In this week’s episode I chat to John Bond, former MD of Press Books at HarperCollins and founder of Whitefox, which provides publishing services to authors and publishers, about how publishing has changed over the last few years, where it’s going, and what that means for authors.
‘Writers are getting more impatient and more entrepreneurial… they no longer find it acceptable that there’s a process that traditionally involved finding a publisher, maybe via an agent, and that a year to 18 months later that book would see the light of day… It’s a very exciting time to be producing things and connecting with people that might want to read them.’
Alison Jones: I’m here today with John Bond, who’s the co-founder and the CEO of Whitefox, publishing services, provider to publishers, authors, agents, and brands. He’s spent 25 years in the industry, like me, but he’s worked on the trade side, so with Penguin and Harper Collins amongst others. Lovely to have you here today, John.
John Bond: Thank you for having me.
Alison Jones: It’s great to have you here. Do you want to tell us a little bit about you and your business to kick off?
John Bond: Okay, well I founded Whitefox in early 2012, so were about 4 and a half years old. As you said, I spent most of my time in trade publishing, and I was marketing director at Penguin, sales marketing director at Harper Collins, ran one of the publishing divisions at Harper Collins for 6 years, and stepped out of the big conglomerates at the end of 2011 and thought what doesn’t exist? What kind of model is new, that it still involves me staying within this world which I love, and a world of book selling, and publishing, and writing, and whatever, and reading. How can I configure something, not just for the sake of starting something up, but something that actually wants to solve problem, that’s what I set Whitefox up for. Whitefox is basically a very, very large pool of very experienced freelancers, which has been curated over the last 4 and a half years and it started with the pool of freelancers that we had, we brought with us, my colleague Annabel and I brought with us that we used at Harper Collins. Then we’ve just basically gradually been growing it wherever the market wanted us to grow.
We provide outsource services for publishers, but we’re also working with a little of individual writers, with brands, and with companies. Anybody that wants and kind of specialism or skill that relates to publishing, we try and find the right person to match the right requirement.
Alison Jones: Because actually publishing is such a broad thing now isn’t it? The world runs on content and publishers are extraordinarily good at that.
John Bond: It runs on content and I think also it runs on quality content. People at whatever level, I think there’s a slight myth that there are all these degrees of requirements, and whether you’re paying pennies for words for something, or you’re paying a bestselling author, and actually the bar is high, people want a level of quality and they expect a kind of minimum requirement. Whether you’re a publisher or whether you’re a writer wanting a copy edit or proofread, or whether you’re somebody wanting something designed, or a recipe tester for cookbooks. It’s got to work, it’s got to be good, and it’s got to connect and that as you say is a very broad remit that doesn’t just involve book publishing, trade publishing, academic publishing, it’s the whole world of content creation that we’re in.
Alison Jones: Absolutely, and the rules of publishing, whatever we call publishing these days, they’re changed forever aren’t they? What have you noticed over the last few years in particular about the ways in which publishers and authors and readers are changing, particularly around books?
John Bond: Well I think that, taking them one at a time, traditional publishers, certainly on the trade side, have become more risk averse. I think you’ve got the conglomerates becoming bigger, they’re spreading the risks that they do take. I think innovation seems to be happening much more outside of the big publishing entities, and exactly that way reflecting sort of tech businesses, the outliers are out there and when publishers or the content creators see innovation happening they don’t take the risk themselves, but they then bring that in, they loop that into their own organization. I think writers are getting more impatient and more entrepreneurial. I think they no longer find it acceptable that there’s a process that traditionally involved finding a publisher, maybe via an agent, and that a year to 18 months later that book would then see the light of day with consumers.
I don’t know how you feel about this, a lot of the writers that we’re dealing with, I think there’s this sort of myth that writers are not interested in the business of publishing. To me, more and more writers are absolutely fascinated in that idea of engaging with their readers, how they do that, what are the channels, what are the platforms, what are the tools they need to do that?
Alison Jones: Absolutely, for me, obviously a book is part of a bigger thing, particularly because I work with people who are writing their business books. They see it as just part of their whole online and offline presence, and they want to see how it fits in and integrates with that.
