Q&A with Anna Valdinger from HarperCollins Publishers Australia

Today Anna Valdinger, Fiction Publisher from HarperCollins Publishers Australia answers 7 questions about publishing we readers have always wanted to know.

Does the designer have to read a book first before designing the cover?
No, and many designers don’t have time to read all the books they’re working on, although certainly sometimes they’ll read some of a manuscript to get a sense of the book’s tone – usually for fiction. The publisher will have given the designer a comprehensive brief which includes where the publisher sees the book sitting in the market and the type of book it is, comparative titles, and often visual motifs from the book that could work on the cover. I always ask my authors for their thoughts as well so that their vision for the book is included from the start. Some authors are very visual and will send over mood boards and others prefer to wait to see concepts that we’ll discuss. It’s a fascinating process to get to something that is artistically in line with the author’s (and designer’s) vision and that will also work commercially.

Anna Valdinger, Fiction Publisher HarperCollins Publishers Australia

What’s the most expensive kind of finishing for a book cover?
Probably a cut out. Those can be easily damaged and I don’t often use it. Flaps are expensive as well, though they look lovely. Foil is probably the more expensive option of the ones I tend to use. Emboss and spot UV on a matt finish are my favourites. I wish I could do more colour printing on inside covers but that can get pricey. Soft touch is amusingly divisive – some people find it quite creepy. (I’m definitely in the ‘soft touch is creepy’ crowd; it also shows your fingerprints quite easily).

Why do so many books have the text ‘A Novel’ after the title?
This is a convention that tends to happen mainly in the US. But sometimes if we are concerned that people will mistake a novel for non-fiction, either because of title or subject matter or the author’s profile, we might add it on. I prefer to make it clear through the cover treatment, title and shout line.

What are the blank pages at the end of a book for?
Books are printed in batches of 16 pages called an extent. So if a book has, for example, 8 pages of preliminary matter (title page, copyright page, dedication, list of other books by that author, and so on) and 383 pages of main text, you’ll have 391 pages plus 9 blanks to take it to a total extent of 400 pages. If you only go over an extent by a page you’ll have 15 blanks which is a lot, so usually you would see if you could save a page somewhere. Typesetters can do a lot to help here! We tend to use any blanks we have for things like ads for other books by that author or reading group questions.

Do readers still send fan mail to authors?
Certainly. Less so by snail mail these days although we do get post coming in for authors which we will forward on. Most people tend to connect with authors now via social media or the author’s website. Authors love to hear from their readers – it can be a lonely process to create a book from nothing, and to hear from someone that they enjoyed or were touched by the work is really special.

How does a bidding war between publishers start? Don’t authors have to submit their work to one publisher at a time? How do they engage in a bidding war?
You definitely don’t have to submit to one publisher at a time but it is courtesy to let people know your work is on multiple submission. If you have an agent they’ll usually submit to the major publishers all at once. Authors can do this too but not every publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts, and agents know which person is the best one to approach for a particular title. If one or more publisher is interested the agent will let the others know – at which point everyone can get competitive!
If more than one publisher makes an offer, then the author and agent will assess them and decide if they want to accept one or take it to an auction. These can take various forms but often include the publishers putting together marketing and publicity pitches to accompany the financial offer and – depending on convenience and geography – going in to meet with various publishers to get a sense of the team and which might be the best fit for them and their work. Publishers then put in their best offer and the author decides which to accept. It’s not always down to the money; sometimes you feel a certain publisher ‘gets’ you better than the others, and the author/publisher relationship is really important, both editorially and because the publisher is your and your book’s champion.

Which book has surprised you the most this year?
The Barefoot Investor by Scott Pape. It’s rare to see a financial advice book take off in such a way but this one has sold 300,000 copies and almost all of that through chains and independent bookstores rather than through the big department stores. It’s a really impressive bit of publishing.
In fiction I am hugely excited about a book I acquired that will be coming out in March 2018. It’s a crime fiction novel, the first in a series by Perth writer Dervla McTiernan. It’s incredibly pacy and compelling and heartbreaking and tense – I couldn’t put it down and am still shocked that it’s a first novel and yet is so good. It’s called The Rúin – look out for it!

 

The Future Is In The Past And Present

I’m not normally one to weigh in on the e-book debate, partly because I think others can say it better than me, partly because I’m bored.

I should explain that boredom with the background that I worked for the music industry on and off over the last 10 years as I put myself through uni. It’s perhaps also why, while publishers’ concern over the fast-moving changes sweeping the industry is warranted, it feels a little groundhog day-like for me.

I had the fortune (or misfortune) to gain an insider’s perspective on how not to tackle the advancing electronic era. And if there’s one lesson I have learned from observing objectively from the inside, it’s that the key to the future of the publishing industry is in the music industry’s past and present.

