Damien Seaman. Moving Between Media.
I interviewed Damien Seaman last year, when his debut crime novel The Killing of Emma Gross first came out as an e-book. When I discovered that it was going to be printed by Five Leaves I decided to investigate the whole process, by interviewing Damien and Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves, who edited the new paperback version.
Damien you were digitally published last year and now The Killing of Emma Gross is going into print, why did you want to get your book into print?
Damien: I always wanted to have a print version of the book, because it was one of my dreams. Also, even with people who prefer e-books or people who read both, I think there’s still the idea that you’re not legitimately published until you have a book in print. This might change over the next five to ten years, but at the moment I think that’s still very much the case.
For starters it’s quite difficult dealing with my grandmother, for whom e-books don’t really exist. But there are also people who do read a lot of e-books, like my dad for example, who still think that having a book in print confers a higher level of legitimacy.
Interestingly, now my book is available in print, my original e-book publisher Blasted Heath has been able to raise the price of my e-book. I don’t think that’s why they raised the price, but they’ve played around with the price a little bit more and – now this is me speculating – one reason e-book readers will accept a higher price could be because the book being in print gives it more legitimacy – even though they have no plans to buy it in print.
So this is just my take on it, but I think it’s a case of, if the book has been through a traditional print publisher then people think the book has been properly edited, even though an e-book publisher will do exactly the same thing. And sometimes if the reader hasn’t heard of the e-book publisher they assume it’s self-published. That seems to happen quite a lot, in fact.
Ross: Are you saying that sales of the e-book have actually gone up since it’s gone out in paperback?
Damien: It’s more that it hasn’t had a negative effect on the sales of the e-book – or not so far. I haven’t actually asked what the numbers are. I’ve only been able to get an idea of it from the Amazon rankings. The Amazon rankings for the e-book are very similar to how they were before it came out in print, but Blasted Heath have put the price up and it hasn’t had a negative effect on the ranking. So after experimenting they found a happy medium where the sales have remained the same level. Although that doesn’t mean more books are being sold, it does mean that we stand to get more money for each sale. This could change, of course.
You have a different publisher for your e-book to your paperback. Does this seem to work quite well in tandem?
Damien: It seems to. There is the potential amongst some readers for confusion, because the paperback does have a different cover to the e-book and they were published at different times. Some people do buy without perusing all the details, particularly if they’re busy. So they might think they are different books unless they take a careful look at the title. However, so far this doesn’t appear to have happened.
Ross: One issue of course is that the print book was edited postproduction of the e-book. That might create some strangeness for people if they buy the different versions. Do you think that Blasted Heath, your e-book publishers, will now want to produce it as the new revised text?
Damien: We haven’t discussed it, but they seem to be okay with the concept of each version being different. There are certain changes I would be keen for them to take on, and I would certainly consider that if it were possible to do it. The advantage of going through another edit has been to produce something slightly different and allow me to learn more about the editing process.
It is interesting that there’s recently been a lot of discussion going on about people having the rights to their e-book made separate to the paperback contract. Take Hugh Howey and Wool for instance. More authors are now being advised to think about who they give their e-book rights to. In this case you’ve negotiated the two things separately. Was that fairly straightforward?
Damien: Yes it was really. I was very lucky with Blasted Heath, because they were very clear from the outset that they wanted to come in with contracts and agreements that were as fair as possible for their authors. Al Guthrie, the editor of Blasted Heath, has not only worked as an editor and literary agent but also as an author. He’s well aware of how unfair many publishing agreements can be. So he was very keen to get contracts in place that would make it clear that all I’d be selling was the e-book rights. That left me free to sell the hardcopy print rights and any other rights.
It was quite simple. Although I wanted to be in print, I wasn’t precious about it and I thought that bringing out an e-book would be a great thing. So that happened and then I settled down and got on with writing my next book.
