Authors as Brands

January 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Having often told those wishing to sell their books (that were once precious to them) that “these books are just a little out of fashion now”, it will be interesting to see which of the brands survive another generation.

Increasingly fixated on the stars of today, such as Hilary Mantel and JK Rowling, publishers are neglecting the experimenters who could save their industry tomorrow: the mid-list writers.
Wolf Hall at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon  sold out months ago. Long before the admiring reviews of the stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies hit the press. Theatre-goers were in no doubt they wanted to see six hours of blazing Tudor intrigue. A £7m BBC adaptation beckons.The runaway success of Mantel’s story could be seen as a heartwarming tale for the book industry, but it comes at a time when many insiders worry such a tale will become increasingly rare as talented authors find it ever harder break through.Authors with middling sales – like Mantel, before she led Thomas Cromwell up the bestseller list – are getting less care and attention from large publishers, with readers ever more fixated on fantasy blockbusters, it is said.

For HarperCollins, the bestselling authors have become more important than ever. Charlie Redmayne, chief executive of HarperCollins, recently described Mantel as one of several writers, along with Michael Morpurgo and JK Rowling, “who have transcended being an author and are brands in their own right”.

He added: “In a digital world, they are going to create a huge amount of value.”

Other industry insiders, and probably many readers, find it jarring to hear authors of magical sentences dressed in the language of business. It does not appear to describe an author such as Mantel, who before embarking on her Tudor trilogy wrote wildly different books, including a memoir, a black comedy and a historical epic set in revolutionary France: hardly a series of uniform Ford Focuses rolling off the production line.

“Brand” may be an ugly word when applied to an author, literary agent Jonny Geller acknowledged, but it is only a shorthand for a way in which publishers are attempting to hold on to the reading public at a time when sales of print books are flat and electronic gadgets vie for readers’ attention.

And, from Byron to Barbara Cartland, the name on the spine has always mattered.

“There have always been big brands in publishing,” said Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller. “The difference now is that digital and globalisation gives them a much more diverse and larger playing field. Digital means they can be multimedia: books, films, video, apps and other enhancements; globalisation means they can extend the brand far and wide.”

The world’s appetite for stories is getting bigger all the time. The children’s author Enid Blyton is believed to have sold 500m copies of her 200 titles and countless stories since her death, in 1968. But a mere 15 years after Harry Potter first boarded the train for Hogwarts, in 1997, JK Rowling is already closing in on that record, with 450m books sold in 74 languages. That figure does not include several million ebook sales.

But even Harry Potter is not immune to vampires. The Twilight teen vampire saga reached the 1m copies mark even faster than Harry Potter,  although its overall sales are smaller at, 50m books worldwide, according to the industry analyst Nielsen BookScan. The Hunger Games, the bloodthirsty dystopia aimed at early teens, is the latest page-turning phenomenon, with 25m sales in English worldwide.

“The large bestselling authors are taking a bigger and bigger share of the market,” said Andrew Franklin, founder of the independent publisher Profile. “Just as in every branch of late post-industrial capitalism, the rich are getting richer. New authors and struggling authors and mid-list authors are finding it harder.”

This was bad news for the average writer, he said: they get paid less so that publishing houses can hold on to bestsellers with higher advances. But it is also bad news for readers: “When everything becomes more homogenised, and everyone is reading the same book, there really is a loss of diversity and choice.”

Publishing used to exemplify the classic business model, where the top-selling 20% funded the rest, some of whom, hopefully, would become the bestsellers of the future. Jonny Geller, the agent who represents John le Carré, thinks the balance is now closer to 4% v 96%.

With so much riding on the success of top titles, there are risks for the whole industry. “If publishers focus too much on the obvious hooks or names, then the new or unsuspecting will disappear,” he said. “All the major success[es] of the last few years, or the majority, have come from unexpected places.”

