SYP Lit Fest Feast: Behind the Scenes at Literary Festivals

Following Philip Pullman’s recent resignation as patron of Oxford Literary Festival over their failure to pay author fees, there has been heated campaigning for authors to be paid for the time they dedicate to appearances. Oxford has responded that they are not currently in a financial position to pay their authors but will be discussing this with their partners for the year 2017, and other festivals have long argued that the publicity and book sales that the events promote are fair remuneration. Despite the fact that many authors do not see big sales at festivals, we shouldn’t forget that these are the people that make it all possible in the first place!

With such a big name backing the debate, the support Pullman received over twitter, and open letters from authors in the media, it’s not surprising that a crowd was once again gathered for SYP Oxford’s latest event,  Lit Fest Feast: Behind the Scenes at Literary Festivals.

Joined by Matt Holland, founder and Director of Swindon Festival of Literature, and Jenny Dee, Director of Chip Lit Fest (Chipping Norton), we learnt what it takes to bring these celebrations of literature to the book-loving public.

The event started by covering the planning and organisation of  festivals and Matt told the audience how he founded the Swindon Festival of Literature over 20 years ago. Starting with a group of literature-lovers approaching the council with an idea, the festival (which is actually three years older than Oxford) began with a dedicated group investing their own money and time to deliver the word to the public. Many said literature was not a word well-associated with Swindon, but Matt knew they were on to something when a man approached him to say ‘you’re book thing is really good. You just talk about the stuff we talk about at the pub – sex, death, love and relationships – but in an organised way!’

Running for 2 weeks in May, Swindon’s festival is now competing with an estimated 237 festivals around the country to bring the public closer to the authors that inspire them – and showing that they are just real people.

Jenny, who has taken over as Festival Director this year having assisted on the festival before, spoke about the festival planning itself. She starts with a dream schedule, ambitiously full of the authors she would love to have, then begins approaching speakers. Ideally, the organisers will use any contacts they have and approach the author themselves, but if that fails they will go through publicists, then agents. Some publicists will work a deal whereby a festival can have one author if they feature another, and festivals also receive incoming pitches so there is a big balancing act (and a whole load of tact!) involved in scheduling. Jenny also likes to book things in pairs so that the public are enticed by more than one event and pull people in with ticket bundles. She even finds alternative authors through Amazon recommendations!

From a marketing perspective, Matt and Jenny both agreed that a printed brochure is essential because people like to have something to physically flick through, and that nothing boosts attendance like word of mouth and social media. If you build a relationship with your audience they will trust in the value of your festival.

And, of course, the talk soon turned to author fees. Swindon ensures that every author is offered the Society of Authors recommended £150, although they do offer different amounts to different authors depending on their profile and means of income.

Chip Lit Fest, however, are doing something unique. In 2015 they launched a profit-share model and, whilst this can make initial planning difficult, this system means that the crowd-pulling events help to support valuable free events such as school visits. Whilst in 2015 they could only offer each author £102 (well below he recommended amount) they can at least say that they are fair and working to their means and Jenny hopes that this fee will increase in future.

Find out more about what the audience thought using the hashtag #SYPLitFeast, and check out what the festivals have to offer on heir websites:

Swindon Festival of Literature:




#SYPconf15: Through the gift shop and beyond: an introduction to museum publishing

Following the engaging, global-looking keynote address at The Society of Young Publishers’ annual conference (which I have covered in a previous post here), the audience split off to listen to a vast range of industry speakers share their knowledge. We were faced with five different streams: Best Career Foot Forward, Let’s Get Topical, The Innovative Publisher, New Frontiers, and What Next For Our Modern Business?

Drawn by my interest in art and cross-media content, I headed to ‘Publishing in the Arts’ in the New Frontiers track. This talk was opened by Vanessa Garden from Tate Publishing.

Tate Publishing have produced titles covering Alexander McQueen to David Bowie to J. M. W. Turner, and often publish books to coincides with their collections. Museum publishers’ titles frequently feature in the Art Book Bestseller lists, but why do they publish their own books?

  • A museum has a brand and culture and publishing their own titles extends the museum’s mission.
  • They will often commission titles that are linked to collections and special exhibitions (as well as a dedicated range of artist biographies and student study books).matisse_interview_14635_medium
  • They are able to offer a range of titles to cater to all audiences – different levels of interest, knowledge, format and price. E.g. Matisse Cut Outs exhibition: Exclusive Matisse interview book, Cut Outs exhibition catalogue, Tate biography of Matisse, children’s colouring books.
  • They make available current supporting research and scholarship connected to the works.
  • Books contribute to the visitor experience: a physical reminder of intangible experience.
  • To generate a profit.

