Saturday, 9 July 2011

Kindles and Kids' Books - Susan Price and Katherine Roberts

KATH:  You were the first person to sign up with Amazon for Kindle, weren't you? So maybe you should start...

SUE:  I think it’s arguable which of us became interested in Kindling first.  I remember talking with you years ago about writers being pushed into self-publishing by the way things were going in the publishing industry.  We’d both seen what had happened in the music industry, and it seemed plain – to us anyway – that the publishing industry would go the same way.
            I remember suggestions that the Scattered Authors’ Society become a co-operative publisher, and people saying, ‘We should write and let publishers publish!’ – things like that.  But publishers weren’t publishing many of us.

KATH: That’s true, and if I had not been having such a frustrating time creatively I might not have discovered the Kindle route so soon. But I had three more-or-less complete manuscripts by 2010 which were not contracted, as well as a short story collection looking for a home, and that was also the year my publishers began to let my backlist titles go out of print. So I could see all these books I’d written not being available for people to read even if they wanted to, and that seemed crazy. So I started reading some US blogs, got rather excited about the possibilities, and decided to take advantage of not having any publishing deadlines to teach myself how to turn them into e-books.

SUE:  I remember you saying that kindling had made you excited about writing again.  And I was in a similar position.  I had – and have! - a long back-list of out-of-print books, one being my Carnegie winner, ‘The Ghost Drum’.  Its sequels too, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance.  When I give talks, people come up and ask me where they can get copies, and I’ve had e-mails asking about them.  What really riled me was finding old copies on the internet, selling for £40 each – not a penny of which came to me, who’d written it!  The most I’d ever made from a copy was about 10p.
            I felt like writing another full-blooded fantasy, so I suggested to my agent that  I wrote a new book for the series, so we could offer all four as a package.  She was sure she could sell them, so I wrote ‘Ghost Spell’.  My agent liked it, and showed it to a German agent, who swore she would not rest from mental strife until she’d sold the German rights.  That was two years ago, and none of the books have sold.
            Meanwhile, the proposal for a third book in the ‘Sterkarm’ series has been with Scholastic for as long.  My agent has formally requested them to make an offer or return the rights to the first two books, but they’ve done neither.  And I had about six synopsis and proposals out there – none of them doing anything.  So when I heard about self-publishing on Kindle, to say I was interested was understating it a bit.  I fully intend to publish all my ‘Ghost World’ books on Kindle – and if I have no offer for Sterkarm 3 before I finish it, I shall publish that on Kindle too. 

KATH: And as a fan of your books, I’ll be first to download them! But although I enjoy reading shorter fiction and non-fiction on my Kindle, for a longer novel I do still prefer a paper edition, so I hope your publishers offer for them soon.
As an author, I much prefer working with a publisher to bring my books to readers, even if it means making less money in the long run. Not only for the professional editing and production – if I’m Kindling a new title, I can always employ a freelance to do this work – but because a good publisher does things properly publicity-wise, which is why I’m delighted to have recently placed one of the manuscripts mentioned above with Templar as part of a four-book deal… though the other two I am now keeping back for possible Kindling at a later date. If this sounds a bit like sitting on the fence, then it’s only what (some) publishers are doing with our out-of-print backlist titles at the moment!

SUE:  Is the Templar series the one about King Arthur’s daughter?  I like the sound of that – and I don’t think you’re sitting on the fence.  This is a whole new game, nobody’s sure of the rules, and we all have to play it as best we can.  I certainly wouldn’t turn down a contract with a conventional publisher if one offered me a good deal!  But they aren’t offering – despite my agent telling me a short while ago that I’m ‘still very highly thought of in the business,’ despite people telling me that I’m ‘a very good writer’ – it doesn’t pay the mortgage!  The only kind of work I’m getting is work with educational publishers, writing early readers.  Now this is fun and interesting work, which I enjoy – but it isn’t a living.  And if – as the American blogs you’ve passed on to me seem to say – there is decent money to be made from self-publishing on Kindle, then I’m in!

KATH: Yes, King Arthur’s daughter. But I don’t have an agent to tell me how the business thinks of me these days so my name might be mud...

SUE:  I doubt it!

