Category Archives: Publishing & Consultancy

On The NYT’s Leaked Report On Innovation

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Much has already been written about the New York Times’s leaked internal report on innovation, and many have applauded the paper’s vision. Dig a little into the fallout and you’ll find a lot of naysayers  but if I were one of the big publishing players jockeying for position at the moment, looking to make the best mergers and alliances to scale whilst simultaneously, as one journalist put it to me recently, implementing strategies ” driven primarily by the desire not to fuck up”, I’d find much to cheer about within the document’s eminently digestible 96 pages.

There’s a good reason for that: it is very practically relevant. Not just in terms of protecting unique assets and communicating a simple core belief ( for “winning at journalism” read “publishing the very best books we can”). But also for the focus on necessary structural changes (although some of the larger global conglomerates are further ahead than others at properly integrating creative commissioning and digital). All the talk of mining the archives, of creating influencer maps (this isn’t about marketing departments as a link in a chain but about anyone who knows anyone utilising that relationship) and of personalisation and packaging are directly applicable to the copyright owning leviathans.

It is as easy to fall into the trap of equating large publishers with stasis as it is to assume that only scale and market share allows you to innovate and experiment. But this blueprint from within an industry even more disrupted by digital than the world of books is refreshing in the tangible strategies it offers up, to contribute towards a difficult and somewhat belated process of cultural change.

Self-Publishing: The Best Is Yet To Come

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[intro] Laura Bastian is a student in the MA Publishing course at University College London who recently completed a period of work experience at whitefox. She has an MBA in marketing and worked in marketing and sales for ten years before deciding to pursue a career in publishing.[/intro]

Exactly what does publishing’s “new normal” mean to publishers, authors, and readers? Does the infinite bookshelf of the digital world invite more sales and a long tail of opportunity for a larger pool of authors? Or does it refer to a world crowded with mediocre content, in which the very best writers struggle to get noticed above the noise?

It seems publishers and authors may have differing opinions (and overall moods) when it comes to the industry’s future.

“There has never been a better time to be a writer. It could be that the best of times are yet to come,” Hugh Howey writes in his latest Author Earnings Report. Per his findings, “self-published authors are out-earning Big 5 authors by a 27% margin.”

While the report will surely be parsed at length, it is evident many writers are feeling optimistic and empowered in the new environment.

This was also apparent at the London Book Fair, where the Kindle sponsored Author HQ hummed with energy. Seminars on book discoverability and hybrid publishing models overflowed to standing room only, as authors eagerly sought to learn from those who have mastered self-publishing, including Howey himself, Polly Courtney, and Bella Andre. The Author HQ operated in a seemingly parallel universe to the traditional publishing happenings in the exhibition room next door, where business continued as usual.

The verdict: the terms “self” and “independent” publishing are perhaps misnomers, as the best of the bunch curate their own hand-picked teams to edit, proofread, design, produce, and market their books. 

It seems self-publishing isn’t about going it alone after all. The model for publishing a book has become more atomized, to use Mike Shatzkin’s term, but the fundamentals have not changed. 

Under the “new normal,” making that connection between the content creators and the editors, designers, and publicists becomes increasingly important. It’s the difference between books that get lost on the digital shelf and those that rise above the chaos.

Thoughts On Entering Publishing

By | Events, Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

I recently attended a university student networking event. (It’s that time of year.)

At events like these, the idea is for professionals and alumni to mix and mingle with students to help them make contacts and find work. We’re there to give advice and suggest strategies based on our experience. Should you apply for an MA. Where are the most useful work placements? What do you do if you want to work in publishing and you don’t live in London? Good questions all. And alongside the old hands are more recent graduates, fresh into assistant or junior roles in local or large corporate environments. They’re also well equipped to talk about what employers are looking for now, to give tips on making applications stand out and on how to behave whilst doing work experience.

An observation. Whilst the book publishing world I have known for the last few years has never felt more challenging, exciting, dynamic, entrepreneurial and essential (I could go on), very little seems to have changed at events like these. The core of advice remains largely the same. No one mentioned LinkedIn, let alone Twitter. One of the questions I was asked to address was “is publishing dying?”. I realise that this was intended to make me launch into a staunch defence of the industry, to repeat that the rise of self-publishing and Amazon and consolidation doesn’t have to lead to diminishing opportunities for traditional publishing careers in editorial and marketing. But instead all it made me think was this: we all have to do a bit better.

