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

Another One Bites The Dust

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At the same time as the great and the good of Digital Publishing arrive en masse in New York at DBW and articles abound on how agents have to make further transitions, news reaches whitefox in London of a really bright young agent who has thrown in the towel. Maybe not forever, but at least for now. Gone off to seek his fortune in another country in another way. And the reason for this fundamental career step change? Absolute all consuming frustration with publishers and their inability to engage with what he perceived to be low risk, commercial, highly marketable book projects. If there had been simply rejection, it would have been fine. But I believe the multi pack of straws that ended up breaking this particular camel’s back was the torpor, the laziness, the yawning silence, the inability of supposedly hungry younger editorial acquirers across a range of houses to bother to respond to what had been carefully pitched and positioned marketable proposals.

Maybe this is the way it has always been and only the emergence of an indie publishing DIY alternative has forced the issue out into the open. And this institutionalised inability to take risk will not kill off traditional publishing, seemingly obsessed with that cyclical old chestnut ‘less is more’. But it will mean that trade publishers will come to represent something different in the future. Big budget brand management, coordinated global releases, decisions made after consumer group testing and in house committee, genre books that can be favourably compared to previous bestsellers three years after they were published.

And here is a final thought. Publishing houses will contract and editors and agents directly serving those establishments will decline. But those people, those creative individuals are not all going to retrain to become plumbers and therapists, some of them will set up their own publishing houses and agencies, built on 21st century princples. They will find writers and commission content they believe will sell. They will nurture talent they believe in and they will create their own stables which represents ‘less is more’. Which will mean there really won’t be that much less at all.

New Year, Old Joke

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So we start 2014 full of optimism and hope with our batteries recharged and our burning desire to create a successful new business within the publishing eco-system undimmed. And at the same time we try to ignore the words of the sainted Barry Humphries on stage at the Palladium as his alter-ego Dame Edna:

“Entrepreneur? That’s French for failure, dear.”

2014 – The Year of The Freelancer

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In the crystal ball gazing that inevitably takes up many end of the year publishing round ups, I have yet to see any that have referenced the impact of the proposed merger between oDesk and Elance.

These major online hubs for freelance talent represent all the speed, disruption, value and scalability associated with other VC darlings of the last few years. Between them oDesk and Elance have raised well over $100 million in investment. Both sites emphasise quick access to hundreds of thousands of suppliers, either freelancers or moonlighters. And both emphasise the word ‘quality’. Now, the two are looking to create one mega-marketplace; a supertanker of freelance services.

On the face of it, the stats are eye watering. 10 million workers across 180 countries with combined billings of $750 million this year alone. And in amongst all the inevitable talk of synergies and brand equity, there are some ambitious aspirations. The new company aims to be ‘the workplace for the world’. By combining their resources, they believe they have a shot at ‘building a business on the scale of Amazon or Linkedin or iTunes’. It will mean more data and faster matches. It will mean significant accelerated growth and real head to head competition with Freelancer.com and larger global agencies.

Why is this relevant to UK publishing? Because in 2014, the only thing that is certain is that there will be more uncertainty as old models and structures shift and mutate into viable ways of doing business, whether you are a traditional publisher, retailer, literary agent, published or unpublished writer. And with that uncertainty comes a recognition that there will have to be a greater emphasis on contracting directly with external suppliers, on outsourcing. For some, this is about variable costs versus fixed costs. For others it is about taking greater control or accessing new skill sets for an evolving industry. For everyone, it is about getting something actually done without having another body on the payroll. Meanwhile, the ranks of freelancing publishing specialists will continue to be swelled by those who’ve been deemed surplus to requirements, the experienced professionals who discover there are precious few permanent salaried opportunities that represent an equivalent to their old status.

So here is where it gets interesting. Because from our perspective (admittedly that of a UK-centric, much smaller freelance curated marketplace) the real tension in the coming years is not between the new and old models, but between different versions of the new model. That there will be a greater migration to transactional online service platforms seems inevitable, whatever the industry. But how do you guarantee a quality service and the scale required by investors? Back to those stats mentioned earlier. By any estimation, there will be an awful lot of people earning nothing or only tiny amounts who have signed up and posted their details looking for work. And how do you know whether you should be paying someone $3.00 or $20.00 an hour? Moreover, say you are looking for a book editor. Begin your search now and see how quickly you are pointed in the direction of translators and web designers; all possibly wonderful, talented people. But not book editors.

