Libraries Matter

Those who have read or heard an interview with me will know I started writing young. Even before I could actually write, I used to build houses with toy bricks and invent stories for people who might have lived in them. There came a point in my late teens where I decided I either had to take this writing seriously and start submitting it to editors and publishers or accept it was just a hobby and not to be taken further. I did try giving up writing altogether but that failed. None of the people I knew were writers. I’d heard of Leicester Writers’ Club and Leicester Poetry Society but they seemed to be for older people (bearing in mind a 25-year-old looks old to a teenager). So where did I go to get started?

Leicester’s Central Library had a poetry section. The books were musty and outdated but there were some poetry magazines. Out of date, crumpled and definitely unloved, but they were there. Reading them gave me an idea of presentation and how to make submissions. I was short of cash then but sent off for a few single issues and came up with a plan. I gave myself a year to send out submissions and see what happened. I expected to get rejected but figured if I couldn’t get one poem accepted by the end of the year, I wasn’t writing what anyone wanted to publish. To make myself sound less like a complete newbie, I mentioned I’d written music reviews in my cover letter. One magazine editor rejected my poems with a ‘please try again’ and asked if I wrote book reviews. It seemed like an opportunity to get my name in print so I said yes. Consequently getting poems and reviews published happened in parallel. But might not have happened at all if I’d not been able to get access to a few poetry magazines in Leicester’s Central Library.

At the time I started sending out poems, I’d heard of the (English) National Poetry Library based in London, but couldn’t afford to travel to it. It looked ideal: a space for a library of poetry books (there were plans for a copy of every poetry book published in England) plus copies of poetry magazines to browse. Like public libraries, it was free to access. I’m aware that they also have ebooks and emagazines plus a growing database of poetry magazines and poets published within. Even from Leicester, it looked good: a place to go and browse if I found myself in London with some time to spare. If teenaged me had been in London, I might have got into publication quicker because I’d have had more access to resources.

However, the National Poetry Library is changing its membership. From 2 October, membership will cost £35 (£30 via direct debit). If you are an existing member, you still get free access. If you are not an existing member and cannot travel down to London with proof of ID to sign up as a member by 2 October, you have to pay. This is billed as an “exciting opportunity”.

Perhaps the National Poetry Library use a different dictionary. For those of us outside London, only able to make occasional visits, the cost is not justifiable. For those running mentorship schemes, classes or workshops for beginner poets, encouraging those poets to join the library does not make sense and for some students will not be viable. For the equivalent of teenaged me in London, it’s not affordable. The changes were announced on 23 September. That’s barely any notice for those juggling work and family commitments to get down to London to join before the 2 October deadline. I know libaries cost money to run but this library is funded by Arts Council England and the National Lottery. I understand alternative sources of income have to be found. But this discriminatory scheme dressed up as an “option” and “exciting” is a retrograde step and should be discouraged. There is a petition for anyone wishing to sign: https://www.change.org/p/the-national-poetry-library-keep-the-national-poetry-library-free.

Meanwhile, Leicester Central Library still has a poetry section. I joined Leicester Writers’ Club. Leicester Poetry Society was wound up but Leicester has several spoken word events, writers’ groups, publishers, literary festivals and a thriving literary scene as the Saboteur Awards 2019 recognised. October sees the start of Leicester’s Everybody’s Reading including the Local Writers’ Fair at Central Library, and States of Independence will be back in March 2020.

That teenager, rummaging the small, unloved selection of poetry magazines, was not particularly determined. She’d have loved someone to show an interest. A librarian who could have pointed her in the right direction. But that didn’t happen. She only sent out poems to prove to herself that no one would publish them. She failed. Even so, that skint teenager could have done with fewer barriers to publication, not more.


Update the National Poetry Library suggests that those who can’t get to London to sign up before the 2 October deadline:

How to join eloans until 2nd October:
 
To set up your account you will need to send us a scan/photograph of an official letter which you have received in the mail over the last three months eg bank statement, DWP letter, NHS letter, Council tax bill, utility bill. It needs to clearly show the date and your name and UK address. Please note that for data protection reasons we advise any financial documents used for proof of address exclude account details. Also, in line with data protection law we will delete this letter after we have received it.

We would also like you to tell us how you heard about the service.

