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Emma Briant

Publishers, Perverts and their Erroneous Zones: Voices in a changing media.

Some of you might have noted the controversial statement of Martin Amis at June’s Hay Literature Festival, claiming that “poetry is dead […] The obituary has already been written” “reading a poem involves self examination […] we don’t have the time or the inclination”.

Amis is commenting on something of controversy... Some fear that in this fast-paced media environment, audience demand and media promotion techniques run contrary to intellectual creativity. Fears of the centrality of commercial pressures in the arts are well-founded, and inextricably linked with technological changes and our ideas of ‘progress’ in culture. Forms of media transmission are changing, and with them media content.

Possibly a bid to re-energise this apparently dead art… Possibly to make it new and relevant to an audience increasingly bound up in the hyper-stimulation, the immediate sensory experiences offered by new technology... A poem (‘Phase’ by Joanna Clark) was sent to the moon recently for the First Move Festival (Sponsored by The Times and PN Review) bringing together literature and science. The whole exercise is symbolically representative of a desire to bring poetry with us into the future of our culture, and, in effect if not in design, mirrors those same fears of Amis and others. As a PR exercise it is certainly limited in scope. Global (universal?) as the modern media have become, relevance and positioning to an appropriate audience are clearly crucial to media success. While a Martian audience may have found Clark’s excellent poem very moving, here it provides a starting point for the first edition of Osprey to raise the issue of media publicity and literature.

At the 2005 StAnza lecture, Neil Astley made a similar argument to Amis, though he places the blame of the overbearing market firmly at the feet of the literary critics. Their concerns about the centrality of market pressures are not misplaced, yet the literary critics and press are only a part of far larger systemic forces at play which ultimately constrict the scope of the field. While the recent Booker Prize longlist contained an unprecedented array of new talent, it is lamentable that often awards go to those already well-established in their careers (who have reached some degree of ‘publicity’) rather than young innovative talented authors struggling for recognition and the costs of promotion. As Hemingway once said of the Nobel Prize for Literature, “You finally scramble ashore and the bastards hit you over the head with a lifebelt”. Publishers, who perform the additional task of promoting authors, follow policies which are concerned with maximising their returns rather than offering a breadth in form and content that will expand our cultural horizon. Juliette Annan, founding editor of the Penguin imprint Fig Tree was quoted in the Observer in March as saying that creative writing courses have raised the standard of novels. With a saturated market in competent novels she is seeking novels that are “incredibly distinct, really stand out so that you can position them” (The Observer, 27th March 2007).

According to a recent edition of Private Eye the most published author out at the moment is actually not JK Rowling but none other than Gordon Brown. Quite a length to go to, to actually get published. Positioning by genre or audience group (eg. ‘Chick lit’), promoting authors by comparing them to existing authors, going for the cash-cows of serialised books and authors with a ‘selling point’… the pressures of a need to compete in a saturated market place where the easy sell wins out can only encourage conformity over creativity. One of the judges of this year's Orange Prize for fiction, Kate Saunders, was quoted in the Guardian as saying 'It is harder for first novelists to get noticed now. They will find, increasingly, that they are judged alongside their work - and are less likely to be taken on if they are not photogenic or newsworthy.' In the Booker Prize longlist, predictably, it was the more prominant Ian McEwan who arose as the bookies No. 1 for the prize. However, DJ Taylor in the Independent writes that “…he has been turned into a mascot of the liberal establishment, the kind of writer asked to give his views on Global Warming or Anglo-American relations, the kind of writer, alarmingly, that politicians say they admire” (9th August). A little harsh, but this does reflect the extent to which today’s media form an important role in making or breaking a literary career …and if you are lucky enough to achieve enough popularity to win a place on the shelves of ASDA or Tesco you can uncomfortably be assured that your life’s work will be lampooned in the quality press, for you are now the establishment. Their adoring resentment is yours; even while they continue to perform their role in sustaining that establishment to the exclusion of the next generation of struggling authors.

That said, Josephine Hart’s response to Amis in The Guardian depicts a healthy environment for British poetry, with poetry sales up on last year (June 9th 07). She points to the importance of poetry as a spoken form, arguing that poetry readings are consistently popular. The success of iTunes and similar websites has also led to a considerable increase in sales of audiobooks (Weinman, Feb 07 from mediabistro.com). However, the market for short stories has shrunk considerably in recent years and, when compared with popular fiction, poetry in particular suffers woefully from promotion practices, which favour large immediately recognisable themes over complex minutae and depth.

Of course it is easy to become frustrated with this system and feel there is no way in, but it is not yet time to organise the wake. Whilst the pressures to temper a literary style to conform to the demands of a popular audience, or establishment fetishisation of the familiar, must be resisted in defence of creativity, Astley rightly says that publicity can likewise be worthwhile. Technology and media are so often at the centre of market-driven restrictive practices, however, they also offer great hope for broadening and opening up literature to a wider audience if writers equip themselves well. It is not that the mainstream press is conspiring against writers. For the most part journalists and critics care as much for the issues at stake here as their readers. However, bureaucratic and career pressures affect all our lives and, particularly in the modern 24 hour digital media environment, timeliness and deadlines are of increased importance.

Journalists’ attempts to meet these demands lead them to seek out the most easily accessible sources of information (largely press releases from PR companies and other large organisations), and actually use very few of the hundreds of these received every month. The former Telegraph editor, media and PR consultant John Illman describes certain "News values" which drive what journalists are seeking for media success… content, novelty, topicality, universality, impact and controversy. The art need not be changed by its promotion. But, armed with a knowledge of the nature of the beast, the goal is to increase visibility and crucially, viability, without changing the validity of your voice. So we find that, “literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice: journalism what will be grasped at once” (Cyril Connolly, critic, Enemies of Promise, 1938). This is the precipice confronting those wishing to use media to broaden literary exposure, yet it is a necessary climb.