I knew Ross because I’d met him in the past to interview him about Five Leaves for an e-zine. But then years later I was very impressed by reading Michael Malone’s first book Blood Tears, which Five Leaves had published. So I wrote a review of that book and I did a bit of social media mentioning it, because I thought it was a really good book.
Then it occurred to me, having talked to Ross before, there were elements of The Killing of Emma Gross that Ross would enjoy and probably appeal to him as something he might want to publish. That’s why I approached him directly and suggested that he might be interested in publishing the paperback and did he want to take a look?
I said, ‘Obviously you can’t have the e-book rights, but the paperback is up for negotiation.’
Ross read it and thought it was worthy of Five Leaves publication, so we proceeded on that basis. Ross approached the whole thing in the same straightforward way that Blasted Heath had.
What sort of things did you feel would appeal to Ross?
I knew that one of the things that Ross enjoys in crime fiction is a strong political and social context. This is something that Ross said he often feels is missing in popular British crime novels, compared with crime fiction from other countries. So because of the nature of The Killing of Emma Gross, because it’s set between the wars and in Germany shortly before the Nazi takeover of the country, it couldn’t help but have a political element to it. I had put in what I thought was quite a strong background of anti-communist antagonism by the authorities, and especially the police. In the years the novel is set, Nazism was not particularly well represented in most of the big German industrial cities and the authorities were far more frightened of the communists. That’s a strange sort of tension throughout the book. This gave it the kind of strong political edge that Ross enjoys and finds interesting to publish.
Having said that, one recent reader of the e-book didn’t think it was a very political book, which I did find interesting. Part of the reason why popular British crime fiction is not political is because British readers are uncomfortable with politics. That’s true of the mainstream anyway, and I’m not sure why. Whatever the reason, it is much harder to be political in mainstream fiction in the UK.
There would appear to be at least a couple of issues that have arisen with what you’ve just said that I would like to explore further before we gone to the process of editing. Firstly it seems to be a very good idea to understand the publisher that you approach and secondly when you’re dealing with a small publisher you stand much more chance of speaking to the person who actually owns the press, particularly as the whole dynamics of a small publisher seems to be very different to that of a large publisher.
So do you think understanding the publisher you’re approaching is important?
Yes it is. What I was doing was selling the rights to the book a second time. It’s pretty much the same as successfully selling anything. You need to understand the person you’re selling your product to. Why do you think they could benefit from publishing your book? I realised that the book not only had appeal for Ross to read, but it’s also something that he can sell to his existing customers. So you need to know what else the publisher is printing.
In this case the whole process actually happened quite organically, because I’d had contact with Ross in the past, I’d read Michael Malone’s crime novel, and also a couple of books by Russel McLean, which I’d enjoyed too.
I also made sure I looked at Five Leaves’ non-fiction output. I could see there was a certain emphasis on radical politics as well as non-mainstream culture and this was echoed in parts of my book.
So it is very important to understand who you are selling to and what they might want.
You’ve already mentioned the issue of ethics as far as contracts is concerned, what other benefits do you think writers have when they approach a small publisher?
Damien: For one thing I didn’t need an agent. I just approached Ross directly. So I had a lot of control over how I pitched my book. I also had direct contact with Ross as head of his own publishing house. So it was all very relaxed and comfortable. It was like having a chat with a friend who you know quite well.
When it occurred to me while I was blogging about Michael’s book that Ross might like the book, then the whole thing was actually quite simple from there on. I approached Ross through Facebook and it was like we were just having a conversation about it, but through a different medium.
So was it easy for you both to see how you might work together?
Damien: Absolutely. And because I didn’t have an agent, I was free to negotiate myself. I didn’t feel like I had to be hemmed in by any particular rules. So while we had our chat we were able to see what was possible and what could be done and what would benefit each other.
Coming now to the editing process. I’ve read the e-book because it’s been out a while and I believe there has been quite a bit of editing, particularly a chunk of the story arc. How did this editing process begin?
