Wednesday 9 November 2011

Back in Harness

Good morning dear readers… I’m back… and I need to start with an apology for the three months or so of radio silence.

Now, please let me explain – there are mitigating circumstances. Just over three months ago, Annabelle and I had our second child – a wee boy called Hector. Well, that’s a bit of a fib – he’s not wee at all, he is sturdy like a young rhino with the neck of a bull and the appetite of a horse. Enough animal similes for you? His latter attribute has meant that for his first couple of months of his life has enjoyed waking his parents up at all hours of the night for extra sustenance (he still likes to, on occasion – just to keep us on our toes). Annabelle had to provide this, but I was also called into action for nappy changes and strolling endless lengths of the bedroom to settle him post-feed. Some might say that all these extra hours in my day should have opened up new opportunities for blogging – but that is easier said than done when cradling said small rhino…

So while moderately crippled by lack of sleep, there have also been other reasons for my absence from the blogosphere… namely the madness of the latter part of the year in the publishing world. I am currently on the early morning train, once more, to London and so find myself with a little breathing space for the first time in… well, what feels like a long time.

So what is the cause of the sudden bustle and chaos in publishing? In my case it is two-fold (actually, make it three-fold):

-          From the summer onwards, the work-rate really starts to ramp up in editorial and production circles. The key time of year in publishing is, as I’m sure you can appreciate, Christmas. Although some titles (either by accident or design) trickle into the shops in late November and early December, most of the key titles that are published for the Christmas market need to be released in September or October. This is to give the titles plenty of time to ingrain themselves in the public conscience either through visibility in shops or online, or through review coverage. And, of course, as we continue to languish in the depths of a recession, people need to spread their costs, so the sooner you can get your products out in to the market, so much the better.

-          The Frankfurt Book Fair. This annual fair, which takes place in October, is the largest book fair in the world. And take my word for it if you’ve never been – it is ma-hooo-sive. Mind-bogglingly big. The journey from the front door of the Frankfurt Messe to Hall 8 (the English-language hall) is around a 15-20 minutes walk – even with the assistance of moving walkways. And each of the halls is roughly the size of the departures area in Heathrow’s Terminal 5. Seriously. Just imagine it. Massive. And it is at fairs like Frankfurt that the publishing world descends as one to show off their wares and to carve out new rights, export and sales deals, commission new work, sign up new authors and books, discuss and debate new or existing business strategies, punt distribution channels, show off new products and network on an unprecedented scale. For 99% of the attendees at the Fair, your day is broken up into a series of 30 minute, or hour-long (sometimes more) meetings, one right after another, with barely a half-hour window to grab any food (at this rate Hector, even as an adult, would be totally unable to cope). This goes on until five or six in the evening and then, more often than not, drinks and dinner follows with partners in export, rights, sales, or editorial (the list can go on), colleagues or old friends. And after dinner (which will probably be fairly boozy) follows a few more drinks… and perhaps a few more after that… and, well, you get the picture. Then it all happens again the next day. And the next. And the next. And, depending on how long you’re at the Fair for, the next, and perhaps even the next after that. It is knackering… but they are the most invaluable few days of the year. There are so many reasons why they are so important, but for me there are two that stand out above all the rest: face-time with people who might otherwise be just a name at the end of an email; and the chance to look at what the rest of the publishing world is up to. The former is so important for relationship building and getting a much sounder feel for what people actually want when we do business (and so, ultimately, increases productivity ten-fold when we all get back home); the latter is interesting in terms of trend-spotting and general intrigue at what others are publishing, but also (for me, at any rate) the whole thing is absolutely inspiring. It reminds me exactly why I got into publishing: a love of books. I love seeing thousands of new cover designs and the prospect of the stories that they enshroud; I love seeing the great and the good brokering deals, overhearing snippets of business and seeing the excitement in peoples’ eyes as they discuss new and upcoming titles, or hear their unbounded enthusiasm for a recently-discovered but potentially game-changing new author… As with any industry, you can find yourself blinkered by the day-to-day challenges that you face at your desk. Sometimes you need a chance to step back and look at the wider picture, to re-energise your enthusiasm and to get your creative synapses buzzing again. It’s an exhausting few days, as I say, but it is such an incredible and fulfilling experience. And you can do some great business, too. If you haven’t been, you really must go…

-          And onto my final excuse… Polaris. It has been a hectic few months with all the above going on, so throw into the mix starting up and running a new business and you’ll maybe understand why blogging has fallen slightly by the wayside. Contract negotiations have been, at times, a little protracted, but we are now underway; a new website has been built – check it out, – and I have been trogging all over the place meeting app developers and building dummy apps as the first building-blocks of the various projects I’m working on fall into place. Everything is going well so far but there is a long road with an awful lot of work ahead. So I suppose, in many ways, I’m indebted to my new son – he is training my body to need less sleep… and in the coming months I think that I am going to need all the extra hours that I can possibly cram into my day…

Speak soon.

