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Commissioning in Book Publishing – How to build a successful list outside the 6-figure zone?

It was a lovely evening in the beautiful Century Club at the Bookmachine Talking Editorial! Truly enlightening to hear from 3 publishing professionals about how they build their very different lists. Valerie Brandes from Jacaranda Books, Keshini Naidoo from recently founded Hera books and Zara Anvari from White Lion (Quarto Group) were on the panel which was chaired by the brilliant Abbie Headon.

Valerie explained how Jacaranda books was founded in 2012 as a direct result of the lack of diversity discussion in the industry. There was a need for what they were doing and submissions came flowing. At the beginning no budget and no connection, however opportunity was always there because nobody was doing what they were doing. She says that you constantly have to reimagine your list and identify gaps in books published. For instance, they did notice that very few black British authors were published and in 2018 they decided that in 2020 they will publish 20 books written by black British authors.

Keshini is the co-founder of hera, a female-led, independent commercial fiction digital-first publisher (and now also publishing paperbacks). Their audience is the reader who cannot put a book down for 3 days. They publish books across genres such as romantic comedy or psychological thrillers. The story comes first and the commercial aspect is priority, although quality is necessary. The books they publish she admits might not make the Booker Prize list but will make many people happy! For Keshini, to commission you have to love what you commission and be able to push the title/the list.

Zara recently joined White Lion, an imprint of the Quarto Group publishing non-fiction books across pop culture and lifestyle. Business strategy is key for them: you have to have a direction and be profitable. Zara’s job differs from Valerie’s and Keshini’s as she comes up with concepts for books which she then has to sell to her colleagues and managers before finding the right authors for them. It a very collaborative environment and people have to buy into your idea. If you do not believe in it, nobody will. So you need to know what you want and go for it. As the imprint is quite new, they still consider what are their successes, what they do well, and this is a guiding principle across the whole.

How do they find their authors?

Valerie from Jacaranda looks at things she liked. She attends events, talks to agents and publishers, reads articles and blogs. Her advice: you just have to ask! Sometimes just asking if the rights of a book are available will work! For things that were not being published, she really focuses on what she likes, and obviously reads a lot and exposes herself to a lot of different influences.

Keshini from hera finds her authors through lots of different ways. It could be through submissions through their website or from authors and agents (ratio is 50/50 between the two). She was pleasantly surprised by the support she and her business partner received from agents from the start. She also mentioned something interesting about social media and Twitter in particular. Twitter is a way to commission, who would have thought?! There is a big community out there: authors put their pitch down with the hashtag #PitMad. This is very big in the USA, not as much in the UK but is this the way forward?

Zara from White Lion relies a lot on recommendations. Her concepts are born in-house and commissioning for her is more trying to find the right author for it (could be an influencer or an academic). In light of this, budget can be an element too. Zara’s advice is to stay open, and try to sell yourself to the author too as you will be working as a team, in a partnership.

What does success look like?

For Keshini, success is not focussing on prize but high chart positions. Online buzz and good exposure on social media is also very important. For Zara, as their books are very international, success is often measured by the attention they attract at book fairs. They need to make sure it gets international exposure and good conversion in terms of interest and sales. For Valerie, the notion of success has been evolving. At the very beginning, launching their publishing house was a success in itself. It has been an incredible learning curve for the founders of Jacaranda books as there is a massive difference between understanding what being a business is, compared to just being part of a business. It has been really hard and success was surviving as a business. This year what looks like success is very much visible for them as they won prizes and were long-listed for awards.

Commissioning and what makes a list successful are very different things depending on what books you publish and what business you are part of. But what the 3 speakers all agreed on is that to commission, you have to trust your gut and be passionate enough about the book to fight for it. To the question “what makes a book stand out from the lot” Keshini’s conclusion was hilarious but nonetheless very true as she quoted Marie Kondo: “If it doesn’t spark joy, get rid of it!”

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Stand Up For Science: Why STM Publishing in April is all about March?

Today we have a guest post from STM publishing professional, Emma Williams.

Emma Williams STM publishing

After completing an MA in Publishing at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies (OICPS) Emma began her career in STM Publishing almost 7 years ago at Elsevier, specializing in licensing and journal management. Emma is currently happily employed within the Health Sciences group at Wiley, helping partner societies to manage and develop their journals to their fullest potential. Also a former Society of Young Publishers Oxford Chair, Emma is a particularly keen follower of industry developments and innovation and interested in supporting early career professionals. Emma advocates The Scholarly Kitchen blog to nearly everyone she meets in Publishing, and is active on Twitter where you can get in touch via @TheRightsOne (personal) or @JournalsEmma (professional) respectively.

