Canon Tales: Chapter 2

Posted on May 10, 2009 in Uncategorized

After last year’s huge success, Jon Slack and Doug Wallace decided to take Canon Tales into the second round on 21st April at the London Book Fair 2009. The former chairs of the SYP (2008 and 2007 respectively) invited 12 guest speakers to share their publishing stories, be it about how they got into publishing, what inspires them, or simply what makes this industry as creative as it is. Their stories were accompanied by a backdrop of 20 images per speaker, each shown for 21 seconds, thus giving each speaker 7 minutes in total.

After a brief introduction it was time for the first speaker of the evening to take the stage: Peter Collingridge, managing director of Apt Studio. According to him he only got to where he is now by failure, and therefore encouraged the audience to fail enthusiastically. His slides showed pictures of milestones in his career and how each failure bore a new opportunity. Personal pictures and anecdotes about his time at university and trying to be a Hip-Hop DJ among other things made for a very entertaining start to the evening. He ended his talk with Beckett’s famous words: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Next up was Reg Wright, director of Hothouse Fiction. He, too, talked about failure and how it can inspire creative need. Showing pictures of Hothouse titles, he explained how they conduct research and work closely with authors to develop ideas and turn an original idea into a great manuscript, leaving the audience to decide whether the type of research they do falls under science or is in fact creative.

If you want to know what it’s like to give a book to the Queen you should talk to Jamie Byng, MD of Canongate. Showing pictures of Canongate’s original logo and how it changed, as well as pictures of writers he works with and covers of landmark titles, he talked about Canongate’s different ‘canons’, ranging from alternative over black to pocket canons, where they succeeded in making the Bible new and accessible. He ended his passionate talk by stating that ‘it’s not about you, it’s not about Canongate, it’s about books’.

Rebecca Lee graduated from City University last year where she did her MA in Publishing. She talked about her route into publishing, which was paved with an ‘overkill’ of placements, and about the invaluable insights one can gain from seemingly endless filing duties. While some people say that in London you are never further than three feet away from a rat, Rebecca claimed that that’s true for publishers as well.

The next speaker was Peggy Vance from Dorling Kindersley. In her very energetic talk (at one point there were sweets flying through the room), she introduced the audience to DK’s upcoming title All This Makes Life Worth Living. Sample pages from the book included images of a Penguin paperback, Jimmy Hendrix’s guitar, a UN peace keeping helmet and Monet’s glasses, to name only a few.

Roger Bratchell, marketing director at Random House, started his talk with Philip Larkin’s Cut Grass, which got him his first job in publishing. His slides showed pictures of colleagues who have inspired him over the years, logos of imprints he has worked for and how they changed, as well as some of his recent projects, such as Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother.

After a short intermission, during which everyone had the opportunity to grab a drink, it was time for the next speaker: Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer and journalist whose talk addressed e-books and piracy. Remembering the endless hours he spent producing mix tapes in order to impress girls as a teenager made him realise that people who try to get his novels online do this because they love his work not out of spite. His novel Down and Out of the Magic Kingdom was the first to be published under a creative commons license at the same time as it was available in stores.

Hannah Griffith opened her talk with a picture of the library next to which she grew up and took the audience on a journey through her life as a book-lover. Having learned everything there is to know about life from Mills and Boon, she started The Literary Consultancy and is now director of paperbacks at Faber and Faber. Her talk acknowledged both the literary aspect there is to publishing and the number-crunching aspect of brooding over BookScan figures and the like. Fortunately though, she said, she is lucky enough to work with authors who remind her that ‘it’s about writing, not selling’.

At this point the audience had the opportunity to get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be a cover designer from Jon Gray. After having apologised for the fact that thanks to the nature of his job, he doesn’t speak to people much, he gave a very generous insight indeed on the life cycle of some of the covers he has worked on. From initial pencil sketches to the final cover he explained how some made it and others were dismissed, and how things like changing the title of the book can make hours of work undone. He didn’t shy away from showing unsuccessful proposals and delivered a very entertaining presentation.

Helen Conford, editorial director at Penguin, talked about the reasons why she gets up in the morning and what she likes to think about. Her musings about the physical nature of books and on how they have the ability to reach all parts of life brought across that reading is about discovering something new – of whatever nature this might be. Hand drawn sketches of rabbits and, of course, penguins accompanied her talk.

Next to speak was Alison Baverstock, who runs the MA in Publishing at Kingston University and is the author of numerous books, including How to Market Books. She talked about her background in art history and how reading a painting can be very comforting. She chose to show pictures of things that inspire her (exhibitions such as Rothko, the sea, London buses and 1930s buildings for example) and why this is the case. Her advice to the audience was: ‘Have lots of children, they are a fantastic source for publishing’.

The last speaker was Joe Dunthorne, author of fiction and poetry, who told a very personal canon tale about growing up in Swansea, and shared his memories of playing computer games, Christmas as a child and his first band, Peanuts Are Bad (the name being inspired by his allergy to the same). He then talked about his move from lyrics to poetry and even recited a stanza of the first poem he ever wrote. With his first novel, Submarine, being based on his own life, he shortly realised that he would have to steal other people’s lives for his second book and is currently pursuing this. What he likes most about writing is that it takes him to places that he wouldn’t normally go. Due to the lack of a Welsh team, he also plays for the England Writers’ Football Team.

The variety of these talks and the various images the speakers chose to present show what a wonderfully manifold industry publishing is. Jon Slack and Doug Wallace concluded the evening by thanking everyone who had contributed to the smooth running of the evening and reading out a few of these now so fashionable tweets that had come in during the presentations. As always with SYP events there was plenty of opportunity to network and meet new people over a few drinks and everyone agreed that it was a thoroughly entertaining and stimulating evening. Bring on round 3!

Monika Muller