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

Disrupt thyself

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[intro]It was Bill Gates who famously said, ‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten’. Given the relentless pace transformation within publishing, are those parameters still true, I wonder?[/intro]

Suw Charman-Anderson recently posted an article that quotes Clark Gilbert’s ‘Six Principles For How Media Companies Must Deal With Disruption’. I was struck by the creation of new businesses and marketplaces in particular. The question posed is this: can publishers learn from journalism, e.g., and configure themselves to hire in domain expertise? Can they evolve their businesses and thinking by attracting people from outside of their industry and comfort zone? Or are they too innately insular and myopic?

This is of course directly relevant to one of the guiding principles of whitefox. We’re interested in the skills and specialisms most relevant to content creators and how we can make these available to anyone, not just published writers. We would be the first to applaud the idea that ‘dabbling’ isn’t enough. The mantra has to be ‘Disrupt thyself.’

I have lost count of the number of times I met with senior players in UK publishing after I’d left one of the big corporates, who were all pretty much saying ‘I’m really glad I’m in my 50s and not in my 30s.’ The implication being that with a bit of luck and a following wind, they might just avoid being trampled underfoot by those MBA graduates, data geeks and coders who would inherit their earth.

In defence of many publishers, they haven’t all been burying their head in the sand. For some years, many deliberately looked to hire from the music industry in order to gradually evolve their businesses and avoid making the same mistakes. But disrupting oneself effectively is difficult when shareholders demand their annual targets are met. And there is a bigger problem still. Do publishers know exactly what their business is? When Victoria Barnsley, former HarperCollins CEO, warned in her recent farewell speech about the temptation for content owners to think they can become tech companies, she was missing the key shift that those very tech companies have facilitated and capitalised upon: that the real disrupters are the content creators.

An interview with Helena Caldon

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[intro]Helena Caldon became a freelancer in 2004 after ten years working as an in-house project editor for Random House and BBC Books. Since then she has worked with authors including Alan Titchmarsh, Gordon Ramsay and Professor Brian Cox.[/intro]
What is the best thing about being a freelancer?

Without a doubt it is technically being able to choose the books you want to work on. I say technically because sadly it doesn’t always work out that way, and sometimes the timings of projects and my own workload won’t allow me to take on a job that just sounds fantastic, which is always a shame. But since going freelance nine years ago I have found this way of working empowering and liberating. I decided that publishing was the career for me while still at university studying English; I spent Wednesday afternoons and the odd evening working at Hodder and Stoughton, being paid in experience, free books and launch-party leftovers (mostly bottles of booze of some sort!). I found a world of books that was more exciting than the stuffy study of Old English and pretentious poetry analysis I was being subjected to at seminars and lectures, and I was hooked. Ten years in-house followed, which was an incredibly exciting, informative time, but as I moved through the ranks I sometimes found myself moving further away from what I came into publishing to do – to work on books. Freelance allows me to be an editor; to work with books, to craft them, to work with an author and a designer and stick purely to the creative side without getting involved in the corporate politics. That’s what I think I’m best at, and certainly what I love most about my job.

What is the worst?

While working in house deadlines and workloads always felt challenging, but when you are freelance they can become almost completely unrealistic. I’ve worked on fast-track titles throughout my in-house career, starting with programme scripts to be published alongside opening nights of new plays while at Methuen Drama, to books to tie-in with transmissions at the BBC. These short, sharp schedules are even more prevalent in publishing now, and even non tie-in books are being produced in equally crazy and demanding timescales, which means that every project feels like a rush job. As a freelancer it is rare to have the luxury of being able to work on one book at a time, and so when schedules for several books start to bottleneck, due to inevitable delays from somewhere in the chain, the stress of meeting every deadline becomes coupled with the fear of perhaps this time I may not make it and I may have to let down a client. (Fortunately, thus far – touch wood – this hasn’t happened yet!) It would, of course, be wonderful to have more time on occasions to really perfect a project. (Publishers, are you listening?!!)

