By Emma Sartori
As the book publishing industry has evolved with the modern world, so too has the necessary relationships within it.
Relationships like the one between an author and publisher; an author and his character; a reader and an author; and between an author and himself. Begging the question, what does it take to be an author in the 21st century?
New Zealand author Paul Ewen took that concept and ran with it in his first novel, How to be a Public Author? Protagonist Francis Plug was seven years in the making, brought to life by Ewen who would take his alter ego along to literary events.
It’s book festivals and the role they play that become a central discussion point for Ewen, publisher and host Eloise Miller and journalist Alex Carr in The Writer and His Alter Ego session.
Promoting a book these days is almost an elaborate game of Chinese whispers. While traditional media still plays a huge part in developing readership, publishers, Miller admits, have realised the power word of mouth can have. The reach can be far but it may not necessarily be wide enough, forcing authors to step out from behind their characters and words to give their book that extra push.
“The expectation of what you do as an author has changed,” Miller said. “You don’t just write a book and wait at home while the reviews come in. You get into this kind of stream and river of interviews and events and readings and you’re really expected to put yourself out there.”
At war with that, though, is the enduring notion that authors are reclusive beings. And while Ewen doesn’t fit that bill at all, he does have an endearing awkwardness evened out by a sharp sense of humour the audience is given flashes of throughout the session.
“The night of the Booker Prize shortlist last year, Francis Plug went along and he tried to get into the backstage because he thought he should be on the shortlist. But they wouldn’t let him in, so he took a photo, which got circulated afterward, of his book at Foyles, they have a Booker shortlist shelf, so he took a photo of his book there and he went back and said, ‘Look here it is!’ But they still wouldn’t let him in,” he said with a wry smile.
“He is eccentric,” Miller said. “Francis Plug is the ultimate outsider.”
Ewen agreed: “He’s said he wants to be this author but he can see what’s coming and that’s the whole point of writing this book for himself, he’s learning tips and going around to all these Booker prize winners because they’re at the coalface of public author-ness and he’s trying to work out if he can do it himself.”
The demand for author visibility has increased along with the proliferation of literary festivals, which in turn offer the chance to read a writer up close. Despite the performance aspect of the job not being his cup of tea, author events do have their place, Ewen believes.
“For my case, I’m obviously keen to do it because I’ve got the backing of a small publisher who doesn’t have the big marketing budgets that the big publishers have got, so I also want to help do my bit. I’m not on social media either; I’m not a fan of that, so I feel like I’ve got to do my part to push the book.”
“[Big festivals] present you with the opportunity to get close up to writers and I suppose that’s why they’ve been so successful,” Carr agreed.
Publicity isn’t the only thing Ewen is getting out of the events though (he’s been to five in two weeks); he’s gathering material for his follow-up book. So have we caught the eye of Francis Plug?
“These events are what go in my book, funnily enough. This is all good material for me,” Ewen said.
“I can’t escape this character … You’re always looking for his take.”
Emma Sartori is an Australian writer continually beating away inner demons with a pen. Follow her on twitter on @EmzSartori.