What is a Real Writer?

This is not the blog I had intended to write and post today. You’ll get one about beautiful immersive worlds next week, I promise, but for this week, it’s another riposte, that can be alternatively titled “Svetlana Alexievich wins the Nobel Prize for Literature and people are jerks.”

While many people took to social media to congratulate Alexievich and commiserate with the runners-up (Roth and Murakami perhaps most notably), there was an unfortunate strain of comments that serve no purpose but to scorn both the winner and runners-up, saying that the Nobel Prize is only for “real writers”, accusing Alexievich of being a mere propagandist and Murakami of being a commercial “non-writer”.

I don’t normally heed comments like these, having gone native on YouTube in my adolescence, but the comments dismissing those who write commercial books got me steamed – P.S. world, “steamed” is back. “Real writers” is such a derogatory phrase and it belittles literature, and writers generally. It doesn’t raise certain people up, it is just divisive, tearing down anyone who wants to write and make a living. Because let’s face it, “real writers” are literary, they don’t commercialise their fiction, but instead chase writing as a pure art form. They don’t pander to a larger audience because sales = food, rent money, etc.

I know that last bit doesn’t apply to those in the running for the Nobel, but when you set up the distinction between a “real writer” and a – what? A fraud? A fake writer? – purely on your subjective literary taste, you’re dumping on the writers that it does apply to.

A study released by Macquarie University this week put the average writing income at $12,900 for Australian authors. The study also made it clear that most authors have another career to support themselves, which undoubtedly eats into their writing time. So why should we belittle those who want more time to write by earning more money from their books? Why is there a hierarchy where some books are considered more valuable than others? The idea that great literary texts make a great contribution to the world is well and good, but for those books to have a considerable effect today, they have to become widely read and hence commercially successful. The scorn for commercial drive in the literary world is contrary to the continued functioning of the literary world.

If only we had robotic slaves, so we could all devote our lives to this concept of pure art. What an uninteresting utopia. Without the struggle there is a lot less flavour in the literary world. Those writers out there, working to make a dollar, writing works for commercial audiences ought to be praised for the way they practise the craft. It’s a tough slog.

So why should we divide the system into “real writers” and “non-writers”?

We shouldn’t. It’s simplistic, offensive and elitist.

Throwing around elitism when discussing the Nobel Prize for Literature seems kind of idiotic, but I’m okay with that because I’m done with the rankings. I don’t want to read books according to tiers that the writers fit into, and I definitely don’t think that someone should be considered simplistic for not being interested in a “literary” work while preferring “commercial” titles.

Books are books. Just read them.

Also, let’s pay writers more. Please and thank you.

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What’s in a Career? Fear, Excitement…

Returning once more to the intern side of things, I’ve been thinking about my future career a bit lately. What’s the future for jobs in our economy? There are estimates that nearly 40% of jobs currently done now will be gone in the next decade or so. It’s the computers, they are coming for our jobs. It’s like I, Robot but friendlier and with more unemployment payments.

While I know that there will always be a need for human writers, editors, publishers and designers, I do hesitate to think about what all of this means for my future. I sit in a very precarious position at the start of my career. It’s precarious because I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. I’m sure if I knew where I was going though, I would get lost. I’m happy to go with the flow, but it does worry me from time to time.

As one job comes to an end, I’m wondering how much longer I’ll be doing temporary contracts. Or if I’ll become a slashie, a term for someone who crafts full-time hours out of multiple jobs which tend to be in entirely different careers, i.e. “I’m a such-and-such/this-or-that/third-career-or-job”.

I wouldn’t mind having that sort of career trajectory as my main goal at this stage is do something interesting or meaningful, preferably both.

I think there is also a definite need for people willing to do many different things, sometimes all at once. In 2013, I attended the Independent Publishing Conference hosted by the Small Press Network in Melbourne. It was a fantastic experience for me then, as a student, and one of the key things I took away from those three days was that it’s quite common for people in the publishing industry to have a range of different roles that don’t necessarily correspond with one another. To be someone who “wears many hats”.

These storied careers are fascinating, and show a side of the business which I think is both wonderful and scary. It’s wonderful because I find the prospect of those changes to be inviting. The idea that while your career is on a path, that path is always turning. It’s not a straight ladder.

The scary part of that is the unpredictability or insecurity of it. Just like temporary contracts, you never really know when or where or how things will end.