If trade publishers are not going to morph into tech companies or retailers in the immediate future, if their proposition is the acquisition and exploitation of commercial rights, experimenting with new models along the way, then there needs to be a bit of a rear guard action at graduate events that connect new entrants with professionals. We need the next generation of publishing professionals to see that this is an world worth entering. To those students and graduates I say: go in with your eyes open, but embrace the process of dynamic change. You will be driving what the consumer facing, reader-centric manifestation of book publishing will be in 2030.

Maybe publishing is to blame. I lost count of the number of students who said they had applied for internships and not been accepted, or worse, not had any response at all. We hope whitefox can help some of them. But maybe academic institutions need to look within themselves, too. It will be in the interests of careers services departments at universities everywhere to help students leverage the skills they’ve acquired whilst studying. But if you’re, say, reading English and you know you want to go into, say, an editorial role in publishing any time soon, perhaps it would be good to think about what the context for that is going to be, not just now, but over the next ten years.

What we mean by publishing has never been more fascinating and fluid. We just have to get a bit better at illustrating that and its implications to the next generation of participants.

Show me the money (first)

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This blog post by John Bond was originally published on the FutureBook blog.

When we started our company two years ago, we were often asked why we were called whitefox. I mean, not a pun on books to be seen. The working title for the whole idea had been Maguire, after the 1996 Tom Cruise film Jerry Maguire. Specifically the scene at the beginning where the hard-headed commercial sports agent wakes up from a bad dream with a new business vision: one based on quality, not quantity, based on better, deeper personal relationships. He writes a mission statement in the middle of the night and calls it The Things We Think And Do Not Say and gets it copied up and given to every delegate at the conference he’s attending. He heralds the fact that he has “ lost the ability to bullshit”. He is, of course, promptly fired.

I loved that idea as the starting point for a new business. I loved the film, the script of which I defy anyone not to find some use in as a mantra for management in publishing (come on, how many times, publishing executive, have you wanted to lean over that desk two hours into an appraisal and say ‘ help me help you ‘). But my co-founding partners dismissed the idea of christening a start-up with anything so redolent of the 1990s and with even the slightest whiff of short Scientologists. So whitefox we duly became.

whitefox as a concept was about practical work that made a tangible difference, which could adapt to any environment and, if required, remain below the radar. A business that could blend into the background. It was always intended to be a symbol of trust and quality for our clients and suppliers. Our original assumption was that we would gradually be seen primarily as an opportunity for traditional publishers to outsource nitty gritty publishing expertise as the industry contracted and overheads lost the battle between fixed and variable costs.

That has happened. But simultaneously, even in the brief time we have been trading, new areas have opened up where publishing sensibilities are becoming increasingly relevant. No one seems to worry about using the ‘c’ word any more. Content is everywhere. Whilst trade publishers still see themselves as the arbiter of what should and should not be made public and endorsed, content owners and brands are choosing to look at their assets through the other end of the same telescope. And whitefox are helping them. Whether you are a newspaper or broadcaster, management consultants or breakfast cereal, brands are starting to use e-books for either marketing engagement or to create revenue streams through new channels.

The concept of brands becoming publishers, as Jens Bachem christened it at the Digital Minds Conference in 2103, isn’t new. Sales departments over the years have had custom publishing units, and rare is even the smallest chain of restaurants or cafes that don’t have a dedicated recipe book, often published on mainstream lists. But digital has opened up new opportunities for more DIY and cost-effective experimentation. And organisations are able to produce and share better quality, less ephemeral and more engaging material because companies like whitefox allow access to trusted publishing specialists. Our largely UK based network has started to play its part in what Mike Shatzkin over in New York has defined as the “atomisation” of publishing.

For some, this will all seem a rather alien concept. A distraction even. But in an uncertain world for some publishers, we would argue it represents a positive endorsement of having access to relevant, individual expertise, unbundled and available to anyone. So what if it is for content marketing. There is a commercial value in good writers, editors and designers.

