All posts by steve

Back to the future

By | Publishing & Consultancy, Startup | No Comments

I had an endearingly frank conversation with an ex-colleague who is close to announcing their own innovative publishing start-up. “The trouble is,” they said:

I worry I don’t have the ego for all of this. If it’s going to work, I’m going to have to try and get as much PR for me and the idea behind the business as I am for the books.”

True. And also true that some of the most valuable attributes of a successful acquiring editor – the nurturing, the ability to listen, the empathy and collaboration in the margins – are not always shared by some of the cults of the personality who tend to suck up the oxygen of publicity in and around our industry.

Then, behold, a few days later, yet more news of possible launches, this time from those who have occupied some of the most senior jobs in traditional legacy publishing, gathering themselves for one last public hurrah. And, in this instance, no shortage of ego, self-belief or (maybe most importantly) funding.

Both conversations lead me back to that entrepreneurial Bible, Eric Ries’s The Lean Start-Up. With the right vision and strategy, and a lean ethic, I don’t see that being slightly reserved and uncomfortable with the limelight has hindered too many of the engineers and programmers who have made money from their successful business ideas in recent years.

But I would beware those ex-corporates who will find it hard to be weaned off their expense accounts, Net-a-Porter office deliveries, need for ‘creative space’ and a massive supporting infrastructure. Smart investors can smell cash eaters, however charismatic, at thirty paces.

What do we call it now?

By | Digital | No Comments

So we are looking at tweaking our website as quite a lot has happened in the year or so since it went live, and one of our Californian contacts has said (and I quote),

The word content makes me want to shudder”.

Dear God, it has taken publishers years to become comfortable with the c word. What are we supposed to call it now?

Model Talk

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments
[intro]September. The familiar rhythm of the season. Strictly and X Factor back on the TV. Jamie at number 1 on Amazon. Mike Shatzkin talking about his dad in his blog. And publishers telling me they are open to new models.[/intro]

Really? I was involved in a discussion panel on this topic some weeks back at a Byte the Book event. And though it did prove to be fun and lively and opinionated, it didn’t really address new models. New ideas maybe, but not new models as such.

As a publisher I remember working with a brilliant ex-music business contract’s commercial director who tried to break new contractual ground with the agents of some established clients, which resulted in a positively deafening silence. Maybe it has all changed and this time it will be different. And new models will mean just that. But any new model can’t be to every stakeholder’s benefit. Which means a lot of talk and very little action.

Sponsored Anxiety

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments
[intro]I am married to a hard-working publisher. After several years together, our mutual addiction to what is going on in our respective work places is out in the open.[/intro] When we go on holiday these days, we no longer hide in the bathroom to surreptitiously check the blackberry. Rather, we accept that an inability to switch-off comes with the territory, whether you are working for a big corporate or running a nascent start-up. Everyone has to be on top of everything, all the time.

So I am peculiarly aware of our respective information filters telling us both slightly contrary things. Or at least emphasising different aspects of the same wonderfully disparate world.

It is August, so the data I’m hearing is focussed a lot on UK subscriptions and orders for key autumn titles. Some of them are eye-wateringly large.

Proof positive if it were needed that the physical book is far from dead, however challenged the High Street. And yet I am also being bombarded by information on seminars and courses I should be attending in London, New York and Frankfurt. Seminars and talks that I know will engage the most senior brains in global publishing that skew almost entirely towards digital.

I know it is the sign of a healthy industry that it can embrace change and not be afraid to tackle head on the challenges of disruption and disintermediation. But sometimes it feels as if publishers can’t get by without feeling the need to sponsor organisations and individuals whose sole aim is to keep their levels of anxiety as high as possible.

Bottom up/Top down

By | Digital, Publishing & Consultancy, Startup | No Comments
[intro]When I was in my last corporate job, two digital publishing initiatives were launched pretty much simultaneously. One was the consumer-facing Book Army, the other was the writer-facing Authonomy.[/intro]

Book Army was based on sound strategic logic. At a time when publishers would think nothing of spending multiple six figure sums on new company websites, but few consumers could identify the logo on the spine of the book they were currently reading, a UK-based social networking site for book lovers felt a more relevant way to drive consumer purchasing and ad revenue. And Book Army was publisher agnostic. If you wanted to recommend a book not published by HarperCollins, so be it. It was a soft rather than a hard sell.