Stand Up For Science: Why STM Publishing in April is All About March?

You may not see it, but scientific and academic research is all around you. It helped build your house, fixed your headache, drove or cycled you to work, was mixed into your coffee and even contributed to that mysterious three lbs that you just can’t shake…

(Authors Note: This could also be the commonly practiced Schrodinger’s Biscuit Tin experiment too- if the lid is closed, are there even edible biscuits in there?)

Research in all its forms and fields is effectively the pursuit of an objective truth, often for the purpose of the benefit and/or advancement of humanity. In a time when ‘alternative’ facts and false news run riot, we must be like Indiana Jones and the Grail Knight- well informed so we can choose wisely. By this, I mean that we must try to understand and communicate the importance of well structured, methodologically sound, evidence based research practices and their contribution to defensible end results.

In the past, there have been barriers to communicating research to the public, outside of traditional scholarly journal publication.

Historically, science was commonly a pursuit for the wealthy elite and discussed in technically complex language between experts in the field firstly through correspondence, which eventually became formalized within Scholarly publishing. I would encourage everyone (especially all early career STM publishing professionals) to look at the creation of The Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions for more on the development of early scholarly publishing.

Alongside the formalization of these academic conversations around research, history has also documented public distrust of science and scientists. Perhaps this relates to an amount of disconnect from scientific conversation, but it may also be defensive (science is always a potential catalyst for innovation) against change for reasons which people may not like, be ready for, or even fully understand. This is clearly documented internationally in many cases of fear of ‘magic’ or witchcraft, religious conflict, and even cultural stereotyping.

Just think briefly for a moment on events like the Salem Witch Trials (circa 1692), or films such as Terminator (1984). Consider novels like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) or Frankenstein (1818). What about the depictions in both old and new media primarily made for young children, of Belle’s so called ‘crackpot’ inventor father in the story of Beauty and the Beast (1991) ? His eccentricity (i.e. scientific curiosity) predisposes him to such general public concern that he is nearly sent to an asylum- a particularly terrifying and often permanent commitment in past days. It is clear that in the historic public consciousness, there were very real fears that scientific curiosity, or developments, left unchecked would then get humanity ‘in over their heads’ across a variety of situations.

I believe that most people, living during even the more modern dates of some of these examples, would have thought of 2017 as sufficiently advanced into ‘The Future’, to expect better understanding, explanation and truthful rationalization of some of these fears. However, the modern citizen now faces a frightening time- we see heightened (or certainly more vocalized) opposition to evidence-based science; fear of globalization; and concerns about access to quality education.

So where can we find these trusted truths, to understand our world, communicate with each other and inform appropriate decision making for public good?

Although publishers and academia alike have recognized and begun to rectify some of the conversational gaps between academic research reporting and the general public through a wide variety of science engagement initiatives (Pint of Science events, or Publisher blogs for example) there is clearly still a lot of work to be done around mitigating unfounded fears and improving integrative discussion.

Now more than ever, the public must be able to either understand research processes directly, or to trust a third party to understand these and then report research results accordingly. Only then can we assess that end result and allow it to inform our own decisions and opinions. If we are not able to understand or we do not have access to such trusted sources, we are increasingly vulnerable to choosing poorly, and any ensuing negative consequences on an individual, national and a global level.

This is why scientists, academics, publishers and many other people gathered in various locations worldwide to March for Science on Saturday 22nd April. My personal experience of the global research community is that it is richly diverse, and full of those who have decided to embrace their curiosity about how something works, or could be improved, or could be learned from, and report back to the rest of us. I consider these people- our scientists and researchers- as an advanced guard, gathering intelligence on everything from climate change to medicine to lessons from history.

It is my opinion that we should fund and support research and engage with scientists and academics wherever possible in order to ensure that we don’t repeat mistakes, help people faster and preserve our world for generations to come.

For more information, please see:

https://www.marchforscience.com/
https://hub.wiley.com/community/exchanges/discover/blog/2017/02/16/values-have-no-borders?referrer=exchanges
Want more? Please see the below articles that the author came across while writing this, for ‘interesting’ further reading:

1. ‘Fake research’ comes under scrutiny, by H. Briggs, BBC News, 27th March 2017. Accessed via http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-39357819 on 18th April 2017.

2. 8 Hilarious Historical Fears That Seriously Delayed Progress by P. Carnell, Cracked, March 11th 2015. Accessed via http://www.cracked.com/article_22224_8-plainly-stupid-fears-that-held-back-human-progress.html on 17th April 2017.

3. We have always been modern, and it has often scared us by R. Higgitt, The Guardian, 24th June 2013. Accessed via https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2013/jun/24/technology-history-modernity-speed-fears on 18th April 2017.

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