March 11, 2013

Building a Relationship with a Community that Can’t Pay

If you’ve had any interest in all the developments in the publishing world over the last ten years – and if you’re in the publishing business, it’s pretty unavoidable – you may already have watched Amanda Palmer’s recent talk on TED about how she built an audience, a community of fans. And then asked them to voluntarily pay for her music, both live and recorded, instead of enforcing a price.

It’s a challenging and inspiring talk, and one that everybody in any entertainment business should check out. It’s all about creating a connection with fans, building trust – a trust that your fans will value your art enough to want to pay for it, without being forced to. Some people, particularly businesses who live off artists and the rights to their work, might find this hard to swallow, but Palmer has most definitely demonstrated that it can be made to work, though it takes serious personal investment from the artist. If you want to look at this from a publishing point of view, you can check out a good article by Publishthings here.

But I need to make a point from my position as a children’s writer and illustrator, and from the point of view of others in the same position. Because those of us who produce work for children face a unique problem.

Most of our audience can’t pay, even if they want to.

Children’s writers put more work into creating a link with our audience than any other area of literature. Most of the professional children’s writers I know are constantly on the road, doing events, or working to build their profile online. It’s not enough to write – you have to effectively become a children’s entertainer. We’re more akin to musicians in that, for some, nearly as many kids will hear us speak live as read our books. If there’s one huge barrier people in my profession are constantly trying to overcome, it’s our reliance on the gatekeepers – not just the reviewers, teachers, librarians and booksellers, but also the parents of the children we’re trying to reach.

This is something I twigged to when I first considered trying something like a Kickstarter project.

For younger kids, they will never buy a book without a parent’s or other responsible adult’s input and assistance. With older kids, they can buy those things in a shop, and may not want an adult’s input, but they cannot contribute directly to a writer using any online system, because they don’t have credit or debit cards. And speaking as a parent, my kids aren’t going to be doing any online transactions, alone, any time soon.

So we find ourselves, as ever, in a position where the people whose emotional involvement we seek – so vital in creating that connection that convinces your community to support you – are not the same ones who are paying for our work. Instead, we’re back to trying to appeal to the adults who are not so emotionally invested in our work, and in many cases, may not like, understand or even approve of it. And bizarrely, they seem to exercise their judgement in relation to books, far more than they do with television, film or games. Or maybe it’s just the parents who actually buy books regularly who do this. Which is worrying for a whole other reason.

Anyway, I believe that this community-driven approach to the arts represents the future for many artists who can’t or won’t reach for the dizzy heights of corporate representation. Frankly, I think it’s foolish to rely completely on any publisher for your income, and the vast majority of writers can’t make a living that way anyway.

But how do you build an income based on community involvement, if your community can’t pay?

It’s not actually a new question. Making a living solely as a writer of fiction has always been tough, even from the time that people were able to do it, which isn’t that far back. In fact, it might well be an act of arrogance to assume that it’s possible in all but the most favourable of circumstances. And yet some of us do persist at it.

What it comes down to for kids’ writers, I think, is to face something I’ve been convinced of for a long time. We must not think of ourselves as children’s writers, but as universal storytellers, able to appeal to a range of ages, in a range of ways. Children’s films have been doing this for some time. We can provide something that is becoming increasingly precious; a link between parent and child at any age. From reading a story with your young child, to having a conversation about a YA novel with your older kid, we are capable of producing work that parents and children can enjoy together. Books like ‘Harry Potter’, ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Twilight’ weren’t huge because kids read them. They were huge because EVERYONE read them.

I’m not suggesting we try and write every story for everyone. That would, of course, be an exercise in pointlessness and frustration. We have to write the stuff we know we can write.  I think, instead, we need to recognize that different types of audience will access our work in different ways. And not all of those ways will involve reading . . . and not all of them will involve paying. I don’t believe in using quotes very often, but this one from Cory Doctorow gets to the heart of the matter:

‘I don’t need to get paid by everyone who reads – I need to get read by everyone who pays.’

A while back, I suggested to the publishers of my novels in the UK, Random House, that we release ‘Rat Runners’ in installments, free online. The entire book. My idea was that, while plenty of people might get to read it for free in these episodes, it could create an audience for a potential series – a new audience, some of whom might prefer to read it in print. Random had actually tried this themselves with a romance story. They attracted a readership in its millions, but then they couldn’t figure out how to sell it online. My take on it was, they shouldn’t have bothered. Anybody who wanted to read it online, already could. But a proportion of those readers might have preferred to buy the book. Even if it was only one in hundred, it would still be a bestseller. Yes, you’d have given it away for free, but you’d also have gained sales you’d never otherwise have, and could have been well on the way to building the kind of fan base that can provide that lovely profit.

