Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Q&A: The best of times, the worst of times, to be an author

 I've been thinking a lot about ebooks lately. I'm working on a special project (details to be revealed soon) and it's taken me deep into the world of formatting, Kindle, Kobe, Mobi files and all manner of other technological mayhem. I'm slowly coming around to the idea of buying an e-reader, though I can never see it taking the place of my beloved books. Where I can see its value, however, is in the sheer number of books I could carry at once, as well as the availability of new material at all times.

Take now, for example. A quiet Tuesday night at home and I have no book at hand to read. It's enough to make a girl blog.

With my new interest in mind, and given my position as an author and soon-to-be novelist, I decided it was time to take the bull by the horns and find out more about the e-book publishing business. So I smiled beguilingly at Joel Naoum, publisher of Momentum, Pan Macmillan's new digital-only imprint, and invited him to the Fibro for a grilling.

Pan Macmillan is the first Australian publisher to launch a digital-only imprint, so I figured that Joel, as a man at the forefront of the foray into ebooks here, was a good person to ask about all the changes in the publishing business.

Fortunately, he smiled back. Here he is. All toasty.

Why was Momentum set up?
Joel Naoum: "For a few reasons, but the main one is to get the opportunity to experiment. Because we're separate from Pan Macmillan and the imprint is structured in a different way (no warehouses, no distribution costs, no printing costs), we can afford to experiment with debut authors, keep prices low and sell our authors globally."

Are you always acquiring? What are you looking for in a writer or project?
JN: "I am always acquiring! I'm looking for books with global appeal, authors who are engaged with their potential audience on social media or blogs, books that work well digitally (genre fiction, for the most part) and - most importantly - a great story."

Is it a difficult time to be an author - or an exciting time to be an author? Discuss.
JN: "It's both. Authors are going to be expected to know more and do more and yet it is getting commensurately more difficult for new authors to get a publishing deal. The rise of social media means that it's difficult for publishers to market on an author's behalf nowadays. The most effective way for an author to reach their audience is to directly engage with them. It's exciting for authors, however, because they have an unprecedented opportunity to make their work available to readers without a publisher (though I'd still argue that authors are better off with a publisher than without!)."

How does an author stand out when a reader has to wade through the entire internet to find their book?
JN: "My experience - and I suspect that of many readers - is that they have too many things they want to read. The internet buying experience is optimised for those people. Get in and get out. It's not an ideal browsing experience, and I don't actually see that experience from a bricks-and-mortar bookstore being replicated online. (And I think the ebook stores who try will probably fail.)

"People 'browse' books online by reading widely and organically stumbling upon things they want to read. The benefit of internet shopping in general - and particularly with ebooks - is that the distance between thinking 'oh, that might be interesting to read' and being able to read it is very short. A few clicks at most. That's where digital book marketing comes in. Our digital marketing team maximises the opportunities for readers to organically discover books and decreases the amount of time and energy it takes to purchase a book."

What are your three top tips for writers to who want to survive and thrive in this changing publishing environment?
JN: "That's a tough one... I'd say 'keep writing' is my number one tip. At the end of the day, that's still the most important thing a writer can do (that is, don't get distracted by points two and three...).

"Second point is to read. Not enough writers read in the genre they want to write for - and they make terrible rookie mistakes that make me want to throw their manuscript out the window (if it wasn't inside my computer, that is).

"Third point is to engage online with social media and try to build up a useful professional writing and reading network."

Joel is not only the publisher of a global book imprint, he also writes, blogs and tweets. Go say hello! Momentum accepts submissions every Monday - read the guidelines and dive in!


  1. Very interesting interview. I downloaded the Kindle App on our iPad a few onths ago and it's really changed how I read. I'm choosing books that I might never have picked up otherwise. I still haven't got over the novelty that you can click and be reading it in mere seconds - great for those times, like you say, when you haven't got anything to hand that grabs you on your shelf. It almost feels like you're not spending real money either - which is dangerous.

    I see a lot of discussion on twitter about the pricing of these books - whether they're too cheap at 99p (not sure of Australisn equivalent), how many units an author would have to sell if they're self publishing to be "taken seriously" by a publishing company if they then wanted to go down the 'traditional route' (I've seen 10,000 units mentioned). What I like about it is not having to take a suitcase load of heavy books away with me.

    1. I think that notion of 'not spending real money' is true of almost everything on the internet. Once you take cash out of the equation and it's a matter of clicking PayPal or something else it's all just too easy... not ideal for a book addict like me. I agree that the pricing is interesting - and also find it interesting that people are self-publishing to catch the eye of a publisher. Hmmm. Should have asked Joel about that one!

  2. I just got a Kindle Touch for my birthday and I haven't bought anything other than 99 cent books, but I have just about every piece of classic literature because it is all free! There are tons of free books on it. Plus you can borrow from our local library on your kindle. I do like that I can carry like 3000 books with me at all times, but I do feel like when I want to buy a book I will still want to browse the local bookstore and purchase the "hard" copy.

  3. Very interesting! I saw your link to Momentum on FB earlier in the week and didn't understand the relationship to Pan Macmillan. This is a great glimpse into where things are headed in the industry.
    I was in your camp of not wanting a reader, but having recently enrolled in a writing course at university, I've discovered a) books are heavy, b) they are not always available in paper copy. I've found myself wasting time trying to access books from various libraries between home and the city (plus I have a toddler. We've discovered our time in libraries is limited). An e-reader would resolve problems of access for me, big time. Need to read something before Friday's class? Click.
    Great post.

  4. I've always been anti e-reader but perhaps its time I moved along with the pace of modern technology! And thanks as well to Joel for the inspiration to keep on writing!

  5. I bought a Kobo when my daughter was born, purely because breastfeeding and turning pages in a book are never a good mix! My Kobo is now full of books. I love that I can throw it in my handbag and pull it out whenever I have a spare moment to read (usually at school pick up).
    I'm about to launch my first ebook next month and, like you Al, am knee deep in learning about all the different formats. Oh. my. goodness!
    This is all so timely for me, Joel. Thank you. Off to read more from you. :)

  6. You know how I feel about my e-readers; I've waxed lyrical elsewhere. The fact that Amazon make it so damn easy for me to hit the One-Click Buy button is terrifying and wonderful, all at once. (Of *course* Paypal money isn't REAL money.)

    The ability to carry a library's worth of reading is such a boon, too. Last night in a casualty ward, I pulled *2* e-readers out of my handbag and we whiled away the hours...

    It's such an exciting, brave new world for writers, I think. Only writers like Franzen, who refuse to embrace the inevitable changes, can fail to see that digital publishing and the uptake of digital devices makes it easier than ever for writers to reach the hands, and hearts, of new readers. In fact, the opportunity is there, through digital devices, to reach people who never before thought of themselves as readers.

  7. "..The sheer number of books I could carry at once."
    This is my main reason for wanting an e-reader. Carting books back and forth on the buses to and from work is getting to be too heavy.

    Others have mentioned how easy it is to click and buy, mentioning also paypal.
    Are there other methods of payment? I've never been happy with paypal.


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