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

Posted on January 4, 2014 by in The Industrials

A MERCHANT OF E-CULTURE:  <br />an interview with Editia’s <br />Charlotte Harper

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.

BEHIND THE FESTIVAL LINES:
an interview with Michaela Bolzan, founder and director of the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival

Posted on April 30, 2013 by in The Industrials

BEHIND THE FESTIVAL LINES: <br />an interview with Michaela Bolzan, founder and director of the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival

A writer's desk 2As a new feature of Verity La we’ll be going behind the scenes and interviewing the lesser-known, unheralded movers and shakers in Australia’s literary world.  The first cab off the rank is Michaela Bolzan, the hard-driven engine behind the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival.  Michaela began her creative career twenty years ago as a director/producer of theatre, after completing her BA Hons (Drama) at the University of Newcastle. She has produced a series of Environmental Theatre productions over several years for the Historic Houses Trust in a number of their properties, including Vaucluse House and Hyde Park Barracks. Michaela also co-wrote and produced several highly topical Theatre-in-Education plays that toured into high schools throughout NSW, SA, and Victoria.  For the past 16 years, Michaela’s ‘day job’ has been producing in-flight entertainment for a dozen airlines around the world including Qantas, Virgin Australia, Aircalin and Son Air, for which she has won a number of awards for her world. Michaela’s company, Creative & Co is producing the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about how the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival came about?

BOLZAN

I was a Sydney-sider for my entire life until my parents retired to the Southern Highlands of New South Wales about four years ago. Their move really introduced me to the region as I would come and visit them on weekends. As I started to explore the Highlands I became aware that not only is it a little patch of paradise, there are many creative people living here: writers, musicians, heaps of painters and more. My ‘day job’ is a producer, and so I started to think about creating a platform in which these creatives could come together and do their stuff.  I’ve loved the concept of ‘festivals’ since my university days and always thought I would eventually produce them. For me, bringing a community together in celebration of ‘something’, whether it be writing, the arts, music, food, wine or whatever, is what really lights my fire. I love hearing creative people discuss their creative process, and I thought other people may enjoy listening to this too. So I decided that I would pack up my city office and apartment and I move to the Highlands to produce my first festival. I decided on a writers’ festival, because I could see that there were a number of bookshops in the region and I thought maybe, just maybe people might turn up to listen to some great authors. My hunch was right and we staged our inaugural SHWF last year… and yes, people turned up to listen!

INTERVIEWER

It’s great to see writers festivals start to pop up outside the big cities. How do you see the regional festivals being different to the more established, urban festivals?

BOLZAN

I agree, it is great seeing more regional towns establishing their own unique writers festivals – the more the merrier, I say!

There’s no denying the major capital city festivals, like the Sydney Writers’ Festival, are sensational. They can attract big-name authors and have travel budgets to accommodate authors from around the world. They also have larger production crews and more volunteers to share the massive volume of work required to put on festivals. We certainly don’t have those little luxuries, and as a result wear multiple hats.  However, the one aspect of the larger festival that isn’t so great is the sense of physical – and sometimes emotional – separation the audience has with the authors and vice versa. At our festival, and I’m sure like many other regional festivals, there isn’t the massive crowds and so it’s a lot more personal and intimate. I actually received a great deal of positive feedback last year from festival-goers who loved the fact that their favourite author was staying at the same hotel, and so could actually share a meal together and talk. I also had a number of our authors write to me afterwards and comment on this, from their perspective. After working in isolation on their books for months at a time, they found the personal interaction and networking opportunities a welcome relief. I recently learnt that one of our gardening authors from last year’s festival was commissioned by a local family to design their new Aussie native garden, and he stays with them every few months to supervise the construction. Nearly 12 months on, they recently invited me over for breakfast to see the results. Not only is the garden beautiful, an amazing friendship has developed between these people. It was magic to see. I’m really keen to develop this platform that allows for creative interaction between people.

INTERVIEWER

I love the idea of regional literary festivals being personal and intimate. Can you tell us a little more about the format of the Southern Highlands’ Writers Festival – what can attendees expect?

BOLZAN

SHWF logoThe 2013 Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival will be a three-day event this year. The bulk of the events will take place at the Gibraltar Hotel in Bowral, so once you get there, you can easily wander from one session to the next, get an excellent coffee at the festival cafe and by some books in Berkelouw Books ‘pop-up’ book shop, all under one roof, keeping warm and dry, which very important in the Highlands in the middle of winter!

