I have to admit; even after twenty-one books, I still get excited seeing my latest one fresh off the presses. I get a box of author copies when the production run’s done and they’re all being packed up for distribution, but I normally get a couple as soon as my editor can send me them, maybe one or two weeks ahead of the ‘official’ ones.
It may seem odd, but it’s not the text I have a look at first in a book – it’s the illustrations. In this case, there are just the cover and the chapter icons, but I examine each one in turn to make sure they’ve come out okay. Before I can really enjoy the new arrival, there’s a short period of suspense as I search for flaws. It’s rare that I find any worth mentioning – I have the good fortune to work with people with a thorough knowledge of their business.
There were a few last minute changes before we went to print: the blurb got shortened down, I added a couple of bits to the background piece at the end, as well as a scatter of other minor alterations.
In a way, I’ll stop thinking much about ‘Merciless Reason’, as I do with all my books once they’re done. I’m about to start editing the next one, and I’m getting on with some other sideline projects, so that’s what’s going to occupy my mind for the next while. But I’ll still pick this up from time to time over the next few weeks. It still feels good.
Thanks to Lauren, Sue, James and everyone at Random for all their work.
Here’s the new, shortened blurb:
‘There’s no escaping this family. I’d have an easier time shaking the plague.’
It has been three years since Nate left Ireland, and his ruthless, feared family, behind. But the Wildensterns are not finished with him. When he discovers that his treacherous cousin is still alive, he is drawn back into their world of plotting, betrayal and murder.
At home, Daisy and Tatiana are among the few who are trying to stem the damage the Wildensterns are doing. The family has become even more hated by the people it treads upon in its thirst for power.
One thing is for certain – the Wildensterns are back. Violence will ensue.
To recap from Part 1 (of my ambitious and epic blog trilogy) what a publisher traditionally does for a writer is: first, they take that story on. That approval is, in itself, a recognition that the story is of a reasonable quality. Then they hone it into something they can sell, produce the printed matter and distribute it to reviewers and the shops. Shops treat books from well-known publishers far more seriously than they do self-published books.
You write stories on your own, you publish them with a team, but you sell them with a community. Contrary to popular belief, writing is not a solitary occupation.
The single biggest change to the world of publishing is the fact that anybody with a web connection can now publish text online, and it is increasingly easy to get an ebook accepted by mainstream outlets such as Amazon. In fact, why bother with an ebook? Just stick it on a website, or in a blog, or in an email, on your Facebook page . . . hell, just slap it in a text on your mobile. What’s the difference, when you get down to it?
So publishers no longer control distribution – access to the market. Desktop publishing and design software offer anyone the ability to put a book together themselves. And with people reading more and more online and onscreen, printing is becoming less important, so publishers no longer control the means of production.
And given that most books do not benefit from any major promotional work from the publisher (the bulk of the marketing money and effort is reserved for the top 5% of authors), this is normally left to the creators of the work – the writer and/or illustrator. Particularly nowadays, when a children’s writer is expected to also be a children’s entertainer if they want any chance of a career – see my last post. So publishers do not, for the most part, control the promotion of a book.
In fact, much of what a modern publisher does control – or contribute – can often be sub-contracted out to freelance professionals. Publishers long ago stopped printing their own books, even though this is how the oldest companies started off. Publishers used to be printers. That work is now farmed out to printing firms – it is no longer where the publisher can add the greatest value, and therefore make the most money in the publishing process.
But editors, designers, marketing and PR people are also increasingly working for themselves or smaller, specialized companies. More and more full-time publishing employees work from home. If you really wanted, you could bypass the ‘publishers’ altogether and hire what freelancers you need directly, and then keep all the money your books earn for yourself. That’s one theory. However, as I said before, with the technology available, it’s possible to do the whole shebang by yourself. Writer, John Scalzi, takes a dramatic look at these propositions on his blog.
There is a point in the future where my name – my ‘brand’ – might become recognizable enough for me to say: ‘Why bother with a publisher and distribution system that takes 80-90% of the money from the sale of book, when I can do it all online myself and cut them out of the picture? With print-on-demand, including marvels such as the Espresso Book Machine, I can even send people printed versions of the books if they want them.’ If my publishers seem to be dragging their heels when it comes the seizing this new means of production, why don’t I just do it myself? If I made enough money, I could pay a few experts to do the tricky bits for me, and then manage the whole thing and take most of the money for myself.