Whilst museum publishers may be less able to follow trends because of their need to align with the brand, they do have other advantages. Firstly, they have access a dedicated retail channel through the museum itself and are able to work with a range of experts from other departments to produce/promote their content. For example: working with the digital departments to create a multi-channel experience, or creating colour-in placements for the restaurants which direct people back to the shop.

Secondly, museums are part of a network of touring partners (where the agnes_martin_catalogue_16525_mediumexhibition goes next) and Tate will often sell on rights to the Tate catalogues. In these cases it is important to consider cultural differences and accommodate varying artistic and commercial preferences: different dynamics, voices, audience.
In the UK, the Tate chose a photographic cover for Agnes Martin‘s book but the cover differed in Germany where it was thought Martin was new to their audience and therefore required a safer cover that demonstrated her work.

Museum publishing does face it’s own challenges though. Cuts to government funding to arts have meant that many are looking at publishing partnerships, outsourcing their catalogue production to larger publishers. This way the museums still have catalogues, and may even be able to sell more, however, they lose the intellectual property rights to their content.

Another threat is digitalisation. Whilst some of the Tate’s backlist has been digitised and they have created some apps (mainly children’s), illustrated books still struggle in this format and they are looking to work closer with the Tate gallery’s digital projects to counter this.

We then heard from Emily Ardizzone, Digital Fashion Projects at Bloomsbury.

From studying fashion to interning for fashion/textile departments in museums to freelancing in catalogue production, Emily made it very clear that it was her subject knowledge that nailed her this position.

9781472580535.jpgAll books in Bloomsbury’s visual arts department are academic and so the majority of books are bought by libraries, academics and students. Interestingly, a large number of students of visual arts have learning difficulties so all books and products are published with this in mind.

Digital projects are central to Bloomsbury’s production focus (all visual arts academic titles will have a digital project with the next 5-10 years) and this is what Emily focused on in her talk.

The Berg Fashion Library is a huge online, subscription-based fashion museum, which hosts 30,000 images, 90 eBooks, and lesson plans. Through partnerships with museums, Bloomsbury offer a wealth of images, all contextualised with articles, linking back to the original museum website to drive traffic and promote the museum’s collections. This goes to show how collaboration can enhance content.

70,000 slides are being digitized, dating from 1970s-2000s, covering key moments in recent fashion history including McQueen’s graduate collection and the rise of the supermodel. Unlike other collections, these will not be heavily curated and will give a more balanced and insightful view of the clothes and models’ movement and expression. All images are also being tagged with Berg Fashion Library’s own taxonomy to make them discoverable online. Biographies are also included for every designer featured in archive – no matter how small.

The site is regularly updated with new content and new functionalities, and they are currently building an enhanced timeline to give full history of dress by country.

Emily’s advice:

  • Cultural sensitivity is important – some images are inappropriate in certain territories.
  • A basic understanding of copyright is a huge advantage.
  • Work with other departments – if the rights team think the title will not work elsewhere, is it a feasible project?
  • When working with authors: demonstrate a basic subject knowledge, engage, express yourself confidently.
  • Formal digital skills may not be essential but a knowledge of user experience and site design is valuable. You could review websites as practise, or even review the site of a company your applying for.

This session gave a fantastic insight into areas of publishing that many don’t consider. But even if arts publishing isn’t for you, the attitude towards collaboration, innovation and digital can inspire everyone.

#SYPconf15: Marketing and social media: what’s next?

This session was run by John Bond, CEO of whitefox; and Alastaire Horne from Cambridge University Press who tweets an blogs as Press Futurist.

One of the key things talked about was using a writer’s existing platform to build their brand and relationship with their audience. The ability to use social media to amplify their own voice means that sales don’t just spike with publicity but are consistently strong.

Here are some more great tips we heard for building up your social media:

Both big picture and details are important. (2)

#SYPconf15: One world and how to defend it

On the 21st November, hundreds braved the frosty morning to assemble at the glass monolith of the John Henry Brookes building in Oxford. After the energy and insights from last year’s Society of Young Publisher‘s conference hosted in London, I had been looking forward to the Oxford conference with great anticipation.

