Last week I was privileged to be interviewed by Howie Lim, host of “Mind Your Business” on MoneyFM89.3.
You can listen to the podcast here.
During the interview, I shared about my work and my thoughts on the publishing industry and here’s a summary of the conversation:
Howie Lim: Why do you call yourself a Publishing Coach rather than a Publisher?
When I first stepped into the publishing industry 15 years ago, I realised that I need to identify and create a niche for myself. The common perception of a publisher is someone who sits in the ivory tower while waiting to be courted by authors. And when they receive manuscript submissions by authors, they get to pass judgement on whether it meets their mark before making decision to accept or reject the manuscript.
As I reflected on my own strength, I love coaching people and I decided that was not the kind of work that I will enjoy doing. Hence, I made a conscious decision to change the publishing model. Instead of waiting to be courted by authors with their manuscripts, I prefer to treat my authors as equals and start conversations with them around what they wish to write. So instead of them trying to convince me how good their manuscripts are and why I should accept their manuscript, the coaching conversation would usually revolve around understanding the Why and What of their book project. Armed with better clarity, I often find myself coaching them and helping to curate the topic they wish to write on. The intent is always to bring out the best in them and deliver their topic to the market through our partnership.
Howie Lim: So you’re almost coaching people to become authors?
Yes indeed. I do that through one-to-one coaching as well as a two-day authorship workshopwhich is more like group coaching. In this workshop which I started in 2014, I bring aspiring authors through a 6P framework using a facilitative approach. Developed based on my years of experience in the industry, the 6P framework helps to take aspiring authors from the idea stage, where they are still unsure about their journey ahead, all the way till when the book is making its impact in the market.
Howie Lim: Wouldn’t it be easier as a publisher to just approach people who already want to be an author and have written something rather than look for people with a good story to tell and to encourage them to write a book?
This has a lot to do with my passion for coaching others. A book is about having another platform, or another tool to present your expertise. It may not be something that people often think about. When I come across someone with really solid content and solid experience, I often find it such a waste that they are not showcasing them in the form of a book and establishing their authority. Then the question on my mind will be “Rather than always staying upstream, how can I go downstream and help these people?” Hence, I would say it’s very much a personal attribute that I like stepping forward and reaching out to people.
Howie Lim: How are you dealing with the advent of technology that has infiltrated all aspects of life now? Has Candid Creation Publishing evolved at the same time?
There are two different parts that we need to look at – the delivery of content and the curation of content. Technology has disrupted the delivery of content to the market. In the past, the delivery of content has always been through a printed book. But now, with technology, there is an additional way for the delivery of content which is through ebooks. So what do we do? We adapt as well. We deliver our content now in two different formats – physical and electronic. But what has not been disrupted is the curation of content. This is a key role of a publisher that has remained the same. In this aspect, I often see myself as a gatekeeper of good content.
Technology has also brought about the prevalence of online self-publishing services. For them, it’s a different business model. These service providers don’t really bother what you write and they don’t really care. You just give them a manuscript, they packaged it in the form of a book, and they return it back to you. Hence, with the popularity of self-publishing services, you start to see that there are now more and more people publishing books. When more and more non-curated books start to flood the market, I view it as an opportunity. Curated books with better content and better substance now have a better chance to shine and to stand taller than the rest.
Howie Lim: But on the flip side, with so many of these books flooding the market, isn’t it harder for the regular consumer to sift out all of that to find one with great content that stands head and shoulders above the rest of it?
I often teach my authors the best way to let someone know about your book is always through word of mouth. Regardless of whether you have written a good book or a substandard book, word of mouth will take effect. The only difference is whether the effect helps you or harms you. This is how gems are differentiated from the pile.
Howie Lim: As with all creative industries, the onslaught of digital technology is bringing about piracy. We have seen it happened with movies, music, etc. How do you handle the impact on books?
Firstly, piracy is not new. Piracy has always been there since a long time ago. Back in the days when we only have physical books, piracy was already happening. People photocopy your book and do all sorts of other things with or without your knowledge. So for me, since piracy is a situation that is already happening, what differs will be our response to it.
There are 2 ways we can mitigate the situation. With ebooks, content is now much more susceptible to copyright infringement. The first way to manage the situation is through digital rights management (DRM). When you sell your ebook directly on your own website and allows a consumer to download a file, it is easy for that person to share the file with other readers. Hence we sell ebooks only through authorised stores. With authorised stores, they have their own DRM mechanism to ensure a book that is downloaded into your device stays within the device. It is not a file that you can simply forward to another person.
The second way is we need to reframe our mindset as authors. If you view your content being shared as creating more outreach and touching more people, then why not? Free content in the form of blog articles, videos, podcasts, etc. is already rampant on the internet. For someone to actually pick up your book, read it and find it beneficial, we are actually helping another person.
Howie Lim: How are you dealing with the challenge of readers’ shortening attention span over time due to the influx of information on the internet?
The US and UK are two of the largest English book market in the world. If we look at statistics, the sales of ebooks has been dropping for the past 2 years, and conversely, the sales of printed books has gone up. When analysts start to make sense of the data, they realised that some people are actually ditching their ebooks because of screen fatigue. So that has actually driven people back to print books.
Howie Lim: Again life is cyclical. Things will go around a bit like fashion. Recent online infringement research conducted by Kantar Media says, about four million or 17% of eBooks are read through online piracy. We touched a little bit on that and you have a controversial view. Why not just go with it as long as it gets out there?
Yes. It is happening anyway. It’s really beyond our ability to go after every single one of them. How much resource and attention do you want to dedicate to address this smaller percentage of piracy? Why don’t we put our focus on the majority who are paying for your content? Hence my advice is don’t lose sleep over it.
Howie Lim: What sort of skills are needed to be a publisher?
If you look at the traditional role of a publisher, one of the key skillset is people skills. As a publisher, you need to interface with many people. Beyond the authors whom you will be closely working with, you will also be working with a large team of professionals who offer different expertise required to put a book together. This includes your editors, designers, rights manager, marketers, etc. The publisher is really at the centre of all these activities and you need to be able to lead the team and make things work within a defined timeline. This leads us to the second key skillset of project management skills. Project management skills will be critical to ensure that whatever comes into your publishing house goes out in time.
Language skills is also important but as a publisher, your role is more supervisory in nature. You would have a team of professionals backing you up and you should empower them to do their part of the work.
Howie Lim: Is the publishing industry also facing the same challenges as other industries in the areas of talent development and talent retention?
Personally no. There are institutions that supply talents for the expertise we need. Typically for an editorial role in publishing, common pre-requisites would be a degree in mass communication or a major in English Literature. For us, we regularly get job enquiries. A career in this industry does take passion and interest. For someone to be genuinely interested in joining our industry, words are usually running in their blood. It must be something that they are really keen in or they will be exploring other better-paying careers in the banking or advertising industry.
Phoon Kok Hwa is a Publisher at Candid Creation Publishing, an award-winning and leading bilingual independent publishing house based in Singapore, where he has spent the last 15 years coaching and supporting aspiring authors to get their books written, published and distributed.
He is also the lead facilitator for the authorship workshop “So You Want To Be An Author”, where aspiring authors are propelled towards publishing success through the 6P framework of Publishing.