Why is the publishing industry still being conceptualised as about to go up in flames?

I often peruse the news in search of any articles about books. Partly because it’s something I’m interested in and always happy to read about, but also because it’s a section of the news that is pretty guaranteed not to ruin my mood. New books are always exciting. And let’s face it, the news doesn’t tend to report the raindrops on roses, or whiskers on kittens.

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(Maria doesn’t mention books explicitly in the song, but we know what’s in the brown paper packages tied up with string.)

So comparatively, the books section is nearly always a source of the good. But in perusing recently I was struck by the way a few different articles all engaged, on some level, with a dialogue that seems to dominate how we think about books and the publishing industry in general. And it was a theme that actually, when I thought about it, wasn’t rosy at all. My bubble of happiness was burst. Let me explain my dilemma. 

The first article I read is about a new regional 24-hour library. It reports that a rural community in the Central West, called Tullamore, has recently been trialling a system where the library can be accessed 24 hours a day, you just need to sign up for a membership and become a key holder. Prior to this new arrangement, the library was only open a few hours a week, which made it very difficult for residents to take out and return books. Now that the changes have been made, significant increases have been shown in borrowing. Compared to the last financial year, borrowing is up 80%. A pretty substantial increase. The article quotes residents who are delighted with the changes, local Pam Mortimer calling the upgrade a “new freedom” for the area. While before books and borrowing them was unpopular and inconvenient, the library barely serving its purpose, now it seems the tables have drastically turned.

The second article is about a new, and very different type of novel, which comes in eBook form.  Richard Lea explains that the book, A Universe Explodes by Tea Uglow, requires you to add one word and remove two from each page. Only after making these changes to the novel can you then pass it on to it’s next owner. And thus a process of transfiguration is enacted. Lea notes that while at first the experience is strange and uncomfortable, it becomes a very interesting project as each new reader contributes new aspects to this ever-evolving work. The idea is intriguing and engaging. It forces you to be a part of the development of the novel itself, something you can’t achieve in the same way with traditional press. Again innovations and changes have been made to encourage reader engagement. An important element to note about the idea and how it was conceived is that this experimental type of reading was not, as you would assume, for the sake of being experimental. Actually, as Uglow explains, the drive behind the idea was making eBook’s more similar to their printed counterpart. By making this eBook more physically accessible, changeable and personal, it becomes more like the beat up novel in your bag and less like the digital novel you can only own the licence to read. So in doing something quite different to the traditional book, Uglow is actually striving to replicate the traditional reading experience. 

The third article I read is about the resurgence of consumer preference for printed books over eBooks. Much like my last blog post, Alex Preston looks at the change in the market and consumer choices and why this could have happened. He similarly notes the beauty and intricacy of printed covers and the importance of appreciating cover art. Cheers for backing me up 😉

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At first these three article seem to be quite different. They look at distinct and separate news-worthy things that are happening in publishing and reading communities, one as simple as giving keys to borrowers, another totally transforming the very process of reading itself. But despite their differences the major similarity between them, that I couldn’t help but notice, was the sense that these changes and new ideas were necessary, even crucial, developments that were needed to keep the industry functioning and to keep books being read.

The library changed it’s hours so that people would actually engage with the neglected books in their library. The strange structure of the eBook A Universe Explodes aims to bring something new to the reading experience, to jazz it up and encourage interest, but also to mimic the new demand for traditional print. And the conversation about eBook versus traditional printing is hinged on discovering how to get and keep consumer interest. All these areas are tapping into the idea that we must keep frantically striving to achieve interest in books. What underpins all these articles is the knowledge of potential failure without adaption. The idea seems to run through the back of your mind while reading, that this is yet another attempt to curb the the loses of the industry. 

Sure the publishing industry has had it’s fair share of challenges. The last article was the most outright in its recognition of this background consciousness of failure. Alex Preston writes, “the appearance of e-readers seemed to flummox a publishing industry reeling from the financial crisis and Amazon’s rampant colonisation of the market.” He lists the issues the industry has had to face in recent years so that they’re there for us to see, blatant and unquestionable. And with this knowledge now in the forefront of my mind, all these different attempts to promote reading that are discussed in the articles, became tinged with desperation. Like the end of the industry is nigh. Like there’s a real possibility it could all go up in flames. 

