A MERCHANT OF E-CULTURE:
an interview with Editia’s
Charlotte Harper

Posted on January 4, 2014 by in The Industrials

CharlotteWhat’s the future of publishing?  It’s a fair question, an important question, and if there’s anyone who might be able to provide an answer, or even just a few hints, it’s Editia’s Charlotte Harper.  Editia is a freshly cooked ‘digital-first’ publishing business straight out of Canberra, Australia, and is devoted to long-form journalism and non-fiction shorts.  The press’s first book, Crowdfund it! by digital expert Anna Maguire, was launched in 2012. Editia’s founder and publisher Charlotte Harper is a former technology journalist, a Walkley Award-winning web producer (for her contribution to The Sydney Morning Herald’s online coverage of the 2000 Olympics) and ex-literary editor of The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.  At The Canberra Times, she was variously chief sub-editor, features, online editor, and editor of firstly the Saturday news features section and then the Sunday magazine. Harper’s Weird Wild Web was published by Penguin Australia in 1999.  But back to that question: what’s the future of publishing?  Interviewer: Nigel ‘All Things Internet Give Me Hives But I’m Up For The Challenge’ Featherstone.

INTERVIEWER

What was the motivation for starting Editia?

HARPER

In short, I love books and the stories and ideas they contain, and am always looking for ways to foster the same passions in others. Curating and sharing content in order to inspire, entertain and inform fellow readers is instinctive to me, and journalistic writing is the genre I know best.

If you’re after the long version, I’ve always wanted to be a book publisher, since creating a Mr Men book at age seven. I sent ‘Mr Water’, a hand-drawn, written and stapled production, off to Mr Men author Roger Hargreaves in the UK and was thrilled when he sent me a personal reply. I remember reading about book industry jobs labelled ‘Acquisitions Editor and Commissioning Editor’ in my school careers adviser’s office in my early teens and thinking that was for me. Journalism distracted me for a few years (nearly 20!). But even in the media, I particularly enjoy coming up with or spotting good ideas for content, commissioning writers, multimedia producers and photographers, and overseeing the process from concept to finished product. These roles are more my thing than reporting or copy editing.

I started my career as editorial assistant for a tech publication. This allowed me to pursue my interest in the potential of emerging technologies like the internet and mobile phones, but steered me away from books for a while. To get back on track, I enrolled in the Macquarie University Postgraduate Diploma in Editing and Publishing, and was fortunate enough to gain a practicum placement at HarperCollins. While working as a web producer at The Sydney Morning Herald I wrote a book based on my Saturday website review column. Penguin published it as Weird Wild Web. Dropping into the iconic publisher’s offices in Glebe for meetings about the book was a huge thrill – perhaps even more exciting than seeing my own book in bookstores.

Next stop was The South China Morning Post. I couldn’t believe my luck when I was appointed literary editor, and made the most of every opportunity to meet and interview publishing people – authors, agents, editors, publicists, distributors, booksellers and publishers – from all over the world. It was around this time that I decided I would start my own publishing business at some point, either in Hong Kong or back in Australia. I figured I’d need some serious financial backing, and even talked to a couple of potential business partners, but the time wasn’t yet right.

Family commitments led me back to Canberra in mid-2003. I managed to squeeze in a holiday to London first, and spent most of it visiting book publishers instead of tourist sites, sometimes to meet with staff, but often just to look up at their offices in awe. Back in the Australian capital, I enjoyed working on my hometown newspaper, particularly as fill-in literary editor and as editor of the Saturday news features section and then the Sunday magazine. I was wistful, though, about being so far from the book publishing hubs of Sydney and Melbourne. (I’m pleased to say this is less and less the case. Digital technologies bring the world closer. Canberra has grown up a lot over the past few years too, and Editia is now part of a growing literary community at the Gorman House Arts Centre.)

In 2009, while on maternity leave with my first child, I discovered (and became addicted to) Twitter. It was a tweet that sparked my decision to start a digital publishing business. The Kindle was just starting to take off internationally, and the Twittersphere was awash with rumours that Apple would soon announce a magical device that would change the book industry forever. The #appletablet hashtag became an obsession for me. The night before the iPad launch, I uploaded the first few posts to my new Ebookish blog, and I was soon researching ereaders, publishing developments, ebook production and social media marketing for the blog, for Fairfax and for Bookseller + Publisher. In February 2010 I attended The Digital Revolution, a groundbreaking conference run by the Australian Publishers Association, and realised that the time was right to make my move. I had the skills, was building the contacts, and saw that barriers to entry were breaking down through technologies like print-on-demand and browser-based ebook production.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I would publish at that stage, but it soon became clear that ebooks provided an opportunity to publish feature articles that were too long for the arbitrary space available for them in magazines and newspapers. I had always been frustrated at having to cut good copy to fit, rather than run it at its natural length. As a literary editor, I was also aware that there were plenty of books out there that would’ve been greatly improved if they’d been shorter, rather than padded out to fit the conventions of traditional publishers. As an editor with experience publishing longer form journalism, it made sense to stick to what I knew, but in this new, longer than an article but shorter than a book, form. I suspected that as had often been the case with my own feature writing, there were journalists out there who had much more material than they could use through the existing channels for their work. Editia is already attracting exactly these sorts of authors.

