Wednesday, 23 August 2017

On the "validation" of the writer

Jane Austen -- instant validation?  No way........

I have been intrigued lately, when looking at the Literature Wales Twitter page, and at various writer blogs, to see that a new concept is gaining momentum.  It holds that when a writer (usually a very junior one) obtains a Literature Wales bursary of £3,000 or whatever, he or she is then somehow "validated" as a writer.  There is usually an expression of heartfelt thanks for the cash,  followed by a good deal of gushing praise for the generosity of the donor.  One writer after another goes on the record to thank LW for enabling them to "buy time" to write, and for making them feel empowered, validated or vindicated as serious writers worthy of the attention of the literary world.

Hang on a moment here.  Of course writers who obtain competitive bursaries feel good, and there is no doubt at all about the noble intentions both of LW and the panel members who put huge amounts of time into assessing the applications placed in front of them.  And it is right and proper that young and old writers deserve to be nurtured and encouraged, criticised where necessary by their mentors, and given a steer towards where their real talents lie.

But there is no way that a novice writer should be encouraged to feel "validated"  by a grant or a bursary, or even by a prize or a publishing deal.  The only thing that validates a writer is BOOK SALES.  Do not even talk about "validation" until your book is out there in the market place, competing with other books, and finding a loyal base of avid readers in their thousands.  The size of your royalty cheque is a reasonable measure of the degree to which you are validated.

There is no such thing as instant validation, and if you think there is, you are living in a fantasy world, maybe with a vastly inflated opinion of your own talents.  It is not at all uncommon for writers to struggle for years or decades, and to be validated as master craftsmen or artists long after they are dead.  How long did it take for Shakespeare, RS Thomas, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Jan Morris, Alexander Cordell and hundreds of other great writers to be validated and to achieve greatness?  Every one of them had to struggle to rise above the crowd, and sure as eggs not one of them was instantly validated simply because somebody gave them a bag of cash.

The strange concept of "buying time".........

On thinking about the literary scene in Wales, I have been intrigued by the strange concept of "buying time to write."  Various young (and old) writers, including senior academics who have been in receipt of Literature Wales bursaries have gone on the record to say how wonderfully grateful they are to LW for giving them £3,000 (or whatever) and for "buying the time" for them to complete their novels or to hone their writing skills.

What a sad state of affairs!  This says more than anything else about the demoralisation of the Welsh community of writers. It also says a lot about a creeping sense of entitlement among inexperienced writers who are encouraged to believe, prematurely, that they are sensitive and vulnerable artists who have to be nurtured and supported by society.  The begging bowl mentality demeans writers and reinforces the power base of those who distribute largesse. This is not a good scenario -- and I am amazed that it persists and even becomes stronger as the years pass.

Let's get this straight.  Any writer worth his / her salt would GIVE or FIND the time to work on the development of  a writing career.  If a writer really has to "buy" the time to write, he / she would probably be better off doing something else.

If the writers' bursary scheme was to be abandoned overnight, would the Welsh literary scene be less vibrant than it is today?  There are many who would shout "Of course!  How else would we uncover hidden talent and create the conditions in which it can flourish?"  That would be the gut reaction -- but if you think of this calmly, you would have to admit that the most talented writers, who are determined to write and who really have something to say, will write anyway, and some of them will succeed.  And would the Welsh literary scene really be worse off if half of the books currently published each year in Wales were never to see the light of day?  Books which sell fewer than 500 copies, which are underpinned by writer's bursaries and publishing grants, should never have been written in the first place.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Welsh life seldom depicted by BBC Wales, says content chief

 Sian Gwynedd

There is more coverage in the media about the lack of in-depth portrayals of Wales on BBC TV.  The issue has been highlighted in a discussion at the recent National Eisteddfod.  This time the BBC speaker has been Sian Gwynedd, saying very similar things to Rhodri Talfan Davies a few months ago.  It;s all very well for senior  BBC figures to be making these sorts of points -- but hang on a minute.  Aren't they the people creating the BBC Wales policy and implementing it?   They are effectively criticising their own shortcomings.   Or is it all much more complicated than that?  (It usually is!!)  Maybe they have their plans and they want to implement them, but are being held back all the time by restrictions placed on them by BBC HQ in London?  Watch this space...........


Wales not well-represented on BBC television, says content chief

9th August 2017

There hasn’t been enough content depicting Wales on the corporations’ UK-wide channels, according to BBC Wales’ Head of Content.

Although many BBC programmes were made in Wales, such as Dr Who and Casualty, Welsh life was very seldom depicted in them, she said.

She added that the BBC had a duty to present the history of Wales to the people of the country, but also to a UK-wide audience.

Sian Gwynedd was speaking at an event organised by Cardiff University at the National Eisteddfod today.

Presenter Angharad Mair, who was also on the panel, said that there was a tendency to present the Welsh people like “monkeys in a zoo” on programmes presented by outsiders.

“Not only are we not depicted enough, but I’m also disappointed with the way we’re depicted,” she said.

“We don’t complain enough,” she added, noting that the BBC went to greater lengths to placate their audience in Scotland.

Not fielding presenters who had an intimate understanding of Welsh culture betrayed a lack of confidence in ourselves, she said.

Sian Gwynedd said that there had recently been an increase in the use of Welsh presenters, such as Nigel Owens, fronting UK-wide programmes.


These are three of the key drama people working for BBC Wales:  Nick Andrews, Sian Gwynedd, and Simon Winstone

Nick Andrews
Head of Commissioning

Nick leads BBC Wales commissioning across television, iPlayer and interactive platforms. He is part of the Commissioning Group which brings radio, television and online together for the first time to share cross-platform ideas and seek out bigger, bolder content.

Head of Development at BBC Wales from 2015-2016, he previously had a wide-ranging career. His impressive track record of winning network commissions includes The First World War From Above and Scott’s Hut for BBC One, BBC Two’s Operation Crossbow and he contributed to the development of BBC Three’s The Call Centre. Nick also led planning for BBC Wales’ season of programming to mark the Dylan Thomas centenary.

He is also an award-winning producer and director. His documentary Roger: Genocide Baby won him the BAFTA Cymru Breakthrough award and it was followed by another BBC Three film, I Woke Up Gay. He has also worked for Radio 1, BBC Radio Wales and as a director on The One Show.

Sian Gwynedd
Head of Content Production

Sian is responsible for driving collaboration and development across the production community as well as a wide portfolio of responsibilities. She leads on the development of the partnership with S4C, an industry-leading approach to production talent, on-screen diversity and BBC Wales’ network radio output.

Sian was Head of Welsh Language Programmes and Services from 2012 – 2016 and Editor of BBC Radio Cymru 2006-2012.

Sian has a background as a journalist and joined the BBC in 1994 as a researcher with Radio Cymru news. She was appointed Editor of Newyddion in 2003. During the past 20 years she has worked in Wales as a journalist for newspapers and magazines, and as a reporter and producer for a number of radio and television news programmes. Originally from Bala she was educated at Ysgol y Berwyn, Y Bala and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and History.


Simon Winstone
Head of Drama - Wales

BBC Studios, the BBC’s main TV production arm, has appointed Simon Winstone as Head of Drama - Wales, to lead its world-class drama series and serials business, based at Roath Lock in Cardiff.
BBC Studios, that launched as a commercial subsidiary in April 2017, produces a raft of multi-award-winning drama in Wales, including Doctor Who, War And Peace, Casualty and Russell T Davies’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Simon will be responsible for overseeing the drama series and serials team and productions based in Cardiff, building on their creative success and seeking out new opportunities, as BBC Studios can now make programmes for other broadcasters and channels in the UK and internationally, as well as the BBC.

He joins BBC Studios from Red Planet Pictures, where his roles included Head of Drama (Wales), Head of Development and most recently Executive Producer. His impressive credits include Death In Paradise, Crash, The Nativity, By Any Means, The Passing Bells, Dickensian and Hooten And The Lady.

Nick Betts, Director of Scripted, BBC Studios says: “Simon is a highly talented and experienced creative, who has already contributed to the success of two of BBC Studios’ biggest dramas over the years - EastEnders and Doctor Who. I am delighted to be welcoming him to BBC Studios at this exciting time.”  Simon reports directly to Nick Betts.


Saturday, 19 August 2017

Is literary tourism a problem?

This is an interesting article in the Wales Arts Review, in which Emma Schofield discusses "the problem with literary tourism."

She starts off by talking about the furore (yet another!) surrounding the publication of a jolly map by Visit England, designed to flag up some of England's literary places and connections.  That was all very well, until certain other parties started to use the map and called it "the literary tourism map of Britain".   The problem with that was that the map chopped Scotland off, did not have Ireland on it at all, and had Wales shown as a place where some trees grow but where there is no literature.

