Hazel McHaffie

ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum

Official – in possession of a press pass!

August always promised to be a busy month. The Edinburgh International Book Festival – officially the ‘largest public celebration of the written word in the world‘ – is one of the highlights in my literary calendar. And it’s on my doorstep! This year it runs from 11-27th, but I always book tickets way in advance, as soon as they’re officially available, and even then some aren’t obtainable – an ongoing mystery to me.

But this year the month has just become a whole lot more exciting because I’ve been invited to be one of a team of official reporters at it! How cool is that? But … How come? I hear you cry. Good question.

Well, earlier this year the ESRC Genomics Forum organised an evening Salon where I was interviewed about my novel Saving Sebastian and the issues it deals with (watchable here). They subsequently asked me to write a guest post on their blog Genotype, which I duly did (here). And on the strength of that these same kind folk have now invited me to dip a toe into the dubious world of journalistic reporting for a fortnight. They were lovely people to work with, so I’m chuffed to be collaborating with them on this venture.

Basically what it entails is attending events – most of which I was going to anyway – and then blogging about them on Genotype. I even get a press pass! I’ll try not to let it go to my head.

In odd moments when I’m not fulfilling all the other commitments-that-I-wouldn’t-have-taken-on-had-I-known-about-the-extra-blogging, I’m trying to read a few of the books beforehand so I don’t come across as a complete twat. Time will tell.

My Beautiful GenomeOh, before I forget, I must share a gem with you from one of them (My Beautiful Genome) which I came across yesterday: ‘Whether you are a flu virus, a slime mold, a manatee, or a manager, your genetic code contains the same components.’ The author is a self-confessed specialist in sarcasm and bordering-on-cruel-honesty, but I can think of several situations where this knowledge could be applied with great satisfaction. OK, so I have a cruel streak too. I blame my genome.

But for now … well, this afternoon I and my unique double helix are off to give ‘a taste’ of Saving Sebastian as part of the Writers at the Fringe series of evenings organised by Blackwell’s. They’re free events but ticketed; five authors each evening, 6-8pm every Thursday in August.

To get a sense of the event and what works, I went to listen to the four authors and a songwriter who kicked off the series last Thursday. The line up included names like Sara Sheridan and Louise Welsh – and Iain Banks, probably the most famous, is listed for week 3 – so hats off to Blackwell’s for attracting real talent. To find 25 authors willing to commit to this in August is no mean feat in itself.

Is there any better city to be in than Edinburgh in the summer if you’re a writer or book lover? I doubt it.

 

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Quo Vadis?

Promotion of my most recent novel goes on. The ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum arranged a session in Waterstones bookshop on Tuesday this week, where I was in conversation with Dr Shawn Harmon, a lawyer and research fellow at Edinburgh University.

in conversationThe Forum’s Director said: “As life sciences develop, novel medical approaches to treating disease – including the role of so called ‘saviour siblings’ – are becoming increasingly viable. However, these potentially bring with them significant ethical issues, and also raise questions about how we regulate the practitioners applying such technologies.” Indeed. They are keen to facilitate discussion about these issues – just as I am – so they’ve been running a programme of ‘Social Sessions’ allowing the public to debate with writers. My event was the latest in this series.

We used my fictional characters to bring the topic alive, and to my relief, Shawn wasn’t nearly as intimidating as his weighty CV would suggest. Phew! Great venue, lively audience, good wine (strictly for after the event in my case!), and thought-provoking issues. But you’d need to ask the audience for a dispassionate opinion – the person quivering in the author’s chair has a decidedly one-sided perspective. And my reaction is always the same: I can think of a much cleverer and more coherent answer the following day! Somehow in the hot seat the grey cells aren’t quite as lively, nor the tongue as eloquent. Hey ho. There’s a video of the interview posted by the Forum on Youtube if you’re interested.

OK, so Saving Sebastian is safely out there, but whither next? At this precise moment I could do with a fairy godmother to wave a wand and show me the future. Or a clairvoyant to tell me the consequences of decisions at this stage.

Because ‘the world of books is undergoing its most dramatic change since Gutenberg printed his 42-line bible in Mainz in 1455,‘ as Andrew Franklin, founder and managing director of Profile Books, said in his inaugural address as visiting professor at City University. Book prices are falling, physical books sales are diminishing, globalisation and technological change make it increasingly difficult for non-celebrity authors to find a profitable niche. ‘The rich get richer and everyone else suffers.’

Now, money is not my driving force. I want to write; I still have things to say. I’ve now published seven novels with established publishers. So where do I go with novel number 8?

Self-publishing? Franklin’s take on this is: ‘For a tiny number of writers this works, but then for a tiny number of players the lottery works too.‘ Ouch.

Digital books? The Society of Authors has actively encouraged this route. But will it require shameless self-promotion (yuck!) and rock-bottom pricing to become visible in this huge mountain of unregulated publications, where spam, plagiarism and computer-generated books lurk amidst the results of honest toil and careful scholarship? Would my own little offering simply sink without trace?

Open Access? From this safe distance I can sincerely applaud the democratic principle of free-to-the-reader books. But nothing is really free. Who exactly is paying the price for this principle? Would it be me? Or worse, would I be harming other writers struggling to make ends meet whose books are in competition with the free ones? And anyway, is it simply vanity publishing cloaked in a respectable altruistic disguise?

Franklin’s conclusion is double-edged: ‘Sadly, the book world is becoming a free market winner-takes-all world where success is over-rewarded and there is only tough love for the rest. This is a time of change rather than the End of Days. The publishing industry constantly reinvents itself and we are on the cusp of one of those revolutions. On the barricades, some comrades may be lost – authorship as a profitable profession may not be recognisable in its present form of author, computer and desk. After all, the invention of the printing press ended the specialised, highly skilled and utterly beautiful art of manuscript illuminations.’

Question is, would I be one of those conrades lost on the barricades? Which is where my friendly neighbourhood fairy godmother and clairvoyant come in.

 

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