Has the promise of the e-book lived up to our expectations, and is there a gap in the digital market for new writers? I interviewed Dan Witters to find out.
Do you think the advent of the e-book has fulfilled our initial hopes?
I think that we’re all a bit disappointed, because what we thought was going be a new market has fallen victim to a similar set of rules that the traditional publishing market had imposed upon it. The key to print or digital copy is: how do we draw people’s attention to this book? We thought the stumbling block would remain with the traditional publishing industry, as they carry such high costs. It’s understandable that they can be choosey, because first they have to do a print run and then store it; you have to get it out to the shops, the costs of returns and so forth. We thought the digital market would remove all that because the cost of getting work up digitally is fairly low. But the point of constriction has shifted from the publishers to the bookshop equivalent, which is the digital platform on which the work gets sold. So while it’s relatively inexpensive to convert a novel, or other writing, into digital format it’s very expensive to maintain the platform on which it’s sold, and certainly not everyone can do that.
My experience has been that the people doing this aren’t interested in taking too many risks and there doesn’t seem to be a maverick element out there saying ‘I’ll take a chance on this’. You always have the small or niche publishers, particularly with things like poetry, who might say ‘look we’ll take a chance on this and put out 200 copies just to see where it goes’ and I’m struggling to find the digital equivalent of this.
I’m trying to build within one or more of the major platforms for selling e-books as an area for new authors and trying to find ways in which I can build on that. The cost isn’t great, but the art is going to be to convince the people within those platforms to support it. It may be that I can overcome this first hurdle quite easily and get a range of new authors up there; but the second hurdle, and no-one has the answer to this at the moment, is how does one get that work known? If we market it as a group, trying to get it known that we have this particular site with new authors on, then that may work; rather than trying to market individual books. It would still only be scratching the surface of the market of new writers and it isn’t a terribly satisfactory answer to the many individual writers asking who are all asking, ‘How can I get my book out there for sale?’
Another impediment is that to sell your book online you generally need a credit card payment, or some sort of financial transaction, which is controlled. So you then have to bring in the banking systems and regulations of who’s authorised and who’s trusted to manage these transactions; who has the right firewalls to prevent people from hacking in to get the credit card details, so that the new writer can quickly get their book converted into digital format and on the market. So in a sense you can question whether we’ve moved forward much at all.
Are there any big names that are actively supporting you in this endeavour?
Not that I can disclose at the moment, but we are in negotiation with two of what will be the larger ones who are going to be independent of the Google and Amazon types and I think that we can parley a way into having an area of their sites that could be dedicated to new writers. I’m very keen to do that, but what I can’t guarantee is that I will be allowed great volumes of writers, so in effect I’ll just be scratching the surface.
I also can’t get a guarantee that I will be able to achieve comprehensive marketing of these that will translate into big sales figures. Now, the very effect of having an e-book up there is that it may allow the author to do their own marketing, the basic thing of friends and family who will buy copies from a viable and recognised site. All of those things are worthwhile goals but I doubt whether this will translate into sufficient sales, which will allow someone to make a living out from it.
What advice would you offer to such authors at this exact moment in time?
The first and most important piece of advice is to get someone to edit your work. The most difficult thing to explain to a new, and enthusiastic, author is that no matter how good you are you still need editing. I quite often read well established authors with a very wide sales circulation and you can see that they have taken the trouble early on in their careers to be heavily edited; but then you also see someone who has ten or so novels published and when you read one you think, hmm someone should have edited this.
At each stage of everyone’s writing there’s a need for editing. That’s a very hard thing to convey to a writer, who often feels that you’re interfering with their creative process and just don’t understand where they’re coming from. It’s absolutely essential. No one can sit down and write their novel, or collection of short stories, as it should be. Everyone needs to be edited and I really can’t stipulate that enough.
The second thing is that you’ve got to find something that keeps you apart from other writing styles or subject matter; something that makes you stand out from the crowd. There’s a vast amount of new writing out there simply knocking on the door of publishers trying to get their attention, and I mean extremely good writing.
I recently read the six finalists in a writing competition that was held in a very out of the way place. There were three hundred or so entries and all six of the finalists, who were of a very high quality, deserved to be published. Had they written that work thirty or forty years ago they would have been published instantly. The person who won the prize did get published but the others were sadly thrown back to their own resources.
