Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

States of Independence

March 27, 2014 Leave a comment

This is a kind of a late review because the States of Independence event was a couple of weeks ago, on 15th March. It’s a free annual one-day book festival in Leicester that I went to for the first couple of years it ran, then missed it for a couple of years, and got back to it again this year.

First impressions: lots of stalls, and there are clearly still plenty of people out there wanting to be independent publishers. Some are producing full-sized paperback books, some are selling short collections of flash fiction and poems in a pamphlet-type format. But there are a lot of them.

Many are the same ones I remember from 3-4 years ago, though some have started to find different niches to fill. For example one  is now busy doing political nonfiction, looking at the background to recent scandals and documenting the extent to which the police and other security services have been involved in dubious practices. None of that’s particularly ‘news’ – a great deal of it has been admitted to and debated in parliament in the last year or two, and some of it has emerged in a ‘look, I told you so’ way when Cabinet papers were published in January having reached the end of their 30-year period of being kept secret (and essentially proved that the government of 1984 was in the business of provoking a miners’ strike in order to break the trades union movement, of which more below).

But there are plenty of other niches to fill and ‘tribes’ to satisfy. I’m really not sure how a market research company would classify all of them, but you could have a go at ’20-something students into horror fiction’, ‘people interested in poetry by local poets’, or ‘people from immigrant or minority communities who want to read stories based on their own cultural history, in English’.

I went to three seminars.

The first was on the 1984 miners’ strike, seen from 30 years on. This was interesting for a range of reasons. The wounds created at that time have still not healed, and because the police were in the front line in breaking the strike it’s pretty clear that there’s still a bitter aftertaste and a complete lack of trust in the police in many areas. There’s also a sense of outrage that some of the senior figures in the union ‘sold out’ and were, by their own later admission, giving information to the police Special Branch and MI5. Which also, incidentally, suggests that the remit of those agencies had a lot of grey areas that were rapidly redefined as areas where they should be quite active. That opens up a whole can of worms about the idea of the ‘police state’ and the way we should approach security issues in a democracy, but that’ll all have to wait for another blog. I will say, though, that I was active in police research in the 1980s and I can remember many very senior police officers in 1984-5 were extremely unhappy about the way they felt policing was being politicised. And what happened around that time, now we have some of the government papers published, does tend to reinforce the notion that if you’re feeling paranoid it’s because they’re coming to get you.

The pity of it all was that the basic problem the government faced was this: why have a coal industry in the UK if globalisation meant we could import coal more cheaply from China? How could coal produced at relatively high cost in the UK be run as a profitable industry? The government response was pretty brutal – close down the mines (and the hidden agenda was there too; smash the unions because they stand in the way of ‘progress’). And the union response was old-school and straight out of the 1800s. No one involved in any of this seemed to be prepared to talk sensibly about the wider context and find more constructive solutions.

The second seminar was about Indian writing today being published in English. From this I got some insights into the regionalism of Indian writers, since many are published in languages other than Hindi or Urdu; and the continuing influence of the caste system, with people often reading about the culture of their own caste. This segued for me into a bunch of issues about what the caste system really is and does, but if you need a quick rundown of this one starting point is Wikipedia. Plus it’s a little alarming (given how poorly my own horror collection sells) to hear about a country where an author is considered a failure if they haven’t sold at least 100,000 copies of their latest novel…

The third one I went to was about digital literature. I walked in late, at the point the speaker was (I think) quoting someone else. I caught the end of their sentence: ‘…if it doesn’t use random numbers it’s not literature’. That said, it was thought-provoking on areas such as ‘what counts as avant-garde?’, ‘to what extent can code be read as literature?’ and ‘are there parallels between the market for computer games and the market for fiction?’.

I won’t go into details. But if digital fiction or e-fiction interest you, a useful place to start is probably this collection at

Overall, I had a good time. Once of the independent publishers is about to open its own bookshop (and also sells coffee); the masked booksellers were there and I bought stuff from them. The only thing that struck me as odd was that I didn’t see any of the people who are normally active on the local literary scene. Doesn’t mean there weren’t there, and while I went to three seminars there were another 20-odd running. Never mind, no doubt I’ll catch up with them another time.

