Chair.


Literature Wales’ Board of Directors represents a broad sector and includes a range of expertise, experience and voices. We particularly welcome applications from young people and individuals who represent protected characteristics. In this current recruitment process, priority will be given to applicants who demonstrate knowledge of and/ or experience in at least one of the following areas:
Legal & HR
Development and Business
Children & Young People
International Networks
Communications & PR

Literature Wales is a bilingual organisation and a positive attitude towards the Welsh language is essential for the role of Director.

Closing Date: Monday 12 March 2018, 12.00 noon

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Welsh literature and publishing -- the situation just became even more chaotic......

Bethan Sayed AM, Chair of the Assembly Culture Committee

Previously we have commented on the dealings of the Assembly's Culture Committee, which had been asked by Minister Ken Skates to review the findings of the Medwin Hughes Panel on the support mechanisms for literature and publishing in Wales.  I bet the Minister wishes he had just gone ahead and made some decisions, since the situation has now become incredibly messy -- and it looks as if it will drag on for many months yet.  Nobody will be satisfied..........

I had a sense from the deliberations of the Committee that they were moving towards a position of "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't" -- and I think my supposition was probably right.  They are now being critical of the Medwin Hughes Review Panel, critical of Literature Wales (especially its leadership) and generally unhappy with virtually everything.  The Committee wants further analysis of the suggestion that many of Literature Wales's functions should be transferred to the Welsh Books Council.  Quote from the BBC Report:  "The committee now wants the Welsh Government to publish all relevant documents and the minutes of the independent panel's meetings."  This could drag on for many months yet -- to the further detriment of the literature and publishing industry in Wales.

I'm a bit mystified by the reference to the Panel's observations on the "decline of the publishing industry" in Wales.  That was not my reading of the Panel Report -- it certainly stressed that the industry was CHANGING because of changing technology and social trends, but change does not mean decline.

Then we have this:

The report also quotes committee member Dawn Bowden, who called into question the public funding that is given to literature and publishing by the Welsh Government.  The Labour AM said during one evidence session: "I get the distinct impression that we've got a sector here that's rife with factionalism, rivalries and jealousies that, quite frankly, leaves me wondering why the Welsh Government's even bothering to finance some of these organisations."

This is a matter which received inadequate attention from both the Medwin Hughes Panel and the Culture Committee.  As I have said many times before on this blog, the "subsidy culture" which pervades the literature and publishing scene in Wales MUST be addressed, because nobody is effectively demonstrating that the largesse pushed in the direction of both writers and publishers in Wales provides real value for money to taxpayers.  The conspiracy of silence over the appallingly low level of SALES of supported books is a disgrace, and somebody needs to say so.

It looks to me as if the subject of the Medwin Hughes Panel Review is being pushed into the long grass.  It's all profoundly discouraging.


Literature review fails to convince culture committee
6th March 2018

A saga over a critical report into publishing and literature in Wales has taken another twist.

A controversial independent review last summer claimed Literature Wales was unfit to receive public funding or was in danger of collapse.

But the Assembly's cross-party culture committee has now found "little evidence" for that conclusion.

It also says a proposal to transfer responsibilities to the Welsh Books Council needs further analysis.

AMs expressed concern the debate had overshadowed important issues.

Literature Wales was created in 2011 to promote and develop reading and writing and had an income of about £1.2m in 2016.

The Welsh Government-commissioned review, led by Prof Medwin Hughes, vice-chancellor of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, described the organisation as "lacking the skills and experience" to spend public money.

Economy Minister Ken Skates, in response last summer, had been minded to accept the recommendations.

The review included proposals that several responsibilities would transfer to the Welsh Books Council instead, including the Wales Book of the Year award,bursaries for writers and literary events.

New Culture Minister Dafydd Elis Thomas has since said that the award will remain with Literature Wales for this year at least.

He has been waiting for the committee's report before giving the Welsh Government's official response to Prof Hughes's report.

Literature Wales' head had claimed the review was a "dud", filled with "inaccuracies".

Arts Council Wales was also critical of the review, calling it "deeply disappointing".

