Monday, 26 December 2011

Publishers as gatekeepers

Self-publishing and small cooperatives
Certainly the way we publish is changing. More and more people are self-publishing or forming publishing cooperatives. The sensible ones are using an editor and a copy editor. They lack the resources of the bigger publishers to promote and distribute work. However, they can sometimes feed into a niche market. This is fine.  Sometimes, however, the size and scope of the writer’s circle of influence might be what is selling the book rather than the merit of the book.
Established authors going it alone      
Some authors are going with the traditional publishers for new work but self-publishing their out-of-print titles, most commonly via Smashwords or directly to Amazon Kindle. These writers don’t have to worry too much about promotion. They already have their name. They can sell many of these titles as backlist and good old Amazon makes the link visible for them.
There is now also crowd-funding where the great general public determine which works get published and actually offer the financial sponsorship upfront. However, again, whether a book gets published may have little to do with the content of the book but to do with how popular the writer is. Most crowd-funding organisations expect the project leader – in this case the author – to have a big following on social-networking sites. Arguably, authors should have such a following but that should be because they are good authors not because they are good at social networking.
Content overload
There is so much available to read now. Some content is offered free as an incentive and some is offered very cheaply – especially in the form of e-books. Then there are all the blogs, Facebook pages and web articles flagged up by others. We can’t possibly read it all, so how do we choose?
Developing trust  
We tend to follow the links and recommendations of people we trust, and occasionally we’ll follow something we simply find interesting. We have traditionally trusted the publishing houses to scrutinize work before it comes to us.  We all know they don’t always get it right – they can disappoint and they can also overlook gems. But on the whole, we know that the work has been vetted rigorously and some professional editorial work has gone into it.
What the reader pays for
Interestingly, many of the traditional publishers offer their e-book titles for only a few pence less than the paperback. Can we assume that this reflects just how much time and effort goes into that gatekeeping? With bulk printing, stock, warehousing and distribution only involve minimal costs. The employees of the publishing house are obviously doing something else. Cynically we might say that they are making a tidy profit. I actually rather doubt it. Even where a publishing house is doing well, if the executives put their business energy into almost any other sort of enterprise they’d make much more money. The must be some care about books in there somewhere. And in fact, publishing houses could be driven out of business because of the ease with which we can now go it alone.
Who will offer quality control now?  
If this happens how can we retain the quality control? Can this be left to the reviewers? If the publishers merely become reviewers, how will they get paid? Could they become freelance editors?
We curse our publishers often – as a writer / publisher I’ve experienced that from both sides. Both the apparently overzealous editor and the author who cannot let go of a certain character or passage of prose can annoy seriously. It strikes me though, that publishers, the big ones and the small ones still have an important role to play, even if that role is going to take a different form soon.                     


