How Competition Kills Craft

by Andrew Oldham

This article is the first step to generate an open discussion on UK Publishing; whether to embrace a new ethos of co-operation or to continue with the principals of competition. This debate must be held as we move into new technologies, new social networks, new ways of selling, reading and writing, in a bid to connect directly to an audience. The old argument of art for arts sake is lost, withdrawal of ACE funding, the move towards sustainable business models all dictate this. Writing, reading and publishing is now, more than ever, a global commodity thanks to the internet. The internet is built in one ethos, co-operation. Years before the web became a place to sell books, writers and poets where using it to improve their work, at such places as, ABCTales, East of the Web and Poetry Circle. Now, UK publishers are starting to see the web as another way to sell and compete. Think. What does competition mean to you? Competition provides choice. Wrong.

If you want proof of the failure of competition look at your own high street, the same names, same supermarkets and out of town shopping malls that could be in any UK city. It is a cheap lie that competition creates choice; it kills craft and creates carbon copies. Now, a whole new generation of writers and poets want to be next Terry Pratchett or JK Rowling. Rarely do they want to be the first of something new.

Competition undermines the independent publisher, reader and retailer. There is the old tired argument that the independent bookshop cannot compete with the big chains and this is transferred to the independent publisher too. Wrong. Stop thinking in a competitive manner, it is not about competing, it is about providing a choice to the reader. There are ways in which you can connect with the reader, and still sell.

A number of independent publishers have embraced the spirit of co-operation. Comma Press (Manchester) are now producing films by pairing poets and film makers together and connecting with new audiences. TTA Press (Cambridgeshire) is out at the conventions, festivals and has a connection to their readers via forums and podcasts (Transmissions from beyond). Route Publishing (Pontefract) are tying in with successful films (Looking for Eric), launching podcasts, forums and blogs. All our regional based UK Publishers. All have a National and Global identity by connecting, co-operating and working with readers.

It is important to remember that competition and promotion are two different things. Being competitive is a fruitless past time. Fifteen years of promoting reading and publishing has taught me this. I have sat on panels at Literature festivals and at local libraries, under the banner of how to get published. There is a constant question, why them, not me? You have already provided your own answer.

I have not met any publishers that are alike, not one editor, not one reader, not one poet or writer but for some reason many feel they must be in competition with each other, believing they have or are the next Terry Pratchett or JK Rowling. Wrong. Here is the universal truth if you believe this, they do not exist, there is only one of them and you’re not them. The upside is that you are the only you, now celebrate this and write like you.

Yes, it is true that publishers compare their writers and poets with other writers and poets, this is promotion. It helps readers it doesn’t help writers or poets. It really doesn’t even help the publisher. Readers are clever than that.

Then there is silly competitive part in UK Publishing, selling. Big chains force down book prices, generate figures on how much one cheap book is out selling another cheap book and big publishers have a knee jerk reaction and produce the next Dan Brown. Wrong.

Unfortunately, competition and knee jerk reactions are creeping into the Independents too. In 2003, I founded Incwriters with the aim of bringing publishers and readers together. In six years I have seen doors close for new and established writers, poets, publishers but the choice for readers has exploded because of the web. This cannot be sustained. A reason for this is competition. Publishers are running scared. Publishers cannot afford to take chances. With the death of chance goes co-operation. Incwriters has set up Save Our Presses to turn back this tide, bringing together over thirty publishers who want to co-operate and take a chance.

Not every UK Publisher is mean spirited or co-operative but the growth of the web, of social networks will mean readers are more connected with publishers, writers and poets than ever before. It will reveal those who are truly committed to excellence in publishing and those who are just looking to make money quick. True.

Publishers who seek to dominate the market are barking up the wrong tree. They are over compensating for a sense of inadequacy.

Unfortunately, inadequacy spreads easily and is the root of all our competitive natures. Inadequacy is easily transferred between publishers, readers, writers and poets.

Readers feel inadequate that they are not well read compared to other readers. Poets rage at why their poems are rejected while another poet they know is always published. Writers seethe at not being having that big but simple idea that Terry Pratchett or JK Rowling had. We call this competitive spirit. Wrong. Inadequate spirit. True.

The idea that we are in competition with each other must be guarded against, laughed at. Competition kills craft, kills co-operation and could kill the web.

Publishers, poets, writers and readers must celebrate the individuality of themselves and others. Publishers, poets, writers need to accept that readers don’t really care if you’re the next someone, they want to know if you have something to say.

Just remember next time you walk down your high street past all those names that can be found in any UK city, competition leads to monopoly, monopoly leads to no choice, which leads to apathy, apathy leads to frustration, frustration leads destruction. Just to be global.

You can do that by switching on your computer and opening a social network.

Andrew Oldham is the Director of Incwriters ( He is an award winning poet and writer. You can continue the debate at Incwriters or through these pages. the View From Here is an active member of Save Our Presses.

Photo Credit of blindfolded writers J Hayne

1 comment:

Mike French said...

Litdrift enter the debate here: