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Lynn Shepherd – A Response (Or how not to voice your opinions)

On 24 February 2014, an author that very few of us have ever heard of aired her opinions in The Huffington Post. Unfortunately for this author, she managed to singlehandedly offend journalists, authors, retailers, readers and Harry Potter fans all in one go.

duty_calls[1]Before I go on to respond to this, I do want to say something to the Huffington Post: Shame on you for publishing that article. You are a reputable news website, not some clickbait trap of top ten lists and barely researched articles. We expected better.

On to Ms Shepherd – Thank you for airing your views but you have made the fundamental mistake delivering a poorly thought out argument in a sensationalist manner without any facts. It only served to make you sound like a bitter C-list author and not at all like an informed individual protesting the status quo.

Your first cardinal mistake happened in your headline: “If JK Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It” – really? The mere fact that JK Rowling is in no way, shape or form a threat to the written word. In the same way that Miley Cyrus is in no way a threat to music, Piers Morgan is in no way a threat to late night TV and Paris Hilton is in no way a threat to, well, anyone.

Your next problem is in your first paragraph – you draw attention to the fact that you are about to sound bitter and jealous. Good job, you have now convinced everyone that you are bitter and jealous. Then you go on in the second paragraph to admit that you have never read the woman you trashed in your headline, nor seen any of the movies. Then you go on to insult every adult who has ever read her books by telling them “it’s a shame that adults were reading them [referring to the Harry Potter novels]… mainly because there’s so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds.”.

The next two paragraphs are dedicated to telling everyone how Ms Rowlling’s two novels for adults (The Casual Vacancy and Cuckoo’s Calling) only sold because Ms Rowling is, well, JK Rowling. It apparently took up a lot of space in store, which the author feels is unfair. And a lot of space in columns, which the author feels should rather be dedicated to lesser-known authors.

Unfortunately, this is the point where she offends both retailers and journalists. Let us take a look at bookshop retail. A lot has been said in recent years about the demise of the physical bookstore. Online retail has boomed to the point where the Bookseller’s Association in the UK have two time periods – Before Amazon (BA) and After Amazon (AA). In order for the physical stores to keep their doors open and stock books of lesser-known authors (including those of Ms Shepherd), we rely on these bestsellers.

In a similar way, journalists rely on these bestsellers to sell their stories. The review of the bestseller, that many people will read regardless of the fact that someone reviewed it, lends credence to the reviewer because people will read the review, compare it to their own opinion of the book and then assign some credibility to the reviewer. When this reviewer then later reviews a lesser-known novel, people are more likely to respond to that review than to a review by a person no one has ever heard of.

Do not get me wrong, I do see your point – the one that you obscured in the midst of a whole lot of unnecessary attacks on exactly the people you wanted to influence. I too agree that we should be featuring amazing novels by lesser known authors, but I do think they should be featured alongside the novels of the famous authors, not in the place of them. The psychological effect of seeing the name of a known author mentioned in close proximity of someone you have never heard of is much greater than picking up your weekend paper and not recognising anyone featured on the books page.

Please remember this, Ms Shepherd: It is because of authors like JK Rowling and her ilk that your books can sell “a couple of boxes”. Please do not insult the hard-working authors out there who, without resorting to sensationalism, manage to build a fan-base, grow their footprint and continue pursuing the dream of one day becoming the next JK Rowling.


Random Penguin House (Or an Igloo in the middle of nowhere)

Somewhere in the middle of last week I started hearing rumblings in the book world. Rumblings that heralded big change in the way the publishing industry works. Rumblings that would change lives. Obviously I am referring to the merger of Random House and Penguin. Bertelsman (Who owns Random) and Pearson (the holding company of Penguin) have come to an agreement that would put the new combined publishing empire in charge of roughly 25% of the book published in the UK and US.

Immediately the book industry went abuzz. Being a friend and follower of many an author (friend in real life and follower on social media, obviously. I’m not a creep) theirs were the first voices to speak up. Jane Yolen probably summed it up best:

Here are my questions, which probably are unanswerable at this time:

1. Will Philomel, Dutton, Viking, Random etc. remain distinct entities? Will they–as in the past–make their own publishing decisions or follow the Harper model whereby a mss. offered to one imprint/one editor and turned down in considered rejected by all imprints. For authors this is a biggie because it has to do with the available market possibilities for any one manuscript.

2. Will the smaller books be even more marginalized than now, since they will be fighting for recognition from the marketing, publicity, and sales departments that are handling double the numbers of books than before. And as a corollary, will the sales department focus even more on big books when they speak to bookstores, WalMart, etc.?

3. Will the individual imprints’ distinctive voices be subsummed in the behemoth?

You can see where I fear this is going. Even I feel nervous. Big is not necessarily better for the midlist.

Now, I do not know Jane personally, nor have I ever read any of her books but she voices concerns spoken and felt by many authors.

It is already true that publisher budgets are stretched thin – hell, everyone’s is – and the first people to feel it were the mid-list authors. More and more the money available for the promotion of books is allocated to surefire authors, so unless you can guarantee them a bestseller, chances are that you will see very little hooplah around these authors.

Midlist authors are only slightly better off than self-published authors and if you fall into any of these two camps you have to know how to market yourself.

The best thing to happen to the publishing industry since the advent of the printing press

In my opinion, even if Jane’s worst fears come true, this Random Penguin merger is the best thing to happen to the publishing industry in years. It is also the publishing industry’s first strike back at the (now very real) threat of digital and Amazon.

In recent years we have seen an influx of books that made it big after becoming an epublishing or self-published phenomenon. EL James of 50 Shades of Grey infamy was picked up by Random House for a multi-million Pound deal after her erotic “novel” became a raging success only surpassed by the raging hormones of its readers.

Amanda Hocking made a name for herself after selling a million copies of her self-published series form her bedroom. Cassandra Clare made it big after being discovered on fanfiction sites and the list goes on and on.

What Random Penguin House get to do now is let ebooks sift through the slushpile by letting every Tom, Dick and Harry that thinks he (she) can write a book publish electronically. All they have to do is monitor the sales and trends and once an ebook reaches a point where it looks economically viable for print, approach an author and make them an offer they can’t refuse.

This will obviously not sit well with a lot of people, booksellers and publishers included, but it does give the printed book back the status that it so rightly deserve (even if that status is driven by consumerism). It will put the faith back into the physical book industry whereby every consumer will know that a book worth printing on paper, is a book worth owning.

This is not to say that they should completely abandon the current model, not by any means. All that I am suggesting is that this is not as bad as people would like to make it out. If you as an author have the ability to write a bestselling novel, prove it and be published in a physical book.

So who loses?

I can see two groups of people who’d be badly affected should things happen as I predict.

Firstly, consumers. People all have specialties, and if an author’s is writing, but not necessarily marketing, then we have a problem. If the ebook doesn’t sell, then it will never get published as a physical book and many people might miss out on it.

Secondly, retailers. Retailers who rely on physical book sales to keep their businesses afloat will lose out if they do not have a strong representation in the ebook market, which means that they will lose out on the initial sales. Indies will be particularly hard-hit with this.

At the end of the day this is all speculation based on limited facts. Although it would make sense.

At least it does in my head.