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

A prayer for UK publishing’s Billy Beane

By | Publishing & Consultancy, Startup | No Comments

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)

By | Digital, Startup | No Comments

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

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments
[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

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments
[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

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

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

By | Publishing & Consultancy | No Comments

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.


By | Uncategorized | No Comments
[intro]It is a truth universally acknowledged, that literary quotations will become bastardised by overuse. And it is a sport beloved of literary nerds everywhere to spot misuses of ‘Catch-22’. But I would argue that there is an experience common to many recent graduates, and especially those with a penchant for media, publishing or the arts, which genuinely warrants this label: finding a job.[/intro]

The dilemma is a simple one. Without having prior experience you cannot find a job. Yet without finding a job you cannot gain experience. Without which, of course, you cannot find a job. Which is in a way impressive; I don’t think many envisage graduating university only to be blocked from further progression by logical paradox.

As the problem has worsened, three distinct routes for bypassing it seem to have emerged. The first of these is familiar:

1. Good, old-fashioned Nepotism – gaining experience through your parents’ connections.

The second has emerged recently, and is what I will affectionately call:

2. Nepotism Plus – gaining experience through your parents’ bidding for internships via auction (yes, these do exist).

The third is the unpaid internship, which have proliferated wildly over the last few years. I don’t intend to get too much into the debate about whether it is feasible or sustainable to expect young people to do boring tasks for free in the hope that it will help their future job prospects, but I will just point out that average expenses tend to just about cover a short bus and train journey within London and a Pret sandwich (if you are lucky). So:

3. Be proactive and, more importantly, lucky. And live in London. Preferably within Zone 2. If these options are not open to you (your dad doesn’t play tennis with Greg Dyke; you live in Derby or (worse) Wales) then unfortunately your prospects for evading the above-identified vicious circle without effectively paying for the privilege of doing admin look slim.

Which is why we at whitefox have been thinking long and hard about finding a way between the horns of this particular dilemma. We may be too small to give each and every talented and promising graduate a job, but we are well connected. We are a network of specialisms and skills. We are 21st century publishing unbundled. So at some time in the next few months we will be running a book publishing ‘Summer School’ event, the first of what we hope will be many future workshops led by some of the best editors, cover designers, marketeers and publicists in the business. We want the people who are at various points on the ladder to share their experiences and tips. We want to open up the possibilities of gaining practical skills that talented young people can use to earn money by making a material difference within the publishing process. It may not be enough to solve all the problems, but hopefully it will start to lift the curtain on our world and give anyone interested a good peek inside.

An interview with Mark Coker

By | Interview | No Comments
[intro]Mark Coker founded Smashwords in 2008 as a platform to make it fast, free and easy for authors and publishers to distribute ebooks to the world’s largest ebook retailers. There are now over 200,000 ebooks available on the site, with over a million words uploaded each day.[/intro]
Tell us a little bit about why you created Smashwords and the philosophy behind it.

Smashwords grew out of my experience as one of the hundreds of thousands of authors each year who are rejected by a publisher. My wife and I wrote a novel about the soap opera industry a few years back and, despite representation from one of the top New York literary agencies, every major publisher rejected it. They rejected it because – as they told our agent – previous soap-opera-themed novels hadn’t performed well in the marketplace. They were reluctant to take a chance on it.

As you might imagine, it was heart breaking to have a publisher crush our dreams of publication. After licking our wounds, I considered our options. The first option – the one selected by most authors six years ago, back in the dark ages of publishing – was to accept defeat, admit we were failed authors, curl up in the fetal position and give up.

The second option, which sounded eminently more appealing to me, was to try to do something about the problem.

I came to the conclusion that the traditional print publishing industry was broken. I decided that publishers were actually harming the future of books by measuring a book’s worth based on perceived commercial merit. Here’s the big problem: Publishers can only guess which books will be successes, and most of the time they’re wrong anyway. All along, they’re rejecting hundreds of thousands of books each year, some of which would have gone on to become bestsellers and future classics if only they had been given the chance to find an audience.

I decided the solution to this problem was to create a free ebook publishing platform that would allow any writer, anywhere in the world, to instantly self-publish an ebook at no cost. That’s what we launched in 2008 with Smashwords. That first year, we published 140 books. Today, we’re publishing over 200,000.

You’ve said that ‘there has never been a better time to be a writer’. Tell us more about what exactly you mean by this.

The opportunity for writers to reach readers with their words has never been greater.

Although I love print books, and am a collector (hoarder?) of thousands of print books, the print format is a horribly inefficient medium for delivering words to a global audience’s eyeballs. Print books are expensive to produce, distribute and purchase. Even middle-class consumers must think twice before shelling out $30 or more for a book.

Because books are expensive to produce and expensive to distribute and display at retail, their distribution is severely limited. The growth in literacy around the world is taking place in developing countries, yet most print books aren’t available in developing countries. If your book has a potential audience of 100 readers in Botswana, it’s simply not cost effective to publish in print there.

