Ebooks, an independent’s view: Fledgling Press

Talk about ebooks is everywhere at the moment, but to writers and readers, the discussion can seem somewhat polarized. Either the book is dead and we’ll only be served up generic fiction sanctioned by the biggest companies, or we’re facing a deluge of self-published rubbish. However, it’s a much bigger picture – and one that’s looking rosy for some independent publishers, who may not be hitting the headlines so frequently but sure are getting on with quietly revolutionising the way they work.

One such publisher is Edinburgh’s Fledging Press. I met with Paul Cain, the Digital Director of the company, the other week, and his enthusiasm for ebooks and the opportunities they’d bring shone through. He explained that the press had been considering digital books long before the Kindle explosion of last Christmas, and therefore were probably keener and better placed than many small presses to take advantage of the sudden boom in interest.

Fledgling has a number of ebooks already out and a number of plans in the pipeline, so I asked Paul how difficult it was for them to add this facet to their business. Not too difficult at all it seems. With the conversion of proofs into ePub formats taking less than a day in-house and costing somewhere between £50-100 to outsource, Paul gave the impression he couldn’t understand why anyone would chose not to expand into the arena.

Of course, it’s one thing to have created an ebook and another to get it in front of readers, a problem facing all big, independent and self publishers these days. Fledgling make use of Faber Factory when it comes to distribution, and possibly would have gone with them for the formatting on their ebook files if they hadn’t found doing it themselves to be entirely possible.

But, as Paul pointed out, converting the book is only one part of a very long process, and when we discussed the ways books – and their low overheads – could provide encouragement for those considering self-publishing, he talked about all of the things you can expect a publisher to do for you before you make it to actual publication, such as editing and proofing, as well as all the things it will do afterwards, such as promotion and advertising.

I asked him how authors felt about the idea of having their work in ebook form, and he said their response has been overwhelmingly positive. However, I wasn’t at all surprised when he confirmed that yes, the majority of writers wanted to see their book in physical form too. The publisher does have one client they are currently working for in ebook form only, and that’s R. J. Mitchell, whose book was out in print in the US but was looking for a way to distribute locally. His contract meant that ebooks were an option, and Parallel Lines ended up being the company’s bestseller this year.

Paul is looking forward to the experiments Fledging Press will be able to conduct thanks to ebooks – such as tweaking prices, changing marketing plans to suit different demographics and choosing which books are best suited to which mediums. Such is the reasoning behind the specifics of their latest release – Chin’s Sex, Love and Sweet Suicide, which they publicized with help of Twitter and a recorded reading.

As far as Paul is concerned, digital publishing is all about releasing potential – and that’s exactly the ethos behind Fledgling Press.

Margaret Irvine, another Fledging Author, is scheduled to speak at Portobello Book Festival this Saturday.

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My first foray into a slush pile

Slush is a dirty word

Ian Dawson: White Paper Pile

I used to hate the term slush pile, really hate it. The thought of all those words I’d tweaked and printed and lovingly posted ending up melting into some kind of inky, grey sludge made me feel not only sad, but also kind of resentful. Back then, the realities of the world of publishing were pretty fuzzy for me. Not so these days, and especially not now I’ve had my first foray into slush pile reading.

When the slush still sounded scary

Once, I had a quick fire attitude towards sending my work out there. Submissions would be done in a flurry and I’d be sending out work practically with my eyes closed, because I was too scared to find out too much and be disheartened. In a way, it was both an act of extreme confidence and extreme lack of it – which sounds like it could pretty much describe the whole writing condition. I suspected my stories would end up slushed, so I tried not to find out too much, so as not to be discouraged.

Clearing the slush from my windscreen

After seeing the kind of stuff that pour through the doors of the journal I’m part-timing for (as well as reading a few good articles on slush), I’ve got an even better idea of why blind submissions are a waste of time – and an invitation for rejection and minor heartbreak. It really is a slush pile, because not only are some of the stories that come in not very good, but lots just aren’t in any way suitable. Really, you’re sifting the slush for the things that fit, as well as the stories that shine.

To be truthful, I can’t say I’ve come to love the term slush pile, but when you look at those snowy white submissions heaped up, full of spelling mistakes and unsuitable material, you can just image the way the black type begins to bleed and your mound becomes slushier and slushier.

Where does all the talent go?

I’m not trying to sound wanky here or anything, but I know some massively talented people. And that’s amazing, I love knowing that the majority of my friends are passionate and dedicated and spend a lot of time honing their various talents. What I really hate though, is that fact that so many of these people’s efforts are not out there for the world to see and enjoy.