We all gathered in the main lecture theatre, heads huddled in eager chatter as we rummaged through our goody bags and flicked through the brochure to plan which streams we were going to attend.

Marlon James-A Brief History of Seven KillingsThis year’s keynote address was delivered by Juliet Mabey, founder and editor of Oneworld Publications. This independent publisher has been in the news a lot recently with their authors Marlon James and Martin Ford winning the Man Booker Prize  and  FT & Mckinsey Business Book of the Year, respectively – so it was an honour to have her deliver her wisdom.

In 1986 Juliet Mabey and her husband, Novin Doostdar, founded Oneworld Publications with no previous publishing experience but a determination to build a global company: hence the name.

They started by attending the London Book Fair where they found Element Books who were looking to expand their reach by distributing other publishers books and a partnership started that helped launch Oneworld as a nonfiction publisher. They originally set up in Oxford and started their first fiction in 2009, set up to mirror the values of their nonfiction and they have a high focus on translation. In 2010 they made the decision to move their offices to London for a better trade representation – putting their publicity teams where the reviewers are and the editors where the agents are.

Oneworld initially found authors in universities and coached them in their writing but now more than 80% (particularly fiction) comes through agents and buying from other publishers.

Mabey told the audience that the hardest thing about starting a publishing company is building your profile. You can’t get a big project without showing what you can do, and can’t show who what you’re capable of without a big project. One of the biggest challenges is to leverage the business against large corporations like Amazon but Mabey was keen to point out that they have no intention of becoming a large publisher, only to focus on each title and doing it well.

And they really are doing it well as this year Oneworld titles have been shortlisted for or won seven awards!

They’ve even set up new imprints: Rock the Boat, a children’s imprint whose title Illuminae has just had its film rights sold to Brad Pitt; and a ‘Literary Crime’ imprint to be launched in February.

Some other interesting insights Mabey shared with us were:

  • The Man Booker Prize and the Baileys Prize are the only prizes that significantly affect sales. She championed the importance of the Bailey’s Prize in giving women a space -statistically there are more male reviewers and more men being reviewed and although the majority of books are bought by women, the 3 main buyers at Waterstones are men.
  • Europe are ahead of us in having bookshops full of translations – it gives such a diverse range of perspectives and styles and stories. That is the way it should be and we should translate more contemporary fiction, not just classics. If you publish it well there’s no reason you can’t sell it competitively.
  • Discoverability is harder with fiction – particularly if your author is unknown. Status of author can be more important than content so you may be starting at a disadvantage when publishing translation titles.
  • Waterstones are trying to buy in smaller quantities and then restocking as required. They are also buying more high end products such as nonfiction hardbacks and coffee table books to combat online/digital sales and get more value out of expensive shop space.

We then separated into our separate streams for the day which I will cover in subsequent posts!

Freedom to write, freedom to read

The closing panel was extremely appropriate given the keynote focus on translation publishing as we heard from Hannah Trevarthen, English PEN; Saphia Crowther, Amnesty International; and Anne Beech from publisher Pluto Press.

images‘Literature knows no frontiers’ is English PENs motto and this panel was all about the fantastic campaigns they, and Amnesty International, run to affect change and defend the rights of people all over the world to read and express themselves. The panel also emphasised the importance of publishing the voices that need to be heard, even if that means taking on government bodies.

I thoroughly recommend you look into these organisations and the fantastic work they do but here are some key messages from the talk:

  1. Translation can open up new perspectives so it’s important to stop censoring.
  2. As a publisher, it’s worth taking risks. It’s an illegitimate use of the law to restrict speech but we have to trust our own judgement on how far we can go.
  3. The libel laws have changed to make it more difficult to silence publishers. It’s important to hear the voice of those who give their life for truth.

More than the Middle Man: Literary Agents

Once again the crowds flocked for the latest Society of Young Publishers (SYP) event, More than the Middle Man: Literary Agents, swept up to the heights of the Wig and Pen. Sharing their experiences and advice for the evening were Peter Buckman of the Ampersand Agency, and Caroline Wood from Felicity Bryan Associates.

Caroline started the evening by describing how she came to agenting from the world of film production. She said that becoming a Literary Agent is very much about your personal qualities: you must be tough to close sales, you must be thick skinned to face rejection, and you must be a self starter. When she first joined Felicity Bryan, Caroline had the advantage of a stack of contacts from the film world and, coupled with the respectable name of Felicity Bryan behind her, she soon built up a list of authors many of whom she now classes as friends.

