Just as new indie authors benefit from the single-minded, entrepreneurial determination to make their books work no matter what obstacles they may encounter, they can also benefit from collaboration and compromise, based on the input from an experienced specialist publishing team around them.
All posts by John
We get pretty snippy about ghostwriters in publishing. They are thanked profusely in the front of celebrity memoirs, but there is still a cachet in those non-fiction chart-clogging autobiographies being actually written by the subject themselves. It is authentic. It is the real deal. When I am handing over my money and selecting my gift, those books somehow have a greater perceived value.
I wasn’t able to get to Contec at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, so I missed the discussion Where Would You Place Your Bet, looking into a crystal ball about the future of publishing. But I’ve read the Schilling report, created after consultations with publishers around the world which asked the question “How would they go about it if they had to start all over?”
Every start-up wants to develop a platform. Everyone’s trying to leverage a network. You have to tell enough of the right people that you exist for there to be any hope of turning that ten-slide pitch (the last slide illustrating your exit strategy) into a reality of any kind. But I still marvel at the sheer amount of content that gets spun. Most of it consists of blindingly obvious truisms that get re-tweeted again and again — and this is described as ‘engagement’. Stop it. Do work. Do good work of which you are proud, and tell people about that.
It’s like the basic rules of good storytelling. Show, don’t tell. PR is good for your ego, but what is better for your ROI is creating a great product that solves a problem. Now that’s worth PRing.
The curse of the generalist, specialists say, is to believe you can do anything reasonably well. But doing everything is more interesting. whitefox is predicated on the existence of an entire network of specialists, and from the office, we see the whole picture. So you might say we have it both ways.
Going up a level, the space whitefox occupies in the publishing industry as a whole never ceases to fascinate me. We should be as simple and as focussed as we can be. We realise that. If we could do one single thing quicker, better, cheaper than anyone else, we’d be buying a big stake in Snapchat right now just for the hell of it. But all I know is that on one day in August, one day at a time of year when the pace of work is meant to slow down to a summer stroll, we were approached by:
– a Swedish publisher looking for an English translator for a music book
– a national children’s brand wanting a project editor and writer for a marketing campaign
– a business wanting editorial and design support for a self-published e-book series
– a scientific charitable foundation wanting a digital iteration of their forthcoming exhibition catalogue
– a writer based in Singapore wanting a copy-edit for their commercial novel
This isn’t intended as anything other than an opportunity to glory in the diversity of what publishing means to so many different people. Half of this may not even come to anything beyond an initial enquiry. But simply by positioning ourselves at the crossroads between content owners, creators and talented individuals who can answer their questions whitefox has become involved in some wonderful creative projects. It would be rather perverse not to see where it all ends up.
It seems that one major online corporation is rarely out of the news at the moment. Since there’s no dearth of well-researched articles about Amazon, here’s a theory about their influence based on nothing more than supposition. No data, no inside information, nada. Zip.
Global publishing has been buoyed in recent years by a string of books that have exploded globally like supernovas. From The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to The Hunger Games, from Twilight to 50 Shades, publisher accountants have separated out such business altering exceptions so as not to distort their day job of copyright exploitation.
So why have there been none of those in the past two years? Sure, John Green seems permanently rooted to the bestseller list. Divergent seems to have helped HarperCollins post some good figures recently, and Egmont have had fun with the Minecraft books. But no bubble, no books that everyone seems to be reading or talking about.
Now, it could just be that nothing has emerged. That no publisher or indie writer has recently hit on the alchemical formula for mass consumption. Before Harry Potter and Dan Brown, you could argue that it had been a while since Bridget Jones or Thomas Harris. But maybe it’s because the last two years have coincided with Amazon’s being the dominant global seller of books, a business in which promotion and buying and selling is now based on the science of algorithms, not the instincts and experience of a publisher. It is truly consumer driven. And that is not how these bubbles come about. They come about because international publishing machines focus and prioritise and market to the exclusion of other books to amplify the first shoots of success.
