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From the Archive: ‘Publishing and writing is hopeless but we try anyway’

From the Archive: ‘Publishing and writing is hopeless but we try anyway’

This week, we've been thinking about how Welsh publishing has changed in the 25 years Parthian has been a part of it, and where we think it will go next.

Reminiscing over the evolving - and oftentimes challenging - landscape of Welsh literature, shared with long-time friends like author Richard Gwyn (who's latest novel was published this week), here's what our founding Editor Richard thought back in 2012:


Author Richard Davies, who also runs Parthian, asks if things have changed for the better for the publishing industry in Wales over the last decade

“Publishers are few in number, inadequately resourced, have small profits and sluggish cash flows, and are over dependent on subsidy from public sources... On a more positive note, Welsh publishing houses have ambition, talented and committed staff and good quality authors.”

Sections 2.22 – 2.2.4 Welsh writing in English A Review, March 2004, chaired by Rosemary Butler

Lloyd Robson writes to me by email. There’s a party and a poetry reading at the Royal Oak pub at the edge of Splott.

It’s a farewell to Cardiff party for Lloyd. He’s got a Green Card. There’s a woman waiting for him in New York, his wife.

I rewind six years and I’m sitting with him, Richard Gwyn and Gillian at a café just down from Shakespeare and Company bookshop; it is May and we have money and a reading waiting for us in the evening.

The huge gothic spires of Our Lady soar up into the blue Parisian sky. We are drinking white wine, Richard is drinking water. We talk about the possibilities of writing, the need to find an audience, the chance of finding a subject. We are all writers who have at one time established our own publishing concerns: Black Hat for Lloyd, Cranc for Richard, Parthian for me and my partner Gillian.

It has become part of the necessity of writing ourselves into the world, of creating a future. Richard suggests an idea for Lloyd – Robert Mitchum and a quest to find the truth about the actor who was also a poet and maybe the chance to have a drink in some of the bars he was known to frequent.

An age later we are different people, we’ve all fallen out in different ways and Lloyd is leaving the city that formed his work, leaving for the New World on a Green Card.

He’d written the book, Oh Dad! A Search For Robert Mitchum; it attracted good reviews but few sales. But he’d met someone in New York, married her and now he was leaving. Books, they do change you.

In the summer of 2011 Richard published A Vagabond’s Breakfast, an account of his journey through life and the countries of the north shore of the Mediterranean as an itinerant poet, fruit-picker and drinker.

It is a good book of reflection, action, consequence and recovery which leaves the reader with a few questions to ask the narrator. Maybe I should have asked him while he was still speaking to me on the terrace of that café in Paris.

It is six years on from a book he published, The Colour of a Dog Running Away, which was translated into five languages and sold more than 30,000 copies internationally. They were published by different publishers but shaped by the same editor, Gwen Davies.

Gwen is now shaping the New Welsh Review. I wonder about these circles in small worlds.

Looking back at 20 years in the publishing world, Wales is a different place; we have a real country now, not just one forced upon us. The wider political landscape has changed and closer to the ground, writing has changed. Wales is a still a fictional and elementally real place, but the imagination is broader, wider, more ambitious.

In the spring of the current year I send a letter to other Welsh publishers and our funding partners, the Welsh Books Council, entitled Where Do We Go From Here?

It stirs a few responses; it suggests a way forward in difficult times.

We are currently at a crucial point in the development of a Welsh publishing industry able to compete in a national and international market.

We are close to a decade on from the Welsh Assembly report into Welsh publishing which resulted in a significant period of investment in publishing in Wales and stimulated a significant increase in output.

The report from the opening set the scene.

“Publishers are few in number…”

I like this quote, the bleakness counterpointed by hope. I think all publishing and writing is a part of that theme. It is hopeless but we will try anyway. The Butler report did provide a framework for change in Welsh publishing and a crucial tranche of investment in the industry through support for publishers and writers. It produced books such as Dial M for Merthyr by Rachel Trezise, Lloyd’s search for Robert Mitchum, Seren’s endless Mabinogologi, Library of Wales series, a slew of marketing initiatives which helped to sell books and promote writers.

More books, more conversation, the carnival of voices.

Publishing is a bit like a carnival of books, they all seem so vital and immediate when you are publishing them but the energy and necessity in the pages usually falls away into a silence with the world only stirred when one is discovered on a shelf at Oxfam, a letter from an agent asking about sales or a junior lecturer conspires to put something new and forgotten on a syllabus.

For writers it is worse; when your book is published it is like the fair arriving in town, all flashing lights and rides on the waltzer.

The phone rings and the email screen lights up with excitement and tempting offers but then after the Saturday night of the launch, the writer wakes up bleary-eyed on a grey Sunday, the fair has packed-up and moved on. Your new friends are writing about someone else.

Six months on you get a review in the New Welsh Review and a year on a royalty statement that doesn’t quite cover your advance and you wonder where all the promises went.

But as a writer you need to be part of this conversation. Parthian Books published my first novel in September 1993. I had set up the company with a loan from the Prince’s Youth Business Trust and an Enterprise Allowance grant.

The business was based on two books, Work, Sex and Rugby and How to Publish Yourself, a manual on self-publishing by Peter Finch.

Nineteen years on and there are more than 200 books in print with Parthian and a 32-set Library of Wales series.

Each book holds its own story and journey into print, a conversation between writers, editors and readers that continues. The company has been part of a wider conversation of writing that has emerged in the last decade with Welsh writers once again being visible on the national and international stage and publishers for the first time.

Now maybe ambition is not always a good thing but I’m trying to make a claim for Wales to make a claim to becoming a guest nation at the Frankfurt International Book Fair.


This article was originally published in the spring edition of The Welsh Agenda: www.iwa.org.uk