The most important thing is to be passionate about the author’s work. ‘If this book is rejected 10 times, will I still love it? The answer has to be yes.’ she tells the audience. Whether it be pulled from the submissions that fly in, or nurtured from the early pages found at the creative writing course she attends, Caroline’s key criteria is a distinctive voice that she wants to fight for. As a literary agent, you are likely to be the most consistent presence in an author’s career and one of the greatest rewards is working closely with an author for decades, and growing along with them.

Peter’s route to agenting was slightly different, and some may argue traditional, having originally worked in publishing and even making it to the Penguin editorial board. Both speakers agreed that agenting is a good second or third job for people who already have knowledge of the publishing industry and rights.

Peter also talked about some of the major issues facing the industry at the moment and predictably, both Amazon and eBooks were mentioned. Surprisingly, he had some positive things to say about eBooks, which many publishes leverage with special offers to get an author to the top of bestsellers. Even reaching the top of the Kindle chart returns minute royalties for the authors (and therefore the agents who take commission), but eBooks can be a really positive route for those who write series because they are able to build a significant following through the online social elements. I would also guess that series are more easily addictive in digital format due to the ability to buy the next one instantly and carry on reading.

Top reasons to be a literary agent:

  1. The balance between creativity and business. You get to focus on the author’s work, help them edit it and be the negotiator once publishers begin talking about the title, the cover and how to market it. But you’re also responsible for securing the best publishing deal possible by trying to get an auction going between publishers and selling international/film rights etc.
  2. You have input into the various stages of publishing without having to attend the endless meetings that publishers are slave to. You also have more freedom than the large publishing houses that will not take risks. Agenting allows you to be nimble and ahead of the game’ – Peter Buckman
  3. You can discover great talents first! Peter told the audience how he got the publishing deal for the book that became Slumdog Millionaire, after being gripped by the single chapter he was sent.
    Caroline also talked about securing a deal for the bestselling The Hair with Amber Eyes after many publishers were unsure how to get the sales team on bored with such a unique and difficult to categorise title.

‘Agenting is the most fun you can have with your clothes on’- Peter Buckman

SYP Networking Masterclass

In the first week of the new Oxford Brooke’s Publishing Masters, a flurry of keen students flocked to The Kings Arms for the Society of Young Publishers‘ latest speaker event: Networking Masterclass. The room quickly became packed with bodies and was buzzing with nervous anticipation as each guest was presented with 5 blank cards and a pen upon entry.

Powered by Atwood Tate‘s Claire Louise Kemp and Independent Publishers Guild‘s Charly Ford, the night kicked off with top tips to guide people through the before, during and after of networking skills. From finding events to making lasting connections, here are the key take-aways to become a master networker:

  1. Take advantage of societies and networks that your job may be connected to. There are events going on all the time and your company may have a list of them so just ask. Also look at social media where events will be advertised.
  2. Look at delegate list beforehand so you have an idea of who is attending and can pinpoint people of interest. You can even contact the organiser in advance and ask them to introduce you to someone.
  3. Engage online beforehand using the event’s twitter hashtag. This will give you an idea of what to expect, help you to connect with people and give you a springboard for conversations. It is perfectly acceptable nowadays to say you recognise someone from twitter!
  4. Dress confidently and you will feel confident.
  5. Business cards are a must, it doesn’t matter if you don’t work for a company, just include your name, email and phone number. You could also include your twitter handle and a website if you have one. You can get some really nice unique designs or even design your own to stand out. Carrying these in a lanyard around your neck avoids fumbling in your bag and may also prompt people to ask you for your card. You should also carry a biro so you can make notes on other people’s business cards about what you talked about so you don’t forget (biro works best as some cards are glossy) If you run out or forget them, you can also write your details down for people.
  6. Get there early. It will be less daunting when there are fewer people to start with and this is also a prime opportunity to have some valuable interactions.
  7. First impressions count. Lots of people will be nervous but just say hello and smile; it’ll count for a lot!
  8. Give yourself a target: number of people to talk to, number of business cards to collect, a specific person to talk to. Having this in mind will give you more direction and will help you get more out of the event.
  9. Prepare your elevator pitch. This is a brief introduction about yourself and what you do and it is good to have this pre-prepared, especially if your role is complicated.
  10. Have a conversation starter (or two) ready about a current issue. Read up on related news and have an opinion about it. You can then use this to ask people what they think about it.
  11. It’s ok to politely excuse yourself to talk to others. Everyone is there to network so once you have spoken to someone for a while, either make an excuse to get a drink, or simply say you had better talk to some other people. You shouldn’t set yourself a time limit for conversations though, just see how things naturally progress.
  12. The bar area is a good place to catch people between conversations but don’t feel obliged to drink. If you do drink, don’t get drunk – remember to stay professional and that you want to leave a good impression.
  13. Ask lots of questions – you learn more from listening than talking. Ask people what they thought of speakers, how long they’ve been in their role etc.
  14. Say people’s name back to them when you meet them, this will ensure you are pronouncing it correctly and help you to remember it.
  15. Advanced level networking: try and take a picture of the person with their business card! This will put a face to a name. Although, read the situation as many won’t be comfortable with this.
  16. Don’t ask anything of someone you’ve just met, just focus on building the relationship. Maintaining this could lead to opportunities in the future. Similarly, if you want to give them a CV, don’t bring it to the event as they will have no where to put it and may lose it. Asking if it would be ok to email it to them is a better strategy, particularly as it gives you a reason to follow up.
  17. Follow up: add them on linked in or send an email the next day. Simply be saying how nice it was to meet them and to talk about X, Y & Z will build a more lasting connection. They will have spoken to lots of people so be specific, you want to stay in their memory.
  18. Tweet the organiser to thank them for the event.