As an author, I already have far more direct contact with readers than my publishers do. I also have this blog and this website as an online means of contact, but other authors go further, giving out email addresses, having Facebook pages and tweeting regularly on Twitter. The line between linear stories and more interactive formats such as online role-playing-games is starting to blur – as is the divide between author and reader. I’m no programmer, but I am an illustrator and designer. I can handle much of the production of an ordinary book myself and I have people around me who can do most of the rest of it. So why not?
To be blunt, even in the digital world, self-publishing is incredibly hard to do properly. Publishing your own work requires a wide range of skills to do effectively, is ravenously time-consuming (leaving you little time to write) and can be hideously expensive once high-end production for printing becomes involved. I know – I’ve tried it. It actually went okay; I published the first issue of a comic entitled ‘Twisted’ (go find that one, you comic fanatics!), but then started getting real illustration work and that was that. I managed to get the cost of printing covered by a business partner and selling advertising. But I never made enough money on the sales to cover the cost of the time I spent writing and illustrating the comic. Mainly because, back then, I didn’t understand a thing about marketing or distribution.
That said, I find normal publishing isn’t very different – you get published, and then do a lot of the selling work yourself. Despite all the difficulties, self-publishing does work for some people. And now there is an astounding number of people taking up the challenge. Many aren’t interested in making a living from it at all – they just want to get their work out there. Sometimes it couldn’t even be called work. They just want to throw their voice, their text, out into the wilderness and see if anyone answers. We’re becoming addicted to this random, stream-of-consciousness stuff. It feels raw and immediate, and is often entertaining. But like watching MTV, it never quite satisfies. You’re always hanging on to see one more bit, in case that has what you’re looking for.
And there is still the issue of quality. I believe there is a serious risk that, if we fail to adjust to the new modes of reading that come with all these changes, the measures of quality that are accepted across the publishing world will become irrelevant to young readers who are effectively starting from scratch in a new medium. This is already happening in the world of news – look at how commentary has already taken over from investigation. The old media are making less money, so they have less to spend on digging up facts – and anyway, it takes too damn long. It’s easier to read the press releases from those in power and pass them on with a bit of commentary – or indeed, getting a group of journalists together to discuss them at length. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Charles Stross talks about this and other points in his blog.
And I hate the idea that the fantastic developments in production and distribution could lead to the discarding of much of what is still good in publishing. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Except, in this case, it’s the baby who’s throwing us.
Like Charlie Stross, Eoin Purcell talks about the race to the bottom in the world of digital publishing. He questions whether there could ever be ‘an iTunes for books’ and asserts that the demand for quality writing could force internet service providers to start paying people to produce good stuff – to keep people clicking through those all-important ads. Such desperate measures could be called for, since the ‘all-information-should-be-free’ philosophy extolled by some will ensure that few good writers will be able to spare the time to produce that good stuff on a regular basis. They’ll all be off finding other ways to pay the rent.
Eoin has subscribed, tentatively, to the belief that, to keep consumers glued to their screens, ISP’s will have to start investing in talent. That would be nice (and overdue). I think there’s a lot to be said for the concept, but I’m not sure if that’s how it’ll come about – at least the bit about the ISP’s doing the paying.
Some of the people who once preached the virtues of the ‘all-information-should-be-free’ philosophy have started to change their minds. Probably because they are having to face up to the fact that they need to make a living too, and now that the idea is no longer a revolutionary one, there is less demand for it on the lucrative lecture circuit.
So, we know who needs the money in order to keep producing decent quality work: the creators of the content and those who help them produce it: everyone from investigative journalists to literary novelists and the organizations who support them. If we look beyond the traditional market to the digital one, we have to look at where that money is going to come from.
The consumers, obviously, but we already know that digital tip jars and PayPal accounts are not the answer. If people can get something as easily for free as they can while paying for it, most will take it for free, or won’t pay enough. Even if you can convince people to pay you enough to make a living from it, your success could mean you become more desirable to the pirates, and there goes your income again.