Saturday, 3 December 2011

Submissions Etiquette

Standard formatting
There’s a sort of default standard for submitting work: double space, single side of A4, a font similar to Times new Roman 12, pages numbered and an indication of how many pages and where the “manuscript” ends. This is often the case, even when one is submitting electronically.
Occasionally a publisher will ask for something else, especially for competitions. It is of course absolutely imperative to follow those instructions to the letter, no matter how bizarre they sound; the publisher / competition organiser has put them there for a reason.
I don’t think I’ve ever rejected anybody simply because they have not obeyed convention. However, if the submission is border line, the fact that the work is incorrectly formatted may swing me to reject. It says that the author is an amateur and may not be able to go through the editorial / proof-reading process. That person may cost me more time. Significantly, I can only remember accepting one submission that was brilliant but wrongly formatted. I wouldn’t rule out others but I can’t actually remember them.
Working with electronic submissions
These days, even if the text is submitted as hard copy, the work with editors is usually done electronically. There is a swing now anyway towards electronic submission. The type-setter has gone, and has been replaced by design teams using Quark, Acrobat, or In-Design to change the Word document into a camera-ready PDF that a modern printer (I mean the machine, not the person) will recognise. And that is where another round of fun can start. A text that had looked fine when it arrived may contain all sorts of gremlins that won’t stand the conversion. Authors compromise texts by:
  • Using a Word "named style" other than "Normal" for the default paragraph format.
  • Using lots of different Word "named styles" for things which look exactly the same on the screen.
  • Forcing paragraph indents by any means other than setting the default indent for style "Normal" (i.e. no inserting blanks, tabs or any other trick)...
  • ...Indeed, using the tab character anywhere at all. If you want to tabulate text, insert a proper table. You can always hide the lines.
  • Using multiple consecutive space characters.
  • Inserting blanks lines for any purpose other than starting a new section of the narrative i.e. not for forcing page throws, making titles stand away from the text or any other forced formatting. The defined styles can do that. The pages in a book are usually not A4. So, this is just wasted effort.
  • Inserting blanks at the end of a paragraph.
  • Hiding tables for forcing formatting.
  • Adding headers and footers manually.
Love or hate Microsoft, why not use it to get these things right? It makes the conversion go more smoothly.  
Shared responsibility
I can hear some saying, “Isn’t it the publishers’ job to produce the clean text?” Yes, indeed it is. But it slows down the whole process if a text is very untidy. Time is money. And if there are too many mistakes some will get missed, creating more post-proof work. In fact, designers can lose the original shape of a document, if it has not been formatted correctly, as they insert it into the book. This is the bane of the small indie publisher and is a waste of time for the Big Six. In both cases it affects the price of the book to the customer and the amount of royalty you might earn. Okay, someone’s badly formatted text will turn into a book sold at £5.99 the same as your similar but well formatted text. But all that extra work the designers have to do will gradually push up the price of all books. It’s also distressing for authors when the text comes back not looking the way they expected it to look.   
Amazon’s quirks
Another dimension comes into this, however, which is beyond the author’s or the publisher’s control. When publishing to Amazon Kindle a text can look fine, may have been rigorously controlled by a designer, and even looked right in a preview provided by Amazon, and yet collapse in its public-facing view. I don’t normally complain in public like this, but we have mentioned it to Amazon, I have seen many very poorly formatted books on Kindle and there are already plenty of forums about it There is much I love about Amazon, as a customer, a writer and a publisher, and there are some things that drive me insane. This is one of them.
In one of our books recently, Kindle failed to “print” “ลท” correctly, even though the preview had shown it as correct and that preview had even been read on a Kindle! Amazon added insult to injury by even showing that in the “look inside” feature on its web site. Very frustrating for both us and the author. Maybe, though, it will give you an idea of how important it is to get formatting right.
A need for a new etiquette
Perhaps the etiquette needs to go deeper now. Some publishers still use old mark-up language syntax when working with authors which is actually virtually the same as HTML. It can be very time-consuming for non-fiction and academic writers who have to put in titles, sub-titles, charts and illustrations. However, at least it means that designer and writer understand each other – provided that the writer gets it right which is not always the case.
It would be convenient if all publishers used the same style and could provide a universal Word template though this is unlikely to happen; there are almost as many house styles as there are publishing houses. At least, though, the author only needs to convert to that style at the point of publication. The publisher can often even do that for you quite easily if you have used a consistent Word style throughout. The main problem occurs when you manually change something within a style.
So, is the new etiquette, don’t apply a style, then manually change how your text looks on the screen? If it needs to look different, define a different style.      

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Some thoughts on marketing and publicity

