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Wednesday 2 February 2011

Getting Branded - ASLA day and John Murray Authors Party

I’ve been very busy editing Blacklight recently – a consuming occupation - but in between, I have taken a couple of forays out from behind my laptop.

On Thursday (20 Jan) I attended a Professional Development Day: ‘Working as a Writer in the 21st Century’, organised by ASLA (Association of Scottish Literary Agents), and held at Sandeman House, the home of the Scottish Booktrust in Edinburgh. I had taken part in an excellent ‘Web Workshop’ two years ago in London organised by my publisher for a small group of writers (just six of us), so I was interested to see what this one had to offer.

This was much bigger - there were about 60 people there – and covered more areas. Apart from the first talk on the new media by Julian Westaby from Creating Sparks, the day also included: a panel with representatives from Scottish publishers (Jan Rutherford from Birlinn and Polygon, and Jenny Todd from Canongate) and from a bookshop (Rosamund de la Hey, owner of The Main Street Trading Company in St. Boswells); an author panel with Barry Hutchison, Janet Paisley and Sara Sheridan, ‘discussing the merits, practicalities and impact of blogging, tweeting, linkedin, social web sites - and other income streams including ghost writing, copy writing etc, and finally a panel composed of Aly Barr (Creative Scotland), Alistair Moffat (BookNation and the Borders and Lennoxlove Book Festivals) and Caitrin Armstrong (Scottish Book Trust) on the different opportunities they offer authors.

A large part of the time was spent on how writers can use the new media to create awareness of their work and make contact with readers. Some of the authors there were very practised and media savvy, had websites, blogs, were on Facebook and/or Twitter and were expert on-liners. Others were still at the stage of thinking about it all. I consider myself to be somewhere in between. I have my website and my blog. I don’t do Facebook or Twitter, but have an author page on the reader networking site Goodreads. I’m not sure I would have time for anything more.

There were a number of interesting aspects for me that arose as I was talking to other writers. First is the question of what different writers aim for with their websites, and what people look for when they visit a writer’s website; the second is the question of the author’s ‘voice’. Obviously writing content for a website or a blog is not the same as writing a book, but Julian Westaby told us in his talk that ‘an author is a brand like any other’. From the shifting in seats and murmurs around me, this obviously made some writers decidedly uncomfortable. A ‘brand’ has the idea of creating an image – ‘manipulative’ muttered the person sitting beside me. ‘Just be yourself – you are your brand’ said someone else. ‘Which self?’ said another voice. The possibility of straying into philosophical notions of self hovered momentarily, - and marketing took over again.

A few days later, on 25 January, I went down to London to the John Murray Authors party held in their historic Albemarle Street house – the home and office of the original John Murray, publisher of many eminent names. The house is remarkable in itself as the room where the party was held has been preserved as it originally was, down to the paintings on the walls, the books on the shelves, the furniture and curtains – and the proof is there to see in a painting of the room including the first John Murray together with Byron and Walter Scott among others. An enjoyable evening, chatting to authors I knew and meeting others for the first time.

On my way out after the party I shook the hand of a slim, elegant elderly gentleman, who described himself as ‘the doorman for this evening’ – the present-day John Murray.

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