What qualities do you need to be a trusted project editor?

All the editors I have worked with and  admired over the years have been fair, calm and consistent in their approach to the books they are working on. There is nothing worse than working with someone who doesn’t have a feel for a project and changes the direction of a title as the stages progress, or even at the final stage. Getting on with the team is vital; the designer, publisher, production controller and, of course, the author. My first boss was inspirational in how to build strong working relationships; Geoffrey Strachan managed to achieve respect and love from all he worked with but at the same time still cleverly managed to always produce the book that HE wanted without offending the writer or anyone on the creative team. It was magical to watch.

Share some advice you were given when you set out as an editor

Ask the question, but be prepared to compromise. Editing is not, and should not be, a dictatorial craft, it is a collaboration to create something special, that everyone can be proud of and that will also sell well! As I’ve moved into illustrated books over the years the team element has become an important part of editing. Illustrated books more than any others require a fair and frank exchange of ideas between editors and designers, and the ability to compromise and to consider the other team member as deadlines begin to pinch and tempers begin to fray under the pressure!

How do you juggle the pressures of creating complex illustrated books for publishers, all of whom are looking at similar autumn publication dates?

Tea, chocolate and a forgiving family!  The summer months are always stressful, and every year I promise I’m going to handle it differently, but so far I haven’t found the perfect solution! Mostly, I just take a deep breath, write a lot of to-do lists, tell my friends I’ll see them in a month or two and crack on.  It may mean weeks of early starts and late nights, but come September the pressure will always ease a little and the mountain of paperwork that has been threatening to topple over onto my already covered desk will finally get a look in. Having said that, over the past five years or so I’ve noticed that this frenzy of last-minute publishing is not only confined to summer but seems to be infiltrating other months of the year. The spring book list seems to be as important as the autumn one; I am now finding I get calls and emails in the autumn as publishers take stock once the Christmas books are snugly bound and decide to sneak something else into spring…

An interview with Jane Aitken

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[intro]Jane Aitken co-founded Gallic Books in 2006 with a commitment to bringing the best of contemporary French writing to an English-speaking public. Since then, Gallic has been responsible for translating and publishing more than 50 books in the UK. This year saw the publication of Antoine Laurain’s award-winning novel The President’s Hat, with whitefox helping to run the marketing campaign.[/intro]
What unique challenges do you face in publishing exclusively French fiction for a British reading public?

The biggest challenge is that none of our authors have a track record in the UK before we publish them. And of course, they are not on the spot for promotion, so they have to travel to promote for us, which is disruptive for them and quite expensive. But having said that, our authors are all brilliant about dropping everything and jumping on the Eurostar. Some don’t speak English though, which is a problem for any kind of live interview.

Another challenge is that our authors’ historical, cultural and political reference points do not necessarily resonate with a UK audience. So, Vaux-le-Vicomte not Hampton Court; Colbert not Cromwell; Corneille not Shakespeare; Balzac not Dickens; Mitterrrand not Thatcher. This can create a barrier and a translation problem: how far should we explain references?

How do you go about choosing which books you are going to publish In English?

When we started out we immersed ourselves in the French market and read like mad. We chose to start with two bestselling historical crime series, one set in the years leading up to the French Revolution, and one set in fin-de-siècle Paris. Our idea was to paint a portrait for the UK reader of France through the ages, seen through fiction.

We then branched out into contemporary French fiction, where we look for fantastic writing, strong characters and plot. But we also try to choose subjects not addressed by Anglophone authors. So The Elegance of the Hedgehog has an apartment concierge as a main character, the forthcoming Monsieur Le Commandant presents a uniquely French take on the second world war, and The President’s Hat features 1980’s Paris.

We want to showcase in English, the books that French readers love, and we try to choose books that give a glimpse of France in an entertaining way.

