EP30: The Future Of Publishing | David Shelley
In this episode you will discover…
The personality traits and habits of successful authors
What major publishers look for in an author and how you can stand out from the crowd
How major publishers are looking to mentor and attract a more diverse workforce and author list.
Why authors should maybe get someone else to write their blurbs and titles
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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)
David Shelley is the CEO of Orion Publishing and the Little, Brown Publishing Group. He started as an editor, working with some major talents including Iain Banks, Val McDermid and JK Rowling. He spoke to us not long after it was announced that the Hachette Publishing Group had purchased the Indie eBook publishing company Bookouture, and we discussed the future of publishing.
What’s a typical day in the life of a publishing CEO?
One of the things I love about this business is there is no typical day. One of the joy of publishing is different things are thrown at you every day, and the world changes so fast, particularly in media. The last ten years has been a blizzard of change. I’m lucky enough to have good people who run different bits of the businesses that I look after, so we have a great MD of Little, Brown, a great MD of Orion, we have a great sales director, ops director, finance director, so my role is not so much a doing role, it’s lightly conducting role. That’s how I like to think about it; like a conductor making sure everything’s working as it should. Sometimes I do need to go in and put a fire out somewhere; there’ll be a problem, or an author who’s unhappy, or something that’s not working as it should, or it could be one of our retailers is in trouble. I’ll get drawn into particular things, but otherwise I’m looking over everything. It’s hard to describe.
Most of all I’m making sure our authors are happy, because if they’re happy and being well-served, then everything’s great, we’ve got a successful business, and I think you forget that at your peril in our business. The authors are right at the centre of everything.
You started as an editor before you moved up the ranks?
I was working at a very small publisher in Brixton called Allison & Busby. Just five people, and I started off as an editorial assistant, then a junior editor, then, due to a few bits of good luck, very quickly I was able to run this small publisher, which was an incredible experience and probably prepared me a lot for doing what I do now. When you do something like that you see all aspects of the business; so I was looking after the sales, and helping design the covers, and proofreading, and taking mail sacks down to the post office. Doing absolutely everything. Once you’ve done absolutely everything you feel nothing can really surprise or unnerve you. It was a great grounding. Then about twelve years ago I moved to Little, Brown to be a crime editor.
I’d always commissioned a range of fiction and non-fiction; crime, literary, whatever. I was approached about a job doing crime fiction, working with great authors like Mark Billingham, I found it very hard to resist, even though in some ways it was a smaller than I had been doing — running a small company — but that in its way was brilliant as well as it gave me the experience of really focused publishing. I only had a few authors every year and my job was to make them into huge bestsellers, which was a brilliant experience.
In your experience what are the essential elements of a bestselling author (no pressure)?
If I knew the answer to that I would be on a Caribbean island somewhere… I think authors need to read a lot, and to genuinely love the area that they’re writing in. I think it’s very difficult to write a bestseller if you’re writing in an area you don’t personally have some affinity with, or writing a book you don’t personally want to read. Most of the bestselling authors I’ve worked with have a real passion for books, whether they’re science fiction, crime, or literary novels. They have a passion for storytelling. There is a rare sort of author who is a born storyteller, and actually doesn’t read a lot else, but those are the rarity, those are the one or two percent. The ninety-eight percent are great readers.
Be a great reader, you have to have passion for the area you’re writing in.
Don’t try to be mechanical about it, don’t try to write in an area you think is successful. You have to love those books as well for that to work. Authors who have an understanding of character drive engagement. You can have the best plot in the world, but if you don’t care about the characters then no one’s going to read it. People often say Agatha Christie or Ian Fleming are classic plotters, but they also have have great characters. Think about Poirot or James Bond, those are fantastic characters and you can’t have plot without character, but you can have character without plot. There are brilliant bestselling novels by John Updike, Richard Ford, based around a character and not much plot.
For me, character is really essential if you want to be a bestselling author. Understanding character and an interest in psychology.
One thing that ties a lot of the authors together that I’ve worked with is I genuinely feel I learn something from them when I see them. There’s almost something of a teacher quality to bestselling authors, a desire to impart wisdom, knowledge. Not always as heavily as that, or as consciously, but whatever genre they’re writing in I learn from them and there’s something that they’re doing that’s transmitting something of their experience, their knowledge, which maybe sounds a bit woo-woo, but there’s often a very special quality that’s indefinable, but it’s almost like when you meet that person you want to listen to them.
There’s not a disconnect between the person and their work. There’s a synchronicity, not to say that they are their character, or they are their work, but when you meet them you can understand how that person produced that book.
They also have quite a strong moral sense. Everyone’s morals are different, but a lot of the authors I’ve worked with have a very strong sense of right and wrong. They have an opinion about it.
Think about Mitch (Albon), think about Val (McDermid), think about Denis Lehane, a lot of bestselling writers have that, and as readers that attracts us. When someone has a clear ideology that they’re expressing through fiction, that’s very compelling.
What are some of the things we writers need to look out for in the future of publishing?
