Digital books: Is this town big enough for everyone?

Digital books: Is this town big enough for everyone?

Neil Ayres talks us through his experience of trying to get published and why he's developed an iPhone app for his novel New Goodbye. Neil Ayres: 

Given one of the driving forces behind releasing my new novel as an iPhone app is the ambition to secure a mainstream publishing deal for it, my foray into self-publishing has not been made without a degree of trepidation about how this will be perceived by the wider industry.

The app doesn’t just contain the book of course, but this is what is at its epicentre. Everything else orbits the novel. Even a story by possibly the greatest writer who’s ever lived plays second fiddle to my humble endeavour.

I’ve been writing what we’ll call ‘seriously’ nine or ten years, fairly consistently, but across various genres and forms—so consistently inconsistent if you will.

The thing I started with, when I started writing ‘seriously’ (that is, attempting to write ‘properly’ rather than just bashing away at the words), was a novel. I completed this, start to finish, in about nine months. Needless to say, it wasn’t a particularly fine piece of literature. It had its merits, but these were outweighed by its shortcomings. The funny thing is, this novel was actually published, by an indie publisher. Since then I’ve had over thirty short stories and novelettes published, mainly science fiction and fantasy.

I think most writers have to live with a fair amount of self-doubt concerning their work, but what happened to me was I almost immediately—before it had been published really—thought that my first book wasn’t good enough. Producing it was kind of the first stage of my apprenticeship, and most writers would never have had such a work published. I felt shamed into not making the same mistake again. Shortly after this first book was published, (in 2003) I started work on a second novel. I had a working title, one of the main characters and a scene that didn’t make the final cut. I’ve spent the last six years or so honing my craft and intermittently revisiting this novel. And a couple of years ago I realised I finally had the tools necessary to write the thing. So I did it.

But then, as it was ready to go out into the big wide world and seek an audience, we got hit by the mother of global recessions, and authors I know, ‘mid-listers’, who have been happily seeing their books published for the last few years, were suddenly being turned away from their publishers’ doors.

I may not know everything there is to know about book publishing, but I had the hunch that a 50,000 word crossover between literary and commercial fiction that couldn’t decide if it was an existential love story or a commentary on the global arms trade wasn’t going to have the gentlest of times on agents’ and editors’ slush piles, especially coming from an author who should have been on the road to landing a deal for a science fiction series. But I knew this was a good book; I knew a good proportion of readers would like it, so I came up with an alternative.

After some important feedback on an early draft of the novel from Will Atkins at Macmillan, one of the most gentlemanly and truly supportive editors you could hope to find, I may add, and similar suggestions from the agent of a friend, I went back to my manuscript to attempt to turn it into something a publisher would consider putting out.

Around this time I was lucky enough to meet a very clever chap by the name of Russell Quinn, who had just created a superb iPhone app for McSweeney’s, the US literary magazine founded by Dave Eggers.

A couple of chats with Sophie Rochester, who runs The Literary Platform amongst other things, sparked the idea in my mind of tying in my own novel with an older work it shared some important parallels with. So with a bare outline of a concept for an app that featured my novel and a novelette by Cervantes about a couple of talking dogs, and the idea of building a bunch of other arty pieces around them, Russell—to my eternal surprise—agreed he’d put the full weight of his intellect behind the project and design and develop the app.

I also knew that publicity-wise, the audience I had access to, via my professional connections, was one interested more than anything in visual and digital creativity. The app was a bit of a no-brainer given the phenomenally high penetration of the iPhone amongst this audience.

So next up I turned to Johanna Basford, an illustrator specialising in pen and ink and no stranger to working the publicity machine. As well as providing illustrations for each chapter of my book, she also got down and dirty with Cervantes and created a truly wonderful illustrated interpretation of entire narrative of The Dialogue of the Dogs. The completed picture came in at over two metres long, but the whole thing has reduced down into bite-sized chunks for the iPhone’s screen.

