Category Archives: Interview

An interview with Nicholas Pearson

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[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.

An interview with Helena Caldon

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[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

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[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

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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.

An interview with Mark Coker

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[intro]Mark Coker founded Smashwords in 2008 as a platform to make it fast, free and easy for authors and publishers to distribute ebooks to the world’s largest ebook retailers. There are now over 200,000 ebooks available on the site, with over a million words uploaded each day.[/intro]
Tell us a little bit about why you created Smashwords and the philosophy behind it.

Smashwords grew out of my experience as one of the hundreds of thousands of authors each year who are rejected by a publisher. My wife and I wrote a novel about the soap opera industry a few years back and, despite representation from one of the top New York literary agencies, every major publisher rejected it. They rejected it because – as they told our agent – previous soap-opera-themed novels hadn’t performed well in the marketplace. They were reluctant to take a chance on it.

As you might imagine, it was heart breaking to have a publisher crush our dreams of publication. After licking our wounds, I considered our options. The first option – the one selected by most authors six years ago, back in the dark ages of publishing – was to accept defeat, admit we were failed authors, curl up in the fetal position and give up.

The second option, which sounded eminently more appealing to me, was to try to do something about the problem.

I came to the conclusion that the traditional print publishing industry was broken. I decided that publishers were actually harming the future of books by measuring a book’s worth based on perceived commercial merit. Here’s the big problem: Publishers can only guess which books will be successes, and most of the time they’re wrong anyway. All along, they’re rejecting hundreds of thousands of books each year, some of which would have gone on to become bestsellers and future classics if only they had been given the chance to find an audience.

I decided the solution to this problem was to create a free ebook publishing platform that would allow any writer, anywhere in the world, to instantly self-publish an ebook at no cost. That’s what we launched in 2008 with Smashwords. That first year, we published 140 books. Today, we’re publishing over 200,000.

You’ve said that ‘there has never been a better time to be a writer’. Tell us more about what exactly you mean by this.

The opportunity for writers to reach readers with their words has never been greater.

Although I love print books, and am a collector (hoarder?) of thousands of print books, the print format is a horribly inefficient medium for delivering words to a global audience’s eyeballs. Print books are expensive to produce, distribute and purchase. Even middle-class consumers must think twice before shelling out $30 or more for a book.

Because books are expensive to produce and expensive to distribute and display at retail, their distribution is severely limited. The growth in literacy around the world is taking place in developing countries, yet most print books aren’t available in developing countries. If your book has a potential audience of 100 readers in Botswana, it’s simply not cost effective to publish in print there.

Ebooks, thanks to the wonders of digital distribution, can be efficiently distributed to every corner of the globe at little cost, and can be priced affordably for all readers because the incremental cost of printing a new digital copy is zero. Any time you make a desirable product more available and more affordable to more people, you sell a lot more product.

Because physical shelf space is expensive and limited, brick and mortar bookstores can only sell a small fraction of all available books. Books that don’t sell well immediately after release are shipped back to the publishers after only a few weeks for a full refund. Most print books are forced out of print before they’ve had a chance to reach readers.

With ebooks, the virtual shelf space is unlimited, and the book never goes out of print. The ebook is immortal. Even if it only sells one copy a year, the retailer will still want to keep it in stock. Digital book retailing enables the long tail.

Another big trend that excites me is the mobile opportunity. Today there are over one billion smart phones in the hands of consumers. In the next few years, smart phones will become entry-level phones, so there will be billions of smartphones in the pockets of potential readers. For each of the consumers, especially the readers in developing countries, your ebook is only a few clicks away from being discovered, sampled and purchased.

The final exciting thing about the digital book opportunity is that it allows authors and publishers to easily target niche audiences that it wasn’t economically feasible to reach in the dark ages of print publishing. Online marketing allows authors to target and aggregate a global audience of niche readers. It doesn’t matter how obscure your book’s category or genre is – there are reachable readers out there.

Bottom line: digital books eliminate multiple points of friction that prevented print books from being ubiquitously available, discoverable and affordable to readers.