Friday 19 August 2011

The Rise of eBooks

It has been a few weeks since my last posting and the Edinburgh Book Festival is now in full swing. A couple of nights ago I spoke at an event on the rise of eBooks. The listing for the event on the Book Festival website and catalogue read as follows:

Earlier this year, Amazon announced that it was selling more copies of books in its Kindle eBook format than traditional paperbacks. Have we reached a landmark moment in the battle between digital and print publishing? In this event the acclaimed historian and piracy expert Angus Konstam discusses the possible end of the Gutenberg era with the highly-respected literary agent and former editorial director Maggie McKernan, Peter Burns, Manager of eBooks at Birlinn publishers, and Nicola Solomon, who recently left the media law firm Finers Stephens Innocent to take up her role as the newly-appointed General Secretary of the Society of Authors.

I think in light of this event, that this is the perfect opportunity to discuss the rise of eBooks and the threat (or perceived threat) they pose to printed books.

Like the vast majority of people who step foot inside Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square gardens this month, I have a very deep love of the printed book. I love the smell, the feel and the look of them. I love the experience of reading them, picking them up, seeing them piled by my bed and on coffee tables and on my shelves, and I enjoy the sense of achievement I feel as I work my way through them. But I am also incredibly excited by eBooks, what they mean and what can be done with them.

A year ago, the publishing world was in a fit of panic over eBooks. Now the feeling is quite different. The rapid rise of eBooks in the public conscience has been facilitated by equally rapid advancements in technology – specifically eReaders, smartphones and tablet computers. Battle lines are being drawn by the world’s biggest companies as they strive to dominate these markets – and all the intellectual copyright and patents that go with that. Apple, Google, Amazon, Windows and Blackberry, among many others, are fiercely battling for dominance – and as a result the products they are producing are just startling. It’s like an arms race. As a result of all the advances in technology, content can be exploited and explored in so many ways that were just unthinkable a few years ago – even a few months ago. And that is what is so exciting for the publishing world. We face a future where the traditional models no longer apply – we have to realise that we are now content publishers rather than simply publishers of physical, printed books. There are so many ways to use the content that we possess and which we commission, and it is an incredibly liberating and creative experience as the only limit to what can be achieved lies in our imagination. Check out Faber & Faber’s The Waste Land and The Solar System apps and Moonbot’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore ­­app to see what can now be done with written content. And these are just scratching the surface of what is possible.

There are dozens of tablet computers and myriad smartphones now available on the market. Apple have sold around 30 million iPads alone since their launch in 2010. An article in The Telegraph in June carried stats from a survey carried out by the Imano Digital Agency, which found that 63 % of British iPad users say they use the Apple device to read ebooks, while 70% of British iPad users who were surveyed said that they read newspapers and magazines on the tablet computer.

Google, who have been using their Android software to battle with Apple’s App Store have just made their first foray into hardware by buying the wireless phone maker Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion, throwing them into the smartphone and tablet hardware market. The deal also gains Google control of vital wireless patents that will enable it to become a major player in the mobile device market. The Motorola deal is something of a counter-punch by Google after it lost out to a consortium, which included Apple and Microsoft, to buy a huge range of patents held by the bankrupt company, Nortel.

According to data from Kantar, two-thirds of all mobile phones sold in the past three months in Britain were smartphones. Android has a 50% share in most major markets, including the UK while Apple has about a quarter. Windows has 7%.

And it’s not just 3G (and eventually 4G) internet that is marking a change to the market – it is wi-fi hotspots too. BSkyB is set to double the number of wi-fi hotspots it operates in the UK to 10,000 sites by the end of 2011 as The Cloud, its mobile broadband division, strives to tap into the growing nation-wide demand for wi-fi access from smartphones and tablet computer owners (which saves them the cost of using their 3G networks and increases speed of service). The Cloud is also in talks with supermarkets to see if customers will use a dedicated wi-fi network within their stores, which could attract new visitors to its outlets, just as hotspots have been set up in PizzaExpress restaurants that allow customers to order food and pay via smartphones or tablets connected to the network.

