All posts by Tim Inman

A view from down under

By | Guest Post | No Comments
[intro]To illustrate how the fragmentation of the traditional publishing industry is a global experience, look no further than (or I should say look as far as is possible to) New Zealand.[/intro]

In a relatively short period of time, less than a year, long-held fears have been realised as the multinational publishing companies familiar to many took the decision to shed staff and operations in New Zealand, some scaling back to Australia.

To various observers (especially British, whose industry’s scale lends it a robustness that makes comparisons with New Zealand difficult) it appeared to be a fatal series of events; the New Zealand publishing industry was on its way out. A national newspaper piece last month sensationalised the doom, with a curious range of prognoses from significant figures.

There are many reasons I disagree with such a bleak, broad assessment, and could proselytise, not least about the brilliantly dedicated and creative work of many of the independent publishers over here. Recent changes and trends, regardless of how out of our control they may feel, will not prevent the ongoing creation and consumption of many fantastic New Zealand titles – there is too much ingenuity and appetite from readers for it to come to that. However, with an eye firmly on the evolving publishing landscape being identified and addressed by whitefox, it is worth emphasising one aspect in particular – that the more the traditional industry fragments, shrinks, adapts and modernises in New Zealand, the more opportunities arise for talented freelancers (editors, designers, techies, specialists) to plug traditional gaps and fill emerging roles.

New Zealand publishing, conventionally with small in-house teams, has relied upon gifted freelancers for a good while already, many of whom owe their skills to time once spent in-house. Now a new generation of publishing creative types are emerging. At Te Papa Press, the publishing arm of the national museum, we are shifting towards a multimedia publishing programme, involving specialists, skills and content that have only recently become integral parts of the publishing process and redefine what we consider ‘publishing’ to be. One of the most encouraging things I’ve witnessed in the industry here is a reluctance to sit back and wait for the UK or the US to point the way. Publishers are getting on with meeting challenges and exploring opportunities by embracing these new skills. The work of Steam Press, BWB and Booktrack are just a few examples.

Additionally, the self-publishing trend, rather than establishing a straightforward shift of power and control to the author, will actually shed light on the necessity of quality and the importance of the well-honed skills of all those involved in carrying an idea through to an excellently produced, delivered and marketed book, ebook, app, whatever it may be.

If New Zealand publishing continues to adapt and take risks, we can hopefully expect to enjoy other Eleanor Catton moments long into the future.

Michael Upchurch was formerly an editor at HarperCollins in London, now at Te Papa Press in Wellington.

Cover up

By | Design, Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments
[intro]In our recent interview with Jeff Belle of Amazon Publishing in Seattle, we quizzed him about the importance of book jacket design in an age when book sales are increasingly migrating online.[/intro]

This is a guy who could call it like it is and say, that, perhaps, postage stamp sized covers don’t mean a great deal any more. It is, after all, what comes up after you’ve searched. Maybe in an age of diminishing opportunities to see and touch physical copies of books, a good cover design isn’t going to make a potential consumer behave in any particularly way.

And yet and yet.

What Jeff actually said was.

Actually I think it is more important now

Now it is true that maybe Jeff, who is a smart guy, was thinking his words were going to be read by, amongst others, a significant number of cover designers from within the whitefox clan, so, you know, don’t frighten the horses. But what he said was, as I read it, pretty unequivocal.

So when news reached us this week that one of the big four publishers are actively trying to solicit experienced designers to work on genre fiction for a newly launched imprint for the princely sum of £50.00 per cover, we thought we just had to make mention. £50.00. Really.

Why not crowd source a cover from students? Go on fiverr and get ten of them. But maybe think twice before you expect people with years of hard-earned experience, who have been responsible for creating some of the past few decades most iconic book jackets to bite your hand off at those prices. Is that really what a jacket is worth? Maybe send fewer people next year to walk Hall 8 of the Buchmesse in Frankfurt looking at their emails from back at head office and invest in better external designers. And sell more books. Just a thought.

An interview with Nicholas Pearson

By | Interview | No Comments
[intro]Nicholas Pearson is Publishing Director at 4th Estate, where he has worked for more than fifteen years. The UK editor of Jonathan Franzen, he was this year voted editor of the year at the Bookseller Industry awards, with 4th Estate awarded imprint of the year.[/intro]
Describe your day-to-day job in 140 characters.

Commissioning, editing, publishing a range of fiction and non-fiction. Further responsibilities for the 4th Estate list as a whole, and in particular the editorial department.