We will provide you with a user ID and PIN to access the collection. You can then borrow one book at a time for a loan period of 14 days.

I plan to do this. The contact email address is info[at]poetrylibrary[dot]org[dot]uk.

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Saboteur Awards 2019

The East Midlands had a great showing in the Saboteur Awards Shortlists:

  • Best Short Story collection – Table Manners and Other Stories by Susmita Battacharya published by Dahlia Publishing
  • Best Spoken Word Performer – Jamie Thrasivoulou (Derby) with Jess Green (Leicester) getting a special mention
  • Best Literary Festival – Asian Writer Festival organised by The Asian Writer (Leicester)
  • Best Poetry Pamphlet – Shruti Chauhan (Leicester) got a special mention for “That Which Can Be Heard”
  • Best Spoken Word Regular Night – Word Wise (Derby)
  • Best Spoken Word Show – Jess Green (Leicester) gets a special mention
  • Best Anthology – “High Spirits a round of drinking stories” co-edited by Jonathan Taylor (Leicester) and Karen Stevens (Valley Press).
  • Best Reviewer of Literature Shortlist – Emma Lee (Leicester) and Maria Taylor (Leicester).

The winners were announced at an awards ceremony in Birmingham on 18 May. I wasn’t able to attend (prior engagement booked before the Saboteur Awards date was known). It was fantastic to see wins for:

  • Best Regular Spoken Word Night – Word Wise (Derby)
  • Best Spoken Word Performer – Jamie Thrasivoulou (Derby)
  • Best Anthology – “High Spirits a round of drinking stories” co-edited by Jonathan Taylor and Karen Stevens (Valley Press).
  • Best Short Story Collection – “Table Manners” Susmita Battacharya (Dahlia Publishing).

Also on the Best Reviewer of Literature shortlist were:

  • Dave Coates, research assistant at the Centre for New and International Writing at the University of Liverpool whose critical work is mostly published at Dave Poems.
  • Isabelle Kenyon, editor of Fly on the Wall Press with book reviews, articles and blog posts published in London Grip, Neon Books, Authors Publish, Harness magazine and Five Oaks Press.
  • Maria Taylor, poet and reviews editor for Under the Radar magazine. Through Under the Radar she’s also worked with reviewers on the Ledbury Poetry Festival’s Emerging Critic scheme.
  • Jade Cuttle, selected by the Ledbury Poetry Festival as emerging critic and Editor’s Choice on the 2018 Saboteur Awards shortlist. Reviews published in the TLS, the Guardian and the Poetry Review amongst others. She’s also deputy poetry editor at Ambit.

More on each reviewer on the shortlist is available at Sabotage Reviews.

Dave Coates has won the Saboteur Awards Best Reviewer previously. The competition was very strong and the award could have gone to anyone on the short list without anyone thinking they were robbed or the results unfair. The results are decided by number of votes. There’s no panel to impress so no bias towards certain publishers/regions and, more importantly, no foregone conclusions.

Unfortunately I couldn’t be there on the night and, when I checked on social media at the end of a long day, Best Reviewer hadn’t been announced so I had to wait until Sunday morning to learn I’d won. Huge thanks to everyone who voted.

It’s also a win for The Blue Nib who have promoted me from reviewer to poetry reviews editor. I will still be reviewing for The High Window Journal, The Journal London Grip and Sabotage Reviews as ever.

Saboteur Awards 2019


 

Are Free Downloads Worth the Cost?

Farewell and good riddance oceanofPDF. For those who somehow missed it, this site offered free pdf downloads of books regardless of whether the books were still in copyright or not. It was driven by user request and if a writer or publisher requested a book be removed, the website refused to do so.

The site’s founders appeared to be aware that they were not helping writers and urged users to “leave reviews so authors get something back” and use word of mouth to recommend books to others. Urging others to use free downloads does not help writers either.

I get that

In some places books are difficult to get hold of or heavily censored or prohibitively expensive, but that doesn’t give you a right to a free download

Books are viewed as expensive by the same people who will buy an ebook reader, spend money on tickets to a one-off event like a sports game or cinema visit when a book can be revisited many times

Sometimes your money just doesn’t stretch to accommodate a reading habit so why not take up reviewing and get free books in return for a review, or is that not a fair price (and why is it not a fair price)? Do you demand supermarkets give you groceries for free because you’re too busy buying books to afford food?