What are the odds?

January 24, 2011 10 comments

I was going to blog about something else today but this happened.

A long while back I finished a story, a paranormal horror, and sent to to a magazine. I heard nothing for a while (which is normal) and then got an apologetic email saying the mag has ceased publication.

We live in hard times. I didn’t think much of it. I just sent it to the next magazine on my list. I am at least organised enough to have  a ‘hit list’ for each story, of potential markets for it.

A few months have gone by, and now the same thing’s just happened again – apologetic email, ‘we have officially ceased publication’.

Anyone apart from me see any parallels here with the horror film ‘Ring‘? Have I got a story on my hands that is so spooky it can cause magazines to fail?

Should I accept some moral responsibility about where I send it next? Or just create a hit list of people and agencies that have pissed me off in the past, send it to them and see what happens?

I think I need to try at least one more place just to prove it’s no coincidence.

Suggestions, anyone…?

Dubplate culture?

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I was scooting around the internet earlier today and came across something I hadn’t known about before – dubplates. In the headlong move towards digital technology, there’s a retro thing going on – in fact it’s probably been going on, quietly and in the background, for a long while.

While most of us are capturing our old film, video and vinyl records onto fully digital media, there are people busy recording music digitally and then transferring it onto vinyl.  This is something you see in the DJ world, and most often in reggae and drum&bass, because they tend to prefer the acoustic response of vinyl (or so I gather, I’ve been having a conversation with HOCSoundSystem about it). There’s apparently a division of opinion in the DJ world about the respective merits of vinyl vs digital media.

Investigating further, I see from Wikipedia that dubplates – one-off vinyl records – have a long and distinguished history in reggae because it’s easy to press a single disk with an existing music track and custom-made lyrics, for example for a particular sound system. But they’re increasingly common in other music genres as well now.

The equipment isn’t exactly cheap but the price of has decreased substantially over time to the point that some people literally have the kit in their living room.there are apparently increasing sales of dubplate cutters – the gadget you need to do this work – and booming business for the specialist dubplate ‘cottage industry’.

When intrigued me was the very retro-ness of this industry, the fact that the ‘old way of doing things’ is still valued, and has a large and increasing following.

It made me wonder how a similar retro-style might look in other industries. For example, if you look on Ebay these days you’ll find quite a few suppliers of handmade paper and notebooks, etc. Some while ago I came across someone who hand-prints books on handmade paper, binds them himself and offers them as limited editions – though in that case, what he’s offering in this form is, if I remember tightly, copies of mediaeval magical grimoires and treatises that are very probably available on the internet – but there appears to me a market for what would be in effect freely available text in this specialist form.

Even the ‘Hearing Voices’ poetry people I blogged about a few days ago have put work out, not as a web page or e-publication, but an actual magazine – it’s not limited circulation per se, but I can’t image there were huge numbers printed and those who have copies will possess a physical thing that connects them to a particular place, time, event and vision of what’s possible in poetry.

And in the art world, of course, numbered limited-issue prints are a known and accepted part of the market and have been for decades.

This is, really, about exclusivity – having a one-off, customised vinyl record to play to a club audience, one of a number of specially-made ‘luxury edition’ books, or an item that has some personal significance of ‘I was there’. Different takes on the idea of exclusivity, but all quite understandable.

Meanwhile, going back to my trusty 1907 Army and Navy Catalogue, which dates from a time when the Army and Navy Stores in London sold everything the gentleman officer would need for his posting abroad, I see that many popular books of that time were available, not just as ‘paperback’ and ‘hardback’, but in half a dozen different bindings and paper qualities from six shillings and fivepence up to forty shillings.

So this all makes me wonder whether there might still be a market for, say, limited edition fiction, handprinted, sold almost as an artisan craft piece. And I’m not talking about reprints of top ten novels, but new original fiction. A deliberate turning back of the clock to older methods, styles and values. Under what conditions might such a thing be viable as a product?

I don’t know the answer but I’m interested to hear anyone’s comments!


Ebook publishing – new styles and possibilities?