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Suddenly, all these changes seem to come off not as art evolving, or creative people trying new creative outlets, or simply extending library opening hours, but more like a lifeline, a defibrillator for the heart of publishing, willing readership back to life. All industries change and develop over time, it’s the nature of society, the nature of creativity, the nature of humanity. So why then does the publishing industry seem to be painted with the sense of it’s imminent death? A paranoia of possible failure seems to loom over us. I think it’s about time that the bleak, outdated fallacy is rejected for what it is, and that we come to celebrate the tenacity of an industry that will always survive. After all, it’s an industry of invention, of imagination, of introspection, of observation, of originality. Of course it’s going to change, and of course it’s going to survive.

 

 

 

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Judging a Book by its Cover

Recently it was revealed that ebook sales, once booming, have now slumped considerably. Simultaneously, more consumer interest is being shown in traditional printed books. In an article titled “How eBooks Lost their Shine” which you can find here – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/27/how-ebooks-lost-their-shine-kindles-look-clunky-unhip- Paula Cocozza examines why this might have come about. She suggests that you just can’t do all the tangible things like dog-earing a page, or cracking a spine with an ebook, that ebooks are becoming more expensive and thus not worth it, and that things like children’s books just tend not to work as well in ebook form.

But one aspect which I found particularly engaging about her argument was her hypothesis that ebooks simply can’t be as beautiful as their printed counterpart. Cocozza writes “Another thing that has happened is that books have become celebrated again as objects of beauty.” She emphasises that the cover art, the font, even the binding, can be things of great aesthetic joy; something an ebook could simply never achieve.

While the criticism and dialogue surrounding books tends to focus on what’s inside the cover and what is typed across the pages, Cocozza reminds us that what’s on the outside, this time, does in fact count. The visual appeal of the book is something we experience, in different measures of consciousness, each time we pick it up, open it, close it, and put it down again (despite the often long period of not putting it down in between).

The physical cover of a book is something that can be incredibly striking and meaningful, and this new appreciation of printed books and their clothing is encouraging us to finally allow ourselves to judge a book by its cover.

Social media is certainly on the bandwagon. In fact, there are whole Instagram pages dedicated to displaying the beauty of bookcases, reading nooks and books themselves.

On the gorgeous page Foldenpagesdistillery (https://www.instagram.com/foldedpagesdistillery/) books (always closed and with their covers on display) are integrated into carefully constructed scenes. The backgrounds tend to either mimic the setting or themes of the book itself, as with the tartan and rustic items surrounding Outlander by Diana Gabaldon below…

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Or create a setting which evokes the act of reading itself, the space adorned with flowers, hot cups of tea and reading paraphernalia, like notebooks and glasses.

The colours and shapes of the cover art are mirrored in the surrounding elements of the photo. Here the significance of the cover is truly recognised and considered. It’s not just the ideas inside the book that are important, but also its physical form.

The page Bookotter (https://www.instagram.com/bookotter/) is full of character and similarly adorns the book with objects which relate to its fictional world, reconstructing the narrative in real life objects and images. Again the images and colour scheme of the cover art are mimicked in the surrounding objects, like the wooden board that pairs with the hazel eye, or the pink flowers that match the titular font. This page often brings the natural world, usually in the shape of plants, into shots like this one:

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Another breathtaking page is OliverSkyWolf (https://www.instagram.com/oliverskywolf/) who seems to forever walk around with a book held out in front of him. He captures striking scenes, again often within nature, where the backgrounds imitate the colours and resonances of the book’s cover.

Like this one for example:

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On these Instagram pages book covers integrate themselves into our world, and the foreground book and background world interact with each other through colours, shading, shapes and feeling. The books come to life in a setting which expands the cover into life itself.

In our evermore visual world of social media, so dominated by the immediate distribution of images, it makes perfect sense that Instagram pages like these ones have come to revel in the physicality, the aesthetics and the beauty of the book.