The publishing industry is a tremendously exciting place with a range of different roles to fill and I think in the future it’s going to be more and more important to be able to fill many of those roles, to be an all-rounder. That excites me, but it does also concern me. I worry that we’ll lose specialists. Many roles have already been taken out of the house and made into freelancer positions. I don’t know if this translates to less people becoming that kind of specialist, or if it means more. I think it’s probably less.

That’s one of the weird effects of digital disruption in a way too. Digital opens up the toolkit of publishing to anyone. So while some jobs may fade away or diminish because of this, other freelancers will be sought by more customers than previously. This adds to the career excitement and the fear, and I think it’s a balancing act that a lot of people at the start of their careers feel. It’s an important one too, I think.

In this blog, I haven’t answered the question that spurred me to write. But I have come to a better way to ask the question:

How can I balance the excitement and the fear, to have an interesting career?

 

Traversing the Thorny Thicket

One of the most typical intern jobs around is being assigned to the slush pile, as both I and Brendan have been at different times.

In layman’s terms, the slush pile is the collection of all the new submissions a publisher receives. Part of my job is to sift through the hopeful cover letters and (often) ambitious manuscripts, and divide them into two groups, the ‘Don’t Bother’ and the ‘Worth Consideration’. It’s a job commonly assigned to interns and newbies because it’s intensive, with often little to no reward. However, ploughing through the slush pile is an important step in any intern’s journey for a number of reasons. It allows you to hone your critical thinking skills, as you learn to look for certain signs that a book may have what it takes.

It’s prompted me to think more deeply about why I approve or reject a certain manuscript. Not only do I suggest certain manuscripts for our publisher’s consideration, but for every manuscript I read, I’m required to do up a summary document, where I provide a short synopsis, pick out the elements that are good and/or bad about the manuscript, and justify why I would or would not publish it. It’s quite a lot of power, which has the potential to easily swell this small intern’s head!

Before I even read the manuscript, I’m looking at the cover letter, the biography, the marketing plan, and the way the author sells their work. And so, before we’ve even made it to your manuscript, we’ve made a lot of assumptions about you. One of the most important, and often overlooked is: can you follow our submission instructions? Someone who hasn’t bothered to add in their pitch, or whose cover letter leaves out relevant details automatically needs their manuscript to work harder for them.

The process of turning manuscript into finished product sees an editor and author working very closely. So when we consider your book, we’re also considering what you will be like to work with. These things come out very easily in cover letters, and will definitely make us reconsider you, even if your manuscript is out of this world. The relationship between a publisher and an author is very much a partnership. The work doesn’t stop once we agree to publish. So, ideally, you want to come across as interesting, enthusiastic, and willing to work with us, to be in the best possible position for us to accept your manuscript.

Now on to the fun part: reading the actual text! At Odyssey, we usually ask for the first four chapters, to give us a sense of the work. When I’m reviewing the slush pile, rarely will I read all four of those chapters. From discussions with various editors and slush pile enthusiasts I’ve met through my work, I’ve discovered that everyone has their own rule of thumb. For me, it’s the first twenty pages. What I’m looking for, first and foremost, is a text that can capture me in those first twenty pages. Even better than that, if I end up wanting to read more than the four chapters an author has sent, that’s usually when I send excitable emails to the publisher, demanding that we request a full manuscript, just so I can know what happens!

How does an author capture my attention and keep it? Well, that’s the part that’s hard to quantify, and is different for every book. Readers today are more spoiled for choice than ever. A novel that can make readers connected to their characters, absorbed in the action and excited to see what comes next, just in the first twenty pages, is going to be one that has a much better chance of succeeding in the market. So I can’t highlight what I want. But I can give you some ideas of what I don’t want.

  • Poor Editing – Oh wow! As editors, we know that typos slip through all the time. We do it too! (only sometimes) But a manuscript that’s full of typos just seems lazy. If an author can’t be bothered to edit their manuscript properly before submission, how are we supposed to think they are at all dedicated to making sure their book does as well as possible?
  • Over-Detailed Introductory Material – This is guaranteed to make me stop reading a manuscript very quickly. The best novels catapult you right into the world you have created. Backstory comes later! It trickles out and keeps you hanging on for more. If you load it all in at the beginning, no one will be hanging around for the middle, let alone the end.

As I’m rapidly running out of space, I’ll leave it there. My adventures in the slush pile have made me one of the pickiest readers around. Every manuscript I work with allows me to better understand what it is that makes a novel stand out as publishable amongst the mountain of slush that never will be.