August 1, 2010 8 comments

In surfing the net I came across a couple of things that made sense to me (though whether I’ll be able to act on them is another question).

They’re basically thoughts about how ebook publishing in future might look a lot less like ‘publishing’ and much more like some other things, like running nightclub events or selling software. Or a mix of both.

First: Doug Toft’s Posterous Blog. Headline details: publishers had five main functions: curating (i.e. maintaining and developing a ‘collection’ of authors), editing/publishing, printing, distribution, promotion of their authors’ works. However, 90% of the work involved in publishing disappears with digital versions. OK, so the files need to be edited, put into multiple digital formats, and someone needs to do a lot of SEO work – but even so, the one key issue that digitalisation doesn’t change is the ‘curating’ function.

So what can publishers deliver that makes it worthwhile for an author to do business with them? Answer: readers. He describes the new functions of a publisher, apart from curating, as creating, leading, and connecting together potential members of a ‘tribe’.

Book publishing then comes to look a lot more like – this is my view, I should say, not his – being involved in promoting a band, or running a successful nightclub event.

Second: a thought about the future of ebooks from the NY Times article ‘E-Books Fly Beyond Mere Text’. Headline details: ebooks offer publishers and writers all kinds of new possibilities, such as embedding video, games, music, easter eggs and so forth. For many books the key attraction will remain the story – plot, characters, language style and so forth – but obviously these new possibilities are available and can be exploited, just as they can in Word files, if you want to do it. And savvy writers can build them into the text.

Again my take on this is that few authors will be able to do it by themselves, but within a collective that involves multi-media people (or a multi-media publisher, of course) it will become increasingly common, accepted, even expected. After all, many if not most textbooks are already supported by dedicated websites – with an ebook, the dedicated support can be built into the book – including, perhaps, letting the reader know the support materials have been updated and allowing them (for a payment?) to upload the amended version, in the same way software companies get you to buy a product and then charge for the update/upgrade.

Any thoughts?

Publish like a pirate?

June 22, 2010 2 comments

I’ve been musing about art, copyright and money for the last couple of weeks. What I have to say is very untutored and I may be just repeating the bleeding obvious; if anyone would like to suggest a reading list or offer a more informed commentary that would be cool.

So before you read much more, be warned – this is a long post, it meanders a bit (or a lot), and it potentially says stuff that others have said more eloquently elsewhere!

Imagine for a moment a world in which digital cultural products – books, photos, music, film – have no economic value in and of themselves. That’s not so far from the truth, given the level of file sharing going on. The extent of fileshare/bit torrent music and video downloads is already pretty well documented. Wikipedia, for example, report that Pirate Bay alone runs four servers each of which handles 2,000 requests a second.

Reportedly the advent of e-books has suffered the same fate, with some publishers and some authors estimating that around half of all downloads of their books come from fileshare sites and don’t result in any payment to them. E-books may only be about 3% of the book market currently but allegedly sales are now growing at 100% a year, and in some genres e-books are substantially more than the 3% overall figure… so the extent of file sharing is likely to increase exponentially. While this affects all authors to some degree, I suspect it will most hurt newer and less well established authors whose sales are likely to be predominantly through e-books, and some genres such as romantic fiction (why romantic fiction? I have no idea) where e-book sales reportedly account for a much larger proportion of sales than average.

Nor, incidentally, is it just fileshare sites that are the problem. A recent (12 June 2010) issue of Amateur Photographer has an article about a photographer who posted work on his own website, to discover some time later that it had been copied and used in newspapers and other commercial publications without his knowledge. It seems that businesses as well as individuals have a cavalier attitude to the implications of copyright. Some, no doubt, are taking the view that only the wealthiest of their victims will be in a position to sue, and a worst-case scenario would be that the case can be stalled for a few years and then settled out of court if the victim has the tenacity and finance to keep it going.

There are many reasons why people would and do fileshare and thus pay nothing for their cultural consumption. On the whole, they look like the well-known ‘techniques of neutralisation’ (Gresham Sykes and David Matza, ‘Techniques of Neutralisation: a theory of delinquency’, in American Sociological Review, December 1957 – if you’re interested the techniques are googleable and also on Wikipedia).