  19. If you have a blog, write a round-up of the event and link to the organiser. They will appreciate it and will probably share your post which will gain you more exposure.
  20. Fake it till you make it! It’s a tricky and nerve-wracking skill but you will get better the more you do it.

There were some fantastic questions and suggestions from the crowd, all rewarded with chocolates, and it was fantastic to not only see everyone engaged, but to hear them sharing experiences and offering each other advice.

Finally, the mystery of the cards was revealed. These were to be our business cards and the challenge was to try to collect the cards of five other attendees and to find out something interesting about them. Despite the packed room which made maneuvering difficult, everyone got involved and it was a fantastic chance to try out some of the tips. There were prizes for the winners but everyone was smiling at what they had achieved and, although they agreed it would take practise, there was definitely a good deal of confidence in the room.

YALC Series: LGBT in YA

As part of their ‘What is Normal?’ strand, YALC brought together a fantastic panel of authors to discuss the increasingly strong depiction of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters in YA books. Julia Bell chaired the discussion with James Dawson, Liz Kessler, Den Patrick and Lisa Williamson.

It takes about 18 months to 2 years for a book to change around from acquisition to publication. So when we look back to what was happening in the media then, with Tom Daley’s coming out and the legalisation of same sex marriage in the UK, it is not surprising that such themes are becoming more accepted. It is great to see this cultural/social movement towards better representation reflected in the books we read but I can’t help but hope that instead of following the trend, YA literature could fuel this to move a lot faster.

Books have immense power, partly because of their ability to be subtle. Books can be read Read Me Like a Bookin secret, particularly eBooks, and so are an accessible form of support for those that are still uncertain or uncomfortable with their identity. And they can also provide a bridge to embracing your identity in the real world – as one panelist pointed out: it’s much easier to talk about books than our sexuality. This creates a safe place for conversation and honesty.

Furthermore, YA books are all shelved together creating the ideal forum to normalise all identities and sexual preferences. This is fantastic as it paves the way for no longer identifying LGBT people as a separate group, but just people. But this did lead to questioning where LGBT is in other genres such as fantasy, crime and sports. LGBT readers need to be able to identify with the characters they read about so why are they not represented in a more diverse range of books?

LGBTQI – we are forever adding letters to this acronym to include all people that do not fall into society’s idea of normal. Will we have to run out of letters before the world can accept the collective term ‘human’?

A topic that came up in the panel on sex, and has been in the media around the election, was the role of sex education. As an ex-PSHEE teacher, whose nonfiction book This Book is Gay talked about what it is like to grow up LGBT, James This Book Is GayDawson felt particularly passionate about this. Education needs to be mandatory and needs to extend beyond the basic biology and safe sex talk – we’ve seen a condom get put on a banana and we get it. Sex education needs to talk about relationships – all kinds of relationships. It needs to talk about choice and acceptance, it needs to talk about respect. (Perhaps we could take some inspiration from Swedish schools.) 

We will not be doing enough until every child feels safe and happy because what is the point of everything else in school without that? Teaching sexual diversity must be on the agenda.