It’s too inconvenient to visit a library. Tough. Try Project Gutenburg or Google Books. In the UK, writers do get paid when books (print, audio or ebooks) are borrowed so borrowing from a library instead of freeloading does make a difference.

People who use free downloads aren’t necessarily going to buy the book so the download doesn’t represent a lost sale. That doesn’t give the freeloader the right to make the download available to readers who might have bought a copy and helped the writer.

What if I buy a book and loan it to my friends? Great. But you probably don’t have 10,000+ friends; free downloads are available worldwide on a larger scale.

Shouldn’t writers be glad they’re being read? Samples of my poems are available online. These are free to access because I have chosen to make them free to access. You can read my work without infringing my copyright.

From a writer’s viewpoint

Free downloads aren’t recorded as sales. If sales for a current book are low, publishers won’t risk taking on the next book. Lack of sales also impact the amount of marketing budget publishers are willing to spend on the next book.

Writers don’t usually set the prices for books. Even self-published books can be discounted by stores so giving writers little control over how much they earn since their earnings are usually a percentage of the (discounted) sale price. A percentage of nothing is nothing.

The Society of Authors’ earnings survey indicates writers in the UK earn an average of £10,000 (average wage in the UK is £26,000). Most writers already do full or part time jobs in addition to writing. Taking away chances to earn money from writing mean writers get to do less writing. This not only means fewer books but also impacts on a writer’s ability to experiment and develop their craft and talent.

Unless a writer signs their rights away, copyright is still owned by the writers. Infringing that copyright impacts the writers and has a negative and demotivating effect on them.

It’s relatively easy to take a document and convert it into a pdf, stick it on a site and let others download it. But you can only do that if the document exists in the first place. Writing a book takes work, effort, emotional labour and time. Writers deserve to be paid for that. Depriving a writer of the opportunity to be paid means depriving the writer of the means to produce future books. Do you want all your books to be written only by those who can afford to work for free?

I have a search engine alert that lets me find sites offering downloads of my book and I will request my books are taken off and report the site to Google. I am fed up of having to do this because it eats into my writing time.

I know that the model behind oceansofPDF will be replicated elsewhere. I know many oceansofPDF users were adamant they loved the site and want it back. But not one of those users was supporting the writers they purport to love. Every free download comes with costs, are those costs acceptable to you?

Publishing and Diversity

Lionel Shriver’s arguments are generally more nuanced than reported and the click bait headlines do her no favours. Underneath the headlines and selective quoting, there are some valid points for discussion.

I am not generally a fan or initiatives that shift the focus from the writing to the writer. Labelling someone ‘a women writer’, ‘a disabled writer’ or ‘a writer from an ethnic minority’, implies the label is significant, a lazy shorthand for someone who writes chicklit, someone who writes about triumphs over adversity or someone who writes about the experience of being from an ethnic minority. Once labelled, it can be hard for writers to escape that label and has a restrictive impact on their writing. It sets the expectation in the reader’s mind that the writer will write in a certain way or even flag a writer as not being for them even if the writer is exploring a topic of interest to them because the reader doesn’t see beyond the label.

The label ‘male, white writer’ is never used because there’s an assumption the default writer is male and white. The work of the default writer has evolved into a yardstick against which all writing is judged. Writing can’t just be measured on objective criteria. You can produce a technically proficient sonnet that’s boring to read. Subjective criteria and cultural values become part of the measurement and, against a white, male yardstick, it’s no surprise writing by writers who are not white or male gets under-represented. Under-representation occurs when writers face additional barriers to publication and when published writers find themselves less likely to get reviewed and less likely to be put forward for prizes.

This is where initiatives to increase representation from under-represented writers have come from. Some of these have been recording statistics on who gets reviewed and who does the reviewing. Some have been in creating new prizes to draw attention to under-represented work. More recently, Penguin Random House have opened a mentoring scheme (publication is not guaranteed) and a crowdfunded anthology focusing on working class writers is underway.

