“The epublishing sensation of 2012”

Last week the London Book Fair took place at Earls Court, and I was fortunate enough to be invited along by KDP Amazon to speak at a seminar and sign some copies of Only the Innocent on their stand. As a new author, everybody assumed that this was the first time I had visited the book fair. They were wrong. When I first visited the fair – probably at least twenty-five if not thirty years ago – people didn’t know what to make of me. And guess what – it’s 2012 and they’re still not sure what to make of me!

I wish I could remember the year of my first visit, but I can’t. I just know that I used to attend the London, Frankfurt and Bologna Book Fairs most years. My role was very different, but the scepticism was just the same. Then, I ran a fledgling interactive media company (known in those days as a software company) and I was trying to acquire the rights to produce interactive versions of the most popular educational book series. But the word ‘software’ was viewed with a degree of suspicion. Why would anybody want an interactive version of a book? Would anybody buy it?

Bear in mind that we are talking many years ago – back in the early eighties when a school computer cost £3000 and had a whopping 56K (yes – I do mean K – as in kilobyte) of memory. As soon the more affordable BBC B micro was launched (which reportedly had 32K of memory, but only if you didn’t use the amazing four colour graphics mode, which reduced it to 5K) things started to look up a bit. But still very few people ‘got’ the idea of books providing the basis for innovative educational software.

Now, of course, that’s all changed. Classrooms have interactive whiteboards, there is a vast range of web based resources for children, and some schools are providing tablets for pupils too. In a few educational establishments around the world, students don’t work in classrooms anymore. Their entire curriculum is online, and they split their time between using computer resources, attending group lectures or taking part in tutorials. Whether we believe this to be right or wrong, this is a massive change in a relatively short period of time.

When I started in that business, I was young (very), enthusiastic, and believed that computers could have a significant impact on education. I believe I was right, but I never thought – and still don’t think – that this was at the expense of books. I worry that people see interactivity as a replacement for books, when I’ve only ever seen it as an extension.

This year at the London Book Fair, and in various articles and blog posts on the subject, there has been talk of the old world of publishing being dead. I don’t subscribe to that theory at all. A book is a book – whether it’s printed on paper, viewed on a computer screen or read on an ereader. All that has changed is that there is a new medium that can be used to convey the same information.

Following the book fair, there was an article in The Guardian in which it is suggested that digital publishers refer to the physical book trade as “legacy publishing” and that this is a pejorative term. I certainly don’t see traditional publishers in that way. Like a lot of other indie authors, I didn’t find an agent who was prepared to take on my book until it was successful. But every agent gets thousands of submissions, and they have to make a decision based on a number of factors – not least whether they believe that a publisher will be interested. I get that, and although it was disappointing at the time I am really glad that it happened this way because for me it has worked out well.

I do now have an agent – and I have to tell you that the difference that she is making to my writing is phenomenal. I suspect that if I were to go with a traditional publishing house for my next book, they would have an amazing impact on the quality of the end product too. They have a vast amount of experience, and their skills are just as relevant today as they were before anybody had ever heard of a Kindle.

So I am struggling to understand why there is a compulsion to drive a wedge between traditional and electronic publishing, as if they are two entirely different things. We all want the same – the best stories, written in the most compelling way. Electronic publishing gave me an opportunity to prove that my book would sell. Traditionally trained editors will help me to improve my writing and make future books better.

At the moment, the degree of interactivity is limited on ereaders – but for how long? Publishers and indie authors are increasingly producing video promos of books (with varying degrees of quality, it has to be said). So how long before there are snippets of mood setting video integrated into books, or images of the locations at the start of each chapter? And music and sound effects are an obvious next stage (optional, hopefully) for people who want the mood created for them. Consider children’s books and how much kids love pop-ups and pull-outs. Adding these features to ereaders is surely inevitable? The books are coded in HTML – so why not? We have the technology!

When I started working in the educational software market all those years ago, there was one huge problem. Software was either written by teachers – who understood the pedagogy but (on the whole) couldn’t programme a computer. Or they were written by programmers who laboured under the misapprehension that they understood teaching and learning because they had once been to school. It took years before those with the educational expertise worked successfully with the programming experts.

Wouldn’t it be great now if we could stop creating a false distinction and just produce great books in any and all formats, and look forward to embracing the inevitable change in the next few years?

Patrick Barkham in his Guardian article very kindly said “Rachel Abbott is the epublishing sensation of 2012.” I could not have asked for a better accolade. It is the letter ‘e’ though that makes people view me with suspicion. So in thirty years, has anything changed?

Only the Innocent reached the #1 position in the UK Kindle Store (paid) in three months, and stayed there for four weeks. It is available from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Barnes and Noble, the iTunes store, Kobo and Waterstones.