The e-book explosion has seen traditional publishers look inwards first, obsess about understanding consumers of their books, differentiating themselves from their competitors and focus on digitising and selling their own copyrights as profitably as possible to offset any decline in physical sales. But there is a whole world out there. A world of words that can benefit from the skills that have long been traditionally associated with good publishing.

In the US, the successful self-publishing platform Blurb have just announced that nearly 40% of its revenues now come from businesses, who are using both illustrated and e-books, as marketing collateral or to commemorate events and anniversaries.

Its all just another way of being open to new opportunities. You had me at hello.

Talking start-ups

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I know that the Futurebook article on start-ups was a few weeks back, but it has provoked much debate in the whitefox work hub in Euston. It certainly made us think about some of the other start-ups we know (if we’re still allowed to call ourselves a start-up after two years ) and the differences between those who have been successful and those who haven’t.

It might seem like a generalisation, but entrepreneurs on the outside of publishing looking in seem to have a single-minded obsession with raising money on the basis of a silver bullet: a big, transformative, simple, scaleable idea that changes the game. Amazon is an example. But there’s an alternative: creating something that makes money by solving problems. For some, including us, it has taken years to work out what exactly what our business is. This has lead to some unexpected and exciting commercial opportunities which we hadn’t seen when we set out. We thought we had it all sussed. We created our business plan. We marketed our services. We bought and read The Lean Start-Up. But only when we started trading and saying yes to everything did we understand the potential scope.  So I guess what we feel we’ve learned is that just because Amazon has disrupted the whole eco-system doesn’t mean you know what customers really want until you actually start doing stuff. And that winning doesn’t happen by pitching to VCs or angel investors with cash flow forecasts but out in the market place itself.

Launch and learn indeed.

Predicting the future, 2010 style

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When whitefox recently moved offices to Euston I found some paperwork I’d filed away in 2010 from a previous life inside one of those corporate publishing behemoths. Back then, the senior team had been given the task of stepping off the monthly inevitability of reforecasting against budget and instead looking into a crystal ball to see if they could identify what some of the key, defining factors for a large book publisher in 2015 would be. What types of books will do better? Will you be publishing more or less? Will your authors be more or less dependent on you? How will prices have changed and how much of your output will be digital? You get the picture.

It is always amusing, enlightening and faintly embarrassing to look back over your shoulder at what you got wrong and at answers so clearly influenced by your head being firmly lodged in the political context of the time. But we are talking about envisaging a publishing world that is now less than a year from reality. And some of the answers are fascinating.

There is a lot that seems fanciful now. Apple and Google commissioning publishing programmes, Waterstones succeeding online, editors understanding and selecting content based on the nuances of app development. We seemed to think an ageing population would keep buying hardback physical books out of nostalgia, not realising that portability, convenience and an adaptable font size would mean that that demographic would embrace e-readers.

We got some things right. Crime fiction has continued to show a big digital shift, and newspaper review pages have diminished. Some subscription services have emerged. But we are, it seems, still waiting for a revolution in tablet and colour e-readers to impact upon traditional illustrated publishing. Agents have not been consigned to history and replaced by lawyers and deal brokers. Publishers are still looking at ways in which they can improve their 360-degree service offering to stay relevant to authors. And, as Rebecca Smart’s talk at last year’s Futurebook illustrated, the process of taking relevant content to market is still too slow.

All of which proves what, exactly? That when we look into the future, it is human nature that even people who would classify themselves as ‘experts’ within an industry just end up playing wish fulfilment when they look into the future.

Value Added – A Guest Post from Agent Orange

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[intro] On the eve of the second day of the London Book Fair, whitefox is proud to present a guest blog post from The Bookseller’s Agent Orange. [/intro]

One of the things that makes publishing so fascinating is that it involves taking something that has – in the case of fiction – no utility and no intrinsic value and translating the pleasure and enjoyment it brings into money.

In the pre-internet days, the chain of value that led from an authors tea-stained typescript to the ringing of the tills on the high street was a complex one, which justified the significant slice of the pie which booksellers and publishers largely shared between themselves.

As publishers also took on the whole cost of publication, from editing, copyediting, proof reading and typesetting to design and production, warehousing distribution and, in all too many cases, pulping, they were able to position themselves squarely at the centre of the book trade.