If an increase in representation could be achieved by encouraging under-represented writers to write and submit more work, the imbalance would have been cured by now. It hasn’t done so because “submit more” assumes gate keepers, such as editors, agents and publishers, don’t have biases and work on objective criteria only. Rejection is a key part of being a writer, but writers are only human and no one rises above a long string of repeated rejections, particularly when making submissions to magazines or publishers who don’t publish work by writers like them. For example, if a magazine publishes 40 poems in an issue, each by a different poet, and 35 of those are by men and 5 by women, it doesn’t inspire women to submit work. If women do submit work and get rejected, they are more likely to assume it’s not worth trying again because only 5 publication slots are open to them. A man, seeing the majority of contributors are men and assuming that he has 35 publication slots open to him, is more likely to assume it’s worth trying again.

Balancing initiatives also have to define who they regard as under-represented and assume writers would be happy to identify as the relevant category of under-representation, even if such identification carries stigma and prejudice. Initiatives risk being criticised as filing quotas and possibly diluting the quality of work due to being part of a numbers game instead of focusing on quality. There’s also a risk of alienating those who qualify as under-represented but don’t want to be labelled. Most initiatives rely on writers self-identifying.

Broadly, I think the balancing initiatives have merit, but the debates they’ve triggered need more nuance and less black-and-white thinking. Immediate responses to click bait headlines or selectively quoting to support an agenda is not the way to contribute to the debate.

Who are you invisible to?

Who are you invisible to? This was a question asked at a meeting of Leicester and Leicestershire writers’ groups that took place towards the end of last year. Here’s some answers:

The Leicester city councillor who failed to make it to the meeting but recorded a video of what she would have said had she attended where she mentioned one author. Another city councillor, when the question of whether Leicester should consider applying for UNESCO city of literature status, wrote on social media, “Nottingham’s got it, why should Leicester bother?” When they have a question on literature, they go to Curve. Curve is a great theatre that does support local playwrights and performers. But most writing happens off stage.

The local paper does print some book reviews. Occasionally it interviews an author. The last Leicester author interviewed (in my memory) was Nina Stibbe who lives in London. In a recent list of Leicester writers, all six of them, one may have still been alive. BBC Radio Leicester joined in the BBC’s book club initiative. It decided to follow the national book club recommendations rather than include local writers. Someone told me no one bothers reading/listening to local media anyway. A Leicester author said it was easier to get reviewed in the Washington Post than it was locally.

I find myself sitting near a new face at a spoken word/poetry event. They ask me for my name and if I write. After I answer, they say they’ve never heard of me. I ask if they’ve read any poetry magazines, been to other local live literature events. When they answer no, I say that’s why they’ve never heard of me.

Someone told me they’d never seen any listings for literature events I’d been involved in promoting. I asked if they’d been to any local venues recently. No, they hadn’t so they hadn’t seen the leaflets distributed there. I asked if they read local media. No, they didn’t and it hadn’t occurred to them that a local event wasn’t going to be publicised in a national newspaper. Did they listen to local radio? No. How did they expect to hear about local events? They couldn’t answer.

The late Graham Joyce once had a manuscript returned with a (London) publisher’s reader’s note still attached. The note asked if anyone would want to read a novel set outside London. The reader felt no one would be interested in a novel set in Leicester. Graham Joyce’s 5 British Fantasy Awards and World Fantasy Award would suggest differently.

Leicester’s always been a great place for creativity. A place where you can have a go, try out a new piece in front of an audience, find a workshop, a writers’ group and discover new literature. However, it’s also a place of outsiders, where writers seem to have to find their audience elsewhere and import back to their city of creation. Leicester lacks a central network/listings point where people can find out what’s going on and be pointed in the right direction. I’ve been told Leicester’s “Not Nottingham” and “A City Full of Surprises”. So Leicester’s identity is shaped around a negative and a lack of knowledge. Its writers lurk in shadows and find audiences elsewhere. Surely it can do better.


Rod Duncan launches Queen of All Crows at Leicester Writers' Showcase

Leicester Writers’ Showcase: Literary Activity in Leicester

Leicester Writers' Showcase logo

Wednesday 13 December 2017 from 6.45pm at Leicester’s Central Library, Bishop Street, LE1 6AA, free entry, Leicester Writers’ Showcase is hosting an event focusing on literary activity in the Leicester and Leicestershire and what can be done to raise its profile locally, nationally and internationally.