Damien: Well firstly the changes aren’t massive. There are lots of small changes and one larger edit that changes the pacing of a subplot somewhere in the middle. I found the whole process very enjoyable, because as an author I can never be quite satisfied with a book. It can always be changed. It’s always interesting to get another perspective from a professional who’s had a lot of experience and who you respect, because when they suggest something you suddenly think, ‘Oh, maybe I should do that.’
So Ross came back to me very quickly, after we’d broadly agreed what we were going to do, with some editing suggestions. These were line-by-line things. Some of it was language, phrasing and so on; because the book is set in 1930s Germany, Ross felt that in a few places the language was a little too modern, for example.
At the same time I’d done some readings from the e-book and found some parts that I wanted to cut down. So this gave me the chance to do that. And if at some point in the future I got the chance to cut the text down further, I know I’d do it again. I’d find things I didn’t like that I wanted to get rid of. That’s how I approach my writing, and it’s one of the reasons I haven’t finished my second book yet.
But perhaps the most important part of the editing process was when I went to the Broadway book club in Nottingham. Ross and I met beforehand and decided it was an opportunity to go and use the book club as a focus group. I was able to ask people, ‘What do you think? What do you think worked?’ So I could see whether people thought it could be improved. Certainly the most interesting thing was the fairly high level of agreement amongst the group on two major points – one of which turned to be quite a minor edit. I think if there’s any way you can respond to what readers think, then a book club is a good place to do it because these are people who really think about the books they read.
Of course, then we had the challenge of how to make those changes. But they turned out to be less significant than they looked.
Ross, did you read the e-book first or hardcopy manuscript and what did you do in terms of editing when you got hold of it?
Ross: I can’t get on with reading things on the screen, so I read it as a printed out manuscript. I’ve published many books on e-books but I’ve never read one in that format and probably never will.
I found the whole process very interesting, and I think it’s a model for doing this sort of thing if it ever happens again. Because it came out as e-book with a publisher whose work I respect and an editor whose work I respect, this was coming to me as fully formed, with the opportunity to play around with it.
It’d had a significant response from the public which is helpful. The editor was saying, ‘This is a good book,’ and the readers, as far as I could tell, were confirming this. Rarely do I have an opportunity to make it better. That was quite a realisation that I didn’t have to just publish what you’d given me. A full stop could be changed into a comma or you could change one of the sub-storylines. Really anything you like could be changed.
Putting it in front of a really good book group like the Broadway book club meant we could say to them, ‘Look, here’s something we’re unsure of. Are we right or are we wrong?’ And they would give their honest opinion. We didn’t have to agree with it and in fact, almost to a person, they didn’t like the cover. Even so, as the publisher, I decided to go with it. In fact presenting the cover to the made me more sure about the cover. But there are a lot of things in the story line that they confirmed or rejected, so was a very useful discussion.
Damien: I have to say we did pick up a lot of ideas and it’s hard to fault the book club focus group as a way of going about editing. Especially if your book is being published for a second time in whatever format.
Ross: In fact I’m not sure if I would ever be as generous as Blasted Heath in terms of the economics of publishing a book in this way. Normally if I was doing the print, I would want the e-book as well. Just because of the way the economics work in that direction. But we came to a very amicable agreement over this that everyone was very happy with. However, one of the things I did find interesting was the whole e-book concept and that if the book had come out as a paperback and an e-book and a reviewer or anybody it said, ‘Actually it really works, but that storyline really doesn’t work.’ As e-books can be changed so easily, you could say, ‘You’re right, we’ll do a new edition.’ This of course is hard to do with the printed edition with all the costs of setup and printing, but you could change an e-book every week if you wanted to. Although there are issues over how you describe it, because you’d probably have to declare each new edition, or people might find it very strange that years later, when they read the book, they find that half of it has changed. But it does give the opportunity to do corrections, or edits.
