Saturday, 22 February 2014

Why Huge Publishing Advances can be Huge Steps Backwards


The reality of a six figure advance is highlighted this week by the failure of Harper Collins to realise its investment in Kindle best-selling sensations Mark Edwards and Louise Voss. A lot of noise was made in 2011 as the Harper Collins joined in a desperate scrap to secure the writing talents of the duo. Sadly and not surprisingly the transition from Kindle sensations to mainstream authors did not work for either Harper Collins or Edwards and Voss. The lure of big money is impossible to resist for most authors and for some they think the journey has ended there and then. Money in the bank, a big publisher behind you, books secured in high street stores and supermarkets...happy days. But the truth in the modern and complex retail environment is much more difficult as Edwards and Voss have found out. And this points to an extremely important factor which both Harper Collins and Edwards and Voss appear to have missed. I am talking about the disconnect between publishers and readers and authors and readers. Edwards and Voss were Kindle sensations through their own hard work and marketing. Harper Collins naively assumed all those Kindle readers would follow Edwards and Voss into the supermarkets and book shops. This was as likely to happen as Waterstones or WHSmiths core base of customers buying all their books online. The two are distinct and different animals. Sure there is a cross-over but percentage wise the cross-over is small. And here lies the rub for the future of the industry and brick and mortar environments. Books in these environments are spoon fed to us by curators (buyers) who make the choices for what we read. They make these judgements for us based on certain criteria: marketing budget, relationships with publishers, print runs – yes size matters, even if it means pulping a few hundred thousand unsold books. We were used to being told what to read by ‘influential’ reviewers – don’t for a second believe that all reviews are impartial and unhindered by the same criteria as buyers face. The whole of publishing was sewn up in a nice virtuous circle which the Internet has broken and publishers are still struggling to come to terms with. For now – but who know for how long – there are enough retail outlets that support the cosy virtuous circle but these are diminishing. Independent book shops in the UK have fallen below 1000 outlets. Book buying shopping habits have changed, who knows if these changes are permanent. Edwards and Voss have now signed for Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint having learned the importance of reconnecting with the readers they worked so hard to win in the first place while wanting ingress into retail at some level. Louise Voss recently told The Bookseller “It is so hard to get into bookshops these days. It would be lovely to see our book getting into WHSmith but it is getting harder and harder and both Mark and I would like to make a living through writing books.” As an independent publisher I can only second this sentiment and it echoes the importance of the work authors do in making those connections with the new readers through social media activity and online engagement. Whether self-published or with a publisher authors in the new age are the most powerful aspect of their own success. Publishers can add a vital role through expanding the reach for authors and their books and adding to the media reach as well as through new platforms such as apps. Publishers and authors can work together but both need to realise how the boundaries have changed and what the expectations and realisations of this new democracy are.

Friday, 11 October 2013

PR Fluff and Puff

We are all guilty of it. Terms such as hotly tipped literary sensation, bidding war bonanza and the next JK Rowling (Substitute any authors name you care for here, it depends on the genre – Stieg Larsson, Stephen King, EL James etc). These are no more than PR devices meant to engrain in the mind of the casual reader some element of worthiness to their next ‘must-have’ purchase. The same can be said to books which win awards. The reality is that even the Man Booker is no more than a bun fight in a tea shop. Awards are supposed to be a recognition of achievement but often real achievement and worthiness is overlooked in the fog of PR and deep pockets. Deep pockets to fund the PR machine and to pay the fees needed to get a book shortlisted. No, I am not suggesting any impropriety; the Man Booker is open to all publishers as long as they can fund the prize money. By which I mean coughing up £5k if you are shortlisted and a further £5k if you win. So clearly this award does discriminate on a basis of cash flow and circumstance.

So, how do we learn to discriminate between the fluff, puff and hyperbole? Discretion and curiosity remain two key tools in our armoury and forgive me but this is where I am going to praise Amazon for what it is allowing to happen in the book buying marketplace. It is giving the consumer or the reader a little more democracy and choice. It does not discriminate anywhere near as heavily as ‘those who know better’ and make our choices for us. It allows the consumer the chance to find the good, the bad and the downright awful and this allows the cream to rise free from the restraints of PR.

This is not an attack against PR. It is one of the best and most powerful tools that can be used with discerning journalists and editors as long as there is an actual story, but when the story clearly is lacking and it is no more than the contents of a hot air balloon, it pays to pinch yourself every now and then and scratch beneath the surface a little deeper to find the truth and remember not everything you read is true.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Cuckoo Who Squawked has them all of a Twitter

As news filters through that JK Rowling’s unmasking as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling was from her lawyers’ it seems a little hard to swallow. If Rowling was serious about keeping her crime writing pseudonym of Robert Galbraith safe, you would assume everyone connected to the project would have been made to sign an non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with severe penalties for anyone found leaking the story or those connected to anyone leaking the story. Not wanting to duck the issue, this could look like a well timed PR stunt designed to do exactly what it has achieved and that is to sell a load of books after stirring curiosity. Will there be swift justice?

