Harriet Paige, English graduate from The University of Warwick has recently published her debut novel - Man With A Seagull on His Head (Bluemoose Books). In an interview with The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead, Harriet recalls a former tutor telling her that it was unlikely she’d be published by the time she turned 40.
Professor Maureen Freely, Head of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick, also taught Harriet and is hugely proud of her achievement. She was one of her first students and already writing brilliantly as an undergraduate. Below, Maureen discusses being a new writer in a changed marketplace.
How long does it take for a new writer to become a published one? When I was starting out in the 1980s, the answer was as long as a piece of string. The important thing was to have written something that the middle-aged gatekeepers of the publishing world found promising. But this was just the first step on a very high ladder. Your ascent depended on reviews in all the best newspapers, displays in all the best bookstores, and middle-aged word of mouth. The expectation was that you would continue maturing as a writer while you made the slow and poorly paid climb, until the day you published the prize-winning breakthrough book that allowed you to give up the day job. By which time you were most probably entering middle age yourself.
It’s a very different world today. The middle-aged no longer control the business. Yes, we dominate the ever more vertical world of mainstream publishing, as well as the ever-shrinking stock of quality bookstores and the ever-thinner pages of the literary press. But the field is full of independent start-ups whose books are featuring more and more prominently on prize shortlists. And the ether is swarming with blogs and journals and a host of other digitalia that connect interested young readers with interesting young writers.
But what about the famous houses that you still see prominently displayed at Waterstones? There’s more to that than meets the eye. Constrained as they are by business models and profit margins, they have had no choice but to favour the famous name, the strong, un-put-down-able narrative, and the book that echoes the plot of the novel that everyone was reading on the train last summer. More and more, mainstream publishing depends on the independents to come up with the talent, and when they do, the reviews on Amazon will mean as much if not more than the one in the Guardian. The same holds true for the growing numbers who are self-publishing, or publishing online on platforms they have helped to found.
What this means, then, is that a new writer wishing to connect with new readers has a great deal more to work with than I did when I was starting out. And they are able to do so without having to please an older generation first. I would say I was jealous, if it weren’t for the fact that much of the best fiction I read these days is by writers who weren’t even alive – weren’t even twinkles in someone’s eye - when I got my first contract.
Professor Maureen Freely represents the University of Warwick on The Sunday Times/ Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writers Award and is instrumental in developing Warwick’s In Association partnership with the prize. Maureen has also worked with the Warwick Writing Programme since 1996. Currently the Head of the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, she is, as President of English PEN, active in various national and international campaigns to champion free expression. As the former chair of the Translators Association, she also works with campaigns aiming to promote world literature in English translation.