In our experience, more and more creative people are choosing a way of working which affords them variety, flexibility and the sort of stimulation large corporate machines find it hard to deliver. But good creative people also know their own worth. And there remains a value in understanding who are the right people for the right job.

In the mean time, we will watch out for how many million hours have been billed on the biggest global sites. Which just makes me think of those McDonald’s drive-thrus that say ‘99 Billion Served’, even when they have sold many more, but they only had space on the sign for two digits.

An interview with David Nicholls

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[intro]David Nicholls is a novelist and screenwriter. His books include One Day and Starter for Ten, both which he has adapted to screen. TV credits include a modern version of Much Ado about Nothing, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both for the BBC. He has had two BAFTA nominations to date. Before turning to writing, Nicholls trained as an actor.[/intro]
As both a novelist and a screenwriter, how do the editorial approaches to these mediums vary; is either more or less collaborative than the other? As a writer, does one medium offer you more creative control than the other?

Screenwriting is intensely collaborative, which is both its joy and its frustration. Unlike a novel, a screenplay serves no purpose except to be interpreted by someone else. It’s an instruction manual, a transcription of the film that plays in your head – ‘place this person in this location, make them say or do this at a particular time of day, in the rain perhaps, then go to this next scene.’ Within that framework, there are limitless possibilities. With the novel, you are the costume designer, the director, the head of casting, the musical co-ordinator. Of course there is input from other people, and I personally value that very much, but you’re in charge. For the most part, this is wonderful. But if the novel doesn’t work, you can’t blame the director.

Is there such a thing as too much or too little involvement in the PR or marketing of your novel or screenplay? How involved are you likely to be?

In film, very very little. The screenwriter is on a level with the cinematographer and the designer, and certainly below the director. Even the most ardent film fan will have trouble naming ten screenwriters – they probably know the names of more composers than writers. It’s rare for the screenwriter to go to festivals or on press junkets, but this is not necessarily a complaint. Film has always been a director’s medium, and actors are generally better-looking. But it is strange that the person who ‘authors’ the piece should get so little attention. TV is slightly different – the volumes are greater, there are limits on directorial interpretation, and TV writers generally have more control and involvement in all aspects of production, PR and marketing.

Personally, I have no desire to read JD Salinger’s twitter feed.

With novels, there seems to be a whole roadshow attached to the publication, and as an author it’s hard to be entirely hands-off. It can be a problem, I think. I’m sure most authors want a say in their cover designs – it seems to be the biggest source of friction between writer and publisher, though I’ve always been consulted and involved. Self-promotion can sometimes get a little out of hand. Certainly I couldn’t write a word of fiction for some time after the last book came out, but if the alternative is obscurity and lower sales, what choice does an author have? I’m very lucky to get that attention, and I really enjoy meeting readers and attending book festivals – work that isn’t really work. But it’s also important to support authors with a quieter demeanour, and to let the work speak for itself. I hope we don’t find ourselves in a situation where only the loudest are heard. I hope novelists retain the right to be left alone. Personally, I have no desire to read JD Salinger’s twitter feed.

You’ve adapted Great Expectations, Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd (currently in production) for screen. What is your approach to adapting the work of someone as illustrious as Hardy; do you rely on your own ideas and interpretations of the text, or consider the expectations of your potential audience?

It depends on the project. I adapted Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father, a wonderful, moving book but not rich in plot, so a certain degree of shaping was involved. I was asked to write a TV play loosely based on Much Ado About Nothing, one of my favourite plays, and though I love the original, the whole purpose of the project was to have fun with the material – consequently that’s an extremely free adaptation, more of an original play ‘inspired by -‘ than a straightforward adaptation. Great Expectations was about as faithful as you can be in 120 minutes – there’s hardly anything that isn’t taken from the novel, but the interpretation comes from the selection of material. A ‘faithful’ film would be twelve hours long. But Great Expectations is, I think, an almost perfect work of art. Madding Crowd is wonderful, but much more problematic – it has wild changes in tone, crazy melodrama, a lot of low-comedy. I’ve been encouraged to be a little more irreverent with the material, though there’s still very, very little that isn’t in the original. Adaptation is all about striking this balance – capturing the original while also altering it to work in an entirely different medium.