Ebooks, thanks to the wonders of digital distribution, can be efficiently distributed to every corner of the globe at little cost, and can be priced affordably for all readers because the incremental cost of printing a new digital copy is zero. Any time you make a desirable product more available and more affordable to more people, you sell a lot more product.

Because physical shelf space is expensive and limited, brick and mortar bookstores can only sell a small fraction of all available books. Books that don’t sell well immediately after release are shipped back to the publishers after only a few weeks for a full refund. Most print books are forced out of print before they’ve had a chance to reach readers.

With ebooks, the virtual shelf space is unlimited, and the book never goes out of print. The ebook is immortal. Even if it only sells one copy a year, the retailer will still want to keep it in stock. Digital book retailing enables the long tail.

Another big trend that excites me is the mobile opportunity. Today there are over one billion smart phones in the hands of consumers. In the next few years, smart phones will become entry-level phones, so there will be billions of smartphones in the pockets of potential readers. For each of the consumers, especially the readers in developing countries, your ebook is only a few clicks away from being discovered, sampled and purchased.

The final exciting thing about the digital book opportunity is that it allows authors and publishers to easily target niche audiences that it wasn’t economically feasible to reach in the dark ages of print publishing. Online marketing allows authors to target and aggregate a global audience of niche readers. It doesn’t matter how obscure your book’s category or genre is – there are reachable readers out there.

Bottom line: digital books eliminate multiple points of friction that prevented print books from being ubiquitously available, discoverable and affordable to readers.

Many commentators are suggesting that the stigma once attached to self-publishing is steadily disappearing. With this and the increased support and services available for authors looking to self-publish, do you think writers will begin to question the value of traditional publishers?

Definitely. It’s already happening. Indie authors are now in the cool kids’ club. More and more authors are aspiring to self-publish as their preferred option. Authors are self-publishing without even bothering to shop their books to agents and publishers.

At the same time as the stigma of self-publishing is disappearing, we’re seeing an increased stigma attached to traditional publishers. Writers are beginning to realise that thanks to ebooks – and to democratised distribution, where every major ebook retailer wants to carry all self-published ebooks – publishers are no longer necessary to connect with readers.

Just a few years ago, publishers had a chokehold on the business of reaching readers with books. They controlled the printing press, the access to distribution, and the knowledge necessary to produce, package and market books professionally. Now these three legs of the stool are democratised and available to all writers at little to no cost.

Authors are starting to ask two dangerous questions (dangerous if you’re a publisher):

1. What can a publisher do for me that I can’t already do for myself?

2. Since publishers are pricing their ebooks too high, and paying such low royalties, might a publisher actually harm my career as an author?

When authors self-publish ebooks, they enjoy faster time to market, full creative control, broader global distribution, and they earn per-unit royalty rates that are four to five times greater than those publishers pay.

This last point is important, because the economics of indie ebook publishing will drive this trend further. An indie author can earn about $2.00 selling a $2.99 ebook. The book of a traditionally published author would have to be priced at over $10.00 in order to earn the author the same $2.00. This means indie authors have incredible leverage in the marketplace and can compete aggressively on price while still earning more per unit. This is why so many indie authors are appearing each week in the bestseller lists. They’re offering high-quality product at lower cost.

Many writers looking to self-publish see marketing and getting noticed as one of the biggest challenges they face. What are your top discoverability tips for authors?

The most important marketing you can do is to write a book that markets itself. The easiest way to sell a book is by reader word of mouth. A great book moves the reader to an emotional extreme. It makes the reader go, ‘WOW!’ It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. If you make your reader go ‘WOW!’, they will not only recommend your book to their friends, they will COMMAND their friends to read your book NOW.

So many authors mistakenly over-invest in marketing and under-invest in writing the best book possible. If you’ve got an extra $2,000 burning a hole in your pocket, and you have the choice to hire a marketeer or a professional book editor with a track record in your genre, the editor is the better investment.

The next most important marketing secret is to create an amazing ebook cover image. Book covers sell ebooks. A great cover makes a promise to the reader on a visceral level. It’s aspirational. It’s all about the image. If you strip away the book title and author name, does the image promise your target reader what they’re looking for? A great cover makes an instant emotional connection to the target reader. Obviously, to create a great cover, you need to know your target reader, and then you need to hire a professional cover designer. Luckily, professional cover design is ridiculously affordable.

The next important marketing tool, and it’s not what most people think of as marketing, is to make the book discoverable by readers. Most of your readers are going to stumble across your book when they’re looking for their next read. To make the book discoverable, it needs to widely distributed to all retailers, and then it needs to have good metadata (proper categorization, a compelling title, an arresting book description) to help the reader find it and want it.

You’ll notice that the most important marketing tips make your book findable and desirable. A great book with a great cover, great distribution and great metadata will find readers, without any additional marketing effort.