How different is the experience of editing an established author from that of editing an unknown or debut author?

Not necessarily different at all. Some of the more established authors are very comfortable with the editing process.

What is your attitude towards the increasing emphasis put on data-informed decision making within publishing houses?

Nervous. Good publishing breaks the rules and creates the data of the future. Following the data can lead to imitative publishing.

You’ve worked for small independents and large corporate publishers. Do you think one publishing culture is more innately creative than another ?

I don’t actually. My colleagues and I have had freedom here to follow our noses. There is a sense that the corporate umbrella can give us cover to take risks. There are often mutterings from above – ‘No small books!’ – but we tend to be able to work around that. As long as some of our books are working, bosses tend to be happy enough.

With the ever greater reliance on the support of external freelancers, do you think traditional publishers are placing enough emphasis on training their employees in the skills that matter most to writers?

This is an interesting one. With the contraction of editorial departments over the last twenty years it is the case that it is harder for young employees to find a berth in publishing houses where they can watch and learn.  We have been good at 4th Estate with training up employees, some of whom over the past decade have gone on to find things elsewhere. But undoubtedly it isn’t as easy as it used to be.

An interview with Colin Brush

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[intro]Colin Brush is Senior Copywriter at Penguin Books.[/intro]
How is the role of a copywriter in publishing changing?

In one word: discoverability. In the old days it was someone else’s job to get eyeballs to my words: the designer’s flashy cover drawing people to the book, marketing choosing the right sites in an ad campaign. Get a book or a poster to where people could see it and the copy could get on with its job of tantalising and ultimately sealing the deal.

Nowadays, with more than a quarter of sales moving online, it’s all about getting our books found. I’ve become increasingly involved in working on Search Engine Optimisation strategies or tips for identifying keywords and then testing this stuff. It’s pretty dull, but when Google or Amazon suddenly change their algorithms and nothing works any more it can get quite exciting again.

How much of a challenge is it to devise a new blurb for the reissue of a classic?

But I love a challenge! And it is no challenge at all, if you’ve got a good brief. Recently, I was asked to work on the reissues of Albert Camus’s The Outsider and The Plague. These were school editions and so I wanted to think about what would encourage teenagers to read these books. I wrote The Plague like a horror novel – all rats and blood and death – whilst The Outsider was the story of a misunderstood killer. In neither case did I misrepresent the books; I merely wrote blurbs to appeal to the audiences I had in mind.

Do the skills needed for good cover copy translate well to writing good copy for a book’s Kindle page?

It’s the same thing. If anything, online copy comes with dangerous temptations. There’s a lot of space just begging for a lot of words. There’s a great deal to be said for brevity.

How do you balance the difficulty of getting someone interested in a book without giving away too much of the plot?

The real trick to any kind of copywriting is discovering the hook and finding a compelling way of presenting it – in my case, usually in about 100 or 200 words. For non-fiction, you want to get across the book’s main argument – it is after all why you as a publisher bought it. For novels you try not to mention much, if anything, that happens beyond the book’s first third, particularly in a crime or thriller title. But sometimes you have to break your own rules if you’re going to give readers a compelling proposition. Then you have to hope that the way you do it hasn’t spoiled the story. But most novels have a compelling premise; it’s usually the reason why the author wrote it, the idea which possessed them. My job is to sell that premise to the reader. The novelist’s job is a little tougher: taking the premise and turning it into a cracking read …

What is the project you’ve worked on where you think your copy has made the most quantifiable difference to the success of the book?

In 15 years of book copywriting, I can’t say for certain that a single piece of copy I wrote definitely sold a single copy of any book. I can tell you, however, that a majority of book buyers claim that the blurb is the third most important reason as to why they bought a book (behind word-of-mouth recommendation and already having read a book by the same author). I also know good copy when I see it, as do my colleagues in publishing and friends who are readers. Yet it is all educated guesswork. Do great covers sell books? Certainly they do. I’ve bought books on the strength of the cover alone and I know many others who have. And the same can be said for copy. Despite all the recent changes it is still all about the hook.

An interview with Stephen Page

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[intro]Stephen Page became Chief Executive of the independent publisher Faber & Faber in 2001 and has been credited with breathing new life into the company. He was president of the Publisher’s Association in 2006, the same year that Faber was named the KPMG Publisher of the Year.[/intro]
What attracted you to working at Faber?

I suppose a number of things. Primarily an enormous respect and love for the list itself. I came to reading later than most, perhaps – in my late teens-early twenties – and from the very start I was hooked by Faber’s writers, and just by the whole way the company was presented and published. So, I suppose I did have it in my bones a bit.