Needless to say, ‘Rat Runners’ did not get released for free, and I can fully understand their reasons. It simply doesn’t fit the model of selling the publishing industry has always had, and seems to threaten the precious copyright that makes reproduction of art a workable business. But with electronic formats, the attempts to enforce copyright on every piece of text you produce is pointless. We have to sell to those who will pay, to trust that they will – because those who can take it will anyway. We have to do away with Digital Rights Management, but also anything else that stands in the way of readers getting access to our books.

Libraries are based on this principle, and pretty much every writer supports them, right? And some of the payback is that we get paid to come to libraries to do events which promote our work.

We have to offer the most loyal members of our audience access that is enhanced or more personal, so that some of those readers will choose to pay for it – the ones we really need, who can provide the artist with an income.

But publishers can only do part of this, and then have to let go. After that, it’s up to the writer to get out there and make that connection with the audience, as so many children’s writers already do. We have to go to our audience, rather than hoping they’ll come to us – both online and in the shape of events. We have to offer our stories up in different ways, appeal to our varied audiences in different ways, but most importantly, for children’s writers, we need to provide ways to empower kids to find and access our work without adult help, without doing it in a way that parents find threatening. And that means accepting that kids can’t pay for stuff online without supervision, so we have to work on the assumption that they can’t pay at all.

We can’t rely on others to do this for us. Our publishers can’t and won’t do it – though they could help – our audience will only come looking for us once we’ve developed that loyalty and shown we will reward it by getting involved with them in a way that means more than just telling them stories. It was never how I thought it would be when I set out in this career, but this is where I find myself. And yet, as I’ve found over the years, creating this connection can be as enjoyable as it is rewarding. The work outside the books becomes a fun and rewarding experience in its own right.

Yes, I want to make my living writing and illustrating stories. But I’ve had to redefine that ‘living’ a bit slightly. And it keeps changing on me. It’s still an experience I’m relishing.

May 4, 2012

Valuable Intelligence

Here are a few really useful articles I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks, all of which have to do with developments in the business. I’ll stick them in here in the order of the events they refer to:

Eoin Purcell’s written an interesting article on who he sees as the winners and losers in the ongoing relationship wrangles between the publishers, Apple and Amazon, as the nature of publishing changes.

Charlie Stross predicts the end of Digital Rights Management and explains quite clearly why by giving us a rundown of how Amazon do business – which is quite frankly, astonishing (and disturbing) in its ambition.

Not long after Charlie posted his article, Tor announced it’s ditching DRM. For those who don’t know, Tor (Tom Doherty’s imprint, along with Forge, Orb, Starscape, and Tor Teen) are one of the world’s biggest sci-fi/fantasy publishers. They also published ‘The Gods and Their Machines’ in the States.

Basically, this is the first move by a major publisher away from trying to cement readers into using a certain type or brand of reading device, or to stop them from copying their books from one device to another. It’s a realization that the main defence against piracy is not to restrict the readers who buy the real books, but to make it as easy as possible for them to get hold of them, and use them the way they want to. A positive move, one that gives people less reason to buy pirated material while also reducing Amazon’s (or Apple’s) attempts to create a monopoly.

February 7, 2012

The New Arrival

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.

February 3, 2012

Strangled Silence Down Under

I was sent these pictures by professional book-dude Tom Donegan, showing a copy of ‘Strangled Silence’ in a bookshop in Australia. This was, I’m sure, after he had kindly put it facing out – another recruit to my team dedicated to interfering with bookshop shelves. Tom had just returned from Sydney, where he had a fine time dawdling, dossing, and mooching through their impressive collection of bookshop cafes (he has a tough life altogether).

There are pluses and minuses about working with any type of publisher – and there are definitely some advantages to being published by a small but dedicated outfit. However, having your books appear on shelves on the other side of the world, without signing additional foreign rights, is one of the characteristics of being distributed by an international publisher like Random House. While my agent sells individual language rights, RHCB hold the English language rights for almost everywhere except North America . . . including, of course, Australia.

