feature: E-publishing: An Hour with Greig Beck

Greig Beck

My increasing curiosity about everything to do with e-publishing has led me to seminars at ASA, NSWWC, and the Sydney Writers’ Centre, as well as endless prowling on the internet. I have a Kindle, too. That was a shameful secret not so long ago, but now we’re all bragging about them. Then Aurealis itself went online last year.

I was invited to the launch of Momentum, the Pan Macmillan imprint that devoted entirely to creating an international presence in e-publishing. The optimistic buzz at that celebration was infectious, and I asked Momentum’s Joel Naoum to arrange for me to meet Greig Beck, one of their first batch of authors.

Why Greig Beck? Well, he knows about things that I want to know. He’s a published author of thrillers. I reviewed one of Greig’s books in AurealisXpress last year—an absolutely ghastly novel called This Green Hell. His new Momentum book Valkeryn, is YA specific. (See the review in March’s AurealisXpress). Greig has worked for many years in IT, and has vast experience in international sales and customer relations. He’s right where it’s all happening.

We met in Kinokunya bookshop, and as he swooned over a banana cake I heard lots of the dinkum griff.

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Crisetta: You’re obviously doing very well already with conventional print, so why did you become involved with Momentum?

Greig: I’ve been in technology for twenty years, and I’m still there, for the moment. I have a lot of peer authors now that I talk to, in the United States, and I call them the ‘B’ grade authors. We’re not the Matthew Reillys but we’re the tier below that. We’re doing okay but not the blockbusters just yet. A lot of them are quite prodigious authors, turning out maybe one, two three books a year. They’re keeping one foot in the legacy publishers’ ambit, and then they’re doing a lot via the internet, some of them in direct publishing. The reason for that is, there’s no question Amazon is out to dominate the world. They want to own everything, and they’re doing a lot to woo authors now. If you’re a publisher, I’d be really worried, because they want to destroy publishers and agents, and as far as they’re concerned there’s only two things of importance—that’s the reader and the author, and they want to bring them closer together. Amazon is offering 70% royalties on their e-books now. That’s a big chunk. It’s hard for legacy publishers to compete, even for organisations like Momentum. I think you’ve got to be part of that internet wave, especially when you see the growth in e-books, which is up to between 12% and 20% depending on which market you’re looking at. Publishers’ books are being squeezed by just the cost of the print.

Crisetta: There’s the whole ‘save the trees’ green thing, too.

Greig: Absolutely. To me, there are two arguments for them saying e-books should be fantastically cheaper than paper books. When I talk to the publishers, many of them say that the cost is not in the printing—but they can get that down really cheaply. A lot of the cost is in the different layers of editing, and the promotion—it’s all those surrounding activities. However, there’s a psychological effect in the marketplace, which is called the ‘fairness effect’, and your average reader does not believe that e-books should be close in any way to a paper book, they believe there should be astronomically cheaper because as far as they’re concerned, that the whole cost is in the paper. Only if you’re in the publishing industry can you mount a sort of credible argument against that. Everyone else, and we’re talking about 99.99% of people out there, thinks that e-books should be a lot cheaper.

Crisetta: What do you think about the great mass of stuff that’s being uploaded now? Do you think the good stuff is going to float to the top somehow anyway?

Greig: As I keep saying to my wife, I would have liked to have been writing ten years ago or ten years from now—there is this huge evolution going on. Technology allows things to evolve dramatically quicker than what happens in the real world.

The e-reading experience will continue to change. The only reason they’re still print books at the moment, is because there’s this transition period between the paperback and the e-book. They’re still trying to create a visual image of a book on the e-readers, but there’s no reason for that anymore. Now as far as talking about the deluge of books going up, there’s this huge category of free books at the moment, or 99c books—everyone’s got a book inside them. No-one knows what works—there’s a lot of things that have been trial and error. There’s an author I quite like called Scott Sigler, who had a blog, where he used to put out these horror books in short bites, something like a chapter every week. He was getting up to a million downloads, and of course the publishers chased him, so suddenly he’s got his own books. Now he’s going by the traditional model, he’s gone back the other way, and his sales are still good, but not as much as they were before. He’s captured a lot of the market because he built up a loyal fan base, which is prepared to pay something for the books, but as long as they don’t go above that ‘fairness effect’ where they think ‘that’s too much’. From my background in sales and marketing, it is what’s called a price effect, and it’s a psychological thing. No-one knows what the level is—your fairness effect might be different to mine, five dollars is too much for me but someone else might say, well, three dollars, or eight dollars is my limit.

I think what’ll happen eventually is that editing will become enormously important. The only way you’re going to differentiate from these guys uploading their books for free or for 99c, is if you have fine editing.

Remember Intel Inside? Remember that promotion? Doesn’t really make any difference, but it became a source of branding: ‘As long as it’s got Intel Inside, I’m happy’. Editing’s got to be like that; editing can’t be just subliminal, it’s got to be people, and they’ve got to build up their names like they do on the billboards for the real estate agents. ‘Edited by so and so.’ Now I’ve got a lot of international books, and in Germany, there’s a specific translator who has a really good reputation, and they co-brand you, for instance ‘Greig Beck and Norbert Stobe’. Normally that would be invisible, but since he’s got such a good reputation, they put that branding on the book.