Gallic was formed at a time when a large number of disruptive elements were beginning to take hold on the publishing industry. Which of these do you think has had the most influence in shaping the way the company has grown?

There was a gap for small independents like Gallic, created by the conglomerates merging and swallowing the larger independents. We felt that our niche was probably better served by an independent publisher than by an imprint of a large group.

Digital has I suppose been the biggest disruptor, but I can’t say that has had a huge effect on our development; we have merely followed along and entered the digital market, as all publishers must.

What challenges have you been most personally aware of when you moved from a large publisher (Random House) to running a small independent? What changes have you most welcomed?

I think the biggest challenge was initially getting the right kind of distribution. Without good distribution, you can’t ensure your books get where they need to be on time. For us the key was having a bestselling book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which opened up access to good distribution, initially with LBS and now with MDL, both of whom offer fantastic service to independent publishers.

The best thing about being small is the speed of decision-making, as you can take a project from conception to publication pretty quickly. You can take risks and there are fewer people to justify your decisions to!

Much of Gallic’s translation work operates through a group of high quality freelancers. What do you look for in your translators and what do you see as the main benefits from working in this way?

The most important thing for our translators is to have English as a mother tongue. Most have acquired French as a second (or third language). Strangely, it can be a disadvantage to be fully bi-lingual, although obviously an excellent knowledge of French is essential. It is also essential to be well read, so that you can easily access different ways of expressing yourself, and to have a good writing style. Some of our translators are also published authors.

We use a variety of translators to ensure that we match each book with the best possible translator voice. We also translate in house. I translate and we also have an in house translator, Emily Boyce. Emily and I teamed up with a freelancer, Louise Rogers Lalaurie, to translate The President’s Hat, which is made up of four individual stories linked by the hat. Each protagonist had their own translator and therefore a slightly different inflexion. So far, readers have approved.

Have you noticed any significant changes in the market for translated fiction in the UK since Gallic’s first book was published?

Yes, there has been an explosion of translated fiction since our first book was translated in 2007. Several new independent publishing houses have started up publishing only or mainly translations – Peirene Press in 2010, And Other Stories, Profusion and Istros Books in 2011, Stork Press in 2012, amongst others. And the large houses are also publishing significantly more translations.

This has been great for the bookshop we run, Belgravia Books where we have many translated fiction evenings, most recently on Latin American crime with Bitter Lemon Press.

Generally it feels as if the UK market is now a lot more open to translated fiction, and publishers are stepping up to meet the increased demand.

An interview with Jeff Belle

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jeff_belle[intro]Jeff Belle joined Amazon in 2002, subsequently becoming Vice-President of the company’s publishing unit, Amazon Publishing. The unit now incorporates 12 imprints, the latest addition of which, Jet City Comics, was announced in July.[/intro]

Amazon was already a very well established book retailer when Amazon publishing took off. What are the most significant ways that this has influenced how the publishing wing has developed?

Our first imprint, AmazonEncore, was launched with the purpose of bringing more attention to extraordinary, previously published, overlooked books from emerging authors. This was a direct result of the high-quality books we were seeing from authors in our Kindle Direct Publishing program (KDP). Our second imprint, AmazonCrossing, was launched so that more readers would have access to books from around the world that had never been available to an English language audience. We are fortunate to have a wealth of data from our bookstores around the world that helps us identify overlooked, but deserving candidates for translation. From there we looked to the categories most popular with our Kindle customers like romance, thrillers and mysteries, and science fiction/fantasy to see how we might better serve them, which resulted in the creation of our own group of commercial fiction imprints: first Montlake Romance, then Thomas & Mercer and 47North. Most recently we’ve launched Jet City Comics and look forward to delighting comic fans and working with our authors to create adaptation of their books for this medium.

How would you differentiate what Amazon Publishing offers authors compared to traditional publishers?