In the meantime my friend Rich Watson had read through some early drafts of the novel and had been working on a song to complement the book, which would also be packaged with the app. He let me listen to the demo for my approval and then went off to get the track professionally produced.

As a cover is one of the most important ways to grab attention for a book on the shelves—and this is equally true for a product in the App Store—given the nature of the book I knew I wanted a striking image of a woman to form the basis of it. I approached fashion photographer Nicole Heiniger, who did an amazing job putting together a team for a cover shoot. We sourced the model by running a competition on Flickr and I managed to get a top-notch photographic studio to let us use its facilities for the day.

With all these elements in place, the book copy set to spec and a few extras thrown in, it was down to Russell to join all the dots, which he did brilliantly.

The app’s been out for a little over a month now, and is on the cusp of 1,000 downloads. That’s without a single book review, an area where traditional book trade PR is focussed.

Securing publicity for it has been a hard slog, probably because of the fact that there isn’t a mainstream publisher attached, but where it has garnered coverage, this has been overwhelmingly positive. Aside from support from a number of notable book bloggers like Scott Pack and Catherine Hawley (of Juxtabook), pieces on Creative Review and The Literary Platform, the main source of exposure so far has been through Twitter, where the book has been tweeted by the likes of Wallpaper*, Faber, Amelia’s Magazine, Stylist, Design Week and Arts&Business, helping news of the project reach tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Twitter users.

For anyone thinking of pursuing a similar route to getting your work in front of people, I’d offer some caveats. Firstly, I’ve been in the fortunate position of knowing the right people who were willing to offer time, energy and expertise, mainly because they had faith in my ability to pull the project off, and a belief that the exposure that would be generated would be beneficial to them. I’m also a relatively experienced producer of projects similar to this one. I’d estimate that without the support the project has received, a working budget for something like this would easily come in at over £20,000. A major author would be unrealistically optimistic to expect to make this back from an app. I’ve had to spend around a hundred pounds, plus the £60 fee for registering as an Apple developer.

So, other than possibly building up a few loyal readers, there’s very little benefit to an author in pursuing such a project, if they don’t have a publisher attached.

But having got to the stage I’m at, this is where it gets interesting. I’m now able to go to publishers and say to them I have a formidable amount of publicity already secured, along with a thousand or so semi-converted readers who will act as ambassadors for the book were it to find its way onto book-store shelves. And do you know what else we can do? We can talk to those readers directly through the app.

Work is almost completed on the music video for The New Goodbye app, which has been conceived especially for the iPhone screen, and we’re going to update the existing app with this, plus a bunch of extra bits and pieces. When we do this, we can communicate directly to all of the people out there who have the app already installed on their phones. It’s for this reason a major bookseller is interested in working with us on the update. We can send owners of the app straight to their stores for all kinds of reasons: using GPS we can unlock exclusive app content for anyone going into a store; we can send discount book vouchers, or news of events; we can even send the app owners product catalogues.

If those are just a handful of air-plucked ideas of what a bookseller can do, think of the opportunities for a publisher. Unless they’re manually deleted from an iPhone, these apps don’t go away. So think about it. My book would probably appeal to readers who like, say, Arturo Perez-Reverte. Well if Macmillan (who own the Picador imprint, Perez-Reverte’s UK publishers) took me on, they would then be able to recommend his books to my readers with a simple app update. As well as offering the ability to encourage readers to go into bookshops, rather than just hoping they’ll respond to in-store promotions when they’re there, owners of The New Goodbye are potentially just two or three swipes away from a publishers’ digital store. And a considerable proportion of iPhone owning readers are also likely to have Stanza, or the Kindle app, or something similar installed.

I seriously believe that if book publishers can’t grasp the opportunities presenting themselves, they’re going to be undercut and outplayed. Not necessarily by authors like me, who more than anything want to see publishers come out on top in this Wild West-like digital arena, but by the substantially more dangerous threat of a combination of digitally-savvy agents and design and production companies, who between them are more than capable of producing the goods. And if you think this is simplistic scare-mongering, I’ve two words for you: Jamie Oliver.