Of course, they still do all of those things, but as the value of physical sales has declined and since Amazon provides instant national sales presence to every author the value of the proposition publishers makes to authors has declined. They are no longer so definitively at the centre of the publishing business.

There have been several consequences of this. One is that publishers have had to work hard to maintain their profit margins, in large part by reducing advances and royalties to writers and cutting their internal costs by outsourcing much of the work they used to do in-house.

Another is that they have become ever more risk averse and publish in ever narrower and more rigidly defined channels.

This has created the paradoxical result that publishers, whose business in part rests on the fact that they offer a value proposition to authors, are making themselves ever less attractive to them – at the very point at which viable alternatives to the traditional publishing route are opening up.

This is not to say that the value of much of the rest of the chain has declined correspondingly – far from it. The market remains highly competitive and the value to authors of a well-edited book, free of typos and grammatical errors and with a really strong jacket remains high.

And that has created a thriving market of freelancers offering their services to self-published authors. Whilst there are concerns that there is some sharp practice in this area, and that self-publishing could, as a result of this change, become accessible only by the well-off, this is a good thing by and large – provided authors go into it with their eyes open.

And that creates an interesting possibility. As traditional publishers’ share of the market declines and physical book retail diminishes, might this new market for the goods and services of publishing, the place where much of the value of the publishing chain resides, become the publishers of the future?

Which would be ironic – given that much of this marketplace of freelancers exists because publishers have shed so many jobs in this area.

An interview with Scott Pack

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[intro] Scott Pack is publisher at The Friday Project, an imprint of HarperCollins. He also heads up the team that looks after Authonomy, an online community that connects readers, writers and publishing professionals. Each month, the top five manuscripts on Authonomy make it to the desks of HarperCollins editors. Scott blogs and reviews at meandmybigmouth.typepad.com, and tweets @meandmybigmouth [/intro]

You used to work in Waterstones, where you had a pivotal role in what was promoted and endorsed by the brand throughout the country. Do you think bricks-and-mortar retailers can have that kind of influence over taste any more?

Not as much, no. There was a period of time when we could put pretty much any book in the 3 for 2 and sell a few hundred at the very least, often thousands. It was an offer that could transform the sales of a book. One of the reasons for that was the offer itself, which was like crack cocaine for book lovers, and I do think most customers miss it, but another was that the books would be supported by every branch. Nowadays it is rare for any new book outside of the real top sellers to be available in every branch of a given bricks-and-mortar chain.

Individual bookshops and individual booksellers can, of course, have great influence over what their customers read but I think the days of a book chain influencing what the nation reads are long gone. More’s the pity.

 

You look after Authonomy within HarperCollins. What is the process of getting an editor within the organisation to engage with something that has become successful on that site ?

It will differ from editor to editor and imprint to imprint. Some are actively checking out Authonomy for potential acquisitions and others are, quite understandably, busy with their own lists. The Avon imprint, for example, are huge supporters of Authonomy and have signed up yet another author from there, Kat French, on a three-book deal.

But we need to revamp Authonomy and improve its ranking system  something I have been very open about with the community – in order to get more editors engaged with it. I am pretty excited about that as our new version of the site is not too far away.

 

The Friday Project has always looked to challenge the conventions of traditional publishing. How different have you found it operating within a large corporate publisher as opposed to as an independent start-up ?

Well, I get paid now, which is nice. Also, the economies of scale make it easier to deliver a successful book. HarperCollins have been incredibly tolerant of what we do and allowed us the freedom to try out different stuff, so I can’t complain.

 

We’ve seen PRH buy Author Solutions and many publishers around the world enter partnerships with mega-online service providers such as Createspace. How do you think those relationships will evolve ?

It used to be that traditional publishers handled all the books that mattered, all the books that sold. Now there is a substantial chunk of the market, the self-published chunk, that publishers have no control over, so it is inevitable that they will look at ways to get involved. And I think that can work. Although there are successful self-published authors who are happy to remain so, most would welcome a traditional deal and as publishers engage more in that world we’ll see more partnerships emerging.

 

Would more publishing companies benefit from adopting a more ‘start-up’ mentality, and if so, how ?