I can write about this from two perspectives: as a published writer and as a publisher. I have almost finished completing a proposal for an academic book. It is actually finished but festering on my computer while I get some distance and revise once more before I send it off. As with all non-fiction, you write a detailed proposal before you write any of the book apart from maybe a sample chapter or two.  And yet still more of the questions were about marketing strategies and how I would self-promote than about the content I was going to produce.
Those of us who write fiction are only too well aware that our publishers expect us to get involved. In fact, successful writers can become so caught up in a whirlwind of book signing, local newspaper and radio interviews and readings - and for children’s authors also school visits - that they don’t have time to work on the next one.  
Shouldn’t the publisher be organising all of that? Yes, of course, to a certain extent. Yet there are only so many hours in the day and pennies in the budget. There is actually only a small window of opportunity. A publishing house, big or small, has to at some time move on to the next book and the next author. The budget only goes so far: review copies, a book trailer, and submission for prizes. Which is best? Small press or the Big Six?  The former has fewer overheads; the latter has a higher profile. Word of mouth is the most effective tool in both cases.
Sadly, the Beatles weren’t the only rock band who were that good in the ‘60’s, much as I love them. Some serendipitous circumstances came together.  I’ve read some work submitted for university assignments that is far better than some published work and I’ve read some published work that has made me cringe. There is a lot of subjectivity in this business.
On a personal note I’d like to say that I find it far easier to promote other people’s work than my own. This is where word of mouth – or word of Twitter, Facebook or Amazon review and even words in blogs come in. Quality will out but must be seen. The biggest favour we can do ourselves and each other is to shout about something we find good. Yet, if I shout about my own work too hard, or about what I’ve published, it might not quite be believable. Maybe a way forward is for us always to proactively flag up quality when we see it in others.               


Saturday, 29 October 2011

Can we stop this snobbism about print-on-demand, please?

We have twice been approached by a bookshop recently asking us to confirm whether a certain title was “a print-on-demand” title. Aside from the fact that they were asking about a book that was not one of our titles, nor did it carry one of our ISBNs and neither was the author anyone we had ever published, I found the question a little insulting.
We do not publish “print-on-demand” titles. We publish anthologies of short stories, novels, cookery books and language learning books. We do use print-on-demand technology and we also publish on Kindle. Some booksellers and award givers seem to equate print-on-demand with self-publishing. We’ve recently not been allowed to enter a very good novel for an award because the committee do not accept “print-on-demand” titles. Yet we put our work through all of the usual editorial processes and we’ve published – and rejected - some prestigious people.
Most publishers of school text books use print-on-demand. Why on earth should they print the books until they have sold them? Print-on-demand orders are usually fulfilled in about 48 hours. The customer gets a brand new book where the white pages haven’t burnt and the book has not got dusty sitting on a shelf. Print-on-demand avoids waste of paper, ink and manpower. Unit cost is higher, but a publisher can still make a respectable profit per until sold and there is still room to give the author a respectable royalty.

Print-on-demand is a real boon for the small independent publisher. There is little financial outlay and overhead in getting a book ready for distribution. There is no need for warehousing and the print-on-demand company will often waive shipping costs as they have so many books going out to the same distributors and wholesalers. It allows the publisher to take a risk on a book that is perhaps less commercially robust but has something important to say.
And surely it’s good for the environment?

Monday, 19 September 2011

The trouble with Amazon is that it sells books

There’s a lot I like about Amazon – particularly as a reader and book buyer. Sometimes it serves me well as an author, though not always. It’s good free advertising / distribution for me as a publisher. What we have to remember, though, is that it is a business that wants to make money by selling books. And hooray. It supports books. It could probably make tons more money if it sold something else. Well, of course it does, but even selling electrical equipment has not stopped it giving enough attention to the books.  
It does mean as publishers we can’t dictate what it puts on its site. We would like it to put correct and full information. It doesn’t always. Goodness knows why, but sometimes it fails to add an image even though the image was supplied at the same time as the ISBN to Nielsens. It picks up what it will of the blurb and that might not be always the choice morsel you yourself would have picked.
There is a rather quirky thing that happens with some of our anthologies. We have a lovely author, Sally Angell, and Amazon often make it look as if the whole book has been written by her. It is of course because they put the authors in alphabetical order for as much space as they have. I occasionally I get lucky with the surname James and the other Bridge House partner, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt gets lucky even more often. But it makes you feel for the Smiths, Thomases, Wilsons and Wrights.
“They’ve left my name off. Please rectify it,” they cry. But we can’t. We can’t put anything on Amazon other than what it allows in the publisher’s space. And no, we are NOT going to start posting reviews under false names. That is totally unethical.
When a book first comes out, Amazon will often claim it is going to take three weeks to get it, or it is an unusual book that is hard to find. Other online stores don’t tend to do that. When we used to do all our own distribution, they would sometimes even say we were out of print. Now that we are hooked up to about 30 distributers and wholesalers, they don’t do that. But it stays with the three week message until one person has ordered a book. You see, it is protecting its relationship with its customer. It usually actually delivers well with the three weeks and delights the clients. It’s a “just in case” message.  
We could give a much bigger discount. We give booksellers 35%. Amazon would really like 55%. They’d risk keeping a stock form the word go with that. Because we are a small publisher we just can’t do that – we can’t buy or distribute the bigger print runs that would bring the unit cost down enough. But 35% is perfectly respectable as are our prices compared with other indie publishers. And Amazon still works for us. It does offer purchasers a small discount on the RRP usually.
What authors and publishers must realise is that Amazon is not designed as a marketing tool for us, even though we can, with a bit of care, use it quite effectively as such. It is designed as a marketing tool for itself and we have to respect that. And I wouldn’t be without it, despite its faults, as an author, as a book-buyer or as a publisher.                                 

