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

An Interview with Nathan Burton

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

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

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

By | Author, Self publishing | No Comments
[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

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

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.

The whitefox Perspective on the Hugh Howey Author Report Debate

By | Author | No Comments

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

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments
[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.

Growing Pains

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

The news surrounding our friends at Quercus this week is chastening. From small but profitable contract publishing beginnings to the riches of the Stieg bubble. From Publisher of the Year in 2011 to expanding into the US in 2013. And now seeking a buyer.

Trade publishing is hard. It is even harder when you choose to invest in people to help you grow organically, however talented those people are. It took Bloomsbury a while to work out how best to spend the Potter millions, including one disastrous Christmas season in 2006 spent spread betting on commercial non-fiction. But in the end it seems they have hit on a course that is paying dividends: acquire small content businesses targeted in discernible niches, many of them removed from the crap shoot of trade publishing. Maybe the only way to appease the growing pains for shareholders who are not interested in the long, roller coaster ride of investment in entertainment content is through strategic acquisition.

Reasons to be cheerful

By | Author | No Comments
This talk was originally given at Voice Literary’s ‘Lost in the Amazon‘ event on the 14th Jan 2014.
[intro]Today was one of those days. We’re well and truly back into January. I’ve finished playing publishing techno-word bingo with the CEOs’ predictions for the year (mobile – tick, spotify for books – tick, discoverability – tick, e-books continuing to plateau…(can something continue to plateau? I guess it can) – tick). And a tweet even came in from one of our beloved clients reminding us that most publishing start-ups fail.[/intro]

So in the here and now, I want to make some suggestions as to why you, as a writer in the UK in 2014, should be cheerful:

1. If you want it, you have control

Gone are the days when writers were like good children – meant to be seen and not heard. Now you are the marketing and the PR, and everyone chants the same mantra that the only things that matter are writers and readers. So, hell, be happy that at least you are one of those two.

2. There’s no such thing as out of print

Books are forever. Which means that a year after it has been published, your book can be as relevant as the week after it was published. Your window of opportunity no longer has to be dictated by a bricks and mortar retailer who may have had no enthusiasm for ordering your book in the first place.

3. The supermarkets are coming

2014 will see Sainsbury and Tesco both seriously enter the fray in e-books and tablets. Can they start to represent serious competition to Amazon? They have large sheds. They have data. And they have families who come to them every day of the week, as opposed to slumped individuals absent-mindedly scrolling during their lunch break.

4. You are not alone

You have plenty of peers in the same boat – you just need to connect to them. You have a community.
You are stronger as a group than as an individual. This is just an extension of what has always happened inside publishing companies. One very successful editor I know calls it getting writers to “gather around a book“. But you don’t need a publisher to do that for you.

5. Publishing is still not a science

However many algorithms and data geeks inherit our world. There is still serendipity, word of mouth that is influenced by the quality of the content and not the efficiency of the marketing. And when publishers say less is more… well, they don’t control the tap any more.

6. If you don’t want to go it alone, then good news…

There will be more publishers not fewer – it is just that those publishers may well be authors or disaffected agents or editors cast adrift by old publishing houses. Because all you really need in this new publishing landscape are good acquiring skills and a dedicated, relentless PR and marketing focus.

7. There’s now a myriad of talented support out there

And they’re unencumbered by endless back-covering meetings, being cc’d on barely relevant emails and enormous overheads. whitefox don’t have a warehouse, but We do have a database, within which lie the details of the people who actually make a difference in publishing in the UK today. Not that accountant. Not that MD or Sales Director with his rapidly declining influence. But all the editors, marketers, publicists, digital experts and specialists to help anyone DIY. And as trade publishing squeezes out good talented people, from traditional salaried roles, so we are waiting at the gates to see whether we can make them available to anyone who wants to access their services.

8. Authors are learning Bookcraft

Bookcraft. I love that word (which, I know, I stole from Philip Jones in the Bookseller last week, but which he stole from Minecraft, anyway). How empowering is it to be learning new things at what ever stage you are in the publishing process.

