All posts by John

On The NYT’s Leaked Report On Innovation

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

Much has already been written about the New York Times’s leaked internal report on innovation, and many have applauded the paper’s vision. Dig a little into the fallout and you’ll find a lot of naysayers  but if I were one of the big publishing players jockeying for position at the moment, looking to make the best mergers and alliances to scale whilst simultaneously, as one journalist put it to me recently, implementing strategies ” driven primarily by the desire not to fuck up”, I’d find much to cheer about within the document’s eminently digestible 96 pages.

There’s a good reason for that: it is very practically relevant. Not just in terms of protecting unique assets and communicating a simple core belief ( for “winning at journalism” read “publishing the very best books we can”). But also for the focus on necessary structural changes (although some of the larger global conglomerates are further ahead than others at properly integrating creative commissioning and digital). All the talk of mining the archives, of creating influencer maps (this isn’t about marketing departments as a link in a chain but about anyone who knows anyone utilising that relationship) and of personalisation and packaging are directly applicable to the copyright owning leviathans.

It is as easy to fall into the trap of equating large publishers with stasis as it is to assume that only scale and market share allows you to innovate and experiment. But this blueprint from within an industry even more disrupted by digital than the world of books is refreshing in the tangible strategies it offers up, to contribute towards a difficult and somewhat belated process of cultural change.

Thoughts On Entering Publishing

By | Events, Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

I recently attended a university student networking event. (It’s that time of year.)

At events like these, the idea is for professionals and alumni to mix and mingle with students to help them make contacts and find work. We’re there to give advice and suggest strategies based on our experience. Should you apply for an MA. Where are the most useful work placements? What do you do if you want to work in publishing and you don’t live in London? Good questions all. And alongside the old hands are more recent graduates, fresh into assistant or junior roles in local or large corporate environments. They’re also well equipped to talk about what employers are looking for now, to give tips on making applications stand out and on how to behave whilst doing work experience.

An observation. Whilst the book publishing world I have known for the last few years has never felt more challenging, exciting, dynamic, entrepreneurial and essential (I could go on), very little seems to have changed at events like these. The core of advice remains largely the same. No one mentioned LinkedIn, let alone Twitter. One of the questions I was asked to address was “is publishing dying?”. I realise that this was intended to make me launch into a staunch defence of the industry, to repeat that the rise of self-publishing and Amazon and consolidation doesn’t have to lead to diminishing opportunities for traditional publishing careers in editorial and marketing. But instead all it made me think was this: we all have to do a bit better.

If trade publishers are not going to morph into tech companies or retailers in the immediate future, if their proposition is the acquisition and exploitation of commercial rights, experimenting with new models along the way, then there needs to be a bit of a rear guard action at graduate events that connect new entrants with professionals. We need the next generation of publishing professionals to see that this is an world worth entering. To those students and graduates I say: go in with your eyes open, but embrace the process of dynamic change. You will be driving what the consumer facing, reader-centric manifestation of book publishing will be in 2030.

Maybe publishing is to blame. I lost count of the number of students who said they had applied for internships and not been accepted, or worse, not had any response at all. We hope whitefox can help some of them. But maybe academic institutions need to look within themselves, too. It will be in the interests of careers services departments at universities everywhere to help students leverage the skills they’ve acquired whilst studying. But if you’re, say, reading English and you know you want to go into, say, an editorial role in publishing any time soon, perhaps it would be good to think about what the context for that is going to be, not just now, but over the next ten years.

What we mean by publishing has never been more fascinating and fluid. We just have to get a bit better at illustrating that and its implications to the next generation of participants.

Talking start-ups

By | Publishing & Consultancy, Startup | No Comments

I know that the Futurebook article on start-ups was a few weeks back, but it has provoked much debate in the whitefox work hub in Euston. It certainly made us think about some of the other start-ups we know (if we’re still allowed to call ourselves a start-up after two years ) and the differences between those who have been successful and those who haven’t.

