Guardian columnist Owen Jones speaks at union publishing event

We spend most of our time at Nothing in the Rulebook telling you all about what’s inside books and the people who put that in there. But what about the people who actually put the books together? So Professor Wu and Billy Echidna can paw through them with great relish!

Bookmachine, a global community for everyone in and around book publishing, are hosting an event this evening in central London exploring pay and conditions in the UK publishing industry.

Guardian columnist and political activist Owen Jones will be keynote speaker at United, We Publish, an evening of workshops at St Bride’s Foundation, Fleet Street.

From the home of Britain’s print trade, Jones will be joined by Simon Dubbins, International Director of Unite the Union and Michelle Stanistreet, the first woman in history to be elected general secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

The event will be chaired by Gareth Lowe, chair of Unite’s national publishing and media branch and a publishing programme manager at DK. Speakers will also take questions from the audience.

Laura Summers, co-founder of BookMachine, a community of over 5,000 subscribers, said: “Feedback from last year’s Unite/BookMachine workshop was great. The most popular topic was Pay and conditions. Our role is to listen to this, and facilitate the discussion – it has been a pleasure working with Unite again and we are delighted to have such highly-regarded speakers on the panel discussing this important issue.”

Louisa Bull, Unite’s lead officer for publishing said: “Employers in publishing have different attitudes to pay and reward schemes and Unite are keen to promote the merits of collective pay bargaining for our UK members. Many of the employers we deal with in this sector have different pay systems across Europe and we are keen in this panel debate the understand the merits of them all.”

For more information and to buy tickets, follow the link


16 books all writers should read – according to Hemingway


As any aspiring writer or artist will attest, there will always be a natural desire to meet those whose creative works have inspired you. The longing to meet and converse with the men and women whose artistic works have connected with you on some biological – perhaps even ethereal – level, is one that many of us will sadly never see fulfilled; especially since, unfortunately, many of those great cultural titans are no longer with us (not to bring the mood down here at all).

Yet in 1934, a 22-year old aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson was granted this most precious of meetings. Having set out with one goal – to meet Ernest Hemingway and become his literary apprentice – this young son of Norwegian immigrant wheat farmers spent almost an entire year staying with one of the most important writers of the 20th century.

“It seemed like a damn fool thing to do,” Samuelson recalled, “but a twenty-two-year-old tramp during the Great Depression didn’t have much reason for what he did.”

Yet Samuelson’s quest was not in vain. Shortly after the young man’s arrival in Key West, Hemingway got right down to granting him what he had traveled there seeking. In one of their first exchanges, he hands Samuelson a handwritten list and instructs him:

“Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as a part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated. They represent different types of writing. Some may bore you, others might inspire you and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.”

The full list is here below:


  1. The Blue Hotel(public library) by Stephen Crane
  2. The Open Boat(public library) by Stephen Crane
  3. Madame Bovary(free ebook | public library) by Gustave Flaubert
  4. Dubliners(public library) by James Joyce
  5. The Red and the Black(public library) by Stendhal
  6. Of Human Bondage(free ebook | public library) by  Somerset Maugham
  7. Anna Karenina(free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  8. War and Peace(free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  9. Buddenbrooks(public library) by Thomas Mann
  10. Hail and Farewell(public library) by George Moore
  11. The Brothers Karamazov(public library) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. The Oxford Book of English Verse(public library)
  13. The Enormous Room(public library) by E. Cummings
  14. Wuthering Heights(free ebookpublic library) by Emily Brontë
  15. Far Away and Long Ago(free ebookpublic library) by H. Hudson
  16. The American(free ebookpublic library) by Henry James

Esther Freud’s seven golden tips for writing

Esther Freud.jpg

In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21stcenturies.

Last time out we brought you the rules of writing from Elmore Leonard himself. And in the past we’ve also featured Zadie Smith’s exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic. Then there’s Neil Gaiman’s timeless counsel on writing, which complements the writing commandments of Jonathan Franzen, as well as the wise decree of Margaret Atwood. Today, we’re pleased to feature the writing advice from renown British novelist Esther Freud. Enjoy!

  1. Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.
  2. A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.
  3. Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.
  4. Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don’t let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won’t matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.
  5. Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.
  6. Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.
  7. Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.


For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the excellent musings of ground-breaking Scottish author, Iain Maloney; and complement that with some priceless advice from Kurt Vonnegut, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!   