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The new professional self-publishers co-operative?

There was some discussion again yesterday about self-publishing. There are a lot of issues that self-publishers face that are also concerns for the small press, such as the three imprints I work with.  
It’s relatively easy to produce a book, especially if you have the experience to edit it well, if you actually know how to write and if you know a little about how the industry works. Marketing it and distributing it are hard work and for many writers these are thankless tasks. You probably need to spend about 75% of your available time on these activities. The small press and self-publisher alike lack the resources that the big publishing houses have at their fingertips. Poor self-published books have put even the independent booksellers off. So, even though you still are expected to get into promoting your book if you’re published mainstream, you have a bit of a head start because of the contacts the publisher has built up over the years.
Eyes light up and cash registers ring in heads when one thinks about a print on demand 130 page book that can sell at least £5.00 costing just £2.00 to produce and an e-book published on Kindle or with Smashwords with no upfront costs. However, there are still set up costs for the print book – about £50.00 -,  ISBNs for all books,  copy to British Library for the print book, cover design for all books (minimum £250 – artists have to live too and even stock pictures can cost a fair amount if you do sell well) editing and copy editing. Yes, the latter two are important. The author is the last person who should do this for their own work. Editors and copy-editors have to live too. If you do everything properly, perhaps throwing in a few review copies – and many self-publishers are beginning to do everything that professionally – you’re rapidly approaching £1000 set-up costs. And you risk, unless your marketing is brilliant, not selling a single copy.
You can keep control of the finances – you can vow not to publish a second book until you have recouped the costs for the first. So, small press and self-publishers can avoid the commercial pressures that the big guys face. They don’t  have people on salaries and grand offices in London to support. A professional small press may or may not have offices – many don’t – and their only overhead might be membership of the Independent Publishers Guild. Many self-publishers find it commercially advisable to create themselves as sole-trader publishing houses and therefore face exactly the same issues.       
So might it be canny to team up with a business expert and agree to share the profit? That seems a good idea. There is, however, a snag. Business experts can make tons more money for the same amount of effort promoting other businesses. You really need either a business guru who has a love of books or a writer who has also got a good business head. Both creatures are rather rare.
At Bridge House and The Red Telephone we’ve worked on a profit share basis. Editors, copy-editors designers and publicists have worked really hard for 10p an hour (ish) - we’ve had one or two books that have not gone into profit. Chapeltown is operating in a slightly different way – a mixture of buying in services and profit share amongst the family members that run it. GoldenfordPublishing, a small press based in Guilford, is a type of cooperative, though not quite. Read up about them – they are really interesting!  But at least all of these small presses have absolute freedom in their creative choices. No need to have “fart” in the title of a children’s book – that was part of the debate yesterday.
We do pay royalties but they’re peanuts. That doesn’t preclude getting a best-seller one day. And of course loads of peanuts make a feast, which could also be the business model for the self-publisher. If you can make the promotional side of it palatable, you would at least be spending your time doing what you love until the feast appears.
Is there a way around some of those extra expenses? I’m thinking here of the old baby-sitting circles. Could those of us who wish to self-publish, edit, copy-edit, design and promote for each other? Could we even get artists involved?
If anyone is interested in this idea, email me at I’m going to be away 24 August to 15 September, so I’ll collate any responses after that.