And it’s not just the book itself, its the whole library. A Buzzfeed article simply lists images of beautiful home libraries – https://www.buzzfeed.com/tabathaleggett/home-libraries-that-will-give-you-serious-living-room-goals?utm_term=.tpn0KrXBG#.qj56rbvw7

And they are stunningly beautiful. These home-decorators have used their books to decorate and embellish their rooms. Something I noticed about these different rooms is that without the books it would just be a fairly ordinary space. A lounge room, a bedroom, a study. But in these spaces the books are the focus, their arrangement on the shelves is not just storage, it is expression and style. The delicate shaping of the shelves, the use of light and focus, the arch over the reading chair – all these techniques take books as a design tool in their own right, as pieces of art.

There are multiple methods by which books are displayed – by author, by genre, or the beautifully visual choice of by colour. My personal favourite is the colour-coded wall below, designed by 7 Interiors. It’s so beautiful I can feel tears welling up. I mean who needs art when you have a bookshelf like this?

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I thought about my own apartment and the time I’d spent making my bookshelf look good. And actually, I realised, I’d spent probably the most time of all decorating that one small space, figuring out how to separate the books, how to display them, and which ornaments to adorn them with. Two of my favourite things in the apartment sit on top of my bookcase: my fern and my typewriter. It’s the area that I think looks the best in my whole apartment, and while I would like to take the credit for the breathtaking decorative skill, I’m sure about 90% of any aesthetic beauty is simply down to the books themselves, their colours, shapes and images.

There’s something very special about cover art that takes what a book is about and means and reconstructs it into a 2D image. It must be eye-catching and different. It must be commercial but also aesthetic. It must fit the genre and style but also make its mark so that particular book will standout. It’s a complicated process. The clothing that a book wears can become a work of art in itself, visually stunning and semiotically loaded.

With the decline of ebooks, and the resurgence of printed books, coupled with the highly visual, online culture we live in, this really is the time to appreciate and explore the beauty of our bookshelves. And even better, we now have yet another reason to keep buying books: they’re great for decoration.

 

Umm, excuse me ABC, don’t mean to be rude, but WE publish Australian sci-fi!

 

An article published recently by the ABC caught the attention of some of us at Odyssey. It’s about sci-fi’s representation by the Australian publishing industry, (you can find it here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-09/australian-science-fiction-authors-let-down-by-local-publishers/8336308). Sarah L’Estrange writes that sadly Australian sci-fi authors often feel they’re “let down” by local publishes, and find they have to look overseas to get published. It outlines how difficult it can be as a sci-fi author and paints a pretty bleak picture for those trying to get published.

While the article is focused mainly on the big publishers and their refusal to represent authors, it’s tackling the issue of sci-fi publishing in Australia as a whole, and reading it from a small press perspective a little voice in my head kept asking, “what about us? What about all the small publishers?”

My question was briefly answered. L’Estrange writes that authors often “resort to self-publishing – or go to smaller publishers.” It seems a little harsh to suggest that small publishers are a “resort” rather than a choice, but it’s okay, we’ll just assume it wasn’t meant like that. I held back the tears (just).

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But secondly, the mention small press does get is only very brief, the article then moving straight into looking at the young adult market. The actual influence and role of small press in publishing Australian sci-fi is left unknown. It seems silly to simply skirt over all the “smaller publishers” who might well be the very answer to the genre’s publishing issues.

In response I wanted to write about the contribution that small press can and does bring, and from an interns perspective, the role I think Odyssey plays in publishing Australian sci-fi.

Like many small publishers, Odyssey specialises in specific types of literature. Small press fills the niches that larger publishers can ignore, sci-fi, as we’ve seen being one of them. Odyssey looks to publish works that are about adventures, far away places and new ideas. So one such genre that Oydssey tends to specialise in is, you got it, sci-fi. It’s our thang.

And as part of my work as an intern I look through the submissions. My mission, if I chose to accept it (I do), is to discover new, original and exciting stories; to find sci-fi that we can publish. So while large publishers may be hesitant to publish Australian sci-fi, small publishers like Odyssey actively seek it.

Moreover, not only does small press look to publish the genre, it takes a vested and educated interest in it. Because small press is so specialised, the genres it publishes are specialties of the staff, they cater to that genre.

