On Sunday September 16th, I took part in a short talk on e-books at the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers’ and Illustrators’ Group (CWIG) at their conference in Reading. (And Dennis – it was good to see you in the audience!)
Arriving after a two hour drive, I made immediately for the Ladies’. While I was shut in my cubicle, some other Ladies arrived, chatting together. It was very full on, they said, but very interesting. ‘I enjoyed that talk about websites,’ said one. ‘I shall have to look them up. The one I liked was ‘Dreaming Authors…? Electrical Authors?’
I shouted out, “That’s us! Authors Electric! Do Authors Dream of Electric Books!”
Laughter from the sinks. I adjusted my clothing and emerged issuing business cards with the blog’s address.
That was my first clue that this was going to be a rather successful outing.
Our talk was scheduled for 9am, and my fellow speakers were Gillian McClure, the writer and illustrator, and Martin West, of Authorization.
I was first up, and read my talk from my Kindle.
Susan Price: I don’t need to tell the present company of the problems faced by writers today – the collapse of the mid-list, the difficulty of getting a contract, and falling advances and royalties as both the recession and large chain-stores squeeze publishers.
We three met here are going to talk about some of the possible answers: Gillian set up her own publishing house; Martin ably aids and assists writers who want to go it alone –
And I am part of the outfit known as Authors Electric.
The electric light first glimmered in the eye long ago. I am a member of the Scattered Authors Society, and I remember, 10 yrs ago, sitting in a sunny garden at Charney Manor – where the Scattereds have their annual shindig – talking to another member, Kath Roberts.
We talked about how the music industry had been clobbered by the internet and downloads, and how musicians were responding by learning to put their music on-line and sell it themselves. We agreed that the same thing would inevitably happen to the publishing industry, and that writers would have to do the same as musicians – learn to go it alone
We talked about this with others at the conference, then and later, but I’m afraid the blunt truth is that, for years, Kath and I were twin Casssandras, wailing our prophecies of doom while no one listened. The kind of reply we got was ‘Oh, I don’t need to worry, I’ve got an agent,’ and ‘Writers should write and publishers should publish.’
Yes, but for many of us, publishers weren’t publishing, and they weren’t publicising.
And it wasn’t because we weren’t good enough. [Coughs into hand: CarnegieMedal] (Laughter.)
We got rave rejections. (Laughter.)
Everybody loved us but the marketing department.
Kath and I looked into possible ways of going it alone, but they were all, at the time, far too expensive, with costs not only in producing the book itself, but in storing and distributing it – which is, of course, what made the publishing firms the ‘gate-keepers’.
|The Wolf Sisters by Susan Price|
And then this happened to us. (Holds up Kindle.) Kath emailed me: Have you seen this? When I saw how easy Amazon made it to turn my backlist into e-books, for free – while Amazon took care of storage and distribution – when I saw about the 70% royalty - that electrical light positively glared from my eye.
Kath then said: publishing is the easy part. Letting people know that your award-winning book is among the 2 million plus on Amazon is a whole other game.
What we need, she said, is a blog to help spread the word, and multi-blogs are both more interesting for readers, and easier on writers, than solo-blogs. We can get set one up for nothing on Blogger.
And so we started what we originally called ‘Kindle Authors UK’ but after a 4am call from Seattle, we had to change that. For a world-bestriding Collosus, Amazon were quite nice about it: they pointed out that ‘Kindle’ was their registered trade mark, and we shouldn’t be using it, and that they didn’t want it to come to mean ‘any old device for reading e-books’.
So we had to come up with another name, and after some argument, we decided on ‘Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?’ and called ourselves Authors Electric. Which is a better name anyway!
We aren’t publishers – or, rather, we’re a loose affiliation of self-publishing authors. We offer advice and moral support to each other as we tackle the challenges of putting our books onto Kindle, Smashwords, Kobo, CreateSpace etc, We’re very supportive of each other.
|The Ghost Wife by Susan Price|
But our purpose is to publicise our books. Every day we put up a new blog by one of our 29 members – and the days at the end of the month are given to guest bloggers. There are links to our individual websites, and to the Authors Electric website, which displays our books in what we hope is an attractive and tempting manner.
We tweet too, and we post on Facebook – and we talk at conferences and hand out business cards and do all we can to draw attention to our group and our books.
We started in January 2011, with hits at zero; and our audience has risen steadily. At the start of August, we were getting 11,000 hits a month. Our American audience is now equal to our UK one.
And we’re selling! Several of our members have said they would be very reluctant to return to conventional publishing. They relish the freedom to write what they like and choose their own cover.
Although people come and go from the group there is a solid core group, and we’ve developed a great community spirit. Members are constantly spotting new avenues, coming up with new ideas, and pointing the others in the same direction.
There’s no telling how it may develop in the future – especially after I’ve listened to Gillian and Martin – but I think, so far, we can count the venture a success.
Gillian McClure: The advantages of running your own publishing company are not all financial.
You can create a brand – your own list.
You can have books coming out when there’s not much movement on the picture book front.
