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What is a publisher for?

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I think some people may have been surprised to see yesterday’s blog post about self-publishing on the Nosy Crow site.

We are, after all, a publisher (and I am going to concentrate on Nosy Crow as a publisher of “ books, whether ebooks or print books, in this post, by the way, not as a publisher of multimedia, interactive apps, which, of course, as many readers of this blog know, we also make).

I had several reasons for asking M G Harris to contribute.

The first was that it was a topical response to a Guardian article about social media as a means of marketing books. Given the experience of the author, the focus was on self-publishing, but the points made seemed pretty relevant to any author, whether self-published or traditionally published, or any publisher trying to use social media to connect with potential readers or advocates. The original article had generated a bit of discussion on Twitter, and M G Harris suggested that she had more to say on the topic than the 140 characters allowed.

The second was that I know her and like her. I have, as she said in the blog post, published her. She’s a shrewd, entrepreneurial business woman as well as an author, and I thought she’d have interesting things things to say.

I knew, though, that she’d be talking about her experience of self-publishing. But I think it is pretty pointless for publishers to pretend self-publishing doesn’t exist. M G Harris one of several authors I know who have tried it with modest success, though as she acknowledges in her blog post, she already had a platform and digital assets like the game that were available because the books to which her self-published book was connected were published “traditionally” by Scholastic.

There are people who think publishers are doomed: sad old dinosaurs lumbering around the end-game landscape of a Jurassic industry.

Of course, I believe in our role as a publisher. But, when self-publishing, particularly self-epublishing, is cheap and easy and has lost so much of its stigma, I think that publishers need to be able to answer the question: what is a publisher for? The time of the publisher as “gatekeeper” is over: online, writers can find readers and readers can find writers. So I think that every publisher has to be able to answer why think we should interpose ourselves between the author and the reader.

I believe that Nosy Crow brings several things as a publisher, and that, because of them, we do bring value into the narrowing space between the author and the reader:

CREDIBILITY

We select what we publish. Yesterday (I am on holiday – see the picture above of me and Adrian working), I immediately rejected three books sent to me by agents. I’ve no idea how many books were rejected by people back at the office. If yesterday was like any other day, we’ll have received between 10 and 20 unsolicited manuscripts. We are asked to consider for publication perhaps 6,000 books per year. This year, we will publish just over 30: we publish around half a per cent of what we are offered. But selection is only valuable if your selection is credible. At Nosy Crow, we believe in the judgments we make. Of course, we get things wrong: maybe we don’t like books that go on to be successes (though actually I can’t think of any right now); maybe we think things are promising that don’t then quite shape up the way we hope they would or sell the way we hoped they would; maybe we aren’t quite fast enough in our response to unsolicited manuscripts and they go elsewhere… I am not saying we’re perfect, but we set out to create a list of high-quality, child-focussed and parent-friendly books and apps. I think we’ve done that, and are increasingly recognised for doing so. We are building a brand that has meaning and reputation, and each book we publish benefits from that brand.

MAKING BOOKS BETTER

The idea that publishers sit twiddling their thumbs, waiting for a book to appear so that they can slap a cover on it and sell it is, in my experience, not one that reflects reality (though it’s one that I know that some people have). Nosy Crow, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the kind of book and the nature of the material we receive, intervenes in the content of the book. In my own experience, children’s publishers do this more than adult publishers, and perhaps Nosy Crow does it more than many publishers. I’m not talking about correcting punctuation and spelling mistakes here, though we do that too. I am talking about suggesting rewrites and restructures; suggesting changes to, or the elimination or addition of, plot-lines and characters and pieces of artwork; work on scansion and rhyme and the register of the language used; work on making sure that the page-turns in a picture book work with the sense of the story, so that each spread is a reveal. I am talking about making the book as good as it can be. This can be a frustrating and challenging process on both sides: we are pretty demanding, and if we really don’t think something’s working, we will ask the author or illustrator to do it again (and again and sometimes again) until we feel it is right. Sometimes we work on things directly ourselves, rewriting for authors with their agreement and doing detailed Photoshop work on artwork. We respect our authors and illustrators and their creative integrity, but we roll our sleeves up and change, or help them to change, their work in ways that we think make it better and more likely to be commercially successful.

We also want books to look and feel as good as they can, and spend time, money and effort on creating what we think are arresting covers that communicate to their audience of potential buyers. We choose formats for board books and picture books that we think suit the artwork style and age-group, and worry away at paper finishes, board weight, foil, spot-UV and matt lamination to ensure that, within financially viable limits, we have a physical product that is as attractive as we can make it.

It’s maybe worth saying at this point that sometimes we not only make books better… we quite simply make them. In our first year of publishing (2011), we wrote almost half of the illustrated books we published ourselves, working with illustrators and paper engineers to create the books. We often suggest ideas for series, for format and for sequels to authors and illustrators. We work hard to earn our own seat at the creative table.

ACCESS TO CUSTOMERS

The lowest-risk way to self-publish is to self-epublish. Of course ebooks are important, but last year in the UK children’s market they accounted for about 2% of the market by volume and 1% by value. And many of those ebooks are being read by adults (cult titles like The Hunger Games trilogy count as children’s books and are heavily read by adults).

To access the vast bulk of the children’s market, you still need printed books.

Our ebooks are sold by etailers.

Our print books are stocked and sold by etailers, supermarkets, bookstore chains, independent bookshops, toy stores, and gift and museum shops, book clubs, book fairs, display marketing companies and catalogue companies. We have, or have access to, an infrastructure that supports selling to them, supplying them, invoicing them and collecting money from them. We have a critical mass of titles and a reputation that means it’s worthwhile to them to deal with us.

