Emblazoned across the venue under the visual of a fist that blended every shade of historic political activism, the Fair came together under the slogan “Writers Unite” (which was, of course, not just a slogan but a hashtag for the day’s events across twitter). But is it possible to unite so disparate a group of people who are, by their nature, individuals? And is there a danger that writers speaking together will remain just that, writers speaking together, the reversal of the old days where they went to listen to the industries failing to see their corollary as the industry stays uninterestedly away from this new conversation?
(the best thing about conferences is always the people - here are the wonderful Alice Furse, Jane Davis and Rohan Quine)
The timing of London Author Fair, with its aim of empowering authors and placing the at the heart of publishing’s business conversation, turned out to be fortuitous, coming as it did right on the back of Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings reports and vocal calls to put authors at the centre of publishing.
One of the refreshing things about London Author Fair, for all it sought to differentiate itself from other writers’ conferences by making itself about the business rather than the craft of writing, was the way it embraced diversity within the authorial community. “Haven’t we reached the stage,” said Authoright’s CEO Gareth Howard, “where we can stop talking about self-published and traditionally published, and just talk about published?” At the moment these remarks still have a ring of rhetoric. They are wishes not realities. But the wishes are good ones. First there’s the desire to move on from seeing each other as opposing sides to be viewed with suspicion. As long as authors see themselves on different sides of a divide, and devote themselves to eyeing each other across it, they will never truly be able to get on with positioning themselves in the wider publishing industry. There may or may not be, as many claim, an industry that bloats itself on writers and is best served by keep writers in their place. But it’s certainly true that if writers really want to be at the heart of publishing they need to stop wasting their time with their own internal differences.
Second, there is a desire to put an end to the business of definitions, and get on with the business of making books. Not worrying about what you call it if a publisher does your marketing or if you hire your own copy editor, but talking about what needs to be done to make each book the best it can be and deliver it to the hands of its natural readers.
There was also, beneath the talk about democratisation, a genuine interest in talking about diversity, in engaging all writers, from all sides of what are seen as the traditional divides. Not just were self-published and traditionally published writers placed together, poets were placed on a platform with literary fiction and bestselling genre writing. And the involvement of major sponsor Blurb, the design led company whose speciality is producing beautiful physical editions of illustrated, photographed, poetic, and complexly formatted editions, further emphasised this commitment to diversity. “Our aim,” said Blurb’s CEO Eileen Gittins, whose background is the melting pot of Silicon Valley, “was to move publishing from being about the talent of the few to the talent of the many” by giving authors the tools to create a book that is the best expression possible of an author’s vision.
At the moment, it feels as though authors have a rallying point, the desire to retake control of the industry whose heart they form – both creatively and commercially. This is a worthy aim, reminiscent of the founding of United Artists. But it is fraught with danger from the fissures that calls to unite hide behind the thinnest veil. It is natural for rallying calls to move from concrete to abstract, people want figureheads, and that applies to authors and to the media. And at the moment many of those figureheads come in the shape of writers like Howey, who represent diversity in only some senses. Away from big events, it would be very easy for the poets, the literary writers, the genre benders and those from marginalised genres to become marginalised just as they feel they have been in the past. The media want to hear from bestsellers, and causes are served best by having the media listen, by giving them what they want. The danger is that this new united writers movement will become yet another mouthpiece for a cadre whose tastes and interests are decidedly mainstream, while those on the margins slowly wander off and do their own thing, once more alienated by a world that makes plays in their direction without following through.
And there is a further, similar, danger as writers unite, and take control with events like London Author Fair. For years writers have gone along to hear what the industry has to say. Simon and Schuster were represented at London Author Fair, but there is a very real danger that the industry isn’t so interested in what writers have to say among themselves.
To get over that, what we really need to do as writers is show that we have something to say, to show that we are worth listening to not just because we are theoretically the centre of the industry. And that is where London Author Fair showed its one weakness. Too many of the big speakers weren’t writers. Yes, they were listening to companies there to serve them, but the audience was still spending a lot of time listening to the industry. That is something that needs to change for writers to be taken seriously as a group worth listening to. There were some wonderful workshops as writers like Polly Courtney, Roz Morris and Ben Galley shared their experiences of how writers can make their way in modern publishing. But these need to be on the big stage while the industry service providers run workshops, learning how they can serve authors.
These are crucial caveats, and without them being taken on board, writers will find it harder to make the case that they really do have, as a united body, a voice that the industry is compelled to come and listen to. But they’re small niggles nonetheless. The message of London Author Fair is compelling, and the desire behind it, to have a united author front enabling all authors of whatever stripe to have their voice heard within an industry that needs to place them at its core, is equally compelling. But the message needs, as a matter of priority, to be turned into real action. I have every confidence that will happen with London Author Fair – Authoright have shown themselves to be not just committed but very willing to listen to the writer community, but as writers it behoves us to keep demanding that we be placed centre stage in these things, and not just at the centre of the message.