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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 Lynne Truss

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lynne_truss[intro]Lynne Truss is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. The author of numerous books, radio series and now also a play, she is perhaps best known for her multi-million selling polemic on the use and abuse of punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. She is also a Radio 4 regular, has a weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph and has just completed a novella.[/intro]

You had spent many years as a journalist before you wrote your first book, With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed, which was published in 1994. Was writing a book something you had always wanted to do?

For the first decade or so of my working life, I worked as a literary editor on national weeklies – and I think one of the reasons I didn’t start to write books myself was that I was exposed to the realities of publishing! There were so many good books in the world, it seemed absurd to try to add my own contribution to the heap. But I also had various insecurities about writing books (not least the fact that I was working-class), so I just had to edge towards it, a cautious step at a time. From editing book reviews, I moved to writing the reviews, and then to writing the books themselves. Similarly – eventually – I moved from interviewing playwrights to writing plays. The problem with this strategy is that life turns out to be shorter than I thought it was! However, I never regret the time I spent editing. I’m sure it helps me every day.

A book about punctuation with the punch line of an obscure joke as its title is not an obvious recipe for an international bestseller. Is there anything you feel publishers can learn from its success?

Yes. The lesson is ‘nobody knows anything’. The title is a good example – had we been aiming at a big market (which we weren’t), the title would never have got through. Clever marketing people would have said it wouldn’t work, that it shouldn’t have the word “shoots” in it, that there are obscene versions of the joke, and so on. Luckily, Andrew Franklin at Profile is the sort of person who defies such nonsense. He never suggested changing the title, and it was his idea that I write the book in the first place, having heard me broadcasting about punctuation on Radio 4. My own attitude to the book at the time was that it was quite dangerous a) to associate oneself with sticklers and pedants, and b) to risk being dumped on for getting it all completely wrong. But I was at a weird, ungrounded point in my life when I felt that nothing mattered very much, so I went for it in a quite bold gung-ho manner. Afterwards, I think quite a lot of publishers hoped to replicate the ‘formula’ forEats, Shoots, but totally in vain. The main element of its success was that there was an enormous enthusiastic pre-existing market for it – a market that had not been served before, and that no one even suspected was out there.

Of all the various projects you have been involved with over the years, which have you been most proud of?

I think my novel Tennyson’s Gift is still my proudest achievement. I’m sure it will one day reach a larger audience. Just this week I went to Freshwater in the Isle of Wight (where the book is set), and read from it to an audience after a cream tea, and it was bliss. It also made me very happy last year to put on a play in Edinburgh, during the festival.

You have spent some of your career as a freelance writer. What have your experiences of freelancing been like?

I was lucky enough to get contracts with newspapers – first of all the Independent on Sunday (in 1990–1) and then The Times(1991–2000), so I generally had a bit of security about income. My worst period was in 2000, when I went freelance again after having a well-paid contract at The Times. It was a shock to find out that a theatre review would be paid at a rate of about £100. BBC rates are also very low, so it was a struggle, I must admit. I was incredibly busy writing for a lot of different media, but I still had to remortgage my house – and I was actually thinking about remortgaging it again when Eats, Shoots & Leaves pulled me back from the brink. The main problem with freelancing is keeping people’s good opinion, because they will phone and ask you to write something RIGHT NOW, and if you’ve already got two deadlines and have to say no, they will put a big cross next to your name.

Publishing is a fundamentally collaborative process. What have been the most creative experiences you’ve had working with people ‘behind the scenes’ on your books?

At the same time as I fear them, I have a lot of respect for copy-editors. Working on my sportswriting book Get Her Off the Pitch!, the editor came back with the astonishing news that I’d used the phrase ‘of course’ ninety-six times, and I will always be grateful for that. He also saved me from umpteen embarrassing slips. But I’m afraid I don’t think publishing is quite such a collaborative process where the author is concerned – and when you consider that it’s the author’s career that suffers most from the failure of any book, I think that’s a shame. From my experience, there is also a culture of high-handedness in traditional publishing. It’s no wonder some successful authors ultimately turn into monsters (if they weren’t already monsters in the first place).

Whitefox and davy lamps

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When one of the first things you see walking into an office is a sculpture of a giant hand, you know you’re no longer in the North. whitefox Publishing Services share their office space with an advertising company in Shoreditch; it’s kooky, painfully cool, but somehow still manages to be welcoming and relaxed (and whoever was in charge of the music today was doing a damn fine job).  For a Yorkshire girl, it was admittedly a bit of a culture shock, but I found comfort in the eyes of the peacock/wildebeest oil-painting propped beside the reception desk and decided it was probably safe to blow out my Davy lamp.