For example, part of the work Odyssey and their author’s engage in is attending and organising stands at relevant events. There’s a surprising amount of events on all the time, throughout the country, that encourage like-minded people to come together and talk about sci-fi. Odyssey has a Facebook group where everyone involved can post about such events. At least a couple times a week a new event is posted and suggested, an event where authors and publishers alike can attend, an event where they can network, engage with fans and promote their work. This engagement with the sci-fi community allows for better publicity and impact. Put simply, it means better sales.

Small press that specialise in their genre bring to authors a knowledge of, and genuine engagement with, that genre. Moreover, small press bring a fierce passion that major publishing houses cannot so easily boast. They may have more twitter followers, but do they even go to Gamma.Con?

Another massive advantage that independent press can offer to sci-fi authors is the ability to be very closely involved with the publication of their work, every step of the way. Well small press offers that to authors of any genre, but arguably with something like sci-fi where the concept, the world, the characters are so unique and original  it is even more important that the creator of the novel can be involved as much as possible to make sure that the final product is how the author envisioned it; that the cover art, the formatting, the language conveys exactly what it was meant to.

Perhaps small press is often overlooked because it exists in a different space to larger publishing firms, having a more small scale approach. But what it brings to author’s wanting to publish their sci-fi novels is a specialty in that genre, a keen interest in their area, skills and understanding of the sci-fi industry, and an inclusive publishing experience. Perhaps when the article mentioned above referred to small press as a last “resort”, what it really meant was a rescue. Small publishers, like the super heroes they are, are rescuing underrepresented Australian sci-fi authors one novel at a time.

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A Matter of Unparalleled Import

Last week, the Government announced it would support a recommendation to remove the Parallel Importation Restrictions (PIRs) that are applied to books by the Copyright Act, last proposed by the Productivity Commission in 2009. This is a serious issue for anyone interested in the book industry, as PIRs are a vital financial foundation of Australian publishing. As the Productivity Commission stated in their 2009 report,

“Parallel Import Restrictions (PIRs) provide territorial protection for the publication of many books in Australia, preventing booksellers from sourcing cheaper or better value-for-money editions of those titles from world markets.”

The report goes on to suggest that PIRs place upward pressure on book prices to the benefit of publishers and authors and detriment of consumers. What it does not state are the benefits to the consumer from the PIR regime, namely access to a higher quality product and greater opportunity to read and discover local authors.

Certain commentators have been dismissive of these benefits and the affect of PIR on them. They have argued that the removal of PIRs will have virtually no effect, as the industry is much stronger and competitive than it claims, or should become so as an effect of the changes. They haven’t offered any real evidence to these claims.

One complainant has even objected to the use of colourful language, to which I say: This is the business of words, why would they not be used for effect? And distinctions of the colour of the language aside, the result of this recommendation would be disastrous, so let’s not waste time critiquing the semantics.

If we must discuss the language, then let’s talk about the buzzword that all economic reform in this country now hinges upon: innovation. Let’s be clear, destroying territorial copyright is not innovative, it’s destructive. For this economy to succeed through innovation, it’s about making Australian product and industry innovative, not “innovating” policy to allow world markets to crowd Australian book producers out. That’s not the creation of competition. It’s the end of competition.

The Australian publishing industry is a diverse and competitive place. The proof of this is in the success of Independent Publishing, which is thriving in this country, in large part due to innovation. To hollow out the value of the market by flooding it with cheap international titles will destroy the conditions by which this innovation and competition is possible.

Why invest in local books when the risk of a return is made even more untenable? We already function as an extremely high-risk industry, and all this policy does is diminish the reward.

As a result of of removing PIRs, investment in Australian publishing and writing will be down, which means jobs will be cut and the voices of many local authors will not be heard here or overseas.

So how do we address this and stop it from occurring?

I had considered an open letter to the Prime Minister and Treasurer, but respected authors Richard Flanagan, Peter Carey and Tom Keneally beat me to it. Their letter was fantastic and covered many of the same areas I wanted to cover. But I absolutely wanted to reiterate some of those concerns and add my voice to this debate, because without vocal opposition, this policy could very well come to pass.