Mantel, who wrote well-reviewed novels for years, perhaps typified what publishers call the mid-list: books destined to sell moderately without sparking TV tie-ins or T-shirts. In an essay in the New York Times, the publisher Colin Robinson warned that this space, where, he said, “the most interesting things happen in the book world”, was in decline, warning: “The mid-list, publishing’s experimental laboratory, is being abandoned.”

This warning resonates for Nicola Solomon, chief executive at the Society of Authors. In a world where “the big brands have got bigger”, she sees less interest from the five biggest publishing companies in promoting smaller titles and backlists.

“Publishers are not investing in authors in a way they would have once, to see if they will take off after their fourth or fifth book, if their first or second were steady, but didn’t go through [to a huge readership],” she said.

While more books are being published every year – almost 150,000 annually in the UK, at the last count – the places to discover them are thinning out: bookshops have closed, cash starved libraries have slashed their book buying budgets and newspapers have pared down book reviews.

“Discoverability” has always been a problem, according to Solomon, but it is getting worse. “People are left with the brand, and it is very hard to get to know new things,” she said .

No matter how difficult the industry is, however, people are still sidling up to her to confess they are writing a novel, she says. Those people with half finished manuscripts in their drawers might take heart from the story of Nathan Filer, the mental health nurse who this week won a Costa award for his first novel. He had 11 publishers vying for the rights to publish The Shock of the Fall. The search for the new is not over yet.

Blockbuster tales: global sales for cult bestsellers
Harry Potter: 450m
Twilight 50m
The Hunger Games 24m

Top-selling fiction writers in the UK in 2013 (books sold)
James Patterson 1.5m
Lee Child 1.13m
George Martin 890,000

Top-selling non-fiction writers in the UK 2013 (books sold)
Alex Ferguson 805,000
Jamie Oliver 528,000
Mimi Spencer and Michael Mosely 498,000

Top-selling writers for children in the UK 2013 (books sold)
Julia Donaldson 2.7m
Jeff Kinney 1.54m
David Walliams 1.37m


Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth.

November 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

The year’s most anticipated exhibition at GOMA is from a truly global artist whose dramatic installations and explosion events have made him one of the most innovative figures in contemporary art. Over the past 25 years, Cai Guo Qiang has held solo exhibitions at some of the world’s most prestigious art institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York. Following recent exhibitions in Qatar, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Rio de Janeiro and Venice, QAGOMA is excited to present ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’ — the artist’s first solo exhibition in Australia and a GOMA exclusive.


‘Falling Back to Earth’, presented by Tourism and Events Queensland and Santos GLNG Project, features three major installations, including two newly commissioned works directly inspired by the landscapes of southeast Queensland, which the artist visited in 2011. The centrepiece of the exhibition — Heritage 2013 — features 99 replicas of animals from around the world, gathered together to drink from a blue lake surrounded by pristine white sand, reminiscent of the lakes of Moreton Bay’s islands. The second installation, Eucalyptus 2013 responds to the ancient trees of Lamington National Park in the Gold Coast hinterland, while the third — Head On 2006 — is a striking installation of 99 artificial wolves leaping en masse into a glass wall, on display in Australia for the first time.


Promising to be both spectacular and meditative, and presenting a beautiful, thought-provoking vision of our relationship with the earth and with each other, ‘Falling Back to Earth’ is the must-see exhibition of the summer.

‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’ is not a timed ticketed exhibition.  Visitors may enter the exhibition anytime between 10am-4pm daily, with the exhibition and Gallery closing at 5pm.

23 November 2013 – 11 May 2014

Redfern Now’s portrayal of urban Aborginal life is long overdue.

November 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

From The Guardian:

Australian television has been deprived of Aboriginal characters, but the ABC’s drama is exploring broader Indigenous identities.


Growing up in the 1980s, I don’t remember seeing many portrayals of Aboriginal people in Australian television drama, save the miniseries The Harp in the South and its sequel Poor Man’s Orange.

Both series featured an Aboriginal man Charlie Rothe, who married Roie Darcy; the eldest daughter of an impoverished Surry Hills family. At the time, I was shocked by the racist language Roie’s mother used to express her concerns about the pairing. Later, I was shocked when I found out that Charlie was played by a non-Aboriginal actor.

