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.