All posts by steve

Whitefox and davy lamps

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When one of the first things you see walking into an office is a sculpture of a giant hand, you know you’re no longer in the North. whitefox Publishing Services share their office space with an advertising company in Shoreditch; it’s kooky, painfully cool, but somehow still manages to be welcoming and relaxed (and whoever was in charge of the music today was doing a damn fine job).  For a Yorkshire girl, it was admittedly a bit of a culture shock, but I found comfort in the eyes of the peacock/wildebeest oil-painting propped beside the reception desk and decided it was probably safe to blow out my Davy lamp.

Having scouted (definitely not stalked) the LinkedIn accounts of both John Bond and Annabel Wright (the co-founders of whitefox), prior to getting the work experience offer, I was very aware of my status as newly-graduated-without-serious-career-prospects. The résumés of both John and Annabel (the former Head of Sales and Marketing at HarperCollins and Senior Editor at HarperPress respectively) clearly had some serious, heavyweight business experience behind them. And it shone through in the first morning meeting, as whitefox’s on-going publishing projects and proposals, involving both corporate giants and lone self-publishers (and at one point just ‘Iceland’ – and no, I’m not talking about the frozen-food supermarket), were discussed in a flood of contacts and industry know-how, leaving my uninitiated brain floundering, desperately attempting to tread water. Annabel, John and Tim (Inman – an intern at whitefox who’s flying along in the thick of it there, and clearly relishing it) did occasionally stem the flow of names and practicalities in order to offer me explanations and neat biographies of what/who whitefox were involved with – there were quite a few of these breaks, and I now finally know what ‘blue-sky thinking’ is. There was a lot to grasp, but it was undeniably interesting and it was new – publishing in its most modern, cutting-edge form.  With an extreme amount of help (and patience) I spent the rest of the day attempting to utilise their network, which seems to have already become an invaluable tool for those self-publishers wishing to find credible freelance services easily online.

I’m back in my dorm now, listening to the Frenchman who has lived here for 9 months crunch crisps half-naked on top of his bunk bed (don’t you just love youth hostels?), and am seriously looking forward to getting back to the office; it’ll be another day of data logging, but also a few new research projects, including how to transform a popular fashion blog into an e-book and, in the evening, ‘Byte the Book’, a panel and networking event about new business models in publishing. And oh, did I mention it was at the Ivy? For now, my Davy lamp is staying off.

Open services

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Saturday’s session at The Literary Consultancy annual conference on author services proved once again what an incendiary subject it can be. Place a successful self-published DIY writer and a writing services platform of any scale on the same stage and the sparks start to fly. How much money is the platform taking for what seems to be the simplest of offers? Is there transparency? What represents value for money? What do you really need help with and what is being bought and sold through basic misrepresentation?

We’ve spoken before at whitefox about the commercial challenge of delivering scale and maintaining levels of quality. Investors want you to be able to illustrate exponential growth that almost by definition threatens your ability to deliver a bespoke, hand-holding, value-added service of sufficient quality to justify your fee. It is in some ways the essence of creative tension.

Here is our take on the issue some days after the flashpoint at the Conference. Writers are sentient beings and we should treat them as such. It does whitefox no harm whatsoever to hear the big writing services machines being labelled as disreputable. But our view remains the same since we opened up our operation. If we are clear and open and transparent and represent fairly the skills and specialisms of individuals who make a direct, material difference to content creation, then we are happy to be labelled an author services network. Even if right now that seems like a bloody battleground for the future soul of publishing.

Here’s to the grammar police

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You may have heard the recent news that the education secretary and Pob-a-like Michael Gove is hoping to prioritise grammar in primary school education. There are, of course, those who have been quick to respond by pointing out that language without grammar is like a male vixen: conceptually impossible. Grammar just is the system and structure that allows mutterings or scribblings to function as language. Thus anyone who is able to communicate with language is someone who can use grammar effectively. By learning to write and talk, kids are learning grammar. Moreover, why be so prescriptive? Language use changes all the time! To enforce some ideal standard is akin to some kind of gross linguistic imperialism; something that might eventually prevent literary innovation and the natural evolution of language.

Now, whilst pedantry for pedantry’s sake is singularly annoying, insisting on correct usage does not (or need not) amount to linguistic snobbery or syntactic conservatism. The problem is that whilst muddling through is often a familiar feature of conversation, different rules apply to the written word. In most cases you will not have the opportunity to ask a writer to clarify a murky sentence. But a well-deployed comma might expunge any ambiguity. And as for stifling innovation, when Gabriel Garcia Marquez chooses to use a six paragraph long sentence, unbroken by punctuation, the literary impact of this relies on the sentence’s location in a context of correct usage.

Should primary-school pupils have lessons devoted to grammar? Maybe not. But let’s not downplay its importance or utility. And here’s to the proofreaders and copyeditors, those bastions of correct usage. Long may they continue to keep content unequivocal and good writing comprehensible.