Figures from eDigitalResearch show that more than 50% of smartphones users are prepared to shop on their handset via downloadable apps or websites, which is up from just 20 per cent nine months ago. Retail analyst Verdict Research is predicting that mobile internet sales could double by 2013 to £275 million, making up 4% of online retail spending. 42% of phone in Britain are now smartphones, and Verdict expects that by 2014, 79% of British consumers will to use their mobile phones for shopping. Similarly, analysts at Morgan Stanley predict mobile internet access is expected to overtake desktop PC access by 2014.

But what does this all mean for eBooks?

There are a number of effects. The first, as I have intimated, is what can be achieved on these devices. Video, audio, photographic slideshows, interactive graphics and so on can all be built into book apps to enhance the written content – and that is just the beginning. The other effect is online shopping, as mentioned above. As with digital music and photography, the transformation of books is being driven by convenience. Downloading new titles to an eReader or tablet computer takes seconds and can be done at any time, any place, anywhere.

People buy these devices, then they need to fill them with content. Amazon’s biggest sales day last year was Christmas Day; when people opened their Kindles, their iPads and the new smartphones, they wanted to use them, so they logged on to Amazon and started downloading. And for anyone who has done this, you’ll know how incredibly easy it is and how quick the process is – not to mention how cheap. Reports from eBook retailers around the globe also show that the biggest daily sales periods are on the way to and from work and at bedtime – when people want to read something new and so browse and buy.

As the blurb for the Book Festival event mentioned, Amazon claim that their sales of eBooks now outstrips sales of physical books. Interestingly they don’t comment (nor do they show this on their Kindle harts) that their biggest eBook sellers are pornographic titles – helped hugely by the fact that by reading a book on a device, no one around you knows what is it you’re reading. Mills and Boon have had huge success in the eBook market as well, with an unprecedented surge in sales among adolescent males – for precisely the same reason as Amazon’s adult titles. But while this is an interesting aside, the information that eBooks are starting to do so much better than their physical incarnations is sending shock waves through the publishing world. What does it all mean? Is this the death knell for the high-street bookshop, which has been in such decline over recent years anyway thanks to cheaper online rivals?

I was asked this very question by a member of the audience the other night. What does it all mean to the book world and the book trade?

There are two answers.

The most likely outcome, as I can see it, is that eBooks will largely replace paperbacks while publishers focus on hardbacks and quality special editions.

And if James Daunt can’t save Waterstone’s, and all the little independent bookshops around the country ultimately go out of business, it would be no surprise to me if you saw Amazon (and other competitors) opening showrooms in their stead. There is no doubt about the importance of the browsing experience, and if bookshops disappear then that experience – and the subsequent diversity of sales beyond the ‘top 100’ charts – will be lost. I can envisage showrooms where one copy of each book (with the range tailored to regional interests) will be on display and shoppers will scan covers for video interviews with authors talking about their books, or promotional trailers, which will in turn then allow the shopper to order the book online to be sent to their home address, or to download a digital edition immediately.

It sounds soulless and sad and it is; but I can see it happening. Let’s hope that an equilibrium can be reached that allows room for both the incredible opportunities that eBooks offer, while retaining a place and a space for traditional print editions and bookshops.

Time will only tell.

Speak soon.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Slush and all that…

