#SYP101: Keynote – Jenny Brown: “You are part of this glorious world. Take risks and innovate.”

syp-bannerSYP Scotland’s second conference Publishing 101: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was kicked off in style by one of Scotland’s best agents and most loved figures, Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown Associates.

Before becoming an agent Jenny Brown was previously Head of Literature at the Scottish Arts Council, a presenter of Scottish Television’s book programmes, and was the first Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (of which she is now a Board member). She created the agency that bears her name in 2002 and it has grown to become the biggest agency in Scotland and one of the leading literary agencies in the UK. As well as representing around fifty authors, Jenny was one of the four creators and founders of Edinburgh as first UNESCO City of Literature, and is the Chair of the Bloody Scotland crime festival, an internationally acclaimed celebration of ‘Tartan Noir’.

“What an astonishing object a book is.”
Jenny opened up the day by praising the career of publishing as ‘the most interesting and important career’, ‘but you’re never going to be rich’, so it most certainly has to be a career you’re passionate about to sustain.

‘What an astonishing object a book is…’ muses Jenny. ‘A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.’ After all, ‘Writing bonds people who may have never met… writing is perhaps the greatest invention’. People increasingly turn to books for answers and it certainly couldn’t be more true today which can be seen in the rise of sales of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and numerous others that resonate in today’s political and social climate.

Despite this, ‘the book world is full of optimism. It’s not perfect but full of hope.’ Waterstones is back in the black, diversity is beginning to be addressed, sales of print books in Scotland rose 4.3% last year – there is a lot to be optimistic about. Jenny praises our ‘vibrant and forward looking society’, name-checking the Saltire Society’s new Emerging Publisher of the Year initiative as part of their literary awards, and 404 Ink as a new and upcoming publisher based in Edinburgh.

Jenny Brown 2Since Jenny began her career in 1982, publishing has come a long way and is now much more internationally focused though there is still plenty to be done. Scottish publishers in particular should be aware that some books will simply never cross Hadrian’s wall – the domestic market is small so we have to be realistic that some books will not travel. When Jenny started her agency 15 years ago she was inspired by the motto ‘Scotland to the World’ and sees it in the unique literary tradition including JK Rowling, Outlander, Alexander McCall Smith and many more. She also sees it increasingly today in the likes of Man Booker shortlisted His Bloody Project (Saraband) by Graeme Macrae Burnet which is opening doors for Scottish publishing as international agents suddenly start asking ‘what else do you have that has murder in the Highlands?’ But we must also be receptive to the literature of other countries.

“We have to give debut writers more of our efforts.”
This is all well and good – but what about the realities of small publishing when big literary awards don’t come knocking on the door? Scottish publishers needs to learn to be creative with what they’ve got and have a strategy. We publish too many books a year and Jenny wonders if this does a disservice to writers as many inevitably go under the radar, only just earn out advances and don’t make a splash which then marks them as a poor seller on the likes of Nielsen before they’ve even had a chance. ‘We have to give debut writers more of our efforts.’

This is at the heart of Jenny’s operations as an agent. She has experienced resistance from publishers in the form of being cut out of the loop, receiving criticism that she works with publishers outside of Scotland too much which she disagrees with, saying she makes every effort to publish books locally. And with this comes making the author comfortable and welcome in the publishing process.

A lack of communication from publishers towards writers is the biggest complaint Jenny is met with, closely followed by rare royalties – she says shame on those publishers who only pay their authors once a year. She asks ‘why is the publishers’ time more valuable than the agent’s or the writer’s?’ – she would like to see more effort from publishers in communication. At the very least, throw your author a party – the launch of a book should be celebrated!

‘We are all on the same side.’ Scottish Book Trust, Edinburgh International Book Festival, City of Literature and the literary festivals across the country makes for a community that should know they are all together under the same aim.

Jenny closed her inspirational keynote address with some truly invaluable advice and reminders:

‘You are part of this glorious world. You’re risk takers. Take risks and innovate. Create your own networks. Learn what you’re going to learn and move on. Work in London, the US, and please come back. Buy books, talk about books. Never, ever stop reading.’

(Photos by Chris Scott)

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