Learning at Luath

A week ago I did a one-week placement at Luath Press, an independent Scottish publisher specialising in ‘well written books worth reading’. Here’s what I learnt:

Publishing’s a complex business…

Luath publish approximately 40-50 titles a year, of which only 10-20 are unsolicited manuscripts that come from a large pool of submitted work. They sell to chain and independent bookshops across Scotland, and as they publish many local history and guide books, through tourist gift shops when not in lockdown. They also always push for a UK and international reach for appropriate books; Gavin, the director at Luath showed me several copies of Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey, one of their most successful recent books, all translated into different languages.  

I really love proofreading

I started off my placement reading through Activism for Life, Angie Zelter’s forthcoming memoir-cum-handbook about her life as a peace activist. Its release date coincides with International Women’s Day, so the team were busy putting the final touches on her manuscript to send it to the printers the following week. Since taking Publishing Writing A last year, I’ve edited and proofread for friends but working on a published book was a step up. I was told the majority of my comments were used, so making an already brilliant book a little bit tidier was immensely satisfying.

It’s all about the audience

After reading Angie’s book, I set about writing an advance information sheet, press release and book blurb. Gavin was on hand to point out that each of these had a different audience and therefore needed to say different things. Sounds obvious, but this helped me to tailor each piece: AIs are for booksellers, so they need to convince them there is an audience out there for the book; a blurb is for the reader so needs to entice them in; a press release is for the media so it needs to be attention-grabbing and relevant to current issues. I worked on these simultaneously, dropping the sentences in the document that most fitted that audience, thinking carefully about what was appropriate where. Of all of these, I found the blurb easiest, which should come as no surprise as I have far more experience browsing bookshelves than I do as a newspaper editor or bookseller. It was a real boost to my confidence when Gavin said he would use some of my words on the real book jacket, but I got some good feedback for the other documents too.

My work is better than I think it is

My work got really positive feedback, and most of it I thought was terrible. I did a recorded zoom interview with Angie and was fretting that I was awkward and the sound was awful but Eilidh, the Sales and Marketing Co-ordinator who would be editing it and posting on social media said I came across well and established great rapport with the author.

Being a beginner is exhausting

I was completely frazzled by Friday. I’d added so much new information into my brain and worked really hard to do a good job with all the work I was set. This realisation helped me to emapthise with the 7 social work students I was to supervise the following Monday at my day job!

Work placements are about balance

I was prepared for the work placement to be more useful to me than it was for Luath, and that it was unlikely that my work would be used. But of course, I secretly hoped that my work would be to a standard that was useable. I was given a range of activities which gave me the benefits of both ends of that scale; writing a reader report for Activism for Life taught me a huge amount about how to assess a book quickly and succinctly, which was great preparation for the other tasks but of course wasn’t useful for a book about to go to the printers. But doing things to a useable standard was a huge boost to my confidence, which is just as important for me at the moment as cold hard knowledge.

I’m really excited for what’s next

My experience at Luath was a fascinating insight into how a manuscript gets from a writer’s desk into a reader’s hands. It also it gave me the confidence and insight to identify where my skills might align with parts of that process, and where I want to go next in my adventures in publishing.

As I type, I am negotiating a second work placement at Peepal Tree Press in Leeds. They are another independent publisher, but specialise in Caribbean and diaspora writers. There’s a real buzz around what they are doing at the moment after one of their books, The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey won the Costa book of the year.

Because of my time at Luath, I have a much better idea of what to ask to work on at Peepal Tree. I got a glimpse into the world of book design and production which I am curious about as my first degree was in Graphic Media Communication. It brought back memories of nerding out over tiny typographic decisions. I have also asked Peepal Tree if I can space my placement out over a longer period as one week went by in a flash.

What am I writing right now?

Recently I have been feeling as uninspired to write as ever. After calling some of my friends who are still studying at university, I gathered that it is a very common feeling right now. One of my friends is in the final year of her art degree, with an online degree show approaching – not the way she intended her art to be seen. She was clearly disappointed but said she was happy to still be creating work all the same.

One of my favourite things about this course is that it forces me to write. I have too easily before put my lack of writing down to various circumstances – but I can see now those were merely an assortment of lies. When I have a deadline or a creative writing workshop to write for it always gets done (perhaps slowly and awfully but completed all the same).

The other day I was sitting at my desk racking my brain for anything to put down on paper. I couldn’t help but get distracted by the snow outside my window. It kept stopping and starting but as soon as it started I immediately felt mesmerised by it.

It reminded me of something my sister said about winter: “I prefer cold weather. You can always add on a layer of clothing but you can’t take off your skin.” Then, just like that I felt as if I owed it to her and her wonderful humour to put that in a story. So I did.

Reading Grace Paley

Recently I have been inspired to write straight after I read the works of others and think ‘I wish I wrote that’. I think this the most when I am reading Grace Paley’s work.

When I first starting writing I attempted poetry, but it never really worked in the way I wanted it to. I got very easily frustrated with it. I had too much to say and I felt constrained by the fundamentals of poetry. On the other hand, I always felt like novels were too frightening to begin and attempt – I feared maybe I didn’t have enough to say.

I first came across Grace Paley’s writing at school, during an English exam. We had to write a close reading analysis on Grace Paley’s short story, ‘Wants’. I was completely stunned by how much life she could fit into such a small amount of writing. I think that was when my love of short stories began and I have been writing short stories ever since then.

In ‘Wants’, Grace Paley writes very movingly on bumping into an ex-husband and manages to slip in subtle poignant statements: ‘I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement’. I often think of her combination of both subtlety and boldness when I write – I try to practice the art of bringing both elements into one short piece.

It’s not something I have mastered by any means but something I have been trying more and more. I like reading The Collected Stories of Grace Paley to put me in a more experimental writing mood. Grace Paley gets me to try new things and expands my horizons, does she have that influence on you too?

What Am I Reading Right Now?

This post isn’t actually about what I’m reading right now. Horribly dishonest title, I know. My apologies. No, this post is about the fact that I’m reading at all, and hallelujah for that.

If you’re a bibliophile like me, you probably have at least five books that you’re currently reading, not to mention the fifty you will definitely read as soon as possible.

And the pandemic is a perfect time to finally get through that list, isn’t it?

Not if you’re like me. Somehow books got replaced with Netflix, and in 2020 the most horrendous thing happened – I failed my reading challenge. (Okay, it wasn’t the only horrendous thing to happen in 2020, but let’s focus on the reading for now).

I realised that television had taken over a place in my life that used to belong to literature, so I decided to join an online reading group. It’s actually a pretty simple concept. You meet up online twice a week, read separately for about an hour, and then you talk about what you’ve read.

It was the kick in the balls (though I don’t actually have any balls) that I needed, and I read three books in three days. The first one due to the social pressure of people knowing that you’re supposed to be reading. The following two because the first one reminded me how wonderful it is.

I love to read. To truly subvert myself into another universe, another set of problems, another mindset. But sometimes love isn’t enough.

Sometimes you need a good kick in the balls.

And a little bit of social pressure.