It’s a really interesting landscape at the moment, things have never been as fluid. Ten years ago there was a very stark choice: people could publish with a publisher, or they could set up their own publisher at huge cost and probably not achieve much distribution, or they could publish with a vanity publisher at a huge cost and not achieve much distribution. There were no good options. Now there is option of self-publishing very inexpensively, you can distribute your work on Amazon and other internet retailers, you can work with small eBook publishers, crowdfunding, there are so many different options for indie writers. I really like it because there is this fluidity where people will do a book like that, it might do very well, then they might sign up another book with us, we might publish it, and they might move back and forth. That’s going back to my point about serving authors well. We then have to be on our A-game to make authors think, actually I love this experience of being published by Orion compared to being indie published. I think it’s helped us really raise our game, because I think, to be honest, publishing probably was, twenty years ago, was a bit complacent, maybe there weren’t many options, and I think in any industry where there is creative disruption that is actually a good thing for the industry because it makes people work harder, be better, be more focused on the client, the author. If I were an author now I would feel very optimistic about my options. I wouldn’t feel the need to define, I’m going to go down this route, or I’m going to go down that route. I would say, I’ll publish some short stories online, see how that goes, see what the reader feedback is, then I might explore getting an agent, getting a contract with a publisher, but if that doesn’t work out, I might self-publish, I might go down the Bookouture route of an indie publisher… Or, if I’ve been published by Orion and that didn’t work out, then I might go down that (indie) route. We’ve published lots of people who’ve started as indie published, and then we’ve also worked with people who have then gone on to become indie published. I feel very relaxed about that.
How closely do the big publisher groups like Hachette watch the indie market?
If you’re a decent publisher, then you’re looking to see what readers are reading. We look at online bestseller charts very closely to see; What is it about these books that is attracting people? Why are people drawn back to these characters? What’s happening? We’ve learned a certain amount from that and we often will feel we’d like to work with some of those authors. You also see people who get exceptional reviews online, and they might not be the bestselling authors, but they can get these incredible reviews. We’ve published authors like that before, who’ve come to our attention because the passion from readers has been so strong.
I’m a big believer in actual consumer data, and you can see from that where consumers are engaging with authors. It’s a great testing ground for us.
You mentioned Bookouture, and there have been headlines recently about Hachette acquiring Bookouture, what are you able to tell us about that?
Bookouture is a very innovative, vibrant, dynamic eBook-first publisher. They were started four years ago by a young entrepreneur called Oliver Rhodes, and he’s worked in the publishing industry and thought, I can do eBooks better than the traditional industry does. His focus is commercial fiction, and they publish eBook first, often eBook only, they get the best cover art that looks amazing when it’s a small jpeg, they do really great online marketing, they look very carefully at pricing, and at metadata as well, which is quite a boring word, but it’s actually a very important one.
Metadata is all the words that describe a book when you’re searching.
You either see them visibly, or they’re invisibly leading you towards different things online. And metadata is a large portion of our existence now. It dictates what we look at online.
Metadata is things like the title, the product description, the categories, certain keywords… It’s a bit of a dark art, isn’t it?
It is, and often those words will be hidden, so you might be searching on an online retailer and you might just type in ‘adventure story’ and then stuff will come up, and it often won’t say ‘adventure story’, but there are these invisible, embedded words to describe words, and they will say ‘adventure’ and they will point you in that direction. Bookouture have worked really hard on that side of things, and they’ve had a lot of success. They’ve had some massive bestselling authors in eBook, a guy called Robert Bryndza, Angela Marsons, Louise Jensen. These people have sold millions of eBooks. We’ve been watching them really closely, as have lots of publishers, and we thought we’d love to work with them and learn from them, and they would compliment what we do very well.
Is this the beginning of the merging of the indie and the traditional worlds of publishing?
I think it’s us saying that we can learn from Bookouture, and Bookouture saying what we do can be enhanced by what Hachette do. There are elements of what very old establishment publishers can do, and what really new dynamic four-year-old companies can do, and on both sides we’re saying if we work together we’ll both be stronger.
It’s not binary any more. Anything that’s to do with authors, I want us to be in that space, I want us to be engaged with it, I want us to be experimenting, learning from people.
You can’t be King Canute about it. The consumers are doing what consumers are doing; people are living online a lot, and we have to go along with that and learn about that, we can’t protect things or keep other things at bay, we just need to be open to everything, I think.
The Kindle chart seems to be a place for indie authors to prove themselves to the traditional publishers, would you say?
Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. Often authors will be very happy self-publishing, and then some of us will swoop in and make them offer. Sometimes they’ll accept it, sometimes they’ll refuse. We’ve got authors we’d love to work who consistently tell us, no, actually, I love publishing myself, I get a lot out of it in all sorts of ways, thank you very much but I’m really happy.
The interesting thing is the rise of the indie author who loves being an indie author. There are those who just love the whole process.
I’ve met indie authors who love all the metadata, who love the dynamic pricing, who actually get off on all of that and love being a mini-entrepreneur. Those people are fascinating. Going back fifteen-twenty years ago that simply was not an option. No one was going to say I’m going to vanity-publish all my books. It would be career suicide. Whereas now you can have an amazing career and choose your own route.