Having scouted (definitely not stalked) the LinkedIn accounts of both John Bond and Annabel Wright (the co-founders of whitefox), prior to getting the work experience offer, I was very aware of my status as newly-graduated-without-serious-career-prospects. The résumés of both John and Annabel (the former Head of Sales and Marketing at HarperCollins and Senior Editor at HarperPress respectively) clearly had some serious, heavyweight business experience behind them. And it shone through in the first morning meeting, as whitefox’s on-going publishing projects and proposals, involving both corporate giants and lone self-publishers (and at one point just ‘Iceland’ – and no, I’m not talking about the frozen-food supermarket), were discussed in a flood of contacts and industry know-how, leaving my uninitiated brain floundering, desperately attempting to tread water. Annabel, John and Tim (Inman – an intern at whitefox who’s flying along in the thick of it there, and clearly relishing it) did occasionally stem the flow of names and practicalities in order to offer me explanations and neat biographies of what/who whitefox were involved with – there were quite a few of these breaks, and I now finally know what ‘blue-sky thinking’ is. There was a lot to grasp, but it was undeniably interesting and it was new – publishing in its most modern, cutting-edge form.  With an extreme amount of help (and patience) I spent the rest of the day attempting to utilise their network, which seems to have already become an invaluable tool for those self-publishers wishing to find credible freelance services easily online.

I’m back in my dorm now, listening to the Frenchman who has lived here for 9 months crunch crisps half-naked on top of his bunk bed (don’t you just love youth hostels?), and am seriously looking forward to getting back to the office; it’ll be another day of data logging, but also a few new research projects, including how to transform a popular fashion blog into an e-book and, in the evening, ‘Byte the Book’, a panel and networking event about new business models in publishing. And oh, did I mention it was at the Ivy? For now, my Davy lamp is staying off.

Open services

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Saturday’s session at The Literary Consultancy annual conference on author services proved once again what an incendiary subject it can be. Place a successful self-published DIY writer and a writing services platform of any scale on the same stage and the sparks start to fly. How much money is the platform taking for what seems to be the simplest of offers? Is there transparency? What represents value for money? What do you really need help with and what is being bought and sold through basic misrepresentation?

We’ve spoken before at whitefox about the commercial challenge of delivering scale and maintaining levels of quality. Investors want you to be able to illustrate exponential growth that almost by definition threatens your ability to deliver a bespoke, hand-holding, value-added service of sufficient quality to justify your fee. It is in some ways the essence of creative tension.

Here is our take on the issue some days after the flashpoint at the Conference. Writers are sentient beings and we should treat them as such. It does whitefox no harm whatsoever to hear the big writing services machines being labelled as disreputable. But our view remains the same since we opened up our operation. If we are clear and open and transparent and represent fairly the skills and specialisms of individuals who make a direct, material difference to content creation, then we are happy to be labelled an author services network. Even if right now that seems like a bloody battleground for the future soul of publishing.

Here’s to the grammar police

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You may have heard the recent news that the education secretary and Pob-a-like Michael Gove is hoping to prioritise grammar in primary school education. There are, of course, those who have been quick to respond by pointing out that language without grammar is like a male vixen: conceptually impossible. Grammar just is the system and structure that allows mutterings or scribblings to function as language. Thus anyone who is able to communicate with language is someone who can use grammar effectively. By learning to write and talk, kids are learning grammar. Moreover, why be so prescriptive? Language use changes all the time! To enforce some ideal standard is akin to some kind of gross linguistic imperialism; something that might eventually prevent literary innovation and the natural evolution of language.

Now, whilst pedantry for pedantry’s sake is singularly annoying, insisting on correct usage does not (or need not) amount to linguistic snobbery or syntactic conservatism. The problem is that whilst muddling through is often a familiar feature of conversation, different rules apply to the written word. In most cases you will not have the opportunity to ask a writer to clarify a murky sentence. But a well-deployed comma might expunge any ambiguity. And as for stifling innovation, when Gabriel Garcia Marquez chooses to use a six paragraph long sentence, unbroken by punctuation, the literary impact of this relies on the sentence’s location in a context of correct usage.

Should primary-school pupils have lessons devoted to grammar? Maybe not. But let’s not downplay its importance or utility. And here’s to the proofreaders and copyeditors, those bastions of correct usage. Long may they continue to keep content unequivocal and good writing comprehensible.

Complete control

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A publisher said to me last week that there really is no point worrying over a slush pile anymore, that self-publishing and the democratisation of routes to market meant that content a traditional publisher would deem worthy of investment would naturally rise to the surface. And all a commissioning editor would need to do is be vigilant and not miss the next potential bestseller. Has it really all become so simple and Darwinian?

And what should we call this new content? It needs a new name. Not ‘vanity’. ‘Self-published’ feels too DIY and still a little stigmatised. Successful indie writers (as they would be called in US) want to be treated like authors in traditional publishing houses. But they do want to have control. As I write this I keep hearing Joe Strummer singing “They said we’d be artistically free/ When we signed that bit of paper./ They meant, let’s make lots of money/ And worry about it later.”