The second thing is that I worked at 4th Estate for six years when it was independent and small. We used to look across at Faber and wonder: ‘Is that what we want to become? Is that the best outcome?’ I used to get frustrated at times because 4th Estate was a very energetic business, with very little underpinning it in terms of backlist and I used to think that Faber looked a little bit complacent by comparison. So when it came time for me to join them, which I had never really expected to be asked to do, I knew what I thought should be done differently because I had been quietly fixated about it for some time. But, of course, I soon realised I didn’t really know much at all – because it’s only when you work somewhere that you really understand the motivations which underpin it.

You mentioned Faber’s illustrious history and its backlist. Do you think this has made it easier or more difficult for the company to adapt to the upheaval that publishing has undergone in recent years?

I think there can be a tendency to make history heavy and wrap it in aspic, but really it is just the aggregation of the activity, taste and design heritage of the company. You can’t endlessly look back; you have to connect the past to the present and that is the power incumbent in having an identity like Faber. Because Faber genuinely means something. It means something to the people who work here. It means something to the writers being published. It means something to other publishers. And it means a great deal to its readers. And though it’s important to not betray it or dilute it, it’s also important to be bold enough to say that for 85 years the publishing at Faber has been commercial in its own way. So really I would say that we are blessed as a generation that we are allowed to re-imagine the list and Faber’s identity in the context of a transformation of format. A 400-year format shift comes along and you can think again about Beckett and Eliot and Ishiguro and Hughes and Golding and Larkin and Heaney and Plath. People get fixated on the difficulties of the format shift and the apparently impossible pace of change, none of which I believe in. When you’ve got an amazing catalogue of writers and a great history then the changes can provide a way of amplifying opportunity. Of re-imagining not cautiously but excitedly.

You spoke about re-imagining works in new formats. The Faber Digital imprint was launched in 2009 and has enjoyed great success with various projects, including an app version of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. How important do you think it was to choose a writer so indelibly connected with Faber’s history for such a project?

You’re right that that wasn’t an accident. Faber Digital was set up with the very specific brief of having nothing to do with e-books; rather, (it was) to be an avant-garde part of the company, able to disrupt our thinking about what was possible with reading. But the problem is that to do that is not easily scalable. Whatever we built would have to attract a great deal of attention, and so for Faber, as its first marker in the ground, to re-imagine The Wasteland was a natural thing to do. We had discussed it with our partners Touch Press and the possibilities were just so thrilling; we had total belief that this was an emblematic thing to do for the company, but also likely to be a bold and commercially exciting project. We chose it from the middle of what we are, so we could both present the text itself, but also surround it with a solar system of interaction that would be fantastic for the general reader or even the student.

So, how elastic can the Faber brand be?

If I can just flip that and say two things really. One of which is: what’s the natural footprint of the Faber brand? And the second: what can the Faber brand stand for? I’m not sure that I see it as elasticity. Faber’s roots, its history and whole life is about a community of people with great ideas: an extraordinary range of creative artists are associated with the company and have been over the years – film makers, rock stars, classical musicians, novelists, poets and dramatists. You look at the full range of this and think, ‘This is what Faber is about.’ It’s about bringing together the arts. For the large part of our history we happen to have expressed that only through the making of books. But the arrival of digital loosens everything up: from digital products and digital partnerships, right through to digital conversations with readers and the other arts. There is something fresh and new about the way we can re-present ourselves. I don’t see that as stretching ourselves. I just see us as having a natural footprint that’s lit differently, and is, perhaps, wider than we were able to express solely as a book publisher.

Faber has, over the past few years, become something of a service provider to other publishers. Do you see this as a threat to the content-driven, rights-owning core of the Faber brand or as a natural development of it?

Certainly not as a threat. We believe in independence. We believe in supporting a community of publishers who work at a smaller and more intimate scale. We believe in them because they work closely with writers. So our role, first of all in the Alliance, and then within the Factory, and then within Factory Plus, has been a very natural extension of our desire to do good work in the world of independents. All literary publishing houses have, pretty much from the beginning of time, required some ballast across their publishing, simply because literary publishing has never made it easy to predict your business because it’s an up and down thing. And really, Faber is no different: we are famous for having had a rights income stream out of Cats: The Musical and that played a role in supporting the company through the years when many of the other small, independents fell into corporate ownership. And many publishers have always needed to have strong underpinning businesses, and the service business has, I suppose, been that for us. We don’t have a steady publishing business, with professional journals – we concentrate our publishing on the places where we feel we can really be dynamic. So we have the service business, which is a steadier companion to that.