John Bond: Exactly, and I think it’s book as content marketing. It’s an interesting sort of Venn diagram where lots and lots of different things are overlapping. I think the effect for the reader at the end of that whole process, or as part of that whole process, is there’s a whole myriad of options and opportunities and forms of content that apply to increasingly eclectic tastes. I think that this idea that people just want to consume the same sort of book, or same sort of content online, again, that’s been exploded as a myth I think.
Alison Jones: What we’re saying basically is this is a really exciting, complicated time to be in publishing.
John Bond: I think it is, although probably if you were writing a thriller, and you had the word girl in the title, it’s probably not very complicated at all. For other aspects of content creation, yes, it’s a very exciting time to be producing things and connecting with people that might want to read them.
Alison Jones: It’s not that we’re saying trade fiction is formulaic, no, no, no.
John Bond: Not at all, I just grabbed that… I’m sure there’s more to it than that…
Alison Jones: You talked about risk there and publishers getting risk averse, which I wholeheartedly agree with, not that they’ve ever been terrible risk takers, but it has … It’s a low margin business and innovation is expensive and risky and all the rest of it. One thing that you and I have talked about before that I’d really like to bring out today is the idea of the buy back where the author commits to buying a certain number of his or her own books from the publisher at a certain discount. I think this is such an interesting model, because in a sense it de-risks the whole deal for the publisher doesn’t it? Just tell a little bit about how that works and who it might be suitable for.
John Bond: That’s the key phrase. If you imagine that even if we assume that publishers are getting more sophisticated in their use of analytics and data and understanding what consumer tastes are, there’s a long way to go until they are churning out absolutely sure-fire hits, whatever marketing they’re spending and whatever access to distribution channels they’ve got because of their trading terms, it’s still quite a gambling business. I think increasingly the larger publishers particularly, and indeed this is something that I think traditionally the more academic or business book publishing world has probably been an early adopter of, the idea that if they are working with a writer who wants to produce a book and that they believe in that book… Without making everybody sound incredibly cynical, I think there’s a given that the publisher would believe in the book, but I think there’s a de-risking of that particular book if the writer knows and guarantees that they are able to sell a certain quantity, and that that can be written into the original contract that they would do with a publisher.
To give you an example, I think if we’ve worked with brands and individuals within companies who have produced books on strategy, they originally wanted to produce those books for their own staff, their own clients, almost as a sort of gift or something to mark an anniversary, but if the book ends up being something that a publisher is potentially interested in, I think there are roots to market where a publisher will say, okay well the book exists, give that file to us, we will print that book, we will hold stock of that book, we will then allow you to buy back quantities that you want to sell yourself at a discount off the cover price, and you will get a royalty for all the trade sales of those books. I think for some people that is very good long-term partnership. Publishers play to their great strengths which are, they have warehouses, they have distribution channels, they have trading agreements with retailers, they have right departments that can sell translation rights or globally exploit the publication of that book around the world.
The individual plays to their strengths, which is they know who the target market is for that particular book, they may be doing events where they can sell books, they may have mailing lists, they may have platforms, they may have networks which they know mean a minimum quantity can be guaranteed at the beginning of a … So that the first print run can include that quantity, which in terms of the cost of that print run then brings that down for the publisher. I think it’s a collaborative, interesting model that I personally have seen more and more of over the last few years with imprints growing up. It’s specifically targeting writers, or companies, or individuals who want to work in that way.
Alison Jones: It’s put it more like a business partnership, it’s almost a joint venture rather than a traditional publishing relationship isn’t it.