Visit England should have seen it coming, and putting trees but no literature on the map of Wales was crass, and deserved condemnation.  Anyway, there are other maps of Welsh literature (or some of it) like this one:

This map is a piece of private enterprise, and the people who made it promote it as THE Literary Map of Wales.  It is not that at all, of course, since it is highly selective, and they have only managed to fit in SOME Welsh writers.  God only knows how the choice of writers was made.    Let's just call it A Literary Map of Wales, accepting that there can just as well be several others......

Coming back to Emma's article, what is her point?  It seems to be that it is a mistake to reduce an appreciation of Welsh literature to points on a map, or to a few "chosen places" with literary links.  I don't agree with her.  You are never going to get rid of a sense of place, especially in Wales, where we have this thing called "hiraeth".  Of course we all like to think that Wales is a country where great literature is in the air we breathe; but when people are on holiday they are not looking at something over the far horizon or trying to identify an aura.  They are looking at what is in front of them, and if one of the functions of Visit Wales and the regional tourism authorities is to enhance "the visitor experience" then I see no harm at all in flagging up all -- or any -- of the things that make the landscape in front of you interesting or valued.  That may be the local geology, or historic features like castles and cromlechs, or even a house in which a great writer lived.  I have no problem with any of that.

I do agree with the point that it all gets rather messy when we include in these targetted "persistent places" or "special places" things which have only the remotest connection with Welsh literature -- like a holiday cottage once stayed in by William Wordworth, or a place where Dylan Thomas's great aunt once lived, or a place that gave Beatrix Potter the inspiration to write about a rabbit, or a place where one scene from a film about Harry Potter was shot..........

Sadly, the Literature Wales web site called "Land of Legends"  (which has many good things about it) falls squarely into this trap, investing all sorts of places with significance on the most insignificant of literary connections.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Philip Pullman slams "pernicious book discounts"

Photo:  Guardian

 Three cheers for Philip Pullman for raising this issue. It's quite a long article, and worth reading:


With more than two months to go before Philip Pullman’s long-awaited new novel from the world of His Dark Materials is published, pre-orders have sent La Belle Sauvage flying up bestseller lists. But with booksellers already slashing the cover price in half, the award-winning author has spoken out about how cheap books devalue the experience of reading, and called for an end to the “pernicious” doctrine of “market fundamentalism” if literary culture is to survive.

Pullman is president of the Society of Authors, which is launching a campaign for publishers to stop damaging authors’ earnings by discounting bulk sales to book clubs and supermarkets, and has slammed the cut-price culture in his trade.

“I don’t like it when I see my books sold cheaply,” Pullman said. “But I’d like to think I’m speaking on behalf of all authors who are caught in this trap. It’s easy to think that readers gain a great deal by being able to buy books cheaply. But if a price is unrealistically cheap, it can damage the author’s reputation (or brand, as we say now), and lead to the impression that books are a cheap commodity and reading is an experience that’s not worth very much.”


Virtually all authors have stories of the impact of price cutting at the point of sale.  One of the worst offenders is of course Amazon, which is a monster so big that we have to deal with it, like it or not.  When I sell my novels to Amazon, the retail monster insists on a 60% discount and insists on taking 3 months to pay following acceptance of the delivery.  If I want faster payment, I have to give the monster a 65% discount.  So on a £7.99 paperback, it pays me just £3.19, allowing it plenty of room for discounting the book and for selling it for under my RRP.  If my print run has been 2,000, that means the printing price per book is about £2.  The next piece of iniquity is that Amazon pretends, for the sake of its customers, that it has just one copy left of this particular book, and that there are more copies on the way.  That's being rather economical with the truth. The real situation is that it only ever has two or three copies in stock, and that when one is sold, it orders another copy from me as a replacement.  The huge Amazon warehouse may contain a lot of stuff, but it sure as eggs doesn't hold many copies of my books! Then it gets even worse, since when I get my order for one new copy to be sent off, I have to deal with it immediately (if I don't the monster starts hassling me straight away) and I have to pay the package and postage costs, in this case amounting to £2.40.  So to send one copy of the book off to Amazon, it costs me £4.40, in exchange for which it pays me £3.19.    Not a very good commercial deal?  Too right.......

The only reason for selling books through Amazon is that I get publicity from it -- the Amazon web-site is where most initial Google searches end up.  If you are a new writer and you think it's brilliant if Amazon is prepared to "stock" your books, think again.  You probably won't make a single penny from the deal.  Philip Pullman has a point.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Literary Atlas of Wales

In the Angel Mountain Newsletter No 5, I have put a brief post as follows:

The Literary Atlas of Wales - worth its weight in gold?

There is nothing a geographer likes more than a good atlas.  I’m a geographer by training, so of course I love reading maps and thumbing through atlases.  I have been getting more and more intrigued by something called the "Digital Literary Atlas of Wales and the Borderlands”.  This is being run from Cardiff University by a team of three academics: Jon Anderson, S Orford and Kirsti Bohata.

So far so good.  But then you look at the budget, and you see that this is going to be the most expensive atlas in the history of the world (maybe I exaggerate, but you get my message), costing no less than half a million pounds of taxpayer’s money. Read the abstract if you dare.  Then read the “Planned Impact” statement and see if you are any the wiser.  I have been doing some checking on what has been achieved since the project started in June 2016, and I can find virtually nothing.  I’m sad to have to say it, but we live in hard times, and how on earth did this project get funded?  What is it going to contribute to Welsh literature, or to the common good?  Does anybody actually WANT this atlas?  Hmmmm……..


A bit more detail.  On the work schedule, the project which started a year ago committed to producing a web site by summer 2017.  There is indeed a web site, here:

but it's one of the thinnest web sites I have ever seen, with virtually nothing on it which is of any use.  I have found out in correspondence that the Atlas team has decided upon 12 English-language Welsh novels which have been sent out to readers groups all over Wales.  The novels selected include a few that are well-known, but there is no balanced geographical spread, and most of the items on the list are the sorts of things frequently discussed in university seminars rather than on street corners.  There is nothing from Pembrokeshire, which is maybe considered to be a cultural desert!  Here is the list:

    • Revenant by Tristan Hughes (2008; Picador) Ynys Môn/Anglesey
    • Twenty Thousand Saints by Fflur Dafydd (2000; Y Lolfa) Ynys Enlli/Bardsey
    • Pigeon by Alys Conran (2016; Parthian) Bethesda
    • The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967; HarperCollins) Dinas Mawddwy
    • Aberystwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce (2001; Bloomsbury) Aberystwyth
    • Sheepshagger by Niall Griffiths (2001; Vintage) Aberystwyth and hinterland
    • Strike for a Kingdom by Menna Gallie (1959; Honno) Ystradgynlais
    • The Rebecca Rioter by Amy Dillwyn (1880; Honno) Swansea and Gower
    • The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi (2000; Picador) Butetown, Cardiff
    • Shifts by Christopher Meredith (1988; Seren) Tredegar
    • Border Country by Raymond Williams (1960; Parthian) Pandy, Abergavenny
    • Mr Vogel by Lloyd Jones (2004; Seren) Wales on foot

There is a lot of activity on the project's twitter page, and from that it appears that the team has sent these books out to 18 reading groups or focus groups who will then discuss them in the presence of the project organizers and who will physically visit the places described in the books. There will be 12 "literary tours" as well, some of which will be organized by Literature Wales.  These will be led by the book authors, or if they are dead, by "experts."  All very jolly.  Costs will be carried by the Atlas, and it looks as if videos are planned, with some audiovisual content being attached to the "Land of Legends" web site created with grant aid by Literature Wales. (This element has recently been supported by the Welsh Government's TPIF fund.)

There is an art commissioning component as well, as described here:
Artists will be paid for their work, but there is no mention of the size of the budget.

This all sounds like a lot of fun for the academics involved, and for the reading groups who will take part in seminars, discussions and literary tours to places they might not otherwise have visited, but we do need to ask serious questions about value for money.  I think I might be happy with £50,000 being spent on something like this, but let's remind ourselves that the price tag is half a million pounds of taxpayers' money.  Even though I am a geographer with a degree of understanding of what a "literary atlas" is all about, as a taxpayer I feel very uneasy indeed.............

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Literature Wales -- tourism operator and artwork commissioner

I wondered where all the money for the Tourism Product Innovation Fund (TPIF) had gone to -- and now I know at least a part of the answer.  The list of new supported projects for 2017-19 has now been published, and one of the successful ones is this:

Literature Wales - Weird & Wonderful Wales

This project will celebrate the Year of Legends and Year of Sea. It will document an already externally commissioned/funded tour of Wales visiting towns/villages/sites associated with myths and legends of Wales, many of which will be coastal. The audio-visual content will feed into the Land of Legends digital platform. It also seeks to paint an iconic Mabinogion inspired design by high profile, world-renowned artist Pete Fowler on the Cardiff Central Railway Station Water Tower. The 50ft, Grade II listed 1930’s Water Tower is highly visible as you enter the city by train, along the River Taff, from the south end of the Principality Stadium and from the new Cardiff Central Square development. We already hold planning permission for the mural, meaning works can take place in May 2017 prior to Champions League activity and last through 2018 and 2019.

This funding -- for an unknown sum of money -- has come from the Business Wales tourism budget, and it shows just how far Literature Wales has strayed from its original brief of supporting Welsh literature and Welsh writers.  It now sees itself as a tourism operator and commissioner of audio-visual presentations and artwork....... and I wonder how much time has been devoted by staff to the dreaming up and completion of this application for funding and to the application for planning consent?  No wonder the organization has no time for the updating of the Welsh writers' database -- terribly sorry, all you writers out there, but we have cunning plans, and far too much to do......

Why did the Chairman and Management Board not step in and ask what this had to do with the core functions of the organization?  More to the point, is it appropriate for one part of the Welsh Government establishment to hand monies to another part of the establishment?  That, presumably, was not what TPIF was intended for.  Since when is Literature Wales a "tourism operator" or "tourism sector partner"?    This is all far too incestuous for comfort, and it's high time somebody (Minister Ken Skates, for example) stepped in and put a stop to it.



I have been checking to see whether Literature Wales is entitled to TPIF funding as a "third sector" organization.

Let's start from here.  Literature Wales describes itself on its web-site as follows:

"Established in 2011, Literature Wales is the national company for the development of literature in Wales."
"Literature Wales is the national literary tourism agency of Wales."
"Established in 2011 as one of the Arts Council of Wales’ National Companies, Literature Wales’ role is to facilitate and stimulate literature programmes and events throughout Wales, and promote the best of our literature internationally.”

LW therefore flags itself up as a national company and as a national agency — it would not have been allowed to use those words without specific Welsh Government consent.  It acts on behalf of the Welsh Government.  It is therefore not “independent” in the meaning of the documents defining the Third Sector, and it was not set up voluntarily by well-meaning people.  Without large-scale public funding it would not exist.  There is no democratic accountability, no membership list and no transparency or involvement by supporters in management board or staff appointments. 

LW cannot have its cake and eat it.  It is clearly not a Third Sector organization, and in my view it should not have applied for TPIF funding.

Monday, 14 August 2017

How many books are actually SOLD in Wales?

The recycled paper industry needs our support......

Not long ago I was reading a blog from somebody who worked at Aberystwyth University. He said that from his office he had a view of a skip at the back of the building, which was used for the disposal of multiple copies of brand new books from Welsh publishers. He suggested that large quantities of unwanted books were delivered through the front door and dumped through the back door. I have no way of checking the correctness of this claim — but it tallies with other foul rumours that unsaleable new books published in Wales are given away to schools, libraries and colleges (even if they don't want them) and counted as sales. True or false? Perhaps somebody will tell us.

I have picked up on another rumour too -- namely that large numbers of books published in Wales are recorded as having sales of around 800 copies. What a strange coincidence! Could it be that whenever a new book is published, 800 copies are immediately distributed to the book trade from the Welsh Books Council (WBC) Distribution Centre in Aberystwyth, and ticked off as "sales"? When returns of unsold books then come back after a while to the Distribution Centre, presumably (if they are undamaged) they are returned into stock and are recorded as such. But are the "sales figures" then adjusted downwards?   Maybe, and maybe not.......

The record keeping relating to book sales in Wales is frankly lamentable, partly down to the fact that most books are sold by small retail outlets which have nothing to do with the book trade's electronic point of sale (EPOS) system. Hand-written invoices and vague sale or return arrangements proliferate!  I have found it almost impossible to find sales figures for the titles published by Welsh publishers such as Gomer, Parthian, Seren and Honno. I suppose that is understandable, since publishing is a competitive business. But if books are grant aided from the public purse (as the majority of them are) is there no measure of cost-effectiveness apart from a tally of the number of titles published per year? When a publisher applies to WBC for a grant, and gets it, is there no requirement placed upon him to report on his sales figures for every supported title? That information should be in the public domain.  For titles where the publisher carries the full commercial risk, the information should be confidential. 

Aggregated or average sales figures are not much use, although we do know that in 2015-2016 Welsh-language books were supported to the tune of £348,000 for 224 titles, which achieved average sales of 829 copies.  So approximately 185,000 books were sold -- if they really were sold -- at a cost to the taxpayer of £1.88 each.  That figure excludes marketing grants and other subsidies, and it excludes advances paid to authors against future royalties. Value for money?

I'll do another post one day about the subsidies paid out to "special projects" like the Library of Wales.

As I have pointed out before, the great and the good of Welsh literature (including senior academics) justify this vast public expenditure and slapdash record keeping on the basis that a small country should place creativity and innovation at the top of its list of priorities in order to support the Welsh language and maintain self-esteem -- while more or less accepting that most of what goes on is entirely non-commercial. In Wales, there are a few titles every year which sell well and make lots of money. I'll hazard a guess that most of those are about rugby or are about well-known sports or entertainment personalities. But it is rumoured that in order to be classed as a "best seller" in Wales a book simply has to sell 700 copies over its lifetime. That means, I suppose, that the great majority of books published sell fewer than 500 copies. Would those failing books ever have been published without a comprehensive financial support system? Certainly not. Would those books ever have been published in England? Certainly not.

And here is another question.  Publishing subsidies to the Welsh "mainstream publishers"  in 2015-2016 averaged £4,166 per title.  That sum is more than adequate to pay for the printing of a full-colour offset litho paperback or hardback with a print run of 2,000 copies. With commercial risk being effectively eliminated from the Welsh publishing industry, is there any requirement for grants to be repaid to WBC if a book does become successful?  If not, why not?

Is anybody applying scrutiny here, or demonstrating due diligence?  It appears not.......  I think that if I was Minister Ken Skates, I might be appalled.

If Literature Wales wants respect, it has to earn it.........

Iris Gower, Catrin Collier and Jan Morris -- three giants of Welsh literature, but conveniently ignored.  Could it be that they are too popular?

From recent statements by its Chairman and staff, it appears that Literature Wales has a fairly high opinion of itself.

To what extent is that self-esteem justified? For a partial answer to that question, let’s just look at one of its recent high-profile projects, the “Land of Legends” website produced for Visit Wales as a contribution to the “Year of Legends” tourism marketing exercise.

The text for this project was written by the staff of Literature Wales, who presumably pride themselves on their knowledge of Welsh literature.  They were apparently advised by national parks, some local authorities and assorted academic experts.  The web site is really all about literary tourism, making the link between Welsh books and writers and the landscapes in which their stories (and local myths and legends) are set.  So far so good.

As I have said many times, there is much in this web site to admire.  It is colourful, easy to navigate, and informative — and I imagine that many visitors to Wales will have enjoyed using it.  But what does it tell us about Welsh literature?

On doing some simple searches, there are some glaring omissions.  For example, the web site makes no mention at all of some of the greatest Welsh authors of recent times, namely Jan Morris, Dick Francis, Ronald Lockley, Iris Gower and Catrin Collier. Nor is there any mention of some spectacularly successful self-published writers with book sales (under the radar) in the tens of thousands.  Could that be because they do not, in their writings, touch on matters mythological, or because they are less Welsh than other writers?  That theory doesn’t stand up, since many of the included authors have  even less of a connection with the various worlds portrayed on the site.  Could it be that their writing careers have just been too successful, or that their publishers have been based outside Wales?  Heaven forbid……..

Let’s come closer to home.  Since the year 2000, I venture to suggest that one of the most successful works of fiction published in Wales has been “On Angel Mountain”, published in several editions and with sales of over 35,000.  Sales of the full Angel Mountain saga of 8 novels are now in excess of 80,000.  (To get things in proportion, none of the Welsh publishers reports on sales figures for their titles, but it is widely assumed that the average “best-seller” racks up sales of around 700 copies.)

However, amid the hundreds of references to Welsh authors, novels, and fictional characters, there is not a single reference my own work, to Carningli, to the Angel Mountain saga or to Martha Morgan Country. All of our efforts at “regional branding”, with the help of the local authorities, PLANED and Pembrokeshire Tourism, have apparently gone un-noticed in Cardiff. When I asked Literature Wales staff why they had forgotten all about us, they explained that they deemed the stories to be just “love stories” and that they were inappropriate for inclusion in a project relating to myths, legends and other tales! That’s nonsense — they have clearly not read any of the novels. On the other hand the writings of Beatrix Potter, William Wordsworth, Daniel Defoe and assorted other holiday visitors to Wales were of course perfectly appropriate for inclusion, as were the works of many very obscure Welsh authors. The workings of Literature Wales are indeed very mysterious. We who have supported the orgnization over the years have some right to expect recognition and reciprocal support, and we are not amused.