I’m just going through our submissions inbox – otherwise known in the industry as the slush pile – and before I get too overwhelmed by the swathes of submissions, I thought I would peek above the parapet for a few minutes, gulp down some fresh air (and a coffee) and post some thoughts on slush…
Now, while we will quite often (perhaps one in thirty) take an unsolicited submission for a non-fiction work to our editorial meetings to discuss (and from there contract), it really is very rare for us to do the same for fiction. It sounds tough, I know, but that’s the way it is. It is much easier to judge the merits of an unsolicited non-fiction work based on a proposal and some sample material; it is also easier to gauge what market there might be for non-fiction titles, based on the subject matter, previous success of other books in that area, on local interest and so on. Fiction is much harder to assess. And also, there is so much more of it that hits the slush pile. Everyone has at least one novel in them; unfortunately, that novel tends not to be very good. That’s a pretty harsh statement – believe me, I know, I have been there and experienced this all myself (which is why I attempt to be as constructive and as encouraging as I can when rejecting manuscripts) – but I have also waded my way through thousands of novels and I’m afraid that this is the inescapable conclusion. But struggling novelists (particularly ones that have received a rejection letter from me), please also know that the ideas behind many of the manuscripts that are rejected are genuinely good ones; its just in their execution that they fall down – or it might be a case of a manuscript not fitting our list style, or that our list is full for the next year or so. There are many factors.
So how does one advance from the slush pile to be discussed by the editorial board?
You have one page, maybe two, to reel us in; if you fail there, then I’m afraid the manuscript is going to be sent on its way. Novels are particularly tough, as I say, but your manuscript will have a much better chance of being read and considered seriously if it has come from an agent. So for aspiring novelists everywhere, the best advice that I can give you is this: find yourself an agent. Not only will they work hard to get you the very best deal possible, they will help polish your work, know the best publishing houses to send it to – and indeed the best people within the publishing houses to send it to – and will help you to formulate your cover letter, synopsis and the sample material you send in. Look at market trends and see if your work is the in thing – it doesn’t have to be, of course, but if it is, tell us. Be explicit.
But if you don’t want an agent, all hope is not lost. You just need to box clever. Do the above (polish your material and synopsis) and then do some research – proper research – into publishers (and indeed, if you want an agent, do some proper research on them too before sending in your stuff to them) and make sure that your material is the kind of thing that they might be looking for. Polygon, for example, does not want a JRR Tolkein-esque book about elves and wizards; nor does it want to see a how-to book on yoga. Birlinn doesn’t want to see a walking tour of Amsterdam, or a Sex in the City style romantic novel. Other houses are the same; if you have clearly just BCC’d a load of different publishing houses’ submission addresses into an email and sent it out at the same time, it is patently obvious and your lack of effort and attention to detail is instantly discouraging. You took the time to write the book, take the time to submit it properly.
Following up. This is a good thing to do… but can also be very irritating for the publisher/ agent. As I have said, we receive hundreds of submissions a week; it takes time to go through them all. We will get back to you. Sure, if you haven’t heard from us for several months, send a chaser (but only do this if you really think that your manuscript is perfect for that publisher or agent – again, Birlinn does not want an endless stream of chasing emails over a romantic novel that we would never publish), but always remain polite. Finally, and I know this is difficult, if you are rejected, don’t ask the publisher for a critique as to why it was rejected. They should give you certain pointers as to the reason why they didn’t want to take your manuscript any further and maybe offer advice on who you should try instead; but a critique or opinions on how to improve your manuscript is just not going to happen.
Also, do not send back a venomous reply to being rejected (and believe me, for all that I try to be positive in my rejections and offer advice, I have had some real poison sent back to me). That will just blacklist you should you try to submit again in the future.
It’s a tough job, the old slush pile; tough for everyone. But there are ways to get your stuff read, I promise. Go out and buy a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (A & C Black). It’s a great book which offers decent advice on submissions and, crucially, lists pretty much every international and national publishing house and literary agent that there is, along with their specialities and contact details.
I hope that this has been a help (and not too disheartening). There is hope – over 300,000 new books are published a year (plus 2.9 million self-published titles – I’ll discuss this option another time). If you take your time, put in the graft and polish your work as well as you can, you will give your manuscript the very best possible chance of being picked up by an agent or a publishing house. Good luck!
Speak soon.

Pottering around…

I tweeted (@Publisher_Pete, please feel free to follow!) yesterday about JK Rowling and her new Pottermore venture. More specifically I tweeted about her split from long-time agent Christopher Little. She has now defected to work with Neil Blair, a former employee at the agency. Why? Well, no one is really giving anything away; but the split is acrimonious, with Little claiming that he knew nothing about it until it was announced in the press.