The Australian publishing industry employs some 20,000 people, and is worth around $2 billion. Territorial copyright is a pivotal financial plank of the industry. One of the counter arguments to this is that most of this money is made by Australian branches of multinational companies. But this naively ignores the various economic and cultural benefits that those companies bring to the Australian publishing industry. To see the vacuum that could be created by diminishing this input, one only needs to look to New Zealand.

One thing that these recommendations don’t seem to understand is this: Booksellers cannot compete with Amazon on price. The removal of PIRs may bring a temporary breath of cool air to booksellers, allowing them to drop prices, but they know as we all do, that Amazon cannot be beaten in a price war and nor should we want that. Not only would it signal the further deterioration of the perceived value of the book, it would diminish us as a book industry.

It’s a flight of fantasy that books cost too much. In Australia, the standard price of a paperback has dropped by around 20% since 2009. This fact alone shows that the Harper recommendation doesn’t understand or comprehend the mechanics of this industry. Yes, PIRs may place upward pressure on book prices, but local competition, as well as competition with overseas online retailers, places downward pressure on book prices. Competition from online retailers is not going to decrease in the future, so if anything the PIRs are vital to sustaining some upward pressure to keep publishing both profitable and able to employ the 20,000 or so people that it does.

I’d like to ask the Government this: if they are intent on removing PIRs on books, then they should first commission a review of the Book Industry by a panel that understands that this stunning practice of culture and commerce is an altogether different beast. As it stands, the removal of PIRs for the reasons stated in the recommendation is shortsighted and based on a poor understanding of the economics of the book trade. In short, it’s moronic.

I’d love to fight with people in the comments. I love doing that. So please, have a crack.

As a wrap I would suggest the following for further reading on the subject (not all of which I agree with):

Black Inc. and Hachette: how the removal of PIR will affect our business, from Books + Publishing

The Productivity Commission Report on Copyright Restrictions on the Parallel Importation of Books

Jason Ensor, Read it and weep: the book trade needs more than parallel import restrictions at The Conversation

A resurrected debate with the same old dead language, Peter Donoughue Pub Date Critical

 

The Reading Season

Like everything else associated with the holidays, I’m sure you’ll consider this article one that comes too soon. But, for the publishing industry, the looming spectre of the Christmas season has well and truly begun.

 

This post was spurred partly by my receipt of an actual gasp physical book catalogue last week, geared at – you guessed it – Christmas shoppers. With a smidge less than a month until the big day, every business even remotely associated with retail is pulling out all the stops.

 

However, I was curious as to what Christmas meant for the publishing industry. As one that produces physical objects that may easily be used as gifts, it would be clear to anyone that this particular national holiday is important to book sales.

 

And yet, for many, the book is not at the top of any Christmas lists. True, the rectangular package under the tree does have it’s own brand of predictability. The avid readers out there will also be familiar with the mingling of excitement and dread as you unwrap a carefully chosen book to be confronted with your fourth copy of Pride and Prejudice. Book buying can become a minefield at Christmas time, so how does the publishing industry address this?

 

Well, first and foremost, by increasing the number of new and exciting titles for readers to salivate over and parents to be confused by. The significant increase in books being released for publication around the first week in October has become so apparent that it now has its own name – Super Thursday. This is the day on which many of the big potential bestsellers are released, with plenty of time to entice shoppers away from shiny plastic and chocolate-coated nuts.

 

The reason for this is that new books are generally given between 2-3 months to prove themselves, sales-wise. Usually it becomes clear after the first two months whether the publisher has a bestseller on their hands or not. By releasing books on Super Thursday, these books have just the right amount of time to get on the Christmas bandwagon and help the word of mouth spread in the seasonal sales rush.

 

But this is done in order to target a certain type of recipient – the ones who (apparently) most commonly receive books for Christmas. An article published in UK newspaper The Telegraph a day before the publication of this year’s Super Thursday books noted a large skew in one area – children’s books, and a complete absence of one particular genre – chick-lit.

 

This says a lot about the expectations publishers have drawn out about who will be buying books this Christmas. Overwhelmingly, the season is targeted at children. So an increase in the release of books aimed at this age bracket makes sense. Christmas-themed books also represent a growing and popular trend. The Elf on the Shelf book, for one, has combined Christmas, books and toys in such an appealing way that many will choose to sit a small plush elf in their children’s room this Christmas, in an effort to both awaken their holiday spirit, and get some well behaved children in the bargain.