Complete control

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A publisher said to me last week that there really is no point worrying over a slush pile anymore, that self-publishing and the democratisation of routes to market meant that content a traditional publisher would deem worthy of investment would naturally rise to the surface. And all a commissioning editor would need to do is be vigilant and not miss the next potential bestseller. Has it really all become so simple and Darwinian?

And what should we call this new content? It needs a new name. Not ‘vanity’. ‘Self-published’ feels too DIY and still a little stigmatised. Successful indie writers (as they would be called in US) want to be treated like authors in traditional publishing houses. But they do want to have control. As I write this I keep hearing Joe Strummer singing “They said we’d be artistically free/ When we signed that bit of paper./ They meant, let’s make lots of money/ And worry about it later.”

‘Tis the season to be squeezed

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Spring at last, glimpsed both in the weather and the barometer of publishing. In the old world, the autumn publishing schedule would already be in place, retailers’ orders bagged, manuscripts completed and lined up for printing and distributing. But today, even though sales from publications in the last few weeks of the year have taken on huge significance, publishers will still have gaps to be filled in their schedules and delivery dates have become later and later.

So at this point in the year we say, let us know at whitefox if you need help. We know you can’t hire. We know there’s a massive pressure on existing resource. We know the next few months are crucial. If we can plug gaps and assist in resourcing up with editors, designers or whoever it is you need to trust to get the job done, then we are ready and waiting.

Because we’ve been there and done that and feel for you during the squeeze season.

Ten lessons from a publishing start-up

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It’s now a year since we shuffled off into publishing start-up land and in the time since whitefox became more than just a hypothetical we’ve learnt some pretty valuable lessons as a burgeoning writers’ services company. And we thought we’d share some with you. So here are our top ten learnings from the past year.

1. Resist the urge to show off. Don’t put so much into the pitch that the prospective clients can steal your ideas and decide to make some kind of fist of it themselves.

2. Don’t confuse a low boredom threshold amongst putative clients with entrepreneurial spirit. They are very different things, though they can, at first glance, seem similar.

3. Control your keenness. Replying too quickly to some emails seems to upset slow-moving, endlessly cogitating corporate structures.

4. Publishing prides itself on being full of lovely people. Actually, it has the same ratio of good to mendacious as any industry. But make sure that you value and acknowledge the really generous, helpful souls – give them the credit they deserve and let them know you’re as grateful for their professionalism as they will be for yours.

5. Self-publishing really doesn’t mean vanity anymore. Really. Even the New York Times agrees.

6. Avoid the words ‘consultation’ and ‘retainer’, even if these are precisely what the client needs. In these straitened times, everyone is far more interested in ‘cost-effective solutions’ rather than ongoing engagement, even if these end up amounting to the same thing.

7. Learn to love budgets. Learn to despise the notion of discretionary spend.

8. Somehow learn to balance the issues of scale v quality. The ultimate start-up tension takes on particular resonance when you’re talking about a book that someone has spent years, possibly even decades, poring over.

9. It is about the long game. Easy to forget in the day to day scramble. Sometimes you just have to force yourself to bring the big picture back into mind.

10. Don’t be an asshole. Seems simple and possibly counterintuitive in a cut-through economy, but nothing serves better than showing the people you work with that you’re giving them your all, that you appreciate their business, and that you’re prepared to work hard to do an even better job next time.

Out from the Shadows

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If our theory at whitefox is correct that in 10 years time successful general trade publishers will primarily differentiate themselves by having the right roster of high profile magnets for creative talent at the heart of their organisational structure, then maybe it is time for those actual editorial curators to come out even further from the shadows.

Last year we saw Boyd Tonkin in the Independent write in praise of the curators and gate-keepers in light of the self-publishing tsunami and celebrate the selection of a handful of indie publisher’s books on the Booker long list. And at the Digital Minds Conference in London this weekend, Sophie Rochester of The Literary Platform reminded the audience in a session discussing the rise of self-publishing of a popular Follow The Editor post featured on her site.

As gratifying as it will be for any publisher whose books are chosen for a literary prize, these decisions are made at a moment in time by a few selected individuals on a one-off basis. There are editors who have been working in publishing houses who have been making choices for decades based on instinct, experience and knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. They are trusted by those around them to win more bets than they lose. They’ve lived through the rise of the sales and marketing machine and they are now being told that responding to consumer insight is the only way they will survive in the long run. Maybe.

Without wishing to advocate an unhealthy cult of the publishing personality, perhaps it is time for the UK buyers of, say literary fiction, to know how Simon Prosser, Nicholas Pearson, Alexandra Pringle, Francis Bickmore, Clara Farmer, Dan Franklin, Ravi Mirchandani et al thought they should spend their company’s money and why. At the moment, all we get is that end of year newspaper article looking back at the books that didn’t work that acquiring editors believe should have (very British that isn’t it, when you think about it).

