Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Books Without Publishers - Harry Bingham Guest Post

Further to my roundup of the London Book Fair from a digital author's perspective (The London Book Fair's For Authors Too!), I'm delighted to host a guest blog on the future of publishing by Harry Bingham of The Writer's Workshop:

Books Without Publishers

Just before Christmas, I had lunch with the CEO of one of the UK's biggest publishers. We were talking about how the world was moving from a world of limited shelf space (Waterstones, WH Smith, Tescos) to a world of unlimited shelf space, the digital world, a place where any number of books can happily co-exist.

In the first world, it's pretty obvious why you need things as they are. You need writers and readers, of course. But you need retailers (to create the shelf space). You need publishers (to sell stuff to retailers). And you need agents (to sell stuff to publishers). A cumbersome old way of doing things, but you can see the logic.

In the new world, you still need (duh!) the writer and the reader. You need some kind of interface between the two - Amazon, for example, or an Apple iBookstore - but what else? Why have an agent, if Amazon offers universal terms? Why have a publisher, if the publisher is just on-selling to Amazon? By the time we got to pudding, this Great Publishing CEO was leaning over to me and asking in all seriousness, 'Harry, do you think that publishers will even exist?'

It's a real question, and she's not the only one asking it. I'd say that pretty much every major publisher and literary agent is asking themselves that question and no one truly knows the answer.

Nevertheless, I think there are a few facts you can depend on:
    1.    Editorial quality still counts. You will never get a word of mouth bestseller unless the book itself is very good. That means getting the big things right (plot, character, prose style), but it probably also means the little things too (proper copyeditiing, no typos, commas in all the right places). The Writers' Workshop exists to offer exactly those sort of services and we've never been busier, despite the downturn in conventional publishing.
    2.    Branding still matters. You can't write a wonderful book and put a rubbish cover on it - not even a rubbish e-cover, that doesn't exist beyond a page on a computer screen. Quality cover design is still the first reader-experience of a book and you have to make sure that experience is a positive one. It needs to communicate the right kind of message (eg: "This is a crime novel") and it needs to do so memorably and beautifully.
    3.    Platform still matters. In the old day, your selling platform was a nice review in the Daily Telegraph and a 3-for-2 deal at Waterstones. Those things are becoming progressively less important ... but that doesn't mean you can afford not to replace them. So you need a major digital presence. Blogs. Websites. Forums. Twitter. Whatever is your thing. But aim high. A thousand visitors a month won't do much for you. You need to be aiming to gather an audience in the 10s of thousands - bear in mind that few of them will end up buying your book.
    4.    There will still be 'filters'. In the old-old days, publishing houses filtered out the garbage and printed the good stuff. In the old days (ie: last year) that role largely migrated to literary agents. In the new world (ie: the world of the year after next) there will be increasing opportunities to bypass agents ... but there will still be gatekeepers. Those gatekeepers might be bloggers or webmasters, but whoever they are, they'll still matter. You are going to need to impress them and the quality levels will still be challenging.

But having said all that - the new world looks like being fun. There are companies now who can take a word document and convert it into the right format for Amazon and Apple (with Digital Rights Management protection on it) for a few hundred quid. The tools of paper self-publishing will exist for the digital world - except that retailing is going to be miles easier. I don't know what the new world will hold, but it's a revolution on a scale that publishing hasn't seen in 500 years. Hold on to your hats - the ride starts here

Harry Bingham is an author and boss of The Writers' Workshop (

Monday, April 25, 2011


Our friendly blackbird is making herself right at home. 

And she's taken up a new 'sunning' pose, a peculiar blackbird relaxation ritual where they look straight into the sun, nobody knows why they do it. She stands like this for ages, statue-still:

Bye bye, thanks for visiting, come again soon.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The London Book Fair's For Authors Too! Conf 667

The London Book Fair at Earls Court is just 15 minutes' walk from my flat yet I've never considered going. Ever. It's for the business end, where publishers and agents do their deals, not for authors. Besides that it costs a fortune to get in. So it never crossed my mind. But this year a friend suggested I might want to go with her and, when I discovered the early booking discount, and thought, hang on a minute, I'm a publisher as well now, I decided to go.

It's HUGE. I mean, I know Earls Court is big, I've been to trade fairs there before. But this expands to the 2nd floor (the agents' section and quite a sight - 100s and 100s of tables and a champagne bar). Then there are simultaneous seminars happening in countless rooms on the floor itself and in different conference rooms all around. Fascinating! So, so much going on, so much to see, to absorb.

My first stop was Digital Publishing in Russia (Russia was the theme this year).  In a conference room miles from anywhere up lots of stairs I found Russian crime novelist superstar Boris Akunin talking to a half-empty room. The Chair was Peter Collingridge from Enhanced Editions and with them were 2 Russian publishers. Why on earth it wasn't packed out to heaving I've no idea.