 

The other trend is more interesting. The absence of chick-lit novels, and the presence of those focused on crime and war suggests that – if you’ll forgive me for invoking a stereotype to demonstrate how I think the industry is using it – that book publishers consider men (particularly older men) to be the recipients of books more often than women will be this Christmas. This is certainly not to say that the industry is ignoring women over this time, but it does not appear to be their focus.

 

Interestingly, this surge in publication around Christmastime is also a positive step for the future of the print book. Let’s face it; an eBook has to be one of the more underwhelming presents available. Oh cool! A digital file! – said no one ever. And the rush is predominately towards print.

 

This Christmas, you may choose to buy a book for a loved one, or even yourself. Certainly the outpouring of usually non-existent catalogues and a higher percentage of new, physical books would suggest that this might be a good time to stock up. For the publishing industry, just like others involved with consumption, Christmas is an important time, with products produced especially for those swept up in the spirit of the season.

The Inescapable Villain of Time

We’ve all felt the anxious pressure of a deadline looming. That sweaty palm, sleepless night dread that you will never get anything finished. It’s terrifying, and it makes you wish you’d never signed up to do this crazy thing you said you would.

Deadlines are something authors, like the rest of the world, routinely face. Manuscript in by this date, have your draft done soon, we need it! We absolutely must publish on that date! The more famous your work is, the bigger the expectation, both from your publisher, and your rabid fans. Your first book might be relatively free from stress, but for sequels or follow up works, there’s often a weight of expectation that you publish again in a certain amount of time, lest the world forget about you.

With some of my own personal anticipated sequels due to come out soon, as well as a number of our Odyssey authors working on sequels, I’ve begun to question the influence of a looming deadline on the work that is produced.

One maxim that is so oft repeated many don’t remember where it came from, is the idea that ‘You can’t rush Art.’ It is undeniably true. You can spot a shabby, hurried novel from a mile away. There are continuity issues, the plot doesn’t make sense, or a key detail has been left out. Additionally, the creative process can be notoriously fickle. Some days you may be blocked, and blocked hard. There’s nothing you can do to force the process, you just have to wait.

So writing requires time and patience. That’s accepted. But is there a limit to how much time and patience a publisher needs to have? This is a particular problem with sequels. Many readers don’t like to buy the beginnings of a series until they will be assured that it will end. The consequence of this is that publishers will often need assurances of further books, so they can be confident in your ability to remain in the market. Without this, your first novel could be stellar, but it may be too much of a risk to publish.

As you continue on in the journey of writing a series, or even just a set of stand alone books in succession, the need to remain relevant and continually have something fresh to put out there only grows. If you develop a following, your readers will be waiting for new reading material. Make them wait too long, and they could easily forget about you, and move on to pastures with more books in them.

In light of this, it’s easy to see why publishers need to impose deadlines on their authors. Publishing is a business, and to an extent, writing is too. In order to make money in this business, the name of the game is producing books. Deadlines help a publisher launch your book at the best possible time, and give the writer something to work towards. We all know how easy it is to languish in an endless cycle of words if we don’t have a particular goal in mind.

The key, as always, is balance. Writers need to be given the freedom to write, and the flexibility to adapt, for when things don’t turn out as expected. Publishers need assurances that their time and investment in you will eventually come to fruition. Oppressive deadlines that allow no room for movement will always impact on the quality of the work produced. Books are not like business reports; their structure is flexible and ever changing. So too should be the deadlines they are bound by.

The Un-Conventional Pitch

Authors and editors alike are always interested in how the manuscript gets into the publisher’s hands – authors because they want theirs to be read, editors because it means things to edit – yay!

Traditionally, publishers receive manuscripts in two ways, depending on their preference and, usually, the size of the organisation. Most of the big publishing houses use literary agents, who write letters of recommendation, extolling the virtues of this particular client’s work. The person in charge of the slush pile (often your lowly intern!) reads the letter, and if interested, may actually set eyes on the manuscript.

