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Bookseller Magazine Interview

The Bookseller magazine recently interviewed me for an article on eBooks and my new Hodder and Stoughton book, False Friends. Here's the full transcript of the interview -

 Tell me about your book?

 The new book is False Friends, the ninth in the Spider Shepherd series. Shepherd is a former SAS trooper who becomes an undercover cop, then works for the Serious Organised Crime Agency and is now with MI5. In False Friends, Shepherd is responsible for the safety of two Asian students who have infiltrated Al-Qaeda. When the two are exposed, Shepherd has to put his life on the line to protect them. I wanted to explore what it was like to be a British-born Muslim in present-day England, and to show that the vast majority of Muslims are totally against the activities of Islamic terrorists. There is a sub-plot involving right-wing extremists who are planning their own terrorist atrocity. I think it’s my best yet. 

Has your recent digital success, added to the way the digital market has progressed, changed the way you write? Or the type of writing?

 In terms of the Spider Shepherd thrillers it’s business as usual. False Friends took about two months to research, five months to write and another month to edit. There are no short-cuts! A Spider Shepherd thriller has to be between 125,000 and 135,000 words, pretty much. EBooks are different. Length is less of an issue and the eBooks of mine that have done the best (The Basement and Once Bitten) are really novellas (between 50,000 and 60,000 words). Prior to the explosion in eBook sales, there really wasn’t a market for novellas. Most publishers wouldn’t be interested in publishing books of that length. I have also self-published several short stories as eBooks. Again, prior to the eBook boom there was no real market for short stories. I have written five about a fictional Singapore detective who gets to solve locked-room mysteries, and have self-published an erotic short story. I plan to do more. They are fun to write and allow me to push my creative limits. Prior to the eBook explosion there would have been mo market for work like that so I would either have given them away free on my website or not written them.

You’ve got four more Spider Shepherds to come: what kind of schedule have you got in mind, because I guess you write faster than a traditional publisher would expect to publish?

 I have a contract with Hodder and Stoughton for three more, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue beyond that. Spider ages in real time but he’s not yet forty so there’s plenty of life left in him. I’ll be doing one a year, the hardback/trade paperbacks are published in July and the mass market paperback in November. They take about six months to write and because of the nature of the books there’s no short-cut. Hodder wouldn’t want more than one Spider book a year. But I am writing my Jack Nightingale supernatural detective series during the months when I’m not working on the Spider book, so I do keep busy. I am productive, it comes from my years as a journalist when I would produce several thousand words of copy a day, every day.

You are known for self-publishing your backlist and Amazon publishing other titles: so why are you publishing this with a traditional publisher?

Actually my publisher Hodder and Stoughton publishes my backlist, more than two dozen titles in all. This is my twentieth year with Hodder and Stoughton and all my books are still in print. Though I caused quite a stir in the ePublishing world last year – I was the second-bestselling British author worldwide on Kindle behind Lee Child – in fact my self-published eBooks are a very small part of my creative output. The vast majority of my work – eBooks and paperbacks – are published by Hodder and Stoughton. The self-published books of mine that did really well – selling 350,000 eBooks in total – were The Basement, Once Bitten and Dreamer’s Cat. But Hodder and Stoughton did just as well with my first Spider Shepherd book, Hard Landing, selling around 150,000 copies of the eBook.

Has the deal/royalty arrangements offered changed since your independent success? For example, you write: "So this year I have signed deals to write five more books for them in return for an advance of close to US$750,000." That seems a good deal?

 It’s a good deal for me, of course. But it’s a good deal for Hodder and Stoughton. It ties me to producing quality thrillers for them for at least the next three years which gives them time to promote and market my work confident that there are more books coming. It’s always much easier to sell books by an author who is producing books on a regular basis. And with so many writers rushing to self-publish, I think we’ll see more publishers signing their authors up to longer publishing deals.

You write of your Kindle success: "But everything changed for me in the summer of 2010 when Amazon opened its first Kindle store outside of the US and allowed us Brits to buy from Amazon.co.uk. The new store, plus the fact that the Kindle was about to become the most Christmas-gifted item of all time, gave me the impetus to start self-publishing." Can you describe how you took advantage of this initiative and why you think your books have been so successful as e-books?

The number of e-readers in the United Kingdom doubled over Christmas 2010. One in twelve adults in Britain received an e-reader as a Christmas present. The thing is, I knew in advance that was going to happen and how I could take advantage of it. I put three of my unpublished books – The Basement, Once Bitten and Dreamer’s Cat - on Kindle in late October. I spent November and December marketing the books so that on Christmas Day I had all three in the Top 5 of the Kindle Bestseller list.