I was guest judge for a competition this year, and I read fifty stories but what I have found is that some of the editing is atrocious. Some of it was three errors per page, and it became distracting. Clanging words, where I see that they’re trying to say ‘loser’ and they say ‘looser’ and spell it ‘l o o s e r’ consistently throughout, and I just think, has anyone read this? You read books, and you come across maybe one error in perhaps twenty or thirty or forty pages, it’s not bad, but when you see it all the time, it becomes distracting. It might be a very good story but they need to go back and re-edit their work.

Crisetta: You’ve already got a presence, you’ve got books out.

Greig: There’s brand awareness already. How do you get noticed amongst thousands and thousands of other titles? A lot of the struggle for new authors is to build up that initial brand awareness. Amazon’s pretty clever with what it does with its online marketing. You buy a book or you’re looking at a book, and it says that if you like that, you might like this.

Crisetta: In order to get on that list you have to have maybe ten good reviews.

Greig: I read a lot about changes in the market place and I talk to my peer authors, and quite a lot of them say that the legacy publishers are endangered. At the end of the day, Amazon is not going to be a bad thing. I can’t see any evidence for Amazon trying to destroy authors, in fact they’ve got the best of authors’ interests in mind. Publishers will tick and flick you like that,

With traditional models we’ll have a lot of picture books, and a lot of blockbusters. They just won’t be able to afford to take on everyone else. The Bryce Courtenays, they’ll sell thousands of copies, in November, December for gift book. Same as the Di Morriseys—Pan Macmillan love to try and get it in the shops by October or November, they break their neck to do that, but there’s a lot of churn at the lower levels, they can only get a certain number of books out per year. They’ll tick you to make room for the next writer, there’s a lot of churn amongst those.

Amazon’s making very good money out of its authors. They make a percentage of every sale of a book out there. They’re getting better and better at their cover art, and at their editing—a complete service. Its hard to find a fault with Amazon at the moment, other than this whispering campaign that says, look out, because once they’ve finished off the publishers and the agents, they’ll start to work on the authors. Amazon keeps saying, ‘Authors and their readers, that’s all we really care about’. Interesting times! With Momentum, it’s a different market. They need to get the books out there, to the reviewers, but the traditional reviewers will change. A lot of the people that are becoming important for reviews now are the bloggers. There even might be someone on Goodreads, who’s read 2000 books, and has 2000 followers. They’re the sort of people you’ll want to have if you want to get your book read. If they recommend your book to those 2000 it might not appeal to everyone, but there might be two or three hundred copies that are being sold. I would think, sooner rather than later, the traditional reviewers will start to accept people on e-books.

Crisetta: I’ve reviewed a couple already

Greig: The downside for me is you can’t sign an e-book, people have said to me I like to give out my paper books to my friends and family as well, and a lot of them don’t have e-readers

Crisetta: But they will have very soon, already the numbers are going up so fast. I’ve already given out several Amazon birthday certificates. Would you call your books fantasy?

Greig: It’s funny you should say that, because I try not to use that term. There are some better terms around. People think all fantasy is about angels and fairies at the bottom of the garden, that sort of thing. Have you noticed hardly any of the publishers sell horror any more? Everything’s a thriller!

When I first started in 2008–2009 my son said, ‘Dogs—they’re knights, they’re having a war’, and it’s funny. Usually I just block it out, I might write it down, but as he was saying it, I thought, I can sort of see that. And it’s been in my ideas book for ages and ages, and there came a period when I was finishing off writing Black Mountain, and before I wanted to get into the book following that, I started writing Valkeryn, and I wrote it all in a couple of months. And it was just immediately right.

Crisetta: I was puzzled by the fact that they’re all Norse. Did you originally set it somewhere else?

Greig: It goes back to the security dogs at the beginning. The editors scaled that right back—the scientist explaining to the girl that one dog was getting so smart that he liked them to read to him, and he’s starting to select his favourite books, and one of the favourites was a book about Norse mythology.

Crisetta: Oh, that would have been good, to have left that in.

Greig: They said, no, it’s too much, so maybe I’ll reintroduce that in book two. E-books are going to get shorter, I think, as well. There’s no need for a book to be 100,000 or 120,000 words if it’s an e-book.

Crisetta: Especially if it’s going to be a series anyway.

Greig: Yeah. You could get away with 75,000 words easily. I’ve got four or five books like that which I might come back to now, and I’ll re-work them as novellas, but I might only end up with 30 or 40 thousand words. Priced between 99c and $2.99, put it straight up on the web, people are happy to pay that, they’re more forgiving of shorter stories.

