A Conversation with Katherine Roberts

This month's conversation is with my good friend, Katherine Roberts.. That chat took place in 2013.

Kath, I've often told the tale of how we sat in the garden at Charney and talked about the traditional publishing industry's coming doom and what we could do about it. And it was you who first alerted me to the possibilities of self-publishing on Kindle, and started Authors Electric -- and then, not so long after it started, you got a four-book contract with Templar and left us to plough our independent way alone. But now you've self-published your wonderful I Am The Great Horse so you're working both sides of the street -- or field, if I continue the ploughing metaphor. What are your thoughts on the whole trad vs indie thing?

Kath Roberts:- Well, the four books with Templar -- the Pendragon Legacy quartet about King Arthur's daughter -- are all delivered now (three are published, the fourth "Grail of Stars" comes out in October). But with two books coming out each year and associated promotional duties, the deadlines came thick and fast and left me very little time to think about anything else. I also wanted the focus to be on my new series rather than my backlist, and so I hopped over the field gate -- sorry! Meanwhile, it seems Authors Electric grew quite happily without me.

          I'm not sure the doom we spoke of applies to the traditional publishing industry, which still seems to work brilliantly for the right sort of books. It more applies to authors, who just don't seem to have long term careers in traditional publishing any more. And that's where indie publishing comes in... to fill the gap. If you want to stick to the field metaphor, I see us all ploughing the same earth, just on different sides of the hedge and in different ways. Traditional publishing is the farmer with the big machinery and all the chemicals and hormones he needs to make his crops grow. Indie publishers have wonky furrows and a couple of stubborn mules to pull their hand ploughs, and they're probably organic so have to do a lot of back-breaking weeding. But books and authors can thrive and grow in both types of field. It's when you get cross-pollination, things start to get interesting...

Sue Price:- Cross-pollination? Do you mean when a big publisher gives a contract to an Indie?

          Kath Roberts:- That’s one interesting thing that seems to be happening. Authors are bypassing the agent or slush pile routes, and testing their work on real readers. It seems a scary route to take, though – you need to be pretty confident in your material, and you also need to make sure it has been edited and proofread, which requires more time and expense than simply sending your manuscript to a list of agents/publishers. It obviously works for some, and a best-selling indie title must be very attractive to publishers. But it remains to be seen if authors taking the indie route to a publishing contract have any more of a long term publishing career than those traditionally published authors being sidelined to make way for them. Cross pollination can work both ways.


      Sue Price:- Yeah, the formerly published are going indie, and the indies are signing with big firms – a-a-and all spin round and face the other way!

          And then, as soon as their sales drop a percentile, the big firms will drop the ex-indies and take up a new crop – who will quickly be dropped in their turn. Everybody will have a book contract for fifteen minutes! Is that how it will work?

  Katherine Roberts:- Fifteen minutes of fame? Maybe. But I actually think not much has changed. I've noticed the same disillusionment among indies on the KDP forum, just as you get disillusioned writers who have been traditionally published but not made their first million yet. The difference is the indies don't have anyone to blame except themselves.

          Susan Price:- So, do you think, when the dust settles, that the same people are going to be left standing there, rubbing their eyes? – I mean, the ‘in it for the long run’ writers who want to write more than they want success or money.
          Maybe the publishing firms will cherry-pick the few they hope will have a big success – quickly dropping them if this proves not to be true – and what used to be the ‘mid-list’ will self-publish. But the crowd presently jostling for space on the self-publishing platforms will thin out as those who were expecting to get rich quick fall away and search for other routes to riches. (Which will still leave a pretty big crowd of ex mid-listers!)
          Do you think new e-publishing firms will emerge from the dust-cloud? One of the Authors Electric, Stephanie Zia, started by publishing her own books and now has turned into a small e-publisher, Blackbird Digital Books.


          Katherine Roberts:- I actually think the mid-list vanished a few years ago in traditional publishing, and Amazon cleverly stepped in to fill the gap. But in another reversal,  I hear that publishers who used to lock their doors against unagented authors are now opening up the slush pile again (Macmillan being one of the latest to do so).
          So it seems to me that while publishers and booksellers are busy changing the rules, authors are carrying on doing what they do best... success is meant to be 5% talent and 95% hard work, after all, so yes if you discount the "lottery winners" like J K Rowling etc, I think the same authors will succeed in the end. Some are doing this by creating their own publishing lists, others are adapting to market forces, whatever works best for the current climate, I suppose. What I've noticed is that there is a very large pool of new authors out there and far fewer authors with a career lasting 10 years or more. Once an author has been publishing for 10 years, I think it highly unlikely they'll give up trying to reach readers, whatever external challenges they may face. I for one love the way e-books have opened doors for us, even if I haven't cracked the secret of selling them myself yet! 

          Susan Price:- I’m really pleased to see the Great Horse out as an indie, though – it was (and is) such a good book, and deserved better treatment. I firmly believe that your publishers didn’t know how to market it, because it’s an original.
          And now it amounts to an original work of art!  Not only written and self-published by you, but with a striking new cover – very like a Greek vase painting – designed by you. Tell us something about that.

         Katherine Roberts:-Thank you for your kind words! Yes, looking back I'd agree I Am The Great Horse is a book that's hard to place on a traditional shelf, and I'm grateful to Chicken House for publishing it once they realised this. That was a brave thing to do. Since they are essentially a children's list, they decided to aim the original book at the (girly) horse market, which made sense at the time -- yet it seemed a shame to miss out on those adult historical readers who might enjoy a novel about Alexander the Great, as well as boys who might like to read about his adventures.

          When I published the Kindle version I wanted to make it more adult/boyish in feel, but without losing the horse angle. Hence the new cover, which was actually inspired by an ancient coin of Alexander riding Bucephalas. If you're interested, there's more on my blog about how I created the e-cover, as well as a whole series of posts I wrote about this book while it was still in print, including guest posts from my editor and the illustrator who drew the map.