I figured that on Christmas morning hundreds of thousands (though even I didn’t predict three million!) of people would be opening their Christmas presents and discovering that they had an e-reader. And I knew that the first thing they would do would be to start buying books and that many would go to the Kindle bestseller list for suggestions. And that’s why I sold 7,000 copies on Christmas Day, another 5,000 on Boxing Day, and 44,000 in December as a whole. It was a total one-off and will almost certainly never be repeated. It happened because back then there were very few writers self-publishing. Plus I was selling them at the lowest price that Amazon would allow. Plus I was able to produce a professional product - well written, well-edited and with well-designed covers.

Following my success, pretty much every person who has written a book has rushed to self-publish. The vast majority are pretty awful and sink without trace, but there is now so much rubbish out there that it’s hard for a new writer to get noticed. In the old days of publishing, a writer would have to get an agent and the agent would go looking for a publishing deal. That process weeded out most of the unpublishable works, those books that are so badly-written that they shouldn’t ever see the light of day. The writer of an unpublishable book would hopefully learn from the rejection and go on to write better books.

The problem now is that Amazon and Smashwords really don’t care about the quality of the books that they sell. You can – literally – put anything you want up for sale, from your laundry list to the worst poetry imaginable. They don’t care. They will allow you to sell it no matter how bad it is. That means that a lot of self-published writers don’t realise how awful their work is and think that the only reason they are not selling is that they are not doing enough marketing and self-promotion. That is the downside of the ePublishing revolution. Some have described it as ‘The tsunami of crap.’ How bad is it? My best example is the eBook bestseller that described the villain as ‘roofless’.

You say that your e-book success may have spurred your p-book success, and that your publisher has supported this development. That suggests that publishers are more flexible than you might imagine?

I was lucky in that Hodder and Stoughton have been very supportive from the start and they were quick to realise that success in the eBook market would spill over to increased sales of my Hodder books. That is exactly what has happened – selling cheap (but good) eBooks has brought in thousands of new readers who have gone on to my the rest of my books. In effect my low-priced eBooks have been a marketing tool, though it’s fair to say that they have also turned into a decent revenue stream, too.

Yet you still refer to them as "legacy pubishers"? Does this mean you think they are going out of business?

Ha ha! No, I tend to use legacy to mean traditional, that’s all. You have to use the jargon unfortunately and most people use legacy to mean the big publishing companies like Hodder. Legacy to me just means that they have been around for a while! One bit of jargon I refuse to use is the ‘dead tree books’ thing. I hate that. There’s no reason that paperbacks can’t just be called paperbacks. Another bit of jargon that has taken off is this business of self-published writers calling themselves “Indie” writers, as if they were ashamed of calling themselves “self-published”. I try not to use the term “Indie”. There’s nothing wrong with describing a book as “self-published” and nothing to be ashamed of. Books that were self-published include Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of things Past, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Beatrix Potter’s The Adventures of Peter Rabbit and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill.

It also suggests that traditional publishers have been behind the curve?

They are like huge oil tankers ploughing across the ocean. They are so massive that they are very hard to turn and they react very slowly. It is difficult for them because the business was unchanged for many many years and when change came it came very quickly. I saw it coming and was able to adapt, they got taken by surprise. But they are changing, slowly but surely.

You may be the first truly hybrid author/publisher: traditional deal for some books, self-pub'd for others, Amazon pub'd in the US. Is this something you deliberately sought to create, and do you think it can work for other writers?

I don’t know anyone who has as many legs to their publishing career as me. I self publish paperbacks in Asia, printing books and delivering them to retailers. I have a traditional publishing deal with Hodder and Stoughton. I self-publish eBooks through Amazon and Smashwords, and Amazon publish five of my books. That was quite deliberate – it’s a bit like going to the roulette table and betting on zero, double zero, black and red. Whatever happens, I’m going to win. It works for me because I have a backlist of thirty novels and am capable of producing three or more novels a year. It wouldn’t work for everyone.

In a way the timing was perfect for me – I’m old enough to have a long backlist but young enough to be able to produce a lot more books. A young writer starting out doesn’t have a backlist, and a writer at the end of their career doesn’t have the energy to do what is necessary to succeed in the new world of ePublishing. John Le Carre for instance recently announced that he wasn’t going to be replying to emails from fans any more. I absolutely understand his decision but it won’t win him new readers. These days part of the key to succeeding as an author is to interact with your readers.

