Category Archives: Writing Wales
This week saw the announcement of the winners of the Wales Book prize. It should have been an occasion to celebrate the finest work by authors from Wales writing in the Welsh or English language, but instead the event has been tainted by a dispute over sales figures for the winning books.
Neilsen – a company specialising in market research and measurement – disclosed that half of the books on the shortlist had sold less than 100 copies. According to Nielsen:
- The overall winner, Diary of the Last Man by the poet Robert Minhinnick, had sales figures of just over 200
- All that is Wales (a collection of essays byM Wynn Thomas) which won the English language creative non-fiction award, sold 34 copies up to June this year
The English language fiction award winner, Crystal Jean’s Switches Are My Kryptonite achieved sales of 49 copies.
Wales-based publishers have been quick to dispute the figures, complaining that Neilsen failed to take account of sales from small independent bookshops and book fairs. They’ve also criticised BBC Wales for placing too much weight on Neilsen’s assessment.
Are the publishers correct and we are reading too much into this data?
Maybe not. Poetry collections tend to see lower sales than fictional works but realistically even when the additional sales are taken into account for the fictional works, there is little evidence that these books are attracting readers in any significant number. The best-selling title on the shortlist reached just 4,000 sales. Still very modest.
It’s hard not to sympathise with the authors and their publishers who are now feeling bruised by this debacle. All the locally based publishers are modest sized businesses with equally modest marketing budgets so they pick their authors carefully and nurture them well, often focusing on a niche. But it’s a struggle for them to get the attention of mainstream media for these books. As Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, said in an interview with me last year, the Welsh book scene doesn’t have anywhere near the presence and visibility enjoyed by authors from Scotland or Ireland.
Even more worrying, the book sellers in Wales don’t seem to be throwing anywhere near enough weight behind local authors. Last week I was in a Waterstones book store in Cardiff (the capital city of Wales). This is the only dedicated book shop in the centre of the city. Did they have any display promoting the Wales Book of the Year? None that I could see (unless maybe it was buried in the deepest recesses of the shop somewhere between the sections on how to care for your pet dragon and macrame for idiots). If a store like this doesn’t promote indigenous writing, why should we expect sellers in England or Scotland to do so?
The owner of Octavo’s bookshop, an independent seller in Cardiff, said in response to Neilsen’s figures that more needed to be done to bring books like these to the attention of the reading public. She suggested reading groups, extracts in magazines etc. All good ideas but, I don’t see that it’s nearly enough. Unless the big boys get behind these publishers and authors and give them shelf space, they’ll face many years on the fringe.
Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus i chi!
March 1 is St David’s Day in Wales —St David being our patron saint — so usually a day for celebration of all things Welsh. The celebrations will be very muted this year however with schools closed and concerts cancelled because of Storm Emma, so I thought I would mark the occasion by highlighting some new books from authors and publishers based in Wales.
One Woman Walks Wales. Ursula Martin is a remarkable account of a courageous woman. After a cancer diagnosis and then Ursula Martin was too weak to walk more than a few steps. But she is a determined woman so she set a goal to walk the four miles to her nearest post box every day. Her progress was so slow drivers would stop to offer her a lift. She persevered.
Her next goal was even more ambitious: to walk the 200 miles to her follow up appointment with the medical team. Coming out of the meeting, she headed back home on foot. And then just kept walking…..
In 17 months, she walked the length and breadth of Wales, across its beaches, up and down the coastal paths, through mountains, farms and urban sprawl.
One Woman Walks Wales is publsihed by Honno. If you order direct from their site they will make a donation of £1 to the Target Ovarian Cancer charity.
Also coming soon from Honno is Albi by Hilary Shepherd which is set in Spain in 1930s. The Civil War turns everything upside down for nine-year-old Albi and his family. They are under siege from outside and held captive by secrets within the home. Albi must sometimes close his ears and his eyes if he is to survive.
Seren Books have a strong poetry collection, the newest addition to which is The Glass Aisle by Paul Henry. It features twenty eight poems including an elergy to displaced workhouse residents, set on a stretch of canal in the Brecon Beacons National Park. A performance version of The Glass Aisle, featuring songs co-written with fellow musician and songwriter Brian Briggs, (‘Stornoway’), is currently touring festivals. More details can be found on the Seren website.
I mentioned another of their recent publications May by Naomi Krüger in my recent Bookends post. It’s a novel written from the perspective of a woman with dementia who is trying to piece together the fragments of her memory. Definitely one I am going to be buying.
Welsh publisher, Parthian, is offering Hummingbird by Tristan Hughes, a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wales. Born in Ontario, he spent his childhood on th Welsh island of Ynys Mon. Hummingbird, his fourth novel takes him back to Canada, to a remote location where fifteen-year-old Zachary Tayler lives a lonely and isolated life with his father. One summer the enigmatic Eva Spiller arrives in search of the remains of her parents and together they embark on a strange and disconcerting journey of discovery. This novel won the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award for 2018. More details are on the Parthian website.
It’s been a long time since I last did one of my Bookend posts. Not sure why I stopped doing them. Maybe I was travelling and didn’t get the time to write them for a few weekends and just got out of the habit. Or maybe I just ran out of steam.
But Simon’s weekend miscellany posts at Stuck in a Book have given me the motivation to give Bookends another go. In its original incarnation, Bookends was a round up of miscellaneous bookish news. I’m going to streamline this a bit and in future each post will consist of just three things that have caught my attention, aroused my curiosity; stimulated my interest
- a book
- a blog post and
- an article
Book: May by Naomi Krüger
Here in Wales we will be celebrating our patron saint’s day (St David) next week. So it seems very appropriate to highlight a new title from Seren, one of the independent publishers in Wales. May is the debut novel of Naomi Krüger, creative co-director of the North West Literary Salon and a lecturer in creative writing. It caught my attention because it’s written from the perspective of a woman with dementia who is trying to piece together the fragments of her memory. I’m currently reading and loving Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon which is also about an elderly woman and her past. I also enjoyed Emma Healey’s debut novel Elizabeth is Missing, which had an octogenarian narrator. Maybe Naomi Krüger’s novel will complete my hat trick? May is published by Seren on March 12. Details are on their website here https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/may
To whet your appetite, here is the blurb:
The door to the past has been locked to May but fragments of memories still remain: a boy running on the green, his fiery hair, a letter without a stamp, a secret she promised not to tell. She can’t piece together the past or even make sense of the present, but she revisits what she knows again and again. The boy, the letter, the secret. She can’t grasp what they mean, but maybe the people she’s loved and lost can uncover the mystery of the red-headed boy and his connection to May.
Blog post: Anticipating the Man Booker International Prize List
The longlist for the Man Booker International Prize will be announced on March 12. Tony Messenger has put together his own wishlist; titles that he thinks will be on the judges’ list; or should be. Do you agree with his predictions?
Article: In Praise of Negative Book Reviews
In the journal The Baffler, author and columnist Rafia Zakaria argues the case for more negative book reviews. “The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery”, she claims, consisting of “vapid and overblown praise”. She doesn’t give any examples unfortunately or cite the offending publications but I can’t say I’ve noticed a preponderance of “forced and foppish praise” in the newspaper review sections I read. Have you?