Sunday, 27 March 2011

Observations on the York Writer's Festival (25-27 March)

First, I have to say I enjoyed it - a frothy cocktail of writers blended with a healthy dose of literary agents, book doctors and a few publishers, generously fueled with alcohol in the evenings. It made for a happy event, even if quite a few of us were bleary-eyed this morning.

It kicked off well with some workshops on Friday afternoon followed that evening by a competition called Authonomy Live, where eight unpublished authors strutted their stuff (around 500 words), were judged by a panel of three agents, and then by the audience. The runaway winner was a mature lady with a titillating story of ... well, er, how shall I put it, a young girl discovering uncharted zones of her body... She swept the board, though I have to say my mate Gideon's was brill and Divya (now aka Lakshi) for me had the best 'performance piece'.

An hour long keynote speech by 76 year old David Nobbs was VERY funny, focusing on everything that had gone wrong in his 48 years in the business of writing fiction, plays and TV (he wrote The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, for example, quintessential English sitcom).

There were plenty of workshops on a range of issues from how to find your 'voice' and how to 'show-not-tell', to writing query letters & synopses, genre-specific classes on children's fiction, crime, science fiction, all the way to self-publishing. Many of these, and to me the whole conference, are aimed towards new writers who are either well into their first book, or have finished their manuscript and are searching for an agent. The conference is of course also useful if you are looking to change your agent. The atmosphere is convivial and the agents/publishers/book doctors were all  very approachable, but also I was impressed (as last year) by their professionalism. They generally tell it how it is, which of course is not always what you're hoping to hear. And many of them pointed out that the industry is changing rapidly.

There were energetic Q&A sessions on a range of issues, and the subject of Ebooks and how they would affect the publishers business model kept coming up. Royalties were discussed for Ebooks, which seem to be around 25% if part of an ebook / paperback deal, maybe higher (e.g. 40%) if ebook only. The UK is seen as about a year behind the USA in E-sales, and we won't really know till later in the year whether the Xmas bonanza on Kindle sales in the UK has created a sustained shift towards digital media. One to watch.

My favourite Q&A was a duo of a publisher turned agent and an agent turned publisher. It was hard to keep up as they (with good humour) scored points off each other whilst also answering detailed questions fielded from the floor. I think the agent won...

A highlight of the weekend for every writer was the 'one-to-ones' they can have - a strictly ten-minute session with an agent or publisher or book doctor, who should have seen a submitted piece of the writer's  work. What is interesting about these is that everyone is allowed to see two people, one at a time, and sometimes two of these industry professionals can have completely different perspectives on whatever a writer has submitted (e.g. from rubbish to brilliant, for the same piece). Perhaps it's part of the necessary training for writers to ram home a fundamental rule: appreciation of writing is subjective, so if you take a knock, brush it off and keep going.

All in all a very good and well-organised event, especially because there were so many people from the industry, so it was not just writers talking to other writers, which we can always do anyway (and we all did plenty of that, too). As I said in my short story Writerholics Anonymous, writing (or at least publishing) is a contact sport, and this festival is a great event to see and meet people in the industry. And even when they give bleak outlooks for the future, they absolutely believe in writing and in writers, not just because their livelihoods depend on it. Few people in writing and in publishing are in it for the money - they're just passionate about writing. And at this conference that was coming across loud and clear.

I bought two books while there - the 2011 Writers Yearbook, and the main event organizer Harry Bingham's new book on how to survive the publishing industry as a writer. I just started it, and so far it hits the spot.

I'll leave the last words to David Nobbs (not as pessimistic as it sounds):
Above all, when you write, enjoy it, as at least that way someone will have enjoyed it.


  1. A question about the York Conference. How 'Brit-Centric' is it? Is it open to other sensibilities, styles, etc.?

  2. Hi, I'm the Festival organiser. Short answer: most agents there are British, but the Festival itself isn't Brit-centric at all. We had delegates from about 20 different countries present, we had agency representation from the US, and almost all agents present would happily take on good clients from overseas.

    So as usual, it's a question of (1) making sure that the book you're writing is as strong as you can possibly make it, then (2) approaching the industry in the most professionl possible manner. If you do those two things right, it doesn't matter a damn where you live or what genre you're writing in. The festival site, btw, can be found here:

    See you there next year!

    Harry (Bingham)

  3. All in all a very good and well-organised event, especially because there were so many people from the industry


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