It might seem like a generalisation, but entrepreneurs on the outside of publishing looking in seem to have a single-minded obsession with raising money on the basis of a silver bullet: a big, transformative, simple, scaleable idea that changes the game. Amazon is an example. But there’s an alternative: creating something that makes money by solving problems. For some, including us, it has taken years to work out what exactly what our business is. This has lead to some unexpected and exciting commercial opportunities which we hadn’t seen when we set out. We thought we had it all sussed. We created our business plan. We marketed our services. We bought and read The Lean Start-Up. But only when we started trading and saying yes to everything did we understand the potential scope.  So I guess what we feel we’ve learned is that just because Amazon has disrupted the whole eco-system doesn’t mean you know what customers really want until you actually start doing stuff. And that winning doesn’t happen by pitching to VCs or angel investors with cash flow forecasts but out in the market place itself.

Launch and learn indeed.

Predicting the future, 2010 style

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

When whitefox recently moved offices to Euston I found some paperwork I’d filed away in 2010 from a previous life inside one of those corporate publishing behemoths. Back then, the senior team had been given the task of stepping off the monthly inevitability of reforecasting against budget and instead looking into a crystal ball to see if they could identify what some of the key, defining factors for a large book publisher in 2015 would be. What types of books will do better? Will you be publishing more or less? Will your authors be more or less dependent on you? How will prices have changed and how much of your output will be digital? You get the picture.

It is always amusing, enlightening and faintly embarrassing to look back over your shoulder at what you got wrong and at answers so clearly influenced by your head being firmly lodged in the political context of the time. But we are talking about envisaging a publishing world that is now less than a year from reality. And some of the answers are fascinating.

There is a lot that seems fanciful now. Apple and Google commissioning publishing programmes, Waterstones succeeding online, editors understanding and selecting content based on the nuances of app development. We seemed to think an ageing population would keep buying hardback physical books out of nostalgia, not realising that portability, convenience and an adaptable font size would mean that that demographic would embrace e-readers.

We got some things right. Crime fiction has continued to show a big digital shift, and newspaper review pages have diminished. Some subscription services have emerged. But we are, it seems, still waiting for a revolution in tablet and colour e-readers to impact upon traditional illustrated publishing. Agents have not been consigned to history and replaced by lawyers and deal brokers. Publishers are still looking at ways in which they can improve their 360-degree service offering to stay relevant to authors. And, as Rebecca Smart’s talk at last year’s Futurebook illustrated, the process of taking relevant content to market is still too slow.

All of which proves what, exactly? That when we look into the future, it is human nature that even people who would classify themselves as ‘experts’ within an industry just end up playing wish fulfilment when they look into the future.

Value Added – A Guest Post from Agent Orange

By | Freelance, Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

[intro] On the eve of the second day of the London Book Fair, whitefox is proud to present a guest blog post from The Bookseller’s Agent Orange. [/intro]

One of the things that makes publishing so fascinating is that it involves taking something that has – in the case of fiction – no utility and no intrinsic value and translating the pleasure and enjoyment it brings into money.

In the pre-internet days, the chain of value that led from an authors tea-stained typescript to the ringing of the tills on the high street was a complex one, which justified the significant slice of the pie which booksellers and publishers largely shared between themselves.

As publishers also took on the whole cost of publication, from editing, copyediting, proof reading and typesetting to design and production, warehousing distribution and, in all too many cases, pulping, they were able to position themselves squarely at the centre of the book trade.

Of course, they still do all of those things, but as the value of physical sales has declined and since Amazon provides instant national sales presence to every author the value of the proposition publishers makes to authors has declined. They are no longer so definitively at the centre of the publishing business.

There have been several consequences of this. One is that publishers have had to work hard to maintain their profit margins, in large part by reducing advances and royalties to writers and cutting their internal costs by outsourcing much of the work they used to do in-house.

Another is that they have become ever more risk averse and publish in ever narrower and more rigidly defined channels.

This has created the paradoxical result that publishers, whose business in part rests on the fact that they offer a value proposition to authors, are making themselves ever less attractive to them – at the very point at which viable alternatives to the traditional publishing route are opening up.

This is not to say that the value of much of the rest of the chain has declined correspondingly – far from it. The market remains highly competitive and the value to authors of a well-edited book, free of typos and grammatical errors and with a really strong jacket remains high.

