Sunday, 1 June 2014

'THREE GO OFF ON A CRIME(FEST) SPREE' by VALERIE LAWS

Me, Chris Longmuir and Julia Jones meet up at Crimefest Bristol

     Crimefest Bristol is a well-established festival of crime fiction, for both writers and readers. One of the joys of being part of it this year was meeting and hanging out with fellow Authors Electric Julia Jones and Chris Longmuir after knowing and supporting each other online for some time. All three of us were featured on ‘panels’, that arcane process puzzling to a poet used to getting up and performing, but common to lit fests for novelists. A group of writers including a 'participating moderator' discuss a theme or question while skilfully plugging their latest books, but not reading from them, in front of an audience of crime fans who can ask questions in the last 10-15 minutes of each 50 minute session. Crimefest gets some heavy hitters, such as Peter James, Simon Brett (who put on a brilliant performance of comic parodies of Scandi-noir, TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Agatha Christie one night) and Icelandic Queen of crime Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Then there are crime fictioneers right down the hierarchy of sales figures/ agents/publishers/output.


     Crimefest is not so unforgiving of the indie-published as other festivals, indeed for the first time, there was a panel of indies, though Harrogate Festival is said to be averse, and indeed, it seems to be generally believed ‘on the street’ that publishers pay to get their authors on there, thus excluding smaller publishers as well as self-pub writers.
     Writers and readers alike wore our names round our necks on long lanyards, and the automatic glance at the groin area of strangers became a habit we’ll have to break back in normal life… Lots of crime fans were there too in the Palm Court, polished marble, gold cherub-ridden splendour of the Marriott Royal Hotel next to the cathedral, many of them Americans, having come all this way to listen to crime writers – plus a trip to Cornwall, a trip to Agatha’s house and later, afternoon tea with Colin Dexter in Oxford (he must be scone-phobic by now). An enthusiastic and friendly bunch they were too. Chris, Julia and I got together on the opening Thursday afternoon, and were soon ‘bagging’ seats for each other and loyally supporting each other’s panel events.


     The festival bookshop was run by Foyles. I and my publisher were delighted they placed a hefty order for my new novel THE OPERATOR and a canny few of THE ROTTING SPOT, and Chris too had many copies of her splendid books in stock including two of her Dundee Crime Series and her new historic crime novel THE DEATH GAME. The sight however of so many towering piles of crisp new crime books was daunting – how could anyone expect sales with so many writers represented?
     Two panels running concurrently, maybe five writers on each, every hour of the day, and on Saturday, three panels at a time, well you do the maths. I was just excited to see them there in such august company, and to see, and to cheesily photograph, them on sale in WHSmiths in the airport as well as stations nationwide.


Julia Jones, in the centre of things on her panel.
     We’d all been lucky enough to be given good panel slots. Julia, whose crime fic bona fides are mainly through her work on Margery Allingham and for the Margery Allingham Society, was up first on a ‘Biographers Cosying up to Homicidal Novelists’ panel, representing her scholarly, full and fascinating biography THE ADVENTURES OF MARGERY ALLINGHAM, along with experts on Agatha Christie, John Creasey, and Raymond Chandler.

     Generally speaking, writers were courteous to their fellows, no holding and waving their books, no bogarting the mic or shouting each other down, although they did have occasional sideswipes at other sub-genres. (Oddly enough it was the cosy community who were the most violent in their attacks on violent noirists, particularly some real fighting talk from Jill Paton Walsh!) Even Julia’s lot, fierce in defence of their adored subjects, got quite feisty and I was hoping for, I mean fearing a brawl with real blood and bodies, John ‘Agatha’ Curran fighting fiercely on several fronts.
     Julia did Margery proud, speaking frankly but engagingly about her as a novelist /crimewriter who worked herself into ill health and beyond and produced an impressive body of work.
Me on my panel, John Harvey far left, Stav Sherez far right.

     My panel was at 1.40 on the Friday. Moderating was the august Chair of the CWA Alison Joseph, who was very fair to all and kindly encouraging to me, the least-published crime writer on the panel, rather overwhelmed by co-panellists John Harvey (who announced he’d just published the last-ever Charlie Resnick novel), fellow luminary Paul Johnston, and cool Faber dude Stav Sherez. Our discussion of ‘Narrative and Resolution’ went well in front of a good sized crowd.
     I did manage to speak up for myself, in an important discussion of a vital part of crime fiction’s lasting appeal to readers, a subject which cropped up in many other panels too: the need for ‘closure’ and wrongs being righted or at least explained, which real life (and open-ended modern literary books or films) so often doesn’t deliver. Quite a few of the audience spoke to me over the next couple of days to say how much they liked what I’d said about my writing and about doctors, surgeons and empathy (a theme of my book THE OPERATOR) which was gratifying.

     This didn’t convert into sales however. I hadn’t expected to sell many but I was surprised to see only a few waiting in the ‘signing room’ for the starrier others, most were for John but even there it was a short line. I recalled at Harrogate where I appeared in 2009, queues snaking for miles for big names, so I popped my head in after other panels, and the signings were pretty sparse across the board. The effect of ebooks, or the recession, or both? Julia, who’d brought some of her books, told me her panel hadn’t even bothered going into the signing room at all!