Once you’ve got the basics covered, any additional marketing effort will serve as a catalyst to drive sales further.

I wrote two books that explore marketing and discoverability in greater detail, and they’re both available for free download at most major ebook retailers. They include The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide (how to market any book for free) and The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success (best practices of the most successful indie authors).

There is currently a lot of debate about the price and value perception of ebooks. What are your thoughts on this issue?

In May, we conducted a comprehensive survey that analyzed the impact of book pricing (and several other fascinating factors) on book sales and author earnings. You can access the survey here.

Our survey found that readers are price sensitive, and lower cost books generally sell more units than higher priced books. However, we also found that in our survey $3.99 ebooks outsold even the lower price points, so this is encouraging news for authors. It says readers will pay more for quality, so authors shouldn’t feel like they have to price books at $0.99 to reach readers. There’s some anecdotal evidence that at least some percentage of readers won’t buy the ultra-cheap books, and some will only buy books priced over $2.99 or $3.99 or $4.99. The operative word is “some”. It’s dangerous to over-generalize. Just as there as some consumers who won’t buy books priced ultra-low, the evidence would indicate that a greater number of customers are sensitive to higher prices.

Take a look at any ebook retailer’s bestseller list. You’ll almost always see indie authors in the bestseller list, and they’re almost always at price points of $4.99 or below.

Another segment of the book-buying audience will download free books from authors they don’t yet know and trust. Only after the author earns their trust will they purchase the priced books. We found that free books, on average, get almost 100 times more downloads than books at any price. This means that authors with multiple books should seriously consider experimenting with free promotions, or even perma-free for series starters. Our experience shows that FREE is one of the most powerful marketing tools to help build readership quickly, and to help drive readers to priced series.

And finally, if you were to give just one piece of advice to aspiring authors, what would it be?

Although many self-published ebook authors are reaching thousands of readers, it’s important to understand that it’s still really difficult to reach your audience. Most self-published books sell poorly. Most bestselling authors toiled in obscurity for years before they broke out. If you decide to embark on this self-publishing adventure (and yes, I think every author should!), remember that it takes years of hard work. Readers will determine your fate. Your job as the writer is to wow them. If you honour readers with great books, and you continue writing more books, your audience will eventually find you and propel your career forward.

An interview with Lana Beckwith

By | Digital, Interview, Uncategorized | No Comments

lana_beckwith[intro]Lana Beckwith is a Digital Media and Content Manager at HarperCollins. As a digital content consultant, copywriter and editor she has also worked in-house for Amazon and as a freelance online content consultant, writing and editing online creative and marketing copy, and advising on metadata, layout, style and best practice.[/intro]

Why is everyone obsessed with metadata and SEO?

In the publishing world, it’s become such an important subject because more and more people are buying books online. Consumer behaviour is very different online: people tend to actively search, rather than browse in the way they would in a physical store. Strong metadata and SEO are key tools in boosting discoverability and, I suppose, helping to recreate the bookshop experience on someone’s laptop, tablet or mobile phone. Obviously, it’s not just discoverability either. Once a reader has found one of our books online, their decision to buy or not will essentially come down to metadata: the product description, the jacket, the reviews, etc are all key parts of metadata.

You have worked both in-house and as a freelancer for publishers. How have your experiences differed?

When you’re a freelancer, you certainly feel like you’re in control of the work you’re doing. There’s a reason the word ‘free’ makes up part of ‘freelance’! It also allows you to focus on the areas you’re passionate about, rather than those aspects simply being part of a wider role within a company. But personally, I also really enjoy being part of a team, sharing successes and contributing to a bigger picture. There are benefits to both.

With your skills, what is the most basic advice you can give writers and content creators?

Online copywriting is a completely different discipline to traditional, offline copywriting. It requires you to think more about how a reader will get to your content in the first place, and how you’re going to hold their attention when they have. How are you going to make them ignore that email that’s just flashed up, that instant message on Facebook, or that video of a cat riding a vacuum cleaner (which is pretty great, admittedly)? It comes down to getting readers (via SEO, metadata, paid advertising if you’re lucky), grabbing their attention (snappier copy, more paragraph breaks, recognisable keywords, visual stimulation) and pushing them to your call to action (buy something, sign up for something, come back another day, or simply remember this piece of writing). Think about how you read online yourself, and what engages you.

 What would your number one piece of advice be for someone looking to start working in the publishing industry over the next few years?

Be very open to various routes. When I started in publishing five years ago, people still talked in terms of career journeys through editorial, marketing, sales, digital, etc. Now, there are more blurred boundaries. There are elements of digital in most roles, PR and marketing are more combined than they have been in the past, and I’ve seen people who started out in traditional sales roles become digital marketing directors. It’s a more fluid place now, especially if you can find the area you’re most passionate about and go where it takes you (or where you push it).

An interview with Lynne Truss

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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