And that has created a thriving market of freelancers offering their services to self-published authors. Whilst there are concerns that there is some sharp practice in this area, and that self-publishing could, as a result of this change, become accessible only by the well-off, this is a good thing by and large – provided authors go into it with their eyes open.

And that creates an interesting possibility. As traditional publishers’ share of the market declines and physical book retail diminishes, might this new market for the goods and services of publishing, the place where much of the value of the publishing chain resides, become the publishers of the future?

Which would be ironic – given that much of this marketplace of freelancers exists because publishers have shed so many jobs in this area.

The Heart of the Matter

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

I get it when trade publishers talk about really understanding their consumers, I really do. What do readers really want? And discoverability: the holy grail. But when you are on the outside looking in, it still seems to me that there are many potential pitfalls when you are playing catch up in an area that has not been the essence of your business (consumer engagement, CRM, on-going dialogue with readers, actually utilising data) and you take for granted what has been your traditional strength (proximity to, understanding and supporting writers). I think some publishers just take that as a given. They shouldn’t. It can never be worth making assumptions.

More mergers and acquisitions will place an even greater emphasis on identifying and nurturing distinct cultures for salaried staff to thrive within conglomerate publishing businesses. But the business itself will only survive in the long run if it lives and breathes the mantra that publishing does not exist without the creators of content being at the core.

Channeling the Fox

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

Once again, Philip Jones, in his editorial in the Bookseller, has come up with a brilliant way of describing how publishers could win what Brian O’Leary calls the ‘food fight…in the publishing cafeteria‘.

Jones talks about his experience of “the commitment, passion and professionalism” he witnesses in publishing offices, a point made only rarely in the trading of blows online. He then goes on to suggest that publishing needs to mimic the Pompidou Centre and make the “inner workings visible”.

We agree! That’s why we talk at whitefox about lifting up the curtain at the back of the publishing house, so you can see the inner workings. And not only that: through us, you can have access to those skills and specialisms directly. Because they matter.

Thank you, Philip. Keep channeling whitefox.

In Praise of Time

By | Author, Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments
In a discussion with a successful indie writer this week, one of the subjects that came up was time. Successful publishing takes time, we agreed – something which isn’t always recognised or valued by new writers. We weren’t talking about the book craft, about editing, design or the attention to detail needed to take a book to market. No, we agreed: just as important was the time it takes to think about how you publish, where you find readers, how you sustain a dialogue with them, and what channel strategy you have.
Let’s acknowledge what publishers can do here. If you sign a book deal, in addition to being blessed with an advance against future royalties you will be given time by experienced, often highly creative people who know how to do this stuff. And in my experience that time does not directly equate to the level of the advance or budgeted revenue targets. Lots of time is spent on books that editors, marketers or sales departments simply love and want to succeed. And they will give those books the precious, unstructured time that falls in between meetings or out of office hours.
But when I asked this successful indie writer if she would ever be tempted to take a large advance from a traditional publisher, the answer was no. And the reason she gave was…time. No publisher would or could put the amount of time or on-going commitment into her work as she could, or guarantee her the level of control she sought. Which makes sense. For some people, no amount of personal investment from a publishing house will be enough to outweigh the drive and self-motivation they can bring to their own projects.
We are a young company experimenting with a number of different models. We are trying to work out if there is a commercially viable place to exist where we can support writers and content owners by giving them access to really good people who will help them to become more successful. But how we work out quantifying the value of creative time is a hard one. As far as I know, no algorithm exists for that.

The whitefox Perspective on the Hugh Howey Author Report Debate

By | Author | No Comments

Been following the fascinating exchanges between Hugh Howey and Mike Shatzkin this week?

Of course you have. We just want to make a small but significant (to us, at least) point, in amongst the din. Contrary to one observation that’s often heard in the posturing on data and analytics, self-published authors do have a way of accessing the same support teams that publishers use. They can now lean on and buy into expertise traditionally available only to those who have been anointed with an advance and a colophon. That is the whole point of whitefox.

Contact us about your publishing project GET PUBLISHED