We kick off on Friday 12th July, which is the last day of the school holidays, with a fantastic Kids’ Day program. There will be three amazing, award-winning of kids authors reading from their latest books, a magician, and the Sydney Story Factory will be running creative writing workshops. And it’s all free!

Then, over the weekend, we switch to adults and are offering 19 one-hour sessions that are a mix of panel discussions with several authors and ‘in conversation’ events with one author. I’ve tried to cover a wide range of genres and topics to make sure there is something for everyone. We’ve got some ‘big’ names such as Richard Glover and Anne Summers, who I know our festival-goers are going to want to see. But I’m so excited about all of the sessions as we are covering some fascinating areas of writing including romance, vice, and the massive growth of young adult fiction, to name a few.

On the Saturday night there will be two festival events that I’m hoping people struggle to decide which one they will attend! The first option is a sensational Literary Dinner at Berkelouw’s Barn in Berrima with guest chef Giovanni Pilu. Giovanni will be cooking from his latest book, A Sardinian Cookbook, so bring your appetites. The Barn is oozing in atmosphere and we’ll be sitting surrounded by literally thousands of books! And back at the Gibraltar Hotel, we will be staging option two, which will be the Southern Highlands’ first ever talent quest called Fest Factor (as in X Factor) hosted by comedian Anthony Ackroyd! It will be a wonderful opportunity for poets, singer song-writers, comedians, or anyone who just want to get up and read or perform their latest work. And we’ll be awarding some great prices, so make sure you register your interest on our website, if you want to participate.

INTERVIEWER

A sense of community is clearly important to the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival – how do you go about making a feature of this?

BOLZAN

From when I first decided that I wanted to produce a writers’ festival in the Highlands, I knew it had to be for, and about, our local community. And as the new gal in town, I have tried my hardest over the past 18 months to meet and talk to as many of the local writers and readers, local businesses and tourism ventures, and potential festival-goers, to better understand their needs and wants. I believe a successful festival needs to accommodate so many different agendas from around the community, but I hope as people get to know me and how I work, they realise that I am trying to unite us in really creative and positive ways. There are so many wonderful examples of towns around the world that benefit from having a successful festival based there, from the Elvis Festival in Parkes, NSW, to the Spoleto Arts Festival in Spoleto, Italy. In many ways it’s far more effective to stage a festival in a smaller community, rather than a huge city – you can in fact have a bigger impact.

INTERVIEWER

It must be an almost super-human amount of work. What do you get out of organising such a complex event?

BOLZAN

There is no denying that I’ve been working around the clock to produce this event for months and months. And when I say ‘around the clock’ it’s often between 4.30am and 9am and then again after 5pm; of course, I need to keep working full time to fund it.

Let’s just say I am consuming a lot of multi-vitamins at the moment!

I have to be honest in saying there are some days where it definitely feels TOO much and I dream of running away to a tropical island; but that only lasts for a moment and I snap back to reality. But then I find myself in an absolutely wonderful meeting with some sensational, like-minded creative people and I become totally inspired and excited by what I am hearing. And then I remember that this is why I am producing this Festival: to have experiences like that.

A year ago, at my first festival, I only had one friend living in the Highlands, who I use to work with in Sydney. Now as I go into my second festival, my address-book is full of amazing new friends, and it’s totally due to the Festival. People say it’s often hard to make new friends as you get older.  I tell you what, produce a festival and you won’t be short of invitations to new friends’ art shows, birthday parties and drinks.

It’s been worth it.

INTERVIEWER

What do literature and books and writing mean to you personally?

BOLZAN

There’s no denying that books mean different things to different people. For some people, it’s a form of escapism, whether that be getting involved in a saucy romance or finding yourself in some far flung country. It’s a chance to meet new characters, who in real life you might not get the chance.  For me, I love the fact that books and literature and poetry, make me think a little bit more about myself and the world we live in.

I belong to a book club here in the Highlands and I love it when we all read the same book and yet there can be so many different opinions and thoughts about it. I find myself then learning even more when I hear the various gals’ perspectives and that then shifts my thoughts a little too.

On our website we use that great Tom Stoppard quote: Words are sacred… If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.  I really like this quote – it’s so true.