SYP Scotland's Publishing 101: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
By: Hannah Brattesani
Hunter S. Thompson once remarked that “publishers are notoriously slothful about numbers, unless they're attached to dollar signs.” His own difficult relationship with his publishers (Thompson consistently paid no heed to deadlines in pursuit of Gonzo journalism) says something about his opinion on the industry’s misplaced preoccupations but it by no means renders his statement entirely unsubstantiated. It may be my naïve and romantic outlook or my degree in English Literature that has made me a champion of art for art’s sake, but as I scan the shelves of my local book store or bestseller’s list I can’t help but feel that the publishing world plays more to big names and trends (BDSM and teen vampires anyone?) than genuinely impressive writing. Yes, there is a pomposity to painting the industry in such broad strokes but I had long considered this the main reason I, as an aspiring writer, see the publishing world as an impermeable and faceless business that I have little hope of breaking into.
This was, until I attended the Society of Young Publisher’s conference in Edinburgh on Friday 3rd March. As their second annual conference in Scotland, the focus this year honed in on the uncertain political climate in the U.K and abroad and set out to investigate the good, bad and ugly of publishing. Whilst the content of most of the talks that day focussed on bigger questions and national issues, the concentration was on the effect these things had on the individual. I was struck at how the Society of Young Publisher’s succeeded in shining a light on the people that make up the publishing world and put a face to the industry I had previously viewed as impersonal and, almost exclusively, commercially driven.
This emphasis on the individual was set by Jenny Brown, founder Director of the Edinburgh Book Festival and literary agent, and served to lay the foundation for the speeches and discussions that followed. As the opening speaker, she spoke about the importance of author/publisher relationships and their co-dependence. Her love and passion for her writers and their work was palpable and infectious; despite her frequent assertions that you’ll be underpaid and overworked, you couldn’t help but feel excited about the prospect of, one day, joining Brown in her profession.
An ominously named “The Brexit Question” discussion followed and introduced us to the many facets of the publishing industry. The ever-rational Grianne Clear of Little Island Books was joined by Alby Grainger, owner of Little Shop of Heroes, Derek Kenney, sales director at Bell & Bain, Janet Archer, chief executive at Creative Scotland and Timothy Wright, chief executive at Edinburgh University Press. In one panel we saw the many roles politics plays directly in the life of book printers, publishers, sellers and promoters and how it may spell profit for one and devastation for the next. Again we were reminded of the real people involved in the publishing industries and the very real consequences they face as a result of factors outside of their control.
The anxiety that arose from the discussion of unstable futures returned to the stage again in Joelle Owusu’s talk on The Good Immigrant, a hugely successful anthology of essays that gave a platform to Asian and minority ethnic voices. Owusu explored the uncertain role diversity plays in publishing and the historical lack of non-white characters. As an intern at Unbound, a London based crowdfunding publisher, Owusu’s introduction to their unorthodox publishing model brought up an interesting question about the industry’s view on the marketability of non-white voices: why did it take a crowdfunding initiative to make The Good Immigrant happen? And does its success spell good things for future of diversity in literature?
Whilst the remainder of the presentations continued to look at industry professionals (shout out to Flora Willis of Profile Books and Serpent’s Tail for giving us a brilliant insight into the marketing of I Love Dick and her perfect usage of the eggplant emoji) I was delighted to see the tables turn and attendees have the opportunity to pitch their own ideas. Five individuals, all at different points in their careers and education, took to the stage to present their publishing-related projects. The quality and variety of the pitches was testament to the attendees’ passion for the industry, and as I glanced around the room I was pleased to see only applauds of fervent support and eager-tweeters taking to their phones to praise their fellow young publishers.
It is for this reason I must admit that the most impressive thing that the society achieved that day is not found in their stellar line-up of speakers and discussions but in their creation of a community. I approached this conference with a little apprehension; this was, after all, an industry that seemed completely impenetrable and lacked a role for someone as hopelessly quixotic as myself. The Society of Young Publishers proved that I had completely misjudged the business. They taught me that for every bad, and even ugly, aspect of the publishing world that I may encounter there are, at least, five more good things waiting for me just around the corner.