Basically, if I want to be published in places like Germany, Russia or . . . I don’t know, Namibia . . . in their own languages, I have to find a publisher in that country. But Random House hold the rights for my novels published in English, in well over a hundred countries around the world, from Jordan to Jamaica, France to the Falkland Islands.

Now, just because they can distribute them like that, doesn’t mean they do – although I think it’s standard operating procedure to release them in Australia and New Zealand. When I get my statements every year, there is very little on them to tell me where in the world my books are being sold. Also, I have no idea what kind of marketing these books get out there (seeing as I do most of the marketing for my books here and in the UK, and I don’t spend my time travelling the globe). Still, it is gratifying to know they’re getting out and seeing the world.

And seeing as, unlike half of the Irish people my age, I never did the ‘Year in Australia’, it’s nice to see my books are doing it for me, in their own small way. Thanks for the pictures, Tom.

September 29, 2011

Facebook as a Book Publisher?

A few posts back, I mentioned a guy named Mike Matas and his new company called Push Pop Press. A former Apple employee, he and his team are developing some fairly snazzy interactive books for the iPad and iPhone. They’ve been getting a lot of attention, and it seems it has served them well.

I found a link to this New York Times article while browsing Irish Publishing News, which reports that Push Pop Press have been bought by Facebook. So does the networking giant want to get into publishing?

Given the massive quantity and range of information they have to mine regarding the tastes and interest of their millions of members, they have a huge advantage over the likes of Apple, Amazon and Google. Talk about being able to target your advertising.

Facebook have already branched into online gaming, and are exploring the possibility of streaming films too, in partnership with Warner Brothers, so selling books online wouldn’t be too much of a departure at all. But then, in some ways, Push Pop Press’s books are almost more of a game or a film than a book. Once it’s online, why would anyone restrict themselves to just text?

Which begs the question of the publishing industry: What is a book? Where does that definition end? I think we’re still in the process of finding out.

September 16, 2011

What’s Happened to Armouron?

I’ve been asked this a few times over the last while – particularly by people who are dealing with the book distributors, and can see that my next two books ‘The Orphan Factory’ and ‘Dead-End Junction’, were scheduled for release this month.

The short answer is ‘I don’t know’. But I’ll tell you what I do know (and what discretion allows):

Unlike my other books, I don’t own the rights to the ‘Armouron’ franchise, so I’m not kept in the loop as much. The whole project started with a television production company that had taken on the film rights for a new toy range being released by Bandai. They approached Random House to handle the publishing side of things – starting with the production of a series of eight books aimed at confident readers; novellas about 25-30,000 words long.

Way back when I was first starting out as an illustrator, I worked on twelve ‘Power Ranger’ books, so I know how this usually works. A big franchise like this is normally led by the television series and the toy range. They’re established first, and then the books come along as merchandising. But at this point, there was no script for the television series (a live-action one, rather than one that was animated), and the toys were already in production.

Instead, it was left to Random to establish the world and the characters of ‘Armouron’, based on a rough set-up originally provided by the woman who had created the toys. So in this case, the books were going to come first, establishing the whole franchise. Random brought me over to London for a brainstorming session with the production people, and I was commissioned to come up with the setting, the characters, and the framework for the stories.

They contracted me to write four books in the series, including the first two. Even though I wasn’t to get creator’s rights (which is why I use ‘O.B. McGann’ on the covers) I was keen to get involved. I went through plenty of these kinds of franchises when I was a kid: ‘Star Wars’, ‘Action Force’, ‘Transformers’ etc. I’m not ashamed to say that I and the people I worked with chucked in every well-tried element we could think of to create the Armouron world. After all, we weren’t trying to be wildly original – although aspects of the toys, and stories, actually are – we were putting together something kids, particularly boys, of a certain age would love.

The first two of my four books, ‘The Armoured Ghost’ and ‘Lying Eyes’, came out last year, and are available in most good bookstores now. Another writer, Richard Dungworth, was to provide the other four. His first two, ‘Caged Griffin’ and ‘Prisoner on Kasteesh’ are also out now. Both of us have now completed all of our stories, but the final four haven’t been released yet, even though the toys are now also out there on the shelves (check out the big launch in Hamley’s in London). Ironically, this seems to have nothing to do with the paralysis that’s gripped the publishing industry over the last couple of years.

I haven’t been told anything about the television series in nearly a year. Last I’d heard, they were at the script stage, but I did produce a fair bit of the source material – based on the rights owner’s initial ideas – and nobody’s been in touch with me about any of it. That said, I’ve had no word that it’s been canned either. Armouron would be a major film production, being a sci-fi series in a futuristic city, with a lot of special effects, so getting the funding for it, and putting it together, will be no small task.