That’s one of the dangers of e-books. I think they’re going to become disposable. People won’t stick with them. I think with e-books, once they’ve lost your attention, flick it—go on to the next one. Joel at Momentum tells me that come Sunday night, it’s the heaviest time for the purchase of e-books. People say ‘I’ve got ten dollars to spend, what can I get for ten bucks?’ They usually buy two or three books, if they can, perhaps one book from a favourite author or two or three books from someone they haven’t heard of but like the idea of—that means if they don’t really like one they can just flick it, it’s such a low cost.

Previously I used to say to salesmen that if you give something away, it’s not valued. You need to have something tangible, price-effective for them to value that commodity.

There are some things I’d like to try to do. I used to work in customer relations management. What they would do is, they’d sell software to collect data from buyers, then it allowed them to target specific buyers, to know who the buyers are. I have an idea that e-publishers need to do the same kind of thing.

Crisetta: The next one’s going to be published by Momentum as well?

Greig: This year in Australia I’ve got three books coming out. Valkeryn‘s out already, part one. Then, there’s Black Mountain, that’s the big one. It’s still going through editing, they’ve given it back to me so that I can go through the changes. That’s a Pan Macmillan paperback about Alex Hunter. Then the sequel to Valkeryn.

What Momentum want is to set up as an international entity, because our market is very small. They want the global market.

Crisetta: I heard Timothy Daly say recently that we’re not thinking internationally at all, so it’s good that Momentum is. There’s no physical book that has to be transported, so there isn’t any barrier there, is there?

Greig: The local publishers are behind, we’re reading a lot more, reading more than ever, just not buying books in Australia. We’ve broken the ‘fairness effect’. People just don’t believe, there’s value in buying an Australian book. Why would you pay thirty two dollars for a book, when you can see the title overseas for $7.95?

I’m still not sure whether Valkeryn will be two or three books. I’m 70,000 words into book two. I will keep on writing that ’til I come to a conclusion, or a piece where that segment will logically end. And I just don’t know yet where that’s going.

Crisetta: What age group did you think Valkeryn was for when you were writing it?

Greig: Originally I thought it was going to be for the fourteen-year old age group, then I changed it. Maybe that’s why there’s some confusion about how old Arn, the protagonist, is. One reviewer was a little critical. I’ve changed it really to target anyone from fourteen to twenty, but outside of that, anyone who enjoys that sort of action. It’s about just getting to them, I think that’s the point you brought up before, you throw the term fantasy in and then immediately all the readers of my Alex Hunter novels get turned off.

I started it with a totally different prologue. There’s an old man, and he breaks into a facility. In this glass cage there’s an old figure with a blanket around it, and you can tell it’s covered in silver fur, and he says, ‘She’s old, but she’s still beautiful.’ He talks to her, she stands up and says, ‘I still love you!’ The alarm starts sounding, and you hear three gunshots. You can’t start it with a murder suicide, so I took that out.

As I mentioned before, it will be critically important to meet the revolution—it used to be nice to get the Sunday papers and turn to the book section, but it’s not there anymore.

Crisetta: Geordie Williamson, literature critic for The Australian, spoke at the Writers’ Centre, about that very thing. But then again, one of his acolytes, Sam Twyford-Moore, actually reviewed a graphic novel in The Australian. So there’s something else new happening!

Greig: I’ve been approached by graphic artists, saying, ‘You’re doing these stories, would you like images?’ And I’ve thought about it. I always wanted my books to be sold in Japan, maybe as manga comics. Matthew Reilly has had a couple of his books turned into manga, and I’ve done some work in Japan. I remember I talked to one Japanese colleague. He said that it’s so important that you’ll see business men reading comics. The way the Japanese express things is in visual form. People say to me that my Alex Hunter stories, are very cinematic. After seeing some of those big special effects movies, how can you not be influenced by them?

I was going to do Valkeryn under a different name, to start with. I didn’t want to confuse my readers, but then as it evolved, with some of the action scenes, I thought it might be of interest to them. Joel (at Momentum) also said that brand awareness is going to help your sales, otherwise you’re going to go into the new author file, and it might get lost.

Crisetta: So the next instalment is going to be an e-book. You’ll be able to report back in about six months about how these actually went

Greig: I’ve worked in sales marketing for a lot of years. I’ve had multiple currencies, multiple products, multiple territories, and I’ve never had contracts that were just so complex as in publishing. That’s why I really hope that Momentum breaks with that. I know for the time being you’ve got to make use of a lot of the infrastructure, but if it goes well, I’ll stick with it, if it doesn’t, I’ll follow my peers and self-publish. You’ve got your name out there, spend as much as you can on cover art, and editing.

Cover art is critically important. Jeremy Robertson brings out two books a year, one of them is a series and he’s got great cover art. He uses a particular cover artist but it looks so professional. The first thing you see is the cover.

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 Before he left, Greig gave me a beautiful wolf’s head ring, which he told me was originally going to be the cover for Valkeryn but there were problems with the image. He thinks that the rings may be used promotionally, in competitions for example, and told me that rings play an important part in the second book.

Greig was so generous with his time and experience as well, and I’m very grateful. I realise that I now accept e-publishing as a vital part of all our futures, not just as an optional extra.