Welcome to the whitefox blog, featuring musings on the future of publishing and interviews with authors, publishers, agents, designers and more.

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.

An interview with Polly Courtney

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[intro]Polly Courtney is the author of six novels and a regular commentator on TV and radio. She is best known for her semi-autobiographical account of life in the Square Mile, Golden Handcuffs, and her latest novel, Feral Youth, which is based on the London Riots and told from the perspective of a disenfranchised 15-year-old girl. In 2011, Courtney famously walked out on HarperCollins in protest at the ‘chick lit’ branding assigned to her books. You can follow Polly on @PollyCourtney and find out more information on www.pollycourtney.com. [/intro]

You are a strong advocate of self-publishing. What makes this model so appealing to you?

Control! I’m sure all self-published writers feel the same way. When I was published by HarperCollins (having self-published my first two novels), I had no contractual say over the cover designs for my books, or even the titles. ‘Brand Polly Courtney’ was getting increasingly muddled, with each book cover looking different to the last and being out of alignment with what was inside. (The actual words seemed to be a minor consideration in my publishers’ minds.) In addition  and this is something that every published writer will tell you  I was offered next to nothing in marketing support. A part-time PR person spent half an hour with me, explained that she looked after all of the 52 titles that my imprint published each year and that she worked 3 days per week… well, by the time she’d finished explaining things I’d used up half of my allotted PR time and she was already thinking about the next author’s release. Now that I self-publish, I dictate the ‘look and feel’ of my books and make sure they are packages I can be proud of, which makes promotion a lot easier. I invest a lot of time in marketing.

 

Have the revelations in Hugh Howey’s Author Reports confirmed what you already believed, or have there been any surprises for you?

In many ways, the report confirms what I’ve been banging on about for a while: if executed well, self-publishing can be a very viable route for authors and that some of the most successful writers out there (measured by Amazon sales, which is a reasonable metric) are self-published.

My favourite chart in the first report is the one that looks at average price and average rating for top self-published books vs. top traditionally published books. Guess what? The traditionally published books are more expensive, yet not as good. This data backs up two trends that have been debated anecdotally for a while now: (1) large publishers haven’t woken up to the idea of flexible pricing and (2) the filters applied by these publishers are not always based on quality. There is so much risk aversion in the industry that a Z-list celebrity with a naff, illegible autobiography will stand a higher chance of getting published traditionally than a brilliant writer with only a small following. Self-publishing offers a way for those brilliant writers to find their audience.

 

What advice would you give first-time indie authors who feel that self-promotion and marketing isn’t their forte? And what role might social media have in that instance?

Self-promotion is a bit of a misnomer. You don’t have to stand up and yell “buy my book!”. In fact, doing that would be a really bad idea. Marketing is more about making your stuff visible to the people who want to find it. You need to think very hard about who your book is for before you set out to sell it. DON’T SAY ‘EVERYONE’. There will be people who don’t want to read your book. Get over it. Focus on the people you know will like it based on their interest in other books in the genre, or themes covered in the book, or communities that are aligned with you or your work. Once you have a good idea about who your target is, it’s much easier to seek them out and make yourself known to them. Social media has allowed us to do this without leaving our desk, even for niche groups. If you’re writing about naked gardening, I guarantee there’s a community out there, waiting to hear about your book. (Oh, wow. I just looked it up. World Naked Gardening Day is in a few weeks’ time!) Don’t go for the hard sell. Be authentic, get involved in discussions and then when you mention your book it will be of genuine interest to your newfound friends, who will (ideally) become your first advocates.

 

How do you approach pricing a new e-edition of your novel? Is there a formula for success?

I think all books are different. There’s definitely a supply-demand equation, but that demand comes from a different set of readers for every book. For my latest novel, Feral Youth, I knew that some of my readers would be young people on low incomes, so I didn’t want to price it too high. That said, I didn’t want to go below £2 on a permanent basis, because there’s a perception that cheapness equals poor quality. I set all my ebooks at £2.99 by default, although of course the retailer ultimately controls the price on the basis of demand. I occasionally flex the price for short periods and offer ‘freebies’, but I’m very aware that the type of person who grabs free books is not necessarily within my target audience  and won’t necessarily read the book! For me, the goal is to get my book read and enjoyed by as many people as possible. If I know someone won’t like it, I’d rather they didn’t buy it.

 

We hear that you sometimes crowd-source editorial input. How does that process work?

Aha. Yes, I use a bunch of crowd-sourced readers to supplement the work of my professional editor. When I’ve got a draft that I’m happy with, I put a shout-out to my fans on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ and offer a pre-publication copy of my book in return for structural editorial input. The comments that come back are really diverse but, interestingly, not usually in conflict. I don’t take everything on board, but actually most of the input is really helpful and gives me ideas for shaping the book before my professional editor gets to rip it apart. Then I do the same at the proof reading stage. Frankly, the more eyes on it, the better. I’d rather hear about typos and inconsistencies from these guys than from Amazon reviewers!

 

How often do you communicate with your readers? And do you feel as if you operate within a community of indie writers?

I use multiple channels to reach my readers because they hang out in different places. For all my books, I have a note at the back, offering readers the chance be put on my (non-spammy) mailing list, so they can be told when my next book comes out. Some of them follow me on my website, so they get alerts when something new goes up, but most of the day-to-day communication is via Twitter and Facebook. More and more, I’m trying to do as many speaking events as I can fit in, because nothing beats face-to-face contact!

There is definitely a community of indie writers. I’m good friends with a lot of authors who either publish their own books or do so in collaboration with others. In fact, a couple of years ago I teamed up with a writer and an editor so that the three of us could launch the writer’s book, War & Piste  just because we believed in it so much. There’s a lot of support out there now  especially now that we have the Alliance of Independent Authors. It’s a great time to self-publish.

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

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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.

The whitefox Perspective on the Hugh Howey Author Report Debate

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Been following the fascinating exchanges between Hugh Howey and Mike Shatzkin this week?

Of course you have. We just want to make a small but significant (to us, at least) point, in amongst the din. Contrary to one observation that’s often heard in the posturing on data and analytics, self-published authors do have a way of accessing the same support teams that publishers use. They can now lean on and buy into expertise traditionally available only to those who have been anointed with an advance and a colophon. That is the whole point of whitefox.

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.