We are committed to an author-centric publishing model that also serves as a kind of in-house laboratory dedicated to innovating and experimenting with new publishing models. We’re looking for authors who want to experiment with us. Authors are our customers and we are constantly working on their behalf to make their experience with us the best it can be. Examples of this include things like paying higher royalties, paying royalties monthly instead of twice-a-year, launching the Kindle Singles and Kindle Serials formats, creating Kindle Worlds, inclusion in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, and more to come…

How does Amazon publishing view working with external freelance specialists? Should freelancers see it as an opportunity?

We work with a variety of very talented freelancers in areas including production, design, promotion and translation – we want to build as flexible as organisation as we can, so we are scaling these functions in-house as well as build a broad network of great freelance talent as well. In the four years since launch, we have added nearly 5,000 titles to our list, and we couldn’t have done this without a strong network of freelancers.

Do the fact that physical book sales are declining everywhere mean that cover design is less important?

Actually, I think it’s more important now. All online and digital shelves are face-out. In any format, the cover of a book should capture a reader’s attention and make it stand out as something they want to know more about. Our hope is that our covers will draw readers in wherever they first discover it— be it on our retail site, on a Kindle device, or in a bookstore. In digital, it’s more important than ever to design covers that will render across multiple device displays – in eInk and on color tablets and phones – as well as on the printed book.

There is currently much debate over the perceived over-reliance on free e-books for marketing purposes, with some suggesting that this is devaluing long form content. Where do you stand on this issue?

We know that Kindle owners buy more books now than they did before they owned a Kindle, so on the whole I don’t see this as an actual problem. Distributing galleys and Advance Reader Copies free of charge for promotional purposes is something that publishers have always done to help bring attention to the books they publish. It’s much easier, of course, to distribute free copies digitally, but it’s still difficult to connect and engage with the reader. Readers want to discover great stories, and our job is to help with the discoverability piece. Authors want to expand their audience and earn royalties. To best serve our authors and readers, we’ll continue to strike the right balance and also find more ways to help readers discover new work.

A prayer for UK publishing’s Billy Beane

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Reading the engaging, if patchy, The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong (yes, it is the US edition), I’m reminded again of our friend and trusted Digital Advisor, Peter Collingridge. When Peter left to live in California last year, my youngest daughter gave him a picture she’d made with a quote from the film Moneyball. The part where the owner of the Red Sox says to Billy Beane,

I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall. It always gets bloody, always.

I think about Peter, about his Bookseer analytics and his endless rounds of meetings with publishers a lot. Why? Because every week more and more writers who want to self-publish are contacting whitefox. They might want a broad service from us or just to cherry pick specific elements. They might be planning something ambitious or simply uploading their manuscript to KDP. But what most want is a way of knowing how effective any potential marketing and PR will be on their behalf given their limited budgets. And there’s no space in these conversations for the fudge and filler which publishers have made their stock in trade over the years. The overuse of the words ‘quantifiable’, ‘brand’, ‘target’, ‘attempt to’, ‘submit’ or ‘pitch for x slots’, or even floppy old ‘hopefully’. There’s every space to talk ROI and how do I know (as opposed to the channels and platforms) what to do and when to do it to get the biggest bang for my dollar.

Budding authors, what you really need is Bookseer; a tool which will help you sell more books but which no publisher saw fit to invest in. Amen.

Life’s a pitch (part 23)

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So, more hustling and pitching and waving our little whitefox tushes out there this week. Stressful, soul-sapping, exhilarating; a proverbial roller coaster. Great to remember it took four months and 60 meetings for Jeff Bezos to drum up the initial investment for Amazon. And even then, most of it came from his parents. Who asked him one question: “what’s the internet?”.