This just goes to show that writing is a highly competitive field and there’s a vast amount of good work out there. As a writer you’ve got to persevere and keep going, no matter what. Often you put an enormous amount of work into a book and it’s knocked back, which results in your feeling quite deflated. You’ve got to put that aside and write a second and better book, then a third which is better still. A writer needs tremendous determination and I feel that this is where good editing comes in. You get the corrections you need from a good editor but you also get encouragement. Someone who’s pointing out the good aspects of your work that needs to be developed but also indicating the aspects of your writing that are defective. There’s a comment by Samuel Johnson to the effect that, ‘if you go back through your writing and find something that you particularly like strike it out’. That’s typical Johnson and is an overstatement, but there’s a real danger that you can get attached to your own writing and lose the detachment you really need. It’s very important to be objective and detached.
If you’ve gone through creative writing courses you’ll find that there’s usually an aspect where they’ll discuss this, perhaps with former tutors and other people who write. Usually, if we search around, we’ll find someone who will give us an objective overview of our writing. Marry that up with the sheer determination to be a writer and just keep going. Arm yourself with the countless stories of writers who’ve had thirty or forty pieces of writing rejected before they got published. But here your concern is what the digital world is going to do for the new writer and I wish I had a more uplifting message. I do think that the digital world is going to get better as time goes on, easier than the old print world but there are still major blocks to get past.
Are there any specific fields or genres that are doing particularly well in the e-book industry, compared to others?
I think that novels are still predominating and I feel that writers should give serious consideration to short story collections. These are starting to be taken up by the e-book format, and this goes for poetry too. This may give you more options. A novel takes so much commitment; you’re taking yourself out of the market for six to eighteen months and that’s a long time.
If you’re going to hone your skills as a writer and try and to get some results there is some advantage, whether you are a short story writer or not, to writing a few short stories. This way you can test the market by targeting specific magazines; you’re not spending eighteen months working on a novel which isn’t going to get anywhere. A friend of mine has just finished a novel that’s taken ten years to complete. That’s a large slice of your life and then it can be a real knock back when you find that you can’t get it published. Quite often you can learn the same lesson writing a couple of short stories and hitting the publishing market with those. So, it’s a good thing to start with a modest ambition and write two or three very good short stories. It’s a writer thing to say that you write novels and short stories aren’t what you do, but anyone who can write good novels will be able to write short stories.
I think it’s a very good discipline to work and develop ideas for shorts. There are more markets for those, and I think someone with short stories published will certainly stand a better chance of getting a novel published; and there’s nothing to stop you from doing the two things simultaneously. You can certainly be writing a novel and getting the short stories out at the same time. You’ll find that it’s an easier entry point into publishing and in particular the digital publishing world.
Can you imagine a time when companies such as Kiwa Media would look at taking royalties from a book, rather than charging a writer up front, considering the relative potential income as opposed to the writer’s relatively small initial outlay?
Without question. We previously discussed the example of Harry Potter and Bloomsbury, which shows that there are niche markets out there such as science fiction and children’s fantasy writing. There are areas where there’s enormous potential. In particular the children’s market is enormous. I think that people in my position are going to be very interested in someone who has an original and potentially extremely successful idea. Even if what they have done with the writing so far isn’t sufficient I, personally, would be prepared to work with someone like that and see if you can improve the writing and make it better.
We prefer to work with someone who takes corrections onboard and is open to suggestions. So, in answer to your question, yes absolutely; because the cost of putting work up digitally is so low it would be well worth us saying, ‘look, there’s a cost but we’ll share the sales’. But this is not something that you would do until you’re satisfied that the work has potential and then we’re back to stage one aren’t we, knocking on publishers doors. No doubt I will be saying the same judgemental things that the traditional publisher did, but it’s something I’m very interested in. I would sound a warning note that I would be very selective too.
Kiwa Media’s focus has previously been on the children’s, or young adult, market and the public sector, such as schools. Are you now starting looking at publishing novels and short story collections yourselves?
There’s a group that I’m working with called the Firsty Group, who are looking to move into a leading position with regard to e-books. They are certainly much more receptive than anyone else that I have dealt with and I’m going to continue working with them. I feel that they are going to be a big player in the market and I’m going to try and develop an area there for new writers. Firsty Group is a digital publisher in the wider sense, while Kiwa is more of an app producer. Our role in the world is to go to publishing houses and convert their titles into apps. Firsty Group are a company that really interest me and who I feel are going to do extremely well. They’re expanding rapidly and they seem to know where digital books are going. It’s companies such as these that the new writer needs to be researching.