The Big Picture: Structure and Flow

Happy Friday! You may have read Jen’s excellent piece on Monday about editing sweet, sweet copy. If not, there was a link back in that last sentence and you ought to click it. Now it’s time for the second blog of the week, by me! As Jen covered copyediting, we thought it would be swell if I talked about the bigger picture: structural editing. Here are some choice shower thoughts I had about this blog, that became this blog.

A disjointed novel, much like a disjointed limb, can be pretty useless. It goes without saying, but there’s a reason that people find short story collections without a very tied-in theme difficult to read in smooth succession. It’s because it’s hard to jump from world to world so quickly because you’ve only just established a connection with the previous story. You need that cool down time, where you dwell in the spaces the author created. You fit yourself into the world’s nooks and wonder about the characters and the plot. (You might wonder why it is that Gandalf didn’t want to go through Moria, but wouldn’t tell the fellowship his fears? Was Gandalf deliberately keeping the truth from Gimli? That bastard!(This was indeed a shower thought.))

Similarly in a novel, disjointed chapters or voices can have the same effect. If the author has created what feels like two different worlds that have no connection, then it can become very difficult to invest as a reader. It becomes more difficult then for the author to impart their story, to build characters and share emotions with their readers.

The job of the structural editor here is to ensure a sense of consistency, or provide suggestions of where to put the glue in the cracks. One of the many things a structural editor will do is called “chunking” where the parts of the story are categorised or chunked into groups. This allows both the editor and the author to get a better sense of the story and character development, what’s happening and when. Often a structural editor may even suggest the scalpel for a voice or chapter, as it brings nothing to the story and is hurting rather than helping. We do the same with paragraphs, but that’s on my next point.

Flow is often one of those annoying buzzwords that people use. But I am people, and I will use it because it’s the right word for the situation. It also literally means flow, as in the same way water flows. Why is it important to a structural editor and also to an author? Flow is vital to the creating a good reading experience of the book overall but also for each individual chapter. Something structural editors look to ensure is that voices, moods or scenes don’t chop and change (unless of course, that is achieving something deliberately). An important part of flow is ensuring that chapters don’t run up against each other and cause people to need a break from the book. Within those chapters, flow is about ensuring that people don’t switch off. That each paragraph pulls the reader to the next like a current. Sometimes to create flow in a chapter, we use the scalpel. Sometimes we move things about. Sometimes we ask for more. That’s what we do. We help put things in place, words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. All for the long view.

At some point a manuscript becomes a book, and the job of a structural editor is build and mentor, to pester and worry, and ultimately to make sure that an author’s words connect with the reader. We’re for good stories, written well and read even better. We are the big picture people, and as many editors will tell you, the bigger picture is often in the details, which is why structural and copy editing work together to create good books.

They’re Their: Copy Editing and Its Importance to the Finished Product

Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of you are feeling a bit ripped off. In our introductions, and most of our discussions about what we do, Brendan and I have both said time and time again that the majority of our work centres around editing. But so far, a lot of our blog posts have focused on other topics. We hear you, loyal readers! You want to know about the ins and outs of editing, and we plan to bring it to you.

Today this post is all about copy-editing, the often confusing, mostly frustrating, and frequently overlooked aspect of editing that many authors forget they need. Copy editing does not concern itself with major plot holes, aspects of drama or action that need livening up, or even fixing those incredibly annoying characters that you just cannot stand. In a nutshell, copy-editing involves editing a text to make sure it is clear, easy to read, and most of all, consistent.

When I talk about copy-editing’s concerns with being clear, I am mostly taking about issues of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Misspellings, an over abundance of semicolons, or passive voice are all concerns of the copy-editor. This also ties into making the text as easy to read as possible. Copy-editors scan your manuscript line by line, just waiting to find those devious little sentences that are too long, too verbose, or just plainly too confusing. Like a tiny little word ninja, they swoop in and cut those sentences down, making them pleasing and simple to read.

One of the absolutely key jobs of a copy-editor is to make sure the manuscript is consistent. There are many out there, mostly frustrated writers banging their head against battered keyboards, who would love the writing process to be simple and straightforward. The reality, of course, is that it is a highly creative and organic process. As such, characters undergo major identity changes, settings are moved, and events are scrapped and written again. This means that your average manuscript can often be full of inconsistencies that the author has overlooked or simply forgotten to fix. When your Hobbits begin by marching through the Misty Mountains, and end up at Hogwarts, that’s when you know you need a copy-editor.