Many commentators are suggesting that the stigma once attached to self-publishing is steadily disappearing. With this and the increased support and services available for authors looking to self-publish, do you think writers will begin to question the value of traditional publishers?

Definitely. It’s already happening. Indie authors are now in the cool kids’ club. More and more authors are aspiring to self-publish as their preferred option. Authors are self-publishing without even bothering to shop their books to agents and publishers.

At the same time as the stigma of self-publishing is disappearing, we’re seeing an increased stigma attached to traditional publishers. Writers are beginning to realise that thanks to ebooks – and to democratised distribution, where every major ebook retailer wants to carry all self-published ebooks – publishers are no longer necessary to connect with readers.

Just a few years ago, publishers had a chokehold on the business of reaching readers with books. They controlled the printing press, the access to distribution, and the knowledge necessary to produce, package and market books professionally. Now these three legs of the stool are democratised and available to all writers at little to no cost.

Authors are starting to ask two dangerous questions (dangerous if you’re a publisher):

1. What can a publisher do for me that I can’t already do for myself?

2. Since publishers are pricing their ebooks too high, and paying such low royalties, might a publisher actually harm my career as an author?

When authors self-publish ebooks, they enjoy faster time to market, full creative control, broader global distribution, and they earn per-unit royalty rates that are four to five times greater than those publishers pay.

This last point is important, because the economics of indie ebook publishing will drive this trend further. An indie author can earn about $2.00 selling a $2.99 ebook. The book of a traditionally published author would have to be priced at over $10.00 in order to earn the author the same $2.00. This means indie authors have incredible leverage in the marketplace and can compete aggressively on price while still earning more per unit. This is why so many indie authors are appearing each week in the bestseller lists. They’re offering high-quality product at lower cost.

Many writers looking to self-publish see marketing and getting noticed as one of the biggest challenges they face. What are your top discoverability tips for authors?

The most important marketing you can do is to write a book that markets itself. The easiest way to sell a book is by reader word of mouth. A great book moves the reader to an emotional extreme. It makes the reader go, ‘WOW!’ It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. If you make your reader go ‘WOW!’, they will not only recommend your book to their friends, they will COMMAND their friends to read your book NOW.

So many authors mistakenly over-invest in marketing and under-invest in writing the best book possible. If you’ve got an extra $2,000 burning a hole in your pocket, and you have the choice to hire a marketeer or a professional book editor with a track record in your genre, the editor is the better investment.

The next most important marketing secret is to create an amazing ebook cover image. Book covers sell ebooks. A great cover makes a promise to the reader on a visceral level. It’s aspirational. It’s all about the image. If you strip away the book title and author name, does the image promise your target reader what they’re looking for? A great cover makes an instant emotional connection to the target reader. Obviously, to create a great cover, you need to know your target reader, and then you need to hire a professional cover designer. Luckily, professional cover design is ridiculously affordable.

The next important marketing tool, and it’s not what most people think of as marketing, is to make the book discoverable by readers. Most of your readers are going to stumble across your book when they’re looking for their next read. To make the book discoverable, it needs to widely distributed to all retailers, and then it needs to have good metadata (proper categorization, a compelling title, an arresting book description) to help the reader find it and want it.

You’ll notice that the most important marketing tips make your book findable and desirable. A great book with a great cover, great distribution and great metadata will find readers, without any additional marketing effort.

Once you’ve got the basics covered, any additional marketing effort will serve as a catalyst to drive sales further.

I wrote two books that explore marketing and discoverability in greater detail, and they’re both available for free download at most major ebook retailers. They include The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (how to market any book for free) and The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (best practices of the most successful indie authors).

There is currently a lot of debate about the price and value perception of ebooks. What are your thoughts on this issue?

In May, we conducted a comprehensive survey that analyzed the impact of book pricing (and several other fascinating factors) on book sales and author earnings. You can access the survey here.