Some authors have tried getting sponsorship, or even investors, a kind of ‘crowdfunding’ to help them cover the expense of the time it takes to write a book. There have been suggestions that writers start releasing stuff in a drip-feed fashion, waiting for a certain number of subscriptions to their site before releasing the next episode. But it’s a shaky way to do it, and demands that you write serials with constant cliffhangers. It’s a tough way to go about writing a book.
Everybody is trying to figure out how they’re going to make their money in this scary new digital future. Newspapers have tried the subscription model, failed, and now seem to be giving it another go in a slightly different form. Even iTunes is starting to steer in that direction. Rock bands have tried releasing their new albums online and asking their fans to pay what they think the music is worth, but this only seems to work at all if the band is already huge, and makes plenty of money from performances anyway.
As an author of children’s and young adult fiction, I do a large number of events every year. If I was a musician or a storyteller, I would be trying to make my living from these, but that’s not my goal. I am having to learn the skills of an oral storyteller, but I’m trying to promote books.
Except I’m not. Not any more. In fact, I never really did. I sold stories, each of which I wrote in the format of a book to be printed, to be marketed in a certain category, for a certain market. But I was happy for those stories to be sold in other formats, even though I rarely got much say in how subsequent formats were produced. Why didn’t I get much say? Because the people who bought the rights all took the printed book, not the story in my head, as their starting point.
My books have been published as audio-books and ebooks. I have sold film rights for one of them, and would be delighted to sell more. The same goes for other kinds of broadcasting, including console or online computer games. I will soon be releasing my first ebook novella free online. I have read, performed, my stories for audiences of children. Excerpts from one of my novels have been performed as drama presentations. As ebooks, my stories can be read out loud by text-to-voice software for the visually impaired.
Do I want to even attempt to self-publish into all of these formats? Not bloody likely. So I need a publisher. Not a company that bases its business on printed matter, but one that can help me hone and adapt my stories for different formats, either for different audiences, or the same audience that wants to be able to enjoy my stories in different ways. Kids in particular, expect their favourite brands to stretch across different media. The story they sat up all night reading on paper by the light of a lamp, they want to continue reading on their phone while being driven to school in the morning. And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have it, except that the publishing industry has so far baulked at making it possible.
In an article for the Computerworld website, Michael Elgan puts forward the idea that publishing must change its very shape. He suggests that when a book is sold, it could be offered at each outlet in any format the reader wants, or indeed, as a bundle. So instead of having to buy the ebook, the audio-book and the printed version individually, they could be bought as one package. And if you’re talking just about digital files, this would be easy, and makes complete sense. That’s what makes digital stuff so great. You can keep it all together in the same place, but use it in different ways.
Elgan goes on to talk about being able to borrow or rent audio-books (a service some libraries already offer) and books that can download the updated version on a regular basis – not just your newspapers, but books, particularly useful for things like academic texts, manuals, law books etc. He argues for ‘social books’, where a book has its own website for discussion about it, although I think online book groups serve this purpose better and cheaper. But the book could still be used to take you to a relevant online world to enrich the reading experience. He questions why ebooks are released at the same time as printed books, when they are obviously much quicker to produce.
But books are no longer solid, static things. Soon, they may no longer have a single size, and could have multiple layers. How do you pay once for something that comes in different forms, or is constantly changing, renewing itself? Well, you don’t pay for that one thing.
Google are pushing for a model where we stop downloading stuff altogether, that we stop storing everything on our own computers and just access everything online. You don’t pay for individual bits of software, or for the products you use online, you just pay a subscription for the whole service.
All right, as a human being who likes his privacy and independence, the ‘putting my whole life online’ idea does give me the shivers. And I certainly don’t want Google becoming the purveyor of all media – or indeed, all knowledge, as they claim their ambition has always been.
But it brings me back to the idea of subscription. The idea that we no longer seek to own a version of story, we just pay for the right to read, listen, watch as much as we like in a given time, and put up with having to look at a few ads along the way (If you do absolutely have to own it, you can still buy a printed version). We use this license or subscription model already, every day of our lives, and it has produced some of the best (and worst) writing in any media. It’s called television.