Authonomy, on the other hand, was born to solve an editorial conundrum. Surely it was counterintuitive to declare on a publisher’s website that it did not accept unsolicited manuscripts? It effectively sent out the signal that a publisher did not believe it had the innate ability to discern what should be commissioned, and that somehow it needed agents to filter the slush pile for them. So one editor came up with the idea of crowdsourcing submissions through a site, which allowed writers to upload a manuscript and submit it for peer review.

But five years is a long time in publishing. After half a decade, which one worked and which one fell flat on its face?

Book Army closed after two years. Just because it was a good, strategically sound idea (as Goodreads would show) didn’t mean you could force it to work. In retrospect, a publisher was in some ways in the worst place to start up an initiative like that. There were too many other strategic objectives in play. Authonomy, however, is still going strong. It was, at the time, a unique solution to a problem that helped define the organisation. It grew organically into something that created top-ten bestsellers and an ad revenue stream.

At the time, the publisher’s digital team was more centralised than it is today. Authonomy was probably seen as too niche to make money. Book Army was a much bigger potential play. But maybe that’s the point. Trade publishers take for granted the things they have always been able to do: to help find entertaining content that lots and lots of people will enjoy. You can’t force a publisher to be a social network recommendation engine. But you can enhance the ability to publish what people want to read.

Would you like fries with that?

By | Network | No Comments

It is a standing joke in our office quite how many recommendations I personally have on LinkedIn for Magazines, despite having spent pretty much my entire working life in book publishing. And I have a pretty good idea of why this happens. And I love LinkedIn. We have connected to many, many terrific new people in our network through it. But endorsing me for something that reflects the skills of the endorser raises an interesting conundrum for a community such as whitefox.

Scale. It always comes back to scale. How big can the network be? How quickly can thousands become tens of thousands?

But the bigger the network, the more strain on the reason the network has any value in the first place. How can I trust information where an individual is rating their own skill or specialism and they are in control of the endorsement? With ease and speed comes risk. If I don’t know you, how do I know whether I’m wasting my time and my money?

I keep reminding my children that in the future, the one-to-many online marketplace for paid services will be the norm. That their reputation will be their biggest asset. It will give them more flexibility and freedom, if perhaps less protection. It represents an opportunity. But for this model to deliver customer satisfaction there needs to be a level of transparency and accountability which currently doesn’t seem to exist in some of these new gargantuan work hives, racking up numbers of jobs fulfilled like hamburgers served at McDonald’s.

Disrupt thyself

By | Uncategorized | No Comments
[intro]It was Bill Gates who famously said, ‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten’. Given the relentless pace transformation within publishing, are those parameters still true, I wonder?[/intro]

Suw Charman-Anderson recently posted an article that quotes Clark Gilbert’s ‘Six Principles For How Media Companies Must Deal With Disruption’. I was struck by the creation of new businesses and marketplaces in particular. The question posed is this: can publishers learn from journalism, e.g., and configure themselves to hire in domain expertise? Can they evolve their businesses and thinking by attracting people from outside of their industry and comfort zone? Or are they too innately insular and myopic?

This is of course directly relevant to one of the guiding principles of whitefox. We’re interested in the skills and specialisms most relevant to content creators and how we can make these available to anyone, not just published writers. We would be the first to applaud the idea that ‘dabbling’ isn’t enough. The mantra has to be ‘Disrupt thyself.’

I have lost count of the number of times I met with senior players in UK publishing after I’d left one of the big corporates, who were all pretty much saying ‘I’m really glad I’m in my 50s and not in my 30s.’ The implication being that with a bit of luck and a following wind, they might just avoid being trampled underfoot by those MBA graduates, data geeks and coders who would inherit their earth.