The 90s and 2000s weren’t much better. I remember seeing Heath Bergerson playing Reuben in Breakers and reading about how great it was to see an “incidentally” Aboriginal character. Years later, I’m still trying to figure out why, in one episode, the writers had Reuben walking into a cafe carrying a joey. In Bondi.

In 1999, for nine whole episodes, Home and Away featured a teacher called John, a member of the Stolen Generations who copped racism from students and was handed a “Sorry Book”. Many other televisual depictions of Indigenous people followed a similar pattern – only the odd one or two such as Kelly in the Secret Life of Us, seemed reasonable.

There were Indigenous-focused shows that came later, such as SBS’s well-regarded The Circuit, which attracted rave reviews, and Remote Area Nurse, which featured a central white character in a Torres Strait Islander community. But when it comes to dramatic Aboriginal depictions, there has been a gap on air.

So to see Aboriginal actors starring in an Aboriginal drama series, written by Aboriginal people is amazing. And because Redfern Now, currently in its second season, is set in Sydney, it also explores the perils of walking between Aboriginal and mainstream society in a big city.

I see people I relate to. They know a “family gathering” is not just four people sitting around a dinner table. They know that workplace and community responsibilities sometimes conflict. They sit during the national anthem. Then there’s the “Koorioke”. Redfern Now briefly transforms my TV screen into an Indigenous space. That it has also been popular with the mainstream audience is a bonus.

This is not to say it is perfect. Some people, especially those with long connections to Redfern, feel that it doesn’t go far enough in depicting Redfern as a place of strong community importance and struggle. And there have been a couple of moments where it felt as though certain aspects of these Aboriginal lives had been made more palatable for a broader audience.

The first season lacked the intersectional identities that you find in Aboriginal urban-based communities. So I was pleased when the first story of season two featured a gay couple and their daughter. Organised groups of black LGBT people fighting for rights and recognition have been a fixture in some cities for decades; black queer culture is frequently celebrated. It is good that broader Aboriginal identities are being explored in Redfern Now.

It also showed, from commentary that followed this episode, that homophobia can be an issue within our community just as it can in the mainstream. I hope that the show creators, and all involved, were buoyed by the strong community counter-reaction to these comments and continue to include characters that have complex identities. I want to see them delve further into the unique struggles faced by these people in both the black and white worlds. These stories are not only reflective of our communities, but they give Aboriginal actors and writers opportunities to explore their crafts in ways that they have rarely had before on the small screen.

After years of what only can be described as sensory deprivation regarding Aboriginal characters depicted on mainstream television, the ABC’s drama is welcome and long overdue. It gives us a glimpse of an important urban-based Aboriginal community, and tells everyday stories in a way that’s gripping, engaging and identifiable.

There are many more stories to tell and I hope that Redfern Now explores them, pushing more boundaries whilst they’re at it. But more than anything, I hope the show expands the horizons of our mainstream television producers when it comes to depictions of Indigenous people. Tokenistic tales should be buried in the past and diversity should be embraced.

Get down to GOMA for the California Design exhibition

November 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

‘California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way’ will introduce Australian audiences to a broad spectrum of industrial, architectural, commercial, fashion and craft design from California.


Organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and curated by Wendy Kaplan (Curator and Department Head), the exhibition presents over 250 objects, encompassing furniture, ceramics, metalwork, fashion and textiles, architecture, industrial design, and graphics.

Pre- and postwar Californian designers introduced numerous innovations to the design process, and exploited the availability of new materials such as moulded and shaped plywood, fibreglass, wire mesh and synthetic resins — materials and techniques, which, in many cases, grew out of the defence and aerospace industries and defined modern American material culture. Objects by the acclaimed designers Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Dreyfuss, Dorothy Wright Liebes and Raymond Loewy all feature, while the household names Levi Strauss and Mattel are profiled through displays of fashion and children’s toys.


