The last time I was in Edinburgh was in 2005. The university hosts the Centre for the History of the Book and I was attending their rather grandly-entitled conference Material Cultures and the Creation of Knowledge. Looking back at the programme I see sessions on typography, libraries, marginalia, commonplace books, dissemination and several on reading communities. I was there because I was ‘giving a paper’ (quaint terminology) on an obscure nineteenth century evangelical newspaper.
It was a major academic event with scholars from all over the world but it was the antithesis of the literary festival. There was no focus at all on writers Yes, there were some bigwigs of the cultural history world – Robert Darnton, Juliet Gardiner, Peter Burke, Laurel Brake – but this was an event that was books minus creators, minus the personalisation that’s at the heart of the festival.
I find it hard, when I’m asked what I do, to answer confidently ‘I am a writer.’ The few books that I’ve written do make me happy. There is a trilogy of sailing stories (The Salt-Stained Book, A Ravelled Flag and Ghosting Home), a published biography (The Adventures of Margery Allingham) and another forthcoming (Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory). Writing, however, is only one part of my occupation. Apart from the first incarnation of the Margery Allingham biography, which was published conventionally by Wm Heinemann Ltd, all these books have been home-published. This means that I’ve chosen their covers, talked to the designer, discussed their typefaces and the placing of the illustrations, sent them to the printers, received them home again, marketed them, distributed them, sold them, stored them. These books are thoroughly material objects, commodities in the Marxist sense.
I have also expended my labour on new editions of Cheapjack by Philip Allingham and The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham. These are wonderful and unusual memoirs by two writers who were born-to-the-trade. Yet I feel that those two Golden Duck editions of their works are also, in some sense, mine. Then there was the PhD. I wrote 100,000 words of text, yet it’s probably the appendices that represent the main achievement. I spent hours (hours? months or years, I should say!) of archive research compiling a catalogue of work by an anonymous and forgotten hack, Herbert Allingham. It was onerous but exciting, constructive as well as geeky. Perhaps it felt like a detective investigation.
When I was a village bookseller, long ago, I did local, small-scale publishing. There were four volumes of essays by elderly Essex people that I published in support of the charity Age Concern: When I Was a Child, Yesterday’s Heroes, The Last All-Clear, In Those Days. I was the editor and publisher, not the writer of these books, and when I look at them now I see how many mistakes I made in their presentation. Yet I feel almost as imaginatively involved in those earlier books, as I do for the recent books where I provided all the words.
I wonder whether this is partly to do with the way that the words you write seem to change their character once they are published? They are like the children who have left home – you don’t possess them any more (if you ever did possess them, but that’s another question, both about children and about words). There’s still the uncomfortable awareness that your parenting was inadequate and all their personality faults can probably be laid at your door but once they have left home (or been published) they take their virtues with them. They seem to have become detached – at least this is my experience. You reread them with slight surprise – did I write this? Is this large, inarticulate, hairy monster my sweet baby?
I find that the books I’ve produced for publication give me a different, more tangible pleasure – or otherwise. I can look at them and yes, I do think that illustration’s in just the right place; mmm … I’ve always liked that typeface; drat, how could I have missed those typos? There’s a lot of material labour goes into a book, quite apart from the words. I’m only gradually learning the craft of epublishing but being an independent book publisher does sometimes feel like a creative process as well as solid hard work.
Many of the writers who will be appearing at the main Edinburgh Book Festival will have been separate from the production stages of their work. They will have handed their latest opus to their agent or editor, possibly been asked for an opinion on the cover (or not), answered the copy editor’s questions, checked the proofs and got on with the next project – whilst responding to any publicity department requests to appear at literary festivals, book-signings etc. ‘I am a writer’ they can say, professionally.
How does this work for participants in the independent ebook festival? Differently again, I would say. And differently for each person too. For many of us indie-publishing has been a process of re-integrating ourselves with our labours. People who have previously experienced the conventional publication of their work are discovering the more holistic pleasures – and pains – of taking the whole process under their own control. An ebook remains a thoroughly material commodity even though it’s no longer per se tangible. E-writers are also having to discover new ways to interact with each other and with readers now that they are no longer stocked in high street shops or invited to appear at the conventional literary festivals. Thanks to the Indie e-Book Review for hosting this alternative venue.
I can’t remember hearing anything about electronic formats at the Material Cultures conference back in 2005 though that might be simply that I didn’t attend the relevant sessions. I can’t see anything specific on the programme. There was, however, a lot of interest in the historical geography of the book – I remember the fascination (though not, I’m ashamed to say, the detail) of a presentation that connected various titles and types of publication to the spread of settlers across North America and how this changed with the building of the railways. Epublishing is dramatically changing the geography of the book and the composition of reading communities. I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the 2105 Material Cultures conference to hear what those academics say about what’s happening today.
Will they still bother travelling to Edinburgh to convene in person? We’re already in the world of virtual conferences and on-line festivals. Here we are, sitting at home, attending one. Yet the editor of the IEBR believes that people / writers are important and that we need and enjoy the sort of personalisation that a 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival attendee would expect. And I think I agree with her.
So get on and introduce yourself, Julia, she might reasonably say. If you’re not sure you’re a writer, what do you think you’re doing in this space?
Would it be okay to answer that I’m a Jill-of-all-trades: a former bookseller, a researcher, an editor, a writer and self-publisher (self-publiciser as well, I suppose)? Could I perhaps present this as going back a historical stage before the alienation of the writer’s labour and the fragmentation of the printing-publishing process?
Scotland has an admirable tradition of referring to artists as ‘makers’. But I’m a southerner. I thought today that I’d badge myself a ‘booksmith’. Thanks for inviting me to this event.
Julia also features in Golden Duck@the Festival (Aug 12th)
Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fifty-Years-Fiction-Factory-Allingham/dp/1899262075/