It really does beggar belief that the best friend of JK Rowling’s solicitor’s wife, would disclose this information on Twitter, let alone the fact that the trusted legal employee (Chris Gossage) would be so careless in the first instance to reveal the truth so casually. Stranger things do happen though. Would this happen at Penguin? Or is it all a PR lark? If true I dare say Ms Rowling is huffin and puffin as well as effing and blinding.

Having sold 1500 copies prior to the leaking, the book has now been reprinted with over 140,000 copies flying onto the shelves.

Ms Rowling is not naive and I cannot imagine she would have had no measure for recourse built in to keeping her identity safe. If this is not a PR stunt then we can safely assume that there will be consequences for Russells Solicitors, Chris Gossage who revealed the identity to his wife’s best friend Judith Callegari who promptly repeated it parrot fashion on Twitter – how ironic. If true, they must be feeling like a bunch of tits.

It certainly does make you wonder about the standards of legal professionalism, and whether Ms Rowling is appointing a new legal team to take action. I can already see them circling like birds of prey.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

A New Direction – This is the Modern World

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Recently Caffeine Nights announced a first look deal it has made with Richwater Films, an extremely vibrant and exciting British film production company, and I was drawn to thinking about the parallels between the digital revolution happening in both of our industries. Publishing and the film (or Movie) industry is being transformed and democratised by digital. I use the word democratised because that is exactly what is happening. Not only is digital giving greater access to people who would have been shut out of the old worlds of film and books but it is also transforming the way we are working. The advent of high definition cinema quality images shot through DSLR which can be purchased by companies rather than being on the treadmill of forever loaning equipment and buying film stock, let alone the worry of processing the shot footage and storage of negatives etc has been swept away with the new tide of digital. Digital in publishing means so much more than eBooks. It has affected every part of the book making process from design to the finished product. The same can now be said of the films you watch.

Quality, as ever will out but because something is new and presented from new sources it should not be dismissed. The democratisation I speak about also includes gaining access to creative input from people who would never have been accepted by the ‘old school’ and this is not just the working classes but bright young, middle aged and old film makers and publishers from different backgrounds, classes and ethnicities. This is the true democratisation. The ingress of digital is reaching many of our visual and audio arts. Beginning for me with photography and music before the tendrils of digital and advent of technology allowed publishing and film to join the club. I see digital as the new wave or punk revolution for our time and it is a breath of fresh air. It opens a world where ideas can be discussed more freely and investment in those ideas more attainable through the cost savings digital offers. This brings new art, and obviously here I am talking about books and film and all each encompass, to the masses.

Straddling the divide between publishing and film is the author or screenwriter. Authors like our own Dougie Brimson, who has carved a career in both industries through his bestselling books like The Crew and Top Dog, selling thousands of copies and writing screenplays for features such as Green Street starring Elijah Wood and the forthcoming screenplay of Top Dog from his own novel for Richwater Films. Dougie is a prime example of an author who has capitalized on digital in both industries through talent, hard work and determination.

This digital era defines success in different ways and offers different channels for success. While it is great to have film distribution to a network of cinemas or book distribution to a network of book shops it is no longer necessary for that to happen to have a hit on your hands. There is an eager audience devouring new digital content. At Caffeine Nights and Richwater Films we are lucky to be working in both the traditional and new world of distribution. Our books will be available in stores as well as online. Films such as Richwater Films up and coming ‘Vendetta’, starring Danny Dyer and Vincent Regan will get a theatrical release (through distributor Anchor Bay) before it reaches the consumer shelves as a DVD, where it will be seen by many thousands of viewers and of course eventually online.

The book industry used to sneer at entrepreneurial authors who went down the self-publishing route and called it ‘vanity’ publishing. Now it has a new respect through the sheer force of numbers in sales it commands with some authors. The film industry is also battling with an entrepreneurial spirit that is embracing digital, those roughneck mavericks with their low budget features and guerrilla style film-making techniques. Arguably some of the output may be less slick than their big rich cousins and I really do mean arguably - in some cases it’s difficult to tell the difference between a £1m pound movie and a £30m pound movie - but it is also fresher and doesn’t feel as sullied or tainted by a corporate shroud which often stifles originality and creativity. It is this democratisation that frightens the establishment .

Digital is the common factor that drew Caffeine Nights and Richwater Films like magnets to work together - combining our talent pool so each can benefit. I am equally sure that other arts have been brought together in similar fashion. Without this revolution neither company would exist, or at least not in the way they do today. We have chosen to ride the technological new wave flowing through our respective industries and seize the opportunities each is presented with. It is without doubt one of the most exciting times to be in publishing and film making in the UK ever.

