Last week I was in Matera, Italy (a UNESCO World Heritage Site of which more in another post) at the 10th International Conference on Women’s Fiction. It was amazing.
The Conference, which is part of a Festival celebrating women’s fiction, is the brainchild of translator/award-winning author Elizabeth Jennings, who lives in Matera, and editor/publisher/agent Maria Paola Romeo from Milan. And oh boy, was it international. There were authors from the USA, Italy, the UK, Australia, South Africa. There was simultaneous translation between Italian and English. There were writers, agents and publishers from the USA, Italy, the UK, France and Germany.
Most of the Conference was conducted in the form of panels, so we got a range of views and experience. It all felt very spontaneous and, as a result, startlingly honest. It must have been a real pain for the translators, though; they worked their socks off and with minimal prepared content. I take my hat off to them, especially as they donated their services free. That’s dedication to books!
Two issues emerged and stayed at the forefront for the whole conference: the hybrid author and ‘discoverability’. Hotly followed by the implication that authors now have to be serious business people. No living in a cottage, like Elizabeth Goudge, God bless her, and letting Other People sort out contracts, money and the practicalities of life. Good for the backbone of course, but more or less daunting for the author, depending on your habits of mind.
The Pillars of Wisdom or at least Commercial Fiction
Elizabeth Jennings, chairing the first panel, said that three years ago there were three pillars of the publishing world: Writer-Agent-Publisher. Stephane Marsan, founder of French publisher Bragelonne, later added a fourth: Bookseller. It was only very late in the conference that someone else (sorry, forget who) mentioned, in passing, the Reader. The European voices tended to agree that readers were diminishing in number, though I’m not sure whether that was just of print books. Everyone pointed out that, although e-readers were growing increasingly popular, once a book or short story was available digitally it could be read on other devices, such as laptops, tablets and even smartphones. The next generation of readers may find these a better fit with their daily lives, I suppose.
The hybrid author
One man in his time plays many parts … In the case of writers, in the new digital age you may find that you want to self-publish your first venture(s), but also contract with a small press for something that has a definite audience but you can’t quantify it; digital first(small or large publisher) for an experiment; and, maybe, a big mainstream publisher for your mega-reach books. And you may want them all at the same time. Publishing, as everyone said, is changing. Fast.
Digital publishing seems now to be driving the new commercial fiction market in the USA. The consensus was that Europe is two to three years behind but going in the same direction.
The upsurge of digital publishing has inevitably caused a traffic jam, to put it at its mildest. With all those books out there, how does the Reader find the book he/she actually wants to read? He/she can still browse, in real bookshops and the on-line stores, both of whom will deliver recommendations. The Amazon rankings increase an author’s visibility — but you have to take care to select carefully the categories in which you place your novel and also choose your time window carefully (there you go, author-businessperson again). The self-publisher will probably only get a visible place in the rankings for a short time.
However, the latter is true for all publishers, big, small and self. Crowding out has hit the book world big time. You may get a contract with a big publisher but they haven’t cracked this problem, any more than has Euphemia Gutbucket, publishing Forty Years in the Rain Forest, my life as rubber planter’s wife.
And this is where I pay tribute to the big thing I took away from Matera – the willingness of everyone there to help each other out. From Elizabeth herself, devoting what must be massive writing time to putting together this programme, to the agents, publishers, translators and other authors, I was humbled by the generosity of everyone, all cheerfully sharing the problems they had identified and some of the solutions they were trying. In particular I am grateful to fellow participants David Gaughran, who convinced me that it was possible to let people know about your books without having a personality transplant and Shannon Mckenna, who hit the New York Times bestseller list on the Friday of the Conference. That achievement reminded everyone that there are Readers out there and sometimes they just love your book. Phew!