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Reading to an audience

10 June 2013

Will Self's recent comments at the Hay Festival suggest that the literary world has changed out of all recognition: ‘What has changed in the past 30 years is that it has become impossible for the rump of the literary profession - those middling sorts (of sales, that is, not necessarily of brow) - to earn a reasonable living simply by writing books. The abolition of the net book agreement in the 1980s heralded two simultaneous developments: a vertiginous integration of book distribution and retailing, and a simultaneous collapse in the formerly steep-sided pyramid of critical authority. To put it bluntly: the punters would no longer buy what they were told to buy by literary types, and in any case, there were no longer cosy little bookshops in which they could order these recommendations. As for writers, whose earnings had been artificially maintained by a price cartel, there were only a few options available: the time-honoured promenade of Grub Street, some altogether non-literary job, or an ignominious - and often soul-destroying - retreat into silence.'

Self argues that the rise of the literary festival has put paid to bookshop readings, but in fact many bookshops have busy reading programmes which show that getting out there and reading your work has become an obligation for any writer who wants to reach their audience and sell their book.

And this of course makes it difficult for the shy and those who find reading or speaking in pubic a real trial. Gone are the days when an author could be left to write, every writer is now urged to get out there to promote their book and to help their publisher sell it. If the writer is a self-publisher, this is even more the case, as there is no-one else to work on your book. As well as readings in bookshops and festival appearances, if they can be arranged, authors are now expected to have a blog and to use Facebook and Twitter to talk up their book, even though one of the first rules of social networking is that a hard sell doesn't work. No wonder authors complain that they hardly have time to write...