I think many of them do in certain areas. I know HarperCollins actively encourages and supports that sort of thinking and many others will do likewise. Of course, there are lots of old school publishers doing things they way they always did but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The key is that both approaches need to work alongside each other, and I don’t think that’s impossible by any means.

 

How should corporate publishers react to Hugh Howey’s Author Reports and the debate that surrounds it?

Was any of it really a surprise? I cannot imagine there is a publisher who didn’t know this already. I think he should be applauded for exploding the debate but I am pretty sure most publishers already have strategies in place and are using all manner of data, both direct and assumed, to drive those strategies. It’s a sexy debate, though, and it gets tongues wagging.

An Interview with Nathan Burton

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[intro]Nathan Burton is a London based designer and illustrator. He left Penguin in 2008 to set up his own company, Nathan Burton Design. He now works for a variety of publishers in the UK and abroad. You can see his work at www.nathanburtondesign.com and follow him on twitter @buronint[/intro]

How important is the clarity of a brief, or do you prefer to have more freedom to design a cover based on your interpretation of the book?

I’ve worked with all types of briefs, from incredibly specific projects to ones which are completely wide open, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. With a lot of the literary titles I work on the brief is very open: ‘here’s the book, have a read and come up with ideas’. There’s usually a panicked feeling of ‘what the hell am I going to do for this?’ at the start of the project which is followed by lots of head scratching, rejected ideas and finally a looming deadline which forces you into action. Because no-one has any preconceived ideas of the final design you can (hopefully) come up with something that surprises and excites the publisher and author. Also, book cover briefs aren’t set in stone so there can be a lot of back and forth between the designer and publisher before you get to the end solution. What the publishers think they want at the beginning isn’t always what the cover ends up looking like, but that’s all part of the creative process.

Nathan Burton

Are you aware of a greater emphasis on well-designed covers coming from self-published authors?

This isn’t something that I’ve noticed but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Being noticed in a crowded marketplace is always going to be a challenge, so having a well designed cover is sure to be a bonus.

 

With the increasing move to digital, do you think more emphasis is put on having a cover that is eye-catching as a thumbnail on a screen, or in trying to make a book an attractive and covetable physical possession?

When I start to design a cover I don’t really worry about the thumbnail issue. Usually, a nicely designed cover will work as a thumbnail, so I wouldn’t advocate designing one based solely on its ability to be shrunk down. I don’t see why a cover can’t work digitally, as a thumbnail, and also as a beautiful object that uses the same design.

 

Who has most influence on cover design? The author, the publisher, or the sales and marketing team?

It really depends on the book, how big the author is and how much the publisher has paid for it. The cover needs to be initially approved by the art director who then puts it into a meeting with various people including the editor and sales and marketing. If it survives that then its off to the author for approval. It’s always a relief when covers make it through this process, but quite often it can be back to the drawing board.

 

In your experience are more publishers now using consumer insight to test covers?

I’ve had this happen on a jacket I’m working on at the moment but I’ve not had the feedback yet, so I’m not sure what the effect will be. I can’t see it improving creativity in book cover design.

 

What 2013 cover do you wish you’d designed?

One of my favourites from 2013 is Tampa by Alissa Nutting, designed by Jon Gray. It’s a beautifully simple idea that’s perfectly executed. Another book, or rather series, that caught my eye is the P. G. Wodehouse redesign by David Wardle/Barnes & Noble. They are a lovely balance of modern and retro. Printed in eye-popping neon, they really stand out in the bookshop.

The Heart of the Matter

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I get it when trade publishers talk about really understanding their consumers, I really do. What do readers really want? And discoverability: the holy grail. But when you are on the outside looking in, it still seems to me that there are many potential pitfalls when you are playing catch up in an area that has not been the essence of your business (consumer engagement, CRM, on-going dialogue with readers, actually utilising data) and you take for granted what has been your traditional strength (proximity to, understanding and supporting writers). I think some publishers just take that as a given. They shouldn’t. It can never be worth making assumptions.

More mergers and acquisitions will place an even greater emphasis on identifying and nurturing distinct cultures for salaried staff to thrive within conglomerate publishing businesses. But the business itself will only survive in the long run if it lives and breathes the mantra that publishing does not exist without the creators of content being at the core.

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