Noel Murphy: bookseller, publisher, reader extraordinaire
It would hardly be right to celebrate Crime Reading Month without including a post about a publisher! Noel Murphy is the Commercial Director of Granta, one of the UK’s most distinguished – and long-lived – independent publishing houses.
Noel is a graduate of University College London, where he read Philosophy. When he graduated, he had no career plan – just a burning desire to visit South America, inspired by his having read One Hundred Years of Solitude,by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His mother told him there was a vacancy at the Waterstones in Stratford-upon-Avon and he applied for the job, with the intention to save some money to fulfil his travelling dreams. He got the job but has still not visited South America.
After Stratford, he spent two years respectively running the ground floors of the Waterstones at Cardiff and Hampstead. Then he moved to Dublin, where he opened a new branch, and after that he worked at Waterstones Head Office for two years as Promotions Manager. He says the latter job connected him to publishing and enabled him to “jump the fence” to Bloomsbury, where he helped to develop its website in the early years of online bookselling. After that, he was the Marketing Director at Faber for six years.
For family reasons, he then moved to New Zealand and worked for a not-for-profit organisation, where he says he didn’t earn much but learnt a great deal. On his return to the UK, he made his only foray into academic publishing when he joined Yale as Sales and Marketing Director. After Yale, he worked as a freelance for a short while before joining Granta.
Noel is extremely proud of Granta’s fine frontlist and equally acclaimed backlist, to which he says “different editors have added lots of great books. As Commercial Director, I don’t have to worry about the books – I know they’re all going to be good. They’re also the kinds of books that booksellers like, which means that buyers will always give them a hearing. They’re therefore stocked by most of the big bookshops.”
He has spent his career working with and talking to booksellers, publishers and authors. To those wishing to embark on a career in bookselling, he says the good news is that it’s still not particularly difficult to get your first foot on the rung. What prospective booksellers need to know is that bookshops vary tremendously, so the choices they make depend on which part of the industry they want to work in and the type of readers they want to serve. Independent bookshops are very different from chains: new booksellers are “thrown into it” and have to pitch into doing most tasks from the word go, though they learn a lot in the process. The qualities of a good bookseller are, above all, to like people and to be happy to give customers recommendations (which implies keeping up with what’s being published and themselves reading a great deal). Booksellers aren’t well paid, but they do get to see new books and are given as many proof copies and reading copies as they can handle.
Noel’s advice to would-be publishers is to start out by working in a bookshop. It’s a really useful way of understanding the market. Working in publishing is very hard if you don’t understand what readers want. Publishers also need to be proficient in using Excel and other technical applications and to know how to produce accurate and detailed metadata and then deploy it – otherwise, the books they publish won’t achieve their potential. It’s also important to understand what books look like on the Internet. “Today people have grown up with Amazon and it has changed their perception of the book.” Most important of all is to gain an understanding of customers. To do this, some form of experience – e.g., taking a Saturday job in a bookshop – is vital.
His message to writers is that being a published author is a difficult thing to be and requires resilience – but don’t give up. Spend time in bookshops and talk to booksellers. When he was working in Hampstead, there were lots of local authors who came into the shop. Louise Doughty stands out in his memory as having been “really, really nice”. She liked books and would sign them while she was in the shop, and always talked to the staff. From this perspective, his “best author of all time” was Maeve Binchy (he says she is a “better writer than her packaging suggests”). She was always nice to everyone and never took anything for granted. He still has some postcards she sent him. “The staff in the shop would do anything for her.” Elly Griffiths is an author who has similarly won over booksellers more recently.
Noel describes his own reading tastes as ‘catholic’. He has recently been reading Timothy Snyder’s books about Ukraine – four in a row – which are “a bit bleak, though brilliant”. He’s also reading Station Eleven, a science fiction novel published in 2014, which he says is uncannily prescient. He enjoys reading crime fiction and likes Michael Connelly. He is also addicted to the L.A. Confidential series , by Curtis Hanson. A seminal book which made a huge impression on him was Blake Morrison’s And when did you last see your Father?, partly because “Many other good books would not have been written if Morrison had not explored the subject first.” He has “not read as many classics as I should”, but he likes Thomas Hardy and enjoyed reading Wuthering Heights when he was young because “it appealed to my teenage angst”.