If you do find corrections need doing after the book has been printed, it’s often something very small that possibly nobody will notice, but if they do, it could make the author look very stupid for not noticing the first time round. So you can simply amend that on the e-book and nobody will be any the wiser. That’s on a trivial basis, but on a general level I like the idea of an e-book being a never-ending story. You can keep tinkering away with it as life goes on, provided that the publishers are willing to allow that to happen. It may be that you get a really bad review where somebody points out something quite significant and you can say, ‘The reviewers are right and I’m going to amend the book.’ That’s rather a nice thing to be able to do.
Damien: I do wonder if one possible feature of an e-book series, if there are ever-evolving books, is the danger that writers could keep changing them ad infinitum, because most writers I know will welcome that. I would.
I think that some people have said that 10 years later they’ve gone back to the book they’ve written and wished they could change it, so possibly that might be the future of publishing it’s done as an e-book.
Damien: There is something in this, although the problem is from a historian’s perspective there is something valuable about having each edition of a book. Take someone like Michael Moorcook who’s in the science fiction field. He is renowned for rewriting his early work. Whenever there’s a new edition he’ll change it again. Because his books are in print, you can find each edition if you are willing to look out for them. This means you can then compare the different editions.
The potential danger for an author of being able to revise whenever you want in an electronic format is that you don’t maintain a record of how you developed as a writer.
By all means I think it’s a good idea to have new editions, but I think it’s good to have the originals as well. That’s really for the reader’s benefit as far as I’m concerned – or the fans’ benefit anyway. Most casual readers probably wouldn’t give a toss, to be honest. But then, on one level I’d be quite happy to burn my earlier writing to destroy the evidence, because there’s always going to be something that you find wrong or embarrassing or something you would do differently.
It’s like Raymond Carver stories have been published in their entirety. You are now able to compare them with Gordon Lish’s editing.
Damien: Yes that’s very interesting. There is a question sometimes for readers as to how much the final product is down to the editor, whether that be a light touch or a major edit, where the author’s writing has been substantially stylistically changed.
You’re also able to get an awful lot of feedback from social media these days.
Damien: Yes, being able to talk to your audience is important. But again, there is a danger. If you take aggregated reviews and social media feedback to their logical conclusion a lot of books could end up being very similar.
Ross: You mean pandering to the reader?
Damien: Yes, being swayed by tastes. You can write something and your readers may not like it and so you end up being moved in a completely different direction. If everyone did that then we’d all be swayed by tastes and we’d all write the same books. So there is such a thing as too much reader input. But the whole thing is fascinating and it’s a real opportunity to have a dynamic and evolving kind of publishing. Overall it’s exciting, even if we do need to be wary.
Ross: I just like the idea of there being a variant edition and the director’s cut.
Overall, the book has been edited twice. Has this had an impact on your writing?
Damien: This is interesting because I’m not necessarily the kind of writer I think I am. When readers review your book or editors edit them, they’ll see things in your book you don’t as a writer realise are in there. People pick up on things that you had no idea they would and others will miss things that you put in there and you thought they would pick up on. Also some people would pick up things that you never intended to be interpreted in that way.
I think that I approach writing in a certain kind of way, with a certain set of assumptions or preconceptions, or experiences. But what people take from it suggests a completely different kind of writer. For example, a lot of Amazon reviewers or bloggers or friends who’ve read it and just talked to me about it afterwards, they’ve said very nice things about the characters in the book, and generally thought the main characters were interesting, because they seemed real and came off the page.
But my primary focus when writing it was always the plot. I felt very strongly about this, because of the kind of book Emma Gross is, a crime novel with a mystery in it. It had, by its very nature, to be strongly plotted. I felt that if the plot was right the story would inevitably work. I have a theory about mystery and detective fiction that the characters won’t work when the plot isn’t right. The plot should develop in a way that makes sense of those characters. If it doesn’t work properly then the characters won’t seem natural and you have to really force them to do things that seem unreal and that they wouldn’t do.
So I thought if the plot’s okay then everything else will work itself out.
Whether people see this as the kind of writer I am or not is what I find interesting. Whether it’s what I actually do when I’m revising or editing, I really don’t know.