My tweet went as follows: ‘With JK Rowling splitting from Christopher Little, one has to question the price of loyalty – particularly when you’re worth £530 million.’
Looking back on that dazzling little insight (sorry, I'm still honing my Twitter skills), it is obvious that my comment was fairly opaque (and perhaps also inaccurate, as the Telegraph believes that she is actually a billionaire: )
The split was a surprise to read about. We have long been charmed by the story of how Rowling chose to submit her work to the agency – that she looked up a list of literary agents in an Edinburgh library and selected the Christopher Little Agency because his name sounded like a character from a children's book – and over the last 16 years they have shared both open admiration for one another and stratospheric success.
And this is where the whole thing starts to get to me a little. Yes, I'm disappointed that an author who I admire and who has long championed the merits, and indeed the power, of loyalty in her work, should seemingly just up sticks and leave her old confidante and collaborator high and dry (although perhaps high and dry is pushing it – he has made 15 per cent from the gross earnings of Harry Potter in the British market and 20 per cent for merchandising rights, for film, for the American market and for translation deals, so he is a very wealthy man). But in fairness to both parties I am not privy to the ins and outs of what has really happened, so should neither judge nor cast aspersions as to why the split has happened.
However, what has riled me somewhat is Pottermore and what it intends to do: the site plans to publish straight eBook versions of Rowling’s books this year, then publish updated versions with new notes and material that she cut from the original novels next year. I have tried to place myself in Rowling’s shoes. She wants complete control of her creation and direct access to her fan base. Absolutely fair enough. The phenomenal success of her creation has granted her a strong position with which to protect her intellectual copyright. She has spent years vehemently opposing the conversion of her books to digital formats. Now that she has accepted that there is room for further creativity within that sphere, she has set up Pottermore. A move that, by and large, I agree with. She has the right to exploit her material directly to her audience. But it is the next step with which I have issue. With the launch of Pottermore (and the implication of the site’s name), we learn that she has tens of thousands of words that she cut from the original books, which she will include in new eBook editions next year. So, she wants her loyal fans to buy the eBooks this year… and then buy them again next year. Does that not seem a little greedy? Perhaps an announcement will come that all proceeds are going to charity and I’ll have to eat my words. But I doubt it.
When you have made over £530 million (or a billion) from something you have created, you surely have no need to squeeze every last commercial drop out of that creation. Surely the most important things to her at this stage are the characters of Harry et al and the world she has created. Why drip the sales in this way? Yes, Pottermore has a few little interactive bits and pieces – the sorting hat assigning visitors to a Hogwarts house, the wand chooser and so on. But it is nothing groundbreaking (despite what some in the industry have heralded the site as being). If I were her agent, I would tell her that the digital world offers completely new ways for her unleash the power of her imagination. She can bring her books to life in so many different ways – pages and words could come to life; an interactive map of Diagon or Knockturn Alley could flutter from the margin whenever Harry visits the secret streets; the Marauder’s Map could do the same and there could be an interactive map for Hogsmeade too; reproductions of The Daily Prophet, moving images and all, could be accessed when mentioned; or illustrations of the Burrow, Grimmauld Place, the Shrieking Shack, the Ministry of Magic, Hagrid’s hut, the Quidditch stadium, or Hogwarts as a whole could spring from the pages and be explored at will if the reader wanted to, or could remain hidden should they not. The possibilities are almost endless… which is why I am so disappointed with the products that Pottermore are touting. After the ingenious launch (a treasure hunt around London that gradually revealed the letters ‘Pottermore’) it was such an anticlimax to learn what they have planned for the site. Maybe (hopefully) this is all part of the master plan and they will launch new editions with all these features. Surely they will; it would be such a disappointment if they don't...
Speak soon.

Thursday 30 June 2011

Print and digital - a happy future...

