Linda Funnell on Publishing, Profile and Writing
I asked legendary Australian publisher Linda Funnell a couple of questions about how twenty-first century writers should be conducting themselves, and she shared some fascinating answers:
|Linda Funnell - publisher and Chair of NSW Writers' Centre
1. With so many changes going on in the world of publishing, do you think the balance of power is slowly shifting in favour of authors?
The power in publishing has always resided with those authors who appeal to a wide audience. The more your books sell, the more publishers will try to please you.
However, what is happening now is that authors have more options than ever before to publish their work. Some are publishing their own work – this is true of established authors as well as first-timers; some are beginning their careers as self-publishers and then moving to traditional publishing companies; and some are splitting rights and having a traditional publisher for their print editions and doing the ebook editions themselves.
In the main, traditional publishers have been slow to react to the changes going on in the industry. Big publishers still find it hard to be flexible and tend to insist on controlling all rights, print and electronic.
Times are tough for traditional publishers now – it’s not just the competition from ebooks with cheaper price points eroding their profit margins, but there is also the effect of the high Australian dollar. Many publishers are shedding staff and bookshops are finding it tough, too. In this environment publishers cut costs and become more cautious about taking risks, and they publish less. This means fewer opportunities for new writers, lower advances than may have been offered even two or three years ago, and writers may find that they are expected to do an increasing amount of the promotional work themselves.
The good news is the upsurge in self-publishing, which has become much more affordable with the advent of ebooks and print-on-demand technology. Successful self-publishing will always require a significant amount of work on the part of the author, who has to take on all the roles of a publisher, from engaging an editor to commissioning a cover design to dealing with retailers (whether bricks-and-mortar or online) and doing the marketing and promotion. All of these bases need to be covered to self-publish well. But for those who put in the time and effort, there can be the rewards of finding an audience – particularly an audience that can grow with their future books – and of making a better financial return than that offered by a standard publisher’s royalty arrangement.
2. If you were advising an author starting out, what kind of platform would you recommend they build – blogging, teaching, speaking? How important do you think this kind of presence is?
Generally speaking anything an author can do to increase their profile is going to be helpful in increasing awareness of their books. The marketplace is crowded, so whatever you can do to stand out is going to help.
What platform an individual author builds has to reflect who they are and the audience they are trying to reach. If you hate public speaking, then the speakers’ circuit probably isn’t going to be for you. But you might find that writing regular blog entries on a subject related to your book is. Or you might like the immediacy and newsiness of Twitter or Facebook. Or sharing your reading on GoodReads.
The thing to remember is that you don’t have to do everything; choose avenues that suit you and do them well; if you start a Facebook page, update it regularly. The same if you have a website or blog. There’s nothing sadder than a website or blog that hasn’t been updated for months.
And if you go into social media (and I think it’s a great way to connect with readers) remember that social media is about being part of a community and engaging with that community, not just putting up a billboard for your books.
3. What are the rewards of working with new and amateur authors?
I think I’ve been lucky to work in a creative field with creative people. It’s tremendously exciting to see ideas develop, and to see how far a writer can stretch themselves. That’s something that doesn’t just apply to new writers – I think the most interesting writers, irrespective of genre, are always stretching themselves and developing their work.
There’s always the excitement of seeing what direction a new writer will take and how far they will go. Is this the manuscript that will find an audience for them, or is this the manuscript they need to write in order to learn how to write the one that will? What do they want to say? What is driving them? Who is their audience? Is this book going to be loved just by their friends and family or by the world? The answers are different for every writer and every book and are endlessly interesting.
4. Do you belong to a library? What role do you see libraries playing in the future of books?
Yes, I belong to a couple of libraries, and I love the being in libraries – anywhere dedicated to books and reading has to be a good space. Though in recent years I’ve increasingly been accessing libraries online, and it’s terrific to see the resources that libraries are putting online now. Recently I’ve come across clippings from Australian newspapers from decades ago online, for free, because a library has taken the trouble to digitise their holdings. How fantastic is that?
I think libraries have a vital role to play and will continue to play it in the future. They are the repositories of human knowledge. That may sound rather grand, but I think they are.
5. What’s the most “bookish” place you have ever visited? Do you think there is a point of pilgrimage for writers that would inspire everyone?
I think any place that puts writing at the heart of things is inspiring. That’s one of the reasons I love being involved with the Writers Centre at Rozelle; it’s a place dedicated to writing and you feel it immediately you enter the place.
But I also love bookshops and I find being surrounded by books constantly inspiring. Whenever I’m travelling I always look for a bookshop (there almost always is one) and spend time there. I love discovering new things, and I also love finding familiar books in unexpected places – I found a copy of Belinda Alexandra’s Wild Lavender in a shop in Hoi An in Vietnam, and an early novel by Hilary Mantel in a tiny bookstore in Lombok.
Linda Funnell is Chair of the NSW Writers' Centre and one of the editors of The Newtown Review of Books. She has over 30 years experience in the book publishing industry, including roles as a publisher, editor and literary agent.