Back to the Future

Everyone’s been trying to get their heads around the ramifications of e-publishing: authors, agents, publishers, booksellers, readers, governments and institutions. For authors, the possibilities that are presented by e-publishing are dizzying: exciting, but also anxiety-­‐making. I’m not against publishers. In fact I appreciate very much the immense amount of work my publishers do in editing, marketing, distribution, promotion and taking me on in the first place! I have good relations with all my publishers, and intend to keep it that way.

But like so many other fellow authors, I am also attracted by the experiment of e-publishing, and of having many options open to me. And there are so many options, with e-publishing! For instance, with my agreement, two of my publishers have recently started making some of my novels available as e-editions; I’ve just had a novel which I love dearly but had despaired of ever seeing published, contracted by an innovative digital-only publisher, and plus, I’m working with another digital-only publisher on an interactive digital graphic novel I’ve created with two illustrators and a musician. And, last but not least, I’ve recently taken the first tentative steps on the journey to becoming a micro-­‐publisher myself: Sixteen Press.

There’s lots and lots of issues around e-publishing, of course. But what I want to look at in this piece is something very particular, something I’ve not really seen anyone else write about but which I think many authors might recognise. And it’s this: we hear all the time about how e-publishing is the new frontier, the brave new world, the ultra-modern hi-tech phenomenon. And yet, for me, this hi-tech future has done something surprising and counter-intuitive. It’s taken me back into the low-tech world of my past, into the realm of the hand-made and home-made.

When I was a child, I loved not only writing and illustrating my own stories, but also creating my own ‘published’ versions of them. I didn’t do it with all my stories, just a few favourites. They were as ‘proper’ books as I could make them, with a cardboard cover, illustrations pasted in, a blurb, and ‘published by Sophie’ emblazoned on it in my best block printing. I’d staple the whole thing together or occasionally attempt to sew up the spine with coloured thread – not a good idea as my stitches wavered like drunken spiders! And then I would proudly show my ‘published’ books to family and friends.

It was such fun and totally absorbing, making what could have been long tedious hours pass like a flash. What’s more, it made me feel for that I had power, I was in charge: and when you’re a child, that’s such a sweet thing. Normally, you’re a little person in a land of giants with little control over your timetable, let alone your own fate. But in the world of your own story, you were the powerful one: the one who decided characters’ fates and how they’d look in your pictures. And when you published your own books with the important-­‐looking cover and blurb, that was even better! I had no idea at the time how ‘real authors’ went about publishing ‘real books’; but that didn’t matter. I was playing but also being serious, in the way children often are.

As a teenager, being both more self-conscious and having realised that publishing was an actual business, I was much shyer about public display. Dissatisfied with my own lack of talent in art, I’d stopped illustrating, too. But I didn’t stop writing, or making books for all that. The only surviving ‘self-published’ book I have dates in fact from late in my teenage years: a children’s story called Valerie behind the Bottlebrush, illustrated with beautiful watercolour and pastel pictures by my younger sister Gabrielle. The book’s made of the same gorgeous, thick art paper Gabrielle used for her pictures, and when I hold it, I still feel the thrill I had when we finished it.

Later, of course, I achieved my dream and became a published author, and as the years went by, a much-­‐published author. I love the thrill of holding one of my new books in my hands, with its gorgeous cover and design framing my story. I love the interaction with my publishers and I love much of what goes with being a full-­‐time writer. But occasionally, over the years, I’ve felt like I was back to being the ‘little person in the land of giants’ with no more control over the fate of my books than I had over my life as a child. For example, there have been times when projects I really believed in were knocked back for reasons I didn’t think were valid; or a book of mine might be swept along to oblivion for reasons that had to do either to do with publishing company decisions or circumstances beyond even the publisher’s control, such as the GFC.

And so, when I started experimenting with creating my own e-publications through Sixteen Press, it was with a delighted shock that I recognised the excitement I was feeling. Here was the same sense of play and of serious purpose that I remembered from childhood. Here was the same giddy feeling of taking charge. Here back again was the possibility of illustrating my own work, with black and white photographs I’d taken over years now coming into their digital own. I have no idea whether any of it will be a success in material terms. I hope it might. But right now, it doesn’t matter, I’m enjoying myself so much.

And as I happily work away on my many projects, I’m struck by another insight: this isn’t just good for us authors. For publishers, it’s also a good thing. Because happy authors make for harmonious relationships. And an author who feels he or she has many options open to them is likely to be happy, and to look on their relationship with publishers as a real partnership.

Or am I kidding myself (forgive the pun!)? Are we still just little people in a land of giants? What do you think?