Whilst there is no doubt that LGBT characters are getting better representation in literature, there are still hurdles and barriers in the publishing world that complicate publication. Often, where gay romance is featured, it is the central problem and we need to move away from this framework. Lisa Williamson said that her own writing will always feature LGBT characters, although not always as central characters, because she writes reality and that is what real life is like.

A question from the audience asked what the authors thought of the label ‘issue book’. This was a difficult one to answer as first and foremost: why is sexuality seen as an issue? It is not a problem that needs to be solved.

The Art of Being NormalOf course, no author wants their book to be put in a box and segregated form a wider audience, but they did acknowledge some benefits. Williamson said she didn’t set out to write a book with a certain agenda or label, but if that helps those who need it to find support in her book, then it can only be a good thing. Dawson also agreed that whilst the story should come first, he doesn’t mind being labelled if it means people can see him as a role model.

Den Patrick felt the most important thing is not to think of an audience, but to write for yourself. He commented that after spending months with a character, he doesn’t then want to write the same character again and from this he introduces a spectrum of individuals.

Finally, the inevitable question of sex came up. The panel agreed with the ideas that were discussed in the Bringing Sexy Back panel: that we should get rid of cutaways and be more honest about sex. Greater representation of LGBT characters is a fantastic start but they need to be represented as wholly as any other, and answer the questions that LGBT teens have.

Finally, it is not always about sex. Let’s explore relationships.

YALC Series: Blogging tips from the pros

IMG_2712As well as some fantastic panels, YALC also hosted a series of workshops and on Sunday I attended two focused on blogging. Both hosted by author Andy Robb, the first, ‘Book blogging for beginners‘, featured the winners of the first ever UKYA Blogger Awards (Michelle @ChelleyToy, Andrew @PewterWolf13 and Laura @sisterspooky).

In the second workshop,’Taking your blog to the next level’, Lucie @LucyTheReader, Jim @Yayeahyeah and Vivienne @Serendipity_Viv talked more about strategies for developing your blog and how to make the most of social media. For those of you who have taken part in the phenomenal #UKYAchats and UKYA Day, you will be aware of Lucie’s online success, Jim is creator of @MeetUKYA and Vivienne’s blogging prowess has earnt her spots on several top blogger lists.

I learnt so much in these workshops and as there was so much agreement across the panels, I have consolidated everything into one post.

On a practical level, you should use the channel that works best for you whether that be Blogger, WordPress or Tumblr. It is also possible to buy your own domain name for as little as £10 (get rid of the bit), but this is completely your choice. It is a good step to take once you have committed to blogging and, if you are lucky enough to end up being quoted, it is nicer and cleaner to have your own name but it is not necessary.

The most important thing is to be enthusiastic and put your own voice in your blog. Make it ‘you’, start conversations and build relationships. Blogging is a community and you shouldn’t be afraid to join/start conversations and ask questions. This extends outside the online world. There are so many blogging events going on all the time that you can find through twitter which provide a fantastic opportunity to meet other bloggers and authors, share tips and talk about books! Connecting with other blogger is not only fun, they might also be able to recommend you to publishers.

In terms of what you write, it is better to be as specific as you can  about the age group or genre you cater to, but add a new perspective to what you are saying. Don’t tell people not to read a book you don’t like but be honest.  Authors will value your critique as long as you are fair. Try to give a balanced view and if you really don’t like a book think about why you don’t like it. Maybe instead of writing a bad review you could write a discussion piece about how the topic or characters are

In general, it is good to vary your content type. If you’re struggling for ideas, maybe approach it differently. You could list a short 10 questions or ten tips, or try discussion pieces or guest posts.

A common problem for blogger is the endless TBR pile. Both panels emphasised that you should not put pressure on yourself, this is supposed to be fun. You can always tweet about a book and start a conversation even if you don’t have time to review it. Don’t force yourself to read something because that will affect your enjoyment and sway your judgement of it, and it is OK to say no to publishers – it’s your blog! If you don’t want to review a certain title, don’t feel you have to: saying no won’t stop publishers sending you books. You can also be specific about the type of post you want to feature in a tour.

‘Life is too short to read something you don’t like. All books are written but they are not all written for you.’