Just a theory, based on a hunch, rolled up in a ponder. Of course, we could just all need a holiday…
When you’re representing freelancing talent to publishers and corporates, you have to get used to the peaks and troughs that dot the publishing calendar. When we set up whitefox, we were raring to go 24/7, and some of the patterns that had been familiar to us when we worked in a large organisation started to frustrate us, peering in from the outside. In December, no one makes a decision in December that can’t be put off til January. August is both holiday-quiet for senior execs and crazy-busy for the teams assembling those all-important Christmas books. The London and Frankfurt bookfairs are distractions for entire organisations.
So August 2014 has been something of a revelation inside whitefox towers. We now enjoy a steady pulse of work, a rhythm and flow that is dictated not by companies but by individuals. In the world of indie writers, deadlines are self-determined. The pace of workflow is your own, month after month.
We like the new rhythm and hum of regular work with writers who are self-publishing. We like it a lot.
In James Salter’s recent novel All That Is, Salter uses the wonderful phrase ‘the geography of publishing’ to describe the networks of individuals in the late 20th century who worked on different lists, in different countries, but who liked the same books and kept in touch. They would meet, drink and gossip at the annual Fairs and gatherings and on work trips throughout the year – work trips that required little justification other than a possibility that you could be in the right place at the right time when something interesting came up.
Something like this this still happens, of course. Publishers and editors in their 40s and 50s have established networks of like-minded peers in companies across the world. But what does this geography look like, these days, and how important is it? Are the epicentres of decision-making, once in New York and London, now in Seattle and Luxembourg? These days, isn’t it more likely that international connections exist within a single company conglomerate, where the unquantifiable value of human interaction might be perceived as a smaller return on investment than a round robin email? (And is all this really more about, say, French MBA grads raising money to brief Latvian digital developers on creating new Software-as-a-Service products?)
The very premise of e-publishing breaks down many of the traditional borders and boundaries. It isn’t just that your typesetting can be in India and your printing in Dubai. Decisions made on the basis of algorithms applied to consumer behaviour seem more interesting now to CEOs than books thought up in the bar of the Hessischer Hof hotel in the early hours of a Frankfurt October morning.
At whitefox we are seeing what it is like to work with brands who have specific content marketing strategies in different countries. With writers who are published in one territory, and who are looking to self-publish and market their own work in another. And with our freelancers, who work anywhere and everywhere. Talent is talent, no matter what the time zone.
But we do share in some of the nostalgia for past times. Not for elitism or perpetuating a literary reading culture defined by a select few. But for the serendipity of the creative and intuitive travelling publisher-magpie. I was in a meeting room in the 90s when Penguin’s Peter Mayer and Peter Carson returned from a trip to Barcelona and threw a battered orange box full of small 100 peseta books across a long board room table. Short form digestible fiction and non-fiction, both commercial and literary, in cut off paperbacks, all under 100 pages, and sold alongside the gum and the cigarettes in Spanish kiosks.
They became the model for the millions of Penguin 60s sold in 1995. (Think a 20th century version of the burgeoning Kindle Singles.) Sometimes you can just be in the right place at the right time.
This week I was interested to catch up with a friend and ex-colleague who has spent the last few years in the USA. Once close and familiar with UK trade publishing, he is now very much on the outside looking in, immersed as he is in educational and corporate digital subscriptions on the other side of the Atlantic.
We discussed what had happened since he left. The mergers and acquisitions. The spectacular falls from commercial grace. The speed of disintermediation. The astounding statistics of the self-publishing industry. Amazon, of course…
‘So it’s actually happened, then? The “correction” we’d been discussing for years, which never seemed to quite materialise?’
Perhaps it finally has. So much has changed in the UK publishing industry in recent years that warnings of a coming tipping point are beginning to sound passé. What was that story about frogs and boiling water?