I’ve known the award winning author, Sophie Masson, since she asked me for a story for a collection of Arthurian prequel stories she was putting together called The Road to Camelot.

Born in Indonesia of French parents, Sophie spent part of her childhood in France and was educated in Sydney. The author of over 50 books for young people, published in many countries, she has also written several novels and a book of essays for adults.

She is the perfect person to ask about the brave new world of eBooks. Her teen romance thrillers, written under the pen name of Isabelle Merlin, all feature an interactive internet element which she created herself- the blog of a main character, a website on dreams, a band page and YouTube channel, clips made by another main character, and even social media pages on Facebook and Bebo for characters in her books. Her pioneering work in hybridising print and e-elements was highlighted in a Literature Board report on writers using new media forms. Her kindle-only historical novel for adults, My Brother Will was published by AchukaBooks in May this year.

Her website is at www.sophiemasson.org and check out her blog about her e-publishing platform at Sixteen Press.

Sophie Masson’s impressive credentials and digital knowledge have also led to her being made a member of and author representative on the brand new Book Industry Collaboration Council, set up to advise government on issues in the book industry at a time of great change and to look at possible solutions as an industry-wide group. It came out of the first recommendation of the Book Industry Strategy Group, which was convened last year and which made several recommendations, some of which are set to be progressed in the new group. I am one among many interested to see what this group will come up with.

Forthcoming (July 2012) are her YA fairytale novel Moonlight and Ashes (Random House Australia) and historical adventure novel, Ned Kelly’s Secret (Scholastic Press Australia).

17 Responses

    1. Vauny says:

      Such an interesting article! I think it’s easy as a reader (and friend of a few aspiring authors) to see the publishers as corporations out for a profit and the authors as talented artists just trying to get their work out. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been told that “publishers won’t publish your book unless you’re already a published author” (though I’ve never been shown any evidence to back this) so it’s easy to see publishers this way – as the giants. And I think this contributes to people liking ebooks. Not only does it let more authors have control of the publishing process, but people can get the books they want more readily.

      To be fair though I think as end users of any media, we put a lot of pressure on the creators of that media to stay true to their art and not “sell out” by creating w

      • Vauny says:

        Arg accidentally hit submit before I finished! Anyway:

        We put a lot of pressure on artists of all media not to create work that’s got mass appeal as if creating something which has immense appeal and success is a bad thing (look at the hate Harry Potter got in its early years, and twilight) and it’s easy to again blame publishers for that too.

    2. Marta says:

      That’s a fascinating way of looking at e-publishing – it can become a way for you to express yourself completely; not just through word but through picture and presentation, as well. I can’t say I ever ;published’ anything the way Sophie did, but I’m certainly guilty of a few very poorly illustrated stories in my time. And yes, there was a joy in ‘making things’. I remember sitting down as a child, asking myself what I might do today, and then deciding to ‘make’ something. Pictures with stories; little paper models of things (which never quite represented the reality…); attempts at embroidery. And e-publishing is a way to get this thrill back! It’s certainly just taken on a whole new and exciting light for me!

      I also love Sophie’s concept that it gives authors more power. Perhaps it’s just a dream, but it really does give me hope to think that writers might be able to step up and collaborate with the giants, now, rather than being swept along in their wake, acquiescent to their whims.

      Thanks for a thought-provoking article, Sophie!

      • Heather Giles says:

        I like the idea that we will still get to read some of those stories by our favorite authors that have not made it into print, are there, already written, but have been rejected for one reason or another by the publisher. Sophie’s article shows that more and more possibilities are opening up for writers.

    3. Deb says:

      Oh the memories. I don’t know how many book I ‘published’ as a child. And I did have one story made into a book for the library at my primary school. I wonder if they still have it after all these years. :p I remember that feeling of being in control for just a moment in a world where I had no control over anything. I’d like to have that feeling again.

      I think it takes a lot of guts to try new things and I congratulate Sophie for putting herself out there. Sixteen Press looks good, and the interactive graphic novel sounds wonderful.

    4. Alex Adsett says:

      Great article Sophie! I love and agree with the idea that authors with lots of options, will be happier about working with their publishers, and both benefiting from the collaborative relationship. Obviously that’s how it is always supposed to be, but this certainly helps! 🙂

    5. Daniel says:

      I’ve always been ‘against’ ebooks, because I personally love owning and feeling physical books, and I’d much rather stare at a page than a screen, but thinking about this now from a new point of view, ebooks sound like a great idea. Technology has given us back power, and ebooks can give authors back their power. No longer are we dictated by what corporations and companies think will work and make a profit. If I want to publish online a book, film or television show, I’d be able to do that, because of technology. Which means that power has been given to the average person, because ANYONE can create and share their work, however good or bad. I think this diversifies and opens up the market, and definitely increases the variety of books (and other media). Which is a good thing, especially if this means more people decide to take up a book (physical or e-) and start reading. It also sounds like more authors will be able to publish and get their work out there (and gain appropriate profits) from their work, and allowing them to break into ‘the industry’. But with anyone able to write and publish a book, does this mean that the world’s attention span will be spread too thin and worldwide hits will not exist because of a downfall in traditional publishing, possibly.