Boris was so interesting. He's writing digital books now as well, using the new technology as a tool. When ePub3.0 arrives (for more about this see here) he's ready to move in deeper, integrating video clips and audio into his plots. There will be different endings. The reader will have to hunt out clues by looking, listening and guessing. New ways of writing will evolve he says. To those who throw their hands up in horror, Boris' answer is that 'every problem is a new opportunity.'

I for one was greatly inspired and am rethinking the way I restructure my half-written, put to one side, children's epic to include these multimedia enhancements.

One of the publishers then explained how piracy is a real problem in Russia. This is another reason they are keen to buy more innovative multi-media ebooks - they're difficult to copy.  In Russia, he said, electronic books don't compete with paper books, they broaden the audience. The more ebooks that sell the more paper books sell. The Russian digital book market is split into 30% fiction, 30% non-fiction, 10% esoteric and the rest art(?)/science/fantasy.

The blogosphere in Russia is very very very popular and highly active on cultural, social and political levels. Boris has a popular blog. He writes there and interacts with his readers. From it he's writing a book including the most interesting comments. 'Why do authors need publishers!' he asked. 'It's all right for you,' somebody said. But he said he is working with the blog, getting subscribers, running competitions to promote his books. Publishers are slow to catch on to the importance of internet search strategy. 'This is the future, this is where new books and new authors will be discovered.' In response to Boris' question about what do authors need publishers for, Peter Collingridge listed:

Added value. Editorial. Shaping. Communicating with the reader.

The talk then moved on to agents. What will the publisher/agent/author relationship be in the future? Will agents become publishers? The Wylie Agency and Sheilland were mentioned as being on the ball.

I was then brought right down by a talk for authors where a self-publishing set-up was flogging their print on demand package to authors for £hundreds. There are plenty of free POD set-ups these days, see Lulu, CreateSpace, WordClay.

But things livened up again with another Boris session the next day (promoted this time to Author of The Day with a suitable sell-out standing room only crowd) and then the treat that was Kazuo Ishiguro.

My friend The Writing Coach blogs about the more traditional writing side of their talks and our well-earned champagne stop here.

Bye bye, thanks for visiting, come again soon.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Authors Are Doing It For Themselves - Conf 666

Apologies again for my extended absence.

I've been completely wrapped up in my epublishing site

If you've been with me a while you'll know that the site started off as a small platform for putting my own work out. But over the last year there's been such a prominent rise in ebooks in the US, and now here in the UK. The first ebook millionaire has emerged in the US, and over here my little site just kept growing. I eventually had to rein it in or I'd have spent all my time publishing with no time left for writing.

Gladly, I feel I've now reached a happy medium. I'm working with a couple of fantastic authors with one more in the wings. It's starting to become more fun than just hard, hard slog. Mainly due to the people and the books I'm working with.

My author-in-waiting is the publicist superwoman who helped me grow the business in the first place. Until the autumn I'll be concentrating on just two other books. The first has just come out and I'm getting all the excitement of publishing all over again. I could not have asked for a better author and book to kick off. Lookie here it is at No. 1:

We've both been in the business as writers for a while, Susie Kelly has published several bestsellers with Transworld, so we know our way around that end of the game. Susie and I 'met' on this blog. She was following Amanda Mann's sorry tale of rejection and trauma and bought and then commented kindly on my first ebook Done & Dusted.

Now I can comment kindly on her own. I've just put this review up on Good Reads.

The Valley of Heaven and Hell - Cycling in the Shadow of Marie-Antoinette


I hate travel books and TV documentaries that are more about the author/presenter than the place they're visiting. I want to know about the country, the people, the food, the sights, the quirky details. It's a difficult skill to pull off. Like all the very best travel writers (and there aren't that many) Susie Kelly pulls this off superbly. It's all so relaxed and effortlessness! There's plenty about her own feelings and reactions of course, not least to cycling 750km on a bike with a tent balanced on a baking tray at the back with her energetic husband Terry charging on ahead all the time. He also has a major role to play in the story (like Louis XVI he loves his food). That's it - the way the author merges her own journey, with all it's potentials for disaster, with Marie Antoinette's fleeing for her life and subsequent execution. It's like you're having a long, lingering dinner with the author over a lovely bottle of wine. She's telling you all about her own journey through an unknown region of France (linking you to the actual websites of favourite places on the computer!) with Marie Antoinette at her side butting in, filling in here and there with the historical facts. I learnt so much about the French Revolution and now know exactly why it's become known as The Terror. This book has a lot of feeling and a lot of heart. It's also very funny. I'd recommend it to armchair travellers everywhere.

If you're interested the sales page is here, (£2.49/$3.99/E2.88) plus it's there on Amazon, Smashwords and coming soon to B&N Nook and iBooks. It's also available as a paperback (£6.25 + p&p). If anybody does reviews and would like an ebook review copy, please mail me at mail@blackbirdebooks.

Bye bye, thanks for visiting, come again soon.