How do you view the growth of publishing service providers over the last few years?

It’s clear that everyone from a self-published author through to medium-sized publishing houses have always and will continue to require services. That has become increasingly so as publishers try to tighten up their overheads and reduce their costs. We regard Faber’s service provision as sui generis. We’re a publishing house providing a range of services; that makes us quite a different beast. We’re not a mass-service provider with a white label front end. We’re a different thing, more intimate and involved – a more passionate partner.

Faber has become involved in a number of different external collaborations in recent years including, the Independent Alliance, Touch Press, the Perseus Book Group and most recently the Guardian. Why?

Faber has always partnered with other businesses. For many years we partnered with the Penguin group for our international distribution and sales, and we still do in parts. We’re always looking for partners who work well with us and there are different reasons for different partnerships. When you look at publishers in the Alliance, it’s about aggregating to create opportunity in the mass market, as well as scale elsewhere, and there’s a mutual amplification. The sum is greater than the parts: we can get things to happen for each other, merely by putting ourselves in one bag and therefore having hits more regularly. Conversely, one of the key thoughts about our brand partnerships now is to do with nodes on the network of the world, where consumers might like what we do, and partnering to create an audience for our publishing. And really the partnerships I’m most fixed on at the moment – and that is what the Guardian is about – is about this: going to very, very lively places where there’s either content and consumers, or consumers where we create content, to get our brightest works in front of the right kind of people.

We’re seeing tablets taking over from dedicated e-readers as the preferred option for reading e-books. What impact, if any, do you think this will have on publishing in the next few years?

It’s certainly going to have an impact. What it feels like right now is that one stage of the transformation of publishing into a print, digital and services practice is coming to an end. What is not going to happen is for everyone to be able to draw breath and say ‘Great, now we can have some balance between digital reading and print reading.’ That would be a terrible mistake. What we’ve reached is nearly the end of a specific story about the e-ink reader. The impact that the tablet will have is going to be all about how interested the tablet manufacturers are in long-form reading, because the environment of reading on a tablet is not yet, I would say, entirely suitable. If you were to ask somebody why they own a tablet, I bet that reading novels would not come into their top ten reasons, and certainly not their first five. So we’re moving into a more crowded, noisier window to try to get people to concentrate on what we do. And if there are people out there who are hoping that the e-ink market will slow down to make life more understandable and easier, they should be careful what they wish for. I, for one, will not be cheering. The e-ink devices are a silent, single universe in which people can concentrate on reading and we have sold a lot of books through them. I think it’s been a very good and smooth evolution of reading into digital. The next bit will be more difficult.

Easing the Graduate rat-race

By | Events | No Comments
[intro]This week, universities return to business as usual, we reach the beginning of an annual epidemic which strikes the very heart of the student community. Every bed in the Remedial Careers Ward is occupied as third years are confronted with a harsh reality: nine months to go.[/intro]

As the graduate job market appears to be impenetrable, and the possibility of securing a job seems to dwindle, even cover letters to the Welfare State exhort in exultations the fervent desire of the candidate to receive Job-Seekers Allowance: ‘I am truly the perfect candidate for this role. Ever since I enrolled in a humanities-based degree, I knew this was my destination. My goal.’

The hopes of English students who ‘just want to do something creative’ are crushed by the realisation that the predicted salary of an artistic existence is slim to nil. And so the publishing industry (along with so many others) is inundated with CVs and cover letters, each one proudly proclaiming bookishness beyond compare – there will be no shortage of students who ‘have always had an unbridled passion to proofread – ever since I learned the correct usage of a semi-colon; it’s in my bones’.

Trying to find a job in publishing is competitive, and positions are much sought after. Here at whitefox we are hoping to bring more transparency to an industry which, at times, can appear daunting to the prospective graduate, with our new series of events, the first of which focuses on the editorial side of the industry. Aimed at students looking into publishing, this should be an enlightening Q&A with top professionals from Quercus, John Murray, Serpent’s Tail and Aurum (event sign up? Why, you can find that here). It should provide insight not only into editing, but also to explore how ending up as a member of staff at a publishing house is no longer the only way to support authors, and to show prospective cover-letter-writers that there really are other ways of displaying your enthusiasm for contemporary literature than throwing yourself off a passenger ferry with your pet cat to ‘understand more empathetically’ The Life of Pi.

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