We also have an international presence. We have relationships with Candlewick (on illustrated books) in the US and Canada and with Allen and Unwin in Australia. We have sold rights to our books in 18 languages so far, and we have close relationships with several continental European publishers who publish many of our books in translation.

We sell rights to books in other media and formats too: yesterday I was negotiating a deal with an educational publisher for educational rights in one of our titles, and with a theatre company for stage rights in another.

We’ve had great coverage in the trade press in the UK and the US, and in France and Germany too, and have had industry recognition in the form of our Independent Publishers Guild awards for Children’s Publisher of the Year, Newcomer of the Year and Innovation of the Year.

We think up, design and, where necessary, print marketing material including catalogues, rights brochures, point-of-sale material; posters, badges, and packs to enable bookshops to run children’s events themed round our books.

We secure (and pay for – see below) promotions with relevant retailers.

ACCESS TO CONSUMERS

Before you can access consumers, you have to understand them. When we take on a book at Nosy Crow, we have an idea of the child – age, gender, interests – that we believe is the core reader of that book. If we don’t know who a book is for, we don’t take it on. We then try to make sure that everything about that book – the cover, the title, the type-size, the word-count – “speaks to” that core reader. We know that there are children who are not our vision of the core reader who might enjoy that book, but I think we have to get it right for that core reader. Of course, because we’re a children’s book publisher, and because the number of books that children buy for themselves is, in the context of the overall market, negligible, we are also trying to appeal to gatekeepers – parents and other relatives, mums buying a birthday present for the child whose party their own child has been invited to, teachers and librarians.

We use social media to raise awareness of our books among adult buyers. We have over 11,000 followers on Twitter and 1,800 or so likes on Facebook. Of course some of these people are people in the industry but many are parents, grandparents, librarians and teachers and, of course, authors and illustrators, any of whom might want to buy our books. We also have a lively website (as you may know, if you’re reading this blog). In the last 12 months, we’ve had over 100,000 unique visitors viewing over half a million pages. We are connected to a network of bloggers, who raise awareness of our books for their often highly specialised audiences.

We also have access to traditional media – and we certainly still think that traditional media is important, and see the impact on sales of really favourable reviews. Our books and apps have been reviewed and featured in national broadsheets (like, recently, The New York Times and The Guardian) in mass-market papers, in parenting magazines, and on radio.

We arrange for authors to attend literary festivals and other events to meet their readers and potential readers (you can find out what the next ones are at the bottom of our home page in the “Come and Meet Us” section).

EXPERTISE

All of this takes skill and expertise. We think we are good at judging, good at shaping, good at marketing and publicising and good at selling. Many of us at Nosy Crow have been doing this for years. When we assess a book for publication; change the positioning of the eyes on a rabbit by less than a millimetre; review the match between typography and artwork on a cover; or negotiate a rights deal we are drawing on years of knowledge and experience (over quarter of a century in my case alone).

TIME

Did I say I was on holiday? Spelling doesn’t get corrected; books don’t get printed and reprinted; ebook files don’t get made; bibliographic data doesn’t get communicated; Frankfurt book fair brochures don’t get written and designed; review copies don’t get sent out; rights sales don’t happen and get recorded; authors don’t get booked for literary feestivals; tweets and blog posts don’t get posted without the expenditure of a lot of administrative and other time. Some of this work is pretty dull, actually. We don’t mind. It’s our job. And we love what we do. But it takes time, and time is something that many authors don’t have, even if they have the inclination to take on these tasks. What time they do have, they want to spend writing or illustrating: it’s probably what they do best.

MONEY

As publishers, we take the financial risk. We pay our authors and illustrators advances up-front. (If you want to know how we pay, this blog post might be interesting.) We pay for covers to be designed. We pay printers for proofs and stock. We pay for the promotional slots that retailers offer us. We pay our own staff to make books the best they can be and to market and publicise our books. We pay for print and online marketing. We pay for stands, accommodation and travel to international book fairs.

And we pay for all of this before a single copy has been sold.

Then we pay to have our books in a warehouse. We pay to have our books sent out from the warehouse, to be invoiced, and for the debt to be collected. We pay to send authors to literary festivals. We pay to post copies to reviewers.

The financial risk, as I say, is ours. And we often take it on authors and illustrators with no track-record whatsovever – authors like Helen Peters and Paula Harrison, both published within the last few months; both of whom were “slush-pile” finds; and both of whom have been promoted by major UK retailers and sold internationally.

If we sell no copies, or fewer copies than we thought we would, we still bear many of those costs.

I know that epublishing eliminates some of these costs (the print and distribution element) but (a) that is a small part of the whole set of costs (around 9% of the cover price in the example of a typical children’s paperback fiction example I’ve just been working on) and (b) as I have said, just 2% of the children’s books sold last year in the UK were ebooks.

As an independent company, incidentally, we have an even more acute sense than perhaps is the case in the corporate world that the money we spend on acquiring and publishing books is money the shareholders could otherwise spend on cheese or cake or shoes for our kids.

As a publisher, we believe we use our brand, skills, knowledge, time and money to enable an author or illustrator to sell the best possible product in more places to more people than the author or illustrator would be able to do if they were working alone. We do this, we think, to the greater financial benefit of the author or illustrator than they would achieve should they choose to self-publish, while allowing the author and illustrator to focus on the thing they set out to do: to create a book.

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