Of a career in books, he says the biggest pitfall is that “you can’t stop recommending them to other people”. It seems to me to be a very venial shortcoming.
The best of the London Book Fair 2014
This year’s London Book Fair and the Digital Minds Conference that preceded it were characterised for me by two related issues that recurred time and again: the importance of preserving copyright and the need for publishers to experiment and be flexible about formats, business models and sustainable pricing. Associated with the latter, in particular, were several inspired talks and presentations that demonstrated the opportunities that can be harvested from adopting an intelligent approach towards print and electronic content and therefore finding ways to enable them to complement, rather than compete with, each other.
I was particularly impressed by Martha Lane Fox, the former Internet entrepreneur recently made Chancellor of the Open University, who gave the afternoon keynote talk at the Digital Minds Conference. She said that she was ‘crazy about the Web every single day because of the power it can bring to people’s lives,’ sometimes in very complex situations. She was referring particularly to countries where strict censorship is practised, or where women have not yet achieved equality of opportunity. She said that publishers should continue to fight for basic digital skills to be introduced across all communities. “The consumer has an incredible time of it right now. It is the duty of the publisher to help the consumer on his or her journey.”
Also fascinating was the panel session at the conference entitled Hybrid and Author Publishing, which was essentially about self-publishing. Orna Ross, of the Alliance of Independent Authors, was a particularly compelling speaker, because she has both published with an eminent publisher (Penguin) and published her own works, and she said that she infinitely preferred the latter experience. Her reason? She feels that self-publishing gives her greater freedom of expression and the ability to experiment: for example, this year she has set herself the task of publishing nine short books (one a month, with some break months). She said that she ‘absolutely didn’t want her first self-published book to be taken up by a traditional publisher.’ However, she acknowledged that her writing career had been supported by the initial successes that she had gained through traditional publishing. Hugh Howey, another author who took part in this session, said that audiobooks were under-valued by authors and highly sought after by the reading public. Having spotted this, he has ensured that all of his books are available in audio format and revealed that he ‘could live off his audio sales.’ Food for thought!
Another panel session was entitled Subscription Models: Pros and Cons. It discussed the relatively new trend of selling trade e-books via subscription models. Andrew Weinstein, of Scribd, said that it had been launched as a dedicated subscription service for consumers. Subscribers pay $1 per month and publishers are paid per download. Scribd works closely with HarperCollins, which has promoted its growth by making many HarperCollins backlist titles available in e-format. Nick Perrett of HarperCollins said that there is a rapid shift taking place in publishing from what was essentially a trade-focused structure to what is now becoming a consumer structure. The best outcome for the publisher is to have multiple points at which consumers can access content. After this, their core job is to maximise the royalties that go back to authors. Good analytics are therefore vital: one of the advantages that HarperCollins has gained from working with Scribd is that it obtains a rich data set which can be used to inform both marketing and publishing decisions. There is more about Scribd here.
Among the speakers at the digital seminars that take place throughout the Fair was Rebecca McNally, Publishing Director at Bloomsbury UK, who described the genesis of Bloomsbury Spark, a born-digital imprint for Young Adults. She said that Spark is a one-of-a-kind global imprint for Young Adult literature which publishes across all fiction genres. Bloomsbury has particularly focused on the YA market because it has a burgeoning online reading and writing community. It is also less susceptible to market variation across geographical regions than, for example, picture books. It has some powerful informal advocates among the blogging community and, as a result, is migrating to digital faster than any other fiction sector. Young Adult in digital format actually has a broader constituency than it has in print.
Authors benefit from Spark because Bloomsbury is able to offer a global publishing structure accompanied by local marketing support; it has a fair e-book deal that includes a print option; the translation rights are sold for p and e formats; the list is highly selective and distinguished. Bloomsbury carries out a massive cross-promotional campaign across the Spark publications; it encourages authors to send submissions direct to the Bloomsbury website, rather than operating through agents. Rebecca cautioned would-be Spark authors to remember the target reader (so far 180 submissions out of about 3,000 have been considered ‘too porny’) and to read the submission guidelines (she estimated that 30% of submissions had been disqualified because they weren’t followed). More information about Bloomsbury Spark can be found here.
