Friday, 18 November 2016

Mistress Martha's gift........


The eight novels of the historical fiction "Angel Mountain" saga have now racked up sales of over 80,000, excluding Ebook sales.  The novels, set in the Newport - Carningli area of North Pembrokeshire, have been self-published under the Greencroft Books imprint, completely outside Welsh publishing's "subsidy culture."  In publishing the books, I had to carry the full commercial risk, without any grant aid.  That's something of which I am quite proud.

For those readers who have not heard this strange tale of where Mistress Martha and the saga came from, here is a short resume:

A Very Strange Episode

Over the course of the last fifty years I have written more than 80 books, but prior to 1999 I had never had any great urge to write fiction. My wife Inger had often encouraged me to “write a novel”, but I had always refused on the grounds that the world of fiction is alien territory in which I would probably feel out of place and even hopelessly lost. Then something happened which was very strange indeed -- and almost spooky.............

In 1999 Inger and I travelled to Gran Canaria for a short holiday, and en route I picked up a strange virus on the aircraft. Maybe it was aerotoxic syndrome.  I felt ill even before we landed, but on arrival I experienced classic flu-like symptoms, including a high temperature, headache, heavy limbs, and episodes of shivering. I went straight to bed when we arrived at the apartment, and I spent the whole of the night wide awake, feeling horrible and sweating gallons. During this strange delirious episode, a story came into my head -- of a feisty and passionate woman called Martha Morgan. (At first I thought her name was Mary, but then I realized that only Martha would do.) As I lay there in the warm darkness, gazing at the bedroom ceiling, I tuned in to dates, places, characters, and a storyline covering the whole of Martha’s exciting life between 1796 (when she was still a teenager) and the time of her death in1855. Somehow or other, individual episodes came into my head, and I even picked up on key conversations in considerable detail. I knew that the story had to be told in the words of Mistress Martha, not retrospectively but with immediacy, through diary entries.

In the morning, not having slept a wink, I felt better, but the story was fixed firmly inside my head. (If the story had come to me in a dream, it would certainly have disappeared from my memory by breakfast time.) I told Inger about this strange experience, and she said “Well then, you’d better start writing!” So I did..........

Now, sixteen years later, I still do not know what to make of that strange episode. At least, I now know what the term “fevered imagination” means! But I still think that in some strange way the story was “given” to me, and that I had to keep faith with this exotic and imperfect creature called Mistress Martha. For better or for worse, in spite of the fact that I was at the time a 59-year-old grandfather, I had to try and put into words the emotions and the experiences of a pregnant, suicidal 18-year-old female who lived more than 200 years ago, and I had to do it in the most difficult of formats -- the daily diary. My family and friends probably thought I was nuts, but to their credit they did not try to discourage me!

Since the publication of “On Angel Mountain” in 2001 I have been asked on innumerable occasions whether there really was a woman called Martha Morgan who lived and died in North Pembrokeshire at the time of the saga. After all, they say, if the story came to me as a gift, who was the donor if not Martha herself, or her spirit? I am intrigued by ghosts and spirits, and certainly do not dismiss them out of hand -- and I have done my duty, in the interests of science, by searching through the old records for somebody called Martha Morgan who might have been the Mistress of a failing estate in the early years of the nineteenth century. I have found several women named Martha Morgan in the right period, but they all seem to have lived far away from Newport.  All very peculiar.......

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Library of Wales confusion

Now I am seriously confused about the funding and the success -- or otherwise -- of the Library of Wales series.  In a BBC Report dated 2 Dec 2012, and based mostly on info provided by Jon Gower,  it is stated that the scheme costs £50,000 per year and that 50,000 copies of books from the series have been sold.

Library of Wales: Authors disagree over books' funding
    • 2 December 2012
    • From the section Wales politics
A call has been made for a scheme which republishes classic Welsh books that have gone out of print to continue to receive public funding.
Wales Book of the Year winner Jon Gower backs the Library of Wales series, which has sold 50,000 copies since it was launched in 2006.
It costs the Welsh government £50,000 a year for the Welsh Books Council scheme.

So far so good.  But we have already referred on this blog to a recent research report written by a Swansea University academic which indicates that accumulated sales by the end of 2013 were about 30,000 (no accurate figures are published) and that the cost to the taxpayer is over £100,000 per year.  (The sales figure of 30,000 is estimated and excludes books given away and trade returns.)

If we do some simple sums we see that it has cost £530,000 to sell 30,000 books -- and put another way, it has cost the taxpayer over £17 for every book sold.  As far as I can tell, the sales income from the books sold goes straight to the publisher, and does not have to be repaid to the Welsh Government.

No matter what the "cultural desirability" of this arrangement might be, in supporting the writers, publishers and culture of Wales, one does need to ask, ever so gently, how cost-effective this is.  More than half a million thrown at a scheme which effectively isolates the publisher from commercial risk and which seeks to keep in print a long list of literary titles which nobody wants anyway.  (OK -- lots of Welsh schools and universities will be using these books in their course work, and in that way they will be keeping Wales's "great literary masterpieces" alive -- but don't let's forget that many of them are really rather turgid, and that the reason why they all went out of print in the first place was that nobody wanted to buy them.........)

 Here is the link to the study done by somebody from Swansea University -- I suspect it was done as an "impact assessment" by the key beneficiaries of grant aid.  The title is: "The Library of Wales: influencing Government Policy to benefit the Creative Industries, Cultural Tourism, Education and General Readers".  In no sense is this an assessment of the cost effectiveness of the project.