Embracing your inner American

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[intro]As the restructuring axes have swooshed over head during the past few weeks, the least likely of all the f words to be heard uttered at the top of publishing organisations is ‘failure’. We all know how information and communication is spun (‘has decided…by mutual agreement…with sincere thanks for everything’). But when the decision to leave a high-ranking job is not your own then, whatever the pay-off, assumptions of hierarchy pretty much disappear. It is exposing. It is humiliating. It is a little frightening.[/intro]

You will find that people take a delicious delight in being as close as possible to the eye of this most personal storm. Even those you would consider your friends and not just work colleagues will utter the most chilling homilies designed to make you feel better about yourself. These things happen for a reasonYou will look back on this as a blessingYou weren’t very happy anyway. And, by far the worst, this is the best thing that has ever happened to you. When it is clearly and by some distance one of the worst things that has ever happened to you.

How should you react in that situation? Wallow in self-pity? Employ your creativity in plotting revenge? How about embracing your inner-American.What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all the rest. I was casually flicking through a book celebrating the achievements of my daughter’s netball club the other day and I saw a quote from Michael Jordan:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

The trouble is, I love this. I want to be a fully paid up Brit and believe that life is just a series of more downs than ups and that you’d better just get used to being another piece of flotsam. But I can’t. I have learned about myself and life and particularly other people from bad situations. There is only gain in facing up to what has happened and using it as best as you can.

I’ll be watching with interest to see how some of the real Players of the last two decades of publishing emerge after they’ve spent a few months tending their metaphorical gardens.

Confessions of a copyeditor

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[intro]If your writing is going to be published, it’s more or less inevitable that at some stage it will be subjected to the attentions of a copyeditor. You may feel apprehensive or defensive about this. It’s not easy to welcome the thought of your prose being meddled with by a nitpicking stranger who is ignorant of, and possibly even indifferent to, all the love and care you’ve lavished upon it.[/intro]

But the experience may turn out not to be entirely painful. In fact, you may find yourself actually enjoying it. The copyeditor will probably be the first outsider to read your book. His (I’ll call him he, although it’s as likely as not that he’ll be a she) may therefore be the first unbiased opinion it receives. And he wants it to be good. It’s no fun for him to have to slog through several hundred pages of repetitive, muddled prose, every other sentence of which cries out to be rewritten. His only ambition is to help your book to be as accessible, accurate and well-expressed as possible.

Not only is he one of your book’s first readers; he could also be the closest reader it will ever have. He may come to know your style – and even the way you think – as well as, or better than, you do yourself. He’ll notice tics or idiosyncrasies that you’re unaware of, words or phrases that crop up a little too often for comfort. When he points out that the first word of your first paragraph is a dangling participle, or that you’ve unwittingly perpetrated a ribald double entendre that risks making frivolous-minded readers snigger, just think: would you rather it was he who did so, or a snide reviewer who will use it as a stick with which to belabour your whole book?

If (as, sadly, is increasingly rare these days) your copyeditor works in-house at your publisher, you may come to regard him as a valuable ally, a kindred spirit within a bewilderingly monolithic-seeming corporation. Apart from anything else, he can be an important advocate of your book to those who will actually have to sell it. When a jaded copy editor praises something he’s been working on, you can be sure that his colleagues will take notice. Which can’t hurt.

So, as an author, how do you make this important person feel well-disposed towards you? Actually, it’s not very hard. To start with there are a few simple, obvious things you can do. You’re probably doing them already, but you’d be surprised how many writers don’t.

First, don’t be lazy. Don’t trust to your vague memories of quotations, names or dates. If you do, you’re bound to get the odd one wrong. As long as it’s only the odd one, your copyeditor will forgivingly fix any such slips. But if error is piled upon error, he’s likely to start feeling less indulgent, and to adopt an increasingly beady-eyed attitude to your work.

Second, avoid the temptation to bespatter your text with impressive-sounding words of whose meaning you‘re less than certain. ‘Jejune’ is not a sophisticated synonym for ‘immature’, and ‘exponentially’ is not just a fancy way of saying ‘a lot’. A crescendo is not a loud noise, and ‘disinterested’ does not mean the same thing as ‘uninterested’. You may argue (and you may believe) that language is a fluid, vibrant, living thing, and that it’s actually a cause for celebration that the meanings of words change over time. But even as you are saying this, your copyeditor may silently be thinking that if you don’t care enough about language to respect its subtleties and shades of meaning, what business do you have expecting other people to read what you write?