In defence of many publishers, they haven’t all been burying their head in the sand. For some years, many deliberately looked to hire from the music industry in order to gradually evolve their businesses and avoid making the same mistakes. But disrupting oneself effectively is difficult when shareholders demand their annual targets are met. And there is a bigger problem still. Do publishers know exactly what their business is? When Victoria Barnsley, former HarperCollins CEO, warned in her recent farewell speech about the temptation for content owners to think they can become tech companies, she was missing the key shift that those very tech companies have facilitated and capitalised upon: that the real disrupters are the content creators.

An interview with Helena Caldon

By | Freelance, Interview, Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments
[intro]Helena Caldon became a freelancer in 2004 after ten years working as an in-house project editor for Random House and BBC Books. Since then she has worked with authors including Alan Titchmarsh, Gordon Ramsay and Professor Brian Cox.[/intro]
What is the best thing about being a freelancer?

Without a doubt it is technically being able to choose the books you want to work on. I say technically because sadly it doesn’t always work out that way, and sometimes the timings of projects and my own workload won’t allow me to take on a job that just sounds fantastic, which is always a shame. But since going freelance nine years ago I have found this way of working empowering and liberating. I decided that publishing was the career for me while still at university studying English; I spent Wednesday afternoons and the odd evening working at Hodder and Stoughton, being paid in experience, free books and launch-party leftovers (mostly bottles of booze of some sort!). I found a world of books that was more exciting than the stuffy study of Old English and pretentious poetry analysis I was being subjected to at seminars and lectures, and I was hooked. Ten years in-house followed, which was an incredibly exciting, informative time, but as I moved through the ranks I sometimes found myself moving further away from what I came into publishing to do – to work on books. Freelance allows me to be an editor; to work with books, to craft them, to work with an author and a designer and stick purely to the creative side without getting involved in the corporate politics. That’s what I think I’m best at, and certainly what I love most about my job.

What is the worst?

While working in house deadlines and workloads always felt challenging, but when you are freelance they can become almost completely unrealistic. I’ve worked on fast-track titles throughout my in-house career, starting with programme scripts to be published alongside opening nights of new plays while at Methuen Drama, to books to tie-in with transmissions at the BBC. These short, sharp schedules are even more prevalent in publishing now, and even non tie-in books are being produced in equally crazy and demanding timescales, which means that every project feels like a rush job. As a freelancer it is rare to have the luxury of being able to work on one book at a time, and so when schedules for several books start to bottleneck, due to inevitable delays from somewhere in the chain, the stress of meeting every deadline becomes coupled with the fear of perhaps this time I may not make it and I may have to let down a client. (Fortunately, thus far – touch wood – this hasn’t happened yet!) It would, of course, be wonderful to have more time on occasions to really perfect a project. (Publishers, are you listening?!!)

What qualities do you need to be a trusted project editor?

All the editors I have worked with and  admired over the years have been fair, calm and consistent in their approach to the books they are working on. There is nothing worse than working with someone who doesn’t have a feel for a project and changes the direction of a title as the stages progress, or even at the final stage. Getting on with the team is vital; the designer, publisher, production controller and, of course, the author. My first boss was inspirational in how to build strong working relationships; Geoffrey Strachan managed to achieve respect and love from all he worked with but at the same time still cleverly managed to always produce the book that HE wanted without offending the writer or anyone on the creative team. It was magical to watch.

Share some advice you were given when you set out as an editor

Ask the question, but be prepared to compromise. Editing is not, and should not be, a dictatorial craft, it is a collaboration to create something special, that everyone can be proud of and that will also sell well! As I’ve moved into illustrated books over the years the team element has become an important part of editing. Illustrated books more than any others require a fair and frank exchange of ideas between editors and designers, and the ability to compromise and to consider the other team member as deadlines begin to pinch and tempers begin to fray under the pressure!

How do you juggle the pressures of creating complex illustrated books for publishers, all of whom are looking at similar autumn publication dates?