Of course more insight and informed decisions are needed. But I bet a lot of pickers and successful taste-makers still believe the beauty of publishing is how gloriously unscientific it can sometimes be.

A Tale of Two Strategies

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The late great Ian Norrie, famed Bookseller of Old Hampstead, used to write a regular column in the long departed Publishing News trade magazine. Ian kept going with the column long after he stopped bookselling and in the end his regular tirades against, for example, his local Post Office began to show he’d finally lost touch with the very reason his opinions had originally held relevance for the readership. And so it is with some trepidation that I continue to talk of corporates and their respective cultures many months after having shuffled off into start-up land. But while I can make an observation, it is this.

There seem to me to be emerging two distinct strategic styles amongst the bigger players.

There are those who run a steady ship. If we all keep looking straight ahead guys, and keep doing what we know we are good at, it’ll all be fine. Every now and then a business-altering supernova will explode and we’ll exploit the rights as we have legions of acquirers spilt across a myriad of imprints or channels. We will outlive smaller, medium sized and even some large opposition because we do not deviate from our chosen path. We grow by acquisition. If we are ever enveloped in publishing’s equivalent of a nuclear winter, we will survive alongside the cockroaches and WH Smith.

And then there are those who see that the world we are operating in will never be the same again. The genie is out of the bottle. So you need to make steps simultaneously in all sorts of direction that will lead you through an evolutionary process. You believe in the purity of single brands and their capacity to represent the generic. You de-risk some of your IP gambles by working with external brands, by thinking about content and publishing in a totally different way. You don’t just collaborate but you make collaboration easy.

For too long collaboration has been a polite way of saying we want to understand what you do and then fuck you over. But the indies have taught the bigger leviathans a thing or two about collaboration. There is profit in fleet-footed alliance. There is competitive advantage in making it attractive for two parties to play ball. Stand up Stephen Page for stretching the ever-elastic Faber brand.

Let battle commence. I’m off to the Post Office…

An Interview with Alex Gerlis

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Alex Gerlis was a BBC journalist for over 25 years. He left in 2011 and is now a freelance writer, journalist, and media consultant. His first novel, The Best Of Our Spies, is an espionage thriller based around real events in the Second World War. It was published in 2012 by CB Creative Books with the help of whitefox.

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An Interview with Jonny Geller

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[intro] Jonny Geller has been a literary agent for more than 15 years, and is the joint CEO and Managing Director of the books division at Curtis Brown. He has represented numerous best-selling and prize-winning authors, journalists and writers, including John le Carré and David Mitchell. Last year he was named one of the most influential people in publishing by the Evening Standard and literary agent of the year at the Bookseller Industry awards.[/intro]
Tell us in 140 characters what your work involves on a day-to-day basis.

Every day is different. Something could land on my desk now that would change the day. But one thing is constant – it’s about authors. Their work, their publications, their development and sometimes their wellbeing.

How is the changing shape of the publishing industry affecting the role of literary agents?

We have morphed into the role of a manager now more than an agent. We often control publicity and some marketing as well as editorial on many major authors. The services we offer – whether it is through spreading the word on social media, improved and interactive agency websites, blogging – are very different to the ones we were offering, say, five years ago. The job is still the same – discovering, launching and guiding the careers of authors – but we have opened a creative writing school, launched an online submissions site, helped some authors to self publish, produced movies and television.

Your own book was published in 2006. What did the experience teach you about being an author as opposed to an agent?

That all the rules of agenting fly out of the window when it is yourself. I didn’t question anything, trusted that my three publishers knew best and became diffident and uncharacteristically reserved. I realised you need somebody to shout for you because otherwise it is simply too embarrassing. You are giving something precious to people who you hope will care about it as much as you do but can’t possibly, and you give yourself up to the erroneous thinking that if it is good, it will find its audience. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Everything needs strategy, a driving force to make things happen and an iron will. I learned a lot and had fun and am glad I did it. I think it helped my agenting hugely.

Do you feel that the current changes in the industry are allowing authors to assert more control over the publishing process?

To some extent. I have believed for some years that the industry need to stop looking in on itself – publishers viewing customers as retailers and not readers; agents looking to publishers to solve all their problems – and for everyone in the industry to concentrate their energies back onto the author. Without their work we don’t have jobs. So, my belief is that if we empower the authors, bring them into the centre of the publishing experience, the books will be better marketed, jacketed and ultimately will sell better!

And finally, what is the best part of the job?

There is nothing like the buzz of reading something extraordinary and seeing it in manuscript form, knowing you are one of its first readers. The knowledge that how you react to it will, in some ways, influence the path of this material to thousands if not millions of readers after you.

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