      I love the idea of an author taking control their work and publishing things that companies have rejected for whatever reason. I think it will provide a fascinating insight to the author, because it will be exactly what the author wants to share. Of course with such power, does come great responsibility. Having authors in charge of everything could make things more exciting and personal, but it could provide challenges and create frustration for the author. Being able to publish never before seen work in e-format (and possibly drafts, snippets scenes that were cut out, extra information) and provide it to fans, is a great possibility and would be easier to do than print a book (like Pottermore for Harry Potter, allowing the authors insight into their worlds be shared with all).

      Thanks, and great idea Isobelle Carmody for the site, and great article Sophie, it is an exciting time that we are living in, and I wonder what the future holds for authors and readers alike!

    6. Thank you all for your great comments, glad to have touched off a chord with everyone. They certainly are exciting times, hard to predict what will happen, but it’s quite an adventure!

    7. Great article.

      I don’t understand why more authors aren’t ditching their publishers and self-publishing.

      My book got rejected by every publisher I sent it to because they told me ‘Aboriginal books don’t sell’. So, I hired an editor, designer and production controller to make my book a reality. It did end up being published by a mainstream publisher, but they did nothing more than approve the cover and handle distribution. All the publicity for the book was done by me. That was 6 years ago. I wouldn’t even think about using a traditional publisher now.

      Australian publishers need to step up to the digital plate in a much bigger way if they are going to provide any future value to authors. Most of them treat digital versions of books as an after thought and look for the cheapest way of replicating the print version with very little thought for the digital reader. The irony is that the big publishers with resources produce the crappiest eBooks, while small independent authors and developers push the boundaries.

      Personally, I’m loving all the great digital stuff I’m reading from Indie authors… short form stories, extending the vision of the book and engaging with their readers like never before. Recently I read a book where the author provided two versions of the book in an eBook. One was the original version that jumped back and forth through time, the other was chronological.

      For the savvy, socially internet aware author – this time is full of possibilities.

      • Emily Craven says:

        I love the idea of combining forms Liam. I have one story that started out as a short story and was converted to a play. Each piece has a little something extra in it to connect with the audience in that medium and I am currently playing with the idea of putting an ebook out as a short story/play combo. What I’d love to see, and what I might try to do myself, is set up an online hub similar to smashwords but purely for short stories.

      • Emily, I love the idea of iterating on a story in this way. Read the text novel. Then experience it all over again as a graphic novel, game app or interactive website.
        All the best with your story/play!

    8. Erica Wagner says:

      I am also excited by the possibilities of ebooks and the innovations and collaborations that are possible – it’s flexible, exciting, open to everyone. But speaking as an ‘evil’ publisher responsible for accepting and rejecting (and having had my share of failures, successes and ones that got away) it must be said that keeping a big company afloat is a huge challenge! Publishing books is a commercial enterprise when you are also talking about having staff and infrastructure to keep afloat. As much as we wish it were different, it’s rare for the beautiful and unusual to also be commercially successful, so we have to balance our lists with books we know we can sell and those we love passionately that we pour our energies in to market (knowing that they may only appeal to the passionate few …) What we are searching for right now is a business model that will work for the digitial future, keeping in mind that people want ebooks and apps to be free or under $5 …

      • Emily Craven says:

        Hi Erica,

        I have to say I’m very much in awe of you all. I was speaking to Michael from Wakefield Press here in Adelaide, and just a small chat really brought home yet again how tough it is to keep a publisher running, or any business running in this climate for that matter. As soon as anyone other then yourself is involved, you’re never quite sure how things will turn out. I’ve said it before in this forum, but I’ll happily say it again, I would really love to be able to buy the print book with the ebook attached for free. I do love my print books but sometimes they are so cumbersome to carry. As a reader I would see that as a bargain and great value 🙂

        Hope it helps!

    9. Huong Gentille says:

      Thanks for posting this interesting post. As we all know, everyone have staunch opinions, however, I have always had an open mind. Changes each day require that thinking. When I have the time, I might return to read more of your writing. How often do you upload your pages so I can return to your site? I do believe that we may share many of the same views.