John Bond: I think it’s a joint venture and I suspect that there are contractual arrangements which are very much more like an actual JV, but I think what’s interesting, and weighing up the pros and cons for individuals or companies doing this, is that the upside for the writer is that you have a, in many cases, they recognize the logo on the spine of your book, you are part of that bigger club, which makes you feel good because you’re represented in that way alongside lots of other successful writers, and you don’t have to worry about 5000 books in your garage and how you sell them to Australia. The flip side of that is, obviously it’s a royalty and in some cases, again our experience is that writers who have a very clear idea of what they want their book to be, a very clear creative vision for the book, will often have to compromise that creative vision because if it’s going into a, whatever kind of publishing house, there’s a degree to which you have to adhere to a formula. It’s no good saying, “I want it to be this size, and this price.” It will need to be something which can be reprinted in a cost effective way, and distributed in a cost effective way.
I think there are pros and cons to all aspects of it, but it’s an interesting model which I think suits quite a lot of people. Obviously for the publisher, it guarantees them a level of turnover at the very beginning of a project without it all being left to chance.
Alison Jones: Yeah, absolutely. In fact you can open up more interesting possibilities as well with short-run additional printing can’t you? You can sort of brand a small printrun for individual customers.
John Bond: Absolutely, and I think that’s what traditionally … Again it’s interesting that I think traditionally that was always classified as special sales, in inverted commas, within publishing houses, and I think it’s no longer so much out there. It’s not just something that was at the end of the food chain within sales, it’s actually much more of a publishing, in the heart of the publishing of the businesses because people recognize it as something that’s relatively straightforward to do and it enhances the overall offering. As I say, the fact that you’re able to do those things relatively technically easy, means you de-risk some of your other … The gambles that you’re making are more traditional publishing bets, as it were.
Alison Jones: If you’re an author, and you’re thinking, “Yeah, this sounds really interesting and I definitely could see ways in which I could buy back and sell copies myself.” What sorts of things do you need to think about to make it work?
John Bond: Primarily it’s how connected you are and what your network actually consists of. It’s interesting looking at a publisher like Unbound, and their whole crowdfunding model. I know anecdotally that everyone always assumes … Well not everyone assumes but I think there’s a belief that it’s relatively straightforward to crowdfund something, and actually it’s hard, and it’s a lot of work, and even if you think-
Alison Jones: It’s a lot of work isn’t it?
John Bond: What does that actually mean? What profiles have you got which means that you have people that you know will not just like something, but pay for it, and pay a particular amount of money for it, even if that’s a discounted amount off the cover price. I think it’s with the sorts of examples we’ve got, it’s often people who are plugged into particular companies and clients that they’ve got where they know there is scale and volume of potential sales because of the work they’re doing with particular organizations. I think it is as simple as having, what is your social media footprint and your profile, and how engaged are you with that, so that when you suddenly start selling your product, in inverted commas, that that doesn’t come as a shock to people who were expecting a different kind of relationship with you.
I think it’s all tied up with what you want the book to be, and I think for many people if it’s a book as an extension of brand, when you’re thinking about that book, and when you’re thinking about that book from the very, very beginning, what is it that the reader is going to get from that? What’s the value that they’re going to get from it, and what’s the likelihood of that value rippling out so that that first core 100, 500, 1000 people can quickly become 2000, 5000, 10,000. That’s the way that I think the people that we have worked with think and where it has been successful. Obviously a lot of people in the business world, they’re not just connected, they have events, they speak, they have breakfasts, dinners, evenings, they have weekends. There are opportunities for them constantly to market what they do.
I think in a way when a publisher used to take on a new writer, there was a level of expectation that the publisher, you were going to the publisher because of their ability to market and sell. Virtually regardless of whether you’re a writer of fiction or you’re a restaurateur with a chain of restaurants, or you’re an entrepreneur writing a thought leadership book, the publisher will be expecting that person to bring to the table an ability to sell that market, and market that book, and publicize that book themselves that’s almost part of the contract with the publisher. The publisher will do things, of course they can do things that it’s difficult for individuals to do, but they will expect a level of engagement on all of those areas from whoever is writing the book.
Alison Jones: I always think it’s a bit of a cruel Catch 22 sometimes because people often want to write a book to raise their profile, but actually you need the profile to successfully grab a publishing deal to publish the book. There’s a sort of circularity to it. The very people who are most likely to be snapped up by publishers are the very people who you could argue could most successfully self-publish, it’s very cruel really.
