A Day at the Portobello Book Festival

A Day at the Portobello Book Festival
Image: portobellobookfestival.co.uk

Nothing to Lose
Yesterday’s trip to the seaside in the guise of the Portobello Book Festival, was both as enjoyable a day out as it was groundbreaking. Not only did I meet up with some other extremely talented writers from all over the literary spectrum, but I learned a few home truths; a light was shone on the reality of the publishing industry that had until yesterday, remained somewhat elusive.

Some of you may already be saying to yourselves, “here he goes again, after all his planning, he’s going to throw it all out of the window to go off on some dame fool crusade.” I assure you that’s not the case, in fact, my entire annual plan of work remains intact, it’s how I am going to approach it that’s altered, and altered drastically.

For the last year I’ve felt somewhat frustrated at not being able to see a way through to getting an agent or being published by a suitable traditional publisher; they’re either closed to submissions or only accepting readings through agents. The agents are all closed up on full client lists. So how does someone like me, with a growing readership, decent sales, and a confidence to get out and sell more, actually make the breakthrough?

I had coffee with a gentleman yesterday, who through the flow of our discussion set my mind thinking. I swear I saw a golden crescent appearing on the horizon as certain realities dawned on me. He inadvertently changed my world view on publishing and my career in writing, causing me to re-assess just how it is I am going about things.

It’s one thing to be writing all these novellas and novels, and it’s another to have an established presence on the web and a growing one in the local literary community, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to this single question: “how would any publisher that wanted to take me on, know how to sell me?”

The answer is, they wouldn’t. I’m not “sellable”; I have no catch, no hook, and no platform yet on which they can take and say, “yeah, we can sell this!” Publishers might want the books but they also need to know what it’s worth and what I’m worth behind it; they need to be able to have something on which they can sell the damn book!

Looking back at my GDR, I already have this built in, so in a way I was already onto this, but yesterday’s meeting crystallised everything for me. I can see the way ahead, the route to the next level. I know what I have to do on my path, to get through to the publishers.

In retrospect, it’s very simple. The one thing that has been holding me back from publishing more successfully is that I hadn’t realised the following fact:

In the grand scheme of things I am an obscurity to publishers. However, I’m an obscure writer that has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

And that’s the key!

So to my loyal band of readers who turn up at this blog page every day, buy my books, support me and spur me on, I can promise this: watch out for some big changes and exciting happenings this year. I’m taking my GDR plan for the next year, and thanks to yesterday’s meeting, injecting it with a new secret ingredient. Good days lie ahead (as well as a lot if hard work!) as I turn around and wave goodbye to the days of being an obscure writer.

In fact, it’s the new motto I have printed on paper and stuck to the wall above my PC:

Obscurity kills writers!

Portobello Book Festival
In only its third year of existence, the Portobello Book Festival has already proven to have some envious qualities to it. For one, it has a beach. In others, it has a friendly town with a wide array of writers and even more readers, keen to establish the festival as a firm favourite with a lot to offer.

In the morning event at Portobello Library, a small group of writers from all across the literary spectrum with various levels of experience, gathered to listen to the advice and musings of three members at different stages of the publishing cycle.

The panel consisted of Marianne Paget, a local author, most recently involved in the City of Literature’s Story Shop. Allan Guthrie, a well known crime writer, shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger and winner of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel Of The Year in 2007. He also acts as a literary agent with Jenny Brown Associates. And finally, Francis Bickmore, editorial director of Canongate Books in Edinburgh.

Each panelist came armed with advice and tips for writers, new and experienced, on how one might make that elusive breakthrough, whether it’s an agent that’s needed or a publisher, self-publishing advice, the advantages and disadvantages of being published traditionally, what editors and agents look for in a writer, and bags of other tips.

Paget, complete with handouts on organisations that can help budding new writers, talked through her experiences to date and the path she has followed to achieve her successes so far.

Guthrie’s five minutes consisted of the five vital questions all writers should ask themselves to ascertain whether they “need a publisher or an agent”, or if a career in self-publishing might suit more. The questions were designed to give positive answers, providing the author answered them honestly. They’re hard-hitting, but in the hard world of publishing, the answers this writer came up with were very revealing indeed.

The final “five minute slot” (it went on much longer) came from Francis Bickmore, the newly promoted editorial director of the internationally respected Canongate Books. His advice also revolved around a series of points that all writers should take strong heed of.

His views were remarkably enlightening, particularly on the importance of having great blurbs as opposed to synopses, that a writer should “write what you don’t know” as opposed to the general understanding that a writer should write what they do.

He continued with a series of brilliant points to consider, such as: “submissions should be properly researched, not the actual book”, that the author should “be the artist and the gallery agent” and should “find his or her community”. He also said it was vital to “give out but don’t give up”, and perhaps the most memorable piece of advice to a man in my position: “hair shines with brushing”.

The Q&A session could have gone on much longer, but one thing that stuck out was the reality of the publishing industry today in the form of a very simple statistic. On why publishers like Canongate spread their bets through different genres, and through the publication of high profile celebrities like Katie Price, it comes down to simple survival and the 85/15 rule.

When you understand that “85% of a publisher’s money comes from 15% of their books,” you start to see why the publishing industry as a whole is so risk averse.

Kudos to the organisers of this event and the whole of the Portobello Book Festival. Hopefully next year I’ll get to spend more time there as it has a vibe and energy all of its own.

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About Colin Galbraith

Author, poet, music lover, rabbit tamer, fake faller.
This entry was posted in Edinburgh, Edinburgh Book Festival, Food, Drink and Bevvy, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Day at the Portobello Book Festival

  1. Sounds like a fabulous and productive time.

  2. Emily says:

    This is brilliant Colin, really exciting! Looking forward to reading what you get up to in the future. One question, when will you tell us the secret ingredient?

  3. Diane says:

    The book festival has a lot to answer for, then. 😀 Glad you found it beneficial – and that you had a good time.

  4. Secret ingredient eh? Enigmatic stuff. Reading this reminds me of Rudyard Kipling. I think you and he have a lot in common. He had a tough time ‘breaking into’ published work as well – he was always messed about by his publisher, but who’s laughing now? He wouldn’t have stood for these ridiculous PC rules about blackboards and stop and search either. He lived in Leith a spell, too!

  5. Pingback: How To Get Published « auntyemily

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