And even though television programmes and fims are ripped off and distributed widely on the web, most of us still sit down and watch the box, rather than trying to download free stuff on the computer. Why? Because it’s easier. And our televisions are becoming so versatile, so multi-functional, that even the free means of downloading individual files isn’t enough to draw us away from the box that we can work from our armchair with a simple remote control. We don’t want to know what’s on the world-wide web each evening when we come home from work. That’s too much hassle. We want a fairly restricted menu of options that suits our tastes, which won’t demand too much thought. And I’d still rather rent a box-set of DVD’s than try and download them off the web. I am happy to pay for that convenience, for something that gives me pleasure.
Now think about how much easier and cheaper it is to produce text, or even illustration and design, compared with your average television show.
It’s not just about the service. In terms of a means of accessing stories, text and any related files, we don’t need a wide array of gadgets for reading in different forms. We need one that can manage all kinds of text in a simple way. I had high hopes for the iPad, but I think it’s fallen short (I’ll cover that in another post). But we’re coming close. The key is the combination of the reading device and the service. Perhaps Kindle will crack it, perhaps Google will get there first. Maybe Apple will even come up on the inside and steal the prize. Hopefully they’ll all produce different types and we’ll actually have a choice of what to use. But these companies create formats, devices. Not content.
I believe that the publishing industry needs to get together, from the likes of giants such as Random House to small independent firms like the O’Brien Press or Barrington Stoke, and figure out how to move our industry online in a unified, forward-looking, strategic way. We must seize the means of production before it is foisted upon us, and we end up having to figure out how to work within an alien system, while we lose our increasingly more tech-literate young readers to those who have mastered the medium, but not the content.
If publishers are to remain in business, and maintain the standards that excite such devotion, intensity and passion in a bizarrely untenable industry, they must become what most creators of content cannot and do not want to be. They must act as hubs of expertise in all kinds of formats and media, helping the creator adapt their story, their book, to each one. They must ensure that the outlets they choose to work through are so easy to use and access, and offer such opportunities to become more involved with each book, that pirate material– which will always exist – cannot become mainstream.
As a writer, I want to make a living from my work, so I can spend my time doing it and so I can remain productive throughout my life. But I also take a keen interest in how stories are told and spread and how they mutate and take new forms – along with the information and inspiration that they carry. I believe it is vital that we meet the developing needs of our readers, so that they do not see our industry as becoming increasingly irrelevant as they are led away by forms of reading that offer more fashionable, eye-catching snatches of entertainment, but less technique, less investigation, less thought, less depth and perspective.
For the sake of our industry and our audience, we must stay relevant in their eyes. I appeal to the publishing world to seize these new means of production, and stop being afraid of them. These are merely tools we need to learn how to use. Painting is not restricted to those who can manufacture canvas or brushes. Let’s not get left behind.
The issue of what, and more importantly how children will read in the future is a battle – not just for hearts and minds, but also for attention spans. In this, the second of this three-part post, I’ll outline how I believe this change in reading will shape publishing as we know it, and how those of us working in publishing now should be taking the initiative.
I was in Eason’s a little while ago and took this picture. It shows the display stand for children’s comics and magazines. The magazines cannot actually fit on the shelves because of the sheer volume of bulging blister packs stuck to the fronts of the mags, containing cheap plastic widgets. In many cases, the mags have to come in plastic bags to contain all the stuff that come with them.
The fact that most of these ‘gifts’ are pure unadulterated shite and will almost immediately be discarded, is disguised by announcing them to the world with words like ‘Mega!’ or ‘Wicked!’ or ‘Awesome!’ in large, colourful print. Bejaysus, those people in marketing are an awful cunning bunch. The cover of one issue of my stepson’s favourite mag used the word ‘Mega! no less than five times to describe their various gifts, competitions, posters etc.
I am somehow reminded of the Europeans buying the American continent off the natives with trinkets and alcohol (and ethnic cleansing). Not that I’m suggesting that the publishers of these mags are subjecting our innocent little darlings to cultural extermination. The business and consumer relationship is a symbiotic one. They are a constant influence on one another. I just think it’s a very clear indicator of where reading – and the absorption of information in general – is headed.