I had a fantastic trip down to London on Monday. With a bit of time to kill before meeting Stephen Jones and Nick Cain at the St Pancras Hotel (what a wonderful building that is), I spent a very indulgent hour wandering the exhibits in the British Library.
After the meeting I made a quick dash to Marylebone to Daunt’s bookshop, before heading over to Bloomsbury for a lunch meeting – after which I had scoot around Foyles before heading off to the airport. Some day!
Now, despite steeping myself in all manner of printed books, the main topic of my conversations throughout the day concerned digital editions. As the head of digital development at Birlinn I am in the process of digitising a large proportion of our list, while I am also constantly looking at ways to adapt our existing books, and new books that we commission, for interactive use in the digital world. Beyond that I have also set up a new digital publishing company – Polaris Publishing Limited. Polaris will seek to combine the very best of traditional book publishing with the creative freedom that the digital world now affords, commissioning strong content that can succeed both in physical print and in the digital environment. You can read more about our plans at
It may seem a contradiction to lobby the merits of eBooks and apps and yet glory in beauty of the printed book. Yet I strongly believe that they can both co-exist and succeed together in the future. Indeed, having an active interaction between all the editions is one of the founding pillars of Polaris’s planned products. I love books in all forms and formats and I do not believe that the development of e-readers, tablet computers and smartphones, which promote eBooks and enhanced digital editions, sounds the death knell for traditional printed books in any way; instead, publishers and book readers should appreciate that we are in the early days of an incredible new era for books, one that is surging with public interest for both print and digital editions.
And so after a day spent browsing a mesmerising quantity of books and revelling in atmosphere of the British Library, Daunt’s and Foyles, I sat on the tarmac at Gatwick waiting for Easyjet to carry me home and I began to wonder – if I had a bookshop, and there was no limit to what I could do with it, how would I design the layout and how would I run it? Now, Daunt’s in Marylebone is possibly my favourite ever bookshop. So that’ll be my starting point (although fans of Daunt’s will say that it is sacrilegious of me to suggest that it can be improved upon).
My thoughts wandered to JK Rowling’s wonderful emporium in Diagon Alley – Flourish & Blotts. Gold-embossed books the size of paving slabs in the window, stacks of books piled on tables, shelves crammed to bursting, display cases full of mysterious old editions…
The best bookshops are atmospheric – just as the best books are. They have personality, quirks and beauty. So what else would we have?
Dickensian lamps burning outside… reading retreats with comfy armchairs and log fires (with guards!)… first editions, a rare books section, signed editions… a dedicated section for lectures, readings and events. There would be a digital area where books (using augmented reality) are literally brought to life, where enhanced content can be accessed, browsed and purchased.
The children’s area would be fun and magical; there would be a story-reading corner and, without wanting to make it some kind of hideous Disneyland hybrid, motifs from books would be brought to life both physically and digitally. The lamp from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe could perhaps stand in the centre of the section, or Wendy’s House from Neverland; the roots of the Faraway Tree might curl out beneath some shelves, Bilbo’s round door could be set into a wall and open into a secret little section; maybe on top of shelves or hidden in little nooks one could feature cameo characters… the rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Pooh drifting off on his giant blue balloon, Harry catching the Snitch, Mr and Mrs Twit standing on their heads… Augmented reality could be used to have the Gruffalo scurrying around the place, to allow Aslan to roam the floor, to allow Tintin or Asterix to step from behind a bookshelf and tell of their latest adventures. Too much? Maybe. But if I had gone into a bookshop like that when I was a child, I would have insisted that my parents took me back time after time after time. Many of the concepts are gimmicky, of course (and would be abhorrent to James Daunt and his clientele), but the written word remains at the heart of it all, and that is what would be bought, taken home and cherished by the patrons of the shop. I just think that it would be incredible fun to work in and run a place like that.
What would yours be like? I’d be interested to hear – or to hear what your favourite bookshops are. I’d also like to hear what your thoughts are on the future of the print book in the world of e-literature and apps. The beauty of the new developments in technology is that in many ways the only limitation to what can be achieved is imagination; and in the world of literature, there is no shortage of that. So, if you could do anything with a book, make it interactive in any way that you could imagine, what would you do?
Speak soon.

Monday 27 June 2011

The early bird...

