Cambridge Literary Festival: Publishing in the Digital Age
On Sunday 19th April 2015 I arrived in time for the Cambridge Literary Festival Publishing in the Digital Age talk in The Cambridge Union Blue Room. Luckily I just managed to catch my bus by a hair’s whisker or else I would have been late. There were two speakers, Rachel Colbert, of Headline Press, and Mary-Ann Harrington, from Tinder Press. Tinder Press was launched two years ago in 2013 as Headline’s literary imprint, “a place where classy, intelligent writing could thrive.” Mary-Ann enthusiastically has managed to acquire lots of lovely authors for this fairly new imprint, including Mary O’Farrell, their launch title author of Instructions for a Heatwave, Helen Walsh, author of The Lemon Grove, and Eowyn Ivey debut author of Snow Child, to name but a few. “Snow Child became an international bestseller. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize 2013, and Eowyn won the International Author of the Year category at the 2012 National Book Awards.”
Headline is a long-established publishing house, having been around since 1986, so Rachel asked Mary-Ann why had they chosen these troubled times to start a new imprint?
For Mary-Ann it felt like “the logical next step,” they felt “hungry to do more,” and books such as Snow Child were out there waiting to be discovered and to be successful in terms of sales. She wanted to create a small imprint of ten to twelve titles in which world of mouth would drive both debut authors and established authors success. These authors would then be given the prestige that Literary authors deserve. This small focus meant that these titles could become “reading group fiction,” or “word of mouth fiction,” and could be delivered into the right hands. There would be continuing support for these authors. A strategy was developed to find the perfect readers and advocates of these books, ensuring that this prestigious literature was placed into the right hands. The focus was on keeping it “special,” “small,” “diverse,” and “building up relationships.” With this strategy in place books could be issued to the booksellers, bloggers, and writers to endorse them. “Trust” was the key.
Rachel asked about opportunities for new writers given that the number of independent book retailers had now fallen drastically to less than one thousand shops.
Mary-Ann began by saying that yes it is a difficult marketplace. There are challenges, and threats but there are also opportunities. The high street chains are troubled so launching debuts is a difficult task. Booksellers have to think of new and exciting initiatives to generate interest. Tinder Press is passionate about championing new writers such as Sarah Leipciger debut author of The Mountain Can Wait.
Rachel continued to discuss this topic, she suggested that debut authors do have an advantage in some ways.
Mary-Ann was quick to agree, new authors are seen as “promising,” and intriguing, therefore they get a fair amount of publicity and attention. Readers love nothing better than finding new authors.
Next Rachel explored the rise of Digital Books.
Mary-Ann argued that for an established literary author e-books are a good method to generate sales. With debut literary fiction the book needs to be seen, reviewed, and recommended so the traditional publishing route is better. She mentioned “the importance of a book as a physical object.” Yet that doesn’t mean that Mary-Ann isn’t aware of the current trends in self-publishing. On the contrary she mentioned that she, ” is very interested in self-publishing.” She suggested that authors taking the self-publishing route should put energy into their marketing, to make as much of an impact as possible.If they are successful it can pay off and they can be signed by major publishers. Again, it’s about creating relationships, and making sure that your material, the book itself, the cover, your social media presence is of the highest quality. Next, they talked about kindle. The focus centred firmly on hard work, creating an amazing profile, blog, and making sure that your on-line marketing strategy is first class.
Rachel had a tip for those who intend to publish to e-books. In traditional publishing there might be some empty blank pages in the opening pages of a physical book before the story begins. With e-books this is unnecessary, so make sure that you don’t have a lot of empty pages at the beginning of your e-book, start straight into the story, put any other pages at the back of the book.
For a successful self published book to be picked up by a traditional publishing house it would have had to have sold in the region of 50,000 plus copies. That’s a lot of books! Of course they do keep an eye on the progress of self-published books. It is worth trying as many agencies as possible when looking to publish your book. Explore many avenues to get your work read, write short stories, and flash fiction, these are all an excellent idea. If you’re going directly to a publisher make sure that they know that you are confident in your intention, and that you wish to bypass the lengthy process to get your books straight into the publisher’s hands. Mary added that without an agent publishing is extremely hard, you must put time and energy into it. “Persistence” is the key.
Rachel felt that YA and Children’s literature is a growing area so possibly the market is not quite so saturated. Again check guidelines when submitting to publishers, agents, and follow them very carefully. Do not give them any excuse to ignore your submission, which will most probably be the case if you make mistakes.
Mary-Ann mentioned that Tinder Press is an imprint which publishes “international” books, an example which she cited is an Australian novel: Stephanie Bishop’s UK debut, The Other Side Of The World. This is a beautifully written literary novel. Novels such as these provoke the word “love” to readily come into the conversation when she pitches these kind of books in-house. These special books thrive with writer’s endorsements, and there is a “reproduction effect” as each reader experiences a powerful, personal response when reading the book, which is then reproduced over and over again.
Next the topic moved on to new writers and the Submissions process
Mary-Ann is one of three editors at Tinder Press. They look for a publishing model that is full of enthusiasm. There must be a strong narrative hook to provoke an emotive response. Though, sometimes a quieter novel might come along that still captures the editor’s attention because it is so wonderfully written or is a bit different. They look for books with engaging stories that leave you with a “strong feeling,” that you “want to share,” they might have “a strong international flavour.” Tinder Press wants their readers to be challenged.
When submitting Mary-Ann suggests that the most important consideration to bear in mind is the “kernel of the book.” This is so important. The author should be able to tell their story in a couple of sentences that are so memorable that the editor will sit up and take notice and ultimately the reader will want to go on this fictional journey. It is also helpful if editors are able to see that the submitting author has a social media presence. Long established authors don’t necessarily have to, but new writers are encouraged to do so. To be a member of a writer’s group, or to have successfully taken part in writing competitions, anything along these lines will give the editor a sense of the writers capabilities. But, don’t rely on this alone, first and foremost it is the book itself that will drive the editor’s decision whether to accept it.
New authors are given excellent advice from the in-house Tinder publicist about building good relationships. This community of support is very important. Mary-Ann recommended looking at the way that successful authors conduct their social media, use some of these as a model to get ideas.
In March Tinder had an open submission for two weeks from unagented authors. This is now closed. Their publicist did such a good job in publicising the event that they received a whopping 2,000 submissions. They anticipate that they will find an author from this process. When submissions are open, they hope that the successful author will have all the necessary skills to be accepted straight away. Though Mary-Ann did say that if they find an author with promise they would be prepared to mentor that author.
A member of the audience asked if they take submissions from non-fiction writers.
They may take one submission from a non-fiction writer, they would be interested in memoir.
So, what did I think about Publishing in The Digital Age?
I’m so glad I went to the talk. I discovered lots of new exciting Literary Fiction, and also I gained some insight into the workings of the submissions process. It was well worth it. If you’re interested in books and/or writing I’d highly recommend attending a Literary Festival, it is inspiring and so much fun.