KATH: (grins) Yet it’s no good being highly thought of unless that translates into book deals. You can’t eat praise, so I guess it all comes down to the bottom line. I am very happy working with traditional publishers if this enabIes me to pay my bills, but a few years ago falling royalties, an unexpected gap in contracts, and rising expenses tipped this equation the wrong way. Like you, I do not have any other means of support so I need to earn enough from my writing to keep a roof over my head and put food on the table. I sat down and did the math and worked out that I need to publish 10 books on Kindle selling an average of 100 copies per month (in a worldwide market) to earn me a living. That’ll be achievable, I think, as more people get Kindles, and some self-published authors in the US are selling far more than that already. We just need to work out how best to do the publicity. And that’s where we really need to put in the time – no amount of self promotion can ever match what a good publisher does for our books, but we don’t need to satisfy shareholders so we don’t need to sell as many copies.

SUE: Publicity, yes!  I keep hearing that we need to stick with conventional publishers because ‘they handle the publicity’.  But how much publicity do most of us get from our publishers?  Don’t we hear, again and again, that we’re expected to do it for ourselves?  So let’s do it for ourselves – using the Scattered Authors, using the internet, going viral.

KATH: We’re already doing it…

SUE:  You’ve been doing it for a while, with your poster campaign, your website, your blogs – I feel you’re way ahead of me there too.  And now you’ve started Kindle Authors UK!  I’m trying, but I’m a long way from building the following you have on-line, or having anything like as lively a blog.

KATH: Well, I’ve made a start but I’ve still a long way to go. The hardest part for me is having the confidence to push my own books. But I think joint publicity works well, and joint blogs are much more interesting than going solo. The real difficulty for me Kindling new titles is believing in my work if an editor has not said “yes”.

SUE: I enjoy working with editors – but I’ve always relied mainly on my own judgement.  I’ve never been a member of a writing circle, I very rarely ask people to read my work before I submit it to an agent or publisher.  I’ve always been prepared to flatly say, ‘No,’ to editors who ask me to make changes, if I don’t think the changes improve the work.  I won’t claim never to have made mistakes! - but the loneliness of the long-distance writer doesn’t bother me.  Especially not since I joined the Scattered Authors - now I’m always down at the SAS’s virtual village square, picking up all the goss.

KATH: I do understand the need to rely on your own judgement. As Stephen King says in his excellent book “On Writing”: you must close the door until the first draft is done. In my experience letting an editor in too early is like trying to polish the chair before the tree has even grown.

SUE:  I completely agree with that!  I hardly ever talk much about what I’m writing: certainly not until I’ve got a more-or-less completed draft, and I know I’m going to finish it.  When I have, I may agree that an editor’s suggestions will improve what I’ve written, because by then I’m able to take a much more objective view.  But let me get my house built of bricks before I let anyone come huffing and puffing!

KATH: Maybe we’ll just need to adjust to a new way of thinking, and let readers decide rather than the traditional gatekeepers of agents or editors or the head offices of bookselling chains. But I’ll still miss the physical book.

SUE: Books can be very beautiful objects – and I remember loving the ‘toasty’ smell of old books as a child, and their coloured illustrations covered by tissue paper.  Still, I’m more focused on the words than the book: the information, the story, not the book as object.  And I’m certain that, in a short time, Kindle books will become beautiful.  A friend showed me a graphic novel on his i-phone, and it was beautiful – strong graphics with glowing colours.  I’ve no doubt Amazon are working on achieving the same even as we speak: they’d be fools if they’re not.  And music can be added to e-books, and animation.  They’ll become as beautiful as books, but in a different way.
Maybe we’re heading back to a time when a paper book was a status symbol: rare, expensive, hand-made – like haut-couture and bespoke furniture.  Maybe that’s where writers will make the big money in the future! – writing something in praise of some billionaire, which will be copied onto hand-made linen paper by a calligrapher, with gilded, illuminated capitals, all bound in a leather with gold, jewelled clasps.  Meanwhile, the hoi-polloi will be reading their Kindles and i-phones, and carrying libraries around with them.

KATH: I’ll leave the billionaire’s memoirs to someone else, I think… but I like the idea of carrying libraries around! It’ll make moving house so much easier, and I’ve already discovered the joys of travelling with my Kindle. As for dancing e-books, I have plans for a Kindle version of my YA Genghis Khan romance “Red Moon” where the reader can decide the story structure. That wouldn’t be possible in a paper book, so I’m quite excited about it.

