Category Archives: Publishing & Consultancy

‘The geography of publishing’ in the 21st Century

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In James Salter’s recent novel All That Is, Salter uses the wonderful phrase ‘the geography of publishing’ to describe the networks of individuals in the late 20th century who worked on different lists, in different countries, but who liked the same books and kept in touch. They would meet, drink and gossip at the annual Fairs and gatherings and on work trips throughout the year – work trips that required little justification other than a possibility that you could be in the right place at the right time when something interesting came up.

Something like this this still happens, of course. Publishers and editors in their 40s and 50s have established networks of like-minded peers in companies across the world. But what does this geography look like, these days, and how important is it? Are the epicentres of decision-making, once in New York and London, now in Seattle and Luxembourg? These days, isn’t it more likely that international connections exist within a single company conglomerate, where the unquantifiable value of human interaction might be perceived as a smaller return on investment than a round robin email? (And is all this really more about, say, French MBA grads raising money to brief Latvian digital developers on creating new Software-as-a-Service products?)

The very premise of e-publishing breaks down many of the traditional borders and boundaries. It isn’t just that your typesetting can be in India and your printing in Dubai. Decisions made on the basis of algorithms applied to consumer behaviour seem more interesting now to CEOs than books thought up in the bar of the Hessischer Hof hotel in the early hours of a Frankfurt October morning.

At whitefox we are seeing what it is like to work with brands who have specific content marketing strategies in different countries. With writers who are published in one territory, and who are looking to self-publish and market their own work in another. And with our freelancers, who work anywhere and everywhere. Talent is talent, no matter what the time zone.

But we do share in some of the nostalgia for past times. Not for elitism or perpetuating a literary reading culture defined by a select few. But for the serendipity of the creative and intuitive travelling publisher-magpie. I was in a meeting room in the 90s when Penguin’s Peter Mayer and Peter Carson returned from a trip to Barcelona and threw a battered orange box full of small 100 peseta books across a long board room table. Short form digestible fiction and non-fiction, both commercial and literary, in cut off paperbacks, all under 100 pages, and sold alongside the gum and the cigarettes in Spanish kiosks.

They became the model for the millions of Penguin 60s sold in 1995. (Think a 20th century version of the burgeoning Kindle Singles.) Sometimes you can just be in the right place at the right time.

The Correction

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This week I was interested to catch up with a friend and ex-colleague who has spent the last few years in the USA. Once close and familiar with UK trade publishing, he is now very much on the outside looking in, immersed as he is in educational and corporate digital subscriptions on the other side of the Atlantic.

We discussed what had happened since he left. The mergers and acquisitions. The spectacular falls from commercial grace. The speed of disintermediation. The astounding statistics of the self-publishing industry. Amazon, of course…

‘So it’s actually happened, then? The “correction” we’d been discussing for years, which never seemed to quite materialise?’

Perhaps it finally has. So much has changed in the UK publishing industry in recent years that warnings of a coming tipping point are beginning to sound passé. What was that story about frogs and boiling water?

A Guest Post from Clare Conville + Free Festival Tickets

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[intro]Since co-founding Conville & Walsh in 2000 Clare Conville has agented some of the most prestigious writers of our time. This year she has curated an exciting new entry in the UK’s literary calendar. The Curious Arts Festival will take place in the grounds of Pylewell Park in Hampshire from the 18th to the 20th of July, when the family seat of the Barons Teynham will play host to a succession of writers and musicians from Craig Brown and Rowan Pelling to Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit.

whitefox has two free tickets to the festival to give away to one lucky reader. To enter, simply email your name and address to info@wearewhitefox.com. Entries will be pulled out of a hat at the end of the week. Good luck! [/intro]

While some of our finest publishers battle it out in Seattle in the hopes of securing a future for our trade (and by extension our culture), I find myself engrossed in the small print: train times to Lymington, the dietary requirements of very special authors, where Joan As Policewoman is going to sleep on Saturday night and anxious, secret googling at 3.20am in the morning to look at next week’s weather forecast. Yes, you will have guessed it – I am co-curating the Curious Arts Festival at Pylewell Park which runs from 18th-20th July and if ferocious discounting by Amazon doesn’t get me first then surely the combined levels of anxiety, adrenaline and good old-fashioned madness that are essential to propel one through organising a festival surely will.

Grounds

A fair question would be: why do it? Surely life as an agent at Conville and Walsh is busy enough? To be truthful: yes it is. At this stage in the run-up to next week’s launch I can’t really remember why I said I’d do it apart from the fact that Paddy Keogh, my partner in crime, is charmingly persuasive. However, if I can find the time to stop and think about it I do believe passionately that there is a direct correlation between the unstoppable rise of the literary festival culture in the UK and the increasingly boringly transactional way people buy books. In challenging times authors, agents and publishers must change the way they think about how they find readers.

Authors have to become “authorpreneurs” and actively seek out new ways to promote themselves, often without quite enough support from their publishers and agents. Publishers have to become impresarios, coaxing “influencers” and the press into taking interest in the books in the first place and constantly looking for new and interesting platforms to promote them. Curiously, a festival at its best can offer everybody a new experience and I believe that the devil is in the detail, even if it does mean getting up at 4.30am to start sending e-mails, because a sense of detail is something that a Seattle algorithm can’t supply. So our aim for our artists, writers, and musicians alike is that they will arrive at Pylewell Park and have an incredible stay: the beds will be comfortable, there will be flowers and chocolate in their room, and drinks and meals will run throughout the day courtesy of The Feast of Reason. Children and dogs are welcome too.

Clare Conville

We also aim to ensure that our paying visitors have a marvellous time: a dazzling programme of events, a beautiful camping site in the incredible grounds of the park with unbelievable views of the Solent, delicious food and drink and a wonderful and comfortable pop-up bookshop run by Waterstones, Lymington, where there will be hourly signings (but where you can also snuggle up in an armchair and read a book).

In addition, Curtis Brown will be running a film tent, there’ll be loads of activities and events for children including A Jabberwocky Hunt, a Pestival Walk and donkey rides. If you want to take a different journey through the festival, breathing lessons, life-drawing classes and bibliotherapy are all available. Our aim is to make Curious, unique and unforgettable, a place, rather like one’s own bookshelf or a gorgeous local bookshop, where the familiar, the much loved and the fresh combine. We want Curious to be a festival that artists, guests and visitors will return to again and again, part of a vibrant culture that the great and the good of international publishing are trying so hard to preserve on our behalf. So, do join us!

Clare Conville

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

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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.

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