There’s so much noise online, so many rules for competitions, so few chances to get published or signed, that lots of them are just toiling away on their own, unrecognised and depressed at spending so much time perfecting something that may never get out there.

I feel bad about it, I want to do something about it, but I don’t really know what. The only solution I can think of is trying to set up a platform for them to publish, distribute, display their various works – but I can’t help feeling like there are a few too many of such platforms anyway.

Also, it would take a serious amount of time to make any impact on an already quite saturated market, and I want to be writing in my spare time – not project managing. Then again, if I’ve learned anything in the day job – maybe it’s time to apply it to something I care about because I hate the thought of all that talent going to waste.

Well, whose fault is it then?

Last night I met up with some writer buddies so we could do our regular evisceration of each other’s babies (ok, I mean crit each other’s works in process) and a decidedly pessimistic air hung over our secluded table. It was nothing new, nothing we haven’t all been hearing for years, just another conversation about the viability of literary fiction in the market.

Guardian writer Stuart Jeffries today questioned whether Waterstone’s has become a bane rather than a boon to publishers. The book selling chain has attracted a lot of criticism for its capitalist take on the business but hey, it is a business isn’t it?

Far be it from me to restrain myself from bitching and moaning about celebrity memoirs and mindless ghost written ‘novels’, but I can’t deny that, if they make money book shops are going to sell them. I do, however, have sympathy for the argument that it’s unfair of major bookselling chains to expect payments for accepting stock and even bigger payments for including said stock in promotions.

I feel sorry for Tim Waterstone, the founder of the shops who once lead what was seen as a force for good in the book scene. The thing is, it’s not exactly a pattern specific to literature – something starts making money, the big guys move in with their eye on the prize and less so on the stock/product and then the start-up is seen to have sold out. It’s just the way it goes, isn’t it?

Is it the collapse of the NBA agreement that didn’t allow for the discounting of books (for the noble reasoning that publishers should be able to fund lesser selling literary works) to blame? Is it the supermarkets that should be railed at for providing us with books alongside our bogroll? Or is it the fault of every one of us that buys something ‘safe’ rather than challenging or who scours the shelves for the cheapest possible price without considering how they are cutting into the authors/publishers/editors/agents means of survival?

New writers, the publisher’s risk

There has been a definite shift in publishing in recent years, no doubt precipitated by the dreary economic times we’re suffering. Unfortunately it often feels as though there are few, if any, winners in an industry that appears in flux.

It seems that everywhere you turn there are cries of doom and gloom concerning publishing, but it’s hardly a new state of panic. The state of literature has been contested for decades and yet there remains a steady stream of literary and challenging fiction as well as plenty of vicarious readers keen to tuck in.

The current problem for new writers, or people who have embarked on a writing career but haven’t made it big yet, is the fact that times are so uncertain that publishers are terrified of getting their fingers burnt. Who wouldn’t rather back a safe bet?

Luckily there are still plenty of individuals and publishers who will take the risk, and they don’t do it for the money – they do it for the love of a good book. Which is, coincidentally, the only real reason that keeps most writers writing anyway.

Jewish group rails against Amazon’s ‘Nazi’ titles

The American Jewish Committee revealed plans to sue the German branch of retail giants Amazon as it claims some of the books sold by the company questioned the Holocaust and trivialised the Nazis.

The fifty titles under scrutiny include works such as The Auschwitz Myth – Legend or Reality by Wilhelm Staglich and many of them are classified as being unsuitable for under 18s by the German authorities, the AJC claimed.

Amazon, on the other hand, say that they definitely don’t sell books that have been banned and that instead of removing the books in question they would prefer to open discussion – in the interests of free speech. However, a spokesperson also said that they had recently removed some books deemed to trivialise or glorify the Nazis from sale.

I find this debate an extremely difficult one. On one hand I abhor the thought of anyone trying to deny that such atrocities ever took place, but on the other hand I firmly believe in people having the liberty to put their ideas into the public domain for others to condemn or consider at will. The thought of any books being banned terrifies me, but then so does the idea of people being sold a glorified version of past events that could potentially spark a repetition of opinion, if not of action.

I suppose my liberal opinion on publishing is perhaps more geared towards fictional accounts. Anything claiming to tell ‘the truth’ about such grave issues and then attempting to trivialise them certainly wouldn’t be particularly welcome in my local book shop.

What most women read

A recent Astrel survey of women aged from 45-60 revealed a soppy side as the highest percentage said they prefer to read romantic fiction. That said, it was only 35 per cent while crime and mystery got 33 and other novels 31.

However, it turns out that nearly two thirds like a little raunchiness in their reading. Good news I reckon! I wouldn’t say I’m that into writing romance, although difficult relationships feature widely generally, but I’ve always disliked the idea that people don’t want to read about sex – that they’d prefer it to be edited out – what a boring idea.