Then when it comes to how all this editing has affected my writing generally, I think I would plot it differently if I were writing it again.
In what way?
I think I gave myself too much of a straitjacket. It’s one of the challenges of working with something based on a true story. A lot of the events were real and certain things therefore had to happen that I wouldn’t have needed to include if I just based it on the events more loosely and changed the names of the real people, or if I’d just made up my own story. Because I had real people in it and kept to real events, that kept pulling me back, which had both a positive and negative effect.
One thing now is that I’m much more open to the idea of playing fast and loose with real events for any future novel I write. You see, there is this fundamental clash between fact and fiction. If you write something that is too close to real events it can be boring. When most people read a novel that aspires to some degree of realism, it’s because they want realism, but realism and reality are very different things. So the perfect sort of realistic story is going to be a fake construct that seems real. The problem with reality is that it’s too real.
I’m just wondering Ross, as an editor, you probably have a more detached approach, what were you looking to do with this book?
Ross: I like the setting of Weimar Germany, because it picked up what I feel about Weimar Germany. It expressed the anxieties people were going through, the decadence of the nightclubs and the political situation. There was the sense that something was going to happen. I thought Damien expressed that very well and therefore I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. I thought that the plot worked, with one or two sub stories that didn’t quite work, which we sorted out. So I didn’t have to worry about the plot anymore.
What really interested me, and what for me was the attraction of the book, were a lot of the minor characters. There was the woman who worked in a nightclub and didn’t have many clothes on and how she worked there. There was also the woman who is the assistant in the brothel and a person of limited education, the person in the tenement house who was very poor but a nice, helpful woman. There were other characters in the background in the book who I thought were fully formed, in as much as you can get minor characters who are fully formed and flit through the narrative, but who might have an interesting backstory. It’s actually a novel with a lot of characters in it. In some cases you have real lives, albeit imaginary, and that for me was the exciting thing about the book.
If I managed to do anything with it, it was to play around with the way the characters talked, which was a bit different from the e-book. I slightly changed the way the main character responded to them. There was a little bit of playing around with words to help.
But for me, the fact that there were so many interesting characters was the strength of the book. That’s quite difficult in most crime fiction books; if you have a cast of thousands they can be very much drawn in cardboard, but that certainly wasn’t the case here.
I also like the way that Damien didn’t tell the full story and people acted in a fairly believable way. The scene that I had a major hand in was the abortionist and how she would respond. Between us, we took a selection of metaphorical blue and red pens to edit the scene because I felt she was such an interesting character. She was trying to save the life of the woman who was having an abortion.
The other thing I liked about Emma Gross was not because it was political, but because of the sense of the conflict between the far right and the far left and the political milieu in which people lived. There was also the position of women in the novel, be it the abortionist, or the people in the home of fallen women that the lead character goes to visit, or the women having to work as prostitutes for a living. The whole kind of sexual politics was fascinating throughout the book.
So I think I was much less interested in the plot, because it worked, and I was much more interested in the characters, because they were so well drawn.
I was interested in the book because of Weimar Germany, so that it was the period that got me into the characters and made me think it was something I wanted to publish. If it been the Cotswolds I wouldn’t have been interested.
Damien: It’s interesting what Ross said about cardboard characters. It’s one of the things that’s made me think about what I’m working on now. I need to strip out some characters because they just won’t come alive.
Do you think that’s partly due to Ross’s influence?
Damien: Partly. Last time I left the characters to fend for themselves and let that all sort itself out. So has been very useful to have Ross’s input on that.
The nature of my first book was that it worked to have so many characters, but it’s partly because of all this editing I’ve been made to think more about the interplay between story and character.
Ross: What I found so surprising, and it’s such a short novel, 277 pages, with some strong central characters, is the large cast of surrounding characters that I think you’ve done so well on. I think that’s the strength of the book.
Damien: Thanks for saying so. That’s what makes me think that if it gets across the sense of the Weimar period, then that’s why.