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organising the word


                                                   cori stewart and writers of Bundaberg, Queensland
I had a wonderful and fascinating time in Australia. These are the rest of my blogposts for Arts Queensland
The second meeting I chaired at the State Library was for literature and cultural organisations.
Back in the UK I’ve talked to lots of literature organizations about their unique position in the bookscape, urging them to seize the full potential of this moment of radical change, but not feeling too convinced they will.
My gut instinct is that Queensland really is capable of leading the way into this brave new world.
This is a huge State, home to a good number of writers of quality working across a range of genres including poetry, children’s books, literary, speculative, romance and crime writing, graphic novels, poetry on the page and in performance, Indigenous Australian storytelling and memoir. Where other cities may have a stronger literary infrastructure and heritage, Brisbane has ambitious strategies for cultural development and the will to stimulate writing that reaches out to real readers in Queensland, the nation and the world.
The economic dominance of the USA is waning and sadly the UK appears to be sliding into oblivion. Australia is primed to play a major role in the new world arising. Like I said, this is a moment to shake off our habits and look at the best way now to do what we really think matters, but old habits die hard and change is never easy.
Futureproofing the book involves providing tools for the multiplicity of publishing options made possible by the web, from multimedia apps to print on demand production. Mentoring is needed to help individuals find the skills, advisors and collaborators that they need to pick the best route to readers and income for them. Pitching sessions help train writers to present ideas to publishers, games makers, film producers. Crowd funding sites allow writers to present planned books and ask for donations and/or collaborators to work with on realizing them.
A big idea emerged: for a geo location project so that wherever you go in Queensland you can pick up stories from the cloud chosen to be read in your specific location. And we discussed how knowing that funding might be available for translation would be a real spur to writers and publishers to broaden their horizons and make work with more overseas readers in mind.
Measuring the word
My third meeting was with members of the State of Writing group to discuss in particular how we can best evaluate and quantify activities across the sector.
I don’t want to be gloomy but the UK’s descent into austerity is worth reflecting on. With a change of government, overnight those winning arguments for the arts were cast aside. Anything not deemed utterly essential is being cut, along with the agencies that exist to argue their importance. Why fund organizations that tell you how criminal it is to cut other funds? Axe them first and nip protest in the bud seems to be the policy.
As the pundits talk about the UK entering a ‘lost decade’ of stagnation and dwindling global influence, the importance of strategies like this one is proved ever more important. Cultural capital doesn’t rely on bankers and bonds; the value of the Beatles and Shakespeare endure. And the viral spread of cultural phenomena reminds us that global success is never more than a click away.
When I ran Booktrust, with a portfolio of very different projects from literary prizes to the Bookstart books for babies scheme, we talked about whether the aim of our work was to make more booktime – could we measure all our activities in terms of the amount and depth of time for reading that we generated in people’s lives?
A children’s literature centre could be a good thing for Queensland, but what would convince someone who didn’t give a damn about books for kids that this could be an economical engine for improving literacy, generating social harmony, attracting a few more tourists and perhaps even some votes?
At the meeting we explored the pros and cons of economic and social arguments for the arts, the relative merits of performance indicators, statistics, academic research and anecdotal evidence to create a winning case. All agreed on the need for a coherent narrative across the sector.
I picture a structure of tubes, taps and reservoirs which we could stand over, tinkering with faucets and flows to ensure that as literacy levels increase, the pool of creative readers fills and this in turn leads to booksales rising. If the flow of cash is reduced, how can least damage be done to the whole waterworks?
In hard times we can use cheap, digital means to create resilient networks making life on a shoestring worth living. When more resources on the table we know how to lobby for them – and how best to divide the spoils.

Romancing Bundaberg

Chris Meade, founder of if:books UK, meets with writers in Bundaberg…
An energetic group of writers gathered at Bundaberg library for coffee, cake and heated debate. The group, many of whom are successful authors of genre fiction, took some convincing that the State really was prepared to promote and reward romance, crime and speculative fiction as well as the literary. They also showed ample evidence of the economic potential of these forms.
This group loved the idea of the geo-located stories project but suggested the addition of a ‘buy’ button, so having heard a sample, users could download the whole book – at a price. This kind of story map would also be a wonderfully unifying scheme. Here you could find Indigenous storytellers, all kinds of published poetry, literary and genre fiction, self published and ‘amateur’ writing from emerging authors, even contributions from schoolchildren.
A fear of being overlooked out here in the regions was tempered with respect for the outreach work of Queensland Writers Centre (QWC) and excitement about social media as a means to connect across country. A lot of time is spent blogging, tweeting but these were also new writerish skills that opened up new income streams as trainers and community managers.
Before setting off for Bundaberg I had looked in on Avid Reader, the West End bookshop which has frequently featured in these meetings as a vital hub for local writers – some of whom it employs – and the centre of a big community of readers. I loved the shop, its performance space, café, burgeoning stock of books and even some rather classy Kindle and iPad covers on the counter. Having watched the decline in UK highstreet bookselling, I fear for the future of their shop – but these strategic meetings make it crystal clear that the book love, knowledge and network which Avid embodies is the life blood of any strategy; let it pump through the networked veins of all Queensland. 
Meanwhile in Brisbane and Bundaberg, festivals for writers and readers were praised as one enduring means to stimulate whatever bookiness the future holds, be it borrowing, buying, downloading, writing, publishing, producing, reading, sharing, dreaming…


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