I had a dream. When I woke up the world had changed.

September 6, 2013

I questioned one of my dreams, just over a year ago.

I’d already spent many years being published by newspapers and magazines and being read by newspaper and website subscribers but that didn’t quite fill the hole. I wanted to write a book.

So I wrote a children’s picture book. The hole remained. Writing without readers is like chips without ketchup. I needed to get the words turned into a book. Books were the secret sauce.

But then the questions started. Was my ambition to be read or to be ‘published’? – where ‘published’ meant validated by someone in the book industry. Should I wait in the hope of getting picked by an ever shrinking and increasingly busy publishing industry? Or do I back myself, ship something and try to find readers myself? Should I be trying to get a book made or an eBook?

Despite the loaded questions, the choice wasn’t that easy. I realised that the core reason I wrote was not for the validation of an experienced industry veteran (which would be sweet, it’s true) but for readers (their validation is even sweeter). Then I thought I could publish something and get feedback from readers more quickly than I could get feedback from a publisher or agent, and that was it – my path was set.

I set up my own mini publishing company, Batmack Books, and started learning the ropes with my own book PONG! as the guinea pig.

Taking this route was also due to my impatience. I’m not the sort of person who could spend a year sending out letters to agents and publishers. I tried a few but lost all drive to continue within a few months. It seemed such a lottery.

The second reason for going down this route was my job, and the philosophy I bring to it and learnings I take from it. My job is all about digital opportunities and digital strategy. I deal with digital innovation and digital disruption. I like it. I believe it’s important to ship your work, learn, adapt, iterate and ship some more. Learn by doing. I take this approach at work, so why not with my writing. Ship something, learn, adapt and ship something better next time.

I still equate traditional publishers with print books, and believe many publishers still focus on print. I’ve been part of the media industry and newspaper journalists have been through this already. When I started in the industry, being part of a big media organisation meant kudos, and being a print journalist meant respect. Bloggers and digital journalists were largely dismissed – they were outside the club. That was until they were recruited to turn things around as the industry played catch up with quicker moving digital operations like the Huffington Post. A ‘digital native’ now runs Johnston Press the largest regional newspaper group in the country.

Newspapers know that print is just one of the mediums – neither the least important nor the most important.

And as for the kudos of print book publishing? I see authors clinging to paperbacks, as newspaper journalists clung to print and I worry that we are investing too much in a format. Is a kindle bestseller any less important than a hardback or paperback bestseller?

What is a paperback but an information delivery system that has been usurped? Yes, it has cultural significance, it has nostalgia on its side, and there’s a tactile quality that hits certain buttons – but, as a delivery system for ideas, nine times out of ten, digital is better.

Don’t get me wrong, I love print and publish my own stuff in print, as well as digital. I even sell some copies but it’s not my primary focus.

I do well on iBooks and I’ve been lucky enough to be promoted by Apple several times, and on Kindle Fire I’m ticking over. For the cut they take, I’m not sure a publisher could do a significantly better job on digital sales than I can do myself – unless they were prepared to shell out some proper marketing money.

And besides, I enjoy too much of the digital publishing process and digital business to give it up. Cover design, font choice, layout tools, sales reports, pricing strategies, what works and what doesn’t in the fast evolving landscape of digital publishing. This knowledge is too important to my next steps, and too much fun, to hand over to someone else. The knowledge I gain crosses over to my day job and vice versa.

I can be flexible with my books and promotions. I can experiment and react, and I can publish other people’s books if I believe they’ll work well in digital formats. I can test Facebook promotions versus Google ads and monitor the impact of PR.

But my print books sell slowly – I don’t know how to get into bookshops. I probably sell 50 iBooks for every print book. And for children’s picture books, bookshops are still important. This is the part of traditional publishing I can’t reproduce – the distribution to bricks and mortar stores.

Which got me thinking – if a traditional publisher knocked on my door would I jump at the chance of being signed and being ‘accepted into the club’?

The truth is it would be flattering and lovely but now I’d be asking what exactly they’d bring to the party. Marketing? Distribution?
I’d probably give up the print rights but they’d have to be offering something pretty special for me to part with the digital rights.

But how important are print rights?

Paperbacks are part of a declining ecosystem. Stories are more widespread than ever, but paper and bookshops are in retreat, replaced by movies, eBooks and online shopping.

Bookshops open coffee areas, or branch into stationery as they try to shore up revenues but the tide is against them. They can’t compete with eBooks and the wide choice offered by online shopping.

I love libraries but again it’s no accident that they now run so many events, stock DVDs and music CDs, and have banks of computers. Diversification beyond paper books is necessary to survive.

Since I started questioning, my dream has evolved. I want to be read by more people (lots more!) but I no longer care so much about the format or what companies or tools help me succeed. I also now know that I quite like producing books (or eBooks) not just writing them. End to end, for better or worse.

I’ve shipped PONG! in print on Amazon, on Kindle, Google’s Play Store and Apple’s iBooks, and helped WordWatchers produce an anthology. In doing both I learned stuff and my next picture book, due out in October, has benefited.

There are pros and cons in DIY, of course, but checking in on your dreams every once in a while and seeing if they’ve changed or if the world has changed around them – well that’s something I’d definitely recommend.

Me courting print media, despite everything I've just said!

Me courting print media. Old habits die hard.

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