This exhibition reveals the iconic designs that emerged in mid-20th century California, from the innovative furniture of Charles and Ray Eames to the original Barbie doll and the classic Levi’s 501 Jeans.


The exhibition will be displayed until February 9th, 2014.

Adult tickets: $16.50

Concession tickets: $13.50


Alice Munro wins the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature.

October 22, 2013 § Leave a comment


Alice Munro, the renowned Canadian short-story writer whose visceral work explores the tangled relationships between men and women, small-town existence and the fallibility of memory, has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.

As a child “books seem to me to be magic, and I wanted to be part of the magic,” Munro once told The Guardian.

Ms. Munro, widely beloved for her spare and psychologically astute fiction that is deeply revealing of human nature, appeared to be more of a purely literary choice for the award. She revolutionized the architecture of short stories, often beginning a story in an unexpected place then moving backward or forward in time, and brought a modesty and subtle wit to her work that admirers often traced to her background growing up in rural Canada.

Frequently compared to Chekhov and Mansfield for the deft originality of her short stories, she had always been among the favourites to win, alongside novelist Haruki Murakami and Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich.

It is a victory that has delighted many of her literary colleagues as well as her devoted readership – to whom she has always seemed something of a cherished secret. That she has been frequently omitted from conventional lists of the greatest writers of her age is perhaps because of her chosen form, the short story, as well as the apparent narrowness of her palette, since most of her works explore the warp and weft of small-town life in Western Ontario.

Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, issued a statement praising Ms. Munro as the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel in literature. “Canadians are enormously proud of this remarkable accomplishment, which is the culmination of a lifetime of brilliant writing,” he said.

Ms. Munro, 82, explained that she had decided to stop writing because she had been working since she was about 20 years old.

“That’s a long time to be working, and I thought, maybe it’s time to take it easy,” she said. “But this may change my mind.”

Dylan Thomas: Wales prepares to resurrect the poet’s reputation.

October 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

The poet, an ‘unlikely icon’ relaxes outdoors in 1946.?I

The little park where he played as a boy in Swansea has had a facelift, and a bronze statue is to be erected outside his childhood home. Manuscripts and rare photographs have been borrowed from an archive in New York, and his quotations have been liberally applied to council vehicles. Wales is preparing to embrace once again Dylan Thomas, its errant son, 100 years after his birth. Next year the poet who was too “English for the Welsh and too Welsh for the English” is finally to receive the full accolades many feel he has long deserved.

Announcing that £750,000 would be made available for the “DT100” festival, the Welsh government hopes the centenary will boost tourism, but first minister Carwyn Jones said the festival would also be used to raise the status of Thomas, and Welsh tourism minister Edwina Hart called for “resurrecting” a passion for the poet.

There are strong feelings that Wales, and the rest of the UK, have neglected Thomas, allowing his work to be overshadowed by a conception of the man as a drunkard, scrounger and womaniser. His admirers want to use the occasion to debunk the myths and rediscover the poet who in his lifetime was dubbed “Britain’s finest” – the poet who worked so hard that there are as many as 200 versions of the same poem, and whose reading tours were gruelling.

Thomas made an unlikely hero – a short, curly-haired, tubby man, usually in a borrowed suit, with a cigarette permanently cushioned on a fat bottom lip. But he is the man who inspired John Lennon to write songs, put the Dylan into Bob, took the girlfriend of Augustus John to bed (and had him pay for the hotel room), hung out with Salvador Dalí, was feted by Charlie Chaplin and photographed for Vogue by Lee Miller. He is even credited with opening the west’s literary doors to black African literature by promoting, in this very newspaper, Nigerian Amos Tutuola’s novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and with starting the spoken voice LP. Thomas was one of the first to recognise the huge cultural potential of radio and TV.

Yet he is not on academic curriculums, and even Welsh schools are only now being encouraged to examine his work. There has never been a complete works, and academia has snubbed him. Dr John Goodby, of Swansea University, said Thomas has been “airbrushed” out: “Thomas fell from grace. There was a whole slew of books in the 70s … and then nothing. It was as if in Wales there was this inwards, more nationalistic, discourse, which Thomas didn’t fit. He didn’t write in Welsh, for a start.”