Why the snub?  Well, we can understand why “celebrity authors” are promoted, even if their links with Wales are tenuous to say the least.  But the other cited writers — who are they?  Some will have heard of Alexander Cordell, Richard Llewellyn, RS Thomas and Dylan Thomas.  But I doubt whether any visitors to Wales will be familiar with the works of scores of other featured writers.  It’s inappropriate to give names. But why are they cited and promoted as if they are important or significant literary figures?  I suspect the answer is that most of them belong to (or have belonged to) the Welsh literary establishment which is based in part in the literature departments of the Welsh universities, and in part in the Welsh-language writing community celebrated in the eisteddfodau each year.  I also suspect that they also belong to the growing community of bursary-supported writers and writers published with grant aid by the major Welsh publishing houses. It’s all very incestuous.  I suspect that once a writer has been supported by Literature Wales, there is an imperative to publish his/her work and to demonstrate that the money has been well spent.  So bursary recipients and competition prizewinners are promoted aggressively, regardless of how talented they are and how successful they are commercially.   Somehow they are deemed to be worthy or significant authors who have important things to say about the state of the world and the human condition. 

On the other hand, a cynic might say that these “promoted authors” are very conveniently deemed to be fully paid-up members of a mutual admiration society, while those who have succeeded outside the system can conveniently be ignored.  If an author is self-published, that is even more of a problem………

And who decides which authors will be promoted and which ones will be ignored?  Not a peer group of professional writers, but the staff of Literature Wales.  And let’s remind ourselves that they were appointed to their posts not because of their writing, publishing or commercial credentials but because somebody thought they would be well suited to the provision of services to the writing community. Am I, as a writer with 90 books to my name, expected to respect their assessment of my reputation?

Somebody said to me not so long ago that the thing the Welsh literary establishment hates most of all is a book published in Wales but outside of the “subsidy system” and which then goes on to become a commercial success. That, after all, threatens the paradigm which holds that it is impossible for any book to become commercially successful in Wales without considerable subsidy from the public purse. That view seems to be shared by Literature Wales, the Welsh Books Council, Arts Council Wales and even by the Medwin Hughes Review Panel.

The exclusion of the Angel Mountain Saga from the Land of Legends listing of significant Welsh literature has nothing to do with love stories; it is simply too successful and too inconvenient for those who participate in a vanity publishing exercise on an industrial scale.

Gripe over!!

Saturday, 12 August 2017

The dream team for a TV series......

No harm in dreaming, is there?

If I was in charge of casting, these actors would be on my dream ticket.

I think it would be rather wonderful if we could get all these to express an interest in being part of an Angel Mountain drama series…. some, but not all, are Welsh speaking.

Kazia Burrows as Martha.  Pretty well a perfect fit!

Ben McGregor as David.  Integrity, and a certain sort of innocence......

Michael Sheen as Joseph Harries, Martha’s saviour and mentor.  He knows too much….

Tom Cullen as Lord Cawdor.  He knows how to play the nobleman.....

Mark Lewis Jones as Squire George Howell, Martha's greatest enemy

Aneurin Hughes -- Squire Alban Watkins.  Good at playing thuggish characters!

 Gillian Elisa as Blodwen Owen, the housekeeper

Bryn Fon as Grandpa Isaac. Welsh speaking.  Has a sort of rugged intensity and intelligence about him.......

Dyfan Dwyfor as Moses Lloyd -- perfect fit! Tall and gangly, dark with a slightly sinister look ...

Grandma Jane -- Sharon Morgan. Welsh speaking -- from Llandefaelog. Striking face, with a cool intelligence .....

Alexandra Roach as Bessie, Martha's maid -- very pretty and rather cheeky and down to earth.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Where it all started......

Thanks to the Honey Harfat Facebook page for posting this pen and ink sketch by RJ Allen.  It shows the back of Haverfordwest Grammar School as it was at about the time I left to go to college.   Very nostalgic -- even the fives court is shown........

This is where I learned to love language and the creative process -- under the guidance of a wonderful English teacher, Fred Nicholls, who sadly died a couple of years ago. I learned to know him well since our move to Newport -- a very erudite and intelligent man with a vast knowledge of all sorts of things, as well as having a wicked sense of humour.  He was always a great support to me in my writing career.

Payback time approaching fast?

As a general rule, you do not bite the hand that feeds you.  Most dogs know that, and so do most of the writers of Wales, who are sustained to some degree by a pervasive subsidy culture both inside and outside our great educational institutions.  As long as there are such things as writer’s bursaries and publishing grants, people will apply for them, and sometimes get them, and will thereafter be eternally grateful to their benefactors.  So it is not surprising that there is a broad base of support for Literature Wales, the conduit through which most funds are passed to the writing community.

I’m intrigued by the fact that the Medwin Hughes Panel, in putting together its review of Welsh literature and publishing, raised the issue of subsidies and said this:  "The Panel felt that the danger for grant funded Welsh publishing is that it becomes a cosy and complacent small-scale industry which has a minimal influence on the culture of Wales as a whole…....."

Was this expressing a concern about the future?  As I see it, that's a pretty accurate reading of the situation that already exists.

I have done a number of blog posts on this already, and I have been looking again at the comments received by the Panel during its consultation phase.  These comments have struck me:

"Selling books is a finer achievement than winning prizes and does more to raise the profile of writers in Wales."

"Do not pander to the subsidy-junkies because they cannot, meaningfully, provide useful large-scale employment to the publishing."

"I don't think English language fiction and non-fiction should be subsidised - they should be subjected to market forces. Whilst this would reduce the amount and nature of what is published, overall it should improve quality via proper editing and reduce the number of niche works by the same old names."

"There is a clique of the same writers who receive a disproportionate amount of support/publication subsidy."

"The funding model means most publishers in Wales are actually incentivised NOT to sell lots of copies of a book, as this would leave them with a tougher case to make for winning the next grant. The whole scene is doomed to amateurism and as a result cannot produce a product capable of selling outside of Wales, and often not even capable of selling within Wales. I know no system like it in the world."

Subsidy junkies?  Writing clique?  Amateurism?  Cosy and complacent?  The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that a little more exposure to the hard commercial world might make the Welsh literary and publishing scene both leaner and more efficient.  That could be done without in any way threatening our civilisation and our great Welsh cultural traditions. 

This is what needs to happen, and for what it’s worth I recommend it to the Minister Ken Skates while he ponders on what to do next:  

He should bring in a rule stating that if a book sells fewer than 1,000 copies in its first two years, any grants and subsidies awarded must be paid back. That means REAL audited sales, involving real money, and excluding all returns. No skulduggery and creative accounting.  No more complacency.  This would encourage writers to think much more seriously about what they should spend their time on, and encourage publishers to be much more selective about what they publish.  With a bit of luck, we might get a move away from large-scale vanity publishing by a mutual admiration society into something which concentrates on what the market actually wants.  We might also get a recognition that publicity and marketing need to be taken much more seriously in Wales by a publishing industry which has been largely protected from this nasty thing called commercial risk.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Welsh publishing's subsidy culture



Independent Review of Support for Publishing and Literature in Wales.

from P56, on English-language publishing in Wales

The Panel recognised that some of the small publishers supported by the WBC have had a sprinkling of prize-winning or prize listed books over the years, but have never looked remotely like becoming self-supporting operations. This is not to blame them. It seems that, as long as funding is only available specifically to publish new Welsh writing, then that is what they will continue to do, as a grant is far more reliable than simply relying on sales. If these publishers, or indeed anyone wishing to set up as a literary publisher in Wales, wanted to be self-supporting, it is highly unlikely that they would build their business model exclusively on publishing new writing from Wales.

The Panel felt that the Welsh Government should consider whether they want to continue, as now, funding publishers of Welsh literature or – and this would be more expensive in the short term, but potentially only in the short term – helping to set up publishers based in Wales to publish internationally, both in terms of the authors they publish and the markets into which they seek to sell.

If, however, the real aim is – as it traditionally has been – to make sure that Welsh writers get a fair opportunity - that talented novelists from Wales will indeed find a publisher, then we need to consider whether that really needs market intervention. That is to say are talented Welsh writers really likely to be ignored by the London publishing establishment or not?

The Panel noted that it seems quite telling that the three books shortlisted for the English language section of the Welsh Book of the Year in 2016 were all published in London, by Faber & Faber. It is possible to identify Welsh writers who have been talent spotted by Welsh publishers – e.g. Cynan Jones and Rachel Trezise – and have gone on to be published in London. Would they have found a London publisher without getting their start in Wales? Probably but not necessarily. What is clear is that publishers in Wales are unable to fully support a publishing career – no author who hopes to make a living from their work is likely to stay with a Welsh publisher as things stand.

The Panel felt that the danger for grant funded Welsh publishing is that it becomes a cosy and complacent small-scale industry which has a minimal influence on the culture of Wales as a whole. However, it needs to be said that - given the current level of funding – and given the wider context of publishing in the UK – that is probably all one can reasonably expect.