Speakers include:

  • Councillor Sarah Russell, Assistant City Mayor for Children, Young People and Schools
  • Henderson Mullin, CEO, Writing East Midlands
  • James Urquhart, Relationship Manager for Literature in the Midlands, Arts Council England
  • Emma Lee, President Leicester Writers’ Club, poet, reviewer, editor and event organiser
  • Farhana Shaikh, Dahlia Publishing who also organises Leicester Writes meetings and festival and publishes The Asian Writer
  • Bobba Cass, activist, performance poet and spoken word event organiser
  • Carol Leeming FRSA, of Dare to Diva Productions, poet, songwriter, playwright and performance artist.

The event will be chaired by Attenborough Arts Centre director, Michaela Butter MBE.

There will also be a display of books by local writers, and a discussion and question and answer session with those present.

Leicester Writers’ Showcase

The Leicester Writers’ Showcase started in January 2017 and hosts a literary event once a month. Featured writers and publications include “Welcome to Leicester”, “Lost & Found: stories of home by Leicestershire writers” (both Dahlia Publishing), Carol Leeming, Marianne Whiting, Andrew Bannister, Julia Herdman, Mahsuda Snaith, Siobhan Logan, Soundswrite Poetry Press, Ella@100 – an evening of jazz-inspired poetry and November’s event will feature Margaret Penfold (15 November from 6.45pm, Central Library). All events are free to attend.

For Readers

The Leicester Writers’ Showcase offers a chance for local readers to meet and hear from local writers and find out what books local writers publish. Readers can discover local authors who have won major book deals, been shortlisted for the Hugo Awards, Carnegie Awards, won short story competitions, have been published both in the UK and abroad and host live literature events and readings locally. It gives readers the chance to ask questions directly to authors about their journey to publication, what promotions and publications are forthcoming and be the first to hear about new work so it’s a great networking opportunity.

Local writers are those either living or working in Leicester or who have been published by a Leicester publisher or who regularly attend a writers’ or spoken word group in the city. Showcases so far have included Leicester-themed anthologies, short stories, contemporary poetry, historical fiction, science-fiction, contemporary fiction and spoken word.

For Writers

Leicester Writers’ Showcase offers local writers the opportunity to use Central Library free of charge to hold a launch-style event, combining a reading, talk and question and answer session to suit with the library providing light refreshments during the interval. It is possible to writers to team up with another writer or for a writers’ group to showcase the group’s work. Writers and spoken word artists can bring books, CDs, pamphlets, etc to sell at the event.

Writers also benefit from the Libraries producing leaflets for distribution throughout Leicester City Libraries and similar venues. In addition the Leicester Writers’ Showcase prepare press releases which are sent to the Leicester Mercury, Great Central, BBC Radio Leicester and Writing East Midlands. In addition each Leicester Writers’ Showcase event is videoed and photographed and featured writers are able to use these in other promotional materials.

Leicester Writers’ Showcase Projects

Projects that have arisen from Leicester Writers’ Showcase include the Local Writers’ Fair held during Everybody’s Reading and the Local Writers’ Corner, which will feature books by local writers and will be set up during 2018. Leicester has a great literary tradition which the Leicester Writers’ Showcase supports.


 

Should Writers be on Twitter?

Yes, Writers should be on Twitter:

  • With 140 characters, you have to keep tweets to the point
  • Keeping in touch with other writers
  • Keep up to date with submission call-outs
  • Keep up to date with publication news
  • Useful for quick questions and links to help shorten research
  • Useful for others to contact you
  • Potential to pick up writing/reviewing commissions
  • Holds reader engagement between publications
  • If you are social and retweet others, the favour is returned

No Writers should not be on Twitter:

  • If unmanaged, can become a procrastination tool/time suck
  • Tweets are momentary and easily lost in the noise
  • It doesn’t necessarily translate into sales
  • It’s not a great tool to show off writing skills
  • It encourages readers to interrupt your writing
  • Writers should broadcast literature, not offer social/political comments
  • It feeds a writer’s ego

No writer should be on twitter or any other social media outlet either. All writers should be free to decide which social media outlets (if any) work for them. For some of you that will be twitter, for others it won’t. And that’s absolutely fine.

If you’re enthusiastic about twitter, it will work for you. If you lack enthusiasm, it will show and could lose you readers.

What’s not fine is publicly criticising other writers for their choices. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to marketing and reader engagement.

BTW I’m @Emma_Lee1


Andrew Bannister reading at Leicester's Central Library on 17 May from 6.30pm