Most inconsistencies aren’t usually as drastic as all that (although, now I think about it, Bilbo Baggins’ sorting would make some awesome fanfic). Usually checking for consistency involves fixing characters who were redheads in one scene and brunettes in the next, or whose names have mysteriously changed halfway through. Not only that, consistency with word choice is also important. How many times have you Aussie writers battled frustratingly with a Microsoft Word that insists on changing your ‘s’ to a ‘z’. Small issues like these occur frequently throughout a manuscript, and finding and fixing them is an important part of the copy-editing process.

I can see the cogs whirring in your brain from here, even though none of you have yet read this article as I’m writing it. This sounds like proofreading! Proofreading is easy, I do it all the time in my essays, why have you gone and given it a fancy name? I should note, before our publisher reads this and then decides to hunt me down for my factual inaccuracies, that there IS a difference between the two. Although proofreading and copy-editing have several things in common, they are different parts of the editing process. Proofreading is generally the final stage of editing, where we look for errors that have been overlooked in previous edits. These are usually small spelling mistakes and typos. Copy-editing is a far more intensive edit, and aims to make the text as cohesive as possible, in order to provide the most pleasure for you, the reader.

It’s very easy to think that editing is just the one process, rather than the many-layered beast it is in reality. Manuscripts go through a number of edits before they are even proofread, and a major part of this is the copy-editing. We’ve all been frustrated by a sudden change in a character’s appearance or name that shouldn’t be there, but the sign of a solid editing process is when that never happens. And as someone who wants to be an editor, boy is that a lot of pressure!

Fostering Beginner’s Luck: Branding Debut and Midlist Authors

As I mentioned in Monday’s blog, one of biggest problems ahead for the publishing industry is the closing of opportunities for debut and midlist authors. There is an unfortunate reduction in paths to publication through a traditional publishing house for both debut authors and for those who are steady but not spectacular on the midlist. There are a variety of factors contributing to this reduction including digital disruption, margin-squeezing and cultural homogenisation, but I won’t go into them in this blog. There are also some fantastic and brave people out there actively working to boost the opportunities for debut and midlist authors. This blog isn’t about them either. Today I want to cover how that shrinking window of opportunity can be combatted at a small press, by both the publisher and the authors.

In my opinion, I think a small press is probably best suited to work with debut and some midlist authors. It might not be the dream scenario for many authors, but it’s the most workable. Small presses, by neccessity, have to help grow new talent or nurture midlist talent as it’s the bread-and-butter of the small press industry. Small presses have both the ability and the motive to get out there and find new voices and take risks on them. Further, many small presses are less constrained by structures which can limit the bigger houses and hence can be more nimble and diverse in their publishing efforts.

One of the most important things a small press can contribute to helping debut and midlist authors to succeed is help with development of the author brand (as well as their writing craft). An author’s brand is an essential tool in the digital world, potentially more so than before Amazon and ebooks. An online presence is a necessity for community engagement. While this may not lead to direct sales, if an author’s brand is properly managed it will lead to a broadening of the base to which authors can hawk their books. It means reaching more new readers more often.

In 2013, bestselling author Neil Gaiman teamed up with a smartphone company to unleash a campaign where he could collaborate with his fans on a series of short stories. The response to the campaign was overwhelmingly positive and highly engaging. Fans submitted story ideas corresponding to themes that Gaiman then turned into short stories. Fans then submitted artworks inspired by the stories. This was a modern, technology-enabled creative conversation between an author and his audience. It worked brilliantly.

Here, Gaiman used his author brand to create momentum for a campaign that wasn’t aimed directly at selling books. Instead, he engaged his readers in a venture that allowed them inside his creative process. The cynical benefits were that Gaiman’s brand and the smartphone company’s brand both got a boost from this campaign. The more idealistic benefit is that Gaiman expanded on an excellent connection with his readers and further developed their passion for him as an author.

The take away for debut and midlist authors is not they can do exactly what Gaiman has done, but that they could replicate it, in part, to create bigger brand awareness and engagement for themselves and their audience. This isn’t a strategy for hard sales of books but more about increasing online presence. The purpose of this is to indirectly or eventually increase sales, but that’s not the direct outcome or immediately tangible reward for the exercise. For authors this is a no-brainer as building a strong brand helps your marketability with publishers and makes them more willing to take a risk on publishing your book.

