Natalie Costa Bir is the Web Content Editor at the University of Sydney. She worked at HarperCollins Publishers for five years, starting in the marketing department and finishing as Digital Editor in the publishing department, where she looked after the e-book program, and edited Voyager titles. She also created and maintained the Voyager blog and Facebook/Twitter accounts. She does a small amount of freelance editing but since leaving HarperCollins mostly uses her spare time to read through the giant piles of books in her house in order to avoid death by book-pile collapse.
Currently you are Web Content Editor at The University of Sydney. How important is having a web presence to an institution like the University? Are there any lessons about what do or not do in regards to an online presence you took from your time in the publishing industry to the University, and any that you would take back with you if you returned?
It’s absolutely essential for the University to have a web presence. This means not just a website but also being available through the preferred media of our audience, including places like Facebook and Twitter. The website is the central way that we communicate with our audience – from future and current students to our staff and to visitors and the community. Our website is often the first way that people get to know who we are and what we do – and what they can expect if they come to the University. I’ve definitely come to the role with some strong ideas from being an editor – namely that the content we produce should always be of the best quality possible. ‘Quality’ means accurate spelling and grammar, but also getting the tone and content right for your audience, and making sure the technology that powers the website and its functions works properly. If I went back into a publishing house, I would take with me a better understanding of proper content strategy and governance, which means understanding what our content is for, the best way to deliver it, and who should take responsibility for its quality and continual development.
During your time in publishing, you were, at various times, heavily involved in the establishment of social media presence, and working with the development of e-books. Do you think there was a period when the major publishers were struggling to decide on an approach to social media, and how to deal with the rise of ebooks? If so, do you think this tension has been resolved, and that the major publishers have a handle on it?
There was definitely a time when publishers struggled to understand both. I think that’s fairly natural with social media, or at least with Facebook and Twitter. Both started out at as personal ways to share information with your friends or acquaintances rather than as business promotional tools, so adapting these to a company profile didn’t always seem a logical step. It’s certainly a great way to communicate directly with readers and get their feedback and to promote to the media but it’s debatable how well a social media presence converts to book sales for a publisher. At one point in time I think many publishers felt they had to create web presences for their authors but now most are smart enough to let authors develop their own presences, blogs and websites.
When it comes to e-books, I think publishers are still experimenting but aren’t completely certain about they are doing. This is partly because of the sheer number of books the big publishers were dealing with at the start of the process. Without wanting to get too detailed, converting thousands of e-books and ensuring the resulting files are error-free is a huge task. Readers are making it known that they want their e-books as soon as possible and if you make it too hard for them to buy books in legal channels, they will seek the book files elsewhere. There’s also the question of applying Digital Rights Management (DRM) to e-book files. It’s easy to crack so is there any point in applying it and stopping readers buying e-books legally from reading those books on the device of their choice? At the same time, publishers must protect the interests of their authors, which includes making it more difficult for readers to acquire unpaid copies of books.
Have publishers got a handle on the changing face of their product? I don’t think I can answer that for them! I think they’ve established a stable platform for now, but that it will continue to change – and not slowly. I think Pan MacMillan has a good thing going with the Momentum imprint and Joel Naoum at the helm – he’s someone who understands e-book workflow and technology and is applying best practice to what he publishes. I think this sort of understanding needs to be brought into every publishing house.
Do you ever see yourself returning to editing fiction? Are you working on anything like that at the moment, or have any upcoming projects, especially ones with a speculative fiction component?
I do see myself returning to editing fiction, partly because I love the community of writers and editors I know, and it’s a way to stay in touch with that world. I also find that I read a lot more critically than I did before I was an editor, and I do occasionally wish I could tighten up sentences or plot in some of the books I read! I’m currently working on an Australian Publishers Association workshop on e-books with editor Sarah Hazelton, which will take place in June in Sydney and Melbourne. I’m also working on a two-hour class on social media promotion for authors, which will be one of a six-part series on self-publishing, in association with the Australian Society of Authors. That takes place in August (and the series starts in July).
What Australian works have you loved recently?
I’ve just finished the superb set of stories in The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume Two, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Jeremy G Byrne (1998). It’s not a new book, obviously, but it’s been sitting on my shelf as one of the books I took home when I left HarperCollins. The first story in it – ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ by Greg Egan – is a ripper. It totally propelled me into the book. I also enjoyed ‘Love and Mandarins’ (in the same collection) by Sean Williams, which is a touching but humorous story of love gone somewhat awry. I must admit, I also enjoyed reading the introduction to the book because it set the scene as it was twelve years ago in Australia.
Looking back I can see I’ve actually been quite bad at keeping up with new Australian stories. I’m still working through a giant to-be-read pile next to the bed though … If Isobelle Carmody’s The Red Queen was to come out, I’d drop all the TBR pile and get straight into it. I plan to take several days off at that point so I can thoroughly enjoy it!
Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think are some of the biggest changes to the Australian Spec Fic scene?
I think one of the changes I’ve seen is the growing success of self-published Australian authors thanks to the ease of publishing with Amazon. I follow quite a lot of authors on Twitter and have seen them talking about their successes and the ways they have promoted their works. I’ve also seen it with small press – just recently Jodi Cleghorn got Chinese Whisperings: the Yin and Yang book up to number two on the Amazon free list and is promoting another anthology from eMergent publishing that way this week.
I also think more options have opened up for traditional publishers to take a punt on authors. This is partly because they are freed from the costs of warehousing and printing books (though they still rightly invest in editing and proofreading). It’s also them being more open to experimentation in a world they are not sure of. They’re still willing to take some chances and see what sells in the e-book world – including trying out short stories and novellas. It’s great to see Pan Macmillan taking the initiative with Momentum, their e-only and print on demand list.
The number of authors and editors on Twitter continues to grow too, and I think we all find it a supportive network and a place where we can exchange questions, thoughts, news and general conversation, despite many of us working in solitary or quiet environments.
For me personally: I met a lot of new people at AussieCon, and have been able to keep in touch with them via Facebook and Twitter – which is wonderful. It would have been a lot harder in an e-less world, and I am very grateful to live in a time when I can get books and conversation with like-minded people no matter where I go (apart from when my train heads into the tunnel at Wynyard station!).