Category Archives: Publishing & Consultancy

Channeling the Fox

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Once again, Philip Jones, in his editorial in the Bookseller, has come up with a brilliant way of describing how publishers could win what Brian O’Leary calls the ‘food fight…in the publishing cafeteria‘.

Jones talks about his experience of “the commitment, passion and professionalism” he witnesses in publishing offices, a point made only rarely in the trading of blows online. He then goes on to suggest that publishing needs to mimic the Pompidou Centre and make the “inner workings visible”.

We agree! That’s why we talk at whitefox about lifting up the curtain at the back of the publishing house, so you can see the inner workings. And not only that: through us, you can have access to those skills and specialisms directly. Because they matter.

Thank you, Philip. Keep channeling whitefox.

In Praise of Time

By | Author, Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments
In a discussion with a successful indie writer this week, one of the subjects that came up was time. Successful publishing takes time, we agreed – something which isn’t always recognised or valued by new writers. We weren’t talking about the book craft, about editing, design or the attention to detail needed to take a book to market. No, we agreed: just as important was the time it takes to think about how you publish, where you find readers, how you sustain a dialogue with them, and what channel strategy you have.
Let’s acknowledge what publishers can do here. If you sign a book deal, in addition to being blessed with an advance against future royalties you will be given time by experienced, often highly creative people who know how to do this stuff. And in my experience that time does not directly equate to the level of the advance or budgeted revenue targets. Lots of time is spent on books that editors, marketers or sales departments simply love and want to succeed. And they will give those books the precious, unstructured time that falls in between meetings or out of office hours.
But when I asked this successful indie writer if she would ever be tempted to take a large advance from a traditional publisher, the answer was no. And the reason she gave was…time. No publisher would or could put the amount of time or on-going commitment into her work as she could, or guarantee her the level of control she sought. Which makes sense. For some people, no amount of personal investment from a publishing house will be enough to outweigh the drive and self-motivation they can bring to their own projects.
We are a young company experimenting with a number of different models. We are trying to work out if there is a commercially viable place to exist where we can support writers and content owners by giving them access to really good people who will help them to become more successful. But how we work out quantifying the value of creative time is a hard one. As far as I know, no algorithm exists for that.

When a Brand is not a Brand

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[intro]Yet more conversations last week that made us feel as though mainstream trade publishing really were happening in an air-tight, members only bubble, the rest of the world going about its business outside and occasionally stopping to peer in out of curiosity.[/intro] At a debate in a central London university, where we discussed branding with a group of students on an advanced publishing course, we listened to a successful author talk about the subtle nuances of creative interpretations of her book’s jacket from different publishers in different territories around the world. Some she liked. Some she hated. Some, to her, captured the essence of her book. Some were positioned to appeal to a sales person or a retail buyer, neither of whom would ever read the book but who wanted their customers to pick up clear signals that it contained a certain kind of fiction.

For most authors the question what the cover of their book will look like takes on a disproportionately high significance. It is the window into their creation. They want to sell millions of copies – but often via a design brief that says, ‘this needs to look like nothing that has gone before it’. It enrages and delights them in equal measure. It is also the closest anyone in the chain of influence will get to affecting what they perceive to be their  brand. Some authors have a modest above-the-line spend, but not many. So, what we’re really talking about here is not branding at all but packaging. No less a skill, though one which is inextricably associated with production rather than imaginative entertainment.

But publishers don’t employ packagers. They use cover designers, in-house or outsourced, clever interpreters of briefs that say such useful things as ‘like the last one, only, with a twist’. Designers who will hold covers up in a meeting that could have up to fifteen participants, the vast majority of whom will not have read the book in question but enjoy attending one meeting in their working week where they feel they can influence the physical manifestation of the companies output.

The reality is that with shelf space squeezed and more sales taking place online or in the form of e-editions, conversations with authors about ‘branding’ tend to centre on covers because that is all the publisher can cost-effectively influence. It is a small, physical canvas that might appear in a shop window, will appear on Amazon, but almost certainly won’t represent something with clearly defined values, something differentiated from its competition. Like a brand.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. The conversations will continue with authors and their publishers in their bubbles. Or maybe one day one of the few really identifiable author brands will start working with a packager. From the outside, looking in, that would be interesting.

Human Recommendation Engines

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[intro]Amongst whitefox publisher clients, we’re lucky to number Gallic; the clever, fleet-of-foot indie publisher of French books in translation. And Gallic are lucky enough to be based in a thriving bookshop in South West London. Here they host events, meet book buyers, and launch their own titles alongside those of other publishers.[/intro]

But besides all that, they’ve grown to become something of my trusted human recommendation engines. Every time we have a meeting to discuss plans for forthcoming publications I ask them what I should be reading in the implicit understanding they already know enough about me to be informed in their choices. After many months, they have yet to make a bad choice (currently Walter Tevis’s haunting classic The Queen’s Gambit). They even have a dog that has started to tweet recommendations (a dog recommendation engine?). Smart pooch.

Many years ago, I used to work with a very brilliant copyeditor who had a similar ability. Everyone in his proximity knew to pay attention to his pronouncements once he’d finished working on a book due to his uncanny knack of knowing which of a publisher’s stable of titles stood a chance of making it in any one season. He was a sales departments secret oracle.

Some people are gifted like that.

Now, I’m not comparing them more favourably than algorithms that tell me titles I may also like after I’ve finished a book on my e-reader. But there is something rather joyous seeing the spark in the eyes of a bookseller or a colleague or friend who wants you to share the pleasure of disappearing into a writer’s world.