An interview with Joanna Penn

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[intro]Joanna Penn is a bestselling author, professional speaker and entrepreneur, voted as one of The Guardian Top 100 Creative Professionals 2013. Joanna writes thrillers, crime and horror as J.F.Penn, and practical non-fiction as Joanna Penn, including the #1 bestseller, How To Market A Book. Joanna’s site, TheCreativePenn.com has been voted one of the Top 10 Blogs For Writers three years running and offers articles, audio and video on writing and creative entrepreneurship. Connect with Joanna on twitter @thecreativepenn[/intro]

Joanna Penn

How do you balance your work as an author with the demands of your blog, speaking appointments etc?

I have a sign on my wall, “Have you made art today?” so that is always my focus. I’m a morning person so I tend to create early on and then do other things later in the day. I schedule months out in a Filofax and also keep a timesheet on OfficeTime (app for the iPhone) which helps me track the hours I spend on various tasks.
My #1 priority is always to focus on the next book, but I juggle that with promoting existing work, professional speaking and ongoing tasks like interviews, blogging, my podcast and social media. Luckily, I enjoy everything I do, including the marketing, so all of this is my kind of fun!

In your experience, what are the top concerns for self-published authors?

* Building a trustworthy team in order to deliver a high quality product. This includes editors, cover designers, formatters and potentially marketing partners. Self-publishing is a misnomer as it’s all about teamwork, which is why I prefer the term indie (independent) author. I have a great team in place now, but it’s taken a while to get it right.

* Discoverability and being found. Even traditional publishers struggle with this, and professional indie authors are always on the lookout for something new to try. I am always open to new marketing ideas, and I love learning from others. It’s best to have an entrepreneurial attitude of bootstrapping, trying things out and not worrying if something fails.

Self-publishing is a misnomer as it’s all about teamwork, which is why I prefer the term indie (independent) author. I have a great team in place now, but it’s taken a while to get it right.

If you were a writer starting from scratch, how would you build your platform and brand as an indie author?

I don’t think it matters how you’re publishing, as traditionally published authors still need to build a readership too. If starting again, I would focus on writing several books first, so customers have more than one product to purchase and I have time to discover what my own brand might be. I would set up a website with images and information that my readers will enjoy, and I’d have an email list for them to subscribe to so I could communicate about new books and competitions. Then I’d choose one method of ‘discoverability’ and focus on that with lots of energy. That could be podcasting, or YouTube, or Twitter or Pinterest, or whatever. I’d pick one and focus there, meeting readers, connecting with others in the author community and building an audience slowly.

Joanna Penn

If authors are going to enlist the help of writer service providers, what should be their priorities?

Going back to the top concerns for indies, you need a team and this is a business. I invest primarily in professional editors of different kinds, professional cover design and interior design, as well as tech support for my websites when needed and email list management. I will also invest in specific marketing opportunities if there is evidence that it will deliver sales, for example, reader email services like BookBub.com which have proven sales capability.

What, for you, are the greatest benefits of self-publishing?

Creative freedom, control and speed are important to me, along with my entrepreneurial love of wanting to make an impact on the world.
I also find the financial possibilities of being an indie author attractive. A book is the ultimate scalable product, and fiction, in particular, can earn income for an author for their entire lifetime. My books now sell in 30 countries, and although many of those countries are only a trickle of sales right now, I foresee a huge boom in the digital market globally in the next five years. As an indie, I can move fast and take advantage of those opportunities, although I would always consider partnering with an entrepreneurial publisher for some projects. It’s certainly an amazing time to be an author!

An interview with Ben Hatch

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[intro]Ben Hatch is a writer, family man and self-proclaimed ‘lover of cheese’ with both fiction and travel books to his name. He has built an extensive Twitter following, which has helped catapult his book ‘Are We Nearly There Yet’ to the top of the Kindle non-fiction charts, and even made John Cleese laugh.[/intro]
Ben Hatch
Self-promotion was vital to the success of Are We Nearly There Yet?; can you tell us a little about how you used social media to make the book such a hit?