‘Tis the season to be squeezed

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Spring at last, glimpsed both in the weather and the barometer of publishing. In the old world, the autumn publishing schedule would already be in place, retailers’ orders bagged, manuscripts completed and lined up for printing and distributing. But today, even though sales from publications in the last few weeks of the year have taken on huge significance, publishers will still have gaps to be filled in their schedules and delivery dates have become later and later.

So at this point in the year we say, let us know at whitefox if you need help. We know you can’t hire. We know there’s a massive pressure on existing resource. We know the next few months are crucial. If we can plug gaps and assist in resourcing up with editors, designers or whoever it is you need to trust to get the job done, then we are ready and waiting.

Because we’ve been there and done that and feel for you during the squeeze season.

Ten lessons from a publishing start-up

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It’s now a year since we shuffled off into publishing start-up land and in the time since whitefox became more than just a hypothetical we’ve learnt some pretty valuable lessons as a burgeoning writers’ services company. And we thought we’d share some with you. So here are our top ten learnings from the past year.

1. Resist the urge to show off. Don’t put so much into the pitch that the prospective clients can steal your ideas and decide to make some kind of fist of it themselves.

2. Don’t confuse a low boredom threshold amongst putative clients with entrepreneurial spirit. They are very different things, though they can, at first glance, seem similar.

3. Control your keenness. Replying too quickly to some emails seems to upset slow-moving, endlessly cogitating corporate structures.

4. Publishing prides itself on being full of lovely people. Actually, it has the same ratio of good to mendacious as any industry. But make sure that you value and acknowledge the really generous, helpful souls – give them the credit they deserve and let them know you’re as grateful for their professionalism as they will be for yours.

5. Self-publishing really doesn’t mean vanity anymore. Really. Even the New York Times agrees.

6. Avoid the words ‘consultation’ and ‘retainer’, even if these are precisely what the client needs. In these straitened times, everyone is far more interested in ‘cost-effective solutions’ rather than ongoing engagement, even if these end up amounting to the same thing.

7. Learn to love budgets. Learn to despise the notion of discretionary spend.

8. Somehow learn to balance the issues of scale v quality. The ultimate start-up tension takes on particular resonance when you’re talking about a book that someone has spent years, possibly even decades, poring over.

9. It is about the long game. Easy to forget in the day to day scramble. Sometimes you just have to force yourself to bring the big picture back into mind.

10. Don’t be an asshole. Seems simple and possibly counterintuitive in a cut-through economy, but nothing serves better than showing the people you work with that you’re giving them your all, that you appreciate their business, and that you’re prepared to work hard to do an even better job next time.

Out from the Shadows

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If our theory at whitefox is correct that in 10 years time successful general trade publishers will primarily differentiate themselves by having the right roster of high profile magnets for creative talent at the heart of their organisational structure, then maybe it is time for those actual editorial curators to come out even further from the shadows.

Last year we saw Boyd Tonkin in the Independent write in praise of the curators and gate-keepers in light of the self-publishing tsunami and celebrate the selection of a handful of indie publisher’s books on the Booker long list. And at the Digital Minds Conference in London this weekend, Sophie Rochester of The Literary Platform reminded the audience in a session discussing the rise of self-publishing of a popular Follow The Editor post featured on her site.

As gratifying as it will be for any publisher whose books are chosen for a literary prize, these decisions are made at a moment in time by a few selected individuals on a one-off basis. There are editors who have been working in publishing houses who have been making choices for decades based on instinct, experience and knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. They are trusted by those around them to win more bets than they lose. They’ve lived through the rise of the sales and marketing machine and they are now being told that responding to consumer insight is the only way they will survive in the long run. Maybe.

Without wishing to advocate an unhealthy cult of the publishing personality, perhaps it is time for the UK buyers of, say literary fiction, to know how Simon Prosser, Nicholas Pearson, Alexandra Pringle, Francis Bickmore, Clara Farmer, Dan Franklin, Ravi Mirchandani et al thought they should spend their company’s money and why. At the moment, all we get is that end of year newspaper article looking back at the books that didn’t work that acquiring editors believe should have (very British that isn’t it, when you think about it).

Of course more insight and informed decisions are needed. But I bet a lot of pickers and successful taste-makers still believe the beauty of publishing is how gloriously unscientific it can sometimes be.

The Age of the Specialist

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whitefox CEO John Bond describes the age of the specialist, where there is real value in exact knowledge and skill. In a world obsessed with peer review and a marketplace driven by innovation, the big winners will be those who aspire to be better than the rest. This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly London Show Daily on April 16th 2013.

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