John Bond: I think so, and it’s interesting to me that, certainly I think we will see this happen more, that people will take the step off the cliff and realize that they can keep walking if they don’t look down, because it’s as you say, if you have a successful channel on YouTube, or you have successful events where you know you’re attracting a number of people to come to you, and you know the tools to market those kinds of events, and you’re proliferating a number of courses that you’re running. The sorts of knowledge you have, with the best will in the world, is probably not going to be available to you within the publishing house unless you are absolutely at the pinnacle in the top 5% of the brands, and personalities, and individuals who are being published by those companies.
Also, you as an individual, if you’re a publisher you move on through monthly cycles, quarterly cycles, annual cycles, if you’re an individual you live and breathe what you’re doing from way before you publish until years afterwards, and you are constantly evolving your product and selling it. I think that’s very hard for a publisher to keep doing that to the same level that an individual can do. I think to your point about the self-publishing, the cruelty of it, I think we will see more people working with people like you and I, who will feel that they have access to the same level of expertise that they can get from within a publishing house and they will feel that they are able to orchestrate and execute their own selling, marketing, and publicizing to the point where they think they will make more money from that and they will have more creative control of that, than if they give that over to a publisher, I think.
Alison Jones: Yeah, I completely agree. I think it’s a sort of continuing spectrum really, isn’t it? From complete control if you self-publish on the one hand, which why would you do that if you’re a business person, you haven’t got the time to learn all that there is. Working with someone like us where you project manage it, we pull together the expertise and help them on the way. Then it’s not a jump from us directly to traditional publishing, there is this emerging space where you can work with a more traditional publisher, in a more partnery way, which I think it’s just really interesting. It has got downsides as well hasn’t it? It’s more expensive for you to buy your stock at a discount off list price for example. My authors get to purchase at cost plus 10%…
John Bond: Yeah, and for your trade sales, I think you have to be careful that this holy grail of having your book sold in Waterstones in the UK, or Amazon globally, or whatever, there’s going to be a windfall from that. I think you have to make sure that if you are giving your network which represents a value to a publisher, which is basically underwriting a lot of the costs of producing the book, you need to understand exactly what they are doing in terms of marketing, and PR, and sales for your book, in exactly the same way as you would hope they were doing for well-known brand names or big writers of fiction. I think it is, it’s an interesting opportunity that’s starting to I think become more widely available, and I think there are learnings to be had from how you make the best of that.
Alison Jones: Absolutely, and if anybody’s listening and has had experience of working with a publisher in this way… I think John and I covered it more from the publisher angle, but I’d love to hear any experiences from the author angle, particular the business author angle, fascinating. Right, John, we always ask this question of everybody who’s on the show, and I know obviously you’ve been in books all your life, what is the one best bit of advice that you would give to a first time business book author? No matter which way they’re planning on publishing.
John Bond: I think it’s don’t compromise on the sort of book that you want because here we are talking about what publishers are looking for, what individuals are looking for, how you can find people to help you deliver what it is you want, I think in the end if your book is about marketing you, it’s being focused the sort of book that you want and not compromising on that for anybody. Because in a sense you will know what it is that you want your book to reflect and what the legacy of that book is, and how it will cause that ripple affect that you want to achieve. Hold on to that because a lot of people will always have … Books are very subjective things, and lots of people have lots of different views, and it’s holding on to your original vision which I think is very important to people.
Alison Jones: I love that, and it’s a lovely non … I was going to say non-pragmatic, that makes it sound like it’s fluffy, it’s not. It’s actually really, really sensible. You hear so often a very pragmatic approaches, tips to make things better, but actually there’s a rare kind of fire in that isn’t there. Don’t lose the fire in your belly.
John Bond: I think so, and I mean I say that from experience because we work with people who… In a funny sort of way, particularly writers of business books, and we work with somebody who was… I know you’re going to ask me who I think you should invite on to a guest onto your show, because I know you always do that-
Alison Jones: I’m so predictable.