Another brilliant example of author branding, that is in the physical space rather than digital is Odyssey author Rachel Drummond. This year, Drummond appeared at Supanova with a stall marketing her book The South Forsaken. With distinctive yellow signage and an open and engaging personality for readers, she was a huge success.

These two examples show approaches to branding that should be informative for how authors can push forward both online and at events:

  1. Be Distinctive/Interesting.
  2. Be Open and Engaging.

These seem to be rather generic ideas, but they are fundamentally important for authors when designing and implementing an online presence for their readers to engage with. I haven’t put forth an argument as to whether authors need to do this, because they absolutely do. It’s really non-negotiable unless you’re a bestseller. To get ahead as an author today you need to get out there and engage in whatever way possible.

Disruption Is The Decline of Publi- Shh!

What’s to fear from disruption? More to the point, what is disruption?

Disruption is the use of digital technology to supersede established businesses by newer and leaner competitors. Disruptors are often regarded as “smarter” companies, but the truth is that they are nimble and able to disrupt because they don’t have the existing systems that prevent the established companies from moving quickly (often in ways that hurt their traditional model). Disruption is a creative, yet destructive force.

Publishing companies are among some of the oldest established businesses in the world, and hence stand to lose a lot. Even if they can innovate incrementally, the destructive nature of disruption (literally the removal of parts of their business chain) means that they can never competitively disrupt their own practice to defend against newer and more aggressive competitors.

However, it’s a very big leap to assume that publishing is doomed by disruption. I was reading an article late last week that began with the premise that publishing is in decline. This is a premise that I strongly disagree with. I hope many of you reading this will also disagree. I want to look at this from the perspective of an intern or in a more grandiose (or delusions of grandeur) sense, from the perspective of a young-publisher-to-be.

I can understand the doom and gloom when we get stuck on the Disruption narrative – the Amazon narrative. And boy, what a narrative that was last week! Amazon’s office culture was exposed by the New York Times and then there was a subsequent flood of “surprised” and “concerned” articles that ranged from expressions of disappointment to demands to boycott. I found these particularly bemusing. If you’re expecting a company founded on disruption to be the friendly ideal of the childhood ballpit as opposed to the brutal reality of a childhood ballpit, I cannot understand why.

See what just happened there? I got distracted by the Amazon narrative. This happens very often. It happens to all of us. But books are more than their commodification, as is the publishing industry, despite its critics.

Now, are we in the death throes of this industry? No, no we are not. It’s simply a period of change. Whether that change is ending now, or will drag on for a longer period still remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that the initial panic has faded and things have stabilised. I mean, publishing companies are even hiring bright, young people like me. Or more specifically, slightly brighter, slightly older people kind of like me.

That’s not to say that there are no threats or concerns that arise from disruption by digital technology. But more simply, that the business of publishing books seems to be rolling on, ever on. It’s different now in the details, and probably more competitive, but from a big picture perspective, the game remains largely unchanged.

“Is it a good story? Yes, huzzah, let’s publish it. Will it sell x amount of copies? We’ll hedge a bet, let’s publish it. Is this a book that people need to read? We think so, let’s publish it at a greater risk.”

What can be said is that there are dwindling opportunities for new and midlist authors at the bigger end of town. Conversely, however, there is an abundance of new opportunity at the smaller end of town. The changes we’ve seen in the publishing industry allow small presses to be more competitive and more active than ever before. Digital disruption has increased access to publishing tools and services and transformed self-publishing from a difficult affair into a manageable and potentially profitable model for authors.

It’s the literal meaning of swings-and-roundabouts. Yes, a large corporation is making large inroads in controlling a significant portion of the book trade. Yes, they are disrupting the traditional publishing model, but they aren’t burying it (at least not successfully). None of this is an integral part of the publishing industry: it’s all ephemera. It’s affecting, it squeezes the margins tighter, but at the end of the day they were already pretty tight. As an intern and student, I’ve studied the history of publishing and the industry has survived bind after bind just like this. It’s going to do it again, and I’m going to be there when it does.

Reaching for the Stars – The Importance of Book Reviews

by Jenna O’Connell

You’re sitting in your chair, pondering the barren wasteland that is your bookshelf. You wish there was a book, any book, to fulfil your yearning for words. But you’ve read everything. You’ve got that craving, that craving for something new and exciting. You’ve decided! You’re going to get a new book! Hooray!