Many years ago Paul Weller wrote “This is the modern world, we don't need no one to tell us what's right or wrong” For me this sums up the democratisation of digital.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Book Shops are Shutting Their Doors to Publishers

I don’t know if this is a trend started by Waterstones but it seems to have spread to independent book retailers. Recently we talked to an independent book shop in Welwyn (there is only one) about a Welwyn author whose book we have launched to see if we could arrange a book signing event. We have had some really nice coverage in the local newspaper and the promise of more if we have an event in the store. Negotiations took over three weeks to try to arrange a simple book signing. Remember this is in a local store in the town where the author lives. 3 weeks. I rang at the beginning of the week to see what was happening to be greeted by – “Oh, did no one contact you...” followed by an awkward silence, “...the owner has said no. He didn’t give a reason...sorry”

Now, here’s the thing. We were going to supply all the books directly to the store to maximise the stores revenue from the event – which would be £3.15 per book from an £8.99 sale. Not bad for providing a bit of space. Oh, but you are thinking not bad for you either making £5.84 per book sale. Let’s break that down. Printing cost £3.28 per unit leaving £2.56, minus shipping and handling coats, publicity and marketing costs, author royalty at 30% leaving us with a little over £1.30. Less than half of what the book shop would gain just for hosting the event with no risk to them whatsoever.

When stores no longer wish to support authors from their own community and make easy money you have to wonder what their purpose or future will be. I can tell you that you don’t need rose tinted spectacles or even Google glasses to see that the disconnect between stores, their customer base and publishers is leading only one way and that is with the shutters permanently down and the ‘To Let’ sign hanging outside the store written in large red lettering.

Too many book retailers sit around bleating "oh woe is me, eBooks are killing book retail". If retailers do not wake up and I mean wake up quickly it will be too late. As a publisher of paper and eBooks we are adapting to the ever-changing marketplace to survive and grow - and grow without brick and mortar shops. We want to work with them. They are too ignorant, blind or filled with their own hubris to realise we can actually work without them. I love book stores and want our books and authors to engage with them and their (dwindling) customer base and grow that into something healthy which engages the local communities around them. They want easy sales without effort...or so it seems.

I believe the recent news of management restructure inside Waterstones stores may herald some hope for a new engagement with publishers and author – I certainly hope so. As for the independents, with this sort of blinkered response I can only guess as to what lay ahead and it ain’t good.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Publishing is Booming But It’s Still Gloom on the High Street

The recent news that publishing is growing despite the introduction of digital seems to have lifted the spirits of many in the industry. Why is this such a shock? The only thing the introduction of digital has reinforced has been the fact that people love reading and are prepared to take on more convenient ways to do this via eBooks and online shopping. The cold chill that should be sweeping through James Daunt, Alexander Mamut and book shop owners everywhere is ‘if publishing is flourishing, why are bookshops struggling?’.

Go into your local Waterstones on any given day including Saturday and take a look around. Look into the recess of the store where Costa Coffee is rammed with customers, look around the book aisles and see if there are any people browsing and then look at the till point. Chances are there won’t be a queue of people waiting to be served unless they have a coffee and croissant in their hands. Now see if there is an in-store event. Is the store engaging with the local community by bringing in local authors? Are the staff reaching out to offer their ‘expertise’? Is there any form of engagement between the store and the customers?

Rather than herding people into the back of the store to drink coffee and disassociate with the books why not open this experience out to the store encourage people to break the confines of the ‘coffee shop’ and enter the ‘book shop’. Why not bring in local schools and community groups to engage with books and authors? Why not have in-store events where authors can engage with your customers?

The answer for Waterstones is because Mr. Daunt doesn’t do this in his boutique stores in the ‘select’ areas where Daunt book shops are successful. Well, here’s a newsflash Mr Daunt, Waterstones and Daunt Book Shops are chalk and cheese and what applies to one in no way applies to another. Every week I speak to the frontline troops at many different Waterstones stores and it’s clear that while they know they are engaged in a battle, the communications hitting the front line are confused, open to being misinterpreted, leaving morale at an all time low.

From store managers to shop assistants they wonder what is going to happen next as footfall dwindles and stock remains stubbornly on the shelves. James Daunt will within the next 12 months be able to declare an increase in bottom line profits and he may even then think about returning to manage his own empire, Daunt Book Shops. Leaving him to walk away as the ‘saviour’ of our last remaining high street book chain but this will only be achieved through the closure of the university stores and many other high street stores such as those in Leicester where trading has been particularly difficult or there had been duplication of stores in towns from the legacy of Waterstones acquisition of Dillons and Ottakars book shops. Any positive figures will not be achieved through organic growth but the shedding of ‘dead wood’.