This is probably nobody’s fault. I’ve learned enough about the television and film industries to know that – despite the confidence of the producers in this case – projects like this get pitched all the time. They can be really difficult to get off the ground, and sometimes they can take years to get through the production pipeline. This is not something that’s likely to wind me up – I know how it is. That’s the nature of the film business and publishing works much the same way, albeit on much, much smaller budgets.

But it does mean that the release of my next two books has been postponed – and presumably, Richard’s too. I don’t know for how long. So even though the books came first, and set up the world that features this clever, multi-functional armour, they are now being treated like merchandise for the toy range (which they are, to be fair). While they are part of a franchise, these are solid, action-packed stories with distinctive characters, and are more than good enough to stand up on their own. And the remaining four books are ready to go.

If I hear any more about the release dates, I’ll let you all know.

August 17, 2011

Stealing Books

The illegal copying and distribution of digital books. We knew this was coming – in fact, it’s been possible for a while. Ever since book production went digital, and distribution went online. But thanks to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and some handy pieces of dodgy software, any git with a smidgeon of computer savvy can now rip off somebody else’s book and sell it as their own . . . in industrial quantities.

This is what publishers have been gnawing away at their nails about for the last few years. Margins in the book industry are small enough without someone nicking your stuff and copying wholesale.

You can get DVDs showing you how to do this. There are online courses.

Amazon has been marketing itself as an easy means for writers to publish themselves – angling to become a producer as well as a distributor. On one hand, it’s a smart move, and a real boon for writers (albeit one that offers no filter of quality). But the internet giant is facing a serious problem with what has become known as ‘book spam’.

Online cowboys are getting hold of content through what is referred to as Private Label Rights. This is where you buy text, including the right (a rather arbitrary term in this case) to use it, reformat it, change it or even claim it as your own. People are copying-and-pasting what is often poor quality content in forms such as a cookbook, a diet plan, a get-rich-quick scheme or a travel book into an ebook format which they then put up for sale cheap online, using platforms like Amazon’s and programmes such as Autopilot Kindle Cash.

As far as I know, this isn’t technically illegal – it just means Amazon and the like are publishing a wave of garbage that book-buyers have to wade through in search of anything of value. But some pirates are actually pulling the content from existing books, removing the author’s name, changing the cover and passing it off as their own work. This takes very little work, so even a few sales can make it worthwhile. I’ve heard different figures, but apparently Amazon pays between 30%-75% of the price of the book to the author, depending on the size of the book. And it seems you can even just add irrelevant or repetitive text just to bulk it out and make it look like the book is better value.

Amazon and other distributors can use software to detect when two ebooks have exactly the same text, just as search engines can detect when the same piece of text has been used on more than one website and filter it out during a search. But some book pirates use a process known as ‘spinning’, where they use a piece of software – an ‘auto spinner’ – to alter the text, changing and replacing words, so that it looks just different enough to fool the search engines.

This is fast becoming a big business. According to Reuters, 302,000 conventional books were released in the US in 2009, versus 1.33 million non-traditional books, including ebooks. Contrast this with 2010, when 316,000 traditional books were published, compared to almost 2.8 million non-traditional books (quoting Albert Greco, a publishing industry expert at Fordham University’s business school). That’s a massive jump in one year, and it’s just going to keep growing. If book pirates can grab even a small percentage of that with little effort, especially if a lot of the work is automated, they can make a fortune.

This is a big deal for authors too. I publish about a novel a year (the publisher’s schedule, not mine), along with a few other different projects. Even after I’ve finished writing the book, it usually takes about a year before it reaches the shops. Someone else can dump a load of content into an ebook in minutes, with the same title, even sticking my name on it, and put it online. Worse still, they can just rip off my story and publish it under another name. Then they can switch to automatic fire, replicate it over and over again, just slightly differently each time, and blast it out there as often as they like.

Amazon are not sitting still on this – after all, it’s bad business and it’s doing serious damage to their brand. And it threatens to do the same to others who’d like some of that business, like Barnes and Noble, and no doubt Google at some point too. Companies like these are determined to offer this self-publishing service – and who can blame them, when you consider most of the people who read books would love to be able to write one? But these firms  are quickly going to find themselves in the same boat as the film and music producers.