This is all very interesting, and a little disappointing. There seems to be a weary acceptance on the part of the Panel that Welsh publishing MUST be heavily subsidised if talented writers are to emerge and be given a fair chance of succeeding in the wicked commercial world.  An issue that the Panel fails to address is the issue of all those untalented Welsh writers who think they are terribly good, and who mop up subsidies simply because they are there.  Both the mainstream Welsh publishers and Literature Wales connive in the writing and publishing of a stream of books that nobody really wants and hardly anybody buys. As the Panel notes elsewhere, sales figures are notoriously difficult to come by -- and that in itself is extraordinary, given that the great majority of books in Wales are published with the aid of public funds.  There is no requirement for accurate reporting of commercial success or failure.   The situation is then portrayed as demonstrating "a vibrant literary culture in Wales".  THAT is what the Panel really should have addressed much more aggressively.  Do the benefits of the current publishing scenario actually justify the costs?  I am quite convinced that they do not.

Let's just repeat this:  The Panel felt that the danger for grant funded Welsh publishing is that it becomes a cosy and complacent small-scale industry which has a minimal influence on the culture of Wales as a whole. 

Dylan Moore said this in 2012 in response to one of the tirades from columnist Julian Ruck:  There must be countless books published in Wales over the last decade that would not exist but for the financial support given to publishers through the Welsh Books Council. These books may well have pitiful sales figures by mainstream commercial standards. This is not something that can be dismissed out of hand. If the writing and publishing community in Wales takes itself seriously, it can not on one hand point to Ruck’s publication through a vanity press as evidence to discredit his views whilst propping up a system that is merely an elaborate, state-sanctified version of a vanity press. 


Thursday, 3 August 2017

Welsh writers - silenced and emasculated

 Cartoon: Ian Waugh

Following on from my last post about the Welsh Academy and its virtual demise, I have been pondering on the current strength of the Welsh literary community.  How big is it?  And what capacity does it have for speaking with a common voice and influencing the course of events?

First, size.  Well, there are reputed to be 3,000 people on the Welsh Academy database, but that database was rendered unreliable years ago when more and more people were admitted to membership in spite of having no track records as writers.  TV people, publishers, editors, journalists, commentators, readers and politicians joined because they wanted to support the writing community.  That was laudable in a way, but while the Academy's reach and its income were both enhanced, its focus as an organization for professional writers was lost.  The Medwin Hughes Panel which reported on the support mechanisms for literature and publishing in Wales gave (as far as I can see) no estimate of the number of working writers in the country, but I saw somewhere an estimate of around 600, so let's run with that figure. 

And does the community use its numerical clout and its corporate expertise to influence "literary policy" in Wales?  It seems not.  In the Report of that big review commissioned by Minister Ken Skates, the writing community makes virtually no appearance, from which we can assume that the Welsh Academy made no representations and had no meetings with the panel members. 

Second, the effectiveness of the writers' lobby.  Various things have happened which have negatively affected the ability of writers to present common positions on matters of interest.  The transformation of the Welsh Academy into Literature Wales has to a degree left writers out in the cold, since the new organization has been tasked with promoting Welsh literature and not with looking after writers.  So it has become a marketing and promotional organization, working with Government, the Arts Council and Visit Wales to show the world what a vibrant literary culture we have in our country.  Yes, it does boast of its role in stimulating and facilitating literary endeavour; and yes, it has distributed almost half a million pounds in bursaries to more than 100 writers since 2011 (see Note below).  But last year it distributed only £70,000 in bursaries out of a turnover of £1.2 million, while expending around 75% of its income on staff salaries and ancillary costs and in other in-house expenditures. 

Literature Wales, according to some commentators, has become an organization devoted to ensuring its own survival and to extending its reach into fields such as the arts and tourism.  As its aspirations have increased, its sense of entitlement has also grown, and this conceit was remarked upon by the Medwin Hughes panel members.  The staff and working panels of Literature Wales appear to be accountable to nobody, and although they are no doubt committed, highly motivated and hard-working, in a very subtle way they have come to see themselves as "the professionals" and as "the experts" who determine which writers will be supported in their careers, and which ones will be ignored.  That is a profoundly dangerous scenario, but to our eternal shame we, the writers of Wales, have allowed ourselves to slip into an acceptance of it.  The rise and rise of the subsidy culture has created a generation of writers who measure their status not by the reputation and commercial success of their published outputs but by the number of bursaries they have received.  Weirdly, they see themselves as "artists" rather than craftsmen.  The literary culture to which they belong is dominated by Literature Wales, playing the role of the benefactor, with writers lining up each year with their begging bowls and then expressing eternal gratitude whenever a few goodies come their way.  Even more distressing is the sight of respectable academic writers and talented new authors using social media to say that the receipt of a bursary of maybe £2,000, and the receipt of a modest amount of mentoring help,  has given a sudden boost to their self-esteem and has somehow "vindicated" or "validated" them as writers.  They appear to be blissfully unaware of how demeaning the whole relationship has become...........

Perhaps that is a travesty of the real situation, and perhaps the writing scene in Wales is a great deal more healthy than I think.  Let's hope I am wrong in my assessment.  And I admit that very occasionally the writing community does know its strength and uses it.  For example, early in 2016, a powerful lobbying campaign was mounted to counter a proposed 10.6% cut in the Welsh Government subsidy paid to the Welsh Books Council.  A highly publicised letter to Minister Ken Skates was instigated by poet Kathryn Gray and signed by 200 writers.  Under the sheer pressure of this lobbying campaign, the Government backed down and maintained the funding level.  The list of signatories was interesting, including senior academics, first-time writers, researchers, established novelists and historians, poets, translators, editors and publishers.  They all felt outraged, not so much because they thought that the work of the Welsh Books Council might be negatively affected, but because the level of subsidies might be reduced and because there might be a corresponding reduction in the number of titles published.  The underlying assumption was that Welsh publishing is incapable of being commercially viable without vast state support, and that the number of books published is in itself a sign of a healthy literary culture, no matter what the quality and the sales potential of these books might be.

"Don't you dare take away our begging bowls!"  What was I saying about the disappearance of self-confidence?


Note:  This is how the Medwin Hughes review summarises the Literature Wales mission:  
LW represents the interests of Welsh writers both inside Wales and internationally and encourages people to enjoy others' writing and to write themselves, through a programme of workshops, courses, festivals and competitions. LW services include mentoring, writers' bursaries, information and advice, and independent manuscript assessment. LW aims to place literature at the heart of the well-being, literacy, employment and skills agendas and strives for literature to be seen as a vital part of a balanced, engaged and healthy life.

Whatever happened to the Welsh Academy?

Once upon a time, prior to 2011, there was a membership-based writers’ society called Yr Academi Cymraeg or the Welsh Academy.  It was founded in 1959.  In 1998 the organization took on a much enhanced role when it won a franchise from the Arts Council of Wales to provide a Welsh National Literature Promotion Agency. This new Agency was named Academi. The much-changed and enlarged Academi which emerged delivered literary provision across Wales until 2011, when it joined with Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre to form a new "national company" known as Literature Wales. To quote:  "The Welsh Academy, as the national Society of Writers in Wales, retained its unique identity within Academi. This identity continued to be safeguarded when the Academi was developed to be Literature Wales. While Literature Wales does provide administrative support to The Welsh Academy, a management relationship does not exist between them and both organisations’ decision making processes, management and activity are independent of each other.”  The truth of the matter was that the Welsh Academy became a client or subsidiary organization, entirely dependent upon Literature Wales for its continued existence. 

Some years ago the Welsh Academy had about 600 members, and it operated in a reasonably democratic fashion, lobbying on behalf of the writing community where necessary and providing a range of services for members.  It did not have a very high profile, but it was there when you needed it.

Now, however, it is a strange animal, with a presence on the Literature Wales web site but with its own committee and membership list and a somewhat mysterious way of operating. It has its own constitution, adopted on 25th April 2015. But what is its status?  Is it an independent registered charity, or a membership organization with its own articles of association? How does it communicate with members?  What does it actually do for its members? Where are its accounts? Where are the minutes of its meetings? It appears that members are “approved" by the Committee, but the process by which Committee and Management Board members are appointed is very mysterious.  There are currently 11 Board members.  But there are no elections, so who makes the appointments?  Who decides who will be deemed full members, honorary members, and fellows of the society?  (All the names are on the web site, here:  Who decided that Bobi Jones and Gillian Clarke should be Presidents? (I have no objections to them at all, but what was the process?) Somebody needs to sort all this out, to define much more clearly what the relationship between Literature Wales and the Academy actually is, and to define the separate functions of the two organizations. A “Memorandum of Understanding” signed in June 2016 goes some way to clarifying the relationship, but leaves a host of questions unanswered.