On the commercialisation of literature


Why do we write? Litterateurs throughout history have often taken time to reflect on this question. Yet with the advent of neoliberalism and the proliferation of commercialisation that has taken place within most capitalist countries in the 20th and 21st centuries, it often seems as though the only purpose of fiction, of publishing, of writing itself – is to make money and sell books.

Indeed, it often seems as though we have ignored Stephen King’s protestations that “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

Instead, our culture seems at times obsessed with bestselling novels, not because they are necessarily the best novels, or even particularly well written; but because they are best selling novels. And when the only metrics of worth we use to discern what has value and merit and what doesn’t is by casting an eye over how much something sells, it surely seems as though we are in danger of missing out on what is really, actually important.

Independent writers and authors have often attacked and railed against this commercialization of writing. In 2005, for instance, the Society of Authors raised concerns over the music retailer HMV’s takeover of Ottakar’s bookstore. And, as pointed out in this article from Litro Magazine, when all that matters about a book is whether or not it sells copies, the inevitable result is a contraction of ‘newness’; as publishing houses simply print copies of books that are copies of commercially successful novels (which themselves are copies of other best selling books).

And it doesn’t just affect the quality of the writing we read. Increasingly, capitalist power structures drive the commodification of literature, and literary icons. We now see t-shirts imprinted with the face of Jack Kerouac or quotes from Jane Austen novels. We hang posters instructing us to “keep calm and read on”. We dry our dishes with Charles Dickens-themed dish cloths. In this world, what does it say about our society when we choose to reduce these people and pieces of culture to mass-produced commodities?

Railing against such developments in literature may not seem particularly new. Indeed, fears over the direction we are heading, culturally, have been raised for decades (though these warnings have rarely been heeded).

Think of the words of one of the true literary masters, Jorge Luis Borges. In a 1970s discussion with Argentinian writer Fernando Sorrentino, Borges considers how the commodification of literature threatens to warp its metrics for success:

“It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.”


Borges – as he so often was – here sounds remarkably prescient. And as we continue to live with the impact such commercialisation and commodification of literature has had on our literary culture, it seems more than unfortunate we were not able to pay much attention to the author’s warnings.

But this is not to say we can do no more on the subject. Indeed, quite the opposite. By recognising what is and is not important in literature and writing, we – as both readers and writers – can discern for ourselves just exactly what constitutes literary success. As Neil Gaiman wrote: “read the books you love, tell people about authors you like, and don’t  worry about [which books are best sellers].”

Book review: What A Way To Go, by Julia Forster


In many ways, the 1980s can be seen as one of the most pivotal decades in British history since the second world war. Accompanying the rise of the city and the collapse of the Fordist, Keynesian consensus, were cultural changes that embedded themselves in Britain through the booming entertainment industry. This is the decade of Madonna; Back to the Future; Boy George; Prince; The Return of the Jedi; Michael Jackson; and Top Gun, just as much it is the decade of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Pinochet, credit crunches and miner’s strikes.

Yet just because a decade is important does not mean it is easy to bring to life. And this is part of what makes Julia Forster’s debut novel, What A Way To Go, so impressive: because Forster doesn’t simply recreate the 1980s: she makes it dance.

What A Way To Go is the story of twelve-year-old Harper Richardson – and it is through Harper’s eyes that we are transported back to the era of Bananarama, neon trousers and the gradual decline of the unions.

As you might expect from a novel following the life of a twelve-year old, this is, essentially, a coming of age story. Living two distinct, separate lives, Harper divides herself into “two cut-out versions” of herself: “one for each parent”. It’s an intriguing and – to anyone who has been a child of divorce – instantly recognisable concept. It is a sure sign of a novelist in possession of clear literary talent that Forster is able to create such an emotional connection between the reader, her characters, and the text itself.

When writing in the first person from the perspective of a young girl on the cusp of puberty, it is crucial that the world we as readers experience, and the characters we meet, ring true. And the real skill Forster shows is her ability to render this work of fiction as incredibly authentic. This is not simply through Harper’s consistent voice; but also in the way she and other characters in the novel interact and adapt to the world around them.

Indeed, the dialogue between characters, also, runs extremely true – and is often delightfully surprising and funny. And this fills in the world – and the characters – which is complemented by scenes that feel thoroughly drawn from real, lived experiences: Harper watches Top of the Pops every Thursday; and has her hair cut while Cilla Black’s Blind Date plays on the television in the background.