Can we talk about your involvement in Hachette’s diversity initiatives?
It’s something I feel very passionate about and a lot of people here do, too. In the book publishing business there are several reasons for that. Many us feel morally it’s the right thing to do. We often come into book publishing because you have beliefs and values and that’s one of them for a lot of people. Also, we’re palpably not publishing for the widest possible audience if we’re not diverse in terms of who we are here. People from a BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) background, from a low SES (socio-economic status) background, disabled people: we need to be a rich, diverse place internally here. Not just in editorial, but in our sales department, publicity, marketing, design, in order to fully-embrace the world that we live in. The danger in publishing, if you aren’t diverse enough, if you are a certain sort of bookish, white, upper middle class person, that you can publish for that same sort of person. Just as an example, we went into an inner-city school, these fantastic 14-year-old girls, and we were saying to them what sort of books would you publish by what authors and they were throwing all this stuff at us that we had no idea about — never come up in any acquisitions meetings of ours — rappers, Youtube stars, whatever, and it was really clear that their lives were very different to our lives and we need to have people in this building whose lives connect in some way with people’s lives outside. It’s a really important thing for our industry. We’re doing a lot of initiatives to try and make ourselves a more diverse place to work in, like we’re working with a recruiter who really targets BAME and low SES people, to persuade them that publishing is a good industry to work in. The other thing is our industry doesn’t traditionally attract people who are not of a certain class and type, because we don’t market ourselves in that way, and we’re working really hard with school kids, universities, entry-level jobs to attract a far more diverse workforce. We’re doing a big thing with our board. All of us are mentoring someone who is identified as not currently represented on our board, which is an exciting thing to be doing.
What are your hopes for the next five or ten years?
We would like to see the broader range of different people at all levels in the organisation. We’d love to see more women in leadership positions, love to see BAME people on our board, which we don’t currently have, and just in terms of the way that we publish I would like to be surprised and challenged every time I see the books that we’re publishing.
What advice to you have for us? What shall we look out for in the next few months as we move towards publication?
One thing I see when people are working on a book is, weirdly, the further along they are with it, the harder it becomes for them to describe the book, or to say anything very cogent about it, or necessarily appealing. I think the most important thing for you is to think about your pitch for the book and how you describe it to someone very, very quickly and in a compelling way. If you can’t, then maybe there’s something about the book that isn’t quite working.
I’ve seen some really bad blurbs by writers about really good books that they’ve written. Writers aren’t often their own best marketeers. Conversely, I’ve seen a literary agent or a publisher will take hold of it and will describe it in a completely different way that is much more appealing and they’ll often put a much better title on it, as well. Writers and their titles is a whole show in itself. It must be that thing of being so close to what you’re writing.
I would also like lots of other opinions. I would use some of these websites where you can just post stuff and put three chapters up and get feedback that way, it’s almost like crowdsourcing feedback.
See what sort of response you get, see how many people click on it, and if it’s a lot of people then that’s promising, and if it’s not then that’s feedback as well.
The relationship writers have with a freelance paid editor is very much work-for-hire, that person is helping you make the work as good as it can be, they’re not necessarily there to tell you if your work is saleable, or if it’s popular or if it’s going to be a bestseller. I wouldn’t use that person for that role. I would seed it with people that you trust, writers’ groups are really good sources of feedback. I would get as much honest feedback as you can. Not from an editor, though.
What do you do when an author delivers a book and it’s not up to scratch?
That’s a case when a good literary agent is really valuable. You would ring up an agent and say what did you think about this? And the agent might say what did you think about this? (laughs) And then having two independent opinions, you’re both on the same page, and then you work out between you how to have that conversation with the author in way that is compassionate, because they will have spent a year, two years, three years working on a book, and sometimes you can see how a book might be made better and sometimes you do have to say this book will have to go in your bottom drawer, for the author’s own sake more than anyone. As a publisher, if it’s an author who sells well, you could sell that book. The punters haven’t read it yet, so they might buy it on the strength of the title and the author’s work that they’ve read, but it would do the author no favours if they don’t like the book. If you’re a good editor, a good agent, you’re looking out for the author more than anything, but it’s a hard conversation to have.
How important is a thick skin, and do you see failure as part of the route to success?
I do, and I don’t think this gets talked about enough; there are so many writers who will say, Oh well, of course there were the four books I wrote before I got published. Everyone knows the story about the writer who got rejected and rejected and then eventually got published, Watership Down or JK Rowling, but there are so many writers who say, actually my first four novels were rubbish, but my fifth one was quite good and it got published. Or you’ll get someone like Ian Rankin who will quite happily say I got better as I went on. I think that’s really important, and I’m always amazed that people persevered after getting three or four books turned down. There are some writers in there who are international bestselling name and you think that’s part of why you are an international bestseller, because with every one of those first four books you’re getting better and better, and then by the fifth you’ve really nailed it.
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