Chris Longmuir also in the middle of things!
     Chris was on at 5.10, ‘What’s So Good About Crime?’ and she was good indeed, holding her own well against a confident trio of writers including Felix Francis, who has continued writing the books his father (and mother, as is now acknowledged!) wrote about horse racing and well beaten-up jockeys and the like, though he’d been manager of the ‘family business’ and a physics teacher. He was asked if it had been a ‘problem’ being his father’s son, a dark joke to all those who struggle to be published, discovered, and known!
Chris in the 'signing room'

     Julia completed Friday by featuring in the evening reception and entertainment, as she presented the prizes for the first-ever Margery Allingham Short Story competition, open to all, won by Martin Edwards, and then it was goodbye from her, leaving me and Chris to soldier on through the enjoyable but relentless chain of events, barely leaving time to bolt the odd sarnie, hardboiled eggs or lashings of ginger beer, until Sunday lunchtime.
Julia awards the Margery Allingham short story prize to Martin Edwards

     On that last morning, Crimefest showed its openness and lack of snobbery by putting on the ‘Emerging Indie Voices’ panel, moderated by Joanna Penn with bags of verve and attack. By 'indie' they meant self-published, and the writers lined up (Tim Cooke, Eva Hudson, Mel Sherratt, Carol Westron) had combined sales of more than four hundred thousand books. Ulp! They gave familiar reasons for going indie - liking to be in control, ‘the money’ ie greater royalties (Joanna in particular was very frank about being an entrepreneur, businesswoman, etc and there was much waving of books on this panel), being able to write without constraint into tight sub-genre niches demanded by publishers... Most had become ‘hybrid’ writers with trad deals as well, and were an impressive group. Several had featured in Chris’s comprehensive new non-fiction book CRIME FICTION AND THE INDIE CONTRIBUTION and Joanna gave it a well-deserved honourable mention. My only reservation was the high expectations of income this might lead rookie indies to expect - now there are so many books of all genres on Amazon, it’s not so easy to put a book up on KDP, tweet twice, facebook a bit and watch the dosh roll in as it might have been in the early days.

I love flying, especially when I see my book on sale in WHSmiths at Newcastle Airport!

     But as we’d said goodbye to Julia, the three of us ended up in an unplanned ‘group hug’ which was a fitting farewell for a triumvirate of electric authors who go their own way, do it themselves and on shoestrings, but are there for each other with support and advice. As Chris pointed out on Facebook later on where we reunited with Julia in our normal cyberspace, it was a real, not a virtual, hug, and our books are real too, whether piled in paperback in Foyles (now presumably selling in their 'normal' shops) or hovering in Amazon’s aether. And now, roll on November, when I’ll be taking part in Iceland Noir Crime Festival!


Visit my website: www.valerielaws.com
Follow me on Twitter: @ValerieLaws
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/valaws
My latest crime novel THE OPERATOR is available from WHSmith Travel shops in paperback: or from Amazon as is the Kindle version.

12 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

Brilliant post and very readable. Crimefest was a blast and you portray it well.

julia jones said...

What a great write-up - thanks, scribe. I did worry about Foyle's, the bookseller whose first time it was running the stall at Crimefest. I thought they'd been generous in their ordering - perhaps over-generous depending what % were sale of return - and, as a former bookseller, I just hoped that too many Crimefest attendees weren't jotting down the titles and popping off to the internet to order from Amazon. I would guess that many crime fiction readers are feeing such a 'habit' (yes, me too) that they buy books wherever they can get them most cheaply. Fair enough in one way -- but not good for the on-site bookseller.

Jan Needle said...

Fascinating and delightful post, thanks. Made me wish i'd been there. Jealous of the group hug!

Dennis Hamley said...

Gosh, that sounds great. Would Joslin de Lay and three Point Crimes twenty years ago qualify me to go?

Bill Kirton said...

I'm with Jan and Dennis. Great post which makes me want to go next year.

Lydia Bennet said...

Thanks folks! Dennis, I don't know, crime festivals usually want people with new or nearly new books out that year or very recent. Anyone can go of course but to take part on a panel there are criteria to fulfil. Check out their website it should be on there.

Lydia Bennet said...

Julia, if foyles did over-order without stipulating sale or return, that was their decision, besides, crime novels do sell pretty well so they should be able to shift them in their shops maybe by running a three for two, or buy 1 get 1 half price offer like W's or Smiths.

julia jones said...

of course, it's just the bookseller in me that bleeds occasionally

Lydia Bennet said...

you're a publisher too though Julia, that's a lot of bleeding right there one way or another! ;)

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Excellent piece - makes me wish I'd been there. The crime writers definitely seem to have much more fun than the rest of us! I don't think I can do it. Wish I could... But Yrsa Siggurdardottir is one of my all time favourite writers. Particularly the spooky ones.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Excellent piece - makes me wish I'd been there. The crime writers definitely seem to have much more fun than the rest of us! I don't think I can do it. Wish I could... But Yrsa Siggurdardottir is one of my all time favourite writers. Particularly the spooky ones.

Lydia Bennet said...

yes Catherine she's an amazing woman all round, I was very impressed by her and chuffed to meet her. She's an engineer who builds power stations between writing horror/thrillers.