One of the excellent features of the old Welsh Academy was its web-based membership database, which could be consulted by anybody who wanted a CV or list of publications for a particular writer, or who might be looking for a speaker for a literary festival, for a school visit, or for an evening talk.  This old database worked well, but was at last (about a year ago) taken down because it was effectively beyond repair! There was no clear separation on a list of around 3,000 names between Welsh and English-language writers, fee-paying members and non-members of the Welsh Academy, and active writers and people just vaguely interested in writing or reading. The method for sending personal info in and then loading it onto the database was also incredibly cumbersome, as I remember only too well. The information about some people on the list was many years our of date, and some were even dead…….

In spite of many promises from Literature Wales, the writers’ database has not been revamped or replaced, and one doubts that this is anywhere near the top of the list of priorities, at a time of great uncertainty.  LW staff say that if anybody wants a speaker they will recommend one who might be appropriate, and that requests for information about a particular writer will be handled efficiently.  That is all very well, but how do we, as Academy members, know that LW will be genuinely impartial and will not promote or favour certain writers over certain others?  That is, to put it mildly, a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs.

So what is to be done?   For a start, the Welsh Academy should be much more transparent about its modus operandi.  It is, after all, owned by its subscribers or members — or it should be.   Then it should use its subscription income (maybe about £12,000 per year?) and whatever other monies it has, to set up a new database of Welsh writers -- only open to those who pay for membership. It should devise a template easy for writers to use online, communicate with all its members and fellows about its proposals, and get on with this as quickly as possible. It should abandon forthwith the practice of "inviting" approved writers to become members, since that dates from some ancient era of clubby elitism which is long gone. It should encourage membership applications from all bona fide writers in Wales.  It should not accept readers, politicians, publishers, critics and other interested parties into membership, but there is no reason why Literature Wales should not keep another mailing list for supporters, politicians, booksellers, publishers and all others who want to be kept abreast of new initiatives and receive newsletters etc.  In all probability it has such a list already.

The status and fate of the Welsh Academy are matters that escaped the attention of the Independent Review of Support for Publishing and Literature in Wales, recently reported on by Prof Medwin Hughes and his Panel.  That’s a pity, since unless they assert themselves, Welsh writers will remain a part of a begging-bowl culture, subservient to large and powerful bodies like the Welsh Books Council, Arts Council Wales, and Literature Wales (if it continues in existence after 2017).

Wales deserves a fully functioning “society of Welsh writers”, and I hope that Tom Anderson (the current chair) and his Management Board can find a way forward by restoring a degree of independence from Literature Wales at a time of great change in the Welsh literary and publishing scene.


Here are four organizations / templates for writers databases in England, Ireland and Scotland.  No point in re-inventing the wheel.........

Monday, 31 July 2017

Wales Book of the Year discriminates against self-published writers

The exclusion of self-published books from the "Wales Book of the Year" competition is a serious issue which deserves attention.  I have now written to the Chief Exec of Literature Wales to ask for a change in the rules -- with copies to other interested parties.  I see no reason for keeping this letter private -- and every reason for making it public.  So here it is, as an Open Letter..........


Lleucu Siencyn
Chief Executive
Literature Wales

28th July 2017

Dear Lleucu

Apologies if you have received this before — I tried to send it about a week ago while on holiday, and the message disappeared without trace. It may have been sent, and maybe not…...

I’m writing to make a positive suggestion on an issue which should be of concern to all those who belong to the literary community in Wales. I hope you will give it serious consideration. I am also copying this letter to other interested parties, and hope that they will be supportive of the points raised.

I refer to the Wales Book of the Year competition for 2017. This is an opportune time. I note that the review commissioned by LW is now complete, and that the points raised by the consultants will be looked at in the near future, together with those raised by Prof Medwin Hughes and his panel, reporting to Minister Ken Skates.

Rule 6 in the “eligibility criteria” for the competition states that all books entered MUST be “published by an established publishing house, which is here defined as a house that publishes a list of titles by a range of authors and distributes its books through recognised booksellers. Self-published books are not eligible.”

In my view this rule is discriminatory and elitist, and should be done away with immediately. It is out of tune with the spirit of the times, given the vast changes that have occurred in Welsh publishing over the past 20 years. It also suggests that LW is unsure of the difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing -- that’s somewhat surprising, given that it promotes itself as the literature agency for Wales.

I have researched the main literary competitions in the British Isles, and I think I’m right in saying that Wales is the only country that bans self-published titles from competing for its most prestigious literary award. I fail to see the logic of this.

I well understand that some of the books that are self-published are rubbish. However, it is also a fact that many others are peer reviewed, carefully edited, produced to a high standard, distributed through WBC and sold through the Welsh book trade. Some of these titles sell in tens of thousands, attesting to their popularity and their quality. I fail to see why, as a matter of principle, self-published titles are deemed less “worthy” than the books produced by the established publishing houses of Wales.

If we look at the bulk of titles submitted as entries for WBOTY, we see that many of them are in effect vanity publications, written and published as a direct consequence of the Welsh subsidy culture which must be the envy of the rest of the world! Many of these books have very limited market appeal, and sell only a few hundred copies. They are published without commercial risk, so that writers and publishers can feel good, and they are used quite deliberately to sell the message to the world that Wales has a vibrant and prolific literary culture. A vast exercise in vanity publishing, paid for with taxpayers’ money? This might be too cynical a question, but as you know it has been asked in all seriousness by other commentators over the past few years.

If the self-publishing exclusion is removed, would there be a loss of “status” by WBOTY? Emphatically not. I would argue that a vibrant self-publishing industry, involving writers who are committed, competent, and prepared to take commercial risks, is far more accurate, as an indicator of the health of literature in Wales, than a long list of titles with no sales figures attached. Self-published writers should be recognized, not excluded.

I hope that you will see the merits of my proposal and remove Rule 6 from the eligibility criteria for WBOTY as soon as it may be convenient. I hope that this might also meet with the approval of other interested parties including the Welsh Academy, Arts Council Wales and WBC, given that in the future they will have an increased influence over the nature of the competition.

With all good wishes,


Brian John

PS. I have no need to declare in interest here. Although I count myself as a reasonably successful self-published writer, I have no titles in the offing that might be entered for WBOTY. I simply hope that a change in the rules now might help to improve the status and the sense of inclusion of the next generation of self-published writers in Wales.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

How much does Literature Wales spend on itself?

I have been doing a little research on this contentious question, as it lies at the heart of another question -- Does Literature Wales represent good value for money?

In the Medwin Hughes Review, on page 63, it states that 75% of the LW budget is spent "on its own staff's salary costs."   Prof Damian Walford Davies (the chair of LW) is furious about this, and claims that the real figure is 47%.  On that basis, he accuses the Review Panel of being incapable of examining the facts and drawing proper conclusions from them.

So what is the truth?  If we examine the Literature Wales annual accounts (which are not published on its web site, and are rather difficult to get at), we find the following figures for the  financial year ending in March 2016.

Total income for the year was £1,200,000.  Almost £100,000 was spent on "raising funds." Around £302,000 was spent on "administrative costs" and a further £51,000 on "governance costs."  Wages and salaries and associated costs totalled £541,000.  A lot of those costs are included under the heading of "charitable activities."  Grants distributed equalled about £112,000.  There are lots of other "charitable activities" listed on the accounts, including literary tourism, general audience, children and young people, fieldwork, courses, training and development, Welsh Academy, and services to writers. Under all of those categories, it is impossible to tell from the accounts how much money was spent "in house" and how much was actually spent on buying in services and products from outside.

However you look at it, the conclusion is inescapable that over £900,000 of LW's budget has been spent on staffing and associated "in house" costs, and that a remarkably small percentage of the budget has actually been disbursed "in the field" to help the writers of  Wales, in the form of grants, bursaries and other activities. 

I think the Review Panel has got its figure just about right, although it should have made it clear that the 75% figure referred to "salary and staffing costs and other in-house expenditures."

To come back to the original question, any organization that spends such a large proportion of its income on itself deserves detailed scrutiny.  After all, Literature Wales is a charity, and its income comes almost exclusively from public funds.  LW should have been better governed.  It should not be surprised if a suggestion is made by a panel (such as that chaired by Prof Medwin Hughes) that in future there might be a better way of spending £1.2 million per year on supporting literary activity in Wales. 

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Ken Skates slams personal attacks on Literature Review Panel members

It looks as if the coordinated and very aggressive response from the literary establishment to the Medwin Hughes Review has been ultimately counter-productive.  Minister Ken Skates, who appointed the Review Chairman and panel, and who commissioned the Report on Support for Welsh Literature and Publishing, has made a new statement which is itself pretty forthright:

This is also reported in The Bookseller.  Essentially, the Minister accepts that Literature Wales and its friends have a right of reply to the direct criticisms contained in the Report, but he says that that process should have taken place behind closed doors. Instead, there has been a pointed and very personal attack on Medwin Hughes and his colleagues in the social media by people intent on obtaining maximum exposure and publicity.  That, he says, has "not been helpful" -- and he pleads for a period of calm assessment in a manner that respects the protocol of such things.

