Category Archives: Interview

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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