NWF: The Future of Publishing: Scott Pack with Dominic Hoey

Scott Pack’s been around the UK publishing block. He was the head of buying for book retail giant Waterstones for six years, before venturing into publishing via indie publisher The Friday Project and HarperCollins. In Scott’s session, he talked candidly with Dominic Hoey about the ‘doom and gloom’ of the publishing industry, and some of his latest ground-breaking publishing endeavours: crowd-funding publisher Unbound, and the champion of out-of-print books, Abandoned Bookshop.

“There is a perception that the publishing industry is fucked…” started Pack, when asked about the current state of publishing. But this attitude comes from publishing’s reliance on an antiquated business model. Essentially, publishers pay authors an advance based on guessing how many books they’ll sell – and this advance is signed for six, twelve, or even eighteen months out from that book appearing in bookstores. Now advances against royalties are dropping, but Scott reckons the publishing industry will keep on ticking – if only because it’s too big to completely die.

A slightly morbid sentiment to start on, perhaps, especially considering the outstanding innovation of Unbound – think Kickstarter, but for a select number of passionately championed books – which in itself has the potential to shake-up the old publishing model and the way books are bought, made, and distributed.

But crowdfunding changes not only the book-making processes, but also how people interact with books. Crowdfunding publishing, Pack says, brings the reader and author closer together – and sometimes more literally than you might think. Somewhat like Kickstarter, Unbound consults with authors to offer a range of ‘perks’ for pledges. These can range from digital copies of the book to exclusive events, signed copies – and in the case of Mr Bingo – an insulting Christmas Day phone call. Essentially, your readers are also funding your promotion, and while the average book on Unbound sells for £20-25, their average pledge is £40. For authors with an existing platform, engaging with the market in this way can be quite lucrative – unlike a traditional publisher, Unbound split profits with authors 50/50.

Pack’s newest brainchild is Abandoned Bookshop, which he co-founded in 2016. Abandoned Bookshop takes forgotten out-of-print books and gives them a second life in the ebook market. Pack circumvents the usual bookish media channels, that often do not publish reviews of ebooks anyway, by wrapping his titles in a larger story. ‘Publisher hunts for forgotten detective novelist Clifton Robbins’ reads the title of this Guardian article, in which Abandoned Bookshop are seeking relatives of Robbins in order to pay out royalties. There’s no doubt that wrapping a story around a book like this works well on digital media, and “it’s not rocket science to take out-of-print books and make them available again,” but it does have the potential to inundate a small publisher with amateur genealogists.

And what of the New Zealand publishing scene? Pack started out his time in New Zealand at Christchurch’s WORD festival a month ago. Since then he’s seen a fair number of our bookshops. “Books here are bloody expensive” states Pack, but it’s clear that those working in publishing are passionate. There’s innovation going on here, too, with new ventures like arts crowdfunding platform Boosted which just supported Hinemoana Baker to the tune of 17K, but it’s still hard for New Zealand books to break into the US and UK markets. This is something Pack hopes to change when he returns to the UK – hinting at some possible Abandoned Bookshop New Zealand releases.

Yes, perhaps that old, rusting publishing model needs a bit of a makeover – but with enthusiastic arts champions like Pack and Hoey, I don’t doubt that publishing will continue to thrive.

Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

WORD: Making it Overseas, with Ben Sanders, Tania Roxborogh and Helen Lowe

Event_Making-it-OverseasAll New Zealand authors dream of making it overseas – these three have. Tania Roxborogh has her historical novel (set in the time of Macbeth) Banquo’s Son in the UK, USA and Asia. Ben Sanders is Auckland-based, and his fourth novel, American Blood, is in the Australian, NZ, US and European markets. Helen Lowe is Christchurch-based, and all of her fantasy books have been published overseas, rather than in New Zealand. They are in the USA, UK, Australia and NZ and European markets.

