Interview with Kate Mosse – author of Labyrinth and co-founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction

Kate Mosse, photo copyright: Mark Rusher 2012

Kate Mosse, photo copyright: Mark Rusher 2012

Originally printed in the Sunday Times, reproduced here with permission.

I was lucky enough to get an interview with Kate Mosse in May 2013, shortly before her trip to South Africa for the Franschhoek Literary Festival. My questiosn appear in bold.

As co-founder of the Women’s fiction prize, do you feel that female authors are getting the coverage they deserve in terms of prizes and literary prestige? Or is it still a male-dominated field?

Things are changing massively, which is fantastic. We’re seeing more women on shortlists for other prizes, sometimes even outnumbering male authors. Women have traditionally bought and written the majority of books – they should also be winning a proportionate number of prizes. Through awarding prizes, we ensure that fabulous books stay on the shelves to later generations to read. Many former Orange Prize winners, and short- and long-listed authors, go on to win other awards due to the exposure they receive from the prize.

What is your opinion on the nature of ebooks?

What really matters is the story and the text and the emotions. How we change and feel is what matters: the medium is unimportant. The ebook is one way we deliver a story to readers. I work at a screen when I write, and in my downtime I’d prefer not to look at another screen when I read. I would rather interact with the paper, the story. But I don’t care how people read my novels – ebooks sometimes bring people back to reading as part of their lives, as part of their lifestyle. I do believe that the paper format will always be more popular for gifts, for the tradition of sharing something beautiful.

kate mosse trilogy

If there were to be a capsule that humankind were to use to preserve the most important books ever written, which book would you contribute?

I would put in a collection of key religious texts – The Bible, The Koran, The Torah. Whatever one feels about religion in terms of faith, it has had a huge impact on human history and discovery. It showcases the momentum of human history and the cultural development of countries, how we relate to the universe and each other, how people create art and music while making sense of the human condition.

World Book Night is coming up! What suggestions do you have for young bookworms?

The key thing is not to recommend this or that book specifically, but to recommend books of quality – the relationship between writer and reader is what matters, and that changes drastically from person to person. Reading is the great leveller, as we can be whoever we want to be and travel wherever. It doesn’t really matter exactly which books people are reading, but it is about the integrity of reading as the one art form we all share from cradle to grave.

And finally, how do you feel about the recent adaptation of Labyrinth for television?

I am so looking forward to visiting South Africa again for the Franschoek Literary Festival after my experiences in Cape Town during the adaptation of Labyrinth. There were many locals on the crew when parts of Labyrinth were shot on the outskirts of Cape Town, and I was fortunate enough to visit the set during production. Many authors feel that the spirit of their novel is lost in adaptation, but when Labyrinth was being filmed in SA there was this huge passion for the novel. Most of the local crew were astounding and hugely engaged in the project, bringing their copies of the novel to set to discuss the novel, and have theirs signed. The role of South Africans was fundamental to the success of the project – I would love to film Citadel in SA. However the film is or isn’t received, the experience of making it was wonderful. There was an extraordinary connection between the book and Cape Town: the spirit of the land is so like the spirit of the book. We hope to do more adaptations in South Africa.

Traditional versus Self-Publishing

Let it be said that the current publishing model, as a whole, doesn’t work perfectly. Great writers don’t make it, mediocre ones do, and the idea of nurturing an author into a bestseller is a part of the past. With eBooks, agency pricing and antitrust cases and debacles around author rights, the system is far from perfect. On some days, it barely functions. As a bookseller I am on the receiving end of a number of publisher fuck-ups, whether it is non-existent stock or ridiculous price-fixing or jacket treatment so abysmal that no one will pick up the book. (A notable example is the impending awful re-jacketing of the incredible Song of Achilles). As a reader, I am appalled at the number of spelling errors and formatting issues that are in final, proper copies.

But there’s still a great deal to be said for the publishing industry’s worth. It is a system of checks and balances, where there are proofreaders and graphic designers, editors and marketers. This is the machine that an author gets access to when a publishing house selects their work. Granted, the machine works better for the AAA authors, but once upon a time they all were bottom-list authors, the ones that the book reps advise booksellers to take 5 of. Very few get massive coverage and support from day one. The only example I can think of from last year was Erin Morgenstern and The Night Circus. It paid off: it was one of the very few books to enjoy a number one slot longer than 7 weeks on the 2011 bestseller list. It still sells well through word of mouth.

But it is hard to get published. Its nearly a full-time job in and of itself. It is very much like a job: compile a CV (the book itself, because outside of non-fiction no one will accept anything less than a full manuscript) and write a cover letter. Research all the publishing houses to find the right person and the right imprint. Then send those cover letters according to the specification of the website. (If they will even accept an unsolicited manuscript or directly from the author and not an agent.)

Each publisher will want a different set of things. Some will want a blurb and first 3 chapters. Some will want the whole manuscript, a blurb, a synopsis and any other qualifications one may have. Then there’s the usual three to six month wait for an answer, if one comes at all. Mostly, it doesn’t. Mostly, the work will sit on a slush pile amongst thousands of other manuscripts. Or it will get rejected immediately because the formatting is wrong, or they aren’t looking for any new authors or the cover letter was terrible.