Because the novel feels so real, as readers we quickly slip into uncovering some of the underlying themes of this marvellously witty and insightful book. Family, of course, looms large, as Harper feels compelled to attempt to bring her parents back together. And through the prism of divorce we can see mirrored the splintering divide that – from the 1980s onwards – has come to separate British society, as inequalities widen and social attitudes diverge.

It’s also a novel about women. Harper’s mother, perfumed and chain-smoking, signs up to credit cards in order to keep a healthy stock of high heeled shoes. Harper, thinking that “buying high heeled shoes is an illness” is demonstrably unlike her mother. She visits graveyards with her father and is interested in the Socialist Worker magazine. Perhaps sensing this difference, her mother repeatedly encourages Harper to be “more feminine”. It is this question of womanhood – of what it means to be a woman – that ultimately sits at the heart of the novel. And it is therefore that much more intriguing to have the spectral figure of Margaret Thatcher looming large in the backdrop. Britain’s first – and, at this time of writing, only – female Prime Minister notoriously hated feminists and feminism; a curious figurehead indeed for any young girl to encounter on her journey to adulthood.

Forster addresses these themes and ideas incredibly well, with controlled, tight language and astute observations, alongside slight asides and allusions the reader is able to pick up on themselves.

This makes What A Way To Go far more than an enjoyable coming-of-age story. It’s also a showcase of writerly talent that is a joy to experience; and, what’s more, it is an extremely valuable and important book through which we can better understand Britain of the 1980s – and the Britain of today.


To purchase What a Way to Govisit

Creatives in profile: interview with Julia Forster


Julia Forster was born and raised in the Midlands. She studied Philosophy and Literature at the University of Warwick and has a Masters in Creative Writing from St Andrews. While at Warwick, she was awarded the Derek Walcott prize for creative writing. She works in publishing, but has also been a magician’s assistant in Brooklyn, a nanny in Milan and a waitress in Chartres.

Her debut novel, What A Way To Go, follows the exploits of 12-year old Harper Richardson, as she navigates the tumultuous paths of childhood, while also attempting to fix her divorced parents’ broken hearts. Set against the backdrop of the high hairdos and higher interest rates of the late 1980s, Forster’s novel has been described as “fresh, touching, truthful and laugh-out loud funny” by best-selling author Deborah Moggach.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.



Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle


I live with my young family in mid Wales, 150 miles due west of where I was brought up in the east Midlands. We live in a cottage, which we share with the local wildlife: there’s a large maternity roost of pipsistrelle bats in our loft and we often have little visits from mice and bird-life. I try – and fail – to grow vegetables, read a lot and attempt to look busy when I hear the kids running up the stairs.


Is creativity and writing your first love, or do you have another passion?


I am a keener reader than I am a writer, which is perhaps not a bad thing? I guess that might also have to do with having small-ish kids (they’re nine and six years-old). After all, it is far easier to pick up a book to read in between small tasks than it is to delve right back into an imaginary world and start writing again…


Who inspires you?


I’m lucky to have some amazingly creative friends. I met the poet Retta Bowen at an Arvon course when I was 19 and she’s been a permanent source of hope and inspiration ever since. I met the all-round creative genius Philip Cowell when I was 24 and he’s likewise lit up the path when I haven’t known where to tread next. I couldn’t have written a word without the inspiration of my friend here in Wales the author, editor and campaigner Angharad Penrhyn Jones.

Books are a continual source of inspiration, of course, but when you’re faced with a creative dilemma, nothing beats a phone call or sharing a leathily strong coffee with a friend who can both challenge and counsel you.


Who were your early teachers?


I had an English teacher in Year 10 who used to tell ghost stories which were so petrifying, some pupils had special dispensation to leave the class while he told them. He made a significant impression on me, but it wasn’t until I was at university that I began to write in earnest. I was lucky to be taught at the University of Warwick when the writing programme there was in its relative infancy and as such I would often have entire office hours to myself with David Morley. That’s when I began to write poetry. Maureen Freely and Russell Celyn Jones were also teaching at the time, and it was in one of Russell’s workshops that I wrote the germ of What a Way to Go in response to his provocation to ‘write about something traumatic’.


Could you tell us a little about your debut novel, What A Way To Go?


It’s set in 1988 during the summer of the ‘Lawson Boom’ when house prices became eye-watering, along with interest rates (and I’m sure many of us may have also shed a tear when we’ve looked back at what we wore in that era too!) Twelve year-old Harper’s parents Mary and Pete are divorced. Harper is trying to fix their broken hearts but she also enjoys her blossoming independence – both politically and emotionally. It’s a book with a big heart and a retro feel.