I’m on the early train from Edinburgh to London this morning, grateful that is it midsummer so that getting up at 4.30 was not quite so horrific as it might have been – at least the sky was bright and the birds were singing. I’m off for a meeting with Stephen Jones and Nick Cain, who I have commissioned to write an English rugby book for autumn 2012, for a meeting with our digital distribution team at Faber & Faber, for a lunch meeting with our Sales Director, Laura Poynton, and an afternoon coffee with a potential new author (making time in-between all of these to mooch around some of London’s finest bookshops).
I’m going to keep details of the project that Stephen and Nick are working on under wraps just now, but I look forward to blogging on it in the months to come.
The meeting with Faber & Faber is an interesting one to discuss now, though. Late last year, Faber created a new digital division known as the Faber Factory, which heads up their eBook and app programme, but which is also designed as something of a digital conversion and distribution hub for a number of smaller independent publishing houses – of which Birlinn is one.
Now, before I go into how this relationship with Faber works, I should tell you more about Birlinn, its various imprints and its structure.
Birlinn was started by Managing Director Hugh Andrew around 18 years ago after he and Jamie Byng had rescued Canongate Books from oblivion. Jamie is now something of a global publishing phenomenon, just as Canongate is, and their story is a fabulous one. Hugh’s part in Canongate’s survival is sadly largely forgotten, but after they parted ways Hugh has forged a new hugely successful path for himself with Birlinn.
One of the most astute things that Hugh did in Birlinn’s early days was the acquisition of Polygon from Edinburgh University Press, who had decided to sell off their fiction imprint to concentrate solely on academic publications. It seemed like a smart buy at the time, but one which soon proved to be an incredible piece of business for Birlinn; shortly after the buy-out, the popularity of Alexander McCall Smith, one of Polygon’s authors, erupted around the world. The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series became a world-wide hit and McCall Smith a household name. On the back of this success, Hugh was able to really start developing some depth to the Birlinn and Polygon lists. Little, Brown eventually secured a deal with Birlinn for the paperback editions of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and then acquired all rights to the series from 2006 onwards. But despite the shift of that series to Little, Brown, the McCall Smith relationship with Polygon continued. They published the The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom trilogy and as well as publishing several stand-alone novels, they publish the hardback editions of his 44 Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansions series, which featured as daily instalments in The Scotsman and The Telegraph newspapers respectively.
While McCall Smith is no doubt the company’s standard-bearer, his success has allowed Hugh to invest in the Birlinn list, making it the leading publisher of Scottish cultural books, in Polygon’s fabulous fiction list, in the John Donald (our academic imprint) list and, in 2007, facilitated the acquisition of another Edinburgh publishing house, Mercat Press, with Mercat’s backlist gradually incorporated across Birlinn's imprints.
So there we are, and now we can come back to Faber. In the autumn of 2010, we signed a deal with the Faber Factory for them to become our digital distributor. As a result of combining our eBook lists with that of Faber’s and those of a number of other independent publishing houses, the Factory has been able to take a strong united stance when negotiating terms with the major e-retailing sites, such as Amazon, Apple, Gardeners and Waterstone’s. Without this collective muscle, we would have had little choice but to accept the most severe discount terms with these e-retailers to distribute and sell our eBooks. Because of our alliance, we have been able to establish much fairer terms – for the good of our all our companies and to the benefit of our authors.
The argument about whether traditional publishing houses have a future in the eBook environment when authors and agents can now negotiate directly with Amazon and Apple is one that I will get into another time (although if you are in Edinburgh on the 17th August, I will be discussing the matter on a panel at the Book Festival -
But we’ll have to have a pause just now – the train has just pulled into King’s Cross. I’ll report back on my day’s meetings later.
Speak soon.

Friday 24 June 2011

The beginning...

Now, I have a confession: I got into publishing for rather clandestine purposes. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to do two things – play rugby for Scotland and be a writer (followed very closely, during these formative years, by a desire to be a Jedi, a whip-wielding archaeologist-adventurer, and a hover-board owner). The first of these ambitions foundered on the rocks of my own inadequacies as a rugby player, and while the other dreams also faded... one endured.
In the summer of my first year at university (St Andrews, where I read English), I decided that I would write a children’s book for my little sister, who was around two at the time. I found a concept and a storyline that I rather liked and off I went. Summer ended, the book did not; the manuscript went into cold-storage for ten months and then came out again. This process repeated itself until graduation, by which time the story had morphed into a book for the 9-12 year old market, then teens, then... well nothing. It was a bit of a mess. The core idea was still a good one, but the execution was disappointing – mainly because I had failed to plan the structure from the off and had got lost along the way. But the book was just meant to be a little something for my sister, and after I worked on it a while longer I was eventually happy enough to present it to her. Pleased that it was complete, I took the rather bold step of, on a whim, sending it off to a couple of publishers to see if it might elicit any interest. At that stage, like many people, I had no idea how the whole submission thing really worked. Did the book have to be completely finished and polished as best I could make it, or would the germ of the idea at the heart of the book be enough for the editorial team to say, ‘Hey, this has something... let’s get it into editorial and thrash it and reshape it and make it great!’ The latter, as I am sure you can appreciate, did not occur.
Rule One when writing fiction: any first-time novelist should make sure their manuscript is in the very best possible shape that they can make it before it leaves their desk – agents and editors have neither the time nor the inclination to nurse first-time authors (particularly of fiction) through the writing process on the potential promise of an idea – especially if that idea is clearly not being realised in the way that it could or should be.
And so that first book of mine has gone away. Maybe one day it will rear its head again. But from that experience I learned that only when a manuscript has been honed and refined and absolutely finished should it see the light of day beyond a computer screen.
But the whole process of sending off that first manuscript got me thinking. How does one get published? What processes does a manuscript go through once it hits a publishing house? Writing had been an enjoyable diversion, but as I say, it hadn’t been planned particularly and I just let it flow. For some authors that works; for me, in this case, it didn’t. But it was a first stab and from it I learned an awful lot.
So there I was, fresh out of university and a little lost with what to do with my life. I had wanted to do something vaguely vocational with my degree – I thought about teaching English or going into journalism, but neither quite felt right. My wonderful girlfriend (who several years later became my wonderful wife), picked up on the interest spiked by my submission efforts and found a Masters course in publishing in Edinburgh. Publishing, despite never crossing my mind before, suddenly seemed like a perfect fit – and if I could learn how to one day get published myself, so much the better.
So I did the course... and I absolutely loved it (thank you, Annabelle!). A year later I graduated and I started hawking my wares around several Edinburgh publishing houses looking for work experience. I had stints at Barrington Stoke, Edinburgh University Press, The List magazine, Chambers and, eventually at Birlinn Ltd. Of all the places I worked, Birlinn was the one I enjoyed most, the one that felt the most vibrant (although there is no doubt that The List offices buzzed with a real energy and excitement, too). I was taken on for two days a week and six months later a position opened up in the production department (interestingly, that of an old class-mate from St Andrews who had been drawn south to the bright lights of London), and I landed a role as a production assistant.