But as you approach the fantastical world of online book shopping, or that cave of magic and wonder we call a bookstore, you skid to a sudden halt. There’s so many! How are you possibly going to choose one? You need some advice, and the blurb isn’t enough. You want to know the real story, the underground mutterings from someone who has read the book.

Congratulations, you’ve just jumped into a world that authors and publishers face every day. Not because they’re rich enough to buy new books everyday (although that is the ultimate dream) but because they are trying to sell one book within that many.

Marketing today is a complex battle to try and engage readers and draw their attention to one specific book in a market flooded with dozens of options. So we use a number of strategies, including social media, cover teasers, press releases and releasing preview chapters. But one of the most important is the full utilisation of book reviews.

Many of you purists out there will be recoiling in horror. I know many of us would like to believe that book reviews magically appear out of nowhere, penned by an enthusiastic reader who stumbled across the book and fell in love. I’m not saying that those reviewers aren’t out there; I’m just comparing them to our favourite mythical white horse with a horn. The majority of reviews are requested, whether by the publisher sending out review copies, or by the author themselves.

Review copies are copies of the manuscript produced about four months before a book is due to be released. These are usually sent to book reviewers, often for newspapers and magazines, but more and more frequently to book bloggers. Each reviewer usually has their own stipulations for what sort of book they wish to be sent. Most still tend to favour print books over eBooks. Although, as publishers, especially small press, are increasingly reluctant to send out physical copies with no promise of return, sending eBooks to reviewers is a growing practice. Often there is no guarantee that a reviewer will even review your book, let alone say nice things about it, so the more you can send out, the better. Unfortunately, this tends to favour the larger publishing houses, which have more resources to produce and send out more review copies.

This is where services like NetGalley come in. NetGalley is a website designed to bring those eager to review, and those wanting reviews, together. Publishers sign up, and post summaries of their works to be reviewed. Interested readers and reviewers then request a copy of those they would like to review. It does have its flaws, at least from a publishing side, in that there is no obligation to post a review – no one can chase you down after you have requested a book. But it does provide another avenue for publishers to have their books reviewed.

No one who has bought a book online can honestly claim to have not looked at the reviews, even if they only have a quick glance at the star rating. For many authors, especially those with smaller publishers, word of mouth is the best publicity there is, and reviews are the internet’s version of that. With the rise of websites like Goodreads, reviews are increasingly becoming a part of the way we decide which book to read next, making them a vital part of marketing strategy. So next time you dive into the multitude of available books and emerge victorious, consider writing a review! Having now done a couple myself, not only is it not as scary as I thought, but it allows you to think more deeply about what you do and do not like in a book. And if you stumble across one of those little undiscovered gems we’re always looking for, it’s a great way to show how much you loved it.

The Cave Where Dreams Are Made: An Intern’s Visit to the Printers

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The Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark Headquarters

by Jenna O’Connell

So, something I’d never thought about until recently was where our books came from. I’ve been interning for Odyssey for almost a year now, and I’d never questioned the appearance of our books. We just got them out of boxes when we needed them. Intuitively, I’m sure I didn’t believe that our publisher just waved her fingers and the books appeared in a puff of smoke, but I certainly hadn’t given printing a moment of consideration. As I learnt recently though, not only is there a lot that goes on between the final edit of a book and pulling out a knife to slice open that first crisp box of books, but it’s something that almost no one thinks about.

On a recent trip to Melbourne, I was lucky enough to have a site visit at the Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark printers in Scoresby. While it doesn’t initially sound like an awesome adventure, let me tell you now, for all you booklovers out there: IT. IS. CANDYLAND! Ingram Spark is a publishing-on-demand platform that offers both print and e-book versions. Publishers like Odyssey, as well as authors who are self-publishing, upload their manuscript, and the relevant details like ISBN, pricing, territory rights etc. The book is then processed, printed at a facility like the one we visited, and distributed out to warehouses, retailers, publishers, whatever you like! But, as with everything in life, there’s a bit more to it than that.

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Piles and piles of printed books waiting for their covers. The process begins…

Our visit started with a meeting with the manager for content acquisition in Australia, Debbie Lee. We had a chat about Odyssey’s relationship with Lightning Source/Ingram Spark, how Odyssey likes the relatively new Ingram Spark platform, and the small publishing industry in general. Here, one of the main themes stressed again and again was quality. That’s something my boss is passionate about – delivering quality books that are worth reading. For both Odyssey and Ingram Spark, quality control is a big issue, and one of the reasons my boss uses Ingram Spark as a printer.