It is often said that “all writing is autobiography”. How closely do you find your own, personal experiences of childhood are tied to those of your novel’s central protagonist, Harper? Is it easier to write about your life experiences through the prism of fiction – rather than, say, memoir?


When I was nine, I announced that I would ‘cook’. I took a packet of shell-off prawns from the freezer and attempted to make prawn cocktail. The marie rose sauce was easy: tomato ketchup and mayonnaise to a 50:50 ratio. What I didn’t know was how you defrost shellfish, so I sucked each prawn until they’d defrosted, spat them out and then served them in the sauce. I honestly didn’t think that this was bonkers.

I don’t think it’s a plot-spolier to say that this event is repeated in one scene in the novel! What I suppose this demonstrates is that a) everything is copy and, in the case of What a Way to Go, b) I was always searching for a way to inhabit that child-like imagination and point of view. Adults do tend to complicate matters.

I chose to use the prism of fiction because, frankly, I wasn’t ready to publish a memoir but also because, like many childhoods, there was plenty of emotional drama but not enough to warrant the cutting down of trees to print it out in multiple copies. An earlier iteration of this novel was in fact a full-length autobiography of 80,000 words. The manuscript serves as excellent sound insulation in our echoey cottage.


As you write and prepare to write, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?


Imagine if you could get some kind of inoculation against self-doubt, or a course of confidence pills that you could pop while writing! Straight up, I believe that the crucial thing when writing an initial draft is not to judge yourself or your writing. Believe in yourself in epic proportions. It is all too easy to get downbeat and for the oxygen to be sucked out of an embryonic project. Just keep going.


Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?


I write from a place of authenticity. I wouldn’t undertake anything I haven’t thought about from an ethical point of view.


Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write?


A man in his fifties who is sitting on the tube wearing a frown and a bowler hat.


Reading What A Way To Go, the wider historical and social context are subtly fed in – weekends in Hardingstone are “low voltage, thanks to Maggie Thatcher”, for instance. For you as a writer, how do you balance the central focus of the novel – the coming of age story of a child of divorce – with the wider story of England’s changing society through the 1980s?


I read Andy McSmith’s There’s No Such Thing as Society which helped me to choose the historical era in which I set the novel. It was my intention to show, without it being too invasive, how the increasing commercialisation of childhood and pop music hoodwinked a generation of kids, but also how the rising prices of housing in the UK coupled with easy credit – our flexible friend – became the enemy to happiness and skewed our sense of what it means to be free.


In a novel driven so much by characters, what are some of the challenges you, as a writer, face in bringing them to life? And do you develop any kind of relationship with the characters on the page?


I cut several characters out and amalgamated a few after the first draft because the chorus was too large. I wanted Harper to have two good friends as counterpoints – Derek and Cassie – but also I wanted both parents to have confidants – Oona and Patrick. As the novel is told in the first person, there is quite a lot of dialogue as this is one of the few options that were available to me for Harper to find out information that she wouldn’t otherwise have known. I did develop a relationship with the characters, especially Harper, who I felt very fond of by the end because of her ability to straight-talk, and tell a joke. I can’t tell a joke for toffee; I always forget the punch line.


For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?


I don’t have another persona who helps me write. For me, it is a matter of getting myself as far away from the keyboard as possible as it were, and becoming more of a conduit. As soon as ego starts to get in the way, things become murky. The ideal is to have a direct line to the writing in hand and not to over-think. It’s an intuitive process, but it takes a lot of practice and a large part of my writing career to date has been about failing and learning from that process.


What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?


I think there will always be authors who experiment, set trends and defy norms. I don’t think any of us can predict where the form of the novel is heading. That is what makes reading a book so exciting.


Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?


I am working on a project on the theme of sorrow.


Could you write us a story in 6 words?


Piano washed out by spring tide.


Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?


  1. Believe in yourself.
  2. Turn off the Internet.
  3. Read books intimately.
  4. Pretend you know what you’re doing.
  5. Remember: you have other body parts aside from fingers.
  6. Caffeinate regularly.
  7. Celebrate each small achievement.
  8. Be supportive to fellow authors.
  9. Invest in wax earplugs.
  10. Ignore housework until it reaches biohazard level.



To purchase What a Way to Go visit

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