• What’s become of publishing

    I picked up a 1962 Penguin paperback version of Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring in the rather wonderful Cofion bookshop in Tenby in Wales last month. The novel was first published in 1939 by Cassell, and is narrated by a typically languid and ironic Powell character who works for the publishing firm Judkins and Judkins. It’s an amusing tale about a mischievous English character who reinvents himself as a travel writer called TT Waring, who becomes the lead writer for Judkins and Judkins.

    What I really enjoyed were the passages in which the narrator, still in his twenties and working on a monograph on Stendhal, describes his working day at the publishing house: reading the piles of manuscripts which arrive every day, discussing them with one of the two Judkins brothers who run the firm, going upstairs to the sales ledger office to find out how the orders are going on the latest TT Waring. It’s a million miles away from the glass boxes which house today’s publishing professionals, although from experience I know that many of the latter still came into the profession from exactly the same love of words and books as Powell’s narrator. And it reminded me of my first publishing job, as a reader at Robert Hale Publishers on Clerkenwell Green in 1982.

    Every day around 1030am, Rupert, the ebullient post manager, would stagger into my tiny office with the day’s manuscript arrivals. He would sit them on the floor by my desk, and the pile most days reached up to higher than my desk. My job was to go through the slush pile, as it is still sadly known in the industry, and make comments on each manuscript in time for Mr Hale, the boss, to read my notes and comment on them before he got up from his desk at ten to one and went down in the lift to the garage to get into his Jaguar to drive himself off to Holborn for lunch. My note on each manuscript would briefly outline subject matter, plot and my own comments as to suitability. Mr Hale would add his own notes and the pile would be returned to me by Rupert after the boss had gone off to lunch. I had three categories of conclusions for each note: “Reject”, “Send to Reader”, “Look further this afternoon”. The first obviously meant that the manuscript would immediately be sent back to its author, using the stamped addressed envelope which we asked aspiring authors to provide. The second meant that the manuscript was good enough to be sent out for a full reading by one of our several external readers. The third was a halfway house, meaning that I would spend a bit more time on it myself during the afternoon to establish whether we thought it might be worth sending out for a full read. Mr Hale would either agree or disagree with my conclusions in his own covering notes which he jotted down before it got to ten to one.

    So after my own lunch, I would give Rupert the rejects to return and the interesting ones to package up to send out to the chosen reader, and then I’d settle down in my chair and read the betwixt-and-betweens. That was my favourite part of the day; the morning race to get through all the manuscripts before Mr Hale went to lunch was always slightly tense, whereas in the afternoon I had more leisure to read through the scripts which remained. These were the afternoons when I would read memoirs of retired gentlemen’s World War Two experiences; avant garde fiction which had somehow found its way into our very traditional publishing house; esoteric accounts of religious transformations. I’d then write much longer notes on these, and would get my notes up to Mr Hale before half past five, giving him a few minutes to annotate my comments with “Agreed” or “Why not see what Mrs Jacobson makes of it?”

    It was a beautifully choreographed and repetitive workday, the best job which I’ve ever had. I was only 22, and I think I thought that all work would be like this – after I left Hale in 1985, I soon discovered this was not the case. I am more nostalgic about that job than anything I’ve done since. The whole firm, taking its lead and inspiration from the shy, civilised and kind Mr John Hale, was made up of truly delightful and gentle people who were obsessed with books. We had a raffish marketing director in Martin Kendall, who once took me downstairs to the basement archive where one copy of every Hale book was stored, and picked out a volume of photographic nudes which had been put out in the ’60s. We published the cowboy writer JT Edson, who lived in America, and whom I had to telephone one day to ask him to resupply a missing blurb. “Make it up, kid,” he said. “They’re all the same.” I remember being rather proud of my copywriting, something about peace not reigning in Death Valley until six gun shots rang in the air.

    We published the historical romance writer, Jean Plaidy, and I was once sent over to her apartment overlooking Hyde Park because her plumbing was faulty, and Mr Hale suspected that I might be able to fix it. We published the cookery writer Elizabeth David’s last book, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and I was sent on my bicycle to her house in Chelsea to hand over the proofs. She sat me down at her kitchen table and gave me dessert wine while she pottered about muttering about the inadequacies of her publisher. And I used to have occasionally awkward meetings with aspiring authors in the ground floor reception, those for whom our traditional pro forma rejection letter was not sufficiently explanatory and who chose to pick up their unwanted manuscript in order to take the opportunity to berate me for my blindness and philistinism.