But the best news from the survey has got to be the fact that only 4.6 per cent said that they hardly ever read books while nearly two thirds said they read at least a book a month and one in ten devouring two a week. Hell yeah!

The top ten books the women chose for desert island reading were:

1 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding (20 per cent
2 Atonement – Ian McEwan (14 per cent)
3 Harry Potter (any book) – J K Rowling (13 per cent)
4 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger (9 per cent)
5 Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie (8 per cent)
6 The Other Boleyn Girl – Philippa Gregory (8 per cent)
7 The Life of Pi – Yann Martel (7 per cent)
8 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks (7 per cent)
9 Notes on a Scandal – Zoe Heller (7 per cent)
10 Memories of a Geisha – Arthur Golden (6 per cent)

While I wouldn’t agree with all of them, I have read seven of them and would recommend five on the list. Going by the age of the women surveyed, does that mean I’m old before my time or that they have universal appeal?

Self help books can bring you down

I knew it! I knew that certain self help books weren’t actually all that helpful. Well, I didn’t know it but I suspected it – and not just because telling yourself that you are a wonderful, deserving and successful person seems so inherently un-Scottish. Repeating a mantra in the mirror to try and persuade yourself that you aren’t the worst person in the world always sounded destined to failure to me. Especially because I really think most people are happiest when they forget what they look like!

Well now a study has revealed that depressed people who repeated positive self-reinforcement actually felt worse about themselves. Take that self help industry (well, section of the self help industry that relied on cheap fixes – there are extremely helpful and useful parts of the industry too)!

Honestly though, as if no one ever thought that forced repetition of positive thoughts wouldn’t cause contradictory thoughts to also be reinforced in the minds of depressed people before. I mean, shucks, ever tried telling someone with an eating disorder something positive about their weight?

The problem is that some self help books attempt to exist in a vacuum and claim to offer sufferers a quick fix. While positive thinking techniques can undoubtedly help as part of a broader programme of recovery, the technique shouldn’t be embarked on in isolation as it seems it’s likely to have exactly the opposite of the desired effect.

Raising self esteem isn’t as simple as talking yourself up in front of the mirror, but it isn’t impossible. Ignore the tired line trotted out by books, magazines and TV shows and turn to people who can really help, whether professionals, friends or authors that chronicle the human condition and its pit falls for the edification of everyone rather than to make a quick buck.

Catcher in the Rye case in Salinger’s favour

A federal judge ruled in Salinger’s favour yesterday and the sequel to Catcher in the Rye has been halted before publication. So 60 Years Later Coming Through the Rye, by John David California ( real name Fredrik Colting) will not be going to press and Holden will not be resurrected and I for one am mighty glad about it.

The judge said that the new book borrowed extensively from J.D Salinger’s original, both substantively and stylistically.

While I feel rather sorry for California, it takes a hell of a lot of effort to write a novel whatever your inspiration, I’m glad that Salinger has yet again been able to protect his rightful intellectual property.

However, it seems that the ruling has no grounding here in the UK and that the book will be available to Britain – for the moment anyway.

Boost your profile or get paid for your art?

It’s interesting the way that powerful companies think that their might makes them irresistible to everyone. And while that may sometimes be the case, especially when it comes to other corporations with hungry marketing departments, it isn’t always. Sometimes artists and creative types would prefer to keep their clientele loyal and their work profitable rather than gaining mass exposure but no cash for their efforts.

The NYT carried a story this weekend that said that net-powerhouse Google spun an initiative where it invited loads of prominent artists to display their artwork on its new Chrome web browser, the catch being that they wouldn’t be paid for the privilege. The search giants were probably kind of shocked when some of these artists turned them down – but that’s exactly what they did.

With the whole Google Book Search thing hanging in the balance as authors and those responsible for author’s estates join forces with book publishers in questioning the project in court, it makes me wonder if Google thinks it’s above copyright laws.

And if it does it’s only indicative of one of the greatest and most potentially damaging aspects of the web – they way it democratises art yet makes it increasingly difficult for the creators of said art to control and make money from it.

Arguments about digital pirating refuse to die down, mainly because no major industry has worked out a failsafe way to deal with it yet. Hopefully the literary scene will come up with a more successful solution than the music industry did, seeing as musicians have the option of boosting tour ticket prices while authors really don’t.

It’s a strange argument, that between expanding your profile and protecting your investment. While plenty of people will tell you that exposure is everything and obscurity is the real death of the artist, so many writers and artists are gaining notoriety yet earning next to nothing. And if everyone has to work a day job, how will they produce the art we all enjoy?