BLOG Gwen Davies and Nigel Jarrett

NWR Issue 97

Debate on Funded Magazines and Publishers in Wales

Nigel Jarrett, author: I just read a confession by a reasonably well-known (English) writer who said short story collections didn’t sell unless they were by William Trevor or Edna O’Brien and that having stories published in literary magazines guaranteed that even fewer would, though perhaps more than if the story were part of a collection. But I’ll still put collections together and send unsolicited tales to magazine editors sombre and obscure for no reciprocal emolument - a fiver from the miller for the provider of corn.

Personally, I wouldn’t start a magazine unless I could pay my contributors. The only reason that most magazines don’t pay is that not enough readers subscribe to provide the income. I once had a story published in a magazine with a circulation of thirty-seven (as I later found out). So acceptance can be as meaningless and as insignificant as rejection, though it looks good on your CV. American magazines pay fortunes, but also receive ten thousand submissions a day from people who've read Catcher in the Rye and remain astonished at how John Updike managed to occupy an office at the New Yorker.

In the UK, Alan Dent, editor of the Penniless Press, has tried publishing contributions anonymously on the grounds that it’s the words that count, not the author; but idealism is no match for a writer’s vanity. As his authors don’t get paid, this clearly posed no administrative problems. Alan also has little truck with copyright, believing that the whole world should be able to read poetry and fiction for free. So why do we go through the bother and anxiety of trying to get a book published when few will read it or remember our name? What is the point of publishing and being paid for writing in the Age of the Internet? Why don’t we just write, float our efforts anonymously into cyberspace and tell readers that if they’re interested in who wrote them they can have a contact number? We could then do something useful, like driving the community bus, merchant banking or working for the NHS. A whole industry would be freed to do good works. There’d be enough employees at Random House to hack at a quarry. That’s me done, signing off as Devil's Advocate, with tongue firmly implanted in cheek.

Gwen Davies, NWR editor responds: Surely the relationship between publishing a story in a literary magazine prior to its appearance in a collection is beneficial, ie it has a promotional role? And it means the authors gets paid twice for the story, also a good thing? NWR does pay its authors although I wish it were much more and that rates hadn’t remained frozen for some years now due to budgetary constraints. What, I wonder, do you mean by ‘magazine editors sombre and obscure’? I would agree with you about subscription income and relate it more specifically to a magazine’s pool of contributors – we absolutely rely on the writers we support by supporting us in turn; otherwise one morning that outlet they took for granted (or even enjoyed imagining feeling excluded from) may evaporate with the dew. Regarding US magazines, I heard that they are less likely to pay writers than those in the UK? And of course, payment by academic journals for online and print content is notorious for being meagre or absent. In relation to online content, NWR does not pay for such contributions. We find ourselves in the odd situation of being pressured by funders to increase an online presence and content but without the additional funding to pay such contributors. Since there is no (nor is unlikely ever to be) a pay-wall formula for selling online content (e-pub and apps being another matter), we are unable to raise an income from it. Which begs the question how fair is it that funders continue to expect development in this direction (ie online, not digital content)? Towards the end of your comments, Nigel, you start to become gloomy (even sombre). There isn’t much money in literary publishing – that’s why we still need, and should never feel ashamed of needing, public subsidy.

Nigel Jarrett, author: You cover all the points, as usual. But I’m astonished that you’ve not come across magazine editors of the sombre and obscure persuasion. You can add ‘eccentric’ to that. You obviously haven’t sent off as many stories and poems as I have and had communication from what I can only describe as a redoubt. In my Funderland story, ‘In The Beginning’, there’s a fond parody (I only do ‘fond’) of such an editor, who sends notes on torn-up garlic-capsule packets. It’s not far from the truth. One editor told me that he’d forgotten about my two-year old submission because he’d developed a drink problem and had closed down the magazine, such as it was. I loved ‘developed’. The reference in my Welsh Short Story Network post to a magazine with 37 readers is true. All these experiences I’ve enjoyed, and made it impossible for me to be in thrall to agents, magazine editors and book publishers. Writing is independent of them and I’ll go on doing it, the writing ‘community’ notwithstanding. Your expression ‘pool of contributors’ amused me: my angling friends tell me that carp in a private fishery grow huge and slovenly because, despite being regularly hooked out of the water for their picture to be snapped, they take up more and more room and oxygen, preventing the immersion of incoming fry. As I said, I’m not against subsidy; but I am against a refusal to acknowledge the serious problems it raises. It’s taxpayers’ money, after all, and an enclosed community should not be in charge of it. And if any Welsh book publisher, subsidised or not, wants to publish me tonight, I’ll accept, as long as the advance arrives before the book.