To which we might add, if something is available for free from one source, and at a cost of several pounds/euros/dollars from another, it’s difficult to envisage why, as an individual economic choice, someone who has the choice would opt to pay. Okay, morally they should, and it’s in their long term interests because it will ensure the artist, writer, musician will continue to produce. But it’s a rough old world out there and if that creative person dies of hunger or gives up and works in an office instead, another will pop up in their place.

The net result is this: we have cultural products – books, albums, pictures, films and so forth – that may have taken years to produce, and in some cases involved many people collaborating and huge financial outlay. And they have, as digital media, effectively nil commercial value to the person or people who created them – despite the high regard many readers, listeners and viewers may have for them.

I’m overstating the case. Such products have some value that can be realised because there are people who will buy from legitimate sources rather than download them for free; the non-electronic copies – printed books or framed and mounted photo prints – can be sold; books borrowed from libraries attract (in the UK) a small rights fee; bands can (maybe, the finances are often precarious) make money from their gigs or more lucratively from their music being played on the radio, in adverts, in supermarkets, mobile phone ringtones and so forth.

But the general point is still valid. The digital age, like almost all the ages before it, grossly undervalues its creatives. In times past, many creatives were virtually ignored in their own lifetimes and became famous long after they had any use for the income their work could achieve. I’m thinking of authors like Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, artists like van Gogh. In contemporary times, however, many if not most are simultaneously famous and undervalued, through being ripped off at the point when they become well-known.

I’m sure there are obscenely wealthy artists who can afford not to care about things like filesharing because they make their millions anyway. But that isn’t the case for most of them (perhaps I should say, most of us). There are plenty of writers of, say, romatic fiction novels – which as I’ve said is a big area right now for filesharing – who don’t generate huge sums per book. They get by, more or less, and the dent in their income caused by filesharing means they can’t pay their bills, or maybe, so I’ve been told, can’t pay their mortgage.

Part of the issue, perhaps obviously, is the problem of physical versus digital copies. As an author, if I publish a novel, I get royalties on the sales of new books. In the UK I also get a fee based on library loans of the book. I don’t, however, get paid for second-hand sales (though I gather there are mechanisms in place for this in some countries). However, the number of physical copies is finite. There are issues in some countries with books being translated or reproduced illegally but that’s a little beyond the scope of what I’m trying to think through here.

With digital copies, this changes. Giving away a digital file essentially means copying it to another location, but the original is still there. It’s not impossible to create security features. One can embed counters in files so that they can only be transferred from one machine to another a finite number of times; nor is it impossible to do what software manufacturers do and require a user to go online and register their purchase before it works. But it’s also not impossible to crack such features.

So ‘giving away’ a digital file essentially does mean making a copy. But some level of copying has to be seen as acceptable, even necessary. If I buy a physical book I can put it in my bag and read it wherever. With a digital book, like with downloaded music, it’s not unreasonable that I’d expect one fee to cover me having copies on my PC, laptop, and possibly an e-reader so I can read it wherever I am with whatever equipment I’m carrying with me. The bottom line is that when you buy an e-book, you’re buying the ability – though currently not usually the right – to make a number of additional and backup copies. However, you’ll still have those copies if you give the book away. In this sense the technical and legal arrangements are out of kilter.

It’s likely the technical security side of things will change. Publishers may use encrypted files that can only be used with a key, and keys that can only be bought from them or re-registered to another user via their website. But as I’ve said, the cracking of such systems often follows within weeks of them being set up, so better security isn’t intrinsically likely to solve digital piracy. Trying to use technical measures to conform to what’s legally allowable is never likely to work. What we need is an alternative way of thinking through how the market should work.

Moreover, much as filesharing may be lambasted by those who depend on sales, it can work to the advantage of new talent. Those at the beginning of their creative career face the problem of just getting noticed by a potential audience. Musicians release material on Youtube; writers accept that they will be putting out material for free, frequently in online magazines. This can be thought of as a legal form of fileshare deliberately engaged in by emerging artists. If they get to the point that there is an audience that wants the stuff, the fact that it is out there being downloaded is validation of a kind. Downloads from Youtube may be, actually, a lever to use in negotiating a contract.