INTERVIEWER

How are you going about attracting your writers?

HARPER

Crowdfund itI am currently working with five authors, and each one came to Editia in a different way. I met Anna Maguire at a conference she helped organise for the Australian Publishers Association in 2010. We became friends and spent two years trying to work out how we could work together. In December 2012 I rang her and said, ‘I’ve got it!  I’ve been planning to launch my own publishing business and am thinking now is the time. Would you like to be my first author?’ Digital innovator that she is, Anna agreed on the spot. The subject matter took a few different turns in the months afterwards, but it was great to work with a cutting edge blogger for the first project, Crowdfund it!.

BusinessI found the second author, Johanna Baker-Dowdell, while fact-checking Anna’s book. Johanna was crowdfunding her own book about mumpreneurs. I’d been trying to commission someone to write a book on exactly that topic, but why start a new project when there was a perfectly good one right there on Pozible? I wrote to Johanna to ask whether she’d consider signing a contract with Editia for the ebook edition of Business + baby on board. She was keen, and sent a few chapters through. I loved them, so away we went. Johanna has since said that the combination of self-publishing the print edition and working with a publisher for the ebook version offers the best of both worlds.

Al JazeeraNext up was Scott Bridges, who notes in his acknowledgements that I love ebooks even more than he does. Scott approached me after seeing my presentation on entrepreneurial journalism at the Walkley Media Conference in late 2012. We’d met briefly beforehand at University of Canberra, where he lectures in journalism. I tutor there and am studying for a research masters. Scott had written most of 18 days: Al Jazeera and the Egyptian Revolution by that point and asked me to take a look. I’d just had a baby so was caught up with non-Editia tasks for a few months, but once I started reading, I was hooked. Here was exactly the sort of book I’d been hoping to publish: gripping narrative non-fiction by an Australian author on a topic with global relevance. It even fits in with our existing key subject areas as a media title.

The fourth author is Carly Lorente, winner of the inaugural Editia Prize for short non-fiction/longform journalism. Her book, Minyma, is amazing, as was hearing her excitement when she learnt she’d won.

And the fifth remains anonymous for now as the contract terms are set but we’ve yet to sign on the dotted line. He came to me via one of Australia’s most highly regarded literary agents, which was a huge buzz for me as a start-up.

I met another potential author in the corridor at the National Library after the Miles Franklin Awards. He recognised me after seeing me talking about Editia at an event for entrepreneurs run by the Lighthouse Business Innovation Centre earlier in the year. We’re emailing about the project now.

Editia is also open submissions for one hour a week, and I am in talks with a few authors who have submitted pitches that way.

INTERVIEWER

You mention your great love of e-books.  What is it that attracts you so much to the form?


HARPER

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, for two reasons.

Firstly, Sydney Morning Herald literary editor Susan Wyndham wrote in last Saturday’s Undercover column that she was pleased at the results of a British survey in which 62 per cent of the young people surveyed said they preferred print books to ebooks. Susan wrote that she was ‘not a Luddite but a traditionalist or sensualist when it comes to books.’  Susan is one of my favourite people, but we do disagree on this point. It is possible to be a traditionalist and a sensualist about books while also for practical reasons choosing digital much of the time.

I adore beautiful books and continue to buy them for my children, their friends, my friends and family members as gifts. But for me, when it comes to fiction and narrative non-fiction, it’ll be ebooks from here on.

After moving house 20 times in 20 years, lugging 40 boxes of sneeze-inducing books with me each time, I reached a point where I didn’t want to own even one more physical book.

Sure, books look terrific on shelves and provide a visitor to with an insight into our tastes and interests. But how many people actually come to our homes and browse through the shelves? Now that we can store lists of books we’ve read and hope to read on platforms like Goodreads, anyone can explore our literary collections, from anywhere.

Living with two messy children (and one messy husband), there is simply no room for more of my ‘stuff’ around the house in any case. So I’ve boxed up around 60 per cent of my library and am planning to sell it to a secondhand bookseller. Many of the books I’ll be giving up were cheap paperback editions of classics I’ll always be able to borrow from the library or download for free in any case.

Then there’s travelling, on short commutes or over long distances. I lived overseas for three years, and on one occasion took 17 novels with me on a trip around Southeast Asia. Yes, half of my suitcase was taken up with books. These days one gadget replaces all of that, as well as providing the option of downloading any other book you can think of at any time during the trip.

Even heading to the shops is easier now that I carry hundreds of books with me everywhere on my phone. If you spot me glued to it in a bank queue you can bet I’m reading a book I’d put down earlier that day on my Kindle or iPad, and rejoined exactly where I left off via the magic of Whispersync. For years, I carried a book in my handbag everywhere I went. When you factored in the Filofax as well, that was one heavy tote.

I mentioned two reasons for pondering this issue lately. The second is that I actually paid for two ebooks from Amazon on Sunday despite already having free review copies – one of which was a hardback. They’d been sitting around the house for weeks and I just hadn’t picked them up. Actually, I had read a few pages of the hardback, but because I’d been travelling I’d left it behind and started something else on my ereader instead.

Since downloading them I’ve read four chapters of Scott Berkun’s My Year Without Pants (18% to be precise, which you can be with an ebook), highlighting pertinent content along the way. Anyone can go to my highlights page on Amazon and skim through the selected passages and notes, which is exactly what I’ll do when it comes to writing the review. This globally communal reading experience/online record of marginalia is magical.

I would’ve written to ask the publishers for ebook editions but recent experience tells me they’re really not up with this yet, mainly because most reviewers are not pushing for it. I hope it will catch on soon, because a lot of trees would be saved if book reviewers and literary editors would accept ebook advance copies.

Speaking of eco-friendliness, that’s another reason for my preference for ebooks. There are no shipping costs, whether financial or environmental. Warehousing space is not needed. Unwanted copies are not pulped. New print runs are not required to keep up with changes in circumstance.

I could go on, but I think I’ll finish with publishing studies academic John B Thompson’s nine advantages of these technologies as listed in his book Merchants of Culture: ease of access, updatability, scale, searchability, portability, flexibility (with my eyesight, the ability to raise the point size is brilliant), affordability, intertextuality and multimedia.

INTERVIEWER

What can you foresee as the next step in digital publishing?

HARPER

EditiaI wish the next step in digital publishing would be for it to become more like blogging, and specifically WordPress. WordPress is built around a philosophy of making publishing democratic, and many of its finest features came about thanks to the hundreds of individual developers who shared their ideas and creations for nothing because they believed in those ideals. The result is a system whereby anyone can publish anything, anytime, and the software just keeps getting smarter and more interactive at no (or little) extra cost to the user.

With ebooks right now the majority of consumers are reading on devices and via apps that are controlled by one of the big US tech giants, Apple, Amazon or Google. Ebook specialist Kobo has large market share in some markets, including Australia, which is great. It is a real innovator in the social reading space with its Kobo Reading Life and Kobo Pulse software for sharing comments and highlights as you read, and keeping track of your reading statistics from the time of day you tend to read to the time spent reading certain books. All of this is fabulous, but not transferable. So if I interact with a book on Kobo, then close it and open it on my Kindle, I won’t be able to access my social data. The same is true in reverse. Amazon offers excellent highlights and notes features, but only to books I read on my Kindle or Kindle apps. Because Amazon has now bought Goodreads, we will increasingly see added services and features that are brilliant but proprietary to Kindle users.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could all work together and create open-source features that were industry standard so that we could all make the most of these new technologies no matter which device we were using?

It doesn’t look likely at this stage, though small startups with big ideas like Pressbooks are making some inroads.

I suspect instead we will see increased competition between the big ebook players, with the retail giants continuing to experiment with loss-leading pricing and the publishing of exclusive content in a bid to gain market share. This exclusive content will include short ebooks, serials, enhanced ebooks, bundles and subscriptions. The latter could lead to a scenario where Amazon charges customers an annual fee for access to a set number of titles, for example.

At the other end of the scale, small publishers like Editia are selling more ebooks via their own websites than through the big retailers. When your content is specialised and your authors are prolific bloggers and social media users, you’re better off focusing your attention on direct sales. The profit margin is much better, and the money comes through instantly rather than every few months as is the case when dealing with the retailers. I suspect small publishers will become more specialised and build communities around their brands to make the most of these opportunities for direct sales. Self-publishing authors can do the same thing, and crowdsource their writing if they so choose using platforms like Wattpad.

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