Finally, it was time for our Closing Speaker to take to the stage. An author from Stirling, Ross Sayers has written Daisy on the Outer Line, Sonny and Me and Mary’s the Name. Despite insisting that he doesn’t know much about publishing, Ross’s speech had us feeling pretty seen as publishing hopefuls by describing us as ‘seagulls flocking over a single chip’ when speaking about publishing jobs!
He begins by taking us through his career so far. Ross describes it as ‘pretty boring, so obviously Marvel wants to make a Disney+ series about it!’ He went to University of Stirling and studied English lit, where he got a first due to the creative writing modules he took, and then chose to stay on and get a Master's in Creative Writing. He got a scholarship, and Ross was honest enough to say that without the scholarship, he would not have been able to afford it. He also clarified that he doesn’t think it is essential for a writer to have done a Creative Writing Master's to get published – in fact, he said that for every writer who has one, there are two who didn’t. It does not automatically lead to getting published, that’s up to you as authors.
His first book, Mary’s the Name, was rejected by multiple companies before Scotland-based publishing company, Cranachan, decided to publish it in 2017. Ross described his journey to that first publication as ‘lucky’. He was in the right place at the right time, and that being a writer was ‘half about writing and half about luck’. But he still feels like he doesn’t know that much about publishing, and Cranachan tells him a lot. From the outside in, big publishing houses seem like secretive creatures, according to Ross. You only ever hear their big announcements or good things, and that makes him wonder about the things they’re not telling us. And that is the same with authors – there is an unspoken pact to only post good things on social media. He thinks it’s time for publishers to share more with their authors, just as more authors are not just sharing the good news, but the bad too.
Speaking about his writing journey so far, Ross has had three books published – two before Covid, and one during Covid, so he’s had both kinds of experiences. He thinks that authors who have published their debuts during lockdown and haven’t been able to experience any in-person events should be put to the front of the queue once they can happen again. But he reminds attendees that just because he’s been published a few times now, he isn’t set for life. He still has to work full-time, so his writing is relegated to weekends and evenings. If he wants a week off to write, or to attend a writer’s retreat, he has to take annual leave from his day job; if he has to visit a school or attend a festival panel to promote his book, he has to take annual leave from his day job. All his free time is spent writing, which is exhausting – and Ross qualifies that he’s lucky as he doesn’t have any kids or other types of caring responsibilities that would make it even more tiring and difficult. He’s still early in his career, and his ultimate goal is for writing to be his full-time job. Ross even commented that he would’ve made better books if they’d had his undivided attention.
Ross moves on to speak about Twitter – a few of his tweets have gone viral, which helps build an audience for his books. But despite being pretty active online, Ross would love to delete Twitter. More people see his tweets than his books. But he stays on to try and market his books, because he feels that his publisher has invested so much time and effort in him as an author and he wants to pay them back. Unfortunately, as they don’t have a lot of money to market his books a lot, it’s up to him.
To reach the point that he can write full-time, Ross needs to get picked up by one of the big publishers, but you don’t get in there without an agent, and that is something that Ross so far has been unsuccessful in. This could partly be down to the fact that a couple of his books are in Scots, which apparently makes him a Scots writer. This is a niche audience, even within Scotland, which is unappealing to a big publisher – even though they’re the ones who should be taking the risks and publishing in Scots because they have the money to do it, compared with small independent publishers.
Throughout the speech, Ross frequently mentioned feeling like an imposter. He described himself as ‘a nobody, but slightly less of a nobody than in 2017.’ He didn’t feel qualified to give advice to new writers, as there isn’t a test that makes you an author, unlike a lawyer or a teacher. Once you’ve published a book, you’re an author, and you have to work out what kind of author you’re going to be. But remember that you’re going to make mistakes. To publishers, he asked us to remember that authors are fallible and scared and just working it all out. And that they don’t know what publishing is all about – writers and publishers are totally different things. So while he doesn’t know what publishing should change, he does know that we should do more to support our indie publishers. They’re the backbone of the publishing industry. They take risks, prepare authors, create niches and set trends – all things the Big Five should be doing.
As for what publishers can do for authors – they need to be honest with their authors. Both about what they can do and what they can’t do for their authors. Cranachan is a great example of this.
And, most importantly... buy his books! They’re available on Cranachan’s website.
To bring the conference to a close after Ross’s speech, it was time for a performance by poet Gray Crosbie. They started with their infamous poem that was released last year, and received a lot of backlash from one Piers Morgan – Gray said that they wear that like a ‘badge of pride’. Entitled ‘Haircut between the binaries’, it speaks of the difficulties that people who are non-binary face in wanting something as simple as a haircut.
Like most people, Gray admitted struggling with creativity and being creative during the pandemic, especially when being stuck in their flat all the time. But they did write a poem, which SYP conference attendees were lucky enough to hear a debut of, titled ‘Neighbours’. One of its most poignant lines that described the pandemic was ‘Lives on pause, but persisting.’ We also got to hear part of Gray’s new flash fiction book, Love, Pan-Fried, published by Knight Errant Press. It is a book of flash fiction stories all about love, loss and our relationships with our bodies.
Finally, Gray performed a poem that would possibly make some people uncomfortable, but absolutely transported the audience watching. ‘Taboo’ spoke about different experiences of and views on period sex – ‘Their bedding like a crime scene where misogyny was murdered.’
To finish, Co-chairs Sonali Misra and Sarah Barnard gave their closing remarks to sum up what has been an immense conference. Themes drawn were imposter syndrome, the need to ensure things continue to change in the way they have in the past year, and the importance of representation of all in our books.