Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Andrew Lownie talks about his agency’s initiative – Thistle Publishing

Interview by JJ Marsh, author of the Beatrice Stubbs series

Thistle Publishing was born out of a combination of frustration and opportunity. As an agent, I was finding publishers were increasingly cautious about commissioning books, even by established authors. Books which I thought very commercial , often with serial potential, were being turned down, sometimes because of concerns about the legal ramifications and sometimes because editors couldn’t obtain full in-house support.

It often seemed power had moved from the editorial departments to sales and legal. Editors were taking longer to make decisions and publishers to publish – books could take up to 18 months to come out after delivery – in what was becoming a very fickle and competitive market. There was also a remorseless drive down in terms of royalties and share of subsidiary rights income and increasing insistence on world rights.

This seemed crazy as, in my view, power had shifted from the publisher to the author. The digital revolution meant authors could easily self-publish and buy in any required services such as editorial and marketing. Amazon had created the largest bookshop in the world and were courting literary agencies offering attractive terms – such as 70% on e-book income compared to 25% from publishers, and licences which could be cancelled at any time – and help with digitisation and cover design. I was also impressed by Amazon’s professionalism, ‘can-do’ attitude and flexibility.

Many agencies were dipping their toes in the market pushing reverted backlist titles or filling territorial gaps where books had not sold such as in America. I decided to be more ambitious and was influenced by your very own writers’ conference in Zurich last October where it was clear changes in the industry were being driven by authors and agents who would be left behind if they didn’t embrace the revolution taking place.

Twenty years ago, I had self-published the complete short stories of John Buchan in three volumes, under the imprint Thistle Publishing, complete with a silk bookmark and handsomely printed by Clays. A thousand copy run of the first volume had sold out quickly so I rapidly printed another thousand copies of a boxed set of the three volumes and sold them through a few key bookshops, ads and mailings. I made more money from that piece of self-publishing than the five editions of my Buchan biography from major publishers and since then I have always been a great supporter of indie publishing, under certain circumstances.

The Thistle imprint was revived, a new company set up with my agency colleague David Haviland as an equal partner, the company registered for VAT, bank accounts set up, a website created and publicists interviewed. We began to scour the agency backlists for suitable titles for reissue and our current submissions for books in which we had a confidence that had hitherto not been shared by publishers. We would not take on books which were not up to our existing quality standards, and we would not be publishers – Amazon was the publisher and we took only our usual 15% agency commission – but we would lend our authority, contacts and expertise to the list.

Though many authors were self-publishing very successfully, it seemed to me that their books looked self-published – not least because it was clear they came from Amazon – and lacked marketing and publicity push. David and I decided we would spend time on cover design and pay for a two-day publicity campaign which could be topped up by the authors. The agency would also use its Twitter and Facebook accounts and the monthly newsletter to add further promotional support.

The aim would be to showcase and establish books for domestic and foreign publishers and film companies in the hope that media attention, reviews and sales might lead to fresh business. Many self-published books were being picked up by publishers and it seemed a strategy that could work even better for agency titles. The fact that Amazon and Thistle didn’t insist on a licence term meant that books could be sold on almost immediately if interest was shown. We also wanted to generate new revenue streams for authors and make all their books work for them whether it was exploiting out of print backlists or ‘plugging’ rights gaps.

The list launched at the beginning of the year. We've published 17 titles now, with another 20 completed and just awaiting publication, and 60 more books in the pipeline. We’ve already had a bestseller with David Haviland’s historical trivia book Why Was Queen Victoria Such a Prude?, which was top in all its categories on Amazon.

One of the advantages of the list is we can react to events quickly so, for example, our first book, Mary Hollingsworth’s account of a papal Conclave, was published the day after the Pope announced he was stepping down, and we were able to quickly turn around a biography of Amy Winehouse to tie-in with a serial in the Sun and the paperback publication of her father’s book. In June we have book on an undercover unit in Northern Ireland tied in to a Panorama programme and a Sunday newspaper serial.

Peter Daughtrey’s fascinating case for the lost city of Atlantis being on the Portuguese coast had a US publisher but not a UK one so we simply published it shortly after it came out in the US, whilst Darren Moore’s thematic study The Soldier had been published in the UK but not yet in the US.

Many books were critically well-received but now out of print and had never had e-book editions – and sometimes never even a paperback - such as Anthony Bruce’s book on the war in Palestine during the First World War: The Last Crusade, Mark Higgitt’s account of HMS Ardent during the Falklands War: Through Fire and Water, and David Stafford’s books of twentieth century history: Spies Beneath Berlin, Churchill & Secret Service, and Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945.

An area with great potential, not least because of translation and film opportunities, is fiction, and Thistle has already begun reissuing MJ Trow’s comic historical crime series based on Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade, which was originally published by Constable. In June we will be bringing out thirteen novels by Guy Bellamy, most originally published by Penguin, whom Auberon Waugh described on first publication over thirty years ago as “a major new comic talent.” Another novelist of whom we have high hopes is Nicholas Best, whose Tennis and the Masai was described by the Sunday Times on first publication as “The funniest book I have read since David Lodge’s Small World.” Later in the year, Thistle will be reissuing some of Joyce Cary’s novels together with a new collection of his short stories – many hitherto unpublished.

Tom Pocock was a naval historian, whom I represented for almost twenty years until his death in 2007 and whose books should never have been allowed to go out of print; Thistle will be reissuing nineteen of them over the summer thereby providing focus and momentum. Similarly, we will be bundling titles under themes, such as a series on Prime Ministers to include James Chambers’s life of Palmerston and RJQ Adams’s books on Balfour and Bonar Law.

Many of the books have an obvious target market which can easily be reached, such as Rachel Woods’s guide for aspiring models, and a forthcoming diet title on the magic Konjac noodle, which is tied in to a promotion by a Konjac distributor. Others have an obvious peg so, for example, we are publishing Paul Merrill’s comic guide to fatherhood on Father’s Day.

Digital has allowed us to explore different formats and lengths and we will be experimenting with a range of Thistle Singles – journalistic, sometimes polemical essays of 10,000-30,000 words around particular events or themes. One of the first will be Katharine Quarmby’s quest to find her father, a visiting Iranian naval officer who was forced to give her up for adoption, and discover her heritage. The e-book will be published for Father’s Day and has been picked up by Amazon’s own publishing programme.

The future looks promising with three Thistle books being actively promoted by Amazon, and all selling well – Churchill & Secret Service is particularly strong, currently at #78 in the overall Kindle bestsellers chart. Though selling books to trade publishers remains difficult, the opportunities presented by digital and Amazon are very exciting for authors and agents.

You can find out more about Thistle Publishing here.

JJ Marsh – author, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism.


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