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Interview with Alison Baverstock

Alison Baverstock is a published author and a senior lecturer on the Publishing MA at Kingston University.

How do you write?

I find it helpful to have a structure around which to fit your writing: if you had all day in which to write, the risk is that nothing would get done.

What was your first book to be published?

It was How to Market Books (Kogan Page 1990). After leaving university I worked in publishing, on the marketing side, and it had always struck me that there was no manual on how to do this – I am sure we spent a lot of time reinventing the wheel. I had the idea to write one, and then wrote it while pregnant with our second child – in the end book and baby came just four days apart! I am proud to say that it is still in print (now in its fifth incarnation) and has been translated into 16 languages. And as our daughter was born on a Friday, she still has an edition of The Bookseller with her date of birth on the cover!

How do you manage your time?

I divide my time between writing and teaching roughly 50:50, although the activities are mutually reinforcing. I find that things I am writing about crop up when talking to the students, and they constantly force me to re-evaluate my ideas. And working on dissertations with them is endlessly challenging.

What’s the most satisfying part of teaching?

I love seeing the next generation of publishers get enthused. After a semester of lectures and assignments, the students go out on placement, and their sudden realisation of how what we have taught them at Kingston works in practice is very motivating. I visit them all and usually come away feeling like a proud parent!

And for the writing side of your life?

There is nothing quite like seeing the first copy of a new book. For Is there a book in you? my publishers arranged for me to go along and watch it being printed, and for once I was speechless. My husband had come with me and luckily he was able to ask all the right questions. I confess I just cried.

What advice would you give a new writer?

Try to separate the wanting to write from the wanting to get published. Write something that feels whole and is as good as you can make it before you start trying to get other people interested in publishing it. Trying to sell the work as you write it tends to diminish both the writing and your ability to be objective about it to third parties.

What does every writer need to know about publishing?

That it is a business. Just as stockbrokers need to spread the risk, and invest in a variety of different kinds of company, so publishers need to invest in a variety of different kinds of writer. For the firm to survive, and publish in future, most of the titles must sell and make a profit.

Authors should never forget that publishers are either investing their own money (if it is an independent company) or money for which they are accountable (if they are part of a larger corporation); the industry is not a charity.

Can friends offer useful feedback on writing?

Yes, if they are really willing to engage with it and you are willing to listen to what they have to say – and think the friendship will survive their honesty. The worst kind of feedback is the ‘it’s very nice dear’ kind without further specific comment, although perhaps even worse is when friends agree to look at something, then don’t get back to you – and you are left wondering whether you should remind or cajole, and probably just feeling uncomfortable (did they just hate it and not have the courage to tell you?).

What’s a good alternative?

Rather than relying on friends it may be better to form a writing group, or join a course, or pay for feedback, through one of the literary consultancies available. But always remember that the decision on whether or not to accept feedback is the writer’s alone – because it is your work.

Is there a book in everyone?

I think there is a story inside everyone, the story of how you became who you are, but that this does not necessarily make a book that others want to read.

Are writers hard to live with?

I guess you would have to ask my family. In truth I think we are difficult to live with because so often while we are physically present, we are mentally absent – daydreaming about our writing. Mind you, I think we tend to be quite interesting as a group, and most people love to have a book dedicated to them.

Does reading need to be encouraged?

It behoves all those who want to write (and frankly everyone who enjoys books themselves) to encourage reading. Reading promotes greater self-knowledge – and hence wisdom, and it is surprising how often reading about how characters in a novel, or a biography, have handled situations can give real insight into our own lives. Writers of course need to be aware that if no one is reading, we have no one to read what we write. We need to encourage people of all ages to see that not all entertainment is screen based.

What is your favourite book?

My all-time favourite book is Persuasion by Jane Austen. I think it’s the most sensual book, full of hidden smiles, and also has some marvellous character studies (Mary is my favourite). I have read it about eight times over the course of my life, from a 15-year-old at school to just last year, and each time it feels slightly different to me. The first time I saw it as a simple love story, but re-reading it last year it suddenly seemed quite bitter, with money and privilege wasted on the wrong people, and real pain over missed chances.

A more contemporary choice is The Rotter’s Club by Jonathan Coe. I think I must be the same age as the main character and loved all the references to growing up, and the music that went with it (in our case David Bowie).

What’s next for you?

I have just finished writing a memoir of my own teenage years, which is with my agent right now. I have also become very interested in the role of the writer in society, and the challenges that are emerging. With content now seen as the most important thing, and rights the main issue in publishing, the position of the author is significantly improved. I am currently researching a book on this big change and the opportunities it brings.