No one has to be in their box anymore. If you want to you can be your own creative dedicated digital marketing expert, designer, marketer or publicist.

9. Global opportunities

The world is your oyster. You are only at the beginning of e-reader and tablet consumption in so many territories around the world, and those are all potential markets for your work. You just have to reach them.

10. Agents

The ones that you might take on are having to do more than have lunch and gossip. They have to adaptfast or become irrelevant faster. Skilling up, offering more services, running courses, understanding and translating more for their clients to represent real value added.

11. Speed

Even the best, most innovative publishers will be squeezing you into slots so far ahead in the future schedule. You might as well not bother knowing how to spell ‘zeitgeist’. If you want to, you can DIY publish properly, thoughtfully, and in a considered and planned way, and do so in a quarter of the time.

12. We’re only at the beginning

(Bingo cards ready) This is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. We’re only just beginning to learn what structures and models might work in the future. So you have the advantage of being able to experiment without being tied to full term of copyright deals if you don’t desire that.

I could easily be convinced my glass should be half empty at the beginning of 2014. I’ve just read yet another piece about the death of the mid-list author and the reliance publishers have on established author brands.

But the good thing is that writers in my experience have to write, whether they are adept at finding their readers or not. And people involved in the publishing process, like any humans involved in any collaborative activity, want to feel they are making a difference and that they have an influence. We want to feel needed.

So that heady combination will propel me forward in 2014. Content that has to be created and good people trying to make a positive difference to that content. That, it seems to me, matters as much as it ever has.

‘I’m with the brand’: Publishing and the rise of content marketing

By | Brand Publishing | No Comments

Marketing has become personal. There have never been so many ways for brands to directly access their audiences. However, there have also never been so many ways for audiences to choose not to acknowledge marketing content. We can ‘skip’ adverts, mute the TV, or just plain ignore the plethora of blogs, videos, images and articles available. People are no longer passive spectators, they are choosing how and what media to interact with, and are exercising this power.

Brands are fighting for attention. This doesn’t just mean measuring the number of ‘eyeballs on content’. Now it’s about ‘likes’, ‘followers’, ‘subscribers’. It’s about being seen and seen again. Popularity drives distribution. To survive the crowded marketplace, a brand needs a loyal following that identifies with their brand image, and loves the content enough to want to share it with others. How do you attract the ever-wavering attention of an audience basking in the wealth of available content? Be consistent, and engage. Don’t let them forget you. Be their morning espresso.

It appears less about directly meeting consumer demands with goods; that comes later. Sometimes what a brand is selling is not even determinable in their content. What is evident is their ‘identity’, and this is what they are asking consumers to stake their share in. Consumers read, watch and listen to content that they identify with. They ‘subscribe’ when they no longer want to live without it, when it is part of how they see themselves and how they want to be seen by others. By following content, people are, in a sense, buying into a ‘way of life’, and perhaps (hoping for?) popularity by association. They are picking teams in the digital world. Essentially, when people share branded content, they’re building their online identity, and making a statement about who they are.

To be successful, content therefore needs to be easily accessible for it to take advantage of being shared. Take memes, infographics and videos; they are made to be spontaneously ‘clicked on’ and quick to digest. Branded content that lasts, like all enduring stories, needs a clear, consistent purpose and a relatable narrative arc that makes people care. It needs to offer the implicit hope of an improved way of life.

Successful brands stay close to their audiences, know what they like and dislike, and tailor content to the needs of each individual ‘follower’. One meaningful connection is stronger than many fleeting perusals. They prey on the predictability of human nature. If content connects deeply with just one person, who will then share it with their ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, it will be more effective than if the same number of people came across that same content without it being preceded by personal recommendation. It’s human nature; trust your friends.

Like all progress, we are testing the waters and experimenting with new realms of multi-media potential. At whitefox, we put the jigsaw together, embrace new digital possibilities, and in so doing, create personable identities through story. We ensure that content is too good to ignore. It’s not just seen, it’s seen again. People crave content that is as reliable as an old friend, but as exciting as a new lover, but there’s no need to choose between the two; we’ll still be surprising you long after the honeymoon period.