where the writers are
Adventures in e-publishing Part 11 - interview with Richard T. Kelly

Richard T. Kelly is Editor-in-Chief of Faber Finds, the Faber and Faber imprint devoted to rediscovering and re-issuing out of print and often forgotten literary masterpieces. He is also the author of three acclaimed ‘oral history’ books on film and film-makers for Faber: Alan Clarke (1998), The Name of This Book is Dogme 95 (2000), and the authorised biography Sean Penn: His Life and Times (2004). In 2000 he wrote and presented the Channel 4 documentary The Name of This Film is Dogme 95. Richard is also a screenwriter and novelist, the author most recently of Crusaders and The Possessions of Doctor Forrest.

Photo (c) Sarah Lee.

Q. Whenever I think about Faber Finds, I’m struck by what an amazing idea it is; as Gaby Wood of the Telegraph described it, “an exceptional archaeology of lost books”. How did it come about?

RTK: It was the brainchild of Faber’s chief executive Stephen Page, who’d been having a hard think about the full gamut of cultural/creative possibilities for new publishing technologies. He realised that print-on-demand and ebook offered a way to serve all sorts of discerning niche readerships, little platoons of avid readers across all genres; and to do so in defiance of the usual drear economics of reprinting. So you could make a smart new edition of a cherished but long-unavailable title, such that any keen reader who’d been in search of a particular ‘lost’ classic might now locate it online, at the dedicated Finds site or on Amazon, and whistle it up bespoke.

I imagine that there are a lot of people who would say that you have the dream job. What gives you the greatest pleasure about being the editor in chief of Faber Finds?

It’s certainly a bibliophile’s dream, and as an editor you get the quite considerable boon of publishing books that you and everybody else already know to be excellent... For me probably the greatest pleasure is chasing down leads and suggestions for neglected titles that I receive from fellow writers and readers. They’re always good ideas, so I get the pleasure of making marvellous new discoveries. There are so many books in the world, I’m not entirely surprised that prior to Faber Finds I hadn’t read, inter alia, Robert Aickman, or William Sansom, or William Palmer, or Theodore Francis Powys, or Christina Stead… But now I wouldn’t be without them, and I also get the privilege of evangelising for them and for so many superb authors.

How do you decide on the books you are going to rescue from oblivion? Are they all out of copyright and in the public domain – or do you approach living authors? How much is down to your personal tastes?

The major area of focus is works of distinction that are in copyright but out of print. Notable works in the public domain are generally well served elsewhere – though I am looking forward to ways in which we might use our technology to offer interesting, innovative versions of out-of-copyright classics. But, yes, I am constantly approaching living authors – we very much want to be able to help currently practising writers or writers whose backlists have been overlooked to re-present and re-promote their fine work.

In respect of personal taste – I have taken on one or two titles that are especially dear to me, but mainly Finds is not about my personal taste: it’s about the myriad tastes of readers out there. I will happily publish anything that seems to be of real distinction, in whatever genre.

Is it fair to say that the imprint couldn’t work without digital technology?

Yes, it is absolutely a child of same. By the same token it needs the interface of the Finds blog www.faberfindsblog.co.uk, which I have been developing as a special repository of information and opinion about the books, a place where Finds readers can drop in to learn more but also to make their own suggestions for the list.

Is this the much-vaunted long tail in action - the business theory that suggests that you can succeed by selling small numbers of lots of items? Approximately how many books do you publish? And what’s your best seller, or is the whole notion of a bestseller irrelevant to Faber Finds?

Yes, I think Finds was very much conceived on the model of a ‘long tail’ business. We now offer around 1000 titles in all, and we reissue roughly 10 a month.

I’d never say the notion of a ‘bestseller’ is irrelevant, but rather than single out one book I’d like to stress the diversity of titles in our Top 50: from Keith Douglas’s Alamein to Zem-Zem to Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson; Patrick Hamilton’s Twopence Coloured to Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book. We have Simon Heffer’s biographies of Enoch Powell and Vaughan Williams alongside the exquisite ‘strange stories’ of Robert Aickman; the scholarship of Jacob Bronowski and F.R. Leavis next to the poetry of A.S.J. Tessimond, and David James Smith’s study of the killing of James Bulger, The Sleep of Reason. It’s the mix, the open-door policy of ours, that I find thrilling above all.

Were you publishing e-book editions from the start, or was it originally just Print On Demand?

E books were always the intention where rights could be obtained, though POD was the launch format. But Finds began to roll out its ebook programme in 2009, and now we publish everything simultaneously into POD and ebook, rights permitting.

Have you noticed a shift in numbers from the printed format to ebooks as the Kindle and other e-readers take off?

Yes, simply put. We’re very pleased to have seen the proportion of sales for ebooks building since we made the commitment to get everything from the list into this format as quickly as possible.

Are you really neutral in the print vs. e-book debate, as you recently declared in the Faber Finds blog? Surely as a bibliophile, you prefer the physicality of a real book?

For me personally, as reader and writer, yes, my preference is still for physical books. But as Finds editor – on the level of content and what are the interests and preferred recreational reading modes of Finds customers – I don’t mind one bit. Whatever is their pleasure.

As well as running Faber Finds, you’re also a novelist, non-fiction author, screenwriter, playwright, TV presenter, columnist, as well as an energetic blogger. How on earth do you find the time?

Mainly I try to write whenever my children are asleep. But that, I admit, is rather a narrow window of time… I think all writers can accomplish a lot in different forms when they apply themselves; the real question perhaps is how well they acquit themselves in each – which is always a matter for others to be the judges of.

You’re both a writer and a publisher. Do you think digital technology has changed the relationship between the two? Are you optimistic about the future of books?

Very clearly digital technology has opened up new and alternative channels between writers and readers, and that has made a brave new world for all of us. For as long as there is both an open marketplace and a properly lively cultural respect for the written word, then I am endlessly hopeful about the future of writing and reading. To speak solely of ‘books’ is surely too reductive now. Part of what is exciting about our current moment is that the idea of a book can be re-imagined beyond a conventional set of covers, just as new kind of relationships can be had between writers and readers. But that’s all good, IMHO…

Your own novel The Possessions of Doctor Forrest did spectacularly well as an ebook, reaching number 1 in Amazon's Kindle Horror chart. What insights has that success given you into the whole business of e-publishing?

When the mass-market edition of The Possessions of Doctor Forrest was published last month the ebook was price-promoted for one day, and I think a lot of horror fans were happy to give it a try on that basis. Thankfully it stuck around the upper reaches of the chart once it went back to the regular price the next day. But the promotion got the book onto the radar for Kindle users more generally – for a while it was #4 on the overall Kindle Fiction chart, which was a platform for the novel to be discovered more easily by all those new readers who have lately embraced Kindle. So I think the main lesson is one that everyone in publishing is keenly aware of – anything that enhances the general ‘discoverability’ of any given book is to be strongly encouraged.