Getting published is hard, and a lot of work for anyone who doesn’t have an agent or a contact inside a publishing house. Sure, lots of people get published every year. This year, 342,975 books have been published so far. It sounds like a lot, but there are 7 billion people on the planet. A little rudimentary maths tells us that is about one book per 20,490 people. Then consider how many of those might be from more than one person. There some authors that produce hundreds of books in their lifetimes. Patterson currently publishes two titles a month, for example. 24 books a year is no mean achievement. Compare that to the prolific Corín Tellado, who published more than 4000 novels and novellas in 63 years.  That’s roughly 62 works a year. (Which should make us all feel incredibly lazy.)

Given that, self-publishing starts looking easier. There’s no mean editor to say “this isn’t good enough. Rewrite it.” There’s no one stopping the aspirant author from getting a book out there. There are vultures that will help them do it. Vanity presses abound, and sites like Createspace make that author dream come true. And I suppose that, if the intentions are pure, then that should be enough. The book exists, friends and family and unfortunate denizens of the social media continent can be led to it by bribed bloggers and aggressive tweeting. Mission accomplished, said George Bush, and now we can all go home.

But after the work it takes to produce a novel, some money would be nice. Prestige would be too. And this is where the gates of self-published hell open and consume the will to live of the poor sod that thought it was worth a try. Sure, anyone can give it a try. Look at Amanda Hocking. Look at EL Grey. And…that’s about it, really. Yes, there is the select club of rich self-published authors, but there are maybe a handful of them. The way I see it, if one is willing to put in the nearly back-breaking work required to produce a top-notch manuscript, then why not put in a little more and get the support of a publisher? Sure, great content will produce its own fans by itself, but the self-published have to be their own publicists and life is busy enough without the pain of cultivating a substantial online presence. As it is, most publishers won’t consider an author who doesn’t already have a website and a Twitter following. Establishing that, as outlined by this interesting BubbleCow article, is relatively time-consuming. An aspiring author, published or self-published, will have to develop this web presence to start, but the self-published author will have to work much, much harder to sell books that way. Also, consider that there is no advance for the self-published author. An advance may not always be much but it is something solid.

All in all, both are tough, but I still would rather polish a manuscript until its good enough to be accepted by one of the Big Six than try flog my work in the giant trough of shit that is the Internet. I would rather have the help of experienced people at 7% of the book’s profits than strike out on my own for a tiny chance to make 70% off my novel.

JK Rowling, Pottermore and the Future

As far as moments in publishing go, the launch of Pottermore is massive. But what makes it momentous is that, for the first time in contemporary publishing, an author has dictated to the biggest names in book-retailing. To put not too fine a point on them, she has told Amazon, Apple and Barnes and Noble exactly where they can shove their DRM. That kind of authorial power is rare and truly magnificent in its scope.

The watermarking system of the Potter books is a much nicer approach to treating readers like trustworthy human beings rather than the Draconian (mm, puns) hammerlock of DRM. If the book is pirated, it can be traced. It’s probably more effort than its worth but at least Rowling is not treating her readers like criminals. I have discussed book piracy before, and my friends have offered superb links in the comments thread there, so this is an interesting and refreshing approach to DRM.

To be fair, there are maybe ten authors alive that could pull off something as big as this. My bet would be that if James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Jeff Kinney and that ilk decided to get their own online stores and sell their books directly, there’s not much outside a watertight publishing contact that could stop them. And big money means big lawyers to break those contracts. So where does that leave the humble bookseller? And publishers?

For booksellers, the doom and gloom is unnecessary. Most authors don’t have the wherewithal to be able to bypass the retail chain. Honestly, JK Rowling is a rock star amongst writers. The Telegraph shares these facts:

69 Different languages that the Harry Potter books have been published in.

400 million Copies estimated that the Potter books have sold worldwide. It is considered the fastest selling book of all time.

200 Countries in which the books have been published.

Her record-breaking sales and allure as an author gives her power that 99% of the world’s authors do not have. The reason self-publishing hasn’t been able to put a dent in the publishing world at large is because publishers still give authors a platform and help they would not have alone. (Selling your own books is much like door-to-door insurance selling. Thankless, tedious and with pitiful payoff.) Amanda Hocking and the untalented EL James of Fifty Shades notoriety are still the only examples of self-published authors gone big. Rowling had to start with a publisher. Now she has outpaced them and given something back to her incredibly loyal readers.

I like to see this momentous occasion as a wonderful snub to the big baddies in book retail. It is remarkable to see an author empowering her readers by treating them like people. The books are fairly priced at R90 and can be bought with South African credit cards. This is a great time for readers, and inspiring for other authors. No doubt, the publishing industry needs an overhaul. It still screws the authors, and the book retailers screw the buyers. This is a brave new world of author power; I can’t wait to see what happens from here.

Paulo Coelho and Book Piracy

This week the Guardian covered Coelho’s impassioned plea to his fans to pirate his books. He argues, and rather well, that people who might not have bought hard copies did so after reading pirated chapters. His sales are remarkably high; The Alchemist alone sold 12 million copies. The piracy leak sent his sales skyrocketing, so it is understandable that he would be an advocate of book piracy.