Lessons can be learned from the industry and used to jimmy its doors by authors trying their hand at self-promotion. The key to promoting yourself is to put yourself in their shoes and those of the potential readers, who might not consider the same things as important as you do (Illman, 2007). Whatever you are preparing, from a few flyers to distribute at local venues, to promotional statements on the web, or even that illusive interview, there are a few simple rules to working media communications to your own advantage. Making three simple points about your piece/yourself and making them well is the most effective strategy. Once you have the attention, then you can draw people in further. Try to make sure that these key messages include at least one message about your work that is widely appealing or relevant, and one which is ensures that you stand out as unique.

Whilst it is true to say that a conservative tendency to reinforce existing respected ‘names’ is dominant it is significant that Time Magazine chose ‘You’ as its 2006 person of the year. Increasingly the media is evolving away from a top-down means of transmitting information where audiences had little input into the form of media content, towards increased audience engagement. As the media changes, so does promotion and user-generated content appears on our screens like never before. One excellent example of this would be the ‘Your Writing’ section, for ‘People Like You’ on the BBC’s arts website (See http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/books/ which also hosts a ‘DIY poem generator’ where visitors to the site can write their own poem from a limited range of words and submit it to a competition). Many newspapers, television programmes and radio shows work hard to appear to be involving the public in cultural debates.

Many journalists are increasingly using key ‘blogging’ websites as an additional source of stories and therefore the internet does hold some serious potential for new authors. The important thing is knowing where and how to position yourself for maximum publicity here. Used well it can be possible to increase your ‘hit-rate’ and googleability and find that networking sites such as ‘myspace’ and ‘bebo’ are a vital extension of publicity. Many new authors and poets are considering the new media, blogs and internet-based journals such as this, as their opportunity to shine. They can control their own image placing ownership and management in their own hands. In a survey of 400 agents for Publishing Trends 72% found author websites to be crucial and 77.8% found online marketing helpful in building sales, enlarging their fan-base, getting reviews, accessing events and selection for online reading groups (‘Year in Review’ 2006).

At the Google digital conference earlier in the year the opinionated blogging Canadian fiction author Cory Doctorow called people who prefer traditional books to digital forms “pervy for paper”. He has made his new book available to developing nations to be read, downloaded and even reprinted for free, while developed nations must pay for it. He sees democratic possibilities in new media, an idea promoted by the Amnesty International global activist event “Some People Think the Internet is a Bad Thing” which was sponsored by The Observer. But the internet’s potentials for democratisation are tempered by the fact that it still resides within the same market system.

Thus google sells off the priviledge of appearing top of its users search results to the highest bidder and small-fry are lost in the subsequent million pages. Advertising also illustrates this point, books for a long time were a refuge from the advertisers, but maybe not for too much longer …some are already beginning to speculate that as we move to more from print to online content that these boundaries have begun to soften. It is easier to side-step practical considerations online such as added print costs and contractual obstacles to adverts appearing in the book. Publishers have already began using advertising to generate income through their online presence. "Free sells books," said Sparknotes publisher Daniel Weiss at the Google digital conference earlier in the year. In addition to this the texts of publishers including Oxford University Press, Palumbo, Soft Skin and Rosetta Books have begun to be hosted digitally on sites like Wowio and Google Book Search, all of which are ad-supported. Big-name publishers like Penguin, Perseus and Warner eagerly embraced the google product, when launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2004. Wowio offers publishers a proportion of the advertising revenues and information users provide on registering with the site is used to target the advertising content (From Publishing Trends, May 2007). All such practises serve to narrow the scope of literature and ensure a closed yet profitable business in books.

Also in the news recently; a massive fully comprehensive library database is being developed along the lines of Wikipedia. Aaron Schwartz from the ‘Open Library’ team told the BBC that "People can edit authors, they can edit books, they can edit text pages, and so on. So there's a lot of new stuff we had to build. And that's just the infrastructure - there were also lots of things to import, and book data to merge and make searchable” (BBC, 31st July 07). But the British library are concerned both by the facility for ‘user’ moderation and as the site will become a commercial enterprise taking a cut in book sales. If it becomes ad-driven it could increase dependency on a single source for information on literature and encourage ‘audience targeting’, which actually closes the literary scope of its readership.

Returning to Astley, he is rightly critical of the elitist bias towards white, male literature, reviewed within the pages of The Guardian. He suggests that openness can be achieved through responsiveness and being ‘reader-led’. It is only through the active participation in our culture that our culture is validated… that it can stand up in any way as being shared or produced through the navigation of experience through a common culture, rather than something from which the masses are excluded, as much by its irrelevance to their everyday lives, as by its artificially elevated position in intimidation of all that it will never comprehend. However, the centrality of market pressures means the readers, inevitably restricted as their exposure is, cannot be enough to ensure inclusive policies and breadth, with quality as utmost. Although it is still a daunting task for individuals to cast their personal imprint on media coverage, many initiatives exist to promote unknown talent within the media at large and in specialist magazines (such as The Antioch Review who have an upcoming special issue of neglected books and whose current issue celebrates ‘New Faces New Voices’, and not forgetting of course your current companion Osprey). What we rely upon more than anything to open eyes to new literature is continued engagement, and lively dialogue and criticism; it is only these that can open up audiences, and literary minds.