This uncomfortable trend for ripping off books could quickly become a hoard of spammers and pirates armed with spinners and PLR and all manner of other dastardly devices. Filtering them out will mean proper detection systems (that’s a link to the best article I’ve seen so far on this subject), but also human resources – real live people, sifting through this stuff and getting rid of the randomly-generated garbage, and the scale of that job is going to increase exponentially.

I’ve been all for this digital revolution, but I’ve been saying for a long time that the publishing industry needs to take the reins, rather than letting our futures be decided by the people who design the technology (see ‘Seizing the Means of Production’ Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

‘Waiting to see what happens’ is not a strategy. And approaches such as Digital Rights Management (which controls access to a given file), holding ISP’s responsible and copyright breach lawsuits are next to useless if we don’t get the consumers on our side. It’s no point trying the punish ‘wrong-doers’ if everyone is doing wrong, because they can get the same quality product quicker and easier for free from an illegal source. Here are a few points to think about, just from the production point of view:

  1. With the mass of both quality and garbage on the web, people want their choices made easier. Publishers need to hold themselves up as filters of quality. At the moment, most people don’t know or care who publishes what book. Publishers need to be become more aware of how to use their brand, so that consumers will look to them as trustworthy producers of quality.
  2. Digital Rights Management should be carried out in a way that makes it easier to get hold of the right stuff, rather than making it more difficult. No reading device should be restricted to reading one type of file, or locked in to one supplier. I don’t want to be dictated to about where I buy my books.
  3. Perhaps, as things lean more and more towards the online aspect of publishing, we should look at subscribing to a service, rather than buying a product, particularly for mass market stuff we don’t necessarily keep on our bookshelves once we’ve finished with it. Think on-demand television rather than buying the DVD – but with no need for a schedule. And yes, sometimes you do want have those special ones to keep. It might be a case that booksellers and libraries would have to merge functions in some areas, or draw firm lines between each other’s turf.
  4. And finally, a point especially relevant to children’s books: We need to come to think of publishing as producing content in a range of forms, not just a printed book, or an electronic version of that printed book. Even as the manuscript is being turned out, and the design is being conceived, we need to ask ourselves: ‘What other formats do we need to think about? How many other ways can this story be told, can it be presented?’ Hook readers in by producing a more comprehensive product – not every aspect of which is sold as a complete unit such as a book. There can be online, interactive elements, involving social media, clubs, book forums, access to imagery, short stories or research materials, possibilities for fan-fiction and the like. Readers can be encouraged to take part in something, rather than just buy it.

We can produce this stuff far better, and offer far more, than the pirates. And it should be much easier for us to earn our readers’ trust and loyalty. But to do this, we need to convince them that we can provide them with these books in a way that is substantially better than the one which might offer those readers the same books much cheaper, or even for free.

We won’t beat piracy by focussing all our efforts on punishing the criminals who are beginning to steal our books. We have to beat these pirates by stealing their customers. Selling books is our business. Let’s show them how it should be done.

July 21, 2011

A Long-Term Commitment

Caroline Horn has an article in ‘The Bookseller’ that tells a sobering story about the current state of the children’s publishing industry in the UK – one that can obviously be applied to Ireland as well. Many well established children’s authors and illustrators are really struggling to make a living, partly due to a reduction in sales, partly due to the decreasing value of the books that are sold (children’s books are priced lower than other books, often despite higher production costs) and partly because publishers have grown extremely cautious, and are publishing fewer books, further apart.

What’s interesting about the article is not just the piece itself, but also the barrage of comments that come after. It’s a good snapshot of a cross-section of the publishing world. If you’re an up-and-coming writer, you should check it out – it might be educational. If you’re an experienced writer, chances are, you know a lot of this stuff already.

If you’re an illustrator, you’ll already be well used to trying to strike the balance between the work that you love, and the stuff that pays.

As I’ve said before, this is a tough period in the market, and I’d hate to be starting now, but it’s not quite time for new authors to be taking the toaster into the bath. It’s never been a simple matter of just pitching your line out there and sitting waiting for someone to bite. This has always been a tough industry to get started in, and in which to maintain a career. It’s easy to look back over the early part of this decade, see the headline acts, and think that’s how it’s supposed to be. But browse your way back to the dawn of publishing and you’ll find many of the names we hold up as shining examples now just did not make a living from their books.