It is difficult to measure the effect of piracy on any medium. This blog post at Freakonomics suggests that the actual cost of piracy might be very low, since those who are pirating probably can’t afford the product anyway. Removing piracy won’t solve the problem of financial difficulty. We can’t really work out how book piracy affects sales, and since people have been sharing books for years the damage may be neglible. I do feel that putting digital rights management (DRM) on books will do for books what it did for music: cause a further rippling of piracy. After all, that’s one of my major gripes with the Kindle: those books would not be mine and can be revoked or deleted remotely. This has happened already with 1984.

I’m a passionate believer in the freedom of information, as I’ve shared before, but I would be unforgivably naive if I assumed piracy wasn’t having an impact somewhere. Everyone pirates, intentionally or not. But to counter Coelho’s argument, some people are happy to read thousands of lines on a screen rather than shell out for a book. Again, if they can’t afford the book then the publisher won’t be making money anyway. But I am willing to bet this blog and my signed copy of The Night Circus that there a great number of people who are quite happy to get digital versions of a book and never buy the hard copy. Geeks are particularly comfortable with just not paying for media. Most of the ones I know are in an income bracket where they can afford nice things, but would rather not buy them. This attitude has done some serious damage to the manga and anime  industry in the West. The closure of Tokyo Pop USA is a prime example. Here’s ten more companies that have closed down. Don’t forget about Bandai. Why buy an issue of Bleach or Naruto for R100 upwards when it can found freely on the net? Anime episodes proliferate as long as people are willing to translate and host them. But the problem lies here: the same market that reads/watches manga/anime is nearly entirely made up of people with access to torrents. Unlike TV series and movies, watched by a broader demographic who might not know how to download a folder, geekier things tend to be watched by the geeky. And the geeky often do not like to pay for things they can take.

It seems like a terrible thing to say, but consider who keeps the terabyte drives full of shows and documentaries and audio books. Its not the average parent, and its not the average yuppie. In a Venn diagram these groups might overlap but sadly the same generation howling for the freedom of information is doing some damage to the companies that need their support. I know I said earlier that we can’t always measure the effects of piracy, but we can at least see some evidence that a lack of buying interest is harmful.

Which brings me back to books. Sure, Sir Terry Pratchett has sold tens of millions of books and likely gets royalties from reproductions of his work. I am willing to bet that he is one of the most pirated authors on the planet because I am yet to meet a geek that isn’t a fan. But how many people have bought his books because they wanted to have it to hand? How many of them are content to load pirated pdfs onto their tablets and read that way? We don’t know. We can’t know.

The book industry is in the middle of either death throes or rebirth, depending on who one asks. Some say that self-epublishing is a ponzi scheme about to crash; some say that eBooks will rule the world. Some say that hard copies will always triumph and others will argue that bookstores will be defunct within five years. Already many of them are being treated as displays for online stores, and the closure of two decent book stores in SA so far in 2012 is not heartening. Kindle sales were up 175% from 2010, this past Christmas season. With the massive complexity of this industry, which is different in each country, we can’t really measure the effect of piracy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it, especially when there seems to be so much on the line.

For the love of the (e)Book

An interesting article on the potential change that eBooks will bring to reading:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/aug/14/kindle-books

I truly enjoy digital reading. If one is to be fussy about the format of the book, then that is to be selective about reading altogether. I am currently working my way through all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, of which there are 48 short stories and four novels. I am about two-thirds through, and dreading running out until House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz’s authorised contribution to the canon.

I am reading it my iPad 1, and I love that I can read it in any light, under the covers and on my side without having to hold the pages open. I can annotate passages, highlight them and call up a dictionary on the odd occassion. While it is an occasionally distracting medium with the errant hand movement flicking the page, the pages move as quickly as they would if they were paper.

But at the end of the day, I am still reading. There are the hundreds of thousands of Gutenberg press titles, as well as the hundreds of thousands of books that will not be converted or published as eBooks. What many publishers see in eBooks is less money on printing and more for marketing. Yes they can be pirated, but haven’t we all got a loaned book that the owner has forgotten to reclaim? With eBooks there is far less risk in publishing new authors, and a little more of the profit can go to the author. A new author currently earns about 3% on the book price, depending on the publishing house. Of course there are titles like The Language of Flowers, which the subject of a nine-publisher bid. But most authors have to have day jobs, and it is only the super stars that can live off their writing.

eBooks may also be the best chance we have of mass-distributing academic texts that are expensive and often hard on student and school budgets. One day eReaders will be cheap, and children will have access to thousands more books, both fiction and non-fiction. Isn’t this a wonderful thing?

Of course I love paper books; that much will not change. And many places in the world don’t even have stable electricity or food, never mind eReaders. For them, a paper book will still be precious. Perhaps, when the rich West gets tired of paper books, we should give them all away to anyone who wants them. Language barriers aside, it would be a fine use for all those books that have been replaced by their coded friends.

Bring on the eBook, I say, but let’s never forget the joy of a fresh book or the comfort of our most dog-eared friends.