It all started when I joined twitter (a medium which, I am embarrassed to say, I had been previously been hugely skeptical of). I’d had some great advanced quotes from the likes of Terry Wogan, Danny Wallace, John Cleese, David Jason, Sophie Kinsella, Lisa Jewell, Mike Gayle, Jenny Colgan and others, but the book wasn’t in any shops and was getting almost zero publicity, so there was no way of telling anyone about all those kind words. The book was bombing; a serialization in the Express was canned when the London riots broke out and I was desperate. So I started tweeting the quotes, with friends very kindly retweeting to get some momentum going. Crucially I also stopped feeling helpless; it was no use complaining the book was being overlooked, that the publicity people at my publisher had moved on to other titles (though naturally I did complain about this!). Nobody else cared as much as I did, so it now felt up to me to get the word out.

I also contacted local radio stations, telling them a little about the book, along with funny stories from it that had happened in their towns. In all, I probably did 40 or so radio interviews. I then tweeted about these interviews, which earned me more and more retweets. Terry Wogan mentioned the book on his radio show and John Cleese tweeted about the book. But oddly it wasn’t so much the actual fact that I was mentioned/tweeted about as it was my own telling people that led to more sales and reaction!

After this the book got picked up for review – unusual, given that it had been out for some time at this point. One of my favourite authors John Harding gave me a lovely review in the Daily Mail. I appeared on Radio 4’s Excess Baggage. The Guardian gave it a little write up. Fran Kellett at the Daily Telegraph travel online also featured ten extracts. And many kindly book bloggers ran pieces as well. All the time I would retweet these reviews, expanding the audience that saw them.

I managed to get the book up to the Number One spot in Non-fiction, and it stayed in the top 100 for almost half a year. I was almost as proud of that fact as I was at having written the book in the first place. It felt like I had taken on the entire book world and won. My book from a tiny publisher that I’d been paid £2,400 to write was outselling all these well-known authors and celebs. I had written two novels before Are We Nearly There Yet? and not done a thing for either of them in terms of self-promotion. It had not seemed the kind of thing a published author did. Now I’d say it’s crucial.

 It felt like I had taken on the entire book world and won. My book from a tiny publisher that I’d been paid £2,400 to write was outselling all these well-known authors and celebs.

You might feel uncomfortable blowing your own trumpet but nobody else is going to do that for you (and they probably won’t even, at the best publishing houses). If you want to stay a writer in these very difficult days for authors when the shelves are swamped with celeb and misery memoirs, you’d better bite the bullet and start. You’ll get people complaining about it, telling you that’s not what twitter is for. But at the end of the day it’s your passion and your livelihood and if you’re talking about something you’re proud of, well, then that’s fair enough in my book. So be thick skinned.

 

How do you see the writer’s role within publishing changing/expanding as new digital and self-publishing models evolve?

I think the writer is absolutely central now in a way that they never used to be. Unless we’re talking about those at the very top of the cash tree, it’s now the writer who defines how they’re seen in the wider world of readers through their websites, twitter and facebook. Publishing houses remain important for editing and covers can be critical, but in terms of promotion and finding an audience, that’s down to the author. In fact I believe that will become even more apparent over time if things continue the way they are. As mainstream publishers begin to ignore middle list writers in favour of fishing more and more in the sales-safe waters of celebrity, and not being prepared to nurture talent in the long term if there’s not going to be an immediate return on their investment, then self-publishing will become more and more important. I can see if things continue the way they are going that publishing houses will evolve into simple add-on marketing departments for Saturday night TV stars, musicians and actors who want to tell their story in a few more words than a weekend supplement allows. That said there are exceptions such as my own publisher, Headline. Can you tell I’m pitching them a new book right now?

Road to Rouen

How do you set an idea for a new book in motion?

I used to just sit down, write and make it up as I went along, but since I’ve had kids and enjoy less work time, I have to plan more to speed things up. I do a rough chapter breakdown and use that very loosely to stop me straying too far off course but ultimately the final book never really looks much like the original idea. You’ll always hope to find a spark of honesty halfway through that carries the book off in an unexpected direction that also gives it its true heart. I wish I could, but I can never envisage what this is at the start. It does make writing book proposals tough. My proposal for Are We Nearly There Yet? never included the storyline about my dad, which turned out to be it’s central element. My proposal for Road to Rouen included nothing about the the marriage situation between my wife and I; again it’s point.

 

Finally, what are your top visibility tips for new authors?