He who pays the piper calls the tune -- and we can probably assume that the things that Prof Medwin Hughes and his colleagues said in the report were the things that the Minister wanted to hear.  All in all, the future is not looking bright for Literature Wales.  I wonder how long it will be before staff members start jumping ship?

Friday, 21 July 2017

Wales Book of the Year 2017 -- self-published books are banned

Literature Wales has just announced that plans are under way for the 2017 competition.  There has also been a review of the competition process (commissioned by Literature Wales itself)  -- and  a great deal of criticism of the competition and its management from the recently published Medwin Hughes Committee Report.  That committee wants the competition to have a much higher profile.  It recommended that the competition should be re-vamped, and that its organization should be taken away from Literature Wales and passed over to the Welsh Books Council.

I have been looking at the eligibility criteria for this year's competition, and am saddened that Rule 6 still states that self-published books are banned from entering.  I have raised this before, with Literature Wales and the Welsh Academy, but nothing has been done.  As far as I know, Wales is the only part of the UK in which this ban exists.  That's not something we should be proud of. 

That rule has to be changed.  It is discriminatory, elitist and an anachronism in the modern world of publishing.  We all know that there is self-published rubbish.  But there are also many brilliant self-published books in Wales, published to a high professional standard,  properly reviewed and edited, and marketed professionally.  Many of them are distributed through the WBC Distribution Centre in Aberystwyth or through independent distributors, and sell well in Welsh bookshops and further afield.  And yet these books are disqualified from entering the most prestigious of the Welsh literary competitions.  That, if I may say so, is completely crazy........

Literary Wales appears to see no difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing, which is rather strange, given that it flags itself up as "the literary agency for Wales."

Let's just remind ourselves which books ARE allowed to enter for the Wales Book of the Year Award. Well, all mainstream books published by established publishing houses and available through bookshops.  That's right and proper.  Other books about Wales or written by Welsh writers and published outside Wales. Also right and proper.  Now let's talk about vanity publishing. 

Hundreds of books published with the help of the Welsh publishing subsidy system (through payments to writers, designers and publishers) are also eligible for the competition.  Many of these have limited literary merit and would never have been published in England.  They may sell just a few hundred copies; in other words, hardly anybody wants them, buys them or reads them.  These books are published without commercial risk to the publishers;  in fact every copy printed, sold or unsold, is paid for by the taxpayer.  This is the Welsh version of vanity publishing -- an activity designed to make writers and publishers feel good, and to demonstrate to the world that Wales has a vibrant and productive literary scene.  Literature Wales justifies this vast expenditure of public money because it nurtures talent, generates new activity and occasionally throws up a writer who goes on to be very famous......

But seriously, does anybody really feel that books published through the subsidy system are by definition more worthy or respectable than those which are self-published?

I'm writing to Literature Wales and Arts Council Wales to ask that the silly "self-publishing rule" is dumped.  And the sooner the better.

PS.  Do I need to declare an interest here?  Not really -- I have no new books that might be eligible for entry in this year's competition.  So I'm not going to benefit from a rule change.  But I hope that a change in the rules might benefit other self-published authors in Wales who currently have worthy titles that deserve recognition.  Sure, I would have liked my Angel Mountain novels to have been considered for the Wales Book of the Year awards; they were after all good enough to sell more than 80,000 copies without a single penny of subsidy from the public purse.

Monday, 17 July 2017

More stick for Literature Wales

Author Jasmine Donahaye has entered the fray, with a long article published in Nation / Cymru.  It is here:

Jasmine puts many of the players in the literature / publishing game under scrutiny, and finds that there are failings on all sides.  She's not all that complimentary about the Medwin Hughes Review panel either.  But unlike the members of the literary / academic establishment who have made utterances during this spat, she is prepared to call a spade a spade:

"...........despite the report’s often intemperate voice, if its content is anything to go by, Literature Wales has had this coming for a long time.  It’s been poorly managed and poorly governed, and its accountability to its funding body, the Arts Council, has been woefully inadequate.  Perhaps the review panel ran out of vituperation after its condemnation of Literature Wales though, for precious little is saved in the report for the Arts Council, even though it is the Arts Council that has allowed Literature Wales to operate with apparent risk to public money."

"Many writers have clearly felt increasingly alienated from Literature Wales and the direction it has taken. There is no doubt that Book of the Year, and the Writers on Tour scheme, for example, need to be established on a new basis, instead of being run down year on year."

In a statement for the BBC she also said:

"Many of the comments in the report, the public submissions, comment on things which have been criticisms for quite a while.  I think a key thing is for Literature Wales now to face that criticism, address it, respond to it and re-engage with those writers who have been alienated from the organisation." 

I would endorse all of that, although I don't agree with everything that Jasmine says.  Anyway, I urge readers of this blog to look at the comments submitted by interested parties during the Review Committee's consultation process.  Some comments, naturally enough, contradict others,  but there is certainly a sense of deep dissatisfaction about the way that Lit Wales operates.   Poor governance, inadequate internal management, lack of accountability, failure to represent Welsh writers' interests, and a wildly overblown sense of its own importance are just some of the issues.  Lit Wales has taken upon itself the responsibility of deciding which Welsh writers to support and which ones to ignore.  It apparently finds it almost impossible to support self-published writers and their works,  except for small subventions now and then through the "Writers on Tour" scheme.  It does not, apparently, distinguish between self-publishing and vanity publishing, and because of its total immersion in the literary "subsidy culture" it appears to have little understanding of the commercial realities of either writing or publishing.  Without any reference to the writing community, it removed the "Writers of Wales" database and appears to have done little to bring it back to the web in a revamped form.  Add to all of that the criticisms from writer and blogger Julian Ruck of the Welsh literary "gravy train" and one has to wonder whether the public expenditure of £1.2 million per year on Literature Wales is money well spent.  Although the issue of "value for money" does not occupy a great deal of space in the Medwin Hughes Review's report, it is bound to have been one of its main considerations.


Here are some of the other written comments received by the Review Committee.  Correspondents' names are not publicised.  There are plenty of supportive comments (probably from those who have been supported!) but these are some of the critical comments that deserve an airing:

Literature Wales does a number of very good things but it is too fragmented and too vulnerable to the whims of Welsh Government policy.

The remit of the organisation is confused and confusing. It does not represent writers' interests, nor does it promote writers. It is not a writers' agency. Indeed many writers object loudly and persistently to its focus on literary tourism, its downgrading of Book of the Year, and its popular projects that have little bearing on current writers and the promotion of their work. The Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl projects are nothing to do with current Welsh writers or their work. In fact they have served to eclipse Welsh writers, and reinforce internationally narrow and limited view of Welsh literature. 

Big branding projects such as celebrating dead authors connected to Wales are not working in the long term. They look backwards in time, they are top-down, and in the case of Roald Dahl they make Wales look desperate because they seem to want to rub off some of a great international writer’s shine onto Wales and looks as if we don’t have a contemporary scene. Of course there are piecemeal efforts to include contemporary writers in these projects but the main aim seems to be about associating Wales with existing older brands. This model could be pretty damaging in the long-run.

The money Lit Wales spends on activities associated with long-dead writers. Whilst I have no problem whatsoever in celebrating Wales' rich and diverse literary culture, and in bringing its writers to new audience, I do question the value of the Dylan Thomas centenary (and the now annual Dylan Day) and the Dahl centenary. This seems to me thinly disguised tourism, centred almost solely in South Wales, which supports already wealthy literary estates, while the development of new talent and the sustainability of the publishers face cuts after cuts. Lit Wales does some brilliant, important work, but this policy of giving money to the dead is very short-sighted. The impact on further cuts to Welsh publishing as a result of this will have a long-term cost to literary culture in Wales, particularly for the next Dylan Thomases.

The services (especially Literature Wales) are not joined up and do not seem to work in a grassroots consultative way with the whole scene. This means resources are wasted because they don’t take advantage of the talent and connections already working in the field and often it seems LW promote poor quality work because they are not able to reach out to the scene and find what is working and seem competitive rather than collaborative.

I cannot see the pathways from Literature Wales' bursaries to the Welsh publishers. There could potentially be a more connected partnership, particularly where emerging writers are concerned, that extends beyond the bursary and critical mentoring into support for first publication.

Literature Wales is not really working as well as it should. It is only really good at promoting itself. It needs a new vision, a different kind of leadership in order to be properly collaborative, responsive and imaginative.

The Lit Wales website needs revamping, it is old fashioned, it makes it difficult to find out how and when or even if the bursaries are available and it could be a lot more active on social media.

There are some schemes run by Literature Wales that fund writers directly, and encourage writing from a young age, and these should be the core projects. There are times when a showcase for writers is useful, but it's of limited value if we're not encouraging new writers and readers.