Continuing with the copyright / flexibility in publishing themes, this year’s Charles Clark lecture was delivered by Shira Perlmutter, Acting Administrator for Policy and External Affairs at the United States Patent and Trademark Office [USPTO]. Her talk set out the differences between recent legislation on copyright in the USA and Europe and indicated the areas in which each could claim to be ahead of the other. She said that, given the shared interests and concerns of both communities, close transatlantic co-operation in the future would be vital. There were three main issues to consider: to ensure that the development of international markets be allowed to continue without jeopardising copyright; that specific legal rules, although they might have to be rigid, should be embedded where possible in a more flexible framework; that more legislation should be developed to set boundaries and limits, rather than addressing specific copyright infringement issues.
After several years at Earls Court, in 2015 the London Book Fair will move back to the Olympia conference centre, which has been refurbished in its absence. Those of us who remember many earlier book fairs are quite pleased about this, as, although Olympia is harder to reach than Earls Court, it seems like an old friend. I think that most of us are also hugely grateful that an earlier plan to give the Excel Conference Centre, in East London, another chance has been rejected. Those who attended LBF 2006 there have not forgotten the almost total lack of ladies’ toilets, the absolutely total lack of anywhere decent to eat, the stands labelled back-to-front as if we’d just walked through Alice’s looking-glass, the unfortunate proximity of London Junior Fashion Week (half-naked giggling teenagers wandering by accident amongst the books) and the nightmare of the first day, when we were riding round and round on the unmanned Docklands Light Railway with no clue about when to get off the train or where we were meant to be heading when we did! Whereas next year, if I can’t be bothered to wait for the spur railway to Olympia, at least I’ll know that if I turn left out of Kensington High Street station and keep walking, eventually I’ll arrive at the exhibition centre, where there will be toilets, civilised cafés, a proper floor plan and no accidental captives!
Copyright and Clark
I’ve just written a review of Clark’s Publishing Agreements: A Book of Precedents (Ninth Edition). It’s been published by Bloomsbury and costs £130 (you get a CD for this as well). I’m not expecting many of my readers to be interested in buying it, but, in case you are, you can obtain a 35% discount off the cover price if you’re attending the London Book Fair. The ISBN is 978 1 78043 220 5.
The General Editor is Lynette Owen, a colleague and acquaintance whom I admire greatly. She picked up the baton when Charles Clark, the doyen of copyright law in publishing, died in 2006. I never met him, but I’ve met people who did and I’ve also seen photos of him. I picture him as a sort of Rumpole character, a larger-than-life man of what used to be called ‘breeding’ and great intellect, who was both as sharp as a tack and tenacious as a street Arab when it came to defending authors’ and publishers’ right to get paid for their labours.
In fact, although copyright has always needed to be defended, Charles Clark died before the real squeeze began. Beginning with the Digital Economy Act (2010), which was closely followed by the Hargreaves Report (2011), Richard Hooper’s work on the Copyright Hub (2012) and the Finch Report on Open Access (also 2012), UK copyright law has come under strenuous attack from a government that seems neither to appreciate that the intellectual property of writers and their publishers needs to be protected as much by law as, say, design patents protect pioneering engineers, nor fully to realise just how much of the national income is generated by a flourishing publishing industry. That industry has, of course, responded with vigour, but in clear-headed fashion. It is to the credit of both publishers and authors that, on the whole, they have not lost their cool over this. Instead, they have worked hard together – along with various trade organisations and lawyers – to modify copyright law so that it is accepted as fit for purpose in a digital age without allowing it to be dismantled to the extent that large-scale publishing becomes unsustainable. (I’m not talking about self-publishing here: it has its own micro-economy that is distinctly related to the efforts of the individual author. But self-publishing is not viable for many types of book, including multi-author works and the numerous academic or non-fiction works that need high levels of pre-publication investment.) Richard Hooper’s collaborative work demonstrates this patient, reasoned approach at its best.
The backbone of the 9th edition of Clark consists of a series of ‘model’ contracts pertaining to most of the different types of publishing situation – print and digital, individual and collective, direct and through third parties – for publishers and authors to consult. Most of them can be amended according to individual needs and circumstances. The ‘precedents’ therefore collectively represent an up-to-date compendium of best practice in publishing which takes into account all of the recent legislation and the industry’s informed responses to it.