Then we headed out onto the floor. And that’s where the real fun began. Just this site here processes between 40-50,000 books a month. You walk through the door onto a raised lookout over the factory floor. That’s when the excitement hits. Books everywhere! It really is the book-birthing suite, with books in every stage of the printing process. Lightning Source has two black and white digital printing devices on the floor. There’s a digital link that routs the publications from a database in the United States. You submit a book through the Ingram Spark portal; it travels digitally to the US, is processed and re-routed back to this device, which begins the printing process. At this facility, publications are routed three times a day, at 3pm, 5am and 8am. Inside here the book is cooking away, producing all the pages. From there the books are cut, and we start dealing with covers!

The cover-printing machine rolls out the covers in big long strips, which are then cut and assigned to their relevant books. Everything is done via barcodes. At any stage of the process, if barcodes between covers and manuscripts don’t match up, the machine won’t work. So if you’ve ever wondered what that barcode in the back of your book is for, now you know!

From there, the books are put into a binding machine, to finally attach cover and pages. The newly created book is shot out the end. But wait! This doesn’t look like a book! There’s cover hanging off everywhere! That’s because after the book is bound, it still needs to be trimmed. Something I hadn’t realised was that the books don’t shoot out automatically bound perfectly. The cover printer has a standard size paper to print on. This means the book is often quite a bit shorter than the cover at first. Once it’s through the trimming machine though, everything is finished. And boy is it tempting to pick up those books and run away with them!

The mighty book binding machine. Magical!
The mighty book binding machine. Magical!

The visit to Lightning Source/Ingram Spark (or as I’m now referring to it, The Cave Where Dreams Are Made) has been one of the highlights of my internship so far, because it opened my eyes to a whole side of publishing I had never even considered. I started this internship with my eyes firmly focused on learning how to be an editor. But sitting in on this meeting, and touring the site where books are actually, physically, made, I’ve discovered a world of other interesting facets in this industry, and one I’m definitely keen to explore further.

Give Me Paper or Give Me Death

This is not the debate you think it will be. I love both ebooks and print and this is not about which one is better. That fight has been played out more times than there are new titles in a year (for the curious, that’s some huge number I don’t want to look up).

This is about editing, and style. It’s about old fashioned copyediting vs. the digital, track changes kind. They are basically the same thing; I’m looking for same errors, I’m changing the same sentences.

But one turns the page into rivers of blood and bubbles (I’m looking at you, Word), and the other involves beautiful, albeit antiquated, markings that are a language unto themselves. A subtext that any trained eye can read. . . Well, that depends on the legibility of the craftsperson (yes, editing on paper is a lot like artisanal sourdough).

An insistence on editing on paper is pretentious. But I can live with that. The reason I love editing on paper is much simpler. In a digital document, there is just a stream of words and pages, without a significant indicator of progress made. Sure, things turn red and comments appear thick and fast, but you don’t have the stacks. The stacks are the true measure of whether you’re on pace for a deadline. If the stack to your left (or right, I’m not a cop) isn’t decreasing and the stack to your right (or vice-versa, your left, you uncultured swine) isn’t increasing, than you know you’re not getting much done. If you are powering through it, however, the shifting stacks can be a source of motivation and pride. You just don’t get the same sense of achievement when you check a page indicator at the bottom of your Word doc.

Then there’s the way you can sort paper stacks into chapters and assign them to days. You say, I’ll have this stack of chapters done by Tomorrow, and that stack by Tuesday, etcAnd then you get to keep them in separate piles and feel extraordinarily organised and industrious. Now, you could do this with a Word doc, but it’s just annoying rather than inspiring and then you have recompile them into a single document later, which is far more laborious than stacking paper.

A mark against on paper editing is that, due to the nature of the industry, any changes you make are going to have be made to the digital file eventually. Almost certainly by YOU. This means editing on paper increases your workload. But conversely, this also means that by the time all the edits have been transferred digitally, you will have edited the manuscript twice. Turning weaknesses into strengths is part of my repertoire of excellent (party) tricks.

I could consider the environmental impacts of printing each manuscript to edit it on paper when I could just edit it digitally, but in this industry that argument is pretty laughable. Do I still feel terrible about the trees? Yes, but not terrible enough to seek a different career.

In summary, you can take my pens but you’ll never take my freedom! preference for editing on paper.