Literary festivals, and I am thinking particularly of Dinefwr, should have more literature and comparatively less popular music and reliance on 'stars' to bring in the punters. Careful thought should be given to what literature festivals are actually for.

There should be far less emphasis on 'competitions'. There is a place for one or two such as the Wales Book of the Year or the John Tripp prize for spoken poetry but the apparently endless proliferation of them devalues the whole art of writing. Writers should encouraged to engage readers, not strive to win competitions. Selling books is a finer achievement than winning prizes and does more to raise the profile of writers in Wales.

Literature Wales' bursaries for writers scheme is not responsive to the needs of writers. The length of time between making an application for funding and getting a decision, is too long. A faster scheme for smaller projects - say 1 month - would be much more writer friendly. 

Tŷ Newydd seems to be heading for privatisation under Literature Wales who seem to be looking for ways to make money out of through tourism and corporate events in order to recoup their losses because their courses are not full and the centre is unsustainable if it is not run properly (which it has been in the past). But it was a resource that was bought specifically for the writers of Wales, most of whom do not get its benefits because they cannot afford to visit. Who is now able to enjoy it? It seems mostly Literature Wales staff and well-off would-be writers. Perhaps a more co-operative model could be devised to make sure that the grassroots readers and writers can also benefit from it but also be a part of making it work - e.g. have a stake in its running.

The Writers on tour scheme is too cumbersome and poorly funded to achieve its aims. Literature Wales appears to focus on educational (school) initiatives and young writers rather than the writer community as a whole.

Get rid of Literature Wales and probably the whole Arts Council - consult, design and develop a new strategy to support literature in Wales (if necessary) - then consult design and develop some more - get *new* constituencies of people - especially writers and artists who are outside the core cabals.

Literature Wales has been made less effective and more bureaucratic by its reorganisation and the role of writers in it has been diminished. The semi-detachment of Academi from it has weakened the position of writers, and the abandoning of AGMs for Academi has deprived writers of an important forum. Cuts in funding for Writers on Tour are a major blow.

The value of Literature Wales is difficult to evaluate.

There is still an awful lot of creativity in the sector and when organisers and curators focus on quality - something that Literature Wales sometimes doesn’t seem able to do - some amazing things can happen. But as with anything in the current market economy, development is limited.

Literature Wales rarely publishes local events of reading series that do not adhere to a certain (unknown) mandate. Several highly interesting and well-known authors that have read in Cardiff received no notice.

Literature Wales only seems to work in Cardiff, Gwynedd (Ty Newydd) and wherever the Eisteddfod is. I cannot remember the last time I saw a LW event in West or Mid Wales. It is notable that the poetry scene is more connected in a community than the fiction scene (through my observations) - probably because of the distribution of live events.

We need a writers' organisation that is either separate from Literature Wales, or a Literature Wales that supports and promotes living, working writers. The Writers on Tour support has been cut so much as to make it difficult or impossible for many venues to pay writers for events; writers themselves will often find themselves out of pocket for events because of the poor fees payable and the poor rates of travel reimbursement. At the very least to show support for writers, the portion paid by Literature Wales should be returned to its previous level. Literature Wales needs to reassess its priorities, and shift funding from the big-scale literary spectacle and literary tourism to instead support sustainable levels of support and promotion of writers.

A lot of money from what I can see, goes towards promoting books via live events within Wales. Having seen an ad for the Art Tent in the Eisteddfod in The London Review of books recently made me wonder why welsh books aren't promoted that way - to a very broad spectrum of readers outside Wales? I feel that the live events are often poorly attended and are made up of those people who are all ready in the know.

The Welsh Academy & Literature Wales & the Welsh Government are all too close --- a bit of creative friction would produce a better result. The Welsh Literary Establishment appears as a clique ---- the same names featuring again and again with a tendency to endorse celebrity culture. There should be an effort towards democratisation. The outcomes would be more people being and feeling involved.

I would do things 100 per cent differently. Do not pander to the subsidy-junkies because they cannot, meaningfully, provide useful large-scale employment to the publishing sector. Target large London publishing houses to set up back office, even front office, operations here. This is exactly the approach that the Welsh government is taking in relation to professional services - and it has borne fruit. These are real, high value, tangible jobs, that are self sustaining. Attract the social media companies to set up publishing hubs in the city - the Buzzfeeds, the Facebooks, the Huffington Posts of this world. This involves selling and marketing to these operations, not simply shovelling cash to established, vested, interests.

I don't think English language fiction and non-fiction should be subsidised - they should be subjected to market forces. Whilst this would reduce the amount and nature of what is published, overall it should improve quality via proper editing and reduce the number of niche works by the same old names.

There is a clique of the same writers who receive a disproportionate amount of support/publication subsidy.There should be more attempts to publish and promote emerging writers on a national level.

The Welsh publishing industry is very heavily subsidised, to the extent that many books are published which would never have seen the light of day in England. That is because across the border publishers do not, by and large, publish books if they do not think they will sell and turn a profit. They have to carry the risks. In Wales, in contrast, many publishers inhabit a comfort zone in which subsidies enable them to publish books which hardly anybody actually wants -- and which will never repay their costs via sales. In other words, they are entirely non-commercial, and are products of a system entirely dependent upon subsidies and grants. It's easy to say: "Ah yes, we need those books anyway, because we need a vibrant publishing industry and because these books help us to define ourselves as a nation." But do we really need (and can we really afford?) a flood of non-commercial titles in Wales?

 Actual sales figures for books in Wales are seldom publicised. That is because it suits everybody to keep as quiet as possible. It is widely known that in Wales a book is counted as a "best seller" if it sells 700 copies. At that level, if the publishers were operating in a real commercial world, a book might just about cover its costs -- there is no way it could be considered as a best-seller.

The WBC grant aid programme for publishers specifically excludes aid to small publishers which are run by writers and which are in effect self-publishing enterprises. In other words, there is no attempt to differentiate between self-publishing and vanity publishing. This is not very sophisticated! I have published an 8-novel saga (set in West Wales) which has racked up sales of over 80,000 copies -- which means that the books are professionally produced and well enough written to have become highly successful. But I received no financial help from WBC. That was rather galling when I see grant aid being dished out to scores of titles that have sold hardly at all........ if I had received grant aid, I would have been able to put much more effort into marketing, design and publicity. (This comment was from me)

Self-published books are also barred from competitions, according to the current rules. So my main fiction title, which has sold over 35,000 copies, could not be entered and could not compete on a level playing field with other titles of lower quality and more limited appeal. (This comment was from me)

Need to be more Commercial

The main challenges faced are those of developing a viable commercial model. The sector (apart from Accent Press) is almost entirely reliant on a grant system which in effect keeps large areas of publishing skill at 'amateur' level. With poor editors, authors remain poor in terms of skill and ability. With no real free-market testing or accountability, publishing is shielded from being competitive, with publishers instead choosing to chase (often pointless and self-promoted) awards as a success criteria instead of sales. The funding model means most publishers in Wales are actually incentivised NOT to sell lots of copies of a book, as this would leave them with a tougher case to make for winning the next grant. The whole scene is doomed to amateurism and as a result cannot produce a product capable of selling outside of Wales, and often not even capable of selling within Wales. I know no system like it in the world.

I wonder if a little more exposure to the hard commercial world might actually make the Welsh publishing scene a bit leaner and more efficient, without in any way threatening our civilisation and our great Welsh cultural traditions? For example, just to encourage publishers and writers to think a bit more seriously about what the market actually wants, and to take marketing rather more seriously, it might be rather a good idea to insist that if a book sells fewer than 1,000 copies in its first two years, any grants and subsidies paid must be paid back.......... and by that I mean REAL sales, involving real money, and excluding all returns.

Literature promotion agencies, grant-giving bodies and distributors within Wales need to ensure they understand the realities of the global publishing trade to target resources as effectively as possible at publishers as well as at readers and writers.

Cultural and Economic impact of the industry

The key challenge is the contradiction between cultural imperative and economic realities. Like any nation, Wales needs a thriving publishing industry that provides a platform for its own specific cultural output; to document its own history, its specific cultural heritage and traditions, in both languages.

Both the publishing sector and Literature Wales face the challenge of popular and government arguments about accessibility and value for money. Though both involve economic activity, and publishing supports a wide network of jobs, the value of cultural activity needs to be protected. It's indicative that where we once had a Culture Minister, the culture portfolio, which includes literature and publishing, is now a minor part of the Economy portfolio.

Balance between both languages

 Looking inwards the balance between the two main languages is always an area of debate. In theory English language literature and culture has the Anglophone world as its potential market while Welsh language authors need support due the limits of the audience. But Anglophone culture has to fight for a space in a crowded field, while the Welsh language community continues to support its authors and writers by buying their books. Parity is, I think, key.  Culture can function as means of uniting the nation across lines of language and background.