Twitter has to be the main one. Get yourself on twitter. There is a great community of authors out there and wonderful discerning readers. Try and link up with them. They’re lovely. You can find me there: @BenHatch

 

Leading The Way

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[intro]We’ve been thinking about Leadership a lot at whitefox this week. This was prompted partly by a discussion with senior people in two different business sectors about the training services being offered by graduates of the Sandhurst military machine, now that the country has a “boutique” army (their phrase, not mine).[/intro]

Publishing has traditionally attracted leaders who are largely well-meaning, well-read and well-bred men and women. I’m not sure how many I’d classify as strong leaders. What exactly does that mean anyway? I once worked in a publishing company many years ago where the Chief Executive’s idea of motivation during tough times was to walk the floors on a Friday afternoon telling anyone who’d listen just how badly all our competitors were doing too. Oh, well that’s ok then…

I once worked in a publishing company where the Chief Executive’s idea of motivation during tough times was to walk the floors on a Friday afternoon telling anyone who’d listen just how badly all our competitors were doing too.

I’m sure in these days of Executive coaches and what’s left of the training budget that publishing chiefs are expected to hone their leadership skills on an on-going basis. They’ll be fewer assumptions that a sense of entitlement instilled in a minor public school is enough. And anyway, publishers have long supported the idea of developing talent from within their own ranks. I went on a Pearson sponsored leadership course many years ago where middle management were whisked overseas and put through their paces to try and assess who were the future candidates for the Main Board. Sadly, my abiding memory is a rather stilted meet and greet with Lord Dennis Stevenson, who may have wished he’d actually attended some of the sessions after the HBOS debacle.

So our industry’s traditional liberal tendencies and healthy mistrust of hierarchy would probably mean we’d likely sneer at the idea of our leaders learning anything from the graduates of Sandhurst. But maybe we’re wrong. We’ll see anyway soon enough. Charlie Redmayne, ex Lieutenant in the Irish Guards may show us how it is done.

When you say influential…

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Even though I was recently voted only the fourth most influential person in my own house, I’m intrigued by The Bookseller’s annual list of the 100 leading individuals across the business. It seems somewhat…safe. Or as if it seeks not to offend. If you have one CEO, you have to have them all. Do you become inherently more influential when a successful repeating author happens to deliver their book? I guess I am saying, really, that you need to define ‘influence’.

I know this list is about the book trade overall, but by any reckoning there are at least another 100 names out there who really matter because they actually make a material difference to the success or failure of a publishing house. John Hamilton, Penguin’s Art Director and someone acknowledged in every Jamie Oliver book as integral to each project. Robert Lacey, editor extraordinaire to a myriad of successful writers. There are others.

Who do you think should join the list?

On publishing mistakes and errors

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I’m not sure which part of the report that Sir Alex Ferguson’s book is riddled with factual errors strikes me as the most pertinent in these times: that no one has had the courage or time to check and challenge the ruddy faced, gum-chewing managerial genius’s rather impressionistic recollections; or that none of this has stopped the book selling like a freight train on the route to publisher bonus-land. (*Shameless advertising alert* Footballing loving proof readers are available at whitefox for the paperback.)

This year has also seen 40 pages of the autobiography from national treasure and falling through a bar expert David Jason finding their way into the latest bridget Jones. But then those of us who only just survived Franzen-gate and the pulping of the first print-run of the so-called ‘book-of-the-century’ (FREEDOM, where the printer used the files from the uncorrected proof), will remember that we lost count of the number of fellow publishers who made contact to commiserate and say, in effect, “there but for the grace of god…” Inside a large trade publishing house, you can see how it happens. From the outside, it looks less forgivable and more potentially damaging to what would be perceived as the traditional value-add of a publishing process.

Interesting, therefore, to observe David Young back at the helm of a UK publisher talking again about the value of editing and illustrating how a published book needs to differentiate that it has gone through a professional editing process.

We could hardly have put it better ourselves.

The h.Club 100

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So we won an award. Or at least we have been pronounced amongst the 10 most innovative bods in publishing. Hurrah. And congratulations to all the nominees and winners in the h.Club 100 across all the different categories.

For those of us in attendance at the Hospital Club in Covent Garden last night, it was a ceremony that will live long in the memory, although not necessarily for the right reasons. I love British cynicism as much as the next shortlisted candidate, but the indomitable Laura Dockrill was right to make her point so dramatically during the pronouncements.

Of course David Bowie and Helen Mirren or even Charlie Redmayne were nowhere to be seen. So what? For the individuals or small companies and start-ups who did show it means a lot. A little recognition goes along way.