Top Tips

  1. Always try to tweet reviews to publishers – build a rapport and they will think of you when they publish a book they think you will like.
  2. It’s all about networking – contact publicists directly
  3. Set yourself SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) objectives so you have targets to aim for and can measure your progress. eg. in terms of follower growth.
  4. Tweet blog content at different times of day to catch different time zones (You can use tools like Hootsuite: schedule it and walk away!)
  5. Really use social media, network and try to recommend books as much as possible.

Be balanced, be honest but be respectful.

YALC Series: Bringing Sexy Back

Chaired by this year’s fabulous Queen of Teen James Dawson, the ‘Bringing Sexy Back’ panel brought sex and sexuality out of taboo-land, discussing what is currently appearing in YA literature, why it is important to cover these topics, and what we should see more of. Dawson was joined on stage by fellow YA Prize shortlisted and winning authors Non Pratt, Louise O’Neill, Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison, all of whom discuss sex, its build up and its consequences in their novels.

Let’s talk about sex

Sex is a hot topic, in several senses of the word. Whether we’re talking about the Fifty Shades hype or the proliferation of internet porn, it is a subject matter that the media are keen to jump on. Society is arguably becoming increasingly open about sex and yet there are many debates about where lines should be drawn and how sex should be presented, particularly when it comes to young people. An interesting opening thought surrounding media ratings and parental controls was: why is violence acceptable when sex isn’t?

Asking For ItHollywood is desensitising sex: through films, celebrity sex tapes, sexualised advertising, there is more access to sex in visual forms than ever before and the very idea of sex is posited as a commodity. Books are essential in restoring sensitivity, they are not about objectification and gratification, but about connections.

There is, of course, a certain level of delicacy required in sexual content for young people. However, it is naive to think that teenagers aren’t aware that it exists. Adolescence is a time of self-discovery and boundary pushing and guess what? Teens are having sex. Maybe not all of them, but some definitely are, and the ones that aren’t are not finding out about it for the first time in a YA book.

Ivison pointed out that it is not teachers and librarians that are censoring these books, but parents. There is a lingering image of childhood innocence that many parents cling to and they attempt to preserve this by denying access to brilliant literature. In the case of school libraries, it may only take one parent’s concern to make certain titles unavailable for everyone and so it is essential for teachers to make parents allies. Books play a significant role in expanding perspectives and understanding: young people can easily access sexual content, so let’s make sure they get an honest look.

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

So many authors at YALC talked about the influence of Judy Blume and this was Foreverparticularly relevant to this panel. Blume’s books such as Forever (written in the 70s) discussed early sexual experiences, questioning sexuality and orgasms. This was 40 years ago yet we seem to have glossed over these things since. There has been a big call from some YA authors on twitter, echoed in this panel, to end the ‘fade to black’. If we’re gonna talk about sex, let’s do it properly and not cut away from a sex scene!

We have a responsibility to tell the truth: to let readers know how significant these moments are, how good they can be but also that it is not always pretty.

O’Neill, author of Only Ever Yours, said that she writes difficult sex scenes and feels that in many cases sex for women is about performance not pleasure. She also revealed a personal connection to her writing sharing that it is influenced by her early teenage experiences which remain very real to her. She even uses old diaries to inform her writing.

Non Pratt, whose first book Trouble was about teen pregnancy, told the audience Troublethat she writes for 14 year old Non. She confessed that at that time she was super horny and super curious and so now feels a responsibility as someone who has experienced sex to answer the questions she was asking back then. She also said that she writes ‘vanilla sex’, taking the stance that young people should be eased into this area of life and joking that people should get really good at beginner sex first, then explore other channels.

This topic was raised again later when talking about boundaries: where is that line and should we be telling teens that there is a line when it comes to their preferences? We need to get away from the idea of good girls and bad girls, and that only bad girls have kinky sex.

So what are the lines that push a book into adult?

The panel unanimously agreed that nothing should be off limits to YA readers. They referenced titles that tackle difficult topics such as Forbidden, a book about incest, and Burgess’ Junk which covers drug abuse and sex work. The main difference is the level of responsibility in YA and so it is important to take care not to glamourise certain behaviours.

More sex please: what we’re missing

A question from the audience asked what the panel thought was missing and, following on from the idea of not fading to black, Dawson expressed the need for man on man sex. When we talk about honest representation , it needs to be honest representation for all.

The rest of the panel also said we need to see more coverage of masturbation and more period chat. O’Neill in particular championed the need to lift the veil on a subject that affects half the population and mentioned a blog post she wrote to encourage the sharing of period stories and removing the shame around it.