The committee's own examination of the review has now found:

"Further critical analysis of the benefits and implications" of the transfer of responsibilities from Literature Wales was needed and it was "not convinced" that the practicalities and costs have been thought through.

Analysis of the decline in publishing in Wales was "insufficient" and raises more general concerns about the review panel's evidence base.

Committee chairwoman Bethan Sayed said they were "uncomfortable" at the way in which the debate around the review had been framed and were "not convinced" by some of the evidence.

While AMs found no evidence to support the suggestion that Literature Wales was unfit to spend public funds, the committee was critical of its leadership.

It said Literature Wales' "overly defensive response" to the report did not cast the organisation in a good light or contribute to "a mature debate on the future of the sector."

The report also quotes committee member Dawn Bowden, who called into question the public funding that is given to literature and publishing by the Welsh Government.

The Labour AM said during one evidence session: "I get the distinct impression that we've got a sector here that's rife with factionalism, rivalries and jealousies that, quite frankly, leaves me wondering why the Welsh Government's even bothering to finance some of these organisations."

But the committee praises the integrity of the review panel although in its conclusions it says its work was flawed due to an "absence of analysis" on the decline of the publishing industry and emergence of literature on digital platforms.

The committee now wants the Welsh Government to publish all relevant documents and the minutes of the independent panel's meetings.

Prof Hughes, when he gave evidence to the committee, said he had "observed a lot of arrogance" in the criticisms following his review.

But he also told assembly members they would be "shocked" by some of the accounts he was given of the industry.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Audio sample

I have just discovered how to use the audio player on the Martha Morgan Country web site!  I have copied just a little snippet from the WAV files kindly sent by WF Howes.  You can listen to it by going to the base of this page:

The narrator is Leanne Masterton.  Enjoy!

Friday, 2 March 2018

Publishing in Paradise

I'm grateful to the Welsh Books Council for the provision of figures relating to grant aid in the publishing sector in Wales. Here is the information provided:

Welsh-language Books Published 2016/17
Total (WBC Grant-aided in brackets)
Programme Publishers (Children) 143 (80)
Programme Publishers (adults) 93 (68)
Individual Publishers (Children) 77 (16)
Individual Publishers (Adults) 38 (26)

TOTALS       Of 351 titles published, 190 were grant-aided

English-language Books Published 2016/17

Total (WBC Grant-aided in brackets)
Revenue Publishers (Children) 13 (12)
Revenue Publishers (Adults) 59 (52)
Individual Publishers (Children) 20 (5)
Individual Publishers (Adults) 132 (31)

TOTALS      Of 224 titles published, 100 were grant-aided

This is all very instructive.

When we look at Welsh-language books, we see that the big six publishers (called Programme Publishers) are much more dependent on grant aid than the smaller publishers. In the children's book market, 80 out of 143 titles published by the Programme Publishers were grant-aided, and in adult books 68 out of 93 titles were grant-aided. In the children's books market, the smaller publishers were much more prepared to take commercial risks, and only 16 out of 77 titles were grant-aided. That's quite a surprising figure. Adult books in Welsh from the small presses were also heavily supported -- with 26 out of 38 titles grant aided.

Turning to English-language books, we see a much more dramatic dependency on grant aid from the five Revenue Publishers (the big ones -- Gomer, Honno, Seren, Firefly and Parthian) to the extent that they appear to be virtually averse to taking any commercial risks at all. The figures speak for themselves -- 12 out of 13 children's books are grant aided, and 52 out of 59 adult books are grant-aided. The smaller publishers are more prepared to take risks -- only 5 out of 20 children's books are grant-aided, and grants were only awarded to 31 adult titles out of 132 published.

I'm not surprised that Welsh-language publishing is heavily grant-aided; it does, after all, involve a much greater commercial risk than publishing in English.

I'm also not surprised that the small presses are commercially more adventurous than the big ones, and since many of them publish only one or two titles a year they are probably not geared up to filling in elaborate grant application forms and dealing with all of the extra monitoring and reporting requirements insisted upon (quite rightly) by WBC. So they just get on and publish things, just as small presses in England do -- in the hope that they will sell, and that they will not lose money.