It’s amazing that Waterstones past strength of buying out its rivals may well be part of its current downfall and one wonders if the high street may not have been a healthier place with more competition and not less. Offline retail needs offline competition to stimulate growth. Waterstones needs to reengage with its community, its customers and its suppliers to survive and currently under its present leadership it looks as though this isn’t going to happen.

By excluding local authors and independent publishers, all Waterstones will achieve is make us more creative and determined to find new ways to sell our books without its participation. Independent publishers are opening pop-up shops and taking to selling directly to customers. As technology marches on and book stores remain stubbornly in the 20th century we are taking to the streets with our stock, credit card readers and the ability to sell books at a lower price thanks not to having to give away a large wholesale discount to a store that does nothing but act as a very poor shop window.

Are we prepared for life without Waterstones? The answer is we have been for a long while because they have not been prepared to accept anything but the the large cartel of five publishers who dominate the industry. Independent publishers have had to be adaptable to survive and what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger. As an independent publisher I want to trade and work with Waterstones. I am a fan and an advocate for the store even in the face of its downward spiral and lack of association with anyone but the big five. However, as things stand I don’t foresee a rosy future for Waterstones as a High Street presence.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The London Book Fair 2013…it’s déjà vu all over again

 

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Study the photograph and then compare it with my report from previous years. You will be hard pushed to spot the difference and that is exactly what visiting this year’s London Book Fair was like. Many of the seminars were not just similar, they were the same. And the ones that were not were often shocking in the content within. It was a kinder surprise moment where you have eaten the chocolate only to find that you swallowed the toy too. One talk, I believe this one must have been entitled ‘How to Suck Eggs’ or was it ‘More of the Bleeding Obvious’ I can’t remember which, gave a blow by blow account on how to get published; yet offered nothing in terms of really useful information. I also witnessed word for word and slide for slide repeats from 2012 or was it 2011…they seem to blur. However it held the audience spellbound as they excitedly scribbled every word down as though from the mouth of a messiah. I did wonder when they reviewed those notes if they would find a picture of a naked king.

The digital zone is by far and away the most exciting area at the exhibition but even this year it was dull and uninspiring apart from one or two exceptions. Yet all the major players were there – Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Sony, Samsung and even Barnes & Nobel with its Nook. For those of you who visited and did not find Barnes & Nobel, there is a very good reason. They were in fact hiding in a room with virtually no signage. I am not sure what their strategy was but for the most part they remained locked in a room having private meetings. I did manage to speak to them about various topics Nook related and was pleased to get some answers. The main obstacle for British publishers wanting to get on their platform being B&N’s insistence that British publishers must have an American bank account and that means a US residency. They seemed shocked to learn this and promised to look into it.

Kobo took centre stage this year stepping up the battle to be notice by just about being everywhere in Earls Court 2. Having chosen LBF to launch the Kobo Aura HD eReader it certainly wasn’t going to waste the opportunity and the Kobo stand was pretty packed for most of the exhibition. Amazon were friendly and ready to be engaged but not too prepared to impart much of any use in terms of information regarding promoting books on its platform apart from the horrendous Select program.

The big thrill for many was getting your hands on an M&C Saatchi ‘Books Are My Bag’ bag. This pretentious little bit of fluff was being hailed as the saviour of the print trade and retail alike. Only time will tell, but it kept the ‘Rodney’s & Lucinda’s’ very happy as they strolled around LBF with it slung over their collective shoulders. I do often wonder who these campaigns are aimed at and if they may be missing the target.

There was some good software solutions from EasyPress with Atomik ePublisher an online solution for editing and converting word docs to InDesign files. Sadly the pricing for access to the software makes it only viable to large publishers or certainly publishers with deeper pockets than mine.

The big debate on Monday was ‘Amazon – Good Guys or Bad?’ It’s too late guys, the horse has already bolted on gossamer wings. Trying to control it now is like trying to fight a bush fire with a thimble of water. The publishing industry needs to join forces to stop participating in 20 pence promotions and marketing tools such as Kindle Select and seriously look at pricing of eBooks to nurture a market willing to pay a decent price for digital content. The same goes with printed books. If publishers really cared about book stores it would spend more time reducing print runs and not supplying supermarkets with overstock paperbacks to sell for  £1 and less time kidding themselves that books really are their bag.

One thing that I always find disappointing is the lack of presence from our only serious retail chains Waterstones, WHS and to a lesser extent Blackwells and Foyles. Surely this show should present a chance to speak with publisher and authors alike to gain an on the ground overview from the trade.

LBF needs shaking up and 2014 will probably be the last time the show is held at Earls Court as it prepares to be bull dozed and make way for housing and shops – maybe even a book shop. So 2015 should present the perfect opportunity to re-invent this show as it prepares to find a new home. Let’s hope so…