The problem they face is the transition from ‘downloading as validation’ from sites such as Youtube to actually trying to make an income from their work, at which point filesharing Pirate Bay style becomes a problem. While artists and the companies that publish their work make a distinction between content intended to be offered for free as a form of advertising, and content that is intended to be paid-for and revenue generating. Whether filesharers even recognise this distinction is another question entirely (presumably they don’t actually care about it or the problem wouldn’t exist).

So: back to the poor starving creatives in their garret, trying to find ways to offer material online and generate revenue from it. If what we want is a new way of thinking about how the market should work, what are the options? The problem, as I’ve said, extends across all digital media. But I’m a writer, e-books are coming on strong, they’re being pirated increasingly frequently, and I have a living to make. So most of what follows relates to e-books.

I think the main option, the main axiom, is probably going to be: ‘publish like a pirate’.

If you know your stuff is going to get fileshared, it makes sense to give it away and find alternative revenue streams. The problem then is how these can be generated.

Pirate Bay itself admits to two main sources of funding: a private backer who put up the initial capital, and advertising (there don’t incidentally, appear to be lots of advertisers though looking at the site, some are quite unexpected!). There’s also some merchandise, and the front page has a Pirate Bay dating site – I haven’t investigated if this has been ‘monetised’ but presumably it could be.

It’s unlikely these strategies would work for an individual self-publishing author but they could work for a small independent publisher. They might publish books paid for by advertising contained within them, perhaps on pages between each chapter. It may not look that good, but then people are prepared to watch TV with ad breaks so why not read a book with them? They might, among many other things, advertise alternative versions such as a print-on-demand copy with additional material such as author interviews or artwork, special presentation binding and so forth.

Another solution borrowed from Pirate Bay would be to find a financial backer. No one appears to know what Carl Lundström (the Bay’s backer) has in mind in terms of a financial game plan but if he’s prepared to do it, others might be too – if only for the kudos of being publicly identified with some creative project. Plus, they wouldn’t be appearing in court as a co-defendant in anti-piracy legal cases.

For better-known authors, it could work this way: the author announces the latest book will be released free once donations via his or her website reach some specified amount. No pay, no show. People who pay are obviously paying partly for the file to be released, but might also feel that they’re contributing something on behalf of others and get the same warm fuzzy feelings they might get from, for example, supporting a sports team or donating to a charity…

One band I know has eschewed charging for their music for some time now – it’s all available free for download. They make their money from gigs and merchandise. How this might work for authors is an open question, but I do remember 30 years ago a series of poetry readings on the South Bank in London where W H Auden and Joseph Brodsky were the ‘headline’ acts, half a dozen others were the supporting cast, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall was rammed to the rafters. So it can be done when there’s support for and interest in whoever’s at the top of the bill. Such a strategy would require, though, an impressario, a publisher, or a group of people with good publicity skills to make it happen. And in all likelihood it couldn’t happen often enough for writers to make a living purely from that kind of source.

So there’s the rub. If filesharing comes to be the norm, creatives need to look at solutions that may involve giving away the primary product (the book, for example) and making money from a range of revenue streams around it – sponsors, advertisers, public performance, chatroom participation, broadcast fees (thankfully TV and radio continue to pay actual money for such things), mechandise, interactive paid-for content on allied websites (think alternative endings, games, and so forth) and sales of hard copy ‘special editions’ with extras included. When I say ‘extras’ I’m not just thinking of special bindings or author interviews or artwork – one publisher or erotica, for example, gives POD purchasers the ability to personalise the book by choosing the names of the characters – choosing other plot details and even from among alternative endings would be equally possible.

Much of this will require writers to get involved with each other, and with other creatives (video makers, website designers, artists and so on) and with publishers, to do things that are better organised on a collective rather than individual basis. It will also involve building some kind of following, perhaps through social networking, so that readers become more than ‘just’ readers – they become fans and followers. And it will involve multiple small revenue streams from advertising, paid-for associated website content, author readings, performance pieces at festivals, multiple formats of print-on-demand, and so forth.

