Thursday, 29 August 2013

OUGD601 // Dissertation // Interview with Alan Gutherie

You’ve already enjoyed some success with the printed word, so what led you down the electronic route?
As well as being a writer and, more recently, a digital publisher, I’m also a literary agent with Jenny Brown Associates.
One of my clients, John Rector, self-published a novel on the Kindle in the early days — 2009, I think. It was a huge success, and introduced me to the idea that ebooks had arrived.
The first opportunity I had to self-publish anything of my own came after a novella I’d written for a local publisher had its publication date put back from 2010 to 2013. So I self-published an ebook edition in August 2010, intended as a stop-gap until the paperback arrived. Sales of the ebook turned out to be astonishingly slow to begin with, but picked up over Christmas and finally got into the top 10 in the Amazon charts, where it stayed for most of February 2011.
Because I’d had a bit of success with ebooks, I was sought by someone from a social media background with a view to working out how to help authors in the digital arena. That gentleman was Kyle MacRae, and the end results of our discussions about how to assist authors, was that what they needed most was a publisher that operated in the digital arena first and foremost, and that didn’t have to worry about print sales. So we formed the digital-only publisher Blasted Heath in November 2011, and have published 50 books by 13 different authors since then.
More writers seem to be turning to e-publishing as a first resort rather than opting for the more conventional book route. Is that something you would advise?
That’s a question that I think can only be answered on a case by case basis. So much depends on the author — their publishing credentials, their platform, their expectations. And the book, too, of course.
I’d certainly advise looking at self-publishing as an option, but it won’t be the solution for everyone.
Is it too easy to self-publish electronically and too hard to see a return?
There’s a pervasive view that a lot of self-published books are rubbish and that having the publishing industry act as gatekeepers succeeds in keeping very bad books away from the reading public.
There’s possibly an element of truth in that, but it’s my opinion that it takes a traditional publisher to sell a really bad book in significant quantities, which means that, by and large, the reading public aren’t going to be inundated with poor-quality self-published books because, without a traditional publisher behind them, those books will almost certainly sink without a trace.
I’d guess that about 1 per cent of writers pursuing a traditional deal with one of the big London publishers is going to be lucky enough to get an offer. For them, depending on the size of the offer, it may well be that they’d see less of a return from self-publishing. However, for the 99 per cent of writers who won’t get offered any kind of publishing deal, self-publishing is almost certainly going to provide a better return, no matter how small.
There are some initial costs involved in e-publishing, but they can be extremely low if you’re on a budget. It’s possible to keep the costs down to zero, if you’re confident enough to design your own book cover.
What can writers here do to get themselves on line and get noticed on the world wide web?
I’m going out on a limb here, but I think there’s far too much focus on this.
My experience is that the impact of social media has had precious little effect on book sales for about 18 months or so now, unless those books are by high-profile authors. There’s way too much noise out there and, as a result, everybody’s gone deaf.
For the vast majority of non-bestselling writers (ie, almost all of us), the best marketing you can do — especially if your time is limited — is to write another book.
Tweet and Facebook and blog by all means if you enjoy it, but the best way to get noticed is to write a good book in a popular genre that makes an emotional connection with readers.
And then write another book.
 And another.
 And another.
Keep at it until you can no longer be ignored.
Price promotions can also be effective, and don’t take up much writing time.
There was much debate at the Harrogate Festival a couple of years ago about ebooks being sold for less than the price of a coffee and undercutting conventional authors. Is this something to be concerned about?
Indeed it is. Coffee should definitely be cheaper!
To be serious, though, I think low prices may well be perceived as a threat to conventional authors, even though low pricing has been a key tactic in most traditional publishers’ marketing strategies for many years.
For instance, I remember Jeffrey Deaver hitting it big in the UK in the early 2000s after Hodder released a few of his books as dirt-cheap paperbacks. In 2006, my publisher sold over 10,000 copies of a limited edition of my debut novel Two-Way Split at an RRP of £1 at one of the chain stores. And of course supermarket deals are very much sought after, and those (like most promotions) are deep discount deals that overrule authors’ royalty rates, earning them a pittance, enabling the supermarket to sell the books as a loss leader to entice folk into the shop. 
I don’t think cheap ebooks are cause for concern, though.
If you’re a successful author, readers will pay more money to read you than if you’re an unknown, and they won’t stop reading you because someone they’ve never heard of is selling a novel for 99p.
For those who aren’t bestsellers already, offering your books at an impulse-purchase price is often an effective way to start to build a readership. And once you have a sufficient number of people wanting to read more of your work, you can increase the price.
Is epublishing changing our reading habits?
My bestselling book by far is a 15,000-word novella, Bye Bye Baby, which has outsold my five novels combined.Without question. The market for decently paid shorter fiction has been depressed for a long time. It’s now burgeoning in the digital marketplace
It’s also likely to change our writing habits, of course (and in many cases has already done so). For example, it’s now possible to test-market shorter pieces as potential series ideas to see how readers respond. If they don’t buy the short piece or they do buy it but leave bad reviews, it’s probably not a good idea to write more books in that series and you’ve saved yourself the time and effort of writing an entire novel (or two or three, as might be the case traditionally, given the long lead-time from manuscript acceptance to publication) just to find that out.
Hopefully readers will go crazy for it, of course, and you can carry on writing that series with confidence.
Are established publishers leading the electronic revolution or playing catch up? There are now several examples of writers who have had success on line before being snapped up by conventional publishers, most famously E.L. James’Fifty Shades of Grey.
I think it’s worth remembering that the majority of book sales — by far — are still print, not digital. For the crime genre, it’s about 80/20 in favour of print. So for most publishers, print is their bread and butter. Some publishers have taken to the digital challenge and experimented with varying degrees of success, while others haven’t been quite so keen to embrace it. Or perhaps they haven’t had the resources because they have thousands of backlist titles to digitise.
It’s very much the case that one of the easiest ways to get the attention of a traditional publisher is to self-publish successfully. As you say, there are a large number of self-published authors who have gone on to get picked up by traditional publishers. What’s interesting is that in many case, those authors have quite a bit of leverage when it comes to negotiating deals, and there have been some remarkable concessions as a result — quite a few print-only deals, for instance, where the authors have retained their ebook rights, something that would never happen ordinarily. There are also plenty of self-published authors turning down deals from traditional publishers. And there’s also the third kind of author, which will almost certainly become the norm, who is both traditionally published and also self-publishes.
What of the future? Are we going to say goodbye to the physical book and the conventional publisher?
I can’t see the physical book disappearing. I can see certain formats becoming obsolete, though. To my mind, if we’re looking at fiction, then the ebook is a direct replacement for the mass market paperback, so I suspect we’ll see fewer and fewer of those – possibly it’ll become a format for bestselling authors only. Books that are currently published in hardcover won’t be so badly affected, since they’re already fairly exclusive. And I suspect we’ll see a lot more luxury editions, emphasis being put on the physical book as an aesthetic object.
Publishers may not strictly speaking be necessary, in that writers will be able to hire editors, designers, publicists, etc., and organise the production and distribution of their own books But some authors won’t want to spend their time doing that. They’d rather write, and who can blame them! So publishers will always be required, and in a very similar role to current ones. It’s inevitable that "conventional" will have a different meaning over time, but publishers aren’t going anywhere. They’re very much here to stay.

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