Another question asked by the audience raised the representation of asexuality and suggested that maybe the big taboo is really not having sex. Maybe there is sometimes too much pressure to talk about sex and we should also be acknowledging those who don’t have those desires and normalising that.

RemixPratt highlighted that in her new title, Remix, her focus was female friendship first, sex second – the girls are not portrayed as rivals. She pointed out that romantic relationships usually take precedence and friendship is overlooked, but far more readers have had friends than sex so why isn’t this given more attention?The lifelong connections and heart-breaking fall-outs of friendship are important so maybe we should just be talking more about relationships.

YALC Series: Mental Health in YA

As part of the ‘What is Normal?’ strand, the first panel on Sunday was dedicated to mental health in YA. The panel was chaired by Imogen Russell Williams who was talking to authors Holly Bourne, Brian Conaghan, Annabel Pitcher and Matt Whyman about the representation of mental health issues in YA today, as well as their own experiences of writing about mental health. Am I Normal Yet

Something that was cleared up straight away was the fact that teenage boys have worries too. It is often assumed that it is emotional teenage girls that suffer but as Whyman shared his experiences as agony aunt in teen magazines, it was highlighted that we need to stop overlooking boys’ concerns.

As recently as the 80s, mental health was not discussed, and even when it did begin to appear in literature it was often demonised, labelling the characters as ‘having issues’. Now, we are becoming much more aware of the need to cover these issues honestly: to make people feel as though it’s OK, but also to offer help and positivity. These books don’t need to have faultless happy endings but can instead offer a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not about solutions but options. Particularly during teenage years amidst the struggle to find your identity and acceptance of that identity, it is important to make readers realise that they do not have to deal with these feeling alone. It is only by talking about these issues, by normalising them and showing that things can get better, that we can really offer help to these individuals.

In fact, the idea of relapse is also a concern that should not be glossed over. What does it really mean to ‘get better’? If we are to realistically represent the struggles that people go through, we need to acknowledge that this might be something that they are going to have to continually confront. It probably won’t just go away, and the fear of relapse in itself can be damaging, but only by talking about these eventualities can we normalise the issues and take away the fear.

The most important thing which the panel agreed upon was the importance of accuracy. Bourne talked about interviewing people dealing with the issues she was writing about in order to represent how they really feel. Research and personal experiences are the only way to do these people justice and offer a legitimate form of support for readers. At the same time, although honesty is important, it is also necessary to be sensitive. Authors must not be too graphic and ensure that they are in no way glorifying or fuelling destructive behaviours.

It’s not about labels: a multitude of complex traits make up our mental health and its not a black and white case of having a condition or not. We all sit along scales, along multiple scales even, and a person cannot simply be put in a box or be prescribed a certain cure. In order to fully represent the spectrum of humanity, as well as to make sufferers feel that they are not ‘abnormal’, authors should not purely focus on ‘the character with mental health issues’. All your characters have mental health so how do they all act and react together?

It’s also difficult for those who have loved ones dealing with mental health issues. Pitcher stated that it is not always a case of: ‘I have depression and I don’t know what to do’, but ‘my boyfriend has depression and I don’t know what to do’. We need to offer hope to these people too, and consider how issues affect those around the sufferer? What can they do? Maybe sometimes you have to let go and stop enabling a loved one’s behaviour to make them confront their issues.

Questions from the audience raised parents with mental health issues and addiction in particular. The panel agreed that this is a sadly all to common, scenario that needs addressing. How can you help a teenager cope when the person that is supposed to be the grounding influence in their life doesn’t fulfil that role? So many turn to books in times of need, or in order to escape, and so by filling the pages with role models, or a chance for things to get better, we can offer help and advice in the most accessible form.HOPE

The key theme throughout this talk was hope, and Pitcher talked about a poster she had seen that she found particularly encouraging which reminded her: ‘hold on, pain ends’.

Young mental health is certainly on the agenda. It was identified in this year’s election manifestos, highlighting a need to offer earlier and better help, and the shocking reliance of GPs on BMIs when diagnosing eating disorders is beginning to be talked about.

One project that has caught my eye recently is ‘Hello me, it’s you’. This is a project set up by an Oxford Brooke’s student to publish a series of letters by young people to their 16 year old selves about their mental health. You can read more about how to get involved with this project on her blog.

The mental health charity mind are continuing to do phenomenal work and literature is increasingly covering a vast spectrum of issues. It is only by talking about these things that we can normalise them and really begin to open up and help each other.