A debut author's take on publishing world's 'Super Thursday' – Laura Waddell

Laura Waddell’s new book Exit, which looks at everything from Brexit and independence to Sesame Street and a poet who only start writing in Scots after moving to San Francisco, is being published without the normal bookshop launch
The last of Glasgow's famous Red Road Flats before they were demolished in 2015 (Picture: John Devlin)The last of Glasgow's famous Red Road Flats before they were demolished in 2015 (Picture: John Devlin)
The last of Glasgow's famous Red Road Flats before they were demolished in 2015 (Picture: John Devlin)

On this day, hundreds of books will be published – and mine. It is Super Thursday, named by the book trade for the vast volume of titles published on one day, flooding bookshops and fighting for press attention in arts sections which shrink year on year. I usually see it from a publisher’s perspective. This year I am experiencing it from an author’s perspective, and let me tell you, it’s not easy.

Like most situations, Covid has made it all a little worse than usual. Many big name books were pushed back by a few months, lifted out of spring and summer schedules in the hope things would be closer to normal by autumn. The little guys, already struggling up against much bigger marketing budgets and star power, are having to push even harder to be noticed by the arts editors whose own workload is ever multiplying. The celebrity memoirs – and they have their place – will be fine. But ultimately it’s a shame for the reader, because from little independent literary presses, like Tramp Press who I work for, often comes new voices and risk-taking, innovative and original books.

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I’m not under any illusion that my strange little book has mass appeal. Ideally, I hope it gets into the hands of a small number of readers who click with it rather than many who could take or leave it. The Object Lessons series that it sits within tells the hidden stories of everyday objects such as golf balls, telephone booths, and remote controls; by their nature both factual and surreal, they appeal to readers who enjoy a bit of weird culture and unexpected digression. I was fascinated by them for a few years before I pitched, particularly Hotel by Joanna Walsh, which mined her uncanny experiences as a hotel reviewer. But still, knowing from my day job that there is additional strain on review space just as my own first book launches – and that literary reviewing still has a gender imbalance – has been unexpectedly stressful.

Like a see without a saw

Now the season is turning, bookshops are indeed open once again, but festivals, so crucial to book momentum, are running limited digital programmes, making cuts where they have to. Debuts, like me, are often first to go. Events I’d been looking forward to since January have been scratched out of my diary, made impossible by the virus. I understand why, but wish there was more support being extended to first-time writers, for whom the encouragement and platforming really goes a long way.

I don’t necessarily mind taking a break from all the panel events I’ve sat both through and on, and I don’t at all miss being tired all month, but I’ve never had a festival season so quiet, so devoid of chatter and chance meetings in crowds. What’s missing is the opportunity for camaraderie. Festivals are where writers get together. Writer friends have also felt the strangeness of an upended working year typically shaped by a burst of great activity in August, followed by a break in September and then back to writing again as the nights draw in earlier. Time has become unanchored, like a see without the saw.

Forgive the lament. But writing is a solitary pursuit. Everyone says so, and it turns out, they were right. Launching is the chance not just to make sales but to meet readers, and connect with them. It gets us out of our writing hovels where typically, we hunch over the keyboard like Gollum. I love to watch the excitement of signing queues as readers clutch their copies waiting to be autographed, and most importantly, have a minute of face-to-face conversation about what it means to them. In these moments, we remember why we do it all. You see? The melancholy needs something to puncture it. It needs the rush of fresh air.

Fleeing the Nazis for life in exile

So as my book comes out today, it won’t be with the bookshop event I’d always dreamed of, in the way we’re said to dream of weddings, but my friends, bless them, forced me to have a little Zoom toast last night to mark publication, knowing I was struggling to muster strength. There is no need to buy a new dress, although I might, anyway, and I will be getting my nails painted to match my book cover. I will not be putting out little cups of wine for an audience, and nor will I be going for cocktails afterwards. But at least I will feel I have marked the event in some way.

Exit is a series of short essays exploring exits in migration, evacuation, eviction, transport, architecture, language, art, Sesame Street, garbage, Brexit, and Scottish independence. Exits are everywhere; they mark the difference between here and there, staying and going. In the development of the classic exit-sign design is social history, and the fascinating evolution of pictorial language.

At what point does emigration stop being an exit, and become an entrance? I looked at immigration and the Google algorithm, how it splits these two things apart, halting stories mid-way through. I wrote of artists forced to flee the Nazis, such as writer Stefan Zweig, whose books always reflect the experience of exile.

One chapter is about lesser known Scottish poet Helen Adam who left Glasgow to hang around with the Beats in San Francisco, and wrote in Scots only after she’d exited the country. I reflect on the language spoken by my grandfather, and wonder what of it has exited my generation.

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Exits are a class issue, marking where we can and cannot go. I wrote about Kowloon Walled City, Ponte City and the Red Road Flats, and how histories of high-density buildings are preserved. I wrote about airport layouts, elevator buttons, motorway junctions, and my favourite bit of road in Glasgow.

Exits are, ultimately, an existential matter. Written before Covid, the book forced me to look anew at death. It was a different world when I handed the manuscript in, but some things are eternal.

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