You write: "It was that advance that launched my career as a full-time writer and changed my life forever." But the new model could be advance free for most writers, does this worry you?

It doesn’t worry me at all because with my earnings stream I can survive without advances. Most of my backlist books have earned out their advances and are still selling. But it makes it that much harder for a new writer who is just getting started. The payment of advances means that a young writer can devote himself full-time to his craft without worrying about how he was going to pay his bills. If publishers stop paying out large advances to new writers it’s going to be that much harder for them to produce quality work. I was lucky. Twenty years ago Hodder gave me a large advance for my book The Chinaman which meant that I could devote myself to writing full-time. I haven’t looked back.

I do worry that the rush to self-published eBooks means that publishers will stop paying out advances and new writers will find it that much harder to get started. But on the plus side, a new writer who writes eBooks books that sell can make money almost immediately through Amazon and Smashwords. Within weeks of putting an eBook up for sale, royalty cheques start dropping through the letterbox.

Will you be out touring the bookshops? Do you view how street booksellers in the way you have in the past view publishers, and if so, how should they change?

If you had asked me that ten years ago I would have said that touring around bookstores was a vital part of marketing an author’s work. These days I’m not convinced. The supermarkets now sell more books than bookstores and there’s no real point in visiting them. There’s even less point in visiting a bookstore. Having said that, I do spend more time than ever interacting with readers and fans. I do that through Facebook, Twitter, and my blog. Every day I talk to readers and listen to what they’re saying, I bounce ideas off them and discuss plots, covers, and characters. I have even started using some of the more enthusiastic as proof-readers. Readers have moved from the bookstores to the internet, and I’ve moved with them.

You wrote: "The Bookseller has been making predictions of what the industry will be like over the next year or so. Well, I have a few predictions of my own, but I'll wait until the New Year before revealing them!" Go on then . . .

Ha ha! Yes, I said that in my blog at the start of the year. But then I realised that thousands of self-published authors pretty much copy every move I make so if I tell them what I’m doing they will rush to do it too and I’ll lose any advantage I might have had. I have a pretty good idea of what’s happening at Amazon and generally it’s not going to be great for self-published authors and I think the established publishers will tighten their grip on the eBook bestseller lists. That’s already happened in the States and it will happen here, sooner rather than later. I have a strategy for dealing with that, but I’m keeping it under wraps.

But if you want predictions, sure. I think the days of chains of booksellers have gone for good. Their overheads are just too crippling. I think we will see a revitalisation of independently-run bookstores once they have worked out how to profit from eBooks.

I think agents will be the hardest hit by the eBook revolution. There is almost no negotiation with Amazon over royalty rates so if you are dealing with them it’s pointless to pay an agent fifteen per cent. It used to be agents who acted as the gatekeepers – more trendy jargon – and they pretty much decided who got published and who didn’t but that has changed. Self-published authors who do well are quickly spotted. The market acts as the gatekeeper - if a hundred thousand people buy an eBook you don’t need an agent to give it a stamp of approval. If publishers realise that they will start to do what they used to do and go looking for talent themselves. The biggest mistake publishers made was to do away with their slush piles and only take submissions from agents. That is already changing.

Publishers will change, that’s a given. I think most will survive but they will have to change the way they work. Their function will be to spot talent and to market it. That might mean having imprints that are only for eBooks. There is so much rubbish being self-published that eventually the market will turn to the publishers for an assurance that they are buying a quality product. So I envisage a reader going to Hachette’s site, for instance, knowing that only quality books will be on sale there. Or a site that sells only crime novels. Or horror.

I think the eReader revolution will change our reading habits. It will revitalise the short story market. If someone is getting a plane or a train and knows that their journey will only last an hour or so, of if they have a short lunch break, I think they will start looking for short stories rather than starting a full-length novel. I think erotica and even porn will become more marketable because there is no embarrassment factor when purchasing and nobody knows what you are reading. There’s no embarrassing cover to hide. I’m already working on a line of erotic short stories.

I don’t think publishers need to worry about pricing because I think people will realise that quality has to be paid for. Personally I see mainstream books settling out at about a fiver each. And I see that fiver being split equally between the publisher, the retailer, and the author. But that’s a few years down the line. Long term I’m very optimistic about the publishing industry, I think far from hurting the industry the eReader will totally revitalise it.

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