    No doubt my advancing years are clouding my memories with nostalgia, but they do seem in retrospect to have been very special experiences. I hope young graduates joining the industry feel like I do now about my first job when they are my age. The world needs lots more Judkins and Judkins and Robert Hales.

  • Mind the publishing gap

    We’ve spoken before in these pages about the Discovery Gap, the issue which is concerning publishers all over the world: as bricks-and-mortar bookshops continue to decline, so the opportunity for publishers to display their wares to consumers reduces, and the internet continues for reasons which still aren’t fully understood to fail to take up that slack. Lots of recent research indicates that the purchase of ebooks is still often stimulated by physical browsing – you’re in Waterstones, you see something you like the look of, you make a mental note to download it from Kindle later on. And this same research seems, oddly, to demonstrate that this doesn’t happen in the same way with internet browsing. Ebook purchasing doesn’t follow on in that same consequential manner; people browsing on Goodreads or other online sites don’t tend to go on to complete ebook purchases at the same rate, at anything like the same rate, as do people who have done some physical browsing.

    This, therefore, is the Discovery Gap, and publishers are not sure how to fill it. On top of that, recent data is indicating that there is no slow-up in the growth of self-publishing. Take a look at what incisive US analyst Mike Shatzkin says here. What Mike and others are finding is that 12% of ebooks now purchased are self-published, which makes what he calls Anybody Press (ie self-publishers) one of the Big Six alongside Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon and Schuster, Macmillan. As a non-member of the corporate world, that’s thrilling news.

    But what do these two trends – the growing Discovery Gap and the steady growth of Anybody Press – mean going forward? I think what it means is what underlies what we are attempting to achieve in our own way here at The Word Machine CIC. I think it means that, as long as you maintain quality control and you keep abreast of the latest contemporary digital publishing techniques and skills (and we do that through our partnership with the fine people at Faber Factory), then you are able, for the first time in history, to stand shoulder to shoulder with mainstream publishers in the delivery of the written word to the general public. This is particularly true if you can find a complimentary route to allow yourself to add some physical publishing to the mix – we do that via a partnership with Gardners.

    Here at the Word Machine CIC, we have established what we see as a transparent and financially fair partnership arrangement with authors, and from our side, what we are aiming to deliver is not just the skills and techniques of publishing, but also the knowledge of Search Engine Optimisation, Google AdWords and online conversation-making which will give us a role within that author-publisher partnership. Without it, what’s the point of an author coming to us? He or she might just as well self-publish. But not all authors want to spend hours every day working on SEO stats and answering Twitter jokes from Brazil, so in this new world, the publisher needs to understand and deliver the crucial elements on online marketing. Maybe that word, publisher, needs to morph into something a little more accurate going forward; in this new world, this new collaborative world, it feels too didactic.

    We’re at very early stages of that here at The Word Machine CIC, but we’re making progress. Big publishers are running as fast as they can to learn it too and meanwhile the self-published authors who make up Anybody Press continue to pile the pressure on. It’s a rather wonderful moment I think, akin to the excitement of Europe just before World War One, when the Futurist devotion to velocity combined with the Modernist impulse to create a new artistic world. It has all the elements of a creative foundry, out of which perhaps we will see over the next five, ten, twenty years a new outpouring of creative work which, like all New Waves, will refresh our culture.

  • More news from the digital frontline

    Invaluable news as ever from the excellent Publishing Perspectives site here. This time they lead us to a fascinating start-up in Berlin, where everyone except me seems to be heading. (They all know things I don’t.) Anyway, here is Dot Dot Dot, which is a new way of accessing, archiving and sharing texts. With some relief, it’s good to read about innovators in publishing who aren’t obsessing about Amazon and pricing, but thinking in new ways about how we all consider texts and share them with each other. As usual, it’s all work in progress, but very interesting. If Spotify can help introduce you to new music with Playlists like this one, then texts could well be spread and shared in similar ways. The Spotify model, of course, is based on absolutely miniscule royalties, but many of today’s musicians seem to accept it as a means of publicity, and at least the principle of the royalty is preserved. How we think about this in relation to a book future where physical is fast disappearing is key.