But I'm shocked at the degree of "grant-aid dependency" that exists among the larger Welsh publishers. Out of 308 titles published by them during the year, 212 were grant-aided. That's no less than 69%. Is it really the case that the larger publishers are convinced that more than two thirds of their published titles are doomed to be loss-making and therefore require grant aid in order to be published? A more likely explanation of this phenomenon is that the larger publishers have developed a business model in which grant aid is a key component. They have learned to fill in the application forms and how to maintain "good practice" as far as WBC is concerned -- and since book sales do not seem to matter, the default position is that virtually every book considered for publication needs to demonstrate its ability to make a loss. Just think about it -- it is a truly extraordinary situation. As Martin Rolfe noted some time ago, "WBC turn down applications which, when costed, show that no loss is forecast to arise.”

Martin has shown that on average subsidised Welsh-language children’s books sell around 1000 copies, that subsidised Welsh-language adult’s books sell around 700 copies; that subsidised English-language children’s books sell around 1,000 copies; and that subsidised English-language adult books sell around 1,100 copies. I recall the Medwin Hughes Panel drawing attention to an average sales level of around 800 copies for all subsidised books in Wales. Should we, as taxpayers, be satisfied with those figures? I suggest that we should be considerably disgruntled.

On the matter of costs, let's look at some of the figures which we can extract from the tables in the WBC Annual Report for Year 2016-17.

232 Welsh-language titles were "supported" at a cost of £449,063 with assumed average sales of 831 copies (those are actually the sales of 2014-15 titles after two years of market exposure......). The average grant per title was £1,935. This probably reflects the large proportion of "small" children's books in Welsh, and small print runs.

According to "The Bookseller" the five big Revenue (English-language) Publishers received £250,000 in the tax year 2016-17. It seems that 74 English-language titles were published with grant aid totalling £301,248. Also, 25 author advances (totalling £42,000) were paid, and 21 marketing grants were paid. 48 titles were published by the 5 "revenue publishers" at a cost of £248,798 -- ie £5,183 per title. Individual grants to smaller publishers totalled £52,450 for 26 titles, working out as £2,017 per title. The average grant across all 74 titles was £4,070 per title. The very high average grant per title to the larger publishers probably reflects larger print runs and more ambitious publishing projects including glossy hardback volumes.

Overall, the publishing grant aid programme from the WBC has expended over £750,000 during the last tax year on the support of 306 titles -- representing an average grant of £2,450 per title. The grants are more than adequate to pay for the full production costs of books designed for the Welsh market, which will generally have print runs of perhaps 1,000 copies. This means that Welsh publishing is effectively a risk-free enterprise, for those publishers who are supported within the system.

As I suggested a couple of months ago, we need to focus much more sharply on value for money.

Apart from the "average sales figure" for Welsh-language books published in 2014-15 (831 copies) there is no indication anywhere in the WBC Annual Report of how successful any of the published books has been. Some might say that sales figures are "commercially sensitive information" -- but that information should most definitely not be treated as confidential where the full publishing cost of a book has come from the public purse. We now know that WBC does collect and collate book sales figures. We must hope that the figures represent REAL sales, excluding free copies, review copies and returns, for those titles that are grant aided. I cannot see that any of the publishers in receipt of subsidies would object to full disclosure of their sales figures; if they want these sales figures hidden because they are embarrassed by them, they should not be publishing those titles in the first place.

There is a transparent grant application process for publishers, but who decides which authors will be commissioned to write things, and which ones will receive publishing advances from WBC? Are those monies returnable if and when books become successful, or if they fail to get into print?

All in all, the "success" of the Welsh publishing industry seems to be measured simply by counting the number of books produced, with no account taken of either market demand or actual sales figures. Publishing is a commercial business, and if publishers cannot be bothered to work out what demand there may be for the titles they publish, they should be required to carry the full commercial risk themselves, instead of publishing (at the taxpayer's expense) a stream of titles which very few people want and hardly anybody reads.

I suggest that in publishing, as in other sectors of the economy, “value for money” must be quantified in some way, rather than being measured qualitatively by something as vague as “cultural value” or worthiness. This is actually quite a big issue, and it deserves to be discussed.