I posted a blog a while back about the difficulties bookshops are facing. Things have changed a lot in the last ten or fifteen years. I spent a lot of time looking at the new stuff in bookshops when I was a kid, but I bought hardly any new books. Most of what I bought came from secondhand bookshops, where marketing didn’t exist and categories were much more general – in fact, books were lucky to be categorized at all. And, of course, because they were secondhand, the authors saw none of the money I spent. There are very few of these kinds of shops around any more, except for the limited ranges in charity shops and places like Chapters on Parnell Street, who have become a kind of a hybrid of both kinds of selling.
I was also a regular at the library; a dark, musty place with a limited selection for children, but I didn’t know any different. Today’s libraries would put it to shame. I’m not indulging in nostalgia here – nor is this a ‘you don’t know how good you have it’ rant. My main point is the limited access I had to text of any kind. Books cost more in proportion to your income. The newsagents had less to offer.There were no mobile phones, very basic home computers and no world wide web.
Everything was printed on paper. It was stored and accessed in specific locations, in limited numbers, in a static state. Once printed, it did not change, it did not update itself. If you were seeking information, any reference one piece of text made to anything else had to be accessed through another piece of printed material, which you might or might not be able to find or reach. The ability to access the world’s information was dependent on who you were, where you lived, and how much money you had.
And, of course, your education, your ability to read – to know how to choose between different texts, interpret different styles of writing, and to be able to read at length.
Now our lives are flooded with text – coded information that you have to be able to read to survive in the modern world. Search engines provide an astoundingly efficient way of finding whatever information we want. Young people are growing up thinking of text, not as something printed on page, but as something that is fluid, changeable, something they interact with and can affect. A link to other things.
They are becoming adept at surfing, reading across a wide surface from one subject to another. But, as a result, many readers are investing less time in diving into this sea of information to any great depth. It’s hard to blame them. There’s so much cool stuff out there to distract them.
Them? Hell, I’m as bad myself. I try to research something for a story and end up, several hours later, fascinated by something that has nothing to do with what I was originally looking for.
As a writer, trying to make a living by feeding into this ocean of text, I’m affected in two ways. The first is the way I have to write: As a writer of books, I’m not just competing with other books. My potential readers have to be dragged away from magazines, websites, social networking sites, blogs – never mind games and the telly. So I have to do a Dan Brown, trying to produce stories that protrude with so many hooks you can’t read them without snagging your sleeves. It’s not enough to grip your readers, you have to cling desperately to their leg as they walk away from you. Soon, we could be reduced to the literary equivalent of sticking plastic widgets to our text.
The second way I’m affected is that I’m . . . well . . . getting on in years. At the ripe old age of thirty-six, I am substantially older than most of the readers my books are marketed to. It’s true of most writers for young people. They are not, by and large, young people themselves. Except now they are.
Books are, by nature, longer than the average post on Facebook or a blog (even this one). They take time to write and are therefore, like most published writers, old by the time they are finished. They can take a while to read too. A book does not tell you about your friends and family, it doesn’t interact with you. Professional writers are not just competing with each other. We’re competing with our readers. They are writing for each other. The newspapers discovered this problem some time ago.
The wondrous connectivity of the web has created a text that offers communication with people you can relate to, who speak your language. There is an immediacy, an excitement and sense of techno-cool that is easy to read and easy to access. Something you can share with your friends. Text hasn’t just become part of your social life, it is actually replacing parts of your social life.
But more to the point, the mass production of text, which was once the sole territory of print publishers, has become available to the masses. These advances have allowed the readers to seize the means of production. The nerve of them.
But it doesn’t stop there. Because text is starting to lift off the page and come to life. Audio books are becoming increasingly popular. The Amazon Kindle has text-to-speech software that will read the book to you. It’s like having Stephen Hawking speaking in your ear, but it’s an interesting start.
In the opposite direction, voice recognition software has left its awkward, fumbling days behind and is becoming ever more practical. Google’s Nexus 1 phone boasts that many of its applications can be voice activated. With voice-to-text, you can speak into the mike and see a text write itself before you eyes. The phone can even censor swear words – a feature I find a bit scary.