In the years since then I have been able to take advantage of size and flexibility of a small independent publishing house – I have worked in production, editorial, sales and publicity and I now manage our digital programme, our export sales and our sports list.

In June 2011, I started my own company, Polaris Publishing, which is focused on developing book content into interactive apps for smartphones and tablet computers. More about this later. But I am also still at Birlinn and the future for both companies is bright and exciting.
Publishing is a job of stresses and strains, of long hours and poor pay... but I can’t think of a single day that I haven’t loved (pretty much) every minute. It is the most amazing career; I love books, I love the creativity that surrounds books and the processes that go into putting them together and getting them out into the market place – from first seeing or hearing a proposal or a rough idea, or plucking a manuscript out of the slush pile, through to contracting and discussing the direction that the book will go with the author (or authors), the lunches and the drinks, all the editorial stages, the picture research, the cover briefings and design sessions, the decisions on paper types, cover finishes, occasional little extras like printed end-papers, ribbon markers, head and tail bands... and then – the best moment of all – receiving the first advances from the printers. This is a terrifying moment of truth after months of work on the publisher's part – and years of work on the author's – but also an incredibly rewarding moment, for after all that time and effort we hold in our hands a tangible object that we can take home and put on our shelves and keep forever. And it is an object that will go onto the shelves and into the hearts of hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of others. Each of the books we work on has the potential to become someone’s favourite; a treasured object that will stay with them forever. It is a romantic notion, of course, but it is no less genuine for that.
And after the book arrives, the publicity campaigns which have been ticking along in the build-up to receiving the advance copies really begin to swing into action. Then there are the launches and the events, the reviews appearing in papers and magazines and online, and we have the wonderful experience of witnessing the infectious excitement of the authors as they see the result of all their hard work finally get out there into the real world... after which we watch with bated-breath as the sales figures start to roll in... And beyond this we open our eyes to an even wider world with rights sales and distribution into foreign territories, eBooks and apps and dedicated websites, Facebook and Twitter campaigns, blogs, book festivals, signings, podcasts, interviews and so on and so on and so on... It is an amazing thing to be part of. And it all makes up for the stress, the deadlines, the margins, the pressures of expectation, the long hours...
So there we are. The first peek under the lid of publishing. I have learned so much in the years since I first stepped foot inside a publishing house – and from these many lessons I have, as I had once longed, become a published author. In November 2010, Behind the Thistle: Playing Rugby for Scotland by David Barnes and Peter Burns hit the shelves of bookstores around the country. Now, as you will have gathered, I did not fulfil my childhood dream of playing rugby for my country; but in co-authoring that book I fulfilled one childhood dream while simultaneously experiencing something of another – and I hugely enjoyed the privileged hours I spent with my heroes as I found out exactly what it was like, and is like, to pull on that famous blue jersey in the Test match environment. Not every childhood dream comes true; but that is not to say that some cannot be achieved - or experienced in one way or another.

Speak soon.