The other way to do it, usually a more common method for smaller publishing houses, is through unsolicited manuscripts. This involves the author emailing or submitting the manuscript online whenever they choose. It is not based on the request of a publisher or the advice of a literary agent.

This is the method that Odyssey uses. Authors upload their manuscript through our submission portal in order for us to see it. We require them to include a synopsis, a biography, an ‘elevator pitch’ (how they’d pitch the book in the time it takes to ride an elevator) and the first four chapters of the manuscript.

Each of these methods work fine, indeed, at least for Odyssey, it’s how we discover most of our authors. But it does have its downsides. Both styles of submission are very impersonal; they consist of a letter, an email, or a summary. They give no scope for your impassioned defence of your work. All you can do is try and type as much as you can into that little box, and hope it’s enough to sell your work.

However, particularly with small publishers, a third option seems to be emerging.

As I noted in my blog post on the Supanova Pop Culture Convention a few weeks ago, going around these conventions with Odyssey, I have seen a number of authors willing to come up and make themselves, and their work, personally known to my boss.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Conflux Science Fiction Convention Odyssey attended in Canberra over the October long weekend. Conflux provided an option for authors they called PitchFest, which gave them a chance to pitch a particular work to my boss in 10 minutes.

The session worked thus: after brief introductions, they began by covering their title and synopsis. The publisher could then ask for clarifications, and even request the author elaborate on details they found interesting. Then they went over their author platforms, while the publisher made sure they understood the way Odyssey works, and knew what it would be like to work with a small press.

I considered this opportunity an excellent way to bring publisher and author together in a way that allows for a more personal and in depth interaction about the work. It was also a great way for everyone to get their names out there, and for authors to have a go at pitching their work.

Aside from this more formal aspect of it, I also found, as I have with every convention I have attended this year, that interest can also be expressed very casually. Throughout the day, a number of authors stopped by to discuss publishing with us, some interested in how Odyssey worked, others wanting to quiz our authors on what is what like to be published with us. Our boss was always open to informal sessions over coffee, and, as always, we found a few interesting manuscripts over the weekend.

So it seems that any and all opportunities to make yourself and your manuscript stand out should be enthusiastically undertaken by authors. Networking is key, as you get a chance to both formally and informally meet different publishers, and figure out which one is best for you. Some authors we have met at previous conventions are now part of the Odyssey family. If you can, I would always recommend taking a chance on the unconventional pitch

Demanding Publishing

The place of the print book in an increasingly technological society has been debated again and again, with both sides having a multitude of arguments to put forward. One of the strongest arguments against continuing traditional print books, especially in the volume that we currently do, is due to its environmental impact.

Undeniably, the publishing industry is not one with a major focus on the environment. Publishing takes up A LOT of paper. It’s unavoidable. Not only do books themselves need it, but so does the editing process itself. As Brendan noted in his blog post Give Me Paper or Give Me Death, a few weeks ago, many editors, including us young ones, often prefer to edit on hard copies. Computers may have streamlined the process, and allowed us to create lots of coloured notes all over the manuscript, but there’s really nothing like boldly crossing something out with your plain old red pen (or blue pencil if you’re a traditionalist).

Yet another area of publishing in which our treatment of the environment is less than perfect is in the destruction of books that don’t sell. Arrangements between publishers and bookstores are often such that unsold books can be stripped of their covers and returned to publishers. As they have already demonstrated that they won’t sell, usually these books are discarded and pulped. Although the practice of stripping covers has largely diminished due to the insides being used for bootleg copies, pulping is still practiced, particularly for paperbacks.

The numbers of pulped books can get extremely high, and it’s not something the industry likes to admit. In an effort to combat the problem, smaller print runs are offered to authors who don’t sell well, and sometimes these authors are even dropped altogether.

Particularly in small publishing, businesses can’t afford the losses that come with being forced to destroy so many books. That’s why, in the past, their print runs have been very small.

However, with the advent of digital publishing, comes a development that has changed the industry, in particular for the small presses, taking the focus off print runs. It’s called print-on-demand publishing.

