One never knows quite what to expect when one is asked to speak at a writing conference. Over the years I’ve attended huge US conferences where rumours abound of editors having submissions thrust under bathroom stalls. (This never happened to me - though I once had an aspiring author pitch a paranormal romance at me in a swimming pool in Dallas!)
The Fifth Annual Verulam ‘Get Writing’ conference at the University of Hertfordshire was an all together more civilised affair - albeit more rainy. It’s run with military precision by Jenny Barden and her team and every year has managed to attract a variety of interesting speakers. (This year’s guests included WHSmiths buyer Matt Bates, chick lit writer Sarah Duncan and TV presenter turned writer Sue Cook, as well as a host of agents and editors.) And it’s a mere half hour from Kings Cross even if I was never entirely sure where I was. (Near St Albans apparantly!)
The most challenging aspect of the day was the topic of the speech itself. My first thought when Jenny said ‘Beyond the Revolution’ - was ‘Which revolution?’. (Which may reflect a diet of too many historical novels perhaps!) My second thought - when I realised that she meant ‘beyond the digital revolution - was well, that’s going to be a short speech!
Luckily I was going to be part of a publishing panel and my fellow panelists - Marlene Johnson, Publisher for Hachette Children’s and Simon Taylor from Transworld - and I convened ahead of the conference to come up with a plan.
We decided to keep it brief, keep it positive and throw the discussion open to the audience as quickly as possible. (And who knows we might even learn something along the way!) So armed with some facts and figures from Ben and Luthfa* , we three editors met up an hour before the panel to compare notes. Simon and I discovered that we pretty much had the same figures (though 800% growth year on year in eBooks was a good enough figure to repeat.) and had both at least heard about the recently launched Asda £52 E-reader. (Though I had the Times article to hand that compared it as a cross between an MP3 Player and an Etch-A-Sketch.) We wisely cut a swathe through our prepared material and decided to make the panel session as interactive as possible.
A lively discussion ensued, chaired expertly by Marlene. We’d predicted much of the topics that came up - and some that didn’t. (Marlene had been volunteered by Simon and I to tackle any difficult agency model questions. No one asked, but Marlene didn’t let that stop her from answering anyway!)
Some of the more interesting moments of the session were realising just how many of our very digital savvy audience now had access to either dedicated ereaders or tablets like the ipad and were regularly buying ebooks. There also came the interesting suggestion from one of the delegates that Waterstones should also sell e-editions in store for those who like to browse real shelves before buying a digital edition of a book. And at one point I outed my hitherto secret habit of buying certain vampire fiction in ebook form so that no one knew I was reading it! What I also took away was just how passionate the conference delegates were for the written word, no matter in what form it was delivered to them.
My afternoon ended with a a quick round of what the conference likes to call ‘Super Pitches’ where writers get the chance to pitch their books in five minutes to an agent or editor. It felt like the editorial equivalent of speed dating. Though I was impressed with all the pitches - not least by the lady who managed to tell me the entire plot of her lush sounding epic novel (large cast of characters, two continents, spannning thirty odd years) without appearing to draw breath! Time will tell how my ‘dates’ turn out…
Gillian - Fiction Editorial Director
(*I’d like to thank Luthfa especially for the ‘no one knows anything’ gem which was going to be my fallback position should any difficult questions arise!)