The London Book Fair’s Snapshot of the Week

Tech Tuesday, an art exhibition, Penguin's YourFry project = a busy week in books!

by Roger Tagholm

“It’s not a business, it’s an illness,” declared Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, at this week’s Tech Tuesday debate on ‘The Rise And Rise Of Self-Publishing’, organised by The London Book Fair and held at the Hoxton Hotel in north-east London, where Amazon has announced it is to build a giant office. To much laughter, she added: “From a business point of view, it makes no sense. Primarily, we’re all doing this because you have the bug.”

But, in a sense, she was being disingenuous. Because the lesson of self-publishing – or independent-publishing, or author-publishing (there were many names bandied around) is that if you do your homework, if you seek out professional help with areas like editorial and design, it is possible to earn a living, one that is as good as, even better perhaps, than that afforded through traditional publishing routes.

The event was sponsored by San Francisco-based ‘creative self-publishing platform’ Blurb whose Chief Marketing Officer, Brenda Van Camp, said: “I’m not either-or – traditional or ‘author-published’”. It depends on the project. We have some very well-known authors who are with big publishers but who also publish smaller projects with us.”

To which David Shelley, Publisher at Little, Brown, who was very much representing the traditional – or ‘trade’, as it became renamed by the panel – camp, interjected with a simple, telling statement: “It’s all publishing.” And that, in a sense, is where we have arrived. It’s all one continuum, the difference being that power has reverted to the creators who are now spoilt for choice: there is a multiplicity of routes for them to choose for their content, all of which can be summed up as ‘publishing’.

Ghost-writer Andrew Crofts believes power has reverted to the creators now and that “it is possible to structure so many different deals. You can keep e-rights yourself, for example. Everything is better now – everything apart from the advances”.

Blurb has commissioned nine artists and designers to launch ‘Unbinding the Book’, an exhibition at the London Art Book Fair running from Friday 26 September to Sunday 28 September. The brief was ‘to push the boundaries of who can be an author and what a book can be’. As Van Camp told the audience: “We’ve opened the cage door of possibilities for the book. We can re-think how we tell a story. The reader is your customer; people are not writing to please their publisher anymore.”

Someone who has been speculating in this area recently is Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson who gave a fascinating interview to Publishers Weekly in which he talked about new models, new approaches, even content contributed by readers. “I would love to see the development of platforms that allow collaborative and crowd-sourced histories in a way that royalties and revenues could be allocated based on who contributed what and whose sections got read. I think one of the next great inventions of the digital age will be simple, Bitcoin-like systems so that people can pay for content and those payments can be allocated to encourage crowd-sourcing. A book could be a living thing, filled with multimedia and interactive components. There are neither the platforms nor the payment systems yet to make that possible, but I suspect that in 10 years you’ll have collaborative, interactive, crowd-sourced and curated media that is somewhere between narrative history and role-playing games.”

Penguin is hoping to uncover a new model itself – or find a new tech talent – with its YourFry project in which it has released free content and metadata from the new volume of memoirs by Stephen Fry and is inviting ‘tech heads’ to play with the content and come up with something that might redefine what a book can be. It’s an innovative idea being run in partnership with file transfer site We Transfer. One small question though: is Fry a global enough name for such an idea? Do people know him in Nairobi and Delhi, Rio and Tokyo?

Plus ca (lack of) change dept. According to Publishers Weekly’s annual publishing industry salary survey, the pay gap between men and women continued in 2013. The average pay for men in 2013 was $85,000 (£52,100), the same as in 2012, while the average pay for women was $60,750 (£37,300) in 2013, although this was up from $56,000 (£34,400) the year before.

Let’s finish where we began – with self-publishing. The same survey also noted that 55% of respondents said their companies acquired at least one book by a self-published author in 2013, up from 52% in 2012, while 67% of those working for trade publishers said that their companies bought at least one self-published title last year, up from 63% the year before. In general, it seems as if the bigger the publisher, the more likely it was to have purchased a self-published book, a trend that looks set to continue – and probably increase.

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