It does exactly what its name suggests it will. Instead of having a set number of copies required to produce the book, you only need to print what you need, when you need it. It was a system I first experienced when I visited the Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark factory (The Cave Where Dreams Are Made). Lightning Source offers such a print-on-demand service, and one that Odyssey, among other small publishing houses, takes advantage of.

The benefits of this are enormous. Smaller publishers, for whom every penny counts, are not burdened with ordering a set number of copies that may never sell. Ordering is simple, when an order for a book is received, it is put through the print-on-demand service, printed, and dispatched to the recipient. This has been enthusiastically taken up by self-publishers as well. For those just getting started in the market, it’s a great way to get your book out on as many websites as possible, without having to worry about being burdened with 500 copies in your garage if your venture never takes off.

For larger publishers, print-on-demand can be a less viable option. When you’re producing print runs of thousands of copies, traditional printing is still more cost effective. But there is scope for them to incorporate it into their production processes. Particularly with books that have been in print for a while, using print on demand allows access to books that may not otherwise get a second or third print run.

The system allows both readers and authors to tailor the publishing production process to more accurately fit their demands. Not only does it provide a future for reducing the environmental impact created by the publishing industry, it makes the book market more accessible. Print-on-demand is just one advent of digital publishing that has allowed the industry to make significant leaps forward.

The Counter Celebrity Kerfuffle

Jen’s wrong!

That’s right, it’s argument week!

After some unkind words were thrown, escalating our fake feuding to real feuding (it’s on ­­– or is it? How enigmatic of us!) I’ve decided to dedicate my – no, our – Friday to rebutting Jen’s blog on Monday. Leave the celebrities alone, Jen. They’re people too.

While I broadly agree that celebrity books can be gold-plated nothings, to say so is the highest of browlifts. To ask us to agree with that sentiment is dishing out the literary equivalent of a “do you even lift bro?” It’s not the characterisation of the vapidity of these books that has so inspired me to write this, and I’m sure many of you enjoy reading celebrity books, but the notion that their presence is removing opportunities for the little books.

As we know, I love the little books. I’m not stomping on them, but I refuse to blame their struggles on the books that provide the padding of the bottom line. The problem is not that too many celebrity or overtly-commercial books are being published. The problem is that the margins of the book business are too tight, and part of that is caused by public expectations of the price of books being incredibly tapered by certain profiteers of the trade.

The existence and success of these gold-plated nothings is not undermining the book, or the literary book. The simple fact is, from a highest-of-brows perspective, these books do not hold a place in the literary world. They are commercial objects that sit below, that pad the baseline and make the business of publishing objects which hold meaning just lucrative enough.

Amy Schumer’s advance was ridiculously over the top. As was Aziz Ansari’s, as was Hillary Clinton’s. It’s an endemic symptom of a Winner-Takes-All attitude pervading the big book businesses. That’s not to say that these books should not be published, but more that the advances being laid down are growing more and more preposterous.

In the sense that big companies are laying down advances that are far too big, perhaps there is scope that these funds could be dedicated to other, more literary titles. But often, these publishing operations are divided into different imprints with commercial titles published under several sub-companies (imprints) and literary under others. So the literary imprint is only going to have a certain budget, regardless of the celebrity titles. These budgets are dictated by commercial needs and rules, but as always the argument is that without the commercial drive, there wouldn’t be an incentive for money to be invested in publishing. This money then flows to the less commercial literary titles.

Not all publishing is about good books, or brilliant stories. Sometimes it’s just about the dollar, because it’s the dollar that carries us all.

I broadly agree with Jen’s sentiments about the literary value of slapping a celebrity’s name on a ghostwritten work, but I also think there can be value to celebrity books. Examples like Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl etc, have something to tell us, and can teach us about the experiences, particularly of women, working in industries known for their influence on popular culture. While not everyone will agree, it’s important to understand the mechanisms of Hollywood because it has a tremendous effect on us. To be oblivious to how this kind of cultural power works is to be wilfully disenfranchised.

I do hold sentimentality with the demand for a greater focus on literary works, but I think it’s a catch-22 when it is the commercial which supports the publication of literary titles. And largely, I don’t think the spate of celebrity books is the cause of the literary world’s problems, but a symptom of the times.

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?