The book offers much more than that, however. The prefaces to the precedents, the introduction and the nine extensive appendices together explain the context in which the precedents have been set – i.e., the complex world in which writers and publishers have to operate today. I found Appendix G, which explains exactly what an author’s ‘moral rights’ are, particularly fascinating. I’d go further, and say that this book has yet more significance: for the collected precedents, commentaries and articles which it contains together demonstrate why copyright is valuable and why everyone who is active in the creative industries should fight to keep it.
Each year since his death, Charles Clark’s family has sponsored the Charles Clark Memorial Lecture. It always addresses some aspect of copyright and I always try to attend. The lecture is organised by the Publishers Licensing Society [PLS] and delivered at the London Book Fair. Two years ago, the guest speaker was Maria Martin-Prat, Head of the Copyright Unit at the European Commission Internal Market Directorate General. Her speech was eloquent and well-reasoned. She said many things that resonated with her audience – and undeniably, since it largely comprised publishers and authors, she was preaching to the converted. However, just one point that she made, towards the end of her presentation, has really stuck in my mind. Speaking of Open Access, she said that she could understand why the talented and ambitious young people currently studying at universities or working for professional qualifications appreciated being able to obtain yet more and more content free of charge and were therefore vociferous supporters of the ‘free at the point of access’ principle on which Open Access is based; but, in a few years’ time, a considerable proportion of those same young people will have themselves become authors. If they fail to understand copyright now, and therefore do not help to protect it, they will discover, too late, that they can demand no financial reward for their work nor claim any right to its ownership. Maria Martin-Prat’s message to her audience was that, if all types of writing are to continue to flourish and to delight, there can be no more important task that demonstrating to the young that copyright is precious and should be treasured. It is a point that I make as often as I can when I am speaking to young audiences.
I can’t conclude without congratulating Lynette Owen on her flawless work as editor. I’m sure that Charles Clark is resting in peace, knowing that his work continues to live on under her capable tutelage.
My favourite bookshop!
Yesterday I visited Waterstone’s Gower Street, which in my mind is called simply ‘Gower Street’ and, in many other people’s, is still indelibly fixed as ‘Dillons’. A great bookshop and, of all the bookshops I have visited (there have been a few), easily my favourite. It’s situated in the heart of Bloomsbury. Approaching from Gordon Square, you come upon it suddenly, an Arts and Crafts enchanted castle before which there is always a litter of student bicycles, as if thrown down in homage at its feet. On an early spring day, especially when the sun is shining, your heart lifts immediately.
The shop was founded by Una Dillon, herself one of the extended ‘Bloomsbury set’. Almost every other door of the houses in Gordon Square and adjoining Fitzroy Square is adorned with a blue plaque celebrating the fact that a Bloomsbury author lived there; Una Dillon created the shop to serve them. The building was originally an early experiment in franchise retailing, a sort of forerunner of the Galeries Lafayette or Selfridges. It was designed to house twenty-four retail units, one of which was initially taken by Una Dillon. Gradually, over a period of years, she expanded until she had bought all of the units and therefore the whole building. (This also lifts my heart: I wonder if there is the remotest possibility that this could still happen today? Could a bookshop oust, say, Zara, Boots, Gap, Marks & Spencer and their ilk from such an ‘emporium’? I have my doubts!) Consequently, behind the scenes, it is a rabbit warren of corridors and small offices. It is also a protected building – of which I’m entirely in favour – although it does mean that not even a nail can be knocked into the wall without English Heritage’s being first consulted.
This shop came under my jurisdiction for several years in the 1990s. At the time, there were booksellers there who could remember Una Dillon’s being wheeled into staff meetings in her wheelchair and who were still in awe of her memory. (I must admit that the image of this is conflated in my mind, unfairly I’m sure, with the image of Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed corpse, similarly wheeled into meetings at UCL nearby, but I’m sure that Una was still alive on the occasions of which they spoke!)
I myself have many excellent memories connected with the shop – for example: the launch for George Soros’s book, which attracted so many people that it had to be held in a lecture theatre at UCL, with a television link to an overspill room; coming out of the manager’s office and finding Will Self chatting to the staff in the reception area; walking back a little dazed to King’s Cross through a summer dawn on a Sunday morning, having – with all of the staff – been up all night stocktaking. And it is still my favourite place for browsing and buying books.
Great bookshops are like people – they have personalities. A great old bookshop like Gower Street also has secrets. As far as I know, there has never been a murder committed there, but there could have been. Maybe someone will write a novel about it!