Things are tough compared to a few years ago, but it was never easy, and in some ways it’s a lot easier now than it used to be. I’m not just talking about the digital media that are supposed to be solving all new authors’ problems, or the greater disposable income people have (even in these raw times – though they might not be spending it on books). These days, it’s automatic for professionals in the industry to immediately go from a book deal, to considering other means of output; foreign rights, newspaper syndication, comic adaptations, audio-book, radio, television, film. These are all much more accessible than they used to be, and the movement between them is more fluid.

Writers have so much more information at their fingertips about how to hone their skills, how to get published, what it’s like to be published and making a living from it. In Ireland alone, we have access to resources such as the Children’s Books Ireland support site at cb info, the Irish Writer’s Centre, the Irish Writers’ Union, Irish PEN and any number of other writers’ centres, workshops, courses and seminars, as well as all the sites supporting writers on the web. We can get funding for projects from the Arts Council. We also have access to a lot of the resources in the UK too.

As far as making the most of the market is concerned, I still believe that there are a lot of opportunities that publishers are missing because their thinking is stuck in a rut. But it’s a hard fact that this weird, passionate and bizarrely hit-and-miss industry works in certain ways, and you have to work with it. I posted a while back about the importance for authors to take the long-term view, but we also have to take responsibility for our careers. If you want to make a living from this malarkey, it’s not enough to be a writer. I am a self-employed businessman, and it’s really down to me to make it work.

This is a long-term commitment. This is my career, and I don’t rely on one publisher, or one stream of income, or one market. I do all I can to promote my books, to put myself in the way of opportunity and I try to be as prepared as I can for when opportunities arise. I’ve published twenty-one books – with more coming out – I’ve had some pretty big sellers and some critical success . . .

And I still can’t count on any kind of security from this line of work . . . but that’s how it is.

In return for working my arse off and taking some pretty big risks – and this unstable career path is one long series of risks – I get up in the morning to a job I absolutely love, and one I feel privileged to have. Getting published was just the start. Now I’m having to earn my keep, and I can’t count on any publisher to do that for me.

May 3, 2011

Promotional Materials

One of the things about being published by a few different publishers in the same market, is that you can end up with a slightly disjointed approach to selling your work. Even within the one publisher, you can find that different types of books are sold in different ways.

In some cases, this is necessary; the kind of thing that might help get your books into the hands of a bunch of six-year-olds, isn’t likely to work when applied to young adults. Most of the venues I visit to do my sessions ask for promotional materials, and the posters, bookmarks and other bits and pieces sent out by my publishers tend to focus on one book, or a particular level of books (younger readers, fluent readers, young adults etc.).

But in this brand-conscious world, it’s not enough to sell books one at a time – in fact, with so many different media around now, it’s not books we’re selling at all. The way I look at it, I’m selling stories. There’s a major difference. And though these stories may be aimed at various types of readers, and distributed by a number of publishers, they are written in a way that they all have certain elements in common: basically, the things I look for in the stories I like to read.

I should emphasize that, with all this talk of branding and marketing, I still do this for the love of the job. But I want to still be in the job ten years from now. And to do that, I have to sell my stories. Not one book or another, not a particular series. I want people to come looking for an Oisin McGann Story, regardless of the publisher, subject matter, or reading level.

That’s the way I approach my sessions, trying to gauge which of my stories will appeal to the audience that end up in front of me – by asking them what they read before I do any talking at all. And this attempt to create a unified image also decides how I structure my website.

So I decided, since people regularly look for promotional stuff off me, to do up some of my own. Starting with a couple of posters. There’s one for my younger readers, and one for the older ones. I’ll probably do a second one for the novels, and I’m in the middle of doing one for my foreign editions, which I’ll be using in the Etonnants Voyageurs’ Festival in Saint-Malo, France.

For all of the designs, I wanted some way of showing the book covers for a very general level of reader, without the poster looking like a page from a catalogue – which is what usually happens if you try and lump a load of covers onto one page. Hopefully I’ve succeeded, but I’ll let you decide.

And in case you hadn’t seen them already, there are some Mad Grandad activity sheets to found here. Oh, and I haven’t forgotten about the whole ebooks thing I started with ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’. I’ve got a couple more, different types of stories lined up. Now all I need is the time . . .

February 26, 2010

Seizing the Means of Production – Part 3

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. Seizing Production 1-eReaderIn 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?

Seizing Production 2-One Man BandTo 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.

Seizing Production 3-PhilosophySome 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. Seizing Production 4-HagNewspapers 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.

Seizing Production 5-TVIt’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.