  • There’s a kind of hush, all over the world

    as publishers realise the full implications of the crumbling High Street for reader awareness. But as Jeong Ji-yeon, manager of this brilliant-sounding cafe in Korea says, what first appears to be a huge problem can turn out to be a wonderful opportunity for reinvention. That’s a really inspiring story.

  • In the library

    Up in London this week for a couple of days. I’m in a friend’s flat in a tower block in Tower Hamlets, and at the moment there’s a gale howling through the ventilator shafts that’s making the whole flat shriek. That’s going to make the journey back home on the A303 fun this evening. Out of one window I can see the now-empty Olympic Village (apparently turning into another corporate rock stadium this summer, ho hum), out of another the still-futuristic-looking twinkling Canary Wharf blocks, out of another the madcap Shard. It’s a beautiful skyline. I’m sitting here thinking about libraries. Plymouth Library used to be one of my favourite places when I was a kid (I was a swotty kid). I used to go there and be tested on the books I’d taken out, and you’d get a star or something if you read ten books. When I was about 9 I ventured upstairs to the archive bit to research a project on Sir Martin Frobisher, the Tudor explorer. I felt very grand. This week I was at the Faber digital conference, and Stephen Page, the Faber CEO, spoke very interestingly about the future role of libraries. Imagining a potential future where there are no longer any mainstream bookshops on the high street (which, to paraphrase John Lennon, is quite easy if you try), he was wondering where people will discover books. As our last post pointed out, the key issue going forward is what Will Atkinson, Faber’s sales boss, called the Discovery Gap: when there are no physical bookshops left, how do people find out about books? The internet isn’t very good yet at helping people browse possible book purchases, and somehow the social network side of books still isn’t very dynamic. One of the potential contributors to this area going forward could well be the library, emerging out of its current state of crisis (Plymouth Library, despite its extremely nice and helpful staff, is not the home from home that I remember) and becoming a social hub for citizens to come and engage with the idea of the book. The more you think about that, the more exciting and feasible an idea it is. It is likely to involve a separation of the library from its dependence on local authorities by bringing in outside parties, but if there is a binding vision for a library of the future which could be shared across the country, then this could be a really significant plug in the Discovery Gap: the library could reassert itself once more as the place where we go for knowledge and for creative advancement, the secular high street church. I hope we’re going to hear a lot more about all this soon. Meanwhile, let’s all renew our library tickets, and put on those earphones and listen to the naughty Mik Artistik with his own love letter to the library.

  • Why do people buy books?

    Some interesting new research coming out about the changes in the High Street vis-a-vis their online competitors. It’s summarised with links to other pages here and here. It’s well worth reading. What the research is showing is that the online reading sites like Goodreads and others aren’t very effective at generating book sales. They are nowhere near as effective as a visit to a bookshop. So what that means is that at the moment, people prefer to browse in a bookshop, then more than likely go home and buy the book on Amazon. If they haven’t got a bookshop to browse in first, they may not go to Amazon and buy a book, even if they spend time browsing Amazon (which isn’t very good at encouraging browsing) or talking about books on Goodreads and others. What all this research indicates is that in the new environment, all of us involved in the game need to have a greater understanding of the triggers which encourage people to buy. When I was running my last publishing company in London, the prime mover in all this was “approved recommendations”, which basically meant a Richard & Judy nomination, an Orange or Booker Prize shortlisting, that kind of thing: many readers would wait to be prompted by advisers they felt they trusted before they would go to purchase. All slightly depressing of course, but that’s how the world works. The next mover in the process was book design: research commissioned by Faber demonstrated that there was a physical dance which would lead to purchase: look at the cover; if that intrigued, turn it over and glance at the blurb on the back; if that intrigued, open the book and read the first para; if that intrigued, go back to the blurb and read it properly and look around the jacket for endorsement prompts (Richard & Judy etc); decide to purchase (which might mean put it down and go home and buy on Amazon). If that whole process gets taken out of the equation as high street shops disappear, then we face an entirely different purchase procedure. All very interesting and stimulating.