Our survey found that readers are price sensitive, and lower cost books generally sell more units than higher priced books. However, we also found that in our survey $3.99 ebooks outsold even the lower price points, so this is encouraging news for authors. It says readers will pay more for quality, so authors shouldn’t feel like they have to price books at $0.99 to reach readers. There’s some anecdotal evidence that at least some percentage of readers won’t buy the ultra-cheap books, and some will only buy books priced over $2.99 or $3.99 or $4.99. The operative word is “some”. It’s dangerous to over-generalize. Just as there as some consumers who won’t buy books priced ultra-low, the evidence would indicate that a greater number of customers are sensitive to higher prices.

Take a look at any ebook retailer’s bestseller list. You’ll almost always see indie authors in the bestseller list, and they’re almost always at price points of $4.99 or below.

Another segment of the book-buying audience will download free books from authors they don’t yet know and trust. Only after the author earns their trust will they purchase the priced books. We found that free books, on average, get almost 100 times more downloads than books at any price. This means that authors with multiple books should seriously consider experimenting with free promotions, or even perma-free for series starters. Our experience shows that FREE is one of the most powerful marketing tools to help build readership quickly, and to help drive readers to priced series.

And finally, if you were to give just one piece of advice to aspiring authors, what would it be?

Although many self-published ebook authors are reaching thousands of readers, it’s important to understand that it’s still really difficult to reach your audience. Most self-published books sell poorly. Most bestselling authors toiled in obscurity for years before they broke out. If you decide to embark on this self-publishing adventure (and yes, I think every author should!), remember that it takes years of hard work. Readers will determine your fate. Your job as the writer is to wow them. If you honour readers with great books, and you continue writing more books, your audience will eventually find you and propel your career forward.

An interview with Lana Beckwith

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lana_beckwith[intro]Lana Beckwith is a Digital Media and Content Manager at HarperCollins. As a digital content consultant, copywriter and editor she has also worked in-house for Amazon and as a freelance online content consultant, writing and editing online creative and marketing copy, and advising on metadata, layout, style and best practice.[/intro]

Why is everyone obsessed with metadata and SEO?

In the publishing world, it’s become such an important subject because more and more people are buying books online. Consumer behaviour is very different online: people tend to actively search, rather than browse in the way they would in a physical store. Strong metadata and SEO are key tools in boosting discoverability and, I suppose, helping to recreate the bookshop experience on someone’s laptop, tablet or mobile phone. Obviously, it’s not just discoverability either. Once a reader has found one of our books online, their decision to buy or not will essentially come down to metadata: the product description, the jacket, the reviews, etc are all key parts of metadata.

You have worked both in-house and as a freelancer for publishers. How have your experiences differed?

When you’re a freelancer, you certainly feel like you’re in control of the work you’re doing. There’s a reason the word ‘free’ makes up part of ‘freelance’! It also allows you to focus on the areas you’re passionate about, rather than those aspects simply being part of a wider role within a company. But personally, I also really enjoy being part of a team, sharing successes and contributing to a bigger picture. There are benefits to both.

With your skills, what is the most basic advice you can give writers and content creators?

Online copywriting is a completely different discipline to traditional, offline copywriting. It requires you to think more about how a reader will get to your content in the first place, and how you’re going to hold their attention when they have. How are you going to make them ignore that email that’s just flashed up, that instant message on Facebook, or that video of a cat riding a vacuum cleaner (which is pretty great, admittedly)? It comes down to getting readers (via SEO, metadata, paid advertising if you’re lucky), grabbing their attention (snappier copy, more paragraph breaks, recognisable keywords, visual stimulation) and pushing them to your call to action (buy something, sign up for something, come back another day, or simply remember this piece of writing). Think about how you read online yourself, and what engages you.

 What would your number one piece of advice be for someone looking to start working in the publishing industry over the next few years?

Be very open to various routes. When I started in publishing five years ago, people still talked in terms of career journeys through editorial, marketing, sales, digital, etc. Now, there are more blurred boundaries. There are elements of digital in most roles, PR and marketing are more combined than they have been in the past, and I’ve seen people who started out in traditional sales roles become digital marketing directors. It’s a more fluid place now, especially if you can find the area you’re most passionate about and go where it takes you (or where you push it).

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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