The project is funded by the Welsh Government, the Welsh Books Council and Swansea University.  All of the titles in the "Library of  Wales" series are published  very professionally by Parthian Books.  I have no gripe with them -- they bid competitively for the project and won it, and the best of luck to them.....  My concerns strictly relate to the strategic or political decision to spend more than half a million pounds of taxpayers money on this, at a time when the funding of public services in Wales is under greater pressure than ever before.  

More about the subsidy culture

 This article was recently published in The Bookseller.  It gives the standard justification for the way in which the Welsh publishing and writing industry (yes, it is an industry) works.  It's an interesting take on the situation, justifying vast public expenditure on the basis that a small country should place creativity and innovation at the top of its list of priorities in order to support the Welsh language and maintain self-esteem -- while more or less accepting that most of what goes on is entirely non-commercial.  Yes, there are a few titles every year which sell well and make lots of money. I'll hazard a guess that most of those are about rugby or are about well-known sports or entertainment personalities.   But Welsh publishers are notoriously secretive when it comes to sales figures, and it is rumoured that in order to be classed as a "best seller" in Wales a book simply has to sell 700 copies over its lifetime.  That means, I suppose, that the great majority of books published sell fewer than 500 copies.  Does anybody care?  Not really -- what's in print is already over and done with.  Let's get our grant applications sorted out for the next 20 titles which the reading public may or may not want........


Creative, contemporary – and commercial? How books are supported in Wales

Wales has a historic tradition of literature patronage dating back over a thousand years. Poets would be nurtured and supported, and this was considered a sign of a civilised princedom. The return on this investment was a golden age of Welsh poetry, which included Dafydd ap Gwilym, SiĆ“n Cent and Guto’r Glyn – some of the foremost European writers of their age. Many of these enjoyed fame and fortune, and even to this day, award-winning poets in Welsh enjoy a celebrity status in their communities. The difference today is that being a poet might give you fame, but it certainly doesn’t give you fortune (unless you have a side-line as a soap opera writer).

The Welsh Government supports both the publishing industry via the Welsh Books Council, as well as individual writers, via the Arts Council of Wales (who in turn support Literature Wales). They are in effect the continuation of the princes’ patronage. As a devolved nation with its own national (as opposed to regional) institutions, there are clear pathways for writer development from first drafts to publication. In Wales, the pathways are mostly subsidised and lead towards small-scale, independent publications. This may well be true for other devolved nations – as well as English regions such as the North West – and in this sense support for the independent sector is important for ensuring a sense of regional/ national identity.

However, as is the case everywhere outside London, there is a tension between the need to support a home-grown independent publishing sector, and an individual writer’s desire to reach a much wider global market. How do we square this circle, and what would be the priorities as we develop the sector in the coming years, facing the likelihood of ever-increasing government cuts? These are surely some of the key questions considered by the Independent Panel, chaired by Professor Medwin Hughes, tasked with reviewing the Welsh Government’s support for publishing and literature. The outcome of the review, which was expected to be finalised by the end of September, has been delayed due to an unprecedented response to the on-line public consultation. This is a mark of how important the sector is for Wales, and it’s clear that many individuals feel very strongly that their own contribution to the debate should be heard. It’s also very likely that these points of view will vary considerably.

In the midst of these arguments, surely it would be evident that sustaining support for writers is key for ensuring a healthy future for literature. And this support should allow for ambition and artistic risks. Many writers, at any stage of their writing career, will want to take stock and explore new possibilities. Being allowed time out to experiment with new genres and ideas, without the pressure of deadlines and personal responsibilities, can be a life-changing opportunity for a writer. A Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary (the current round closes on 28th October) is highly competitive and is peer-reviewed. Being awarded a bursary is a mark of confidence in a writer’s talent, and the successful applicants each year stand out because of their willingness to work hard and take risks. The outcomes can be surprising, and writers often note that the time out has led them to new directions. This is a key aspect in the development of writers as creative artists.

Many of the Bursaries’ recipients go on to publish books to great acclaim and success, some with Wales-based independent publishers; others go on to publish with major London-based publishing houses. Recent successes of the Writes Bursaries scheme include supporting the (then) unpublished writer Kate Hamer who went on to write The Girl in the Red Coat (Faber), which has sold over 100,000 copies and was short listed for 2015 Costa First Novel Award. Another success-story is poet Jonathan Edwards, who was also awarded a New Writers’ Bursary for his first volume My Family and Other Superheroes, which he published with the excellent Welsh publisher Seren Books, and which went on to win the Poetry Category of the 2014 Costa Poetry Award.

These two books represent the rich ecology of contemporary books from Wales – independent, commercial, creative, unique, popular, high-quality – and our work following the Welsh Government’s review is to ensure they are not one-offs, but represent a growing trend and express an increasing confidence in the Welsh literary voice. My prediction is that quite soon, a Welsh author, published by a Welsh publisher, will go on to win the Booker. Watch this space.

Lleucu Siencyn is chief executive of Literature Wales.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Serious discussions.....

Serious discussions are now under way with regard to a multi-episode costume drama based on the Angel Mountain series.  Three different companies are involved, including two west Wales companies who would bring particular skills to the project.  But the most important company is obviously the production company what would take the lead, raise the finance, make the programmes and do the deals necessary for the showing of the series across the world.  They would allocate a producer to the project,  find a screenwriter, hire the actors and the director, and put all the other pieces of the jigsaw in place. 

This is far too big a project to be handled just by S4C and BBC Wales (or ITV) since there is just not the funding available within Wales.  The advent of digital media means that drama series now must be in a form to be viewed on both TV sets and on computers and iPads -- and, dare I say it, on smartphones too.  Sounds crazy, but there you go.......

There are some advanced discussions going on, and all being well, I might be in a position to announce the sale of an option on the film / TV rights within the next few weeks.  So watch this space!