How will this affect the next generation’s ability to read and write at length – or even do these things at all? I don’t believe that text is going anywhere, but what about the ability to interpret it? At the moment, it’s certainly not the publishing industry who will decide. We may have hardly any influence at all.
Publishing is no longer something that is done and then finished – handed from one small group of people out to another, larger one. It is an ongoing process in which anyone can take part. Which I think poses a couple of questions.
The first has been faced both by publishers and readers ever since manuscripts started being reproduced in large quantities as books: Faced with such a quantity of text, how do we choose what to devote our valuable reading time to? The more sources of text, the harder that question is to answer.
The second question is: How does a professional publishing industry survive in an environment where anyone can publish and access text for free?
And if it doesn’t survive in any recognizable form, what will happen to the quality of the material that continues to be published?
I’ll have a look at that in Part 3.
I’m going to post this in three parts – blogging is meant to be an exercise in short, sharp writing and I’m tackling a complicated issue. That brevity in writing will be part of what I want to talk about. In this post, I’d like to put forward an outline of what publishing has been up until now, and in the second part, have a think about the nature of reading and how it’s changing. In the third part, I’ll have a look at how those changes are affecting publishing, and where I think it might be going. And why all of us working in children’s books should be taking an active role in helping direct these developments.
I’m going to start with a question I’m often asked by kids – and some aspiring authors. This bit is largely taken from my FAQ section.
What does a publisher do?
A publisher turns stories into books and distributes them to a mass audience. There are different kinds of people who work in a publishing company and they all have an important role in getting a book to the people who will read it. First, they find a story and read it to see if it will make a good book. If they don’t like it, they won’t publish it. Publishers receive thousands, even hundreds of thousands of submissions every year. Because of the sheer amount of time it can take to deal with all these, many publishers will now only accept submissions from agents. Agents also receive thousands of submissions every year.
If the publisher decides to publish the story, an editor takes the text in the form of a word processing file, and reads it to check for any mistakes and to ensure that the story makes sense and whether it can be improved (always a touchy subject). When the text is ready, they decide if it will need illustrations, photos, etc. Each page is then designed and typeset so that it is attractive and easy to read. Sometimes the designer does all of this on computer themselves, but with novels, the typesetting is often done separately by the printer.
This is all put on a printing machine, which makes thousands of copies of each page . The pages are normally laid out in large sheets with many pages per sheet. The designer also creates the cover of the book using illustrations, photographs or computer graphics. In novels or other less illustrated books, the cover is often printed separately to the rest of the book. When all the internal pages of the book are printed, they are cut or folded down, bound together inside the cover, using stitches, staples or glue, and trimmed on a guillotine.
Once your book is printed, it is the job of the marketing and public relations people to come up with ways to tell everyone about it, including sending it to reviewers. Then the salespeople have to take the books to shops and libraries and persuade them to show the books on their shelves where readers will see them (really important). Then, if all of that works out and people like the look of your book, they might actually buy it and read it. And that’s all that most writers want.
So, to boil it all down, what a publisher traditionally does for a writer is first, they take that story on. That approval is, in itself, a recognition that the story is of a reasonable quality. Then they hone it into something they can sell, produce the printed matter and distribute it to reviewers and the shops. Shops treat books from well-known publishers far more seriously than they do self-published books.
In this way, publishers have always exercised great power. As ‘filters of quality’, they have decided whose writing reaches the market. Obviously this is all relative; the more powerful and influential the publisher, the bigger push it can give to a book.
I found an excellent film a while back on Very Hungry Caterpillar. It shows how books were once printed. And apart from things like the fact that we no longer use molten lead to create blocks of type, not a whole lot has changed. This short piece of film is a must for all bookworms. It is a great demonstration of the basic process that has, for hundreds of years, formed the focus of the whole publishing world.
If you want to see a more detailed demonstration of how printing has developed over the centuries, check out The National Print Museum in Beggar’s Bush Barracks on Haddington Road in Dublin.
But in the last few years, the nature of reading and accessing information has changed. As a result, the key roles that publishers have played in bringing writing to the masses have also changed drastically. And that affects writers and illustrators in a big way too. I’m going to have a look at that in Part 2.