You can have new books and new workshops based on them for school visits
You can have new artwork which one day you can sell
You develop a much better understanding of the industry – something I wish I had had earlier in my career
My initial reason for starting Plaister Press in 2010 was a creative one rather than a business one.
In the first two decades of my career in the 1970s and 80s, when I was with Andre Deutsch, I had considerable freedom. I was allowed to be both writer and illustrator and I had a lot of say over design. I was allowed to take risks too.
In the decades since then, when small publishers like Andre Deutsch were being bought up by big ones, I found myself becoming a smaller and smaller cog in a bigger and bigger business and I became frustrated. I was having too many new picture book projects, which had had considerable editorial input, fail at the acquisitions stage or put indefinitely on hold.
So when a friend gave me a sum of money to proceed with a book, I started my own publishing company.
The creative rewards were great. I love the autonomy and control. I love working closely with the typographic designer from the planning stages of a new book, deciding on flaps, paper weight, spine width and so on. I was never allowed to do this before
But proceeding with a book means going way beyond an author/illustrator’s usual comfort zone if that book is going to end up on a child’s bookcase. A business sense is needed. I saw ahead of me a huge learning curve - dealing with :
Wholesalers & distributers – Gardners and Bertrams
Bookkeeping – double of everything because you’re still running your self-employed business alongside all this.
|'Selkie' by Gillian McClure|
And leaving enough time and space to create new books without losing the quality expected of you when published the traditional way
So I cut my teeth on reissuing Selkie which had:
a good sales record,
had been on the national curriculum under ‘myths & legends,’
had won an award in the States,
and had good reviews.
I had all the artwork for scanning except the UK cover, which was lost. Instead the US cover was used.
Random House was helpful when giving back the UK rights and even helped me get back the North American rights, which were needed if the book was to be sold on Amazon. Random House retained the typographic design rights but then I was working with a typographer and we made improvements – a shorter reading line in places and small edits.
My agent Stephanie Thwaites at Curtis Brown was happy with what I was doing, seeing it all as helping to raise my profile. (She’s still dealing on my behalf with Simon and Schuster on a possible picture book series where all they want is the text.)
Stephanie had helped me deal with Random House over the reverted Selkie rights and tried to do the same with one of my out-of-print Bloomsbury books, but Bloomsbury decided to bring it back into print themselves. It had just been bought by the Chinese. This was a surprise and occurred shortly after I’d been to the Bologna Book Fair and had been in a dialogue with a Chinese agent over my Plaister Press books. Perhaps it was a coincidence – perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps every bit of activity creates a ripple somewhere else.
Another positive was I discovered – to my surprise – I really liked selling and meeting in person my type of customer during Waterstones’ signings: teachers, librarians, grandparents and the sort of family so keen on physical books and bookshops they start building up their unborn child’s library along with its layette.
The first edition of Selkie sold out and I reprinted it.
So now to the drawbacks:
As time wore on I discovered the real drawback was being so small when everything in the industry was geared for BIG:
Discounts were big
Costs were big
Print runs needed to be big
Turnover and numbers of titles needed to be big to interest any sales agent
|Plaister Press in the lay-by|
Even the lorry delivering the books from Felixstowe docks to my house was big – too big to get down my street. The driver phoned to say he would have to meet me in a layby on the outskirts of Cambridge. I had a vision of 1,500 books left unguarded on a palette in a lay-by on a damp autumn day as I made several journeys getting them back to my house.
With physical books you have physical problems.
So this is where I hand over to Martin West - his organisation Authorizations has solutions to many of these ‘big’ problems and can help when you are too small to proceed beyond a certain point on your own.
Susan Price: I’m afraid here’s where your reporter falls short – I don’t have notes on Martin West’s talk, but in short, Martin runs a company which will help you take your book from manuscript to beautiful object on sale in a book shop or on Amazon, among other places. He has answers to all those dilemmas: what format size? What paper quality? Where to find a printer – how to set a price – how to get it into shops…?
He is very friendly, approachable, and honest about the costs and problems – I know, because I talked to him over coffee. He is happy for you to print a run of as few as 50 books, and recommends that you don’t print more than 500.
And he has writers like Gillian McClure and Bernard Ashley as clients.
working for children’s publishers
Well House, Green Lane,
Ardleigh, Essex CO7 7PD
T: 01206 233 333 M: 07970 426279
For all rights enquiries please contact Petula Chaplin
E: firstname.lastname@example.org, T: 00 44 1647 252498
|Zoe's Boat by Gillian McClure|
At the end of the talk – to my surprise – we had lots of questions, and something of a mob pressing round the table, asking questions and taking cards. In fact, the room had to be cleared because the next scheduled talk was waiting to start.
At coffee I was approached by many people who said a similar thing in different ways: You are showing us the way. You were the one bright spot in the whole conference. Everything else has been doom and gloom – you’ve cheered me up!
One writer said, “I’ve spent the whole weekend being told that the publishing business is falling apart and there’s nothing I can do about it except stand there and wait for the end – it was such a relief to hear someone say, ‘Look! You can do this instead!’
So, despite the 5am start, I got home feeling pretty cheerful myself.