Third, there’s punctuation. This may seem a trivial – indeed an anal – matter, and scarcely deserving of your attention. But if your punctuation is careless or slovenly, your writing will feel woolly and imprecise.

Pay due attention to those small details, and some of the larger things will tend to look after themselves. And your copyeditor, your first reader, may also become your first fan.

No pun intern-ded

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It’s strange what you can become used to in a short space of time. Two weeks ago, for instance, I was just recovering from my final university exam. My ‘recovery’ mainly took the form of Hoovering up any alcohol I had missed in my third-year house and attempting to shush the now frantic inner-scream of “OH GOD, WHAT NOW?” which had been steadily growing in volume since October 2012. I had been promised, somewhat ominously, by John Bond (co-founder of whitefox) that if I came to London to do work experience at whitefox I would be ‘data plotting’. This had sounded soul-crushingly boring and, after a quick phone call to my dad, he had confirmed that yes, it most probably would be. But hey! I’d be in London, I’d be meeting people, and I’d be getting that elusive experience that seems to be the Holy Grail of job applications nowadays (seriously, you can get T-shirts with that message on). I had put down my vodka and Carlsberg mojito and decided to pack.

Two weeks, as I soon discovered, is not a very long time to be involved in whitefox and, indeed, publishing. My internship flew by in a haze of people, figures, articles, tweets, fieldtrips, blogs, meetings, spellchecks, emails and chicken & bacon baguettes (and data-plotting – I am now a data-plotting demon in human form). I learnt quickly (you had to), and was tasked with, thankfully, far more than I thought I really would be (I had taken John at his word when he said I would mainly be updating spread sheets). I went on research trips, I networked, I had interviews; whitefox is all about people and connections, and that became happily evident over the two weeks as I met with and (yes) data-logged an incredible amount of people. My time was so varied and, most importantly, the whitefox team were all extremely encouraging (I think that’s a very important part of interning anywhere – not just getting a few more lines to add to your CV, but gaining a knowledge that you can do effective work in the ‘real world’ without breaking anything or tripping up).

An internship is a bit like jumping, head first, into an ocean when you’ve just about earned your 50 metres badge, and then being hooked out again when you’re just beginning to find your stroke.

I’m back in York again and feeling like a fish out of water (I’ll stop with the water similes soon, I promise). I’ve had some time, and another vodka and Carlsberg mojito, and the “OH GOD, WHAT NOW?” voice in my head has been substantively muffled… for the time being. There is a definite problem for graduates – their lack of experience in professional fields can pose problems when trying to gain employment, which means they may have to undertake mini-internships like I have. whitefox are going some way to alleviating that problem for graduates who are hoping to get into the publishing industry by introducing a ‘Summer Camp’  this year which will feature workshops inside the business. I’ve got a place (at least I bloody hope I have) and everything crossed that, in the long run, I’ll be able to get my first permanent job in publishing… Wish me luck.

What publishers mean when they talk about publishing

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So, news of the changing of the guard at the top of UK publishing houses now comes to us via a daily press release. Leaving aside the personalities involved (difficult, but I’ll try), what is interesting is that at HarperCollins UK you now have someone at the helm who will see the product of their acquisitions purely as the dreaded C-word (content) rather than literature. Which will probably upset a lot of the trade commissioning editors, most of whom see themselves as magnets for exploitable front-list fiction and non-fiction rights. But it might mean a legacy publisher finally realising that the battleground is not the front table at Waterstones, but online, and that the main competitors are ScribdQuartz or the forthcoming Medium.

Like sand between your toes, creators and broadcasters of content are everywhere. I suspect the next generation of CEOs, the 30-something data geeks and MBA grad analysts, will really get it. I just hope it isn’t all too late.