Tea, chocolate and a forgiving family!  The summer months are always stressful, and every year I promise I’m going to handle it differently, but so far I haven’t found the perfect solution! Mostly, I just take a deep breath, write a lot of to-do lists, tell my friends I’ll see them in a month or two and crack on.  It may mean weeks of early starts and late nights, but come September the pressure will always ease a little and the mountain of paperwork that has been threatening to topple over onto my already covered desk will finally get a look in. Having said that, over the past five years or so I’ve noticed that this frenzy of last-minute publishing is not only confined to summer but seems to be infiltrating other months of the year. The spring book list seems to be as important as the autumn one; I am now finding I get calls and emails in the autumn as publishers take stock once the Christmas books are snugly bound and decide to sneak something else into spring…

An interview with Jane Aitken

By | Interview, Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments
[intro]Jane Aitken co-founded Gallic Books in 2006 with a commitment to bringing the best of contemporary French writing to an English-speaking public. Since then, Gallic has been responsible for translating and publishing more than 50 books in the UK. This year saw the publication of Antoine Laurain’s award-winning novel The President’s Hat, with whitefox helping to run the marketing campaign.[/intro]
What unique challenges do you face in publishing exclusively French fiction for a British reading public?

The biggest challenge is that none of our authors have a track record in the UK before we publish them. And of course, they are not on the spot for promotion, so they have to travel to promote for us, which is disruptive for them and quite expensive. But having said that, our authors are all brilliant about dropping everything and jumping on the Eurostar. Some don’t speak English though, which is a problem for any kind of live interview.

Another challenge is that our authors’ historical, cultural and political reference points do not necessarily resonate with a UK audience. So, Vaux-le-Vicomte not Hampton Court; Colbert not Cromwell; Corneille not Shakespeare; Balzac not Dickens; Mitterrrand not Thatcher. This can create a barrier and a translation problem: how far should we explain references?

How do you go about choosing which books you are going to publish In English?

When we started out we immersed ourselves in the French market and read like mad. We chose to start with two bestselling historical crime series, one set in the years leading up to the French Revolution, and one set in fin-de-siècle Paris. Our idea was to paint a portrait for the UK reader of France through the ages, seen through fiction.

We then branched out into contemporary French fiction, where we look for fantastic writing, strong characters and plot. But we also try to choose subjects not addressed by Anglophone authors. So The Elegance of the Hedgehog has an apartment concierge as a main character, the forthcoming Monsieur Le Commandant presents a uniquely French take on the second world war, and The President’s Hat features 1980’s Paris.

We want to showcase in English, the books that French readers love, and we try to choose books that give a glimpse of France in an entertaining way.

Gallic was formed at a time when a large number of disruptive elements were beginning to take hold on the publishing industry. Which of these do you think has had the most influence in shaping the way the company has grown?

There was a gap for small independents like Gallic, created by the conglomerates merging and swallowing the larger independents. We felt that our niche was probably better served by an independent publisher than by an imprint of a large group.

Digital has I suppose been the biggest disruptor, but I can’t say that has had a huge effect on our development; we have merely followed along and entered the digital market, as all publishers must.

What challenges have you been most personally aware of when you moved from a large publisher (Random House) to running a small independent? What changes have you most welcomed?

I think the biggest challenge was initially getting the right kind of distribution. Without good distribution, you can’t ensure your books get where they need to be on time. For us the key was having a bestselling book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which opened up access to good distribution, initially with LBS and now with MDL, both of whom offer fantastic service to independent publishers.

The best thing about being small is the speed of decision-making, as you can take a project from conception to publication pretty quickly. You can take risks and there are fewer people to justify your decisions to!

Much of Gallic’s translation work operates through a group of high quality freelancers. What do you look for in your translators and what do you see as the main benefits from working in this way?

The most important thing for our translators is to have English as a mother tongue. Most have acquired French as a second (or third language). Strangely, it can be a disadvantage to be fully bi-lingual, although obviously an excellent knowledge of French is essential. It is also essential to be well read, so that you can easily access different ways of expressing yourself, and to have a good writing style. Some of our translators are also published authors.

We use a variety of translators to ensure that we match each book with the best possible translator voice. We also translate in house. I translate and we also have an in house translator, Emily Boyce. Emily and I teamed up with a freelancer, Louise Rogers Lalaurie, to translate The President’s Hat, which is made up of four individual stories linked by the hat. Each protagonist had their own translator and therefore a slightly different inflexion. So far, readers have approved.

