*Feels oddly nervous* – or, what is it to be a writer today?

 

I’m chairing a panel of literary types tonight for a discussion on ‘what it is to be a writer today’. A loose kind of subject but so much is changing in the publishing world that it merits an exploration rather than a debate. My own view is that it’s not as black and white as saying one is either for or against digital publishing. It just IS, and now we have to change the business models to accommodate that.

Not that I am alone in this view. Some publishers – on the whole the smaller ones, although Penguin always seems more willing to look for another route, if not an entirely radical one – are coming up with whole new ways of reading books. In a time when ebooks are outselling hardback and paperback sales on Amazon UK, they’ve simply got to do this. That said, ebooks still only account for 12.9% of the entire publishing market.

What I hope is that the publishing industry takes the best of what the music industry learned from the digital revolution, and avoids its more costly mistakes. I can see a world in which smaller, unknown writers are able to self-publish and garner their own readers (and therefore profits), leaving the publishers to bring out the behemoths – the cookery books and, dare I say it, TV companion books. Readers will buy digital books more frequently, when the cost is less per book, and then buy occasional, more expensive print books because those are the ones they love, look beautiful and demand to be kept. (Few of us have the space, quite apart from anything else, to do more than this. My own books have lain in storage for five years.)

And while writers are never going to sell out the O2 for a reading (though, you know, JK Rowling might), live events are growing all the time. Just watch the extraordinary success of Damian Barr’s work with his Salons, which began (and still run) at Shoreditch House with a small room of about 30 people or so and now have the guestlist of 300+ full within 15 minutes of announcing the dates. The product sells but so does the experience.

There’s another thing. While many believe it is their right to download music and movies for free online, I think books are viewed as something to be paid for. With the price wars smashing the cost of some Kindle books down to as little as 20p, and many of the out-of-print classics down to nothing, it’s questionable as to how long that will last. (And those battling publishers will only have themselves to blame.) They can increase the value of a product by making a book more of an experience online – you can watch it, read it, listen to it and so on. But movies are arguably a huge experience online and people still download those for free, with nary a shadow on their conscience.

Finally, there’s another big thing which has changed the nature of publishing – we’re all writers now. Much to our surprise, the chief form of communication in the 21st century is writing. Whether you’re texting, emailing, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking or penning a first novel in longhand, you’re getting busy with the alphabet. Every business from plumbers to PR has to have a ‘content strategy’. Either this makes the successful writers more precious – because readers recognise that while everyone has a go, only some can actually do it. Or it will cheapen the entire enterprise – what’s the point in honing the skill when everyone is doing it AND getting published?

So the real question is – will writers still be able to earn a living 20 years from now?

I went to Downton…

Well, I went to Highclere Castle, where the above stairs scenes are filmed for Downton Abbey. I’d been invited down by the Royal Academy, who were entertaining a number of their patrons there. The place is always glorious to arrive at – it’s an impressive house, whichever angle you look at it, and the angle from the driveway is probably the most glorious of them all. Despite the fact I’d been there a few times before, both for private events and filming, this was the first time I got to snoop. At least, the guide let us peek into the guest bedrooms on the first floor. I wasn’t brave/rude enough to actually step over the gold rope in the doorways, but I could see small bowls of cotton wool and mini-Elnett hairsprays thoughtfully put out for the guests, and that was rather thrilling. We had lunch in the very pretty library – which is exactly ‘as seen on TV’ – and had the privilege to sit next to Caroline Jackson. Her grandmother, Mary, had been secretary to the fifth countess of Carnarvon, Almina Wombwell. Known to be the illegitimate daughter of Alfred Rothschild, even then immensely rich, she had married into the earldom and rescued the estate, much as Cora did in Downton Abbey. And during the first world war, Almina had run the house as a hospital for officers, with one of the corner bedrooms serving as an operating theatre. It was there that Mary met her husband – Caroline’s grandfather. Almina was very loyal to her long-serving secretary, and gave them generous wedding gifts, setting them up with a furnished cottage on the estate. It was Caroline’s first ever visit to the house, and it was quite something for her to wander around the place her grandparents had known so well and fallen in love in. After lunch – delicious chicken, cabbage and potatoes, followed by a raspberry Eton Mess in tall cocktail glasses – we had a stroll down to the ‘Secret Garden’. A little moment of Downton all to ourselves. Lucky us.

Happy Publication Day!

The Chronicles of Downton Abbey was officially published today. That means that anyone who pre-ordered it on Amazon should have had it arrive through their letterbox this morning. (Or, more likely, they were out, the book wouldn’t fit and the postman has left one of those tedious ‘You were out when I called’ cards, meaning you have to either wait several days for the redelivery or join the lo-o-ng queue at a not-very-local post collection point to get it. In which case, sorry.) One of the joys of publishing – and there are a few – is that everyone feels the excitement of publication day. I got a beautiful bunch of flowers from my team at HarperCollins. Thanks guys. It was a gas. 

That new book smell…

I got sent my first advance copy of The Downton Chronicles. It was kind of strange this time around because what with absurdly tight deadlines and various holidays, I missed seeing the final final proofs, so there were a few captions and small changes I hadn’t seen before it went to press. It’s not the kind of lack of control I like much, but fortunately, having done a book with Helen Wedgewood of HarperCollins before, I knew that it would be in safe hands. So, I’m happy with it. Julian Fellowes (my uncle, not my husband, not my father, for those who do not yet know) has written a great foreword, very personal. 

Reading a book that has been produced in such a small turnaround time can feel like going over one’s exam papers after the event – you can hardly believe you knew all that stuff once and got it down in black and white. But there it is and with my name on it, so it must be mine. 

It comes out in the UK next Thurs, September 13, and in the USA on November 13. So there’s a fair bit of PR to do and then the real test will come… the Amazon reader reviews. 

Fingers crossed. Image