Lowe was told straight out of the gates, that nobody in New Zealand would publish a fantasy series. After trying to sell her series to publishers in Australia and the USA herself, she gave up (she stopped counting rejections after 15) and realised a full series from an unknown author was too much of a gamble for any publisher to take at that point. She needed to write a stand-alone book. An Australian editor she had spoken to with her series advised her that she should try the US market, and find an agent. In response to a later question about how she found her agent she said – I looked at who the writers who wrote in my genre used: this triangulated at The Writer’s House, so that’s where I started and lucked out. Her new agent sold Thornspell in just three weeks, and the series sold after that, after about 4-5 months. Being published in the US opened up the world.

I had seen Ben Sanders’ rise over the past couple of years and thought he must have just been plucked from obscurity when Warner Brothers saw the unpublished manuscript of American Blood and optioned it. Oh no, it was a bit deeper than that! He had an agent offer to represent him after his first three books were published through HarperCollins NZ, and checked them out before accepting (note to readers: if somebody is offering to sell your book, always check them out first). His agent is through Wordlink. It took three years to get a book accepted, and happened mainly because he met an editor at Pan Macmillan personally while on holiday in New York. He had to set this book in America – hence American Blood, which was published last year in the US.

It took Tania Roxborogh seven years to be an overnight success. Her super-enthusiastic agent came on board in May 2009. It took until October 2014 to have any luck placing the novel with a publisher: by 10 January in 2015 she had a contract, with an advance of $10,000 US. It took a lot of persistence, and a lot of trust on both her agent’s and her part; but she got there!

Things she has learned: the Australian market is more accepting if NZ writers come via the UK publishing houses. And the sales are so much bigger than the NZ market: by the end of its run in 2015, Banquo’s Son had sold 5,600 copies. Internationally within 2 months in the UK market, 9,500 copies had sold. Vanda quipped, “You have finally harnessed the machine.”

All three of our guests have found having an agent essential, though none have experienced the ‘dream agent’ experience. The most helpful things with agents is they know what is being pitched, and they know what is being published by whom. Sanders said his agent was essential to get him contacts in New York. “Having an agent is like any business relationship, you have to go into it with your eyes open”, says Helen Lowe.

Vanda then asked whether being an author from a small country was an impediment to being published overseas. Not really, was the general agreement. Sanders’ Auckland crime novels weren’t picked up internationally until he agreed to ‘Americanise’ them. He is currently doing this, changing ‘petrol stations’ for ‘gas stations’, and the bonus of this is that he can change any errors he finds along the way. Sanders adds, “It’s not just a matter of if the editor says ‘yep I like it’ – that person needs to talk to the Editorial Director, and so on all the way up the commissioning chain.”

For Helen Lowe, she never had to worry about where they are set: she writes Fantasy, set in different worlds. And Thornspell was set in Middle-ish Europe. The US doesn’t even change the language in her books, they just change the spelling. Her UK publisher simply publishes it, US spelling and all, knowing their market doesn’t mind.

Lowe also addressed the idea of self-publication in the Fantasy genre. She thinks this only really works if you already famous: the main thing traditional publishing has over self-publishing is distribution. “And if you are doing it yourself, you will be locked into Amazon’s rights model, possibly not in favourable circumstances.”

This was a fascinating discussion, about something I’d long been curious about. In my day job at Booksellers NZ, I frequently post up announcements about the sales of US / UK rights: now I understand exactly why this is such a fantastic achievement for those hard-working authors that it happens to. Well done to Helen Lowe, Ben Sanders and Tania Roxborogh for being Olympic-class writers!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Making it Overseas – Ben Sanders, Helen Lowe and Tania Roxborogh

Daughter of Blood
by Helen Lowe
Published by Orbit
ISBN 9780356500058

Thornspell
by Helen Lowe
Published by Random House
ISBN 9780375844799

American Blood
by Ben Sanders
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760291570

Banquo’s Son
by Tania Roxborogh
Published by Thomas & Mercer
ISBN 9781503945821