John Bond: I had in mind when I knew you were going to ask me that, because it’s pertinent to this question, because we work with somebody who was an ex CFO of Securitas, a Swede who lives in London. He was very passionate about writing a business book, not from the perspective of somebody that helped run a very large organization, but a kind of toolbox of ideas and things which were not just practical things to help you run a financially successful organization, whether it was a start-up or a large organization. It was also about the ethics and the values that you should have in the way that you did that. He worked in not just Securitas but in healthcare organizations.
He was a very, very interesting guy, and what was most fascinating for me was he had a creative vision for that book and it was, he wanted to do a business book and he wanted it to be really accessible, and he wanted a ghost writer to help him write, because he didn’t feel that his English was good enough to do that, but he most of all wanted it to not look like every other business book that you see in those shelves at the airport. He actually said originally, what I would really love is a business book that was more like a cook book, but which had beautiful photos, and the photos were relevant but they were also, they made the overall feel of the book feel slightly different, and a creatively playful vision for what was still very pragmatic financial advice. I might be sounding ludicrous when I say this, but anyway, he did. His name is a guy called Haken Winberg.
What was interesting to me, he fell absolutely into that category of… in the end we produced together a book that publishers were going to be interested in. He put a lot of his time and energy, about a year of his time, and energy, and effort, and he knew that because of the companies that were mentioned in the books, the case studies and the places that he’d worked, and where he was very well respected and loved, that they would definitely be interested in buying copies of the book, and he got that guarantee. When we started to talk to publishers, it was clear that their vision for the book was different to his vision for the book. To cut a very long story short, and 3 or 4 publishing conversations later, he ended up working with a Swedish publisher who indeed has vision for the book, and he’s ended up with this rather beautiful looking, oddly shaped, photographic business book.
I only say that, not that I’m saying that’s the future folks, but I’m just saying it was interesting that the one thing he really wanted to hold on to was the idea of differentiation and why it should stand out and last longer, because it just wasn’t like the same typographic cover, the same shape, the same C4 matte, B4 matte, paperback, printed on not very good paper, for the purposes of being able to reprint that book cheaply. I think it’s interesting and I think we will find more and more people clear about the vision, knowing what they want to do, and being able to do it because the world has opened up. The ecosystem around publishing has opened up to allow access to people that can help you do those things if you want to.
Alison Jones: Absolutely, and I think that’s the key thing that comes out of this conversation and so many others that I’ve had over the years as well, is that authors have more options, they can exercise more control, they can be more strategic about their books than they ever could before. That’s a really fascinating story, and do you know what makes me laugh as well is that I’ve always been in … I’ve sort of pioneered digital publishing, it makes me laugh because so much of the real innovative stuff that’s happening in publishing is actually happening around print these days. The e-book’s actually quite tired.
John Bond: It’s so interesting. We set up Whitefox in early 2012, I was absolutely convinced this was all about digital, it was all about e, it was all about dynamic e, and all these things that we’re going to… Actually in terms of the, certainly on the business book side, it’s not just that people want the physical book and love the idea of a physical book, particularly when they actually see it and touch it, and see the cover. It’s that they think it also really helps them market their business, or their brand, or them as a person, and it sticks around. It feels like it’s the opposite of ephemera.
Alison Jones: It has a shelf-life, literally.
John Bond: Literally, exactly, yes.
Alison Jones: Fascinating. Do you know, I could talk all day about this, I’ve got whole new ideas coming up about print and digital and differentiation, but I’m going to have to stop it there. John thank you so much, really appreciate that, and I’ll certainly get Haken Winberg, I’m going to have to come back to you on the spelling, but we’ll get him an invitation. If people want to find out more about you and more about Whitefox, where can they go?
John Bond: They go to our website which is, www.wearewhitefox.com and you can see the work there that we’re doing with publishers but also with individuals, and the kinds of freelancers that we’ve got and the sort of work that we do. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get straight back to you.
Alison Jones: Fantastic, thank you so much, John. Wonderful to talk to you today.
John Bond: Thanks Alison, take care, bye.