SUE:  Oooh, I’m looking forward to Red Moon now!  Not only to the story – which will be a cracker, judging by I Am The Great Horse - but to how you plan to make it dance!  And I’ve just had a vision of Genghis Khan break-dancing, which has seriously distracted me…
But my next Kindle project is to get all four of my Ghost World books on-line, starting with the Carnegie winner, Ghost Drum.  I have the older of my two brothers hard at work producing covers for them – and speaking of publicity, I’ve commissioned the younger bro’ to do a cartoon strip based around me and my family of computers, which I can publish on my blog.  The idea is to use it to increase traffic to my blog, and give my brothers’ work, some publicity too.  They’re both talented artists.
The other day I told my partner that I’d scanned Ghost Drum and OCRed it, so I could edit in Windows and kindle.  He was thoughtful for a moment, then said, “Six months ago, I wouldn’t have understood a single word of that…”  It’s a huge learning curve even for the bystanders!

KATH: Yes, it’s a whole new world, isn’t it? I keep thinking of Jurassic Park, when the artificially engineered supposedly all-female dinosaurs start breeding: “Life finds a way”. Maybe, after books have been artificially controlled by treating them as cans of beans for many years, our stories are now “finding a way”?

SUE:  There’s an image to end with –dinosaurs leaping from baked bean cans and sprinting away, every one ‘em clutching its own Kindle!

Catch up with Sue and Katherine’s Kindle adventures at


Dan Holloway said...

You two are an absolute hoot of a double act.

There's a lot of talk at the moment about writers being part of a mixed economy, and you suggest that you prefer longer works in paper (I have to say as an in-the-bath reader with Infinbite Jest on my TBR pile I'm inclined to disagree - I just don't have the arm musculature.) I'm often caught betwixt and between, especially as I write in a number of genres. I'd be interested to know if you see this mixed approach carrying on for the foreseeable future - it surprises me how eager successful self-publishers are to take a contract when it comes knocking, and I wonder for how much longer that will continue.

The second sort-of-question is around what I see as the two kinds of self-publisher - the people who have mainstream genre books but Kindle them (who are most likely to take the contracts) and those who self-publish because they write niche fiction and want to keep artistic control. It strikes me that the former is respectable already thanks to the success stories we hear on a weekly basis, whereas the latter aren't. As one of those latter kind, I feel barriers still there - prizes, which are the proving ground of many literary works, won't accept our work, and whilst on the performance circuit no one gives a fig if I have a contract or sales figures, most of the media still don't want to know because the sales figures aren't there. Do you think the "art" self-publisher will become respectable as a type the way the genre self-publisher has, and what do you think it will take to achieve that?

Sam Mills said...

I think your point is really interesting, Dan. However, things change all the time with regard to prizes and kudos. I remember that about 7 or 8 years ago, a lot of literary publishers started cutting their lists, and as a result, small publishers picked up some interesting novels eg Clare Morrall's 'Astonishing Splashes of Colour', which made it onto the Booker Short List. And then all of a sudden, every prize list seemed to have a novel from a small publisher or relatively unknown publisher on it - the snobbery that might have been there in the past seemed to have gone and these publishers got the recognition they deserve. Due to the recession, publishers are playing it doubly safe, so I am sure it is only a matter of time before a self-published novel is up for a prize and perceptions shift again.

Lynn said...

This is a fascinating discussion. I take inspiration from Kath's comment "...and decided to take advantage of not having any publishing deadlines to teach myself how to turn them into e-books..." Having continued to expect commissions to fall into my lap, as they have done for years, I find that times have definitely changed. As I have the rights to many of my out-of-print books, and have some unpublished work, I am excited by the idea of following the Kindle route. (First, buy a Kindle?) Thankyou, both.

Katherine Roberts said...

Dan makes an interesting point "the sales figures aren't there". They ARE there... just not on the right computers, maybe? Or do you mean nobody wants to know unless they have six zeroes? I'm planning a blog post on Kindle Authors UK soon tackling profit vs. sales figures and how a niche author might make a living.

As for prizes, I think it's only a matter of time before there are e-book prizes launched. They just haven't been set up yet, and it'll take some time for them to be recognized. (Can you imagine a futuristic E-Booker?)

Even where paper versions exist, if I were a judge reading my way through a shortlist I know I'd prefer to read these titles on my Kindle than have a sackload of books piled up in my hall!

Gillian Philip said...

What a fascinating discussion - thank you for going into the subject in such entertaining depth! And you can bet I'll be downloading your books as soon as they're Kindled.

Susan Price said...

I like Kath's point about judges and kindles! When I judged the Guardian prize, I would certainly have liked a kindle!
And I agree with Kath about the respectibility too, Dan - it's just a matter of time. I hope Kindle Authors UK can do its modest bit to help - because no one reading the self-published books we feature on the site could fail to be impressed by the quality of the writing.
As for people's eagerness to take the publisher's cheque - well, it;s to do with the size of the cheque! Several thousand up front when you have bills to pay can look very attractive - whereas I don't know whether I'm ever going to make more than a tenner with Amazon - and the Amazon doesn't seem very keen on handing that tenner over!