Have you noticed any significant changes in the market for translated fiction in the UK since Gallic’s first book was published?

Yes, there has been an explosion of translated fiction since our first book was translated in 2007. Several new independent publishing houses have started up publishing only or mainly translations – Peirene Press in 2010, And Other Stories, Profusion and Istros Books in 2011, Stork Press in 2012, amongst others. And the large houses are also publishing significantly more translations.

This has been great for the bookshop we run, Belgravia Books where we have many translated fiction evenings, most recently on Latin American crime with Bitter Lemon Press.

Generally it feels as if the UK market is now a lot more open to translated fiction, and publishers are stepping up to meet the increased demand.

An interview with Jeff Belle

By | Digital, Interview, Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

jeff_belle[intro]Jeff Belle joined Amazon in 2002, subsequently becoming Vice-President of the company’s publishing unit, Amazon Publishing. The unit now incorporates 12 imprints, the latest addition of which, Jet City Comics, was announced in July.[/intro]

Amazon was already a very well established book retailer when Amazon publishing took off. What are the most significant ways that this has influenced how the publishing wing has developed?

Our first imprint, AmazonEncore, was launched with the purpose of bringing more attention to extraordinary, previously published, overlooked books from emerging authors. This was a direct result of the high-quality books we were seeing from authors in our Kindle Direct Publishing program (KDP). Our second imprint, AmazonCrossing, was launched so that more readers would have access to books from around the world that had never been available to an English language audience. We are fortunate to have a wealth of data from our bookstores around the world that helps us identify overlooked, but deserving candidates for translation. From there we looked to the categories most popular with our Kindle customers like romance, thrillers and mysteries, and science fiction/fantasy to see how we might better serve them, which resulted in the creation of our own group of commercial fiction imprints: first Montlake Romance, then Thomas & Mercer and 47North. Most recently we’ve launched Jet City Comics and look forward to delighting comic fans and working with our authors to create adaptation of their books for this medium.

How would you differentiate what Amazon Publishing offers authors compared to traditional publishers?

We are committed to an author-centric publishing model that also serves as a kind of in-house laboratory dedicated to innovating and experimenting with new publishing models. We’re looking for authors who want to experiment with us. Authors are our customers and we are constantly working on their behalf to make their experience with us the best it can be. Examples of this include things like paying higher royalties, paying royalties monthly instead of twice-a-year, launching the Kindle Singles and Kindle Serials formats, creating Kindle Worlds, inclusion in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, and more to come…

How does Amazon publishing view working with external freelance specialists? Should freelancers see it as an opportunity?

We work with a variety of very talented freelancers in areas including production, design, promotion and translation – we want to build as flexible as organisation as we can, so we are scaling these functions in-house as well as build a broad network of great freelance talent as well. In the four years since launch, we have added nearly 5,000 titles to our list, and we couldn’t have done this without a strong network of freelancers.

Do the fact that physical book sales are declining everywhere mean that cover design is less important?

Actually, I think it’s more important now. All online and digital shelves are face-out. In any format, the cover of a book should capture a reader’s attention and make it stand out as something they want to know more about. Our hope is that our covers will draw readers in wherever they first discover it— be it on our retail site, on a Kindle device, or in a bookstore. In digital, it’s more important than ever to design covers that will render across multiple device displays – in eInk and on color tablets and phones – as well as on the printed book.

There is currently much debate over the perceived over-reliance on free e-books for marketing purposes, with some suggesting that this is devaluing long form content. Where do you stand on this issue?

We know that Kindle owners buy more books now than they did before they owned a Kindle, so on the whole I don’t see this as an actual problem. Distributing galleys and Advance Reader Copies free of charge for promotional purposes is something that publishers have always done to help bring attention to the books they publish. It’s much easier, of course, to distribute free copies digitally, but it’s still difficult to connect and engage with the reader. Readers want to discover great stories, and our job is to help with the discoverability piece. Authors want to expand their audience and earn royalties. To best serve our authors and readers, we’ll continue to strike the right balance and also find more ways to help readers discover new work.

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