In the music industry’s defence, the changes were swift and previously unexperienced, so it’s unsurprising that they handled things badly. But the publishing industry? They’ve had some forewarning, and what I don’t understand is why they haven’t been pinning down and picking the brains of music industry professionals—those who survived, those who didn’t, and those whose developments changed the game. Because if I were pinned down and brain-picked, I’d put it this way: it’s not about the packaging—it’s whether the content, be it words or music, is delivered in a format the suits users’ needs. Ultimately it’s about providing them with what they want, how and when they want it.

Let me explain. The concept of the music ‘album’, replete with 12-ish songs, was created not by musicians or demanding fans, but by record companies who saw it as a way to bundle more content together and make more money. What it meant, though, was that artists released music less regularly as it took them a long time to come up with 12 good songs, albums were very often padded out with not-so-great ones that arguably decreased the overall value, and fans were forced to buy whole albums when they very often just wanted one, single, solid track. And that’s not counting the impracticalities of carrying around a bazillion CDs to parties or overseas. In short: the packaging and delivery didn’t suit users’ needs.

Then advances in technology gave users an easy, affordable alternative. Yes, for the most part that was an illegal one, but I’d argue that while illegal downloading was always going to appeal to some, there was a percentage of people who did this simply because they couldn’t get the content in the format they were after.

While artwork and having a physical CD to show off on your shelf were ok, they weren’t the driving reason why people bought CDs. The driver was the content: the music. What Apple recognised and what the iPod and iTunes, in particular, enabled people to do (like a revelation), was pick and choose tracks. They made music portable and placed the how and when and why decisions firmly back in users’ hands.

Which is where the publishing is—and should be—heading, with or without publishers’ tacit agreement: towards formats that are more in tune with users’ needs.

The look and feel of a book is important, but it’s not the sole book-buying driver. I buy a book because I want to read it. And I want to read it in a manner that suits my lifestyle, which is one that involves a lot of travel with a lot of heavy gear. For this reason, too-heavy, too-cumbersome, easily damaged hardcover books are completely impractical for me. But audio books that I can listen to while on a bus, train, or plane (times when ‘traditional’ reading normally makes me motion sick) or multiple e-books I can take overseas without having to worry about the weight of my luggage are perfect. Moreover, e-books that bookmark pages to remind me where I’m up to (a battle I constantly face as I can never seem to remember the exact page number and stalwartly refuse to buy bookmarks that only fall out anyway) are a godsend. Finally, it feels as though someone’s thinking about how I use (and need to use) books.

The publishing industry is focused on trying to resuscitate the book, as if it’s on its deathbed. They’re blaming the terminal e- and audio-book illnesses for its passing and are so caught up in grieving and making funeral arrangements, they’re not seeing the situation for what it is.

Books aren’t dying. The format they come in is just being updated or, indeed, not even that—just being joined by complementary electronic versions. The sooner the publishing industry understands that—and the sooner they recognise that the key to the publishing industry’s future is in the past and present lessons of the music industry—the better off we’ll all be.

Do You Believe in Ebooks?

You may not have heard, but the publishing industry is not doing all that well at the moment. The market is shrinking in lots of ways. It might bounce back, but it’s likely that there is a general trend towards publishers needing to seek new ways of making money from the written word. If not now then soon. In this climate, ebooks are not something to be feared, yet there is a general tendency, especially among people who don’t understand, don’t use or don’t like ebooks to build them into a monster of mythic proportions. The fact is, however, that ebooks are not changing the industry. The industry is changing itself.

An author asked a friend of mine the other day if the decline of the second format market (that’s cheap paperbacks) was the fault of ebooks. Another friend who passed this blog along to an acquaintance was actually asked “Do you believe in all that stuff?” All that stuff, presumably, means ebooks – as if ebooks were magic pixie fairy dust that would be influenced by our collective belief or non-belief. Don’t they realise that every time you say you don’t believe, an ebook dies?

Seriously, though, ebooks are not something to be feared. They are at worst another potential revenue stream, and at best a whole new way of looking at telling stories. My beliefs on the matter (which make less than no difference to the outcome) fall somewhere between these two. At any rate, the future, whether you like it or not, will very likely include ebooks to some extent.

But for how long? Is the ebook itself already an old way of thinking about writing and selling stories? If so, what will come next?  Clay Shirky, author of the excellent Cognitive Surplus wrote a post some time ago about the death of the newspaper industry called ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable‘. Much of what he says there about newspapers applies equally to publishing books. Snip:

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift … It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

We in the book publishing industry are far further away from demise than the newspaper industry, but it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to put us in the same situation. I’ve seen it myself. “Leadership,” Shirky writes, “becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc.” Sound familiar?

All of this isn’t to say that the book is dead. Newspapers and books aren’t the same, and the internet has not had the same effect on books as it has had on newspapers. But that is not to say that the digitisation of publishing – a process which started long before ebooks and will continue after them – is not going to have a profound effect on the way written stories reach readers. The one thing we can be sure of, though, is that the stories themselves will still be there. You might not believe in ebooks, but you can believe in that.