Dan Holloway said...

Sam, excellent point about small publishers - the one I always think of is Tindal St, who did so fabulously with What Was Lost, though the owner has spoken out repeatedly about the high fees major prizes charge, that are often not earned back. I'm going to be sitting on a panel with someone from Tindal St at a festival in Birmingham on September 17th - their phenomenal knack of picking prizewinners is something I really want to talk about.

Katherine, what I was getting at (with apologies for garbledness - I'm watching The White Stripes on DVD and having a not-very-good-multitasking day) was that if you're a self-publisher, people will take you seriously if you've sold lots of books, but that really is about the only criterion people outside of the zine and live scene use when considering your work at the moment. If you sell lots, people *may* then look if your books are any good. But no one looks if your book is any good when you approach them as a self-publisher - they only want to know how it's done on Amazon. When there are stories in the media about self-published and epublished books, they are inevitably about the figures. There's an absolute drought of discussion about great self-published books (that may or may not have sold lots, but where that's irrelevant to the discussion). I wonder if you see that changing, so that discussions of important cultural landmarks of the year, or "must read voices" will one day be interchangeable between mainstream and self-published books, and what will spark the change.

Katherine Roberts said...

Good luck, Lynn! You don't actually need a Kindle to read (or publish) e-books, since there are free Kindle apps available from amazon for your computer, i-phone, etc. And for publishers, there is free software that mocks up a Kindle so you can test your e-book on that. But it certainly helps to have used a Kindle so you can see what you are aiming for...

Gillian, very kind of you! But I am afraid you'll have to wait a bit longer for Genghis now, since I now have three more Pendragon Legacy books to write for Templar first. So the Sterkarms might yet beat Genghis Khan to Kindle - what a skirmish that'd be.

And before Blogger swallows my comment again, Sue makes a good point about publishers' secret weapon: the ADVANCE. (Give me a good advance any day, and I'm yours for as long as you keep my books in print...)

Katherine Roberts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katherine Roberts said...

Blogger has now obviously just spat out my swallowed comment - grrr.

Dan, there's often a drought of discussion about great traditionally published books, too, unless they start selling in large quantities or happen to win a major prize.

But really great books usually build up a word of mouth following eventually, if given time to do so. That's why I think e-books (self AND tradtionally published) will rescue that type of book. At the moment a paper edition selling slowly vanishes from the shelves and goes out of print too fast for word of mouth to really build. But with an e-book, there is much more time for this to happen. As an author just starting to build my career, I'm quite excited by that long virtual shelf life.

Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting - thanks for such a wide-ranging discussion.

Sterkarms v Pendragons - actually, apart from being a touch violent, that could be very funny!

Rebecca Brown said...

What an interesting discussion! Thanks very much

Lynn said...

Thankyou Katherine! I googled 'free Kindle apps' and have now downloaded Kindle onto my computer... Can't believe I didn't know I could do that.

Stroppy Author said...

Dan, I think the reason people look at sales figures as a first-line way of assessing e-books is because there is no quality control.

A traditional publishing contract proves that someone with some knowledge of the market has though the book good enough to buy, edit and publish - it has been chosen over thousands of others by professionals. There are so many e-books that without any other form of guidance many people look to sales figures to direct them away from the badly written dross (of which there is a lot). Sales figures are not a reliable guide, of course, but at the moment it's all there is. I'm sure word-of-mouth and other types of network will take over and offer this eventually, but they are not mature yet.

Thank you for this insight into your thoughts and plan, Katherine and Sue.

Nicola Morgan said...

Fascinating stuff. Am trying to cvatch up with the litfest posts all in one go as I was caught up in life yesterday. But this is a topic very close to my heart just now, as I'm about to self-publish a load of different things, some of them in partnership with my agent. Really interesting to hear your thoughts. Thanks, both, and all commenters.

Elen C said...

I found this really interesting too - thank you!
I would love for self-published books to find their way onto shortlists. It would really help when deciding what to buy.
I have bought four books this week - two of which were s/p. One I bought after reading a review on a site I trust. The second I bought after meeting the author.
My feeling was that both would have really benefitted from working with a copy-editor (not an editor, not a proofreader). Both were a bit clunky at sentence-level. If I were to s/p at any point (and I certainly will if rights-revert) then I'd make employing a copy-editor my priority.