Gwen Davies, NWR editor: My experience of the subsidised book publishers in Wales is that they are so poorly paid some of them end up working for more than one employer at the same time, reducing the chance that a new submission is assessed with fresh eyes and a different editorial taste to the one you encountered in your last submission. This is an argument for more subsidy, not less. Or one for reducing costs in order to pay for real employee loyalty by merging publishing houses - but that does nothing to address the need for diversity of editorial taste. I have done the submissions rounds as an author/translator and do know it's hard to be rejected, but authors must be very careful to distinguish their own hard (and hopefully temporary) feelings of exclusion from any perceived ‘inner circle’ or ‘carp pool’ (feelings, I could argue, that approach paranoia in the most extreme cases) from the realities affecting publishers and authors. These are: a recession, the poor Welsh economy that has traditionally lacked a moneyed upper-middle class (the class from which London publishers grew); the lack of a daily broadsheet reviewing culture; the competition for readers’ attention by the online and digital world. The list goes on - and it’s mainly peopled by social, technological and economic factors rather than any conspiracy, stitch-up or systematic failing of the hard-pressed, dedicated workers of the publishing industry in this country. Wales has enough enemies - why must we always fight amongst ourselves? Between ‘Fifty Shades of Gross Dross’ and the onward march of Random Penguin, surely we can pick a more deserving target than our own backsides?

Nigel Jarrett, author: Agree with the sense if not the detail of all this except the implication that we writers care a toss or find rejection necessarily annoying. Disappointing, yes; but if A doesn’t want it, send to B. And I’m not a conspiracy theorist; to be one of those you have to have something secretive and illusory to complain about rather than a flawed system that’s there for everyone to see. Popper said he had more to fear from someone who accused him of being a conspiracy theorist than from conspiracy theorists themselves - or, indeed, from the actual conspirators. I also understand that if you’re an editor and all the stuff submitted to you, preferably sight unseen, always turns out to be from the same 25 writers, then it’s going to look like an exclusive ‘pool’ (your word). Don’t understand your bit about class and publishers and a ‘daily broadsheet reviewing culture’: the Guardian and the Telegraph and the Times don’t stop at the border. As far as I know they have no anti-Welsh, anti-Irish or anti-Scottish bias in reviewing ‘culture’ - quite the reverse, though they are published in London. Great city. Cosmopolitan. Lots of different and equivalent voices. No partisan shite.

Gwen Davies, NWR editor: My reference to class and publishers was to the greater amount of capital behind our longer established London publishers. Glad you’re not a conspiracy theorist! Regarding a ‘pool’, I see my remit as magazine editor to support a stable of writers and also to leave the stable door open to new fillies (cue joke about bolting stallions). Malcolm Ballin, the expert of small magazines in the UK and Ireland, asserts that they provide an historical ‘snapshot of a nation’s mindset’ at any given point; if publishing becomes too obsessed with the periphery (the new, the passing through, the frankly uninterested), then the core is weakened. Commissioning for NWR is more important than responding to unsolicited submissions, in this respect, although both roles are essential. In response to repeated banging of the ‘taxpayers’ money’ drum (not yourself specifically but in the wider debate), have we all swallowed Cameron’s tonsils so that we start crowing his catchphrases? Why should an employeed steelworker’s opinion count more than an unpaid full-time mother’s? Why should we be ashamed of the important, educational, cultural services publishers provide to authors and readers, any more than we are ashamed of other public services paid through taxes such as firemen, librarians or teachers? And finally, in reference to broadsheet reviewing, it’s extremely hard as a small, independent publisher (wherever you are based) to make it into the London reviews pages as often and exactly when your titles need the oxygen. We all still keep trying, though, and need to support each other in our efforts, not keep knocking them as seems to be Julian Ruck’s crusade. Now: must fetch my garlic capsules, I’ve some rejections to send out!


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