Cover up

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

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

And yet and yet.

What Jeff actually said was.

Actually I think it is more important now

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

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

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

Back to the future

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I had an endearingly frank conversation with an ex-colleague who is close to announcing their own innovative publishing start-up. “The trouble is,” they said:

I worry I don’t have the ego for all of this. If it’s going to work, I’m going to have to try and get as much PR for me and the idea behind the business as I am for the books.”

True. And also true that some of the most valuable attributes of a successful acquiring editor – the nurturing, the ability to listen, the empathy and collaboration in the margins – are not always shared by some of the cults of the personality who tend to suck up the oxygen of publicity in and around our industry.

Then, behold, a few days later, yet more news of possible launches, this time from those who have occupied some of the most senior jobs in traditional legacy publishing, gathering themselves for one last public hurrah. And, in this instance, no shortage of ego, self-belief or (maybe most importantly) funding.

Both conversations lead me back to that entrepreneurial Bible, Eric Ries’s The Lean Start-Up. With the right vision and strategy, and a lean ethic, I don’t see that being slightly reserved and uncomfortable with the limelight has hindered too many of the engineers and programmers who have made money from their successful business ideas in recent years.

But I would beware those ex-corporates who will find it hard to be weaned off their expense accounts, Net-a-Porter office deliveries, need for ‘creative space’ and a massive supporting infrastructure. Smart investors can smell cash eaters, however charismatic, at thirty paces.

Model Talk

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[intro]September. The familiar rhythm of the season. Strictly and X Factor back on the TV. Jamie at number 1 on Amazon. Mike Shatzkin talking about his dad in his blog. And publishers telling me they are open to new models.[/intro]

Really? I was involved in a discussion panel on this topic some weeks back at a Byte the Book event. And though it did prove to be fun and lively and opinionated, it didn’t really address new models. New ideas maybe, but not new models as such.

As a publisher I remember working with a brilliant ex-music business contract’s commercial director who tried to break new contractual ground with the agents of some established clients, which resulted in a positively deafening silence. Maybe it has all changed and this time it will be different. And new models will mean just that. But any new model can’t be to every stakeholder’s benefit. Which means a lot of talk and very little action.

Sponsored Anxiety

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[intro]I am married to a hard-working publisher. After several years together, our mutual addiction to what is going on in our respective work places is out in the open.[/intro] When we go on holiday these days, we no longer hide in the bathroom to surreptitiously check the blackberry. Rather, we accept that an inability to switch-off comes with the territory, whether you are working for a big corporate or running a nascent start-up. Everyone has to be on top of everything, all the time.

So I am peculiarly aware of our respective information filters telling us both slightly contrary things. Or at least emphasising different aspects of the same wonderfully disparate world.

It is August, so the data I’m hearing is focussed a lot on UK subscriptions and orders for key autumn titles. Some of them are eye-wateringly large.

Proof positive if it were needed that the physical book is far from dead, however challenged the High Street. And yet I am also being bombarded by information on seminars and courses I should be attending in London, New York and Frankfurt. Seminars and talks that I know will engage the most senior brains in global publishing that skew almost entirely towards digital.

I know it is the sign of a healthy industry that it can embrace change and not be afraid to tackle head on the challenges of disruption and disintermediation. But sometimes it feels as if publishers can’t get by without feeling the need to sponsor organisations and individuals whose sole aim is to keep their levels of anxiety as high as possible.

Bottom up/Top down

By | Digital, Publishing & Consultancy, Startup | No Comments
[intro]When I was in my last corporate job, two digital publishing initiatives were launched pretty much simultaneously. One was the consumer-facing Book Army, the other was the writer-facing Authonomy.[/intro]

Book Army was based on sound strategic logic. At a time when publishers would think nothing of spending multiple six figure sums on new company websites, but few consumers could identify the logo on the spine of the book they were currently reading, a UK-based social networking site for book lovers felt a more relevant way to drive consumer purchasing and ad revenue. And Book Army was publisher agnostic. If you wanted to recommend a book not published by HarperCollins, so be it. It was a soft rather than a hard sell.

Authonomy, on the other hand, was born to solve an editorial conundrum. Surely it was counterintuitive to declare on a publisher’s website that it did not accept unsolicited manuscripts? It effectively sent out the signal that a publisher did not believe it had the innate ability to discern what should be commissioned, and that somehow it needed agents to filter the slush pile for them. So one editor came up with the idea of crowdsourcing submissions through a site, which allowed writers to upload a manuscript and submit it for peer review.

But five years is a long time in publishing. After half a decade, which one worked and which one fell flat on its face?

Book Army closed after two years. Just because it was a good, strategically sound idea (as Goodreads would show) didn’t mean you could force it to work. In retrospect, a publisher was in some ways in the worst place to start up an initiative like that. There were too many other strategic objectives in play. Authonomy, however, is still going strong. It was, at the time, a unique solution to a problem that helped define the organisation. It grew organically into something that created top-ten bestsellers and an ad revenue stream.

At the time, the publisher’s digital team was more centralised than it is today. Authonomy was probably seen as too niche to make money. Book Army was a much bigger potential play. But maybe that’s the point. Trade publishers take for granted the things they have always been able to do: to help find entertaining content that lots and lots of people will enjoy. You can’t force a publisher to be a social network recommendation engine. But you can enhance the ability to publish what people want to read.

An interview with Helena Caldon

By | Freelance, Interview, Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments
[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…

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