Whether (and how) such financial models could work successfully is open to question – and remember, Pirate Bay’s financial figures suggest it’s losing money too. But, as Carol White says (see the reference below), smaller publishers survive by offering quality publications for which there is a demand, and promoted in imaginative ways.

Thus far there’s been a lot of literature about how piracy can be challenged and stopped, and yet it continues and grows. There’s been literature on how technical advances may prevent copies being pirated, but many of those with the right technical expertise see such systems as a challenge rather than a deterrent.

The alternative way of looking at the situation would be, if piracy continues to increase, to find ways to generate income in ways that rely on, rather than try to fight, the pirates being the primary means of distribution.

And that’s going to mean operating in collective ways that involve groups of creatives and entrepreneurs with diverse skills who can weave many small income streams into a decent living.


Sykes, G and Matza, D (1957) ‘Techniques of Neutralisation: a theory of delinquency’, American Sociological Review, December.

White, Carol (2010) Marketing in Today’s Turbulent Publishing Environment.

Saturday afternoon, bored!

March 13, 2010 2 comments

By 4pm I’d worked my way through three stories I’ve written in the last few months, rewritten sections, repurposed one with extensive editing and by including extra material, and put them back out to magazines. Whether I’ve made the wisest choice of magazines is a whole other question, of course.
I’d also written up four different bits that have occurred to me, usually by waking in the middle of the night in recent nights (on my time schedule that means about 6-7am) and decided that one idea is really a ‘chapter 2’ of one of the stories I ‘d sent out – so if they don’t want it, it’s suddenly become chapter 1 of a novella and if they do, I’ll have to write something else to get to the point at which my idea picks up a plot and runs with it.
I go through periods when not much happens, in the sense that I’m not getting replies (acceptance or rejection) from things I’ve sent out, and my response is to have a sudden burst of creativity like I did today – but now I have all this new stuff in my head and can’t decide what to work on first.
Beyond that, I still have the nagging feeling that I probably shouldn’t be working on any of it, because most shorts end up going for cheap (if all three of the stories are accepted, the total payment for first serial rights would be in the region of $35). What I should really be doing is focusing on novellas/novels where there’s both a print and electronic market that pays not a lot per download or per copy, but hopefully does actually make a bit more income over a longer term.
I realise this may all be a bit incoherent; but the bottom line is that sometimes I respond to boredom by having a bout of hyperactivity – though often not in quite the way that really has an eye to the most important issues!

After success… failure!

December 12, 2009 Leave a comment

Well that’s the business of writing, isn’t it? Of three SF pieces I submitted in the last month, I’ve had emails back from two mags to say that they’re suspending publication indefinitely, though hope to be back sometime in the future when the economic climate is better.
Thinking more generally, at one level it’s easy these days to set up a magazine. Plenty of programmes exist to code HTML or create PDFs, and print-on-demand is relatively straightforward – Lulu, Fictionwise, Feedbooks, or Issuu for free stuff. The key demands are time, energy and motivation. The problem is getting any kind of income from it that pays for the publisher’s and writers’ time and creativity, because there is a huge expectation that ‘culture’ of any description should be free. Plus there’s the ‘Youtube effect’ – what we do for entertainment has become the province of blogs written for specific social networks and people messing about with digital video for their own amusement. Sometimes it escapes that context and gets a bigger following though mostly it doesn’t. Music can be downloaded for free from all over the place; art and photography can be got from Flickr.
Conclusion: it’s never been easier to set something up, it’s never been harder to set something up and make money from it – even enough to pay small running costs.
The traditional solution has been to take advertising. But that’s a problem in the current economic climate. There are other possibilities – provide more in the print version that is viewable online, for example. Have added-value extras that are charged for, such as prints of artwork and podcasts of stories, or book-style anthology collections that contain additional unpublished material. Look for Arts Council grants. Or, like Wikipedia, just invite donations. The other way to go or course is for publishers to treat creatives as the source of their income by charging reading fees though as a creative (I hope) that doesn’t sound too attractive.
There’s a way to go before the new economic shape of small independent publishing will find new models that work, and in the meantime no doubt a few more will go under…

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