Although some later works, such as Fern Hill and his play Under Milk Wood remain popular, it is the kind of popularity that makes academics suspicious and his reputation has declined, said Goodby. He said that Thomas fell between the cracks because he was hard to pigeonhole and his work had such an embarrassing richness when plainer, anecdotal poetry was being critically acclaimed.

Goodby said Thomas would never have been able to write anything if he’d been as drunk as people said. He represented a spirit of freedom. “But things are getting better,” he concluded. “Swansea was in denial of him for a long time but now they see he could be a moneyspinner and do for Wales what James Joyce has done for Dublin.”

In Thomas’s day middle-class parents discouraged their children from speaking Welsh for fear it would stunt their career prospects. His schoolteacher father even sent him to elocution classes. He himself didn’t want his poetry to be “regionalised”, although his love of Wales is undeniable.

“He echoes what a lot of us feel: sometimes you love to hate Wales,” said eminent Welsh poet Menna Elfyn, “I once wrote a poem in the shape of a boomerang because that’s how I felt about Wales – ultimately you are pulled back to your roots in a search for a quiet spot.”

Jo Furber is Swansea council’s literature officer, based at the elegant Dylan Thomas Centre, an arts centre with an exhibition devoted to the poet. “We have so many people coming in to learn more about him. They sometimes don’t arrive as an admirer but leave as one. He has probably suffered because he is difficult to categorise, both in his life and his poetry. He was a man who didn’t go to university yet was incredibly well read. He loved the classics, but was happy to read detective stories in the bath, eating jelly babies.”

She is applying for funding to put the centre on the literary heritage map. “We’d love to expand. What we’d love the most is to find some moving footage of him; there has to be some out there somewhere. Perhaps the centenary will bring that out of an attic somewhere.”

My visit to the Queensland Art Gallery.

September 24, 2013 § Leave a comment


Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Queensland Art Gallery in South Brisbane in fine weather.  Though always a stimulating experience, to say the least, I derived particular enjoyment from this visit when I discovered several paintings by William Robinson, a Brisbane artist.  Later research informed me that Robinson, now in his seventy-seventh year, is a two-time Archibald Prize winner.   He is, however, most widely recognised for depictions of Australian landscapes.  I was utterly taken with the intense, surreal nature of these paintings, as well as the unique sensitivity with which Robinson evoked deeply Australian sentiments (the transcendental qualities of the land being, for me, the foremost example; an intricate theme which Robinson has unpacked with care and beauty).


I refer you to the Queensland Art Gallery website’s entry on Robinson’s painting ‘Dark Tide’ (above); an eloquent thematic description:

“Dark tide, Bogangar 1994 is a melancholy seascape depicting the turbulent Pacific Ocean silhouetted against a pale sky.

“It records the multiplicity of nature’s moods through an entire day. The scene unfolds from left to right: a dark tide rises up against the morning light before sinking down under the evening sky. Swelling against the writhing horizon, the sea appears not as alien to the sky but as an interdependent element.

“William Robinson knits together intersecting perspectives, near and far, above and below, before and after. These juxtapositions ultimately consolidate to form a single image. However, the scene is perceived from an indeterminate vantage point, suspended between sea and sky, and not subject to the laws of gravity.

“This ambiguity lends further uncertainty to the spatial dimensions of the painting, and serves to articulate its metaphysical aspect. The shifting perspective created by planes which recede, tilt and plunge reinforces the feeling of a vastness in nature which is impossible to express or experience from a single viewpoint.”

I highly recommend to anyone yet to visit the current exhibitions  to do so.  The paintings of William Robinson were a truly enriching experience which have whet my interest in an artist whom, prior to last week, was unbeknownst to me.  I hope you’ll have a similar experience.

– Nick

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 514 other followers

  • Calendar

    April 2020
    M T W T F S S
  • Archives

  • Recently Twittered by Novel Lines

%d bloggers like this: