If anybody knows the publishing business it’s Scott Pack. Once Head Buyer at Waterstone’s (until 2006) he is now both a digital and a traditional publisher for HarperCollins. He is head of The Friday Project and authonomy, both part of HarperCollins – he scours the internet for online talent and also seeks to bring out-of-print books back from the dead.
I asked Scott some questions about digital publishing, short fiction, what he looks for in new writing and his thoughts on the publishing industry’s propensity for ‘girly’ book covers for female authors:
You have many roles – author, blogger, editor, digital and traditional publisher and more… Do you find one role more rewarding than the others? Or do you particularly enjoy the fact that you get to do all of these?
I suppose I enjoy whichever one I am doing right now the most. Actually, that’s a lie. I probably prefer the one I am doing next. I always have something different to look forward to and that keeps me interested. I am getting old and jaded and it's probably a good idea to keep my brain active.
How would you describe your role at HarperCollins?
I tend to keep things simple. I am a publisher who runs an experimental imprint and shares the stuff I learn from that – what works and what doesn’t – to the rest of the business in the hope that it might be of use to them in some way.
Tell us a bit about authonomy and The Friday Project – what’s current?
authonomy (I get told off if I capitalise it) is an online community for unpublished writers which is owned and maintained by HarperCollins. The idea is that a writer uploads their book, it is read and reviewed by other members and the top five books each month get read by the team at HC. It is a bit old and clunky now and in need of a revamp but it can still do that job and we have just published our most successful title to date, Undertaking Love by Kat French.
The Friday Project is a traditional publishing imprint trying to do things in new and interesting ways. Our manner of acquisition, production, publicity etc. are all somewhat experimental and this can lead to some surprising and very positive results, for example, we had the UK’s biggest selling ebook in 2011 with a title that not a single bookshop was promoting in print and not a single newspaper had reviewed or mentioned – Confessions of a GP by Dr Benjamin Daniels.
What are your main publishing objectives? In terms of what you publish, what proportion has been submitted in the traditional manner and what has been sourced online?
I think about 60% of the books I publish are by unagented authors who I have sought out in some way. I do publish quite a few that have been sourced more traditionally but the majority are found elsewhere. I aim to publish things that a) I love and b) will sell. Sometimes I am able to do both those things.
As a publisher, what do you look for in new writing?
Anything that excites me. I am not bothered by genre or pedigree. I want something interesting, something that makes me want to carry on reading. You’d be surprised how hard that is to find.
In your experience as an editor and a publisher, what are the commonest errors unpublished authors make?
They overwrite, trying too hard to impress, and the story gets hidden as a result. Unless you want a very niche or specialist market always put storytelling above style in the first instance.
There’s a growing debate on gendered marketing of books written by women and specifically aimed at women and girls. Increasing numbers of female authors of both adult and children’s fiction bemoan the fact that they are saddled with ‘chick lit’ book covers – all pink and lilac, flowers and high heels – even if this doesn’t reflect the content of their books. Do you think this is this just lazy marketing on the part of publishers? Or part of a more sinister disregard for women’s writing as ‘not serious’? Or a bit of both?
I don’t think it is either of those things. The honest answer is that they sell more with those sorts of covers. Most publishers won’t admit it but readers are generally ‘lazy’ when it comes to seeking out new stuff to read and will default to something which clearly signposts itself as the sort of thing they’d like. I am not saying all readers are like that, many love the art of discovery, but most are very busy and anything a publisher can do to help them make a decision more quickly seems to work. That being said, it would be great to see more gender-neutral publishing but I bet you a week’s wages those books would not sell as well as the more obvious ones.
Jacqueline Wilson has challenged her publishers to provide an alternative 'gender-neutral' cover for her next book and Maureen Johnson’s #coverflip has excited some comment. Have you any thoughts on judging books by their covers?
No bad book ever became a bestseller because of a great cover. Lots of wonderful books failed to sell because of shit ones.
Short story collections traditionally don’t do well in the market – although there have been notable exceptions lately, for example Prajwal Parajuly’s, The Gurkha’s Daughter. Shorter fiction and digital formats seem made for each other. Do you agree?
Hmm, you’d think so but with the amount of full-length novels out there for 49p or 99p, much short fiction gets negative feedback as being ‘not value for money’. It is tricky.
Do you see the recent increased interest in shorter fiction: novellas, short stories, flash fiction as having been led by the development of digital publishing? Or do you see digital publishing as a lucky, but chance, beneficiary of a greater public desire to read shorter fiction? Or a bit of both?
Neither, sorry. I don’t think digital publishing has helped short stories all that much at all, to be honest.
Are books just getting too big? Are e-readers the penguin paperbacks of today?
No, I think readers are happy to get stuck in to something massive if they think they’ll enjoy it. Look at the Harry Potter books once JK Rowling stopped being edited all that much – massive bloody tomes that people adored.
You’re something of a champion of short fiction though – you’ve been reviewing individual short stories regularly on your 'Me and My Big Mouth' blog under the title, 'Me and My Short Stories' since 2011 and you’re publishing the winner of the NaNoWriWee (write a novella in a weekend) competition which took place in January 2013. You also selected the winning entry (POV by Chris Brosnahan) from the 122 successfully completed novels. What was it about the winning entry that caught your eye, bearing in mind that it was written in just 30 hours? When will it be published?
POV was, of all the entries, the one that felt like a complete novel in miniature and was an impressive feat for just 30 hours’ work. We hope to publish in the summer.
And finally, you ask everybody you interview on your blog to recommend a favourite book. What’s your recommendation?
If I may I will recommend two - one long and one short. We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen is an epic tale of the inhabitants of a Danish island across several generations. I have forced lots of people to read it and not one of them